Saturday, 21 March 2015

Eclipsed... The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

This morning as I mulled over thoughts on the play I’d just seen, ‘The Ruling Classes’, with James McAvoy (14th Earl of Gurney) at the Trafalgar Studios, there’s a knock at the door.  I reluctantly opened the door to find two women who bore a disturbingly close resemblance to Mrs Peggot-Jones (Paul Leonard) and Mrs Treadwell (Forbes Masson) doing their drag act yesterday.  My eyes took in every pore on the nearest woman's bulbous nose together with the broken veins in the whites of her eyes, before I was asked, “do you know that something amazing is happening all over the world?” I nearly got drawn in at this point as I was itching to quip “you mean the solar eclipse” but restrained myself... “Would you like an invitation to join the special event?”, she asked thrusting a pastel coloured leaflet towards me.  I managed an empathetic “no thank you” and shut the door!  

Forbes Mason (Mrs Treadwell) & James McAvoy (JC)
These two women just happened to be calling door to door along my street but they inadvertently set my mind working on correlations between the play and society today, which of course is the whole point!   Jack has escaped from the realities of his love-starved childhood by creating a safe place for his mind to exist.  His revelation was at a ‘urinal in Acton’ but never mind the banality of the setting, he had a revelation that he was God.  These women are peddling their version of their safe place and off they shuffled to the next unsuspecting victim, safe in the belief that they are doing God's work, oblivious to the truly awe-inspiring phenomenon that was going on above their heads!

Their resemblance to the drag queens in the play was quite disturbing.  The free associations kept coming as I thought of the three disgraced judges just sacked for viewing naughty images on their judicial desktops...  What were they doing but trying to escape reality and hang the consequences (no pun intended), just like dear pater, 13th Earl of Gurney (also Paul Leonard), inadvertently asphyxiating himself in the process of auto-erotic entertainment at the end of a silk noose.

 Serena Evans (Lady Claire Gurney), J Mac (JC) & Kathryn Drysdale (Grace Shelley)
JC, as Jack likes to be called, is happily deluded at the outset of the play and we warm to him as a harmless (mad) eccentric.  He recognizes no distinctions between people and is as disarmingly kind and generous to both his aristocratic family as well as his servant, Tucker (Anthony O’Donnell).  As the play progresses JC is pushed further and further away from his place of safety.  As he gains his sanity he also gains the ability to act (no pun intended) until finally when all his delusions are stripped away he becomes a fiction.  He pretends to be a loving father and husband but is anything but in his new reality.

James McAvoy (Jack)
The ethos of the play is that the establishment and all its structures and principles are thoroughly rotten at the core and the skill of the play and its players is that we are drawn into the, inexorable, inevitable climax.

I dearly loved Jamie Lloyd's production of Peter Barnes' 1968 play.  The cast were excellent especially James McAvoy with his startling ability to emote and ride a uni cycle all at the same time! Whilst the play/production unashamedly used every theatrical trick in the book to move, shock and entertain its audience with JC even speaking directly to the audience at one point.  These devices only added to the freshness of the experience: many things have changed but the Establishment remains.

Given the current political climate where social mobility has gone into the doldrums, this production couldn’t be more relevant.  It reminds jaded idealists that there is a funny side to even the blackest environment and there will never be a total eclipse of the sun.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

I could have better spared a better man!

Full of contradictions and emotional roller coasters, Shakespeare’s master pieces Henry IV Parts1 and 2, were performed for the Barbican audiences entertainment yesterday and I was lucky enough to be there to experience it - warts and all...  We were off to a cracking start as Henry IV encouraging his Lords and whipped them up into a lather of enthusiasm to ride forth and conquor the Holy Lands.  Then the lights dimmed and the bubble burst as a stage manager came out and explained that there were technical difficulties involving stage hydraulics...

Jasper Britton as Henry IV
Half an hour later (and technical difficulties not overcome) we were back from the foyer (full of graduates in gowns with proud relatives) to the Eastcheap establishment of Mistress Quickly.  There’s lots of upping and downing movements from a large bed (centre stage) with accompanying groans. Then two scantily clad women jump out and run off and out pops Prince Hal in boxer shorts.  “Sorry for the delay folks” he grinned, “I was having technical difficulties”.  Trust the RSC to make a problem an opportunity; we all loved it!  Next, Falsvtaff jumps out from his hiding place at the foot of the bed and the play is off on its upward trajectory of fun, poignancy – thrills and intrigue.

