Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The Lady from the Sea

As I’ve got older, I’ve warmed to Ibsen’s plays. I now realise how much they were ahead of their time and how important they were to the development of modern drama. Elinor Cook’s adaptation moves this one forward in time and relocates it to the Caribbean and it comes up fresh, full of relevance and contemporary resonance.

Ellida, the ‘lady’ of the title, was the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who lost her father and came inland to marry the older, widowed Doctor Wangel. He has two teenage daughters with differing views on the match. Ellida loses a child and becomes unsettled. Wangel sends for her friend (and his daughter Bolette’s ex tutor) Arnholm and an old flame of Ellida returns too. She is torn between returning to the sea with him or staying with Wangel, and Bolette has to decide if she stays or marries Arnholm.

It’s a very modern, even feminist story and the change of time and place suits it well as it adds another dimension without smothering it. Kwame Kwei-Armah’s staging is delicate and nuanced. He gets fine performances from his cast, with particularly enjoyable ones from Jonny Holden as fragile artist Lyngstrand and Ellie Bamber as daughter Hilde, capturing teenage frankness perfectly. Tom Scutt’s impressionistic design, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, is gorgeous.

A lovely evening.

Advertisements

Yes, it’s a play not a scientific theory. You can always rely on Simon Stephens for something different – he must have the most diverse body of work of any playwright. Here, he uses the concepts of uncertainty and unpredictability to tell the story of the most unlikely relationship between a 42-year-old woman and a 75-year-old man. It’s a very intuitive piece that I wasn’t sure about at first, but it drew me in and I left the theatre with a warm glow!

It’s beautifully set and lit by Bunny Christie and Paule Constable within a box of light, like a James Turrell installation, that changes size, shape and colour from scene to scene. There’s a lovely soundscape too, with music by Nils Fram. In the first scene, London Butcher Alex Priest meets American school receptionist Georgie Burns at a train station. From here, their extraordinary relationship unfolds from a chance encounter, unravelling of the truth, a mutual fascination with some brittleness to a romantic liaison and a full-blown relationship. At first it seems implausible, but somehow becomes believable. I put this down to superb chemistry between two fine actors.

In Marianne Elliott’s delicate, sensitive staging, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff give the sort of uninhibited performances that deliver the believability of the relationship. Every time it turns a corner, implausibility returns but is then dispelled. Even though it runs less than ninety minutes, it does leave you satisfied.

I would have preferred to see it in a space more suitable, like the Dorfman, Royal Court, Donmar or Almeida, and more accessibly priced for a one-act two-hander, but in other ways it’s good that the West End can support work like this.

Les Mis in Pris

I’ve been a big supporter of Pimlico Opera’s work in prisons. Before this, there was West Side Story, Guys & Dolls and Carmen in Wandsworth, Sugar in Send and Our House in Belmarsh. I’m drawn by the extraordinary contribution they make to rehabilitation, but the quality of the work is extraordinary too. This one, at HMP High Down, was particularly thrilling.

They use the shortened ‘schools edition’ (which I saw in a school a few years back!). There are fourteen professional actors, two officers and eighteen prisoners, with a full orchestra under MD Dan Jackson (something the current partly synthesised West End production can’t boast!). Lest you think the professionals are anything other than premiere league, Javert has performed the role in the West End production and Fantine won an Olivier Award earlier this year!

Having a cast of 34 and a full orchestra makes the choruses thrilling. Robin Bailey’s Javert, Jeff Nicholson’s Valjean and Rebecca Trehearn’s Fantine are as good as any I’ve seen in the West End (Bailey has played it there and Cameron Mackintosh’s people would do well to sign up the other two!). The prisoners are not confined to the chorus, with roles like Marius being taken by some. Amongst the amateurs, PE instructor / officer Mat Baxter made a fine Enjolras and Irish prisoner Pearce Murray a suitably cheeky Thenardier.

You would expect such a production to be a touch ragged at the edges, but this is more than made up for in Nikki Woollaston’s staging by the sheer spirit and energy of it all, giving people the opportunity to get something positive out of a negative period of their lives. Hopeful and uplifting.

I’ve been banging on about the extraordinary ambition of the All Star Productions team in Walthamstow for a while now, but I really thought they’d lost the plot when I heard they were mounting this infamous West End flop. Wrong again; they’ve turned into a cult fringe hit.

In 1989 it went straight into the cavernous Piccadilly Theatre. I liked it. It was an unusual pairing of American composer Joe Brooks (music) and British playwright Dusty Hughes (book & lyrics). Before becoming a playwright, Hughes had been Time Out’s theatre editor and the Bush Theatre’s joint AD. His plays had been put on at the NT, RSC & Royal Court, but he had no musicals pedigree. Brooks had written America’s biggest selling song in the 70’s, an Academy & Grammy award winner, but hadn’t written a musical. They chose to adapt Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film.

