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Promises, Promises

Though it was revived on Broadway in 2010, this Neil Simon / Bacharach & David musical hasn’t been seen here since its 1969 London premiere. It’s based on Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 five Oscar winning film The Apartment featuring Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine. It may be the only musical to feature a Personnel Director!

In case you’ve never seen the film, the story concerns Chuck, a young insurance company employee who helps his career by loaning his apartment to senior executives’ for their affairs. When the Personnel Director Sheldrake becomes his fifth ‘customer’, he gets his promotion, but Sheldrake insists on exclusivity, so the other four turn on him. Then he realises Sheldrake’s mistress is Fran, the object of his own affections. With men lusting after girls young enough to be their daughters, what may have been just amusing c. 50 years ago seems more lecherous and distasteful today. It changes tone in the second half when these behaviours suddenly become unacceptable, seedy men are put in their place and true love wins.

Given the pedigree of the song-writing pair, the score is a bit of a disappointment. The best known song in the original production was I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, a hit for Dionne Warwick, but the Broadway revival added two other Bacharach & David hits – Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home – to their one and only musical score. Neil Simon’s book is pretty good though, but at just under three hours it’s desperately in need of some cuts, particularly in the longer first half. They could start with dumping the incongruous numbers Turkey Lurkey Time in the office Christmas party scene and A Young Pretty Girl Like You, when Chuck and the doctor are trying to cheer up their ‘patient’ Fran.

Simon Wells’ design and costumes capture the sixties faithfully (but he needs to do something about the dodgy door!). It’s a good ensemble, with Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood a fine pair of leads. There’s excellent support from John Guerrasio as the doctor and a terrific cameo from Alex Young as Marge. Paul Robinson makes a good baddie (and a believable Personnel Director, and I should know!).

It has dated more than its contemporaries, its overlong, the two contrasting halves seem like they might be from different shows and it doesn’t live up to the standards of its writers / composers, but I’m a fan of all three and I’m very glad I had the chance to catch it.

Us/Them

This little gem comes to the National from Belgium via the Edinburgh fringe. Good to see the NT hosting an overseas company again.

Writer / director Carly Wijs’ highly original play tells the story of the Beslan siege through the eyes of the children, played by just two young actors, Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, both terrific. They create the footprint of the school with chalk on a black floor and begin by telling us where everything is and where everyone was at the beginning of the morning on the swelteringly hot first day of school. They then explain events as they unfold in a very factual and, well, childlike way. They stretch string back and forth the stage to show how the gym was wired with bombs. Numbers play a big part, written in chalk on the back wall. They describe both the actions of the hostages (us) and their captors (them).They re-enact the rescue, through to their trip to hospital and their joy at their fifteen minutes of fame.

The performances capture every nuance of the behaviour of children, laying it out logically, factually and unemotionally. The combination of innocence, curiosity and obsession with certain facts and details is authentic, charming and moving. It’s mostly told looking straight at the audience, but at times dance-like movement is used very effectively. It might sound odd when I say that a play about a dreadful tragedy is beautiful and captivating, but that’s what it is.

There’s nothing like a bit of nostalgia to liven up a dull January. Co-incidentally, I’d recently been listening to some of the 147 episodes of this 1962-77 radio comedy on BBC 4 Extra and had been struck by how funny it still was 40-55 years on. It pre-dates Yes Minister, which didn’t appear until three years after it ended, and may well be the first satire on the civil service. It even led to Finnish, Swedish and South African versions (where it was also made into a film)!

The same team that so successfully brought us Round the Horne Revisited have now taken two classic scripts (neither if which I’d heard) of this other radio show from a similar period and recreated the studio recordings, script in hand, sound affects stage right, in the same fashion. The General Assistance Department helps out other ministries when they’re overloaded. In the first episode, Lennox-Brown (Number One) and Lamb (Number Two) end up orbiting the earth in a US spacecraft having been asked to help the Americans but instead stifling them with bureaucracy. It’s delightfully barmy. In the second they are helping the Ministry of Defence when a pile of old junk gets confused for a new weapon, is copied by the Russians and becomes the focus of a disarmament deal. Just as barmy, but also very funny.

