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All About Eve

This is one of the most anticipated West End openings this year. A stage adaptation of the iconic 1950 film of the same name, with Gillian Anderson taking Bette Davies’ role and Lily James playing Eve, and the much sought after director Ivo van Hove at the helm. Could it possibly live up to the hype?

Margot is a successful stage actress, surrounded by an entourage that includes the writer, director and producer of her current play, her best friend Karen and companion / maid Birdie. Eve enters her life, a fan who says she attends every performance, brought from outside the stage door by Karen. In no time at all, she’s working for Margot, becomes indispensable, putting Birdie’s nose out of joint but virtually everyone else under her spell. Soon she’s understudying Margot, getting to perform after some tricks and deception, inviting a critic also under her spell to ensure her career takes off.

Such a theatrical story makes an excellent transfer from screen to stage, and at the same time suits Ivo van Hove’s cinematic house style. All of his usual ingredients are here, with live video footage the most significant. The three walls of the multi-purpose room set rise to reveal the real theatre walls painted silver, enclosed bathroom and kitchen, from which we have scenes projected onto the set’s back wall, props, costumes and photos of the star. It feels like both backstage and film set and works brilliantly. There are some real theatrical coup’s, notably Margot ageing before our eyes as she looks in her dressing room mirror, and the photos turned around as Eve’s career progresses.

Gillian Anderson plays Margot with great subtlety, and looks simply stunning. Lily James navigates her manipulative road well, with restraint but steely determination too. It’s a fantastic supporting cast, including a brilliant performance from Monica Dolan as Karen and Stanley Townsend outstanding as the acerbic critic Addison DeWitt, a manipulative match for Eve. Rashan Stone is excellent as playwright Lloyd Richards, Karen’s husband, as is Julian Ovenden as director Bill Sampson, Margot’s boyfriend. There’s a lovely cameo at the end from Tsion Habte as Phoebe, who completes the circle of a deliciously rounded story.

It’s a while before it takes hold of you, but then it doesn’t let go. It resonates in our celebrity obsessed age as much, if not more, than it must have done 69 years ago. The story, the staging & design and the performances come together to ensure it does live up to the hype. In a life-imitates-art moment, the lovely Canadian lady sitting next to me, an avid Gillian Anderson fan, told me before the start she was seeing in three more times during her eight day stay!

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Edward II

It would be difficult to find two productions of this play as far apart as this and Joe Hill-Gibbins staging at the Olivier just over five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/edward-II). The latter was on one of London’s biggest stages, this on one of its smallest. At the National, it was a radical take, with live video footage, here it oozes period. The NT’s thrilled me, but this left me rather cold I’m afraid.

It struck me for the first time how much weaker Marlowe’s dialogue is than Shakespeare’s verse; more accessible but nowhere near as beautiful. He packs in 20 years of history, and this production seems to have lost something like thirty minutes, which compounds the issue by making it feel rushed in a ‘let’s get it over with’ sort of way, with characters going into exile and back seeming a bit ‘here we go again’ tiresome. Like other contemporary staging’s, the true nature of Edward & Gaveston’s relationship is more overt but, given the setting of this production, the passionate kisses and embraces seemed at odds with the play. Above all, the story just didn’t engage, or even thrill, as it should. I felt no emotional involvement at all.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a very suitable theatre, and the space is used well. Jessica Worrall’s period costumes are excellent, and the glistening black & gold backdrop takes you to the 14th century. The music mostly suits it, except the use of the West African Kora, beautiful though it is, which seemed totally out of place, conjuring up exotic foreign places rather than medieval Britain. Some of the touches of humour work, like Edward’s propensity to dish out titles played like a running joke, but sometimes it feels a bit flippant. The double and triple casting, using women in male roles, also works, though you have to suspend disbelief when you see a bishop who looks like he’s still at school.

I’ve rarely been disengaged in this lovely theatre by a play I have hitherto found fascinating. Maybe it hasn’t settled yet, but I’m afraid indifference was my primary reaction.

Counting Sheep

I visited Ukraine nine years ago, nineteen years after the break-up of the Soviet Union. It was obvious then that it was a very divided country, half looking east to Russia and half west to the EU. Who’d have thought it would be like that here six years later! Four years after my visit things came to a head with a revolution centred on Independence Square in Kiev, near to where I’d been staying for the second part of the trip. This extraordinary show recreates that revolution, five years later, under the arches at Waterloo station, named in memory of another battle almost exactly 200 years before.

Like all revolutions, this one starts with a meal, with vodka, obviously. The bonhomie lulls us into a false sense of security, with food, drink, music and dancing. Our narrator, a Canadian with some Ukrainian heritage, tells us how he found himself caught up in the revolution. The narrative is sketchy, but the atmosphere is extraordinary. Projections along two long sides of the space connect us with the real events of 2014. The small cast and audience move around the space building barricades from pallets and tyres, carrying shields, wearing flags.

The traditional music adds much to the creation of something which felt surprisingly authentic and totally engaging. Facts are projected to conclude the story with a return to reality as the cast from Ukraine, Belarus, Canada and the UK introduce themselves, including Mark & Marichka Marczyks, whose real experiences are at the heart of the piece. It’s staged by the founders of the inspirational Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Kaliada & Nicolai Khalezin. This is thrilling theatre that must be seen and you have until 17th March to do so!

The Price

This is the second in what appears to be an informal Miller mini-festival. It started with Enemy of the People at the Union Theatre last month and continues with American Clock & All My Sons at the Old Vic and Death of a Salesman across the road at the Young Vic. This fiftieth anniversary production of his 1968 play comes to London from the Theatre Royal Bath. Though I liked the productions I saw 17 and 29 years ago, I’ve never considered it up there with the big four which, with Enemy in the middle, appeared between 1947 & 1955 – Sons, Salesman, The Crucible & A View from the Bridge. On this form, though, I’m beginning to think again.

Victor and his wife Esther are in the attic of Victor’s recently deceased father, waiting for Gregory Solomon, who’s going to value and hopefully make an offer for the contents. Victor has been trying, but has failed, to get hold of his estranged brother Walter, who really should be with him. Esther leaves soon after Solomon arrives and the rest of the first half is mostly a two-hander, an entertaining and often funny discussion which leaves you wondering where its going. When Esther returns and Walter arrives, Solomon takes a back seat while the family history is played out and you realise it’s more about the price we pay for decisions in our lives than it is about the price of the contents of the apartment.

Walter is a hot-shot surgeon and Victor an NYC cop, these destinies determined by their relative responses to their dad growing old. As often with Miller, dad was a victim of the depression. Victor stayed loyal, at the expense of his career, while Warren broke away for his, decisions with had profound effects on their lives. They haven’t seen much of each other since, and there’s a lot that’s unsaid. Walter now tries to reconcile and make amends, but it’s too late, and somewhat disingenuous. Esther is at first frustrated by her husband’s intransigence, but won’t see him lose his pride and dignity. This second act confrontation is the heart of the piece and it’s simply masterly.

Simon Higglett’s brilliant design of the ramshackle apartment piles layers upon layers of family history, but provides an intimate space for the brothers’ exorcism of the past. Brendan Coyle is terrific as Victor, at first accepting the cards he’s played, but eventually showing bitterness and regret at an unfulfilled life. David Suchet is excellent as the worldly wise Solomon, wickedly funny, determined to get a deal, interjecting into the family discussions now and again. Adrian Lukis plays the unsympathetic Walter, the chalk to Coyle’s cheese, though he’s paid his own price too. I loved Sara Stewart’s interpretation of Esther, often critical of her man but ultimately loyal and loving.

The Price came at the midpoint of Miller’s playwriting career, both in terms of years and plays. Whatever you think of it, Jonathan Church’s production provides an opportunity to see this more rarely produced play as well as you’re ever likely to see it staged, and for this Miller fan it made me realise how much I’d underrated it. Until now.

The Rest of January

Classical Music

Another lunchtime gem at the Royal Academy of Music with their 100-strong Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. I’d never heard Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler Symphony and liked it very much. It was followed by Richard Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier which, despite the waltzes I’m not keen on, sounded gorgeous.

Contemporary Music

I wasn’t expecting musical theatre’s Cassidy Janson to do a concert without any musical theatre numbers, but her Crazy Coqs show was a combination of Carole King and her own songs from her forthcoming pop-rock album. More than a year in Beautiful has improved her voice and makes her interpretation of King songs simply superb. Her own songs are impressive too, so my reservations about the content were eventually dispelled.

Dance

It was thrilling to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake again, matured over the years into a sparkling diamond of a show. It’s the most glorious combination of music, design and dance you could wish for and at the performance we attended at Sadler’s Wells was danced impeccably.

Film

A month of films based on a very diverse range of real people, with varying degrees of truth, I suspect.

The Favourite is a highly original and racy royal romp about Queen Anne, which I loved. Hatfield House looked terrific and the three leading actresses were wonderful.

