Friday, July 31, 2015

PETER PAN: Welsh National Opera murder The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up

Every so often I see a production that reminds me that it is all a crapshoot.  You blow on the dice and give them a shake, throw them and see what comes out.

Last week I blew on the dice and gave them a shake = I went to the theatre and sat down
I threw them = the lights went down and the curtain went up
and saw what came out = watched in horror as a shiteous opera of PETER PAN took place.

I will name the guilty: Richard Ayres provided the bizarre, vaguely dissonant score while Lavinia Greenlaw provided the arid libretto and lyrics and the show was directed by Keith Warner in a breathtakingly cack-handed way.  It made me so angry I couldn't even sleep through it... just stare at it as if it had dropped off the ceiling.

It was a production without the slightest glimmer of wonder or magic, squashed onto an ugly set of two tunnels linked by a semi-circle of railway track which every so often will be used to send something along the track, most notably when the Darling children fly off to Neverland.

At the very end of the production, a train rolls along the tracks.  I can only presume it's a reference to Peter Llewellyn-Davies, one of the three little brothers who so enchanted J.M. Barrie, who threw himself in front of one at Sloane Square Station in 1960 aged only 63.  I can only surmise he saw an early version of this load of old cock.

Yes the real life story behind the writing of PETER PAN is strange and tragic but this was so inept it could only make only this specious reference to it.

The only performer of any merit was Marie Arnet as Wendy whose pure soprano voice made one sit up and listen during the odd aria but that was it.

Luckily they allowed me to tell them what I thought because in the famous "clap if you believe in fairies" scene which was here made more twatty by Peter saying to the audience make a noise if you believe in them I happily blew the biggest raspberry I could.

I guess a positive was that it was just about 2 hours, but sadly I will never get them back.  I guess I can complement the programme which has interesting articles on Barrie and the psychology of his writing.

This was so woeful I even pined for Bonnie Langford in PETER PAN: THE MUSICAL, now *that*s saying something.  By the way, the first time I saw PETER PAN on stage was when I saw Hayley Mills play it in 1969 at the Victoria Palace.  I must try and find a programme for that somewhere.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY: Marber can't stay for the month

Much has been made of Patrick Marber's 'writer's block' which has meant that his new play THE RED LION is his first since 2006.  Well it would appear the genie is out of the bottle now and residing at the National Theatre.

His play about semi-professional football THE RED LION is currently playing at the Dorfman auditorium, he had a hand in sprucing up Farquhar's THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM at the Olivier and now he is featured at the Lyttelton with his adaptation of Turgenyev's 'A Month In The Country' here re-named THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY.  Marber obviously is too busy to write a whole month!

I had seen a production before back in 1988 with Celia Imrie, Helen Fraser, Faith Kent and Sophie Thompson but could remember little about it but that it featured silly people falling in love with all the wrong people but this production (directed also by Marber) peels back layers to reveal the sad, lonely people behind the comic situations.

Natalya is married to Arkadi, a rich landowner, and they have a loving son Kolya but she longs for something more, something out of touch, a secret, exciting experience.  She flirts with the family friend Rakitin who hangs around primarily in the hope that she will finally take him seriously but Natalya's dream of excitement arrives in the shape of Belyaev, a young tutor for Natalya's pretty ward Vera.  But of course, he is also the object of affection for Vera too...

The initial frivolous nature turns more serious as Natalya tries to make her wishes become reality and her actions start to impact on those around her.  Sometimes you shouldn't wish too hard...

I must admit that after a stressful day at work the first act rather floored me and I found myself drifting but then found that the effect of Owen drifting too made me concentrate and focus, and I like what I saw very much.  Marber's adaptation is crisp and clean, the relationships quickly established among the large cast of characters and at times it was obvious that this was the same writer as CLOSER as the characters found it very easy to say what they hated about those who they are supposed to love.

The real surprise of the show is the abstract set by Mark Thompson, a bare stage - and the Lyttelton is a large stage - with a set that mostly consists of see-through plastic walls and a free-floating red door with the cast seated around the back of the stage, ready to make their entrances if and when.  Neil Austin's subtle lighting also contributes towards the overall delicate feel of the production.

The big casting coup of the show is to have tv names John Simm as Rakitin and Mark Gatiss as snobbish local doctor Shpigelsky who becomes embroiled in Natalya's attempts to steer Vera away from her tutor.