Stephen Critchlow and Robin Sebastian are great as One and Two respectively, with Sydney Stevenson an absolute delight as their secretary Mildred. Looming over them all is their boss Sir Gregory Pitkin, a terrific turn from Jon Glover. Harold Wilson makes a couple of appearances, created by the excellent David Benson, who also plays a number of other roles, and brilliantly authentic announcer Charles Armstrong also provides a few cameos. There are some fluffs, asides and ad libs which add to the live recording feel. Brian Cooke has adapted the scripts he wrote with the series creator Edward Taylor and Jonnie Mortimer and Michael Kingsbury directs, as he did the earlier show. 

I suspect this too will be a success and transfer. It’s perfect for those of us of a certain age, but there were lots in the audience who can’t have been around to hear it on the radio first time round, and they appeared to be having as much of a ball as I was.

When booking opened for this I decided I didn’t need another Peter Pan. Then I realised it was the same team who brought a brilliant Jane Eyre to this very stage. Need became want and all willpower was lost. A good decision and a brilliant 12th night ending to the festive season.

Visually grungy but colourful, all scrapyard and striped pyjamas, Michael Vale & Katie Sykes design gives it a home-made feel. A huge metal frame, to facilitate flying with people as counter-balances, fills the Olivier. There’s a giant white brick wall at the back, with holes smashed through for two spaces for musicians and action. It looks like Jackson Pollock painted the floor, in one of his more cheerful, colourful moments. When the pirate ship sails in, we all gasped. The look is terrific.

Without messing with J M Barrie’s story, Dramaturg Mike Akers and director Sally Cookson have somehow enhanced both the playfulness and the morality of the tale. There’s a great rock and reggae infused score by Benji Bower, with the lost boys food song an absolute joy. The whole thing has been developed by the company and it shows in a tightly knit ensemble.

Anna Francolini is excellent as both Mrs Darling and Captain Hook, played by a woman as Barrie apparently originally intended. I adored Felix Hayes characterisation of Mr Darling (he also plays Smee and a lost boy). Madeleine Worrall is a delight as Wendy, with Marc Antolin and John Pfumojena equally delightful as John and Michael. Paul Hilton is an unlikely Peter but he makes it his own. Saikat Ahamed’s Tinker Bell is an extraordinary interpretation, as is Ekow Quartey as Nana the dog nanny. You can’t help falling in love with the pyjama-clad lost boys, some with brightly coloured woolly jumpers and hats.

It’s a long way from the National’s classic Peter Pan exactly 20 years ago (with Ian McKellern, Jenny Agutter, Daniel Evans, Alec McCowan and Clive Rowe!) and in many ways more magical. Another import from / co-production with the very enterprising Bristol Old Vic. Great stuff.

Hedda Gabler

At the end of this play I was convinced Partick Marber’s ‘version’ was substantially different to Ibsen’s original. Then I read the synopsis and discovered it wasn’t. It’s contemporary not just in setting and dress, but also in dialogue and behaviour. The only thing that jarred with the contemporary was the guns, but even that wouldn’t have in the US. The combination of Marber, director Ivo van Hove and the mesmerising Ruth Wilson proves irresistible.

The newly married Tesmans return from honeymoon to their new home, which does indeed look as if they’re in the process of moving in. It doesn’t take long before we realise it’s a loveless marriage (well, at least on Hedda’s part) and the contrast between the coldness of George & Hedda’s relationship and the warmth of the relationship between George and his aunt Juliana, who brought him up, is striking. Lovborg, George’s former colleague, now competitor, was once in love with Hedda and is now in a relationship with her school friend Thea. Brack, a judge, is in lust with Hedda. Despite the fact Lovborg has cleared the way for Tesman’s professorship, Hedda still spikes his career in loyalty to her husband, and his relationship with Thea, perhaps through jealousy. The knowledge that Brack has a hold on her propels the play to its tragic conclusion.

It feels slow at first but when it gets going it becomes broodingly intense and eventually feels like a contemporary Scandinavian thriller. The vast one-room set adds to this atmosphere and there is some striking imagery, not least the way the light changes from dawn to sunrise through the French windows and the physicality of Hedda stapling flowers to the walls and virtually attacking the blinds. There were things I didn’t really get, most notably the continual presence of maid Berte, even illogically acknowledging her presence; she wasn’t an actor sitting on the side-lines but she wasn’t a character all of the time. It’s hard to take your eyes off Ruth Wilson, even when action and interactions are elsewhere; she is such a spellbinding presence. That said, it’s a fantastic cast with Kyle Soller’s earnest but naïve George and a very maternal Juliana from Kate Duchene. Brack’s sexual chemistry with Hedda was brilliantly conveyed by Rafe Spall and Chukwudi Iwuji was passionate and intense as Lovborg.

Patrick Marber gets more than his fair share of the National stages, but it’s great to see them welcoming world class directors like van Hove and Yael Farber. If I had seen it in 2016, this would have been one of my candidates for Best Revival of a Play, a completely fresh look at a playwright who is often produced like a museum piece.

RENT

Looking at those on stage and in the audience on Tuesday, it was clear Jonathan Larson’s ground-breaking 20-year-old rock opera is being played by and for a new generation, and indeed it felt more like a new show than a revival. This production is grungier and edgier, and probably the better for it.

A modern spin on Puccini’s La Boheme (a melody from which weaves through it), it’s the most emotional of shows and I was surprised at how much it swept me away all over again. The original production opened in 1996 in New York, the first preview on the day after Larson’s death; he never knew the impact it would make. It opened in London two years later; I think I saw it three times. There was a somewhat sanitised ‘remix’ in London ten years ago and here we are now with a 20th Anniversary production. Even though the spectre of AIDS is important to the show, as TB was to Puccini’s, we’re now in a world of living with it rather than dying of it, yet it still seems timeless.

It’s set amongst a young Bohemian artistic community in East Village, New York City at Christmas, centred on the apartment of budding film-maker Mark and musician Roger. They struugle to pay the rent and to stay warm. Their former flatmate Benny is now their unsympathetic landlord. Their gay friend Collins is befriended by drag queen Angel, both HIV positive, and they form a relationship. Their neighbour and exotic dancer Mimi has her eyes on Roger, who is also HIV positive. Mark’s ex Maureen is now in a relationship with Joanne. The story of the relationships is interspersed with the story of their art, the disease and their housing crises.

I call it a rock opera because there is very little dialogue, and because the score propels the story in what in opera is called recitative between the songs. It is a great score and the musical and vocal standards here are very high, not least in the gorgeous second act opener Seasons of Love, which enables those in smaller roles to move briefly into the spotlight. There’s a lot of music to tell a lot of story and the first half is a touch too long, but it’s a pacey production by Bruce Guthrie, with great choreograhy by Lee Proud. Anna Fleischele’s set conveys the fire escape covered apartment blocks of this part of NYC very effectively. All eight leads are excellent, with a stand-out performance by Layton Williams as Angel, and there’s a fine ensemble of another eight in support.

It was great to see it again, to see how much it meant to another generation, and to see it staged with such energy and passion.

 

Bollywood Jack

This was my first visit to the closest professional producing theatre to my home, Tara Arts, in their lovely newly renovated theatre. It’s probably about as far as you can get in scale from my other panto this year, at Hackney Empire. Six actors and three musicians with a Bollywood spin on Jack & the Beanstalk!

Zak (Jack), our principal boy, lives with his mum Dame Mrs Moowallah and her cow Moomoo in a 5th floor flat on a local estate! They’re behind with the rent and the Landlord, Hubble-Bubble the giant, has sent his enforcer Conman to threaten them. Zak falls for broadband engineer Zeta, but Conman requisitions her for the big boss, who’s not content with Wify. In addition to the cow, who Hubble-Bubble eats, there’s a chicken called Fingerlicken! Zak sells the cow for the beans, climbs the stalk to get a gold coin and a golden egg, good overcomes bad and it all ends happily.

I liked the intimate scale, the costumes are terrific (incorporating udders for Moomoo and rubber gloves for Fingerlicken!), the performances charming (except the baddies, obviously), though 4-year-old Dennis from the audience almost stole the show, and I learnt a Bollywood move or two. All the usual ingredients are there (well, apart from a song-sheet, which would have helped me remember the seventeen varieties of beans in the song!) and the audience participation was particularly spontaneous and forthcoming.

A lovely end to the Christmas season. Now time to get back to real baddies……