Monday, April 21, 2014

The British Birthday Play

After the hard-edged GOOD PEOPLE, it was time to relax into the chiffon-edged comedy of Noël Coward's BLITHE SPIRIT currently revived at the Gielgud Theatre with a long-overdue return to the London stage by Angela Lansbury.  All very appropriate as John Gielgud had starred in and directed an ENSA touring production of the comedy during World War 2.

 
Michael Blakemore had previously directed Angela Lansbury in 2009 on Broadway in the play which won her a fifth Tony Award and here they are reunited with a new cast and production team.  Unsurprisingly she has rooted herself into the character, making Madame Arcati her own.

Written by Coward in 1941, it was an instant hit - although Graham Greene found it "a wearisome exhibition of bad taste"!  It went on to hold the record for the longest running play in the West End until "The Mousetrap" overtook it in 1957.  David Lean filmed a screen adaptation in 1945 which featured the original players of Arcarti and Elvira, Margaret Rutherford and the delicious Kay Hammond, although this version had an alternate ending.  The play has been revived frequently and I first saw it in 1986 at the Vaudeville Theatre with the perfect cast of Simon Cadell, Jane Asher (Ruth), Joanna Lumley (Elvira) and Marcia Warren as Arcarti.

Author Charles Condomine and his wife Ruth hold a soirée with the village doctor and his wife as well as the local eccentric Madame Arcarti with the ulterior motive of getting her to hold a seance so Charles can get material for a novel he is planning.  During the seance however Arcarti "brings across" the ghost of Charles's glamorous first wife Elvira who has been dead for seven years and only Charles can see her.  Elvira, as capricious in death as in life, causes mischief around the house much to Ruth's anger and Charles' bemusement. 


He soon tires of her behaviour however when he realizes she has her own agenda when she fixes the brakes on his car hoping he will join her forever - but it's Ruth who uses the car first.  Now with two ghostly wives making his life a misery he calls in Madame Arcarti to try and get them back to the other side.  If only she knew how...

Michael Blakemore directs the comic business and Coward's devilishly witty dialogue to expert effect but also suggests the darker tones that lurk in the corners of the Condomine living room.  Written two years into World War II where death was in everyone's consciousness, it's musings on the lingering effects of those departed must have made for a very heightened experience when first presented.


Simon Higlett's set has just the right feel of a home counties living room and also is entertaining in it's own right when the other world encroaches in on it which is also well-evoked by Mark Jonathan's lighting design.

Blakemore's cast also rise to the occasion with one clanging exception.  The ever-reliable Charles Edwards is a delight as Charles, effortlessly spinning his lines with the lightest touch like the deftest of tennis players.  But he also plays a man quietly delighted to be given a change from his second, rather conformist, marriage.  Luckily Edwards is complemented perfectly by Janie Dee as Ruth.  She showed her excellent comic timing time and again particularly in the classic exchange:
  • Charles: Anything interesting in The Times?
  • Ruth: Don't be silly, Charles. 
Ruth can be a tough role - the character who wants to stop the madcap antics usually is - but Janie Dee is such an engaging stage performer that her dry delivery was a joy to behold.


I found the casting of Jemima Rooper to be a miscalculation however.  Her childishly petulant pouts and squeaky voice seemed to belong to a totally different production and more than once I felt she was totally out of her depth with the quality of performance onstage.  Simon Jones and Serena Evans made full use of their considerable experience to fill out the roles of Doctor and Mrs Bradman and Patsy Ferran made the most of the West End debut as Edith, the Condomine's gormless maid.

Needless to say Madame Arcarti's belated entrance on stage provoked a round of applause for Angela Lansbury, you don't get too many of those anymore but somehow within the context of Coward and BLITHE SPIRIT it didn't seem strange at all!  There was the odd stumbled line but that is more than allowed when you're 88 and in the process of giving a performance of pure star quality.  She played Arcarti as an intelligent and engaging authoress but one who didn't suffer fools gladly - I will treasure the exasperated daggers she shot at Mrs. Bradman's clueless questioning.