Simm usually leaves me cold but here he was excellent, giving a vinegary performance as Rakitin, knowing he will get nowhere with Natalya but hanging around just in case.  Gatiss also gave a delightfully characterful performance as the disdainful doctor, all too aware of his shortcomings, who after careful consideration proposes marriage to Lizaveta, the plain companion of Arkadi's mother.

This delightful scene was superbly played by Gatiss and Debra Gillett, a comedy of embarrassment as painful to endure as anything Mike Leigh could have thought up - especially when Gatiss' back gives out making him hobble and crawl around the stage while proposing!  The cast also bristles with marvellous performances: Lily Sacofsky is a real find as Vera who finds her first vision of love is flawed, Gawn Grainger as a gruff German tutor, Cherrelle Skeete as Katya, the family maid also on the lookout for love and escape and it was nice to see Lynn Farleigh as Arkadi's disapproving mother.

But for me the performance of the evening was Amanda Drew as Natalya.  This is a role that could easily have been given to a starrier name but Drew effortlessly pinpoints the character's restlessness, wanting more out of life than just being a wife or mother and in particular, her final scenes of distress in the face of the collapse of her dreams was wonderfully judged and more effective for seemingly coming out of nowhere.

Despite being a bit noddy at the start of the play, I was won over by the exquisite performances and Marber's back-to-basics production.  I am thinking a second visit may just be on the cards....  It is highly recommended for anyone who would like an intelligent but moving evening.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Matthew Bourne's THE CAR MAN: Desire and Diesel

Can it really be eight years since I last saw Matthew Bourne's THE CAR MAN at Sadler's Wells, his inspired cut & shunt of CARMEN and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE?  Yep and almost to the day.  It was wonderful to experience it's potent power again.

Bourne is my favourite choreographer and his productions always excite and delight by the intriguing combination of stark Laban dance techniques but mixed with a musical theatre knack for story-telling and character.  Sometimes productions can veer to opposite sides of the spectrum such as the overly-characterised EDWARD SCISSORHANDS or the po-faced DORIAN GRAY but when the combination is right there is no-one to touch him and THE CAR MAN is an excellent example.

Premiering in 2000, the show is Bourne's own tribute to the film noir genre of sexy, dangerous sirens being unfaithful to patsy husbands with bruised, brooding blue-collar men which inevitably leads to murder.  Bourne had been asked to take on Bizet's CARMEN which he resisted but when he heard Rodion Schedrin's 40 minute version of the score for the Bolshoi ballet he was intrigued by it.  He turned to composer and arranger Terry Davies to re-orchestrate parts of the score that Scherin hadn't used in a similar style which gave him a complete ballet.

Set in the fictional desert town of Harmony, the action takes place around Dino's Diner and Garage where the slovenly owner runs a troupe of tough mechanics who relentlessly pick on the secretly gay hired help Angelo.  Add to all this the Diner's waitress Rita, who harbours a longing for Angelo and Dino's sexy and bored wife Lana and you know trouble's a-comin' - and it arrives in the lean, mean shape of Luca, a drifter who appears in the town and answers Lana's Man Wanted sign in every way.

Soon Lana and Angelo have both succumbed to Luca and the pressure-cooker finally blows when Dino is killed by Lana and Luca who frame Angelo as the killer.  Finally together, Lana and Luca have to face the consequences of their actions when Angelo escapes....

Bizet's eternally-thrilling, choon-packed score zings along, the ominous Fate Motif appearing every so often to signal that a dangerous corner lies ahead for our principals and although I had seen it before, I was gripped by the excellent performances and Bourne's propulsive, muscular choreography driving the story along to it's inevitable conclusion.

As always, Lez Brotherston's set and costume design makes the show dazzling to see as does Chris Davey's lighting design.  The ensemble were as excellent as any Bourne production has been, thrilling in their company routines and individually when given the opportunity, like Pia Driver as the slinky hostess of a nightclub and Kate Lyons, Andrew Monaghan and Dan Wright as the club's beatnik dance act.

It was a particular joy to see Alan Vincent as garage-owner Dino as when we first saw the show in 2007, Vincent played the title role of Luca.  As well as the beatnik club dancer, Kate Lyons also played innocent Rita the lovelorn waitress and it was again a delight to see another Bourne favourite Dominic North as the hapless Angelo.  North played Edward Scissorhands both times I have seen it as well as the hero Leo in SLEEPING BEAUTY and The Prince in the 2009 revival of SWAN LAKE and in the 2007 CAR MAN he was in the ensemble.  Now in the featured role of Angelo he was excellent.