Antony Sher (Falstaff) and Alex Hassell (Prince Hal)
Jasper Britton is a brilliant, emotionally volatile and doting father to Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal.  Throughout Henry IV 1 and 2 Henry and Hal play out their emotional tug of war comprised of duty and ego.  Henry is riven with self doubt and guilt about his usurpation of the throne.  Hal is just young and carefree and appears to ignore the pain he is causing his father by his rebellious lifestyle.  Both actors manage to win the audience to their own sides throughout the afternoon and evening, as neither is wholly right nor wholly wrong!  

Alex Hassell (Prince Hal) Jasper Britton (Henry IV)
Falstaff knits the whole narrative together and manages to be lovable, evil, gross and funny but ultimately tragic.  Shakespeare plays with the audience and this interpretation (and with the help of brilliant actors) brings out the subtly of the script – taking us with Falstaff and Hal through their trials and tribulations always managing to wrong-foot our assumptions.  Interwoven with these two superb characters are the men and their women folk who act out the subplot of civil uprising.  
Jennifer Kirby (Lady Percy) Trevor White (Hotspur) Leigh Quinn (Lady Mortimer) Robert Gilbert (Lord Mortimer)
Shakepeare’s plays, as always, are multilayered and running alongside the politics and battles are the intricacies of the lives of those caught up in the slipstream.  Mistress Quickly is one such character and Paola Dionisotti plays the part as though born for it (no insult intended) and indeed, as with Antony Sher’s Falstaff, it seems impossible after this that any other actor could be Mistress Quickly.  She is caught up and tossed around by the course of events and manipulated like a ragdoll by Falstaff.  Paola accentuates this vulnerability by seeming to be frail and defeated even when at points she is futilely trying to stand up for herself.  

Paolo Dionisotti (Mistress Quickly Antony Sher (Falstaff)
By the end of the day we are watching the transformation of the adolesent into a man.  Sir John Falstaff facing a future without hope of influence, knowing he is forbidden to come within 10 miles of his former protegé.  It has to be but a big part of us does not want it to be...

All in all an excellent play-day out at the Barbican - where acts of God are routinely taken in their stride. All hail Prince Hal!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Visions of Angels… City of angels, Donmar Warehouse

Rosalie Craig as Gabby/Bobby

From the very start City of Angels picks you up and takes you on a visceral journey of sex and ‘tecs to the heart of film noir.  I loved it from start to finish, and so did the people surrounding me.  Superlatives like “beautiful”, “fantastic”, and “gorgeous” where muttered around me by an audience only just containing it’s enthusiasm: a near riot of approval!

Samantha Barks
It was a class act from tip to toe with an edgy energy that didn’t flag at any point!  Jazz song and dance, ‘smack!’, the writers letters dynamically added to the scene as he wrote, ‘biff!!’ and to cap it all ‘XXXXXX’ rewrites - actually - acted backwards by the cast whenever the writer did an edit.  “The best backward acting in the West End” as my husband ventured…

The writing by David Zippel was slick and pacey performing a difficult balancing act between two inter-twined narratives: both dependent on each other. Director Josie Rourke showed ingenuity and restraint in mastering the challenge of these parallel worlds, in which most of her cast had to perform two roles each. 
Tam Mutu & Hadley Fraser

The set design of Robert Jones showed once again how the limitations of the Donmar space can actually bring out the very best – his set had more hidden doors than a haunted house and was used as part of the narrative.

Robert Jones amazing set
Needless to say, the music of Cy Coleman was also positively beautiful – from uplifting jazz to stage-standards in the same league as his score for Sweet Charity.

Add to that a cast of top draw actors who can also sing and dance and you are starting to get the picture: this was a production I’m sure Cy, David and Larry Gilbert would have been proud of.