Yes, she stole scenes with her bizarre little dance in her pre-seance trance or in her delighted responses to Elvira's presence but that's what she's there to do!  Although the role didn't give her the opportunity to touch us in the way her Madame Armfelt did in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC on Broadway in 2010, it was an utter joy to see her on a West End stage and proving that this wasn't a case of stunt star casting - just like Arcarti, she brought sheer magic to us.

All this and being made Dame Angela last week too - it's about time!


The American Birthday Play

Happy Birthday to me!  Just to do something out of the ordinary I went to the theatre - twice!  I saw a new American play and a revival of a British play... first off the rank is the American play.


I dawdled over getting tickets for GOOD PEOPLE at the Hampstead Theatre, did I really want to see Imelda Staunton in this bearing in mind I already have tickets to see her as Rose in GYPSY later in the year?  Of course it then sold out and I felt that I had miscalculated.  Luckily for me, THE FULL MONTY came and went at the Noel Coward Theatre and when it was announced that GOOD PEOPLE would take it's place I jumped at the chance of a reduced price offer.

I had a vague idea of the plot from what I had gleaned when David Lindsay-Abaire's play opened on Broadway with it's Tony Award-winning turn by Frances McDormand so it was interesting to come to it clean.  What I found was a play with a sticky and slightly forced first act and a riveting second act.

 

South Boston is not a good place to be, jobs are few and times are tough even for these locals who are used to the art of daily grind for survival. Such is the case with Margie,struggling to get by as a single mother of a mentally-handicapped daughter.  As the play starts her life gets harder when she is sacked from her cashier's job at the local dollar store and her landlady intimates that unless Margie comes up with next month's rent, she will let her son have the apartment instead.

At her wit's end, Margie hears that a friend for her childhood is back in town.  Mike managed to 'get out' and become a successful doctor so Margie wheedles her way into his office ostensibly to see if he can offer her any work but also to get back in with him.  She knows it's a long-shot but is sure he will come through as they used to date as teenagers and his family were 'good people'.


In a testy meeting, Margie does her best to hide her desperation and when she hears that Mike is going to have a party in a few days, wangles an invitation to attend and meet his younger wife Kate.

Mike calls her the day before the party to tell her that due to his daughter's illness he is cancelling it but Margie assumes that he is lying and determines to go to his house anyway and confront him and his "lace curtain Irish" ways.  Up to this point I was fighting to keep interested in the play which seemed all a bit forced with heavy reliance on the gargoyle performances of Lorraine Ashbourne's gobby friend Jean and Susan Brown's landlady Dottie.


But what a difference an interval can do.  Mike and Kate's quiet night in is disrupted by Margie who Kate assumes to be a waitress hired by the caterer.  Despite this Margie is welcomed by Kate to stay for a glass of wine and attempts to be the perfect host, unaware of the bristling undercurrent between the other two.

This scene, which plays almost like the perfect one-acter, drop-kicked the play finally into life.  Margie's rage at being discounted from Mike's life, Mike's anger at Margie's emotional blackmail and Kate's gradual realization that she is a stranger to both the people in the room was great to watch with it's shifting emotional tectonic plates, the audience moving their allegiances with each turn.


After this a coda scene closed the show, a small act of kindness being shown to give hope but the play ended on a desolate note, there will always be another bill, another month's rent...

Jonathan Kent's direction seemed to come into it's own in the second act, as I said I found the first act to be rushed and to be heading nowhere but he rose to the challenge of the big confrontation scene by teasing out the uncomfortable suspense until the big explosion.  I also liked Hildegard Bechtler's sets - down-at-heel and cluttered for Margie's world, smooth and clean for Mike's.


Apart from the over-played supporting performances mentioned above, the cast were all excellent.  Matthew Barker was fine as the young manager of the dollar store called upon to sack Margie and bristling over the constant emotional blackmail over his dead mother.

