Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Owww bumflaps.

I hate New York.

It's just been announced that Vanessa Redgrave is going to return to the stage - but in New York.

This October she will be appearing with James Earl Jones in a revival of the play DRIVING MISS DAISY at the Golden Theatre. Already some Americans have set to whinge about how someone who is anti-Zionist can play a Jewish woman.

It's called acting you tossers.

This will be Vanessa's first appearance on stage since the death of siblings Corin and Lynn.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Well my run of good theatre had to end eventually I guess... the combined memories of fine productions of Thomas Middleton, Arthur Miller, Terence Rattigan and Tennessee Williams crumbled after a visit to the worst funfair ever and the most laughable use of character pathos since Eliza went on the ice in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN or Tiny Tim warmed his crutch by the fire.
Owen had wanted to see one of his 70s Guilty Pleasures David Essex onstage so this seemed as good a time as any as there was the chance to hear some of his hits as well - oddly nothing from MUTINY!

He had booked for the Dress Circle but we arrived to find it closed so were moved down to the Premier Price seating. Now I have been in the Garrick circle this year to see THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED and it's only 5 rows deep so I am suspecting that it would have been just us two and the couple sitting next to Owen who would have been sat there. The stalls were hardly thriving either. Surely a major contributing factor must be the prices - £55 down to £25! For this??Mostly the audience appeared to be large 'n' loud women with their rather nervous-looking husbands who I presume were there to make sure they didn't damage themselves climbing over each other to get near their 'ero. By the noises they made they obviously overlooked little things like a woeful script, the automaton staging or the stale atmosphere of pure by-the-numbers performance.

For what it's worth, the story concerns Levi's touring funfair which has been losing punters since he closed the Wall Of Death attraction after his wife was killed during a stunt involving the two of them and their son Jack - and yes he is introduced as 'Jack the Lad'. Sigh...Also present is Rosa an Oirish fortune teller and her equally Oirish daughter who both fancy Levi and Jack respectively but to little actual interest - it's odd Mama Oirish can't see that in her cards. The coconut is REALLY knocked off it's pole when Alice - the teenager daughter of Harvey a cockney heavy - falls for Jack and the dad starts getting protective as does his dangerous sidekick Druid. I can't remember why he's called Druid, I was probably looking at the set.

Will Jack and Alice find love? Will Harvey strongarm Levi into closing his funfair? Will Rosa and daughter Mary realise that their Tarot cards ain't going to get shuffled by Levi & son? Will Levi give in to his bouncy son's pleas to re-open the dreaded Wall Of Death... and how will 'Slow Johnny' - yes you read that right 'Slow Johnny' - the twitching and simple lad who has been 'adopted' by the funfair workers fit in?

No I didn't really care either.Ok I will put my hand up and say I didn't hate it - in retrospect I'd rather sit through this than sit through SISTER ACT again - what I found teeth-grindingly bad was the total banality of Jon Conway's book with it's square-peg-in-a-round-hole approach to jamming in the hits from Mr. Essex's distant youth, paper-thin characters and gossamer-thin plot which at it's climax just stops... as if the cast couldn't stand to say those lines or play those roles a minute longer.

The ultimate punchable offence is the inclusion of the 'Slow Johnny' character. A woeful attempt at knee-jerk sympathy while also setting him up to be a character who is laughed at and not with. Added to all this he also spends most of the time walking around with a sawn-off shotgun which is referred to again and again in the time-honoured tradition of "Ooo do you think that's going to be a plot device at the climax?" In case you were curious... yes it is.... I mean, they couldn't have the bizarre final scene if he didn't get shot.


It also doesn't help that in his unrelenting performance Tim Newman speaks in a voice stolen from Matt Lucas as Margery Daws. Really.Ok time to cut to the chase:

1) the chorus work hard but don't appear to do anything apart from that godawful we-are-good-mates-who-love-each-other acting which involves putting your arms around each others shoulders, smiling as you sing into each other's faces and occasionally punching your mates arm. They also do the equally irritating bad-chorus thing of about 3 of them wandering on zombie-stylee while the leads are singing and stand grouped at the back just to provide backing vocalese - like, stay in the bloody wings and sing there!

2) Nicola Brazil as Alice will be a shoe-in should they ever do STEPHANIE LAWRENCE- THE MUSICAL as she was the spitting image of her and also sounded like her too

3) Michael Pickering as Jack The Lad actually wasn't too bad and showed some promise for better shows to come

4) Louise English as Oirish Rosa had the low wattage needed by a production that needs a female co-star who won't pull focus

5) Christopher Timothy was ok - absolutely nothing to do but at least did it with a panache

6) I don't like him particularly but datgummit there is no denying David Essex is a genuine star, you notice him when he is onstage. It's just a shame that he is not bringing that wattage to a better show that might give him something more to do than chill out in his star vehicle and every so-often shoot cute glimpses at the adoring fans to make them shout out loud.

7) His score was insistent but not without it's nice spots - I really liked a moody ballad early in the 2nd act called "You're In My Heart" - but it's a shame that his hit songs stuck out so glaringly and were signposted a mile before they arrived.

8) There was no megamix for which I was profoundly grateful.

9) Ian Westbrook had designed a remarkably unoriginal set bearing in mind it was a fairground but dear God I was happy to gaze up and around it while the gurning feeb act was on.

10) For a while I was impressed with the sound design which included ominous muted soundscapes which were heard every so often, no doubt to remind us that it was bound to end in tears... then remembered that whatever you see at the Garrick it's punctuated every 5 minutes with the sound of the Northern Line.

All in all, a show I really cannot recommend.

But all the time I was there I was aware of being just happy to be sitting in a theatre. Says a lot about me that...

Friday, June 25, 2010

The second little-known play I have seen this week at the National Theatre was SPRING STORM, one of the first plays written by Tennessee Williams.

I had wanted to see this production which started at Northampton's Royal & Derngate Theatre but as it was in the Cottesloe it had sold-out thanks to the advance booking knobstains. I had hoped that it and it's companion piece, Eugene O'Neill's BEYOND THE HORIZON, would transfer to a bigger space but that hadn't transpired. Constant Reader, imagine my surprise when, while idly checking for an odd matinee seat, I found a couple of tasty H row seats going begging for the next evening! See... always worth double-checking these things. Owen braved yet another Williams play although his current batting average after 3 productions was liked 1, disliked 2.

Although SPRING STORM does betray a youthful over-egging of the play's pudding - Tennessee was 26 at the time with two plays already staged by a St. Louis am-dram society - it was still great to see and to realise that the themes of survival, lust and despair that are so prevalent in his later works were there from the beginning. It also helped that Laurie Sansom's production was in itself hugely entertaining.
The play takes place over a few days in a small Mississippii River town in early 1937 and the action centres on a wilful 22 year-old, Heavenly Critchfield. She is the only daughter of a respected Southern Old Family who are now living in reduced circumstances, always keeping an eye on the cotton share price.

Her overbearing mother Esmeralda refuses to let her current surroundings sway her from her rigid believe in her family's noble traditions while ruling her household with steely determination much to the chagrin of Heavenly's placid father - already troubled with a recurring stomach complaint that bodes ill - as well as his widowed sister Lila.Unknown to Esmeralda, Heavenly has already "given herself" to the rough and ready Dick Miles who wants to get out and see the world and is urging Heavenly to join him. However, much to Esmeralda's joy, the scion of the town's leading family Arthur Shannon has returned from being educated in England and wishes to start courting Heavenly. Heavenly bridles at the pressure being put on her to marry for money but goes along with Shannon's attentions.