The premise of the show is that the Writer is not only writing a Film Noir but crosses over the fiction, reality divide and interacts with the lead character within his own film.  Their relationship and how this impacts on the writers real life leads to both funny and poignant scenes and to the show’s conclusion.  
Rebecca Trehearn & Rosalie Graig

It seems unfair to single out any of this superb cast for special mention but Hadley Fraser as the conflicted writer Stine and Tam Mutu as his heroic alter-ego Stone were especially impressive whilst Rosalie Craig was a knockout as the writer’s long-suffering, wise-cracking wife and then the detective’s lost love; slinky singer Bobbi.
Katherine Kelly as Aluara/Clara
Katherine Kelly was an alluring Aluara/conniving Carla - a classy, classic noir blonde - whilst young Samantha Barks has talent to burn with looks and presence that seem sure to set her on course for a very long career. Nor should I neglect Rebecca Trehearn who alternated between Stone’s secretary and Stine’s studio assistant/bit on the side – another great voice with an, almost intimidating, stage presence… so much energy!
Kadiff Kirwan, Sandra Marvin, Jo Servi and Jennifer Saayeng

The Angel City Four also provided superb vocalisations throughout so a special tip of my new Liberty Hat to Kadiff Kirwan, Sandra Marvin, Jo Servi and Jennifer Saayeng: if you guys are planning any gigs at Ronnie Scotts… we’ll be there!

City of Angels is an emotionally clever, witty, stylish and a thoroughly uplifting theatrical experience. If you can get a ticket don’t hesitate and I really hope it gets the West End transfer it deserves! I feel privileged to have seen so much class in the intimacy of the Donmar but this show deserves a wider audience.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Charlie’s Angels – York Mystery Plays 2014

Charlie Hunt (God), Mark Burghagen (John), Ehren Mierau (Jesus)
My friends Charlie and Rosie have lived in York for all the years I have had the pleasure of knowing them (I met Charlie at The University of Ripon and York St John back in the mid eighties).  Throughout his time in York he has been an actor and Rosie a singer.  When I heard that the Mystery Plays were being performed this year - with Charlie acting as God - I was very keen to watch them with my family.  Charlie and Rosie kindly put us up for the the weekend and we combined a guided tour of Holgate Mill (where Rosie is a miller) with The Mystery plays and many pubs!

The Guilds of York have been presenting wagon plays every four years since 1998.  They are a revival of the four cycles of mystery plays, once performed in York, Chester, Towneley (Wakefield) and Ludus Converiae Coventry.  Mystery plays are derived from Latin liturgical offices performed in churches during Easter and Christmas.  Both vernacular Mystery plays and religious Liturgical dramas where performed from as early as the twelfth century and flourished during the 1400s throughout western Europe.
Waggon crew Brad Kirkland, Erika Grahm, Maggie Caudwell

The convention of Latin liturgy made the vernacular plays possible but from very early on this root, together with their core biblical themes were to be their only similarity.  Whilst the church offices were ostensibly performed for the instruction of the Christian message, the Mystery plays were from the outset an ostentatious wrapped up with the representation of the prowess of the guild presenting the drama.  The very origin of 'Mystery' in the context of the plays is from the medival word Masiterie, meaning “craft” - i.e. the craftworkers who were responsible for the wagon, play, actors and production.
Audience outside York Minster

  As with the current day Mystery plays, each guilds wagon, actors and much of the audience perambulated around the city in the open air.  These dramas being repeated at various predetermined points throughout the city.   Mystery plays took place on the Holy days.  As each guild within the city had their own drama to perform the whole day was filled with both the participants and their audience moving around and enjoying the spectacle
Charlie Hunt (God) following waggon

The York Mystery Plays are comprised of forty-eight pageants. The York Mystery plays, are held in London's British Library.  These are comprised of thirteen thousand lines of verse and represent a unique survival of medieval theatre. They form the only complete play cycle verifiably associated with the feast of Corpus Christi that is extant and was performed at a specific location in England. 
James Witchwood (Angel 1), Stephanie Richter (Angel 2), Kate Thomas (Angel 3)

The HIDden TheatreCompany  performed The Baptism.  They produced an interpretation of a medieval script of The Baptism of Christ.  Their interpretation tried to communicate to their audience the hope of redemption, passed down through the ages and manifested in the ceremony of Baptism.  During the play John is overwhelmed by his unworthiness to baptise Jesus.  When he is convinced by Jesus to perform the ceremony, the audience is rewarded by the sight of Holy Ghost and God forming a tableau around Jesus and John; an effect further enhanced by a beautiful chorus of heavenly voices (provided by James Witchwood, Stephanie Richter and Kate Thomas).

Friday, 29 August 2014

The generation game… Fathers and Sons, Donmar Warehouse

Seth Numrich (Bazarov)
Seth Numrich (Bazarov)
The programme notes highlighted a connection between Ireland and Russia that I’d not previously been aware of. Irish play-write Brian Friel, clearly saw parallels between Ivan Turgenev’s 1863 novel and the turmoil in Ireland decades after partition and the famine: just as Tsarist Russia was well into the long gestation of its revolutions so too were the Irish starting to organise their thoughts around the ideas of alternatives to authoritarian rule from afar.

In both countries there was a disconnection between the intellectuals and the masses they wished to help. This was evidenced by the well-intentioned To the People movement in Russia which singularly failed to politicise the peasants…
Joshua James (Arkady) and (Bazorov)
So it is that the two young men at the heart of the play fail to engage their friends and relatives in their thoughts of nihilism: complete re-invention of every facet of a society they see as almost entirely pointless.
Arkady (Joshua James) is the more easy-going of the two but is in the thrall of his powerfully intelligent pal Bazarov (Seth Numrich), winner of the university oratory prize for two years running. They have been in St Petersburg for their studies and are now returning to Arkady’s home after their graduation.
They find the country estate little changed, gently run down by Arkady’s likeable but bumbling father Nikolai (Anthony Calf) but the old man does have one rather substantial surprise: he has had a new baby son with one of the servants Fenichka (Caoilfhionn Dunne).  If that’s a hint of some change in gentile society, the discourse between the graduates and those in the house soon shows the broader polarisation.
Anthony Calf (Nicolai)
Arkady accepts his father’s situation and is delighted for him, smiling explaining that he has become a Nihilist but, whereas, he might be all for a rational restructuring of society, Bazarov wants to tear things apart. He is fiercely intelligent and provocative, instantly making an enemy out of retired soldier and former dandy Pavel (Tim McMullan): “The Clothes Horse” who’s lazy middle-brow intellectualisms he rudely punctures.
Susan Engel (Princess Olga)
The quiet life of the estate is disturbed still further by the arrival of new neighbours, wealthy widow Anna (Elaine Cassidy) with her younger sister Katya (Phoebe Sparrow) and their inherited relative    Princess Olga (Susan Engel) – a marvellously disconnected example of Grand-mother Russia.
Elaine Cassidy (Anna)
Anna is a strong character in her own right and forces Bazarov to raise his game in defending his politics. He doesn’t believe in love, just free will and has already coerced his more reticent pal in to drawing up a list of fanciable women which soon includes Anna’s sister.

Sexual tension pervades the whole play from the earthy desires of the maid Dunyasha (Siobhan McSweeney ) through Fenichka’s repression – is Nikolai a compromise for safety’s sake? – and on to Anna herself. Much of this tension focuses on the rakish Bazarov but there are a number of triangles in play…

The scene shifts as the young men visit Bazarov’s humbler home. His father Vassily (Karl Johnson) is a care-worn, sparky but scatty doctor whilst his mother Arina (Lindy Whiteford) has the wearied eyes and concerned stillness of someone who has watched one man burn out and expects more of the same from his son. Bazarov too has trained as a doctor and, whilst he loves his parents deeply, he can hardly bear to be in the same room as their expectations. 