I have always found Angel Coulby's TV performances to be negligible but here she sparkled as Kate, Mike's welcoming and good-natured wife, and when even she reaches her breaking point she made her a formidable opponent.  Lloyd Owen is another actor who has never really impressed in anything, but here he excelled as Mike, unapologetic in his earlier wish to better himself and get out of the festering atmosphere of South Boston.  Towards the end of the confrontation scene, Lindsay-Abaire does pull a rug from under his character which doesn't totally ring true but Owen had by then built up a solid and believable character.


Towering figuratively if not literally above all, Imelda Staunton was the bruised centre of the play.  In a performance of contrasts, Staunton's Margie was defiantly proud of her roots but ashamed of the options it has given her, defiant yet vulnerable, good-humoured but with a bubbling anger at the actions of others, all played at a high level of commitment and energy which was breathless to watch.  Both she and I have come a long way from the Hot Box Club in the National Theatre's 1982 production of GUYS AND DOLLS.  I now am very excited to see her take on 'Rose' at Chichester in October.

Most new American play-writing tends to fade in the more exacting standards of UK theatre and while Lindsay-Abaire's play has it's problems, that febrile second act will stay with me for a long time.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Prince of The Pagodas

A few weeks ago Owen and I went to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of THE PRINCE OF THE PAGODAS, the only ballet that Benjamin Britten wrote the score for.


It was created in 1957 by the Royal Ballet but has had a checkered past with choreographer John Cranko's libretto coming in for most of the criticism.  Here it was presented in a new version by choreographer David Bintley.  Once I found out it was Britten I was doubtful if I would manage to stay the course as I have never understood the appeal but I found it the best part of the evening - apart from the ice-cream of course.

The plot still needs work: a princess is grieving for her brother who died mysteriously some years before and whose stepmother has taken control of the court while the emperor pines for his lost son.  A parade of possible suitors includes a mysterious Salamander prince who the princess escapes with.  They journey to his kingdom through water and fire and eventually she discovers that the prince is her assumed-dead brother and together they journey back to over-throw the wicked Empress.


The critics have a point, the plot felt like it was stitched together from many different stories and ultimately was only there to give a framework to the bouncing about.  The problem was I just didn't engage with it despite Rae Smith's visually exuberant sets and Peter Teigen's lush lighting.

I have never been a classical ballet fan.  While sitting in the Coliseum my mind went back to the 1980s when the late Martin Taylor took me to see Natalya Makarova in ONEGIN and saying in the interval that he hoped I was aware I was seeing a great performance.  Actually I thought she had already given a great performance in the Rodgers & Hart musical ON YOUR TOES a couple of years before especially when she played the cabaret dancer in the exhilarating "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" number.


I also think that I was a fan of Isadora Duncan from an impressionable age and agreed with her quote that it was "a school of affected grace and toe walking".  So I can never be swept away by classical ballet, all I see is the court entertainment and piss-elegance of the extended curtain calls.

I am not a fan of opera either, primarily because I find it hard to engage with the distilled forms - the voice with opera, the body with ballet.  One cannot doubt the expertise of the dancers but give me the excitement of Matthew Bourne's productions any day.

 
I did like the sea horses though!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

100 x 2

That's an odd title isn't it?  But it ties in with the revival of OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR at Stratford East, the theatre where this groundbreaking show was born.


In case you haven't noticed, this year is the Centenary of the start of World War I but at Stratford East they are also celebrating the Centenary of the birth of the theatre's unique former artistic director Joan Littlewood.  Ironically, Littlewood came close to not even doing the show in 1963.

Her partner Gerry Raffles heard Charles Chilton's radio programme "The Long, Long Road" in 1962 which interspersed soldier's reminiscences with the songs they sang among themselves.  Raffles told Littlewood about it and suggested it might make a good show for her company Theatre Workshop but she turned the idea down as she was an avowed pacifist.  Undeterred, Raffles invited Chilton to the theatre and while going through the songs, Littlewood began to see the potential in making a show that was a critique of the war and the warmongers but to also celebrate the lives of the ordinary people swept up in their power-games.  Her idea to present the company as a Pierrot troupe gave the show a suitably Brechtian twist and featured such characterful actors as Victor Spinetti, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin, Larry Dann and Fanny Carby.  The show was a huge popular success and moved on to both the West End and Broadway.  Richard Attenborough then went on to make a leaden, joyless screen version in 1969.