In the roles of the dangerous lovers Luca and Lana were Christopher Trenfield and Zizi Strallen and they brought a tortured, sexy elegance to the roles.  But they did not quite equal the propulsive chemistry of Alan Vincent and Michaela Meazza in the 2007 production.

I loved having the chance to see this great production again and, as it was being filmed the night I went, hopefully it won't be long before possibly seeing it again.

Here is a nice interview with Matthew Bourne explaining about his production, enjoy!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The BEAUX' STRATAGEM at the Olivier Theatre: Love On The Run

In the early 1700s, Derry-born George Farquhar was one of the most successful comic playwrights, his writing reaching it's peak in 1706 with THE RECRUITING OFFICER and in 1707 with THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM.  Tragically, he was dead two months after the latter opened, aged only 30.

Farquhar always struggled financially - in 1703 he even married an older woman who had led him to believe was wealthy only to discover the reverse after the ceremony.  His friend, the Irish actor Robert Wilkes, visited him at the start of 1707 and found him again in penury and badly ill.  Wilks gave him money and suggested writing a play, the result was THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM, it's success being even more remarkable bearing in mind the condition it was written under.

I had never seen it before so was looking forward to the new production at the Olivier.  I ultimately found it a little too wearing for it's own good but Farquhar's imagination and sense of fun shine through.  Bearing in mind Farquhar's personal troubles, the main plot could not have been more relevant to him but equally topical to us 308 years later.

Two London friends Aimwell and Archer are in a jam.  They are down to their last £200 and have fled to the provinces to escape the shame of their near penury.  However they have a plan: they will tour provincial cities, in each new one swapping roles as master and servant, until they each find a wealthy woman to marry so they can return to London again and use her money to live on.

They arrive in Lichfield and quickly discover that up at 'the big house' lives wealthy (and unmarried) Dorinda along with her mother Lady Bountiful, her brother the dissolute Squire Sullen and her sister-in-law Kate.  Mrs Sullen is originally from London and is discovering her marriage to a boorish husband is an unhappy trap.

A glimpse of Aimwell at church gets Dorinda interested so Mrs Sullen invites 'servant' Archer to their house to find out who his master is.  They don't get much out of him but the visit results in an instant attraction between Kate and Archer.  Add into the mix the two Londoners being mistaken for highwaymen which leads to a real highwayman threatening them, a French officer held prisoner in the Londoner's Inn, an Irish priest in disguise as a French priest, a miserable servant and a swaggering barmaid and you have the makings of a 'romp'.

Farquahar's text has been re-jigged by playwright Patrick Marber to make it punchier and to also include several folk music moments.  Director Simon Godwin has ramped up the farcical runnings around but this is sadly to the detriment of the wordplay which is sometimes thrown away hurriedly to run up and down another flight of stairs.

What the production does get right is Lizzie Clachan's ingenious standing set which cleverly transforms from the tatty Lichfield Inn to the refined decorations to the country home of Lady Bountiful and the Sullens.  Michael Bruce's folky musical interludes are fun and usually include a musician popping up somewhere on the multi-level set, Archer's 'trifle' song in particular is annoyingly catchy!

The performances were mostly good but I found Pippa Bennett-Warner's Dorinda badly performed, her amateurish strangled twittering of the lines driving me to distraction.  It was all the more pronounced next to the delightful Mrs Sullen of Susannah Fielding.

Fielding is an actress who I have not always liked before but here she sparkled, her high spirits and teasing sense of humour mitigated by her sadness in being trapped in a loveless marriage.  It was a role that Maggie Smith made a huge success in when the National Theatre was based at the Old Vic and while Fielding was not in that class, she captured well the tears behind the joy.

As Aimwell, Samuel Barnett seemed oddly muted but that could possibly be that he was playing opposite the human-Catherine-Wheel that was Geoffrey Streatfeild's Archer.  Fresh from his triumph as the outrageous Daniel in MY NIGHT WITH REG, Streatfeild was a sheer delight as Archer,a dynamo of physical energy, be it running up and down stairs, dancing, sliding across the stage and his delivery of his saucy lines was as frantic but paced well enough to get the best laughs.