He goes to see one of his father’s patients and whilst he’s away they learn from Arkady of his successes and can hardly contain their pride. But they know they cannot share this seemingly innocent joy and when Vassily offers to invite Anna around and asks Arkady to stay for the Summer, their son says he must leave the next day: he hasn’t seen them in all the time of his study and even this one day is almost too much.
Karl Johnson (Vassily)
So, the characters are all in place but what future is there to be for this supremely gifted man who does not even believe in love? The second half of the play shows Bazarov’s passions running deep as he does indeed fall… for Anna. Anna reveals a background far more humble than Bazarov and that she had married well to a man she respected: more compromise out of necessity. Will she and Bazarov be able to break free of their self-imposed emotional isolation? And what will Bazarov actually do when the time comes to show courage…?

I won’t give too much of the story away: just go see it and/or read Turgenev’s novel (which I’ll have to now I’ve said it!).

Lyndsey Turner directs with surety what is a highly-charge and disparate narrative and marshals her substantial cast of characters very well giving each the room to reveal themselves from the leads to great supporting turns such as Piotr the selectively-deaf young hip coach boy (Jack McMullen – recently in Jimmy McGovern’s excellent Common) to David Fielder who succeeds in playing the Old Retainer roles for both houses – he’s marvellously grumpy as Prokofyich in particular.

The play is so full of potentially rich characters that I’m not sure it entirely succeeds in revealing them all. Bazarov’s leap to love happens suddenly and, it has to be said, predictably but his subsequent actions are entirely in keeping with the man of courage we hoped him to be.

Perhaps Arkady’s character is the key: a decent man who cannot quite escape his background but who is desperate to do the right thing? His way is evolution and not revolution… which solution could work better for Russia or for Eire?

The cast are excellent all round and it’s a privilege to see them working at the close quarters afforded by the Donmar stalls. I expect that we’ll be seeing a lot more of young Seth Numrich and Joshua James in particular.

Plaudits also to the stage design of Rob Howell who manages to make the most of the Donmar’s confined space with economy and stylish invention. The music from Alex Baranowski also underpins the narrative very well with impressive drive and tonal variety.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Henry VIII (Part 1)… Wolf Hall, Aldwych Theatre

I must admit to having reservations about fictionalised biographies: there can only be so much that is known about a person’s motivations and any attempt to dig deeper into personality can only really be supposition. They’re not biographies but they are certainly fictionally about as close to the real thing as a tribute band to the original artists: same tunes, same clothes: different people.
That said, there’s no denying the fascination of knowing more about influential people past and present but so many biographies go wrong when the subject is from modern times, how about those concerning people who last drew breath in 1540?

Hilary Mantell has specialised in thoroughly-researched historical fiction and knows her subjects in obsessive detail and yet what she presents is no more than a guestimate of who they actually were. I’m sure she would claim no different and what she does provide are well-crafted and highly entertaining lessons in history… and that can only be a good thing!

Mantell has been greatly involved in the development of her two novels for the stage, originally for the RSC in Stratford and now transferred to the West End amidst much clamour and rightly so.

Against a brutal grey concrete setting, the cast take us through the events surrounding the rise of Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII’s first divorce and second marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Ben Miles’ Cromwell is a mixture of guile, ready wit and tactical nouse, a common man who has absorbed everything from a diverse life spent fighting and trading in Europe. A self-taught polymath who mastered the law, and pretty much everything he turned his hand to, this Cromwell is from that age when a man’s innate ability could take him far, if he were exceptionally gifted and lucky.
Here Cromwell is the hero but the Tudor mind-set was perhaps less modern than his easy charm might suggest – this was survival of the fittest, a full century before Thomas Hobbs described man’s life as being “nasty, brutal and short…”

Certainly wife number one Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) had such a cutting edge with Cromwell describing her as the most ruthless of the lot: “if she were a man…” Similarly Anne Boleyn (a marvellously expressive Lydia Leonard) knows what she wants and plans to get it and remove all obstacles including Henry’s only daughter.

For Anne the relationship she wants with the King is almost more business than anything else and she has set her sights high: she is clever and as much of a schemer as any of the court.

Nathaniel Parker makes for a wonderful King Henry VIII, slightly uncertain at the start but growing in power and confidence as Cromwell facilitates his separation from Roman Catholic constraints as rule of all England as well as its church.

What these hugely successful people had in common is intelligence, decisiveness and a willingness to act as fortune might dictate.