I have seen two revivals of the show and was looking forward to seeing this one on the stage where it was created.

There are several scenes in the show that always start the silent waterworks and again this production hit those moments with a quiet power - the Christmas Eve, 1914 scene on the western front when the English and German soldiers stop fighting and meet each other in no man's land to share makeshift Christmas presents always sets me off and the powerful scene of the French soldiers baa-ing their way towards the guns, literally 'lambs to the slaughter' is still unsettling.  The production uses the original trops of slides of contemporary photographs and a moving display that rolls out the awful casualty totals for the battles but the micro-sign that is in the current production uses too large text which makes it difficult to follow what is being scrolled.


What remains the success of the show is the use of the contemporary tunes as well as the snatches of song that the soldiers would sing while marching or in the trenches which constantly reach down the years and jolt you with their jaundiced and savagely ironical lyrics.  The chilling detachment of their words curdle the pretty melodies that they appropriated and are put across by the present company with both gusto and despair.

Sadly for me the show is now hampered by the too-frequent scenes where those who hold the strings - the Generals, the politicians, the businessmen - disrupt the more interesting ones with the soldiers.  What makes it all the more frustrating is that these are the real legacy of the Littlewood agit-prop style but now they are too blatant, too obvious and ultimately too damn long.  At the start of the second act, there is an interminable scene between American, English, German, French and Dutch businessman comparing the fortunes they have made off their munition-trading while on a Grouse shoot (geddit?).  It's so heavy-handed and obvious that it outstays it's welcome very quickly.  You want to shout at the stage "Yes we get it!!"  A re-write of these scenes could easily be done to make these scenes more effective for a modern audience but I'm guessing the show is frozen in deference to Littlewood's wishes.


The show seemed to take an awful long time to get going - namely down to the interminable "War Game" scenes setting out how the war started but start it did with the first real appearance of Caroline Quentin as the Music Hall star singing the recruitment song "I'll Make A Man Of You".  She shook the production awake by the scruff of the neck with her galvanising rendition and her two other major scenes were very effective - speed-singing "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts" and also as Mrs. Pankhurst being hectored and pelted as she tries to deliver a pacifist speech to an angry street crowd.  It's actually refreshing that Littlewood included this scene as it showed how most of the general public refused to believe there could be any other way forward apart from through killing.

Among a generally good cast, Ian Bartholomew was particularly fine as General Haig, Shaun Prendergast had a good Max Miller-like quality as the MC of the evening and I liked the contributions of Oliver J. Hembrough, who I remembered as the put-upon husband Edgar in last year's TITANIC.  Terry Johnson has directed the show with a sure but possibly a too-reverential hand and I liked the Lez Brotherston's stage design which copied the theatre's proscenium arch and stage boxes in metal scaffolding and filigree.


Constant Reader, as we are on the subject of revisiting shows, I went to see Richard Eyre's pressure-cooker production of GHOSTS again which has now transferred from the Almeida to the Trafalgar Studios (my blog from the original Almeida production is here) and I am happy (?) to report that it is still holds you in a vice-like grip of increasing despair and again I found myself breathless at the power and intensity of Lesley Manville as Mrs. Alving.


It was a pleasure to see her performance again and to see how she subtly shades the reactions and actions of her character and how ultimately she descends into her own living Hell.  She is magnificent and it's amazing she has kept up this remarkable performance with all that is asked of her during the course of it's 90 minutes when she is rarely offstage.

Run to see GHOSTS before it closes on March 23nd, OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR ended it's run on the 15th.


Saturday, March 01, 2014

Interpreting Shakespeare

How to interpret a Shakespearean character?  I have had two opportunities to find out recently...

For the second time in as many years, there is a production that has been heavily anticipated so much you can feel the cognoscenti holding their breath.  Last year it was the combination of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in OTHELLO and now this year we have Simon Russell Beale as KING LEAR, directed by long-time collaborator Sam Mendes.

 
I felt OTHELLO was less than was expected and at times KING LEAR was a bit disappointing too but on the whole it fulfilled the expectation raised.  It certainly was a huge production which opens with a huge flaming sun being slowly eclipsed and then gives us big open spaces on the Olivier stage, big statues, a big cast, torture by water-boarding - and even a big dead stag - but at times I yearned for the claustrophobic Cottesloe production from 1997 which was directed by Richard Eyre with a landmark performance by Ian Holm.
 
 
Mendes has set his production in a 20th Century totalitarian state that is ruled over by the hunched and shaven-headed Lear who calls a summit conference to ask his three daughters the famous question of which one of them loves him the most.
 
Interestingly this was the first production I have seen where the dual plot device was really apparent to me.  Lear isn't the only one who fatally makes a wrong decision regarding his children, Gloucester also chooses to believe his bastard son Edmund's lie that his legal son Edgar is plotting to kill him, his eager belief in the lie echoes Lear's banishing of his favourite daughter Cordelia for her perceived lack of love for him.  Both actions are catastrophic but, as I said this is the first production where I noticed the obvious parallel lines of the plot.
 
 
I think this is mostly down to the exceptional performance of Stephen Boxer as Gloucester, a career politician who realises too late, and at a terrible cost, his miscalculation.  The performances of Sam Troughton as the venal Edmund was very good, played like a faceless Special Advisor who seizes his chance in the power vacuum.  Troughton had good fun with his soliloquies where Edmund shares his delight in his machinations.  Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare suggests that the same actor would have played Iago in OTHELLO and I believe this to be the case as they both share a delight in their villany,  Sadly Tom Brooke's Edgar was a trifle anonymous, even with his old boy flapping about as 'Poor Tom'.

Stanley Townsend, not a performer I usually warm to, was excellent as Kent.  Gruff and burly and quick to anger, yet he could touch the heart especially with his dignified final lines "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go / My master calls me, I must not say no."

 
Adrian Scarborough was also very good as The Fool, becoming more and more despondent as his truisms fall more an more on deaf ears.  How do you solve a problem like the Fool?  He vanishes halfway through the play and there is a good reason put forward in the Ackroyd book that possibly the boy actor who played Cordelia also played The Fool which explains the character's disappearance as Cordelia comes back into the action. 
 
Mendes solves the problem the same way that Adrian Noble's 1982 production did, namely that during the trial scene Lear, in the depth of his derangement, kills the Fool in place of an imagined Goneril.  Here the violent act springs from nowhere and as such, was doubly shocking.

 
Sadly the daughters didn't do it for me at all.  Kate Fleetwood's Wallis Simpson lookalike Goneril seemed too under-charged while Anna Maxwell Martin was overly-screechy and too obvious as an over-sexed Regen.  Mendes has also chopped and changed the text in areas so in this production, the sisters die on stage: Maxwell Martin poisoned and dying huddled under a table while Fleetwood cuts her own throat.  It certainly moves the characters a bit more into the limelight but it all looks badly staged and not organic to the play's flow.
 
The good news was that I quite liked Olivia Vinall as Cordelia who showed a lot more presence than she did as Desdemona in last year's OTHELLO.
 
 
I have seen five Lears on stage and they have been inching up in ages: Michael Gambon (1983, aged 43), Richard Briars (1990, aged 56), Robert Stephens (1994, aged 63), Ian Holm (1997, aged 66) and Derek Jacobi (2010, aged 72).  Simon Russell Beale drops the scale back down as he is 53 but he gives a consummate performance, maybe just missing greatness.
 
Playing an obviously dictatorial Lear, Beale in the first scene gives a clue to his encroaching incapacity with a trembling hand that twitches behind him, and with each subsequent downturn in his fortunes the twitch becomes more pronounced.  Despite his fearful whispered "O let me not be mad" to the Fool, by the heath scene - oddly staged on a levitating ramp - he is deranged, even stripping down to a pair of baggy underpants in sympathy with the naked Poor Tom.
 
 
Beale appears in the Dover scene as an escapee from his hospital bed, wearing his hospital smock, the Fool's hat and a carrier bag of his meagre possessions.  The subsequent scene where he is reunited with Cordelia was also finely played as a man slowly recovering his memory of his daughter from a fit of anger.
 
The final scene was beautifully played and you could hear a pin drop when he said "Thou'lt come no more / Never, never, never, never, never!" each repetition pitched differently.  I am not sure why on reflection I feel he missed greatness, maybe a feeling that he missed the pathos that Ian Holm and Derek Jacobi brought to the final moments.
 
 
With this production so fresh in my mind, it was fascinating to then see ELLEN TERRY WITH EILEEN ATKINS at the new Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe's companion theatre.  Built to replicate a Jacobean indoor theatre, it's tiny auditorium would feel claustrophobic if you were seeing a production the length of KING LEAR but this show's running time of 80 minutes was fine.
 
In 1910 the great 19th Century actress Ellen Terry was 63 and after failing as an actor/manager of her own theatre, she decided to do lecture tours on Shakespeare, especially his women.  Eileen Atkins has adapted these latter ones into a one-woman show which has her become Terry to tell us her thoughts on Shakespeare, stories from her career playing his heroines and also perform speeches and scenes from them.  In 1989 Eileen Atkins adapted Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN into a one-woman play with much success and she has triumphed again with Ellen Terry.  I was transfixed by her.
 
 
As Ellen Terry she takes us back to when she played Puck in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM aged 9 years old and how in the final scene one night, her bare toe was caught in the trap-door.  As she wailed and sobbed, the producer of the show ran on stage and freeing her whispered "Finish the show and I'll double your salary".  Needless to say the always-practical Terry finished the show,

Through her insights into the roles she played, Terry shares her unique standpoint as the person who had to bring those characters to life.  She also includes Rosalind which she never got to appear in due to the fact that Henry Irving would not let her play the role at the Lyceum as there was no good role for him!


Eileen Atkins said in an interview that she would not attempt to act the scenes in Terry's style: "She was extremely clever and passionate, but we all know that acting is subject to fashion. You’re in, then you’re out. It makes me sad that even some of Laurence Olivier’s performances look old-fashioned now. So I’m pretty well Eileen Atkins when it comes to the actual parts" - and how wonderful for that as it's when Atkins plays the scenes that the true magic happens.

With no props or costumes - or even lighting cues - she became Rosalind, Portia, Mistress Page, Beatrice, Viola, Juliet, Desdemona and Emilia as well as Othello, Cordelia as well as King Lear, and finally Ophelia.

 
Several times, this most under-rated and astonishing actress brought tears to my eyes.  Her Juliet, trembling and afraid of having to swallow the potion that will make her appear dead; her Emilia, righteous in her fury at Othello's killing of Desdemona; Portia's 'The quality of mercy' speech; Ophelia's mad scene, and most poignant of all, Cordelia and King Lear's reconciliation.  Coming so soon after seeing the full production along the river, I know which one I would kill to see again.
 
It was an evening that will stay with me for a long time, it was living proof of that alchemy that true acting genius can achieve. 
 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Revivalists

Two productions have recently given me the chance to reappraise two works that I had seen before, one on stage and one on film.

I saw THE WEIR in 1999 when it had already been running for nearly two years in various theatres that had been commandeered by the Royal Court while it was being renovated,  It won the Olivier Award for Best Play and has since been named as one of the 100 Most Significant Plays of the 20th Century - it shared the 40th place with Beckett's ENDGAME, Coward's THE VORTEX, Miller's VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH.  Heady competition for a relatively recent work.

