Friday, February 28, 2014


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.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Union Man...

Back in the 1990s and into the 2000s I used to frequent the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street.  It was a converted theatre space as it used to be a swimming pool and laundry yet!  To be honest no one ever went to the Bridewell to see great performances - I certainly saw some good ones but they were always a delightful surprise.  No, what one went to the Bridewell to see were productions of musicals that were too expensive and/or risky to ever appear in the West End.  The Bridewell closed to these productions in 2005.

I thought of the Bridewell last night on my way home from the Union Theatre as it seems to have taken it's place.  In almost as many weeks I have now seen two productions there and again both shows were ones that you would have to wait a long time to see in the West End.

The first show we saw there this year was the "Song By Song By Kander & Ebb" show THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND, the perfect show for a Sunday afternoon.
The show originated in 1991 when director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman and librettist David Thompson (who would all later collaborate on the Kander & Ebb show STEEL PIER) put together the show to run off-Broadway where it won several awards but it never moved either to Broadway or London as by the next year the duo had their new show KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN staged.  The bizarre thing is that what we saw in 2014 was the 1991 show despite the fact they have since written STEEL PIER, THE VISIT, CURTAINS and THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.  I think it would have been wiser to do a new show that could take in songs from these later productions.
So, once more into the CABARET and CHICAGO songbooks, dear friends, once more... The Union's set-up makes for a convoluted journey to your seat.  It is another 'reclaimed' space - once a paper warehouse - so after walking through it's narrow café (they call it a café, it's more like a passage with shelves on either side) you go into the bar at the back where you are given your numbered laminated tickets. They call numbers out in batches of ten so you can take your seats and give them back their laminated tickets!  I wonder - as I always do - why they can't just number their seats?  There was nearly a Queeny fight the afternoon we went to see the Kander & Ebb show over a disputed seat.  Oh and a handy tip... pee before you go otherwise you have to use the barnacled urinal.
But despite that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the show?  Hey what's not to love?  They are lovely songs and they were sung by a good cast - Susan Fay, Simon Green, Gareth Snook, Lisa Stokke and Emma Francis.  There was also a supporting company of five dancers (aka possible understudies) who clumped around the concrete floor charmingly.  The leads all had their moments to shine and were clapped enthusiastically by us, the small but happy audience.
Kirk Jameson directed and designed the show (it couldn't have taken long as it was only 5 chairs and some mirrors) and Sam Spencer Lane was responsible for the moves.  Enjoyable but it wasn't a patch on HOW LUCKY CAN YOU GET! which was a Kander & Ebb compilation which played at the Donmar (before it became "The Donmar") in 1988 with the astonishing cast of Diane Langton, Josephine Blake, Angela Richards and the late Martin Smith.  The set list was roughly the same but damn it was one to remember.
Which brings me to the problem I have with most shows these days, where are the real musical comedy performers who can elevate a show from adequate to memorable?  Most shows these days usually feel like you are watching an understudy call - and yes, I'm talking West End too.
Show after show seems to be cast from an endless pool of tour choruses, understudies and cruise ship dancers.  Not a bad thing if these can then be built on but the level stays the same - acres of anonymous performers who can smile and nod but who are incapable of throwing shade on a characterisation.  So, on to FINIAN'S RAINBOW...
All though it's a well-known name I suspect that's due to the lame film version, it's certainly not down to production history, the Union Theatre's production is it's first in London since 1947 - and that one only lasted 22 performances!!
The original book has been rewritten by Charlotte Moore who is the artistic director of the USA's Irish Repertory Theatre who revived it ten years ago.  The whimsy-fuelled story centred on Finian, an Irish immigrant, and his daughter Sharon arriving in the imagined state of Missitucky - although a major part of the plot is about living near Kentucky's Fort Knox.  Finian wants to bury a crock of gold near Fort Knox so it will grow (I know, I know) but is unaware that Og, the leprechaun he stole it from, is on his trail.  Sharon falls in love with a local lad but the community is being threatened by a racist senator who wants to buy up their land.
Plenty there to rewrite I agree but what is the actual reason?  Because Sharon makes a wish that the senator would understand what it's like to be hated while accidently holding the magic crock which grants wishes and the Senator turns black.  The original - and well-meaning - book-writers meant for this to show the Senator exactly what it's like to be poor and black - but no, it is now taken to mean that to be black is to be 'wrong'. 
So political correctness decrees the character now disappears only to turn up as a poor white man!  So no, don't rewrite the Leprechaun character, don't rewrite the idea that burying gold will make it grow out of the ground - don't even rewrite the profoundly irritating character of the ingénue who can't speak but dances her answers!
So as has happened so often before, we have an under-par book supporting a delightful score.  In an odd turn of events, the three break-out numbers from the score - "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?", "Look To The Rainbow", "Old Devil Moon" - follow one another at the start of the show and are of such a high quality that it's hard for the score to keep up that standard but it constantly surprises and enchants.  It's no wonder that Sondheim is a fan of E.Y. 'Yip' Harburg, his lyrics are always on the money and genuinely inspired - the second act opener "When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich" is great fun.
There are nice performances from James Horne as 'Finian', Christina Bennington as 'Sharon', Raymond Walsh as 'Og' and Joseph Peters as 'Woody' but the playing area is too cramped to fully contain the cast of 23 so it gives an uneven feeling when they all cram in together and start bellowing at the three rows of humble punters.  Believe me, there is nowhere to hide - apropos my earlier point, although the chorus all gave energetic and 'up' performances there wasn't much variation to their playing and in such a confined space their "teeth, tits and tonsils" approach was quite claustrophobic.
I guess if it's the fault of director Phil Willmott it's because he's such a fan of the show. So, despite all my ruminations, the bottom line is you are not going to see FINIAN'S RAINBOW on any West End stage anytime soon and for the score alone - and the named performers above - I suggest you get along to the Union Theatre where it is playing until 15th March.
I guess - to paraphrase Og's second act number - when I'm not near the show I love, I love the show I'm near.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Popcorn Play