He was complemented by fine supporting performances from Lloyd Hutchinson as Boniface the grubby landlord of the Inn, Amy Morgan as his feisty daughter Cherry and Richard Henders was needlingly nasty as the appropriately named Sullen.  But the best supporting performance was the always reliable Pearce Quigley as the depressed servant Scrub.  Pining for the capricious maid Gypsy and hating himself for it, Quigley was a comic delight.

On the whole I did enjoy the production which was shot through with good humour but finding space for Farquhar's plea for common sense in relationships as illustrated in the final scene when Sullen and Kate state their unhappiness with each other and both agree to go their separate ways.

Here is the trailer which includes the catchy trifle song!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

CINDERELLA - Dutch National Ballet at the Coliseum

Over a week ago we continued our investigation into seeing new things with another visit to the matchless Matcham-designed London Coliseum.

Last time it was to see operetta with Mike Leigh's PIRATES OF PENZANCE but now it was to see Prokofiev's CINDERELLA performed by the Dutch National Ballet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.  The production was first performed in Holland in 2012 and this was it's UK premiere.

It was odd to think I was listening to the same score that inspired Matthew Bourne's re-imagined version a few years ago that updated it to WWII London which was bold, imaginative and visually striking.  This was... pretty, and occasionally visually striking.

It was certainly sweepingly romantic but as usual with this style of ballet,  I found it's form to be a barrier stopping any enjoyment on my part.  Call it the Isadora Duncan in me.  I can appreciate the technique but not the emotion, I can appreciate the production but see no passion. 

I certainly could appreciate Julian Crouch's set and costume design, in particular the ball scene where the corps' costumes were various shades of blue, lilac and violet - Cinderella singularly flouting the dress code by wearing a little gold number. The settings were suitably palatial and pastoral for the scenes around the massive tree that grows by the grave of Cinderella's mother.  I also liked Natasha Katz' atmospheric lighting.

Basil Twist should also be mentioned for his clever - if slightly too long - transformation scene which closed the first act, Cinderella vanishing into the truck of the tree as a collection of nymphs, bird people and tree gnomes cavorted before she reappeared with a billowing white silk train which became the coach.

I can't say any of the dancers stood out as exceptional but they were all good at what they did.  Christopher Wheeldon's choreography was fluid and suitably traditional for this to stay in repertoires for a long time and I have to admit the big romantic pas de deux was very good.  He has just won a Tony award for his choreography for the Broadway production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and I can certainly see how his romantic style would fit that production.

One moment which sticks out - more as an image than for any specific choreography - was the start of the third act when a row of palace chairs were placed along the front of the stage for various characters - including a wood gnome and the Prince's equerry - to sit out their turn at trying on the glass slipper.  When they all fled at the Prince's exasperation the chairs were all whisked upwards to hang in a surreal fashion over the rest of the scene.  It didn't add much to the story but was certainly visually arresting.

The Prince was featured a lot in this production, showing him growing up unhappy in the rigidity of court life, but it struck me that this seemed to borrow from Bourne's SWAN LAKE scenario and also that, in truth, the least interesting character in CINDERELLA is actually the Prince!

I'm glad I saw it as an experiment in dance but ultimately found that I had more of an emotional connection to Bourne's version of the ballet.

Sad to report yet another twat audience member in the row in front of us forgot he was sitting in a theatre when about 10 minutes into the production he turned on his mobile phone and proceeded to turn it on and off intemittently.  That is until a woman a few seats down from us gave him a swift jab in the shoulder.  He did turn it off but then was so enthralled in the action that, by the second interval, he and his two children were fast asleep as his wife sat and glowered at the stage.

And again, where were the bloody ushers to do the job they are paid to do?  Probably bitching about the Wicked Stepmother's port de bras on the stairs outside and picking their teeth with the used ticket stubs.

Friday, July 17, 2015


After last year's Paulian conversion to the joys of the Globe Theatre in Southwark, it looks like the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, it's newish intimate indoor theatre, won't be too far behind... but with some qualifications.

At the start of the year, Owen set down a challenge that maybe we should see things this year which we might not ordinarily see.  ALL THE ANGELS seemed to fit that brief: a 3-hander about Handel's writing of his Messiah oratorio with extracts sung by a professional choir.  I honestly had no idea what I would experience when entering the toy theatre-like interior.