 
To be honest, for all it's acclaim I had retained only a dim memory of the play.  I remembered the Irish backwater pub setting and it's story of the male locals telling spooky stories to a female newcomer from Dublin.
 
But here it is revived in a vibrant new production directed by Josie Rourke that originated at the Donmar (and ergo, sold out immediately) and has now transferred to the Wyndhams and it was a pleasure to be reacquainted with it's dense, naturalistic prose and this one has stayed with me.

 
Tom Scutt's set design places us firmly in the small pub in a remote village in Ireland, we even get the waft of peat burning in the onstage stove,  Brendan runs the pub although you can tell his heart isn't really in it and he is being pressured by his offstage sisters who have invested in it,  His regulars include Jack who runs the town's garage, Jim who is an odd-job man who lives with his aged mother and Finbar who is viewed with some suspicion by the others as he owns property and is a bit 'flash'.  Finbar is also the odd-one-out among them as he is the only one who is married.
 
The play's first third sets up Finbar's arrival with his new tenant Valerie, a young woman who has just arrived in the village from Dublin.  Her presence in the bar has a vaguely unsettling effect on the regulars, straining to be on their best behaviour and adapting to her 'cosmopolitan' ways - her request for a glass of wine throws Brendan completely but luckily he has a bottle in his adjoining house which was given to him as a present!  One wonders how long the wine has sat in his cupboard as he pours Valerie a beer glass full of it.
 
They all attempt to trump Finbar's local knowledge with stories of their youth and the characters that are long gone, including the old woman who used to live in Valerie's house.  This leads to Jack recounting a spooky story that the old woman told him from when she was a girl which leads to Finbar and Jim also sharing similar ghostly tales that they were involved in. 
 
These scenes could stop the show in a bad way but Josie Rourke has by this point created a real world onstage with the cast playing as if they really have known each other all their lives.  These stories have an effect on Valerie and she tells the men her own experience that has lead her to the village.  Her haunting story has a radical effect on the men and at the close of the play Jack shares a story from his past that has no supernatural overtones but which has haunted his life ever after.

 
A remarkable ensemble cast is lead by Brian Cox as Jack, his black suit looking suitably lived-in. I suspect his performance has grown somewhat larger since the move as his bits of business seemed to be very spotlighted but his performance grows richer during the course of the play and his final monologue was wonderfully played, making you fully realise the loneliness that lives behind his blarney.

Ardol O'Hanlon was very interestingly cast, Jim being very close to his slightly daft television persona but he too managed to show the aching loneliness in his aimless life, again his baggy jumper suggesting character.  Risteárd Cooper had the showy role as jack-the-lad Finbar and he too gave us a fully-rounded character, chafing at his marital ties and all too aware of his friends wariness about him.


Peter McDonald was always watchable as Brendan, he suggests a life in the doldrums, of opening and closing his pub every night while hearing the same stories time and again.  The undercurrent between him and Dervla Kirwan's Valerie was nicely played, you hope that her arrival might give them both a new chance.  Kirwan was excellent as the woman fleeing her recent trauma and her big monologue was beautifully played, holding the emotions in check until the end.  As usual, Neil Austin's lighting was impeccable.
 
 
It's a wonderful experience to see this cast playing with such a unity of purpose and I recommend you race to see it before it's April 19th final curtain.  And yes, it does deserve it's place on the that list of great 20th Century plays.

Also on the Significant Plays of the 20th Century list - this time at number 50 along with 8 other plays - is Shelagh Delaney's A TASTE OF HONEY which has just been revived at the Lyttelton Theatre.

 
I have only ever seen Tony Richardson's 1961 film version which immortalised Rita Tushingham as Jo, the fantasising and gobby schoolgirl, yearning to break away from her overbearing mother and that film certainly casts a long shadow as it is so of it's time and it's trops seem fresh and original.
 