A week or so ago I had a totally new theatrical experience.  Constant Reader I hear your cry "But what can that be?"  Well, I have finally been to see a NT Live screening.  And what a strange experience it was.

NT Live has been running for nearly five years but I have put off seeing one as the previous broadcasts have either been productions I have seen previously onstage or wasn't interested.  But here we had an interesting cast - Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus, Deborah Findlay as Volumnia and Mark Gatiss as Menenius - in a play that I had wanted to see again after having seen Ralph Fiennes' film version in 2012.  I was curious as to how to classify this: film or theatre?  But I boiled it down to the question "Would I chomp popcorn during a play?" So, film it is.
The Brixton Ritzy was packed with an interesting mix of older punters with glasses of wine and younger, media-types with bottles of wine.  Can you see a connection?  You could see we were the first-timers as we had bottles of Pepsi-Max.  There was an odd, jittery atmosphere in the auditorium as the screen showed us the Donmar audience taking their seats interspersed with 'trailers' for upcoming screenings (Owen shut his eyes during KING LEAR as we are seeing it actually onstage this week) and an introduction from Emma Freud.

To be honest I'm not sure what I should be talking about: the screen experience or the stage production. As a screen experience, the first thing that struck me was how strange it was to be seeing what the theatre audience was experiencing but with none of the inherent atmosphere you get, especially in such a small auditorium as the Donmar.  It was also odd at the end to have the actors take their bows to rapturous applause while we sat gawping.  My friends Sharon and Eamonn were seeing it in a cinema in West London and, again, it was odd to text her in the interval to chat about the theatre production we were watching but be miles apart!
The actual production was interesting but by the middle of the second act I had started to weary of it's sameness.  Was it because I was not actually there that I felt that?  Maybe.  Tom Hiddleston certainly gave an excellent performance, charismatic and nicely shaded.  During the play you feel Shakespeare becoming more and more fascinated with his lead character to the detriment of others and to be honest there were some very dodgy supporting performances here.  There is a real dearth of good supporting performers these days but I enjoyed Elliot Levey's duplicitous politician Brutus, happily engineering Coriolanus' downfall with his cohort Sicinia.  Oh yes, Sicinius has been given a sex change and is played by Katherine Schlesinger for no real reason but to up the actress rate and for the two nasty senators to share a snog.  Schlesinger actually was good but it reared unhappy memories of the transgender casting in the National's EDWARD II.
Hiddleston was better matched by Mark Gatiss' Menenius and Deborah Findlay's Volumnia.  Gatiss gave a fine performance as the peace-making senator who runs out of excuses for Coriolanus' behaviour and is ultimately let down by his friend while Findlay was in excellent form as Caius' mother Volumnia. 

A woman who has channelled all her ambition into her son, Volumnia is the one person Coriolanus cannot refuse and constantly pushes him: to become a senator, to suck up to the crowd and with the Senators, but who also seals his fate when she convinces him to turn back from over-running his native city of Rome.  Frustratingly, this climactic scene came across as flat and one-note, again leaving me to wonder was that the fault of Josie Rourke's direction or for the fact that the tension was dissipated by not being in the same room as the actors.  It certainly didn't have the power or the subtlety of playing that Vanessa Redgrave brought to the role of Volumnia in Fiennes' film.  The role of Virgilia, Coriolanus' wife is one of the least interesting of Shakespeare's women especially as she is over-shadowed by the character of Volumnia, but I liked the weary sadness of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.
I'm not sure the NT Live thing is something I would do too often but it is an excellent initiative to make these theatre productions truly national events.