Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Oscar Wilde was a much less prolific playwright than you might think. He only wrote nine plays and only four of his social satires are still staged, two regularly and two, including this, less so. First produced 125 years ago, it must have been a bit shocking at the time. Now it feels a bit awkward and old-fashioned, despite the feminism and trademark bon mots. There are some fine things about this production, but it doesn’t quite breathe life into a museum piece.

Lady Windermere is a young bride and new mother. Busy-body The Duchess of Berwick tells her Lord Windermere visits another woman, Mrs Erlynne, on a regular basis. She confronts her husband, but he insists it is all innocent, even inviting Mrs Erlynne to their party that evening. At the party she greets other men she already knows, sowing seeds of suspicion in other society ladies, and more than holds her own with them, even making a friend of one, in her pursuit of a welcome into society. Lord Windermere’s interest turns out to be protective of his wife, but it may never be known.

Paul Wills set and costumes are bright, colourful and gorgeous. Grace Molony impresses as Lady Windermere in her West End debut. Samantha Spiro is well suited to the role of Lady Erlynne, assertive and defiant, and Jennifer Saunders as the Duchess of Berwick is a pleasant surprise, given that she only appears to have done one other play, 20 years ago. As they did in A Woman of No Importance, there’s an entr’acte song (only one here, though) which enables her to show off her comedic talent and for those in smaller roles to showcase theirs. It’s a big cast for the West End, sixteen in total, and director Kathy Burke marshals them well.

I’m not sure the play is worthy of all the talent and resources. It’s creaking at the seams a bit and as much as it makes for a moderately pleasant and not overlong diversion, you can live perfectly happily without it. Classic Spring’s season now moves to the two best known plays – an odd sequence, as you might have expected them to build an audience with those first – but it’ll be good to have seen all four together.


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If you take out the two operas, the three foreign language productions, the deconstruction and the filleted three-hander, I think this is my 12th Hamlet. Simon Godwin’s bold and brilliant staging, with a mesmerising performance by Paapa Essiedu, may well be the best of them. I regretted not going to Stratford to see it, but now I don’t, because it’s particularly thrilling to see it at the Hackney Empire amongst an enraptured young and diverse audience.

It’s an African Denmark, colourful and throbbing with music and life, which works brilliantly. It serves the play well, adding some magic, but no gimmicks. So many scenes are superbly staged it’s hard to know where to begin. It gets off to a great start at Hamlet’s graduation ceremony, emphasising his youth and the likely effect of this on his grief at losing his dad and anger at his mother’s swift re-marriage. His confrontations with a cool Claudius are particularly spikey and the resentment of his mother palpable. As the play progresses, we get a superb play-within-the-play, Polonius’ death deftly handled, Ophelia’s grief heartbreaking, a wonderful grave digging scene and a thrilling fight between Hamlet and Laertes using double sticks. Godwin hardly puts a foot wrong and I felt I was hearing the verse afresh with new emphasis and intonation.

Paapa Essiedu really is extraordinary. His verse speaking is enthralling, he totally engages with the audience and every one of those many soliloquies, where he’s alone on that vast stage, are captivating. The rest of the cast is excellent too. I thought Clarence Smith was a particularly fine Claudius and Buom Tihngang made Laertes his own. Mimi Ndiweni is very moving as Ophelia and Lorna Brown navigates Gertrude’s emotional journey very well. Joseph Mydell is luxury casting indeed as Polonius. Paul Wills set, in red-rust colours, and colourful costumes evoke an African kingdom, with Sola Akingbola’s music adding that final touch.

It’s somewhat ironic that within 48 hours our two big national companies have given me one of the worst and one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. I can’t emphasise enough how much seeing it in Hackney Empire, surrounded by young people spellbound by the Bard, added to my experience.


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This Stephen Schwartz show came just one year after his debut hit Godspell. That was 45 years ago. It took another thirty years for his mega-hit Wicked. Pippin hasn’t been revived very often, but it was a big hit again on Broadway in 2013. The last time we saw it here was six years ago, in a misguided production at the Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/pippin). This new production has come from the new Northern musicals powerhouse in Manchester, Hope Mill. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so impressed by a production of a musical I’m so unimpressed by.

Pippin is the son of the 9th century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. We follow him from graduation, as he tries to make his way in the world, through war, sex, rebellion, politics and ordinary life. I’m afraid I find it impossible to relate to the story and the music is undistinguished bland pop to my ears, though its fair to say it was so well sung and played here, I warmed to the score.

When it comes to the production, it’s hugely impressive, with Jonathan O’Boyle’s staging, William Whelton’s choreography, Maeve Black’s design, Aaron J Dootson’s lighting and James Nicholson’s sound all outstanding. The cast is hugely talented, not a weak link amongst them. Newcomer Jonathan Charlton is a very likeable Pippin, Genevieve Nicole is a charismatic presence as the Lead Player, the narrator, and there’s a great doubling-up by Mairi Barclay as Charlemagne’s second wife Fastrada and mother Berthe. The eight-piece band under MD Zach Flis sounded great.

I can’t imagine a better production, so I have to warmly recommend it, whatever I think of the material. As for Hope Mill, more please!