The play, which like THE WEIR only requires five performers, was Delaney's only real success.  In an excellent piece in the programme, Jeanette Winterson puts her in the context of her times and shows how, as a teenager of 19 when the play was finally produced, Delaney was a unique but lonely voice with no other female writer around her to bounce ideas off.  She had been spurred on to write A TASTE OF HONEY after enduring a production of a Terence Rattigan play and decided that she could write about life better than this writer could - to paraphrase Delaney fan Morrissey it said nothing to her about her life.  She wrote the play in a fortnight and sent it to Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal Stratford East who seized on it's immediacy and put it into production.
 
 
Teenage Jo and her flighty mother Helen have moved into a rundown flat in a dingy part of Salford in the late 1950s after having done a flit from their last home.  With no money coming in apart from what Helen gets from her 'admirers', Jo is looking forward to leaving school and starting work in a shop.  She is also seeking escape from her mother who treats her as her unpaid servant but you also sense that their life together has made them inter-dependant and that Jo will probably never really escape,
 
Helen starts up with the flashy Peter who asks her to marry him.  What she doesn't realise is that Jo has started her first relationship with Jimmie, a young black sailor who is soon to depart on a new ship.  Left alone over Christmas when her mother leaves her to be with her new lover, Jo invites the sailor over and they have sex.  A couple of days later, while dressing on her wedding day, Helen notices Jo wearing Jimmie's ring on a chain around her neck,  They quarrel and Helen leaves the house, possibly for the last time.
 
 
A few months later and Jo is pregnant.  She meets art student Geoff (whose homosexuality is only inferred) who is looking for somewhere to stay, and invites him to share the flat.  He needs a place to stay and she needs a friend and someone to share her life with.  Together they look forward to the birth of her baby and plan for their unconventional life together, although not before an ominous visit from Helen, tipped off by the well-meaning Geoff about her daughter's condition.
 
In the months nearer the birth Geoff is coping with Jo's erratic behaviour well but all is interrupted when Helen reappears, her marriage apparently over before it began.  Helen immediately starts undermining Peter and while Jo sleeps, he realises he is out of his depth with the fearsome mother and leaves for good.  Helen's triumph is short-lived when she realises Jo's child might be black and leaves while Jo starts her labour, waiting for Geoff's return which we know will never happen.
 
 
I really wish I liked the production more but I found Bijan Sheibani's direction to be erratic and a bit all over the place.  What totally ruined most of the show were the profoundly irritating scene changes which has cast members doing little dance routines around the set to the cool jazz music playing.  It put me in mind of those fist-making routines that end Miranda Hart's tv shows and *no one* wants to be reminded of that.  Hildegarde Bechtler's design doesn't really inspire either with it's single-room set seemingly up on bricks over at one side of the stage with a Salford street cyclorama behind it.

I also found Kate O'Flynn to be too strident as Jo, seemingly playing her character like an audition for "Coronation Street".  It made it very difficult to like or sympathise with her character at all.  In her first scene with Jimmie the sailor she hit the right level of gaucheness, saying phrases in a style you knew she had seen in films or heard her mother using, but overall her high-pitched, over-pitched phrasing annoyed.

 
I did like Harry Hepple as Geoff who suggested an inner life that needed nurturing as much as Jo's did but doomed to be confronted by the prejudices of landladies, bigots and harridans.  His crushed acceptance of being no match for the manipulative Helen was touchingly played,
 
The show however belongs to Lesley Sharp as Helen.  Changeable as a Salford breeze, she was infuriating but intriguing - yes she was a monster but she also gave clues along the way to what made her that way.  A crippling loneliness and need to be loved has driven her to manipulation and emotional blackmail and the action noticeably sagged when she was offstage.
 
 
At times she reminded me of Ruth Ellis, with her tight clothes, love of the bottle and peroxide blonde hair - maybe it's because I had in the back of my mind that Shelagh Delaney had a success in the 1980s with her script for DANCE WITH A STRANGER,
 
I wish I had liked it more but sadly the combination of iffy direction and an original work being made to seem unoriginal by a production trading on what has come after it made it a missed opportunity.