Sunday, July 07, 2013

Remembrance Of Things Past

Ooo catchy title... I must copyright that.  Oh.

Right, Constant Reader, now that I have found my voice again, time for a bit of a catch-up on productions seen.  But I have seen so many!  I will do it in bite-size chunks.

New plays, not too many.

The latest of Peter Morgan's factional musings on the reality lived behind lives in the public eye found him returning to the ultimate person who is known to all but known to none, our Brenda.  He hit pay-dirt with her in 2006 with THE QUEEN and THE AUDIENCE reunited him with the film's leading lady Helen Mirren.  La Mirren hasn't done too badly out of HRH either and here she was given the opportunity to give a tour-de-force performance as Morgan bounced hither and yon across the six decades of the Queen's rule giving her minutes to change costumes, wigs and playing age.

Indeed it was a remarkable performance with Mirren finding a quiet through-line amidst the skilful onstage quick changes and turning on a sixpence from the young Queen finding her feet with Churchill to the slow, slightly stooped Matriarch running rings around Cameron.

The problem I had with Morgan's play was also it's purported unique selling point.  As Morgan has as much idea as we do in what takes place when the Queen meets the Prime Minister in their private weekly meetings, each section settled into a pattern of the Queen playing Devil's Advocate with whoever she was meeting so ultimately Morgan's script played it safe and certainly did nothing to shock or provoke it's - ahem - audience.  His most controversial gambit was to have the Queen haunted by her teenage self which didn't really amount to anything that would have him dragged to the tower.

 A play by Peter Morgan about the Queen starring Helen Mirren on Shaftesbury Avenue is going to attract a certain public and they were out in force when I went.  EVERYTHING got a round, the curtains, the frocks, the set, needless to say the Corgis.  The only real frisson during the show was in the enjoyable sparring match between Mirren and Haydn Gwynne's basilisk Margaret Thatcher - you could almost feel a large section of the audience having to choose between two heroines.  Seeing it a week or so after the absurd blanket canonisation of the old bitch it was good to see Morgan's jaundiced view of her.

Morgan obviously has a soft spot for Harold Wilson as he appeared three times: as a gauche bull-in-a-palace at their first meeting (cute but quite far from the truth I suspect), a PM-out-of-water in Balmoral and his announcement of retiring.  Richard McCabe played him very well - not so much an impression as 'an impression' if you get my drift.  His performance in the final scene was particularly touching.  Paul Ritter's turn as John Major was very entertaining and Michael Elwyn was a silky, deceptive Anthony Eden.  Edward Fox was a last minute replacement for Robert Hardy as Churchill and it showed.

Stephen Daldrey certainly kept the traffic of the stage moving briskly and Bob Crowley's design was spare and elegant.  I just wish Morgan's play - apart from the Thatcher scene - hadn't felt so damn timid.

Mirren and McCabe won this year's Olivier Awards for Best Actress and Supporting Actor which just happened to be two categories that A CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME wasn't nominated in - lucky for them as it swept seven other categories including Best Play, Set, Lighting and Director.

Now, some history.
I have never read Mark Haddon's novel the play is based on as I spent a lifetime one evening watching his play POLAR BEARS and as that arsed me off so much I couldn't bear to set foot on him again.  I was aware of the basic premise but it was interesting to be one of the few in the packed Apollo Theatre who didn't know what was about to transpire.  By the way, we appeared to be sat in the designated American section - it was like being back on Broadway.

Luke Treadaway might have won the Best Actor Olivier award but the slacker doesn't do Monday or Tuesdays - they just don't have the range any more - so I saw Johnny Gibbon in his West End debut.  He certainly gave a relentless performance as the autistic teenager Christopher Boone who, when his neighbour's dog is killed with a pitch-fork, decides to find out not only who the killer is but the other mysteries in his life.  I am sure a long career beckons.

I must admit the plot itself didn't offer too many surprises, when the killer is revealed it was all a bit obvious - and was quickly dispensed with - the dead dog being the McGuffin to get us involved in Christopher's journey to find the missing mother he had been led to believe was dead. 

We experience his disorientating journey from Swindon to London through his eyes and this is where Marianne Elliott's production triumphs.  Elliott, set designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Paule Constable combine to give us stage image after image which are haunting, delightful and exciting.  There were plenty of younger types in the audience and it made me wish that hopefully a good number of them will be excited by what the theatre can do in the hands of an accomplished team.