It occupies that sparsely populated SciFi musical sub-genre. Set in a dystopian future, the overground world of the Elitists of Metropolis is powered by the Workers underground, in a city founded by John Freemen. The workers have a new-found charismatic leader in Maria, who has fallen in love with Freeman’s son Steven. Freeman has her abducted. He’s also hired an inventor to find a robotic alternative to the troublesome and increasingly scarce workers. These two actions come together.

The big surprise for me was how good the score is, with some great tunes and rousing choruses, freshly orchestrated and arranged by MD Aaron Clingham. The vocal quality is sky high, with particularly strong vocals from Rob Herron as Steven. My namesake Gareth James makes a fine baddie (Brian Blessed in the West End!) and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut by Miiya Alexandra as Maria. The excellent ensemble deliver the choruses with passion, expertly choreographed by Ian Pyle. The design team of Justin Williams, Jonny Rust & Joana Dias work wonders with limited resources, creating an inventive set and costumes. The show seems to be a favourite of director Tim McArthur, and it shows.

So by now you know you have three weeks to head to the northern end of the Victoria Line, where the centre of gravity of fringe musicals now clearly resides.

 

Prism

A biographical play about a cinematographer? Jack Cardiff’s career reads like a history of 20th Century cinema, but why a play? It seems to have been suggested by its leading man, Robert Lindsay, and playwright / director Terry Johnson has dramatised it for him.

We’re at the end of Cardiff’s life, at his country home, with his wife Nicola, played by Claire Skinner, his son Mason, Barnaby Kay, and new ‘assistant’ Lucy, played by Rebecca Night. He’s got dementia, so it’s all recollection and reflection, and attempts to write a biography.

In the brilliant opening scene, he tells the history of screen shapes and sizes by opening a garage door. The first act ends as superbly as the second begins when we flash back to the filming of The African Queen in Kenya, where Barnaby Kay transforms into Humphrey Bogart, Rebecca Night into his wife Lauren Bacall and Claire Skinner becomes Katherine Hepburn – all brilliantly, as Kay and Night are again later as Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (not the first time she’s featured in a Johnson play!). Before and after this though it’s all a bit slight, and I came to the conclusion the life was less interesting, name-dropping and possible infidelities aside, and stageable than they at first thought.

That said, there are four fine performances, an excellent design from Tim Shortall and enough to make you pleased you went.

Wings

I only know American playwright Arthur Kopit’s work for musical theatre – books for Nine, High Society and Phantom (the other one!). This 1978 stage play started on the radio and it seems to me that it was way ahead of its time; a complex examination of the effect of a stroke.

Our protagonist is aviator and wing-walker Emily Stilson, who suffers a stroke. We see her struggling to come to terms with her condition, but we’re seeing it from her perspective – the confusion and intense frustration, like being inside a nightmare. In hospital, we witness medical examinations and therapies, most notably for speech, though some of what we see are memories, often jumbled up. It really is an insight into brain damage and in particular aphasia. It’s only 75 minutes long but I’m not sure I could have taken more as it is a bit relentless.

Kopit’s notes and stage directions are very comprehensive, and director Natalie Abrahami seems to have respected these, but at the same time created an inventive staging. There’s a simple moving platform with moving translucent curtains, but most important of all, inspired by her career, is that Juliet Stevenson spends almost the entire play ‘flying’, only occasionally touching the ground. It’s a brave, virtuoso performance by a fine actress. One of the consequences, though, is that everyone else seemed like a mere ‘extra’.

It hasn’t been seen here for over thirty years, and I’m glad I caught it. It is insightful, and it’s superbly staged, but I didn’t find it wholly satisfying and rather depressing. Perhaps it was too close to home.

What Shadows

The fact that we’re seeing a play that revolves around one speech to ninety people forty years ago tells you something about the significance of that speech. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ had, and still has, such impact, perhaps more-so today than at any time since it was given.

Chris Hannan’s play moves between 1967, when the speech was made, and 1992, when a young girl (a fictional character) affected by it is now an eminent historian writing about it. In 1967 we see how it isolates him, in particular the profoundly negative affect on his relationship with best friends Clem & Marjorie Jones. We also get a glimpse of the effect on people in his constituency. In 1992, one of those people, then a child, now a professor of history, seeks to collaborate on a book about it, somewhat implausibly with someone she helped hound out of academia for alleged racism, with the hope and aim of confronting Powell himself, a final scene which comes a bit too late and doesn’t really last long enough.

We seem to have an appetite for plays about recent history, with Oslo, Ink & Labour of Love all running in the West End. This is more uneven, more earnest and less entertaining, but it’s a welcome addition nonetheless. It shows Powell to be an intelligent man and a great orator, seemingly channelling what his constituents think. My problem with that is that a lot of his constituents were from ethnic minorities, whose views he certainly wasn’t channelling, and he was after all a politician, who may well have been making a cynical grab for attention, even power, which misfired, isolating and ostracising him – think Boris and Brexit.

It has it’s flaws, but it makes you think and provokes debate, and at its centre is a mesmerising performance by Ian McDiarmid, which alone is a reason to see it.