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Reading his biography in the programme, it appears this is the National Theatre’s Director Rufus Norris’ first Shakespeare production. Perhaps he should have asked one of his predecessors for some coaching. He’s fallen into the trap of swamping it with concept and directorial conceit, losing the essence of Shakespeare’s play in the process.

His two big ideas seem to be to set it in some sort of dystopian present / future and to ramp up the magic; the latter works better than the former. In the process he’s lost the psychological depth of the story, the subtlety of the characterisations and much of the verse is chewed and spat out rather than spoken, sometimes competing with the soundscape. It’s dark, bleak and relentless and actors of the calibre of Rory Kinnear, Anne-Marie Duff and Patrick O’Kane struggle to shine.

Rae Smith’s design has an arc platform on the revolve which is used to great effect; otherwise it’s all hanging black plastic, concrete rooms, tacky furniture and grubby clothes. There are a lot of severed heads in clear plastic bags. The soundscape has eerie wind instruments. The lighting is striking, but ever so dark, so that you are sometimes straining your eyes trying to work out who’s speaking.

It’s not all bad – some scenes work well, like Macduff learning of the fate of his children, Macbeth finding his dead wife and the weird sisters during the final battle, but much of it was un-engaging. When it ended some 20-25 minutes before the published time, the shortest Macbeth I’ve ever seen, I wondered if they’d lost confidence in it themselves.

A big disappointment.

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This is the second time this week that I’ve seen a stage adaptation of a film I haven’t seen. This one is Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical three-hour film, which was also a five-hour TV series, adapted by Stephen Beresford, best known for The Last of the Hausmans at the NT and the screenplay for the film Pride. It’s an everyday tale of theatre folk in Sweden, well at least initially.

In the first act, we’re with the theatrical Ekdahl family, theatre owners and performers. Husband and wife Oscar and Emilie, Oscar’s mother Helena, brothers Carl and Gustav and their wives Alma and Lydia, Gustav & Lydia’s daughter Petra and Fanny and Alexander themselves, Oscar & Emilie’s children. We’re onstage, backstage and at home in what seems to be an idyllic world, until Oscar dies suddenly. There was plenty of character development, but not enough story in this first part and I went into the interval a touch underwhelmed.

The second act is very dark, as Emilie marries the widowed Bishop, a frightfully stern bully into whose austere and joyless home Emilie, Alexander and Fanny arrive. His sister Henrietta is unwelcoming, fearing her loss of power in charge of the home. Alexander is a bit of a fantasist and gets on the wrong side of the Bishop very quickly, resulting in brutal punishment. Emilie, by now pregnant, wants to leave, but the law and societal conventions prevent this.

In the third act, with the help of Oscar’s brothers and Helena’s friend Issak and his nephew Aaron, they plot to free them all from the Bishop’s tyranny. These latter two parts are much more satisfying and feel almost Dickensian, sweeping along at a fast pace, drawing you in to these characters lives. I haven’t seen much of director Max Webster’s work, but his staging here is impressive, helped by Tom Pye’s excellent set, Laura Hopkins’ lovely costumes and atmospheric music by Alex Baranowski, played live on piano and cello.

It’s a tribute to Kevin Doyle’s performance that there was palpable hatred in the audience for the evil Bishop. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as a seasoned thespian and the head of the Ekdahl family. I loved Catherine Walker, an actress who hasn’t been on my radar before, as Emilie and it was great to see Lolita Chakrabarti again in a pair of contrasting roles as Alma and Henrietta. Jonathan Slinger’s role was relatively small, but he almost stole the show when the Ekdahl brothers confront the Bishop in the third act – the whole audience were willing him on. The actors playing Fanny & Alexander were brilliant, in what are big roles for child actors, especially Alexander.

It was a slow burn at first but it won me over, oozing quality in every department.

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This 1948 Tennessee Williams play immediately followed the much more successful A Streetcar Named Desire, but it took 58 years to get to London, a 2006 transfer from Nottingham to the West End which was pulled early. The director of this revival staged the only other London production, at Southwark Playhouse in 2012, but this is a new one. It’s typical TW fare, set in the deep south at the beginning of the 20th century, a minister’s daughter having a troubled relationship with the son of the doctor next door, who is about to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

The design appears to take its lead from Alma’s musicality, an arc of nine pianos each with a metronome on top. In front, a shallow pit strewn with earth two steps down. Impressionistic rather than realistic, and with music and a soundscape fully utilising the pianos, it’s highly atmospheric and sensuous, totally in keeping with the material.

Alma and John dance around each other, repressed emotions getting in the way of their real feelings. He starts a doomed relationship with a Mexican girl with a dubious but rich dad and much later with the much younger Nellie. Before Alma knows about the latter, she lets her guard down and reveals her true feelings, but its too late.

I was mesmerised by both Patsy Ferran as Alma and Matthew Needham as John, both performances emotionally raw. Ankana Vasan delivers beautifully stylised dance-influenced performances as Rosa and Nellie and Seb Carrington, in an auspicious professional debut, plays some mean piano as well as playing young travelling salesman Archie, who’s in the right place when Alma realises John will never be hers. The doubling-up of roles works OK, except for Forbes Masson as both dads, preacher and doctor, carrying