However, like a number of other productions this year, I came out thinking that I wasn't as blown away as I had been led to believe I would be.  The problem here was that the acting wasn't really all that.  Performances were either drawn larger-than-life or so muted as to be anonymous.  Even Niamh Cusack - so good recently in two productions at the Old Vic - here barely registers as Christopher's teacher.  We pride ourselves on the quality of British stage acting but more often than not, what you get are performances that have you wondering whether they bothered putting the understudy slips in the programme.  Just saying.

But as a work of theatrical possibilities?  Dazzling.

I have also had two dollops of Alan Bennett.  Earlier this year I had read his memoir A LIFE LIKE OTHER PEOPLE'S so I was curious to see the play UNTOLD STORIES which drew on part of it.

The play took two parts, the first half was a theatrical amuse-bouche called HYMN that was almost over before it began, a 30 minute reflection on the music Bennett remembers having an influence on him growing up.  More than anything it got us accustomed to Alex Jennings' unerring and affectionate interpretation of the author.

The main part of the evening was COCKTAIL STICKS in which Bennett turned his attention to the subject of his parents.  When I read A LIFE LIKE OTHER PEOPLE'S I had found it unbearably moving as Bennett gave us his recollections of growing up with his loving but socially embarrassed parents to whom the world seemed a party they didn't have the courage to attend.

They were played by Jeff Rawle and Gabrielle Lloyd with a gentle charm and as, in the book, Lloyd as his mother moved more centre-stage as she slipped into the twilight world of dementia.  Ultimately I think it works better on the page, especially the final section where Bennett turns his quiet anger on the institutionalised stripping away of any dignity his mother had at a pace with the dementia stripping away her identity.

After this it was natural to see Bennett' s latest play PEOPLE at the Lyttleton.  Now I had been one of the 8 people who saw THE HISTORY BOYS in the same theatre and not liked it.  Indeed I recently saw the screen version and again, found little to enjoy outside of Frances de la Tour's caustic performance.  So here was a chance to enjoy her playing the lead role for a change.  I presume it is what one could call a play of ideas, the trouble being that it is all ideas and no play.

A packed Lyttleton audience laughed itself through the play while I sat with the occasional half-smile.  Bennett has worked himself up into a right old state initially about the National Trust and on a larger scale, the idea of a culture, an identity that can similarly be shaped and packaged and sold back to you.  I have no problem with this argument and occasionally a point was made that shone through.  I just didn't buy the package.

Frances de la Tour played Dorothy Stacpoole, the heir to the crumbling stately home that has been in her family for years.  Now just she and her equally eccentric companion Iris live there so she is a sitting target for a beady-eyed consultant for the National Trust, played by Miles Jupp who was taking a break from being a panellist on innumerable quiz shows, and her Reverend younger sister (Selina Cadell).

The answer to Dorothy's problems appear to arrive in the bizarre twist of an ex-lover appearing who is now a porn director who asks for his latest film to be shot in the house.  We then had a lengthy scene of the filming which made laboured use of knob jokes, social embarrassment and the like to little purpose other than for Frances de la Tour to swish around in a 1960s style couture ensemble.

Ultimately Dorothy cannot keep the real wolves from the door and the house is taken off her hands and renovated fit for the paying proles consumption.  But she still had a trick up her sleeve...

Frances de la Tour was as watchable as ever (the cast even included her brother Andy as a vicar) and she found wells of sympathy for her improbable character and it was amusing watching Linda Bassett make bricks from straw as her bizarre cohort but otherwise it just seemed to ramble on taking a long time to get to an obvious pay-off.  The ubiquitous Bob Crowley's dark and cluttered set was obviously going to be given a make-over and it was Constant Reader, before your very eyes.

It was pointed out by director Nicholas Hytner to Bennett that the National Trust share more than just initials with the National Theatre and it was a peculiar sight to see the well-heeled audience hooting with delight as Bennett took less-than-veiled potshots at their ilk.

Ultimately it all felt rather like Bennett was having his cake and eating it too.

Still, always nice to hear Petula Clark singing DOWNTOWN.

No comments: