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Patriots

This is only Peter Morgan’s third play, but like the other two it’s brilliant. He’s best known for The Crown, films like The Queen and TV features like The Deal. He’s a master of true life dramas based on facts with varying degrees of speculation. This examination of Russia from 1991 to 2013 is new ground, but still masterly.

The protagonist is Boris Berezovsky, once a brilliant mathematician, a child prodigy, who moved into business and politics as the USSR broke up and Yeltsin became President of Russia. He was one of the oligarchs who cleaned up as Yeltsin proceeded to sell / give away his country’s assets, but more importantly he was the krysha (advocate, godfather) of two men who went on to very much bigger things – Abramovitch and Putin. He’s a business mentor to the former, with a verbal agreement that would give him a significant slice of the profits as his businesses grew. To Putin he’s a kingmaker, as he moved from relative obscurity as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg to become head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, before Berezovsky persuaded him to become Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, and in no time he succeeds Yeltsin as President.

He was a very clever man who had studied decision-making theory and put it into action. He bought the state TV channel as well as becoming krysha to these two men. His power and success of course relied on their loyalty, but both eventually deserted him, Abramovitch after he’d outlived his usefulness and Putin as part of his plan to clean up corruption, put the oligarchs in their place and cement his position of absolute power, and as we now know get his own slice of the action. The final straw for Putin may have been his humiliation on Berezovsky’s TV channel over the Kursk submarine fiasco.

Berezovsky becomes an exile in the UK, with his security man Litvinenko, getting political asylum from the Blair government. There’s a brilliant theatrical moment when events collide with those in Lucy Prebble’s play A Very Expensive Poison, as Litvinenko goes to meet someone over tea and gets poisoned in the process. Homesick after ten years in the UK, he seeks to return to a quiet life in Russia, but Putin is having none of it. He dies, allegedly committing suicide.

Rupert Goold has a great talent for staging epic stories with great clarity and pace, as he did with Enron, and as he does here. Miriam Buether’s design is like a lap dancing club (not that I’ve been to one, of course) with people sitting at the cross shaped bar / stage and scenes played out upon it. Tom Hollander’s terrific performance as Berezovsky, determined manipulative and strong willed, is a career highlight, but there are excellent performances too from Will Keen as an emotionless Putin and Luke Thallon as a cool, calculating Abramovitch, plus a fine supporting cast of eight, most playing multiple roles. It’s good to see Jamael Westman, who originated the role of Alexander Hamilton in London, playing another Alexander, Litvinenko, here.

This is a fine drama, very timely given Putin is on our screens almost daily, informative, thought provoking and entertaining. I feel another West End transfer coming on.

All Of Us

In my view it’s one of theatre’s roles to put up a mirror to our society. Another is to entertain. This play examines the impact of recent welfare changes on the disabled. It managers to do both successfully, and perhaps surprisingly, though less so given it’s written by a stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy who refers to her condition as wobbly.

Jess has a successful career as a therapist. Her parents have been very supportive, as is her flatmate Lottie. She has a lovely Polish carer called Nadia who often goes way beyond her responsibilities. She introduced Jess to Poppy, a younger disabled woman with an extraordinary love of life and bags of energy, charm, cheek and an infectious naughtiness. They are both hit, in different ways, by the introduction of assessments. Jess loses her car and ultimately her job. Poppy becomes bed-bound for 12 hours a day.

Though both challenge their treatment, they react differently. Jess fights back using the appeal process, Poppy gets angry. There’s a pivotal scene at the beginning of the second half at a public meeting with their MP. His responses to theirs, and others, questions is patronising and dismissive. Some in the audience air their views of benefit scroungers and the failure of disabled people to just get on with it and stop whinging, though it soon transpires that some may be plants, so it’s unclear if their views are sincere or stage-managed. Jess makes an important connection with a referred client with alcohol addiction and after his initial dismissiveness of therapy she breaks through, they bond and the connection becomes significant.

Government policy targeted at benefit fraud has created much bigger issues for disabled people. The assessment process isn’t fit for purpose (best judged by the extraordinary number of successful appeals) and the squeeze on the caring services has created more vulnerability and dreadful treatment of the carers, whilst the contractors continue to profit. I’ve long been ashamed that I live in a country which has allowed this to happen, so I guess the play is preaching to the converted in my case, but it isn’t preaching, it’s presenting facts which anyone who approaches them objectively can process for themselves. Given playwright Francesca Martinez’ background, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s littered with laughs which sit comfortably with its campaigning message and prevent it from becoming too earnest and mawkish.

The playwright plays Jess herself in a fine understated performance, with Francesca Mills brilliant as Poppy. They are supported by a fine ensemble of fifteen other actors.

Important and urgent theatre.

Joanna Scotcher’s extraordinary design starts as you walk through the doors of The George pub in South-West London, the space formerly known as the Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Roy Williams’ 2002 play is just as extraordinary, taking place in real time during the England v Germany world cup qualifying game in 2000. It’s lost none of its relevance or impact twenty years on.

The pub regulars, a mostly young crowd, have assembled to watch the game together, some coming straight from their team’s latest soccer match. Amongst them is local copper Lee and his wilder older brother Lawrie, accompanied by Phil, Becks and Jess and their black team-mate Barry, whose brother Mark has turned up unexpectedly after discharge from the army. Then there’s Alan, a very politicised nationalist prone to stirring things up and exploiting the more fiery younger men. There’s tension between Mark and Lee, who both have history with landlady Gina, who lives there with her dad Jimmy and teenage son Glen.

It starts with banter, but as the drink flows and the football disappoints, it degenerates into sniping, skirmishes, malevolence and insidious racism as skeletons emerging from cupboards. In an important sub-plot, Glen is trying to befriend two local black boys, Bad ‘T’ and Duane, but they taunt him and play with him. When the lads defend Glen, their mother comes to challenge them. It all ends tragically.

As always with Williams everyone has a voice and the character’s views get aired, even nationalist Alan, intelligent but misguided. Lawrie is a ball of visceral anger and people like Alan can light his fuse at any time and no-one can really calm him down, not even his protective brother. Young Glen is learning from these older men, who excuse their behaviour and comments as routine joshing between friends, at the same time exploiting Barry’s generosity. He in turn wraps himself in the English flag in an attempt to belong in the country where he was born, whilst more world weary Mark wants him to return to ‘his people’.

It’s brilliantly staged by Joanna Bowman, the tension building like a coiled spring. It would be difficult to find a better ensemble anywhere, most of them returning from its 2019 run in the tent outside. Richard Riddell as Lawrie and Makir Ahmed are particularly good at conveying their emotions, to the point where you’re genuinely afraid of what they might do.

It would be great to see this play return ‘home’ to London. An unmissable revival.

The arrival of the story musicals of Rogers & Hammerstein in the 1940’s-50’s seems to have pushed the lighter fare of the Gershwin’s out of the repertoire. Of their original 1920’s-30’s shows, I can only recall London having Lady Be Good at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Open Air Theatre and Of Thee I Sing & Let Them Eat Cake from Opera North at Sadler’s Wells. In their place, we’ve had reworkings and mash-ups from My One and Only in 1983 to Nice Work If You Can Get It in 2012 and the screen-to-stage adaptation of An American in Paris in 2015, but the most successful of these is Crazy For You, based on Girl Crazy. This is my fourth production in nine years.

The East coast meets West coast culture clash is fully exploited for humour by writer / adapter Ken Ludwig; this is one of the funniest of musical comedies. Stagestruck Bobby is sent by his NYC banking family to Deadrock, Nevada (pop. 37) to repossess a theatre. He falls in love with feisty Polly, the theatre owner’s daughter, and sends for his theatre friends to put on a show in their beleaguered theatre. His imposing mother eventually makes it to Deadrock to approve his match and, surprisingly, make her own, so it all ends happily.

Susan Stroman choreographed her late husband Mike Ockrent’s original 1992 production. Her career has since developed as a director / choreographer and we’ve been lucky enough to see her dansical Contact, two Mel Brooks shows – The Producers & Young Frankenstein – and Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys in London. Her work here is masterly in every respect, with terrific designs by Beowulf Boritt and William Ivey Long, and a brilliant band led by MD Alan Williams.

I’ve wanted to see Charlie Stemp in a musical again since his big break in 2016’s Half a Sixpence, also at Chichester. He tops that with a truly star performance, adding a talent for physical comedy to his exceptional dancing, singing and acting skills. Carly Anderson is a great match as Polly, her vocals simply beautiful. In a fine supporting cast that’s too big to namecheck every one, I feel compelled to single out Tom Edden as Zangler, whose drunken scene with Stemp as fake Zangler is one of the funniest pieces of physical comedy I’ve ever seen (well, since Edden’s turn as the waiter in One Man, Two Guvnors anyway).

I’ve seen something like twenty of Chichester’s musicals, either at their home or in the West End – often both! – and this is amongst the best. Musical theatre heaven just 65 miles from home. I’m now waiting with bated breath for a West End transfer.

I was wondering, not for the first time, why Shakespeare chose this title for his play. It seemed to me dismissive of the piece. Then I found out ‘nothing’ was a play on words with ‘noting’ meaning gossip, rumour, overheard discourse in Shakespeare’s day, which is of course the crux of the play. I was also wondering why it’s so long since I saw it last, fifteen years I think, in the Olivier with Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker. I loved that production as I did this one in the Lyttelton by Simon Godwin.

They’ve chosen to set on the Italian Riviera in the Hotel Messina c.1920’s, which allows set designer Anna Fleischle and costume designer Evie Gurney to produce something visually sumptuous and gorgeous. I’d have been happy just looking at it. They’ve added music, with a live band playing in the style of the period from an upper balcony of the hotel. I don’t know the play well enough to know if it has been cut, but with the addition of music and dancing, coming in at 2.5 hours suggests it has.

Don Pedro and his soldiers have returned from the war, settling in at the hotel run by Leonato & Antonia. Claudio falls for their daughter Hero and the whirlwind romance leads to a wedding in next to no time, but enough time for Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother Don John to spread rumours about Hero’s purity, resulting in her being dumped at the alter. The hilarity and jollity increases the gravity of this story and the malevolence of Don John’s plotting. In another plot, Antonia’s niece Beatrice and returning soldier Benedict continue their sniping, whilst ideas are planted in their respective heads that the other really loves them. In this production, their sniping seems more inferred than expressed (cuts?). Of course, it all ends happily.

Katherine Parkinson makes a fine Beatrice whilst John Heffernan, an unsung stage hero, gives a superb comic performance that makes Benedict a perfect match for her. Here, the relationship comes over more loving than spiky from the outset. Ashley Zhangazha has great presence as Don Pedro and there are delightful comic turns from David Fynn as a brilliant Dogberry and Phoebe Horn as Margaret the maid (a professional stage debut no less). I have to confess I was baffled by the decision to play Claudio with some sort of urban street dialect.

It worked brilliantly as a comedy, yet it brought out the underlying impact of gossip and rumour, which can be tragic (Hero & Claudio) or positive (Beatrice & Benedict). Another summer treat at the NT.

I was underwhelmed when I first saw this show in 2003 on Broadway, in Sam Mendes production with Bernadette Peters as Rose. That changed when Chichester presented it in 2014 with Imelda Staunton giving one of her many definitive performances. Now it’s Joanna Riding’s turn in Paul Kerryson’s production for the Buxton International Festival, and she rises to the occasion, commanding the stage, making the role her own. Surely this has to have more than the scheduled eight performances?

It’s the story of the ultimate pushy mom, determined to make her daughter a star, to live her own ambitions through her child. Rose creates a children’s act to showcase her favourite daughter June with other daughter Louise in the chorus of other kids. She takes them everywhere and anywhere to get stage time, but they never make the big time, going on for a long time beyond any definition of child act. June eventually runs away with fellow performer Tulsa, so Rose has to turn her attention to her other daughter. As vaudeville declines and burlesque takes off, she’s even prepared to push Louise beyond the point you’d expect any mom to do. Along the way former showbiz agent now candy salesman becomes infatuated with her, but both he and Louise have their breaking point. It’s based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, which tells you who Louise becomes, but on her terms, with both her and Herbie leaving Rose behind.

It’s a wonderful score, mostly for Rose, and the second show for which Sondheim wrote lyrics before doing both. It requires an actress of immense vocal and acting talent to pull it off and Joanna Riding does it brilliantly. In a career full of high spots, this tops them all, until the next one of course. She gets under the skin of Rose and you can see and feel all that single-minded determination, uncontrollable ambition and ballsiness. Monique Young is excellent as Louise, initially accepting of the background, reluctant to take over from June, becoming her own woman and wresting control of her life from Rose. David Leonard brilliantly conveys the unconditional loyalty of Herbie before he too can take no more. In an outstanding cast, Tiffany Graves shines (again!) as burlesque long-timer Tessie Tura, with great sidekicks in Alesha Pease’s Elektra and Rebecca Lisewski’s Mazeppa, their number You Gotta Get A Gimmick a real comic showstopper.

Paul Kerryson’s production has great pace without losing the power of the fine solo moments when we see the beating heart of Rose. David Needham provides fitting choreography and Ben Atkinson leads a fine thirteen piece orchestra which does full justice to Jule Styne’s music. The design team of Phil R Daniels, Charles Cusick Smith and Jake Wiltshire create the period, locations and aesthetics superbly whilst facilitating the pace of the production. The Buxton Opera House proves to be a great home for this show; it fits it like a glove.

This was such a treat which elevates the show, for me, from one of interest because of Sondheim’s involvement to a master work of 20th Century musical theatre. London, you’ve no idea what you’re missing!

Closer

It’s hard to believe Patrick Marber’s second original play is twenty-five years old. Apart from a brief appearance by a dated mobile phone, it could be now; indeed, it seems more now than then. It was also his last truly successful original play, though he went on the produce some excellent adaptations and to an auspicious career as a director. Anyway, this is a timely revival, even if it does feel like a new play.

Dan, Alice and Larry meet by accident. She has been in a minor accident which Dan observed. He takes her to hospital, where Larry, though in passing rather than as the relevant doctor, gets briefly involved. We shoot forward a year and Dan & Alice are in a relationship (he’s left his partner for her). He’s an obituary writer, wannabe novelist, and he’s written a book about Alice’s past as a stripper. Now we meet Anna, a photographer who is taking pictures for the book. Dan tries to date her.

There’s a brilliant scene where Larry and Dan posing as Anna meet in a chat room. This is followed by a meeting between Larry and the real Anna, who realises Dan has played a practical joke. All four meet at Dan’s book launch and from here it’s a complex web of relationships between them, love, infidelity and marriage, secrets and lies. None of them appear to have any moral compass. It was a touch long (on the hottest day ever with the Lyric Hammersmith’s air-con seemingly non-existent) but it’s a very clever piece with genuinely interesting characters. It draws you in to the point where you can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next.

Clare Lizzimore’s production is edgy with a totally contemporary feel. She’s added atmospheric live music by Arun Gsosh plus four ‘extras’ posing in the background ( though I didn’t really see the point of this. The cast are simply terrific. Sam Troughton is loud and passionate as Larry, contrasting with Jack Farthing’s quiet and sultry Dan. Nina Toussaint-White plays Anna as very anchored, in command of her own destiny, whilst Ella Hunt is mesmerising as the waif-like Alice.

Great to see it again and to see how it resonates as much, if not more, today. I think that might be the sign of a classic.

My Fair Lady

Though I wanted to see this, I wasn’t prepared to pay the inflated prices for a decent seat. Then an acceptable stalls offer turned up; I have no willpower. It’s another Lincoln Centre transfer, hot on the heels of the overly reverential 2018 The King & I, with Bartlett Sher at the helm, also currently represented in the West End with To Kill A Mockingbird, It exceeded my expectations, particularly because it got to the heart of Shaw’s story, hiding behind all those lovable cockneys. The staging of the second act scene back at Higgins’ home after the ball is masterly in underlining this.

I won’t bother with the story; anyone who doesn’t know it must have been in hiding or hibernation. What it brings out more than other productions is the arrogance and inhumanity of Higgins’ experiment to turn a flower seller into a Duchess and then ignore her whilst he’s celebrating his triumph. The success in doing this owes much to the casting. Harry Hadden-Paton, a musicals virgin if his biography is to be believed, is a revelation as Henry, bringing a more youthful, animated interpretation, most importantly with zero emotional intelligence. Malcolm Sinclair is the perfect sidekick as Colonel Pickering, more benevolent with genuine affection for Eliza. Amara Okereke has already wowed in very different leading roles in Oklahoma & The Boyfriend and here she gives another wonderful performance as a more defiant, feisty Eliza.

If the last year has taught us regular theatregoers anything, it’s that understudies and alternates don’t mean you are shortchanged. On the night I went to see this Adam Vaughan replaced Stephen K. Amos as Doolittle, Heather Jackson covered for Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Higgins and Annie Wensack stood in for Maureen Beattie as Mrs Pearce, and all three acted like they’ve owned these roles from the outset. Michael Yeargan’s sets are a bit conservative and look a touch dated, but they do make the piece flow seamlessly through it’s many scene changes. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are sumptuous and her hats for the Ascot scene a joy to behold.

It’s unquestionably the best of the 8 shows Lerner & Loewe did together. Their five big hits – Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Camelot, Gigi and this – were very diverse, sometimes bizarre material for musical theatre. It’s 21 years since the last London production of MFL at the NT, transferring to the West End (I even managed to see Martine McCutcheon’s Eliza; many didn’t!) though there was a brilliant small scale revival at The Mill at Sonning just under 5 years ago. This is a lot better than Sher’s The King & I and gave me a new perspective on an old show. I’m really glad that offer came through. Look out for one yourself.

101 Dalmations

Summer wouldn’t be summer without an Open Air Theatre musical and this one is their first new musical for almost forty years. It’s based on a 1956 novel set here in Regent’s Park which has been adapted as films, TV series and video games, and even one musical before this, but has now come home in a show with music by Douglas Hodge, better known as an actor and one of the cast of that last OAT new musical, and a book by Johnny McKnight based on a stage adaptation from Zinnie Harris.