Sadly what I experienced was the audience sitting directly opposite me and the top of the actors' wigs whenever they moved to the prompt side of the stage.  The only tickets Owen could nab were in the second row at the side looking down onto the stage so if you are ever planning a trip to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse do not sit in the Upper Gallery, Row DB.  Yes the tickets were marked as Restricted View, but this was taking the piss!  If you do have these seats, best resign yourself to treating it like listening to a radio play.  However we did have an excellent view across onto the musician's gallery for the musicians and the occasional appearance of the choir.

However, this did not deter Owen from coming out of the Playhouse all a-buzz so when I got home, I decided to check the website for the following day's performance which also happened to be the last.  Astonishingly there were 2 seats in the main section facing directly onto the stage!  Whoever returned those tickets, thank you, as these ones allowed me to fully enjoy Nick Drake's new play.  So I shall base my review on this performance where I could see all the actors (all 3 of them) all of the time!

An Irish chancer nicknamed Crazy Crow, sets the scene by placing props around the stage and telling us that we were about to see how the composer Handel premiered his Messiah oratorio in a concert hall in Dublin.  During his research, Drake found an illustration of a musicians' porter called Crazy Crow - bedecked with musical instruments - and all he could find out about him was that he doubled as a 'resurrectionist' aka grave-robber.  It is through this intriguing character that Drake can find a way in to the real-life backstage drama by having him as our narrator.

Proving that life is like fiction (and that art is like life) Handel's travails sound like any number of putting-on-a-show stories.  In 1742, German-born composer George Handel, already a UK Citizen for 15 years and with an income from royal patronage, found himself at an artistic impasse.  His operas were no longer popular and although he could compose in a variety of styles, he was out of favour.  

However the reclusive writer Charles Jennens remained a devoted admirer of his work and continued to send him librettos for free.  One of these was Messiah, his melding of Old and New Testament texts which he hoped would invigorate belief in religion, now being assailed by rationalist debate.  To his frustration Handel let 18 months go by before he did anything with it, only dusting it off when an invitation to perform a new work in Dublin arrived to lift him out of his artistic slump.

He wrote the music for Messiah in three weeks and, stuck in Chester due to bad weather while travelling to Ireland, he rehearsed it above an inn with a local church choir who sadly did not come up to the maestro's exacting standards.  Any worries about his reception in Dublin however were forgotten when he was warmly received by William Cavendish, the 3rd Duke of Devonshire who was the King's envoy.

Handel decided he needed a second soprano to complement the Italian diva he had hired and, as fortune would have it, a solution presented itself by the presence in Dublin of the English actress and singer Susannah Cibber.  

Again, in a scenario straight out backstage stories, Cibber had come to Dublin to try and revive her career damaged by a recent sex-scandal trial.  Her dissolute husband had attempted to pimp her to his creditors to pay his debts but she had fallen in love with one of them and they set up house together.  Her husband then sued them but the judge had found against him but Susannah's reputation was in tatters.  So she accepted an acting season in Dublin which is where Handel hired her for his premiere - what a perfect case of stunt casting - the sex scandal actress singing in a pious oratorio.

Handel rehearsed her continually to get her to lose her stagey mannerisms and diction and to sing his arias with a pure power.  He also relentlessly rehearsed his chorus, trying to get them to appreciate that while they were 'merely' a chorus they were also the narrators of the piece, that they were the voices of "all the angels".  Of course it was a huge success, re-establishing both Handel and Susannah Cibber to popularity and it has continued to be sung down the years.
Drake's play was involving and fast-moving through the various set-backs and successes of the premiere and at one point seemed to channel Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS when Crazy Crow described the physical sensation of hearing the Messiah for the first time, how profoundly he was moved but also how it angered him: that he should experience this beauty but then have to go back to a life of deprivation and squalor.  The play was made better by the moments when The Portrait Choir (the resident choir of the National Portrait Gallery) sang parts of the Messiah to illustrate and counter-point the action.

Surrounded by the glow of many candles, the black and gold Playhouse stage glittered like a Restoration jewel-box.  The Playhouse stage with it's close proximity to the steeply-banked audience calls for a bravura style of performance as there is nowhere to hide and we certainly got that for the cast of three actors.

David Horovitch excelled as the gruff and demanding Handel and elicited plenty of laughs while also maintaining his Hanoverian accent with skill, his unrelenting pursuit of perfection slowly being explained by a recent brush with death.  Kelly Price held her own against him as Susannah Cibber, capturing well Susannah's anxiety of being upstaged by her opera singer rival while fighting her fear of performing without her usual actressy tricks.

