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!