However Shannon, who has loved Heavenly since their schooldays where he was hated for being studious, still has the the memory of her laughing at him as he was bullied. Unknown to Arthur, he is also the object of quiet desire by Hertha Neilson, a bookish lonely girl who works in the town library. However, like in AFTER THE DANCE, the events that take place on the night of a summer party change the lives of the four young people forever.As I said, Tennessee's youthful desire to leave nothing uncrossed or undotted sometimes leads to the play running away with itself but on the whole I enjoyed immensely. The joy for us fans of his work was seeing the seeds being sown for later plays: refined Heavenly's pleasure with her manual worker lover echoes Stella with Stanley in STREETCAR and her chance of a secure if unexciting possible husband echoes Blanche and Mitch in the same play; Esmeralda has traces of the controlling Southern mothers of Amanda Wingfield in THE GLASS MENAGERIE (even down to the Jonquils) and Mrs. Venable in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER; Heavenly and Arthur's painful courtship in the parlour appears to be a dry run for Laura and The Gentleman Caller in THE GLASS MENAGERIE while Heavenly's dread of enduring the living death of the Old Maid, sitting alone on a porch waiting for a gentleman caller who will never come, reminded me of Blanche's bitter memories in STREETCAR of living alone at Belle Reve with the squabbling old women. And of course there were the sudden flashes of pure Tennessee prose such as Heavenly telling Arthur about Lila's penchant for saving fallen rose petals "she puts them in sachets to perfume her handkerchiefs, the scent of old maid's memories" or Hertha's heartbroken wail of "Why did God have to give homely girls the same dreams as pretty girls?" Mind you the script also contained a great line shouted by Heavenly at her shocked mother "I'm going to be married to Dick... by a black preacher... and live on a houseboat!" Surely the greatest line John Waters never wrote for Divine.

Laurie Sansom's direction was as fluid as the Mississippi moving the action swiftly around Sara Perks' standing set, a promontory fashioned from a collapsed house with the playing areas littered with debris, a constant reminder of the fickle nature of the river which could easily sweep lives and houses away with no warning.The company have been performing this and the O'Neill play since last October so unsurprisingly the whole company had a unity of style and commitment which helped the feel of a close-knit onstage community.

Liz White was a hypnotic Heavenly, a girl who knows she has a power over men but who does not know what to do for the best. Skittish, imperious, hilariously gauche and wildly impassioned, White captured all these moods without becoming a caricature - at times she resembled a young Lee Remick which is no bad thing for any actress - and her final capitulation to fate had a tragic sadness.

It is almost certain that parts of her character were inspired by Tennessee's older sister Rose. It is sadly ironic that as he was writing the play while attending a playwriting course in Iowa, back in his St. Louis family home Rose - who had declined over several years with increasingly manic behaviour - had been diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia and lobotomized with the consent of their parents.Although the role of Esmeralda was written with a furious pen - based almost to the letter on his mother it seems - Jacqueline King played the role wonderfully, with a unbending genteel ferocity which reaches it's zenith when she finds herself alone with Arthur Shannon in the parlour while her daughter is upstairs loudly packing to run off with Dick. She jabbered, prattled and kept up a non-stop stream of inconsequential chatter to distract his attention before exiting, still chattering as she leaves. It brought the house down. She was delightfully partnered by Joanna Bacon as her amiable but more empathetic sister-in-law Lila.

The role of the unloved but loving Hertha was touchingly played by Anna Tolputt who spiralled wonderfully into despair after being confronted alone in the Library by a drunken Arthur who trashes the room and her last hope of happiness. I would also like to mention Janice McKenzie who, as the head librarian Birdie, in this one scene created a character one knew instantly and wanted to see more of.Although well-played, the male members of the cast - Michael Thomson as Dick, Michael Malarkey as Arthur and James Jordan as Heavenly's father - were all saddled with under-written roles, only there to give the powerful women in the play something to react to.

I suspect of these two plays that Rattigan's AFTER THE DANCE will now be revived more often but I am grateful to have been able to see them both in such great productions. It would be heartening to see some more of Tennessee's work other than the usual STREETCAR, GLASS MENAGERIE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF trilogy, no matter how great those plays are. Enough of his work from the early 1960s onwards have the taint of being 'problematic' but surely what these two productions prove is that given a director's insight into the text anything is possible.

Gore Vidal is quoted in the SPRING STORM programme as saying that what made Tennessee Williams a great writer was his channeling of his life into his plays - that unhappy love affairs or family memories could be exorcised by the arranging of them into scenes, words, themes so ultimately they were his, and not God's, to bring to life and to own. I think much the same, in his own way, can be said of Terence Rattigan.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Twice this week I have come away from the National Theatre pondering how hard it must be for artistic directors as to how to fill their schedules.

The Donmar or the Menier for example are looked upon as having a certain caché but with runs allotted to a month or so that means these theatres at best can stage only 12 productions a year - and what plays get chosen? Monetary demands mean that a healthy sprinkling of popular titles and playwrights crop up again and again... but what gets left behind? What falls through the cracks?

The reason for these musings is down to seeing two excellent revivals of little-known early plays by Terence Rattigan and Tennessee Williams currently playing to packed houses at the NT.

Think of a Rattigan that gets revived and you will probably have THE WINSLOW BOY, THE DEEP BLUE SEA or SEPARATE TABLES on your list. At the Lyttleton however, Thea Sharrock has directed a revival of Rattigan's second play AFTER THE DANCE which I saw with Owen, Sharon and Eamonn.It opened in June 1939 to good reviews and enthusiastic audiences who no doubt responded to not only the high drama onstage but Rattigan's capturing of the zeitgeist of the country as it approached an unavoidable war. However this very atmosphere also was the production's downfall and as the situation worsened the play ended it's run after 2 months, less than a month before war was declared.

Rattigan appears to have had mixed feelings about it in hindsight, not including it in his Collected Plays when first published, probably because of it's failing to achieve as big a box office success as his later plays. There is also a theory that he was haunted by using the possible suicide of a young lover as a plot device in the play but then he is accused of using the same incident 13 years later in THE DEEP BLUE SEA so it appears to have been a handy haunting.The years in between might have lost out but it is this year's gain as what Sharrock's production showcases is a beautifully-crafted three-act play which nails a moment in time perfectly while also providing 5 cracking parts for actors to shine in.

Surprisingly only now making his NT debut, Benedict Cumberbatch (God, that name) is paired with the always-watchable Nancy Carroll as David and Joan, an archetypal Golden Couple who now find themselves at the wrong end of the 1930s after 12 years of marriage and secretly realise that their excessive round of drinks, parties, larks and more drinks will not stand scrutiny in the gray light of a possible war in Europe.

Independently wealthy, David is drinking himself into an early grave while half-heartedly writing a biography of a little-known Balkan hero. Joan fills in her time by being the effortlessly chic hub of a circle of feckless, equally-sensation-craving group of drinking friends. She also chooses to ignore her husband's frequent but non-threatening flings with pretty young things for to mind would of course be a crashing bore.

They also share their large London flat with John (Adrian Scarborough) one of their drinking friends who has become an unofficial lodger and spends his time happily lying on the couch singing for his supper by keeping them amused with his cutting quips about all and sundry. Also sharing the flat is David's cash-strapped cousin who he 'employs' to type up the occasional page of his never-ending book and the couple are friendly with his fiancee Helen (Faye Castelow) who is a frequent visitor.

Of course what soon becomes apparent is that Helen is besotted with David, determined to lead him to the right road of Great Writing and Sobriety through her devotion. She manages to get her doctor brother to examine David and he is confronted with the fact that he is in the early stages of Cirrhosis. David's vanity cannot withstand Helen's passionate declarations and eventually confesses that he has fallen for her too and knows with her help he can lead a Life With Meaning.Helen then becomes that most dreaded creature, one who knows that everyone will be happier if they all know the plain truth. She confronts Joan on the afternoon of a huge party being held at the flat and tells her plainly that Joan's marriage is over as David now loves her.

Joan responds just as Helen and David expect, calm and excepting of the ways of the world, however the reality is witnessed by an appalled John who finds Joan, broken and in despair. The party goes ahead but events take a shattering turn from which their lives are changed just as the approaching war will change their world forever.

Thea Sharrock's direction is a model of empathy and clarity, her handling of characters who could easily be looked upon as irritating and distancing are instead presented to us with an immediacy and sympathy that is rare among today's directors. Both Scarborough and Castelow appeared last year on the same stage in Rupert Goold's take on J.B. Priestley's TIME AND THE CONWAYS in which the characters were treated as mere caricature. Here Sharrock is unafraid of allowing her characters to have an inner emotional life which resonates strongly.

She has elicited strong performances from her cast, namely from Cumberbatch, Carroll and Scarborough, all of whom know exactly how to balance the brittle, knowing banter of the opening scenes with the raw emotional hurt that all the stylish wit is a carapace for.

Nancy Carroll was quite breathtaking as Joan, her early scenes suggesting the unforced, confidant glamour of Kay Hammond but shattering that image with her lonely devastation at the news of her husband wanting to end their life together.

Cumberbatch fitted almost seamlessly into the role of David, he even resembled any number of tall, ramrod-backed, English leading men like Michael Rennie or David Farrar. However like Carroll he also found layers of emotion within David which while not making him sympathetic, did make his choices understandable.

My friend Sharon asked me afterwards if I thought Adrian Scarborough was a possible future Knight of the theatre and his performance here suggested it's possibly only a matter of his getting a tiny step up to some good lead parts. Again he gave a subtle and nuanced performance as John, scathingly funny with the timing of death but able to suggest the anger, fear and loneliness of a man all to aware of the superficiality of his place in life.
Faye Castelow was fine as the frighteningly single-minded Helen although even Rattigan would have been alarmed by her Cut Glaws Eckcent which could have been slightly toned down. In a fine supporting cast special mention must be made for yet another exquisite performance by Jenny Galloway as Miss Potter, the no-nonsense, Widdecombe-esque copy typist that David finally employs.

A special word of praise for Hildegard Bechtler's deliciously sprawling set design for David and Joan's apartment and ravishing costumes, especially for Nancy Carroll. In particular, I really liked the subtle changes that turned the set from the casually elegant, lived-in home of the first two acts to the cold and empty haunted space of the third. Mark Henderson's lighting also was beautifully used to enhance the play.Next year is Rattigan's centenary and it is being marked with not only a retrospective at the National Film Theatre of films and tv plays based on his many works - PLEASE let them show the 1955 film of THE DEEP BLUE SEA starring Vivien Leigh - but a tribute at Chichester (where he has never gone out of fashion) and yet another screen remake of THE DEEP BLUE SEA but directed by Terence Davies which sounds quite exciting. So roll on next year!

In the meantime get yourself to the National Theatre to see AFTER THE DANCE.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On Saturday Owen and I went to Kingston via Wimbledon. Not too much of a struggle I hear you cry Constant Reader... 57 bus goes there from Streatham. But I mean Kingston, Jamaica.

Yes, man. This magical journey meant only one thing, Perry Henzell's musical adaptation of his film THE HARDER THEY COME was back in town!
After it's criminally short tenure at the Playhouse in 2008, most of the company have returned from dates in Canada and the USA to finish off with a UK tour which had the good sense to play London again, this time at the cavernous Wimbledon theatre. Needless to say it wasn't the same show I saw five times back in 2008 but there were enough familiar faces to make it enjoyable and of course the sheer galvanizing effect of the show itself worked again with it's marvelous reggae score played by some fierce musicians.For the tour, the role of Ivanhoe Martin - the country bwoi coming to Kingston to seek his fortune in music but ending up a ghetto hero on the run from the police - was played by Matthew J. Henry who had played "The Photographer" at both the Barbican and Playhouse. Overall I missed the charismatic Rolan Bell in the part but Henry came into his own in the second half when he showed the hard side of Ivan's character.