Sean Campion was excellent in the supporting roles of the reclusive librettist Charles Jennens (even in the 18th Century the writer felt that the composer got all the glory), the effusive and urbane William Cavendish, and in particular, as narrator Crazy Crow, capturing your attention from the start with his crashing up through the stage trapdoor and drawing us into the story with his mocking view of the precious artists who have none of his struggles to survive.

Jonathan Munby follows up his recent success directing Jonathan Pryce in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Pryce was in attendance on our second visit to the show) with a delightful production that balanced the profundity of the composition with the hilarity of trying to stage a show and it also benefited from Mike Britton's costume design.

It's a shame that the production didn't have more performances in it's run but hopefully it might return at some point and it certainly deserves to be filmed for a wider audience to enjoy the play and performances.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT rocks the National Theatre

I first heard of Stephen Adly Guirgis' provocatively-titled THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT when it opened on Broadway in 2011 when initial scepticism that the show would not find an audience for it's limited run were overturned when the show opened to good reviews and excellent word-of-mouth.

So when it was announced that the play would be among the first of Rufus Norris' opening season as National Theatre director, I booked.  I also wanted an excuse to say MOTHERFUCKER in a blog.  And I liked the poster design.

I was more than a little worried that Owen would sit through it with a gob as he has professed he finds it hard to like plays with unsympathetic characters - and all the characters in the play have their flaws - but figured that a playing time of 1 hour 45 minutes would make it palatable.

I have only seen one Adly Guirgis play before when in 2002, his prison drama JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN appeared at the Arts Theatre directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and produced by among others a certain Mrs Madonna Ritchie.  Can you guess now why I saw it?  I remember it being vaguely well written but not too much else about it.

In this new play the playwright presents us with a group of characters who are also dealing in extreme circumstances, mostly of their own design.

Jackie is getting his life together: out of jail, no longer dealing drugs and is clean and sober.  Okay there is the slight problem that his longtime lover Veronica is a coke-user with an explosive temper but Jackie has an AA sponsor who is keeping him focused on his recovery programme.  The really good news is that he has found a full-time job and after telling Veronica they decide to have sex to celebrate.  While she has a shower, Jackie gets the bed ready... and that's when he sees the hat.  The hat that is not his.  This one discovery catapults Jacky into a fit of jealousy that rivals Othello and he will not rest until he punishes it's owner.

This misplaced hat sets off a chain of expletive-driven events which draws in the AA sponsor Ralph, Ralph's disdainful wife Victoria and Jackie's Cousin Julio, a masseuse who also knows how to be stand up for himself thanks to a love of Van Damme movies.

The remarkable thing about this play is that Adly Guirgis subtly pulls the rug out from under your feet while you watch it.  After the discovery of the hat I thought "Oh I know what this is going to be like" but found this initial viewpoint being changed: yes the protagonists do stupid things - mostly to other people - but they are all so vividly drawn - and allowed the space to explain themselves - that by the end, they no longer seem cartoon-like but more like fully-rounded and sadly flawed people.

Indhu Rubasingham has given us a production that whips along like an A Train with only a slight longeur in the final confrontation between Jackie and the owner of the hat (I won't spoil it for you) but that was forgiven by a final scene between Jackie and Veronica, again set up to make you expect one conclusion but that suddenly delivers a moment of genuine pathos.  She is helped by an excellent cast who feel less like actors than a bunch of New Yorkers who have been let loose on the Lyttelton stage to argue and occasionally show affection.

There are three American actors in the cast who bring a whiff of Hell's Kitchen to the stage: Ricardo Chaviro was great as Jackie, trying to keep clean but flirting with disaster in his clumsy attempts at revenge but able to turn on a dime to show the hidden fear hidden by the bravado.  Flor De Liz Perez was delightfully volcanic as Veronica - imagine a *more* volcanic Rosie Perez and you are halfway there towards her performance of a woman whose salty language is always her first line of defence.  How much does she love Jackie?  Well she would kick a three-legged kitten down a flight of stairs for him.  Now *that's* love.

The two UK actors in the cast are Alec Newman, delightfully annoying as Ralph the always positive AA sponsor who turns out to be just as desperate to hang onto sobriety in the face of his wife's indifference to his love of nutrition-based health drinks and psycho-babble while Nathalie Armin was a basilisk of disdain as Victoria.