Against them are those more driven by programmes or strict unbending philosophies chief of which is the self-flagellating Thomas Moore (John Ramm) who dooms himself rather than accept a change in the church’s relationship with the state.

The play works very well and is a thoroughly entertaining history not without a laugh here or there. I’m not sure how close to the actuality it might get but it gives a flavour of the kind of motivations that drove the Tudor world.

The cast are uniformly excellent with Miles the stand out, holding centre stage with assurance and pitch perfect timing. His Cromwell has a very modern political cunning… maybe that’s why we like him so much.

Wolf Hall and its companion Bring up the Bodies play at the Aldwych Theatre until early October details of tickets are available here. Don’t miss them if you appreciate slightly more challenging West End fare. And, if you like the plays, don’t forget that many excellent history texts are also available if you want to find out more about what actually happened.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Three’s a charm… Three Sisters, Southwark Playhouse

Moscow… London… why do we always feel we’ll be happier somewhere else?

I last saw Chekhov’s Three Sisters with an all-Redgrave cast at the Royal Court in the early nineties when it impressed as a deeply-theatrical, “classic” drama in every sense.

This new version has been given a potentially controversial updating by Anya Reiss which shifts the action from disintegrating Tsarist Russia to a British family marooned in an un-named middle eastern state (somewhere like Yemen). The family are the son and daughters of a diplomat who has died leaving them having to fend for themselves whilst all around is in turmoil. They dream of returning to London but there are few glimpses that their struggle to survive and stay happy in this once-familiar and now alienating world will end.

Holliday Grainger, Olivia Hallinan and Emily Taafe
The play retains its powerful existential questioning and whilst the language has changed, it still feels very Russian: passionate, intelligent and more than a little sad. The sisters compromise their lives and love in order to survive whilst their brother marries cheaply, drinks in self-absorption and gambles their money away online (how decadent do you want).

The brother Andrei is well-played by Thom Tuck – smothered by the expectations of leading his family and realising his own potential he ducks and only succeeds in becoming ashamed in a marriage of inconvenience with the domineering Natasha (Emily Dobbs). His sisters are braver, Olga, superbly played by Olivia Hallinan, is their compass, coaching them in hope and encouraging pragmatism: what else would you do? She makes ends meet by teaching, ultimately taking on the role of headmistress at the local school – trapped in a career poverty cycle.

Middle sister Masha (Emily Taaffe) is unhappily married to the willing but hopeless husband who’s cringe-worthy attempts to compensate for their lost intimacy are to no avail as she has an intense affair with old family friend, the extremely married Captain Vershinin (a marvellous Paul McGann).

Masha and her dashing Captain
The youngest, Irina (Holliday Grainger), dreams of finding true love back in London and is, heart-breakingly, not yet ground down by tragedy and disappointment… not yet. Olga encourages her to marry a man she likes but doesn’t love as he offers her the chance of escape. We’re almost won over by her logic and smiling warmth but is this really the way forward?

In the intimate space of the Southwark Theatre, the action is amplified with actors mere feet away from the audience – especially if, like us, you’re brave enough to sit in the front row. It was very moving to see the performances at such close quarters and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one moved to tears by the emoting of the three leads.

Hallinan, Taaffe and Grainger rip through their roles with intelligence and grace. Sometimes you feel you’re intruding on their private thoughts so convinced are you by their skill. It’s a very human response to the proximity….

Paul McGann, Olivia Hallinan, Emily Taaffe (chair) and Holliday Grainger'(floor)
Mr McGann also graced the stage with his unique energy, he even crouched like a soldier at one point: poised for action, focusing himself on every situation his Vershinin is described by Reiss as the only truly honest one along with Masha, but you can see how subtle changes in inflection could reveal a more disingenuous streak seen in other productions. But we want him to be heroic and proof that deep love exists in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Whatever you make of the re-mixed play, it still asks difficult questions and leaves you thinking for days… theatre on the ground and in the raw, feet away from people genuinely feeling their way through a play: you can’t fail to respond, to empathise… you act and you react. You won’t get this up in the gods on Shaftsbury Avenue!

Thank you cast and crew!

Three Sisters still has a week to go: tickets can be purchased direct from the Playhouse.