Though I’m not familiar with the novel nor any of its adaptations, it appears to be faithful to it. Danielle and Dominic meet in the park as they walk their respective Dalmatians. In no time at all they are a couple, and the dogs produce a litter of fifteen puppies. A clever updating gives us Cruella as an influencer, a brilliant creation, who sees the dogs first as enhancements for her instagram feed, but then as material for a coat for the Black & White Ball. Her nephews Jasper and Casper are her reluctant henchmen.

Toby Olie has done a wonderful job creating the puppet dogs and puppies (and a few cats) and these provide the ahh moments (which become uber ahh when a real puppy appears!). Kate Fleetwood is a terrific Cruella, so terrific that she didn’t get the customary baddie boos at the curtain, as appreciation trumped panto response. Jonny Weldon & George Bukhari are a fine double act as Casper & Jasper the hapless nephews. Karen Fishwick & Eric Stroud are charming as the loved up dog lovers. I adored Katrina Lindsay’s costumes, a whole wardrobe of OTT creations for Cruella and a riot of black & white for the dogs and puppies.

There’s something missing, though. The music is OK but not particularly memorable and what I could hear of the lyrics were good, but there was too much lost for some reason other than amplification. I wasn’t keen on Colin Richmond’s set, with ever present giant letters revolving to become items of furniture; it all seemed a bit tacky to me. Timothy Sheader’s staging and Liam Steel’s choreography had great moments, but it is a bit inconsistent and unevenly paced – it took a while to take off, but ended well. It feels like a hybrid of a musical comedy and a kids show, struggling to decide what it is.

I suspect it will grow as it beds in. Hopefully they’ll have a lot more great summer evenings like the one I experienced, as there’s nowhere better at this time of year.

I studied Sheridan’s The Rivals for something called ‘O level’ English Literature a lifetime ago. It was one of the first plays I ever saw, in a local school production. I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since, and it’s one of only a few 18th Century comedies that is still regularly produced today, so there have been a number of opportunities to reacquaint myself with it, all of which I’ve enjoyed. The best was on the same stage as this, the NT’s Olivier, 39 years ago, where designer John Gunter built Bath’s Royal Crescent, individual houses coming out and revolving to reveal a variety of interiors, and Sir Michael Hordern getting more laughs just eating a boiled egg that many comedies get in a whole act. Then along comes Richard Bean & Oliver Chris to produce an adaptation set in the Second World War, specifically the Battle of Britain. As it is currently customary, it arrives on the NT’s Olivier stage two years later than planned.

Mrs Malaprop’s country estate has been requisitioned as an air base. The rivals in question are vying for the hand of her niece Lydia Languish. Mrs M. is promoting pilot Jack Absolute, whose father Sir Anthony owns a lot of land in Devon, well the whole county actually. Sikh airman Tony Khattri seeks to woo her with his dodgy poetry and Aussie pilot Bob Acres will do anything to win her hand. Lydia is obsessed by Dudley the aircraft mechanic, a bit of northern rough, but Mrs M’s maid Lucy is determined to see her off. The adaptation works brilliantly, bawdier, naughtier and funnier. It’s littered with both verbal and visual gags. I haven’t laughed so much since Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors eleven whole years ago.

There are so many star performances I’m not sure I know where to start. Caroline Quentin relishes every malapropism (the play coined the term) and there are way more than in Sheridan’s original, so many that it’s hard to keep up. Peter Forbes is simply terrific as the bombastic Sir Anthony, who eventually gets his girl too. We know how good Kerry Goddard is at comedy from a string of TV performances, well she’s just as good on stage. Jordan Metcalfe’s weak-at-the-knees turn has the same effect as Michael Hordern’s boiled egg. James Corrigan’s creation of Bob Acres from the outback is an absolute delight. Many of them break the fourth wall regularly to superb comic effect.

You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of director Emily Burns, who appears to have been learning her craft at the feet of masters like Nicholas Hytner and Simon Godwin. Her production is brilliant, and propels her into the directors premiere league in one move. Designer Mark Thompson fills the Olivier stage with the English countryside and a country house, with a nod to John Gunter (intentional or accidentally) when the interiors come out of the house. There’s even a thrilling dance scene choreographed by Lizzi Gee which gives former Strictly contestant Quentin and winner Kelvin Fletcher (playing mechanic Dudley) an opportunity to strut their stuff.

This is a joy from start to finish. I can’t wait to go back and see it all over again.