The role of the hapless Elsa, Ivan's put-upon lover, was now played by Alanna Leslie and again I found myself missing the appealing performance of Joanna Leslie - she managed to give you a sense of the character's inner strength otherwise Elsa comes across as a bit of a drip.

For the main supporting performances it was great to see the original players - with a twist!
Marlon King reprised his Playhouse role as Pedro who Ivan joins in the lucrative but treacherous world of ganja-trading and he was as powerful on stage as always, his rendition of MANY RIVERS TO CROSS is one of the highlights of the show.

The twist this time out was seeing the great Chris Tummings taking over from the mighty Marcus Powell as Reggie Hilton, the power behind Kingston's music business. He again proved to be a magnetic performer but damn I missed him as Ray Pierre the corrupt policeman who sees to it that Ivan is hunted down so the corruption can keep flowing into his bank account. Although Reggie has his own moments of smiling menace, I missed Chris' LETHAL menace as Ray. His second act solo of PRESSURE DROP - which he interrupts to interact with the mouthy but predominantly petrified audience members - was handled ok by Craig Stein, but Tummings made this a scene a genuine showstopper. We also had the welcome return of Victor Romero Evans as the hypocritical fire & brimstone Preacher - he was also a fine Pedro in the Barbican production - as well as the joyous Joy Mack as Miss Daisy, Ivan's sometime-loving, most-time disparaging mama. It was also great to see Derek Elroy back and stealing every scene he was in as the radio dj Numero Uno and as the cowardly Longa. Nice too to see the delightful Jacqui Dubois again as Miss Brown, the shrewd seller of stylish ghetto headwear "International style, local price".

We had a new pair of performers as the two ghetto fabulous sistas Pinkie and Precious, Janine Johnson and Nataylia Roni (who originated the role at Stratford East). I liked Roni but missed the exuberant playing of Susan Lawson-Reynolds as Pinkie who certainly had more clarity in her 2nd act exposition scenes.
The show is ultimately powered by the marvellous musicians who make up the onstage band, The Hilton All Stars: Perry Melius on drums, Wayne Nunes on bass, Darren Benjamin and Adrian McKenzie on keyboards and last but not least, Peter Lee and the mighty Alan Weekes on guitars. It's a-compulsory to not leave the auditorium until they have finished their last play-out jam.

The production next visits Salford, Oxford and Cardiff. You can get to see it if you really want - and you would be mad not to... it's a Boss production sar!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Last week it was time to immerse myself again into the deceptively placid water that is the music of Suzanne Vega as she was appearing at the Cadogan Hall, part of a small tour of the UK to promote her album CLOSE-UP VOL.1: LOVE SONGS.

As usual though, it was only when once immersed I remembered that all of Vega's songs, while placid on the surface, have a dangerous undertow.
This was the 5th time Owen and I have seen her in concert and each time has seen a slight change in line-up and setlist so although I always get to hear her popular songs there are also the odd one or two thrown in which I am unaware of. Owen of course has all her studio albums so always claps a bit louder at those ones!

Speaking of studio albums, it was with some surprise that I realised that CLOSE-UP is only her eighth studio recording in a career that spans 25 years - a rare batting average, beaten of course by Kate Bush's eight in 32 years. Now I think about it, Kirsty MacColl managed five albums in 21 years and Laura Nyro recorded nine studio albums in 30 years. An obvious answer I suppose is that it is more the luck of the female singer/songwriter for life to be seen to intervene for long spells. A good subject for a blog eh Constant Reader?
The CLOSE-UP series should bolster her total somewhat as she plans to release three more themed albums. After her well-received and Grammy-winning BEAUTY AND CRIME cd in 2007, Suzanne found herself dumped the next year after only 2 years into her contract with Blue Note Records. As a way to wrest some control over her legacy she has set about re-recording her songs and releasing them herself as the CLOSE-UP series. Another example of the fascinating ways that established artists are reacting to the through-the-looking-glass world of the current music business.

To be honest I can't hear that much difference between the originals and the re-records, the most obvious being Vega's voice which has of course gained in maturity while still retaining her idiosyncratic timbre. Actually the best way to hear her is in concert as that's when her intricate songs of love and loss come into their own - especially as Vega's personality is one that is still delightfully dry and acerbic - friendly but guarded, aloof yet with a devilish wit, a real new Yorker.
She was accompanied with just two other musicians - her longtime bass player Mike Visceglia and electric guitarist Gerry Leonard who, alongside Vega's acoustic guitar, came up with wonderfully layered soundscapes for her songs. They were quite extraordinary at times, especially when Suzanne sang the great BLOOD MAKES NOISE against Visceglia's ominously rumbling bass and Leonard's fractured guitar squall. They were joined for a few songs by the Millenia String Quartet who gave those numbers a fuller sound but her songs are adaptable to any arrangement which always makes the concerts interesting.

After two encores and two standing ovations we made our way out to the foyer to see - for the first time after one of our jaunts to see her - a table set up next to the merch stand. I had told Owen I suspected as the new album was on her own label she would probably do a signing to shift a few units and sure enough there she was. We pooled our resources to buy a cd each and got them signed - I thanked her for the show and told her I was away home to practice my projection so she might just hear me next time when I shout out a request for NO CHEAP THRILL as she has never sang the damn thing in all 5 times of seeing her!

It was delightful later to read that she posted online "Last night's audience in London was SO GREAT!! Mwah!! Kisses to everybody."

Mwah back!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

As seen - and who could miss her - on the Tony Awards red carpet - The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin:
How ironic she once sang a song titled "A Whole Lot Of Me"....

Monday, June 14, 2010

Last night there were some noticeable British triumphs at the Tony Awards.

The two Best Director awards - for musicals and for plays - were both won by British directors: Terry Johnson for LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and Michael Grandage for RED.

The two lead performance awards for musicals were both won by British actors: Douglas Hodge for LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and Catherine Zeta-Jones for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Eddie Redmayne won the Best Supporting Actor award (drama) for RED.

The award for Best Musical Revival went LA CAGE AUX FOLLES which originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

In the technical awards Christopher Oram won Best Designer, Neil Austin won Best Lighting and Adam Cork won Best Sound, all for RED.

The Donmar Warehouse's production of RED won the award for Best Play and a special Lifetime Achievement award was given to Alan Ayckbourn.

Eleven awards and the best the BBC news could do to report this was a small segment on the early evening London news which was then dropped from the main evening broadcast.

It makes one despair, especially over the breathless squarking over "how we did" at the Academy Awards.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

For the second time within a month I have revisited one of the four classic early works of Arthur Miller, his Tony award-winning breakthrough play ALL MY SONS at the Apollo.
Howard Davies has revived his National Theatre production from 2000, this time the Keller home and verdant garden transplanted from the Cottesloe's traverse stage to the proscenium stage of the Apollo.

The show again bears the hallmarks of Howard Davies' best work: an unhurried, clear-eyed production which frames the text perfectly, a harmony of performance, set, lighting & score and a unity of committed performance from the company.The original production featured a quartet of memorable performances - James Hazeldine, Julie Walters, Ben Daniels, Catherine McCormack - and while the present company are all fine, this new production is dominated by the devastating performances of the two leads, David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker.

Davies has retained his invented prelude to the play where we see Kate's night-time witnessing of the tree planted in her missing son's memory snapped in two by a violent storm and, in this production in particular, it helps to put the audience on edge from the start as the play otherwise starts fairly uneventfully introducing us to the Keller family and their immediate neighbours.We follow the events of a summer Sunday in 1946 in small-town America. Joe Keller is a contented man, a local businessman doing well, admired by his younger neighbours and his son Chris who works with him. His and Chris' only concern is Joe's wife Kate who, while loving, has been distracted by the disappearance three years ago of her other son Larry who went missing in action in the far east. She is further on edge at Chris' secret invitation to Larry's girlfriend Ann Deever to visit them from NY.