Stan & Oli, about the comedy duo of course, exceeded my expectations and caught me by surprise at how much it moved me. Again, two well matched leads giving star turns and a great 50’s Britain look.

Mary Queen of Scots, was another film about British royalty, less of a romp, but still racy. Fantastic story-telling and an auspicious film debut for theatre director Josie Rourke.

Colette is another racy true story set in late 19th century France, featuring a wonderful British cast and filmed beautifully. Puzzling that it’s a British film.

Beautiful Boy was a rather harrowing story of addiction, but superbly filmed and performed. It’s rated 15 – I think it should be compulsory viewing for all teenagers above 15 in case they’re tempted to experiment with hard drugs.

Vice, about Dick Cheney, the power behind Bush Jnr’s throne it seems, doesn’t even try to be objective; it’s a partisan hatchet job, and given the lack of law suits probably mostly true. An excellent film, and Christian Bale is sensational.

Art

Night & Day was my first visit to the Fashion & Textile Museum in its new location. An exploration of the 1930’s through fashion and photographs, with a soundtrack of the likes of Cole Porter, it captured the essence of this beautiful decade, though I could have done with more photographs to go with the comprehensive display of fashion.

The Enchanted Garden at the William Morris Gallery was a one-room wonder, virtually every picture a gem. Monet, Pissarro, Burne-Jones, Stanley Spencer, Bell-Grant-Fry and of course William & May Morris. Gorgeous.

My Dad’s Gap Year

Tom Wright’s dad-son role-reversal comedy seemed like an interesting idea, and I like the work of director Rikki Beadle-Blair, so I gave it a whirl. It didn’t really live up to expectations, I’m afraid.

William’s dad Dave is an alcoholic. He’s lost his job and mum Cath has moved out. William’s got a gap year job at her firm, but his dad wants him to have a hedonistic time and lose his virginity, so he tricks him and takes him to Thailand. William is the sober, conservative one and Dave the wild one. William meets and falls for Matias and moves in with him. Its not long before he’s a wild one too – drink, drugs and promiscuity – losing Matias in the process. Meanwhile, dad’s got himself a serious illness, and a ladyboy, Mae. Mum Cath is in regular phone contact with her son, initially encouraging him, while she’s having her own milder wild time back home.

It’s a bit frenetic and in yer face, performed on a platform with the audience on all sides, a bit like table dancing. It stretches plausibility when Cath finds her way to Thailand, locates Matias and Mae, as well as Dave & William’s flat, for the denouement, which is somewhat contrived. The performances were all rather loud in Rikki Beadle-Blair’s production, which has its moments, but didn’t really satisfy. For a comedy it wasn’t really funny enough. In all fairness, though, coming on the evening after a matinee of Our Lady of Kibeho in Northampton probably didn’t help.

It’s ten years since American playwright Katori Hall wowed London with the world premiere of her debut play The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King. All we’ve had since then is her excellent book for the musical Tina, but now she’s back with the same director, James Dacre, at his Northampton base, for the UK premier of a play about visions of the Virgin Mary in Rwanda, which fully justified a day-trip from London, even for a non-believer like me.

It revolves around a convent school in Kibeho in 1981 where one girl has a vision. She is disbelieved and persecuted by the Deputy Head Sister Evangelique and most of her fellow pupils. The Head, Father Tuyishime, is more inclined to believe her, then two more girls make the same claim. Bishop Gahamanyi turns up smelling a commercial proposition. The Vatican send Father Flavia to obtain evidence for possible confirmation. Local people start to buy in and nickname the girls The Trinity, with local boy Emmanuel claiming visitations too.

The ghost of Belgian colonialism is ever present in this Roman Catholic community, and there is an undercurrent of hate between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The visions continue as Father Flavia continues to gather evidence and people’s positions change and evolve until a special visitation is announced by the girls and the local community comes in numbers to hear prophesies of doom, the conflict and genocide that actually followed. Father Flavia is convinced, the Bishop sees his hope of a pilgrimage site disappear and Father Tuyishime refuses to believe in fear the prophesies might be true.

The story is brilliantly told by a terrific cast of twelve, supplemented by a community ensemble of another eleven. Jonathan Fensom’s design, with video projections by Duncan McLean, beautifully lit by Charles Balfour, is truly evocative. Orlando Gough had added both incidental music and gorgeous acapella songs, with Claire Windsor’s soundscape, both adding so much to the atmosphere. Dacre’s staging is nothing short of masterly.

Quality oozes from every department in this outstanding production which will hopefully have a life beyond this three week run. So glad I went.