Luckily the production has Yul Vásquez as the enigmatic Cousin Julio, a role he played on Broadway for which he was nominated for a Tony Award.  Jackie always turns to the outwardly calm Julio when in his direst need but Julio is under no illusions that Jackie actually likes him.  In a memorable scene, Julio confronts Jackie with this knowledge but then follows up his accusations with the reason he will always be there for Jackie which is as touching as it is unexpected.  Vásquez provided an oasis of calm and humour in a desert of scorched relationships.

The production also gains from having an excellent set design by Robert Jones, the play's three interiors silently slide out of darkness when needed as three floating fire-escape walkways configure for each scene, silently bringing to life the urban setting of the play.  Equal applause goes to Oliver Fenwick's lighting.

After the dreary, over-produced LIGHT SHINING ON BUCKINGHAMSHIRE on the same stage, this is an exciting way for Norris to show what his tenure at the National might be like.  I can't recommend this play enough, you'd be a motherfucker to miss it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

TEMPLE at the Donmar - Beale appeal

Although he has made frequent visits to the West End, Simon Russell Beale has primarily been one of the jewels in Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre crown.  But now we have Rufus Norris taking over the NT top job and in his first season there appears to be nothing for Beale.

I am sure he will be back there again but for the time being he is exploring other stages; later this year he will be in a new play at Hampstead but recently he has returned to a favourite venue, the Donmar, in a new play TEMPLE.

Steve Waters' play reminded me of the ad lines that used to accompany real-life film dramas in the 1950s - "Ripped From Today's Headlines" they would proclaim.  OK so the Occupy London protest wasn't yesterday nor the day before but it's close enough to remember the febrile atmosphere that surrounded the whole event.  

In October 2011, the anti-capitalist Occupy London protesters, blocked from protesting outside the Stock Exchange, pitched up instead outside St Pauls Cathedral for four months.  Eventually it all broke up after action by The City of London Corporation but as is often the case in third-party areas drawn into a conflict, the Cathedral found itself coming off the worst.  The Canon Chancellor resigned in sympathy with the protesters saying the Cathedral was siding with the wrong side and the Dean of St Pauls later resigned after being criticised in the Cathedral's anti-protester stance.  This is the background of the fictionalised version in TEMPLE.

It's the morning after the late-night meeting in the St Pauls' Chapter House where it has been decided that St. Pauls is to be re-opened after the Dean ordered it's doors closed a week ago for "health and safety reasons".  Far from restoring order this is the catalyst for more soul-searching by Simon Russell Beale's Dean as he comes under increasing pressure to show his colours to a society that seems to demand black and white positions rather than his more considered approach.

Helping and hindering him in the 90 minute lead-up to the morning's press conference are Anna Calder-Marshall's no-nonsense Virger, Paul Higgins' Canon Chancellor who announces his resignation on Twitter, Rebecca Humphries' temp PA who has hidden depths, Shereen Martin's City of London lawyer - all iPad, high heels and cold-heart - and Malcolm Sinclair's Bishop of London, adept at playing the media game and seeking no dramas at all.

All the supporting cast were fine but Malcolm Sinclair was excellent as the patrician Bishop, exasperating his Dean with his thorough knowledge of social media yet mindful of the importance of the position of the church.  The female roles felt like caricatures - in particular the City lawyer and the gormless PA temp - which sat uneasily with the more nuanced arguments about church and society.  Humphries in particular had the Devil's own job making sense of the PA - one minute a comedy klutz, next minute a wise and shrewd adviser to the Dean.

But it was Simon Russell Beale who shone most brilliantly as the conflicted Dean.  His trademark delivery of waspish, needling put-downs - weighting a single word in a line so it lands with the precision of a poison dart - was thoroughly utilised but he suggested this was the Dean's way to keep the encroaching world of sound bytes and instant judgements at bay.  He made the character of the Dean totally three-dimensional, both intellectually and emotionally.

It was a surprise to find the Dean handled so sympathetically as you would expect the idealistic Canon Chancellor to be the one to be held up as having right on his side but in a moment of quiet intensity, the Dean says to him "You are a vain man" - Beale's sorrowful, pained delivery making it the emotional highpoint of the play.

As usual there was incisive directing by Howard Davies and a carefully-detailed set from Tim Hatley contributed to the production but ultimately I felt it was a play that seemed too full of ideas, more a debate on the place of religion in society today than a successful drama that built on that theory.  That doesn't however take away from the quiet desperation at the heart of Simon Russell Beale's memorable performance.