Ann's presence has other implications for the Kellers as it is revealed that her father was Joe's business partner in a munitions factory and is in prison for causing the deaths of 21 pilots by knowingly shipping out faulty parts, an action for which Joe was exonerated in court by being off ill when it happened. Her admission to Kate that she is no longer waiting for Larry's return signals to both the parents that Chris' real intention inviting her there is to propose. However it's the appearance of Ann's brother George that brings down the house of cards that is Joe Keller's life.As I've said Davies elicits telling performances from the supporting cast, each imbuing their roles with an inner life. Tony Vaughan-Lawlor and Olivia Darnley are fine as the young neighbours, particularly Darnley in the scene where Daniel Lapaine's George meets her again and you get a sense of their earlier romance, lost by the intervention of the war.

Steven Elder and Claire Hackett also bring great heft to their roles as the Bayliss' who moved into the Deever house after Ann and George's father went to prison. They both stood out in each of their solo turns - Elder where he ruminates on the life he could have had and Hackett, looking not unlike Kathleen Turner, when she tells Ann exactly what she thinks of the idealistic Chris.While I liked Stephen Campbell Moore and Jemima Rooper as Chris and Ann, I felt they didn't quite eclipse the performances of Ben Daniels and Catherine McCormack in Davies' original production, particularly Rooper who couldn't quite get Ann's desperation - it didn't ring true when she begged Kate not to throw her out as she had nowhere to go. Still they did both give very touching performances.

Nothing however could match the performances of the leads.It doesn't hurt the Box Office of course that Suchet and Wanamaker are as well known to the general public for their television roles as much as their theatre work but here they transcend such concerns and both give performances of a rare intensity.

David Suchet is an actor that doesn't always engage me but as Joe Keller he gives what I think is his best stage performance. From the start his casual underplaying makes you believe Joe's idea of himself as a man trusted and a pillar of his community but as the action continues along the lines of classic Greek drama, this hubris is brought low when the Furies of his past actions catch up with him. Suchet's sheer physicality was astonishing - when first seen he is expansive and genial, safe literally in his own back yard, but when confronted by George Deevor he changes into a sharp business suit and appears more canny and alert but when his culpability is finally revealed, he seemed to collapse in on himself. In a masterful piece of physical acting, when Joe reads the damning final letter from his missing son, you could almost see his life ebbing away from him as the words sunk in. His delivery as well was faultless, in the opening scene his ability to project while still speaking in a conversational tone showed up Vaughan-Lawlor and Elder who were saying their lines In Their Best Theatrical Voices.

Suchet was matched stride-for-stride by Zoe Wanamaker as Kate. With no attempt to play for audience sympathy, she gave a multi-layered performance of a conflicted woman whose life is ultimately revealed to have been built on a lie.

Kate's wary humour, her desperate belief in her son's survival, her barely-disguised distrust of Ann and her lioness-like protection of Joe were woven together to give an outstanding performance.

Like Suchet, she seemed to live in the moment at all times, never dropping her concentration level which made her a hypnotic presence on the stage. None more so than when Kate unthinkingly blurts out an inconsequential remark which in an instant reveals the lie the Kellers have hidden. It was a mark of the audience's involvement in the action that when she said it there was an audible collective gasp of breath!

The production is again helped immeasurably by William Dudley's detailed set of the Keller's back porch and garden which seems to get more claustrophobic as the action progresses, and Mark Henderson's lighting especially in Act II when the characters are slowly bathed in a blood-red sunset as the truth behind the deaths of the 21 pilots is revealed.
This production also made me realise how much of a companion piece ALL MY SONS is to Miller's DEATH OF A SALEMAN in the similar descents of Joe Keller and Willy Loman through their adherence to the work ethic which propels their own American Dreams. In a world where soldiers are killed due to faulty equipment and the ideals of capitalism are questioned, as with the best of Miller's work, ALL MY SONS is as relevant today as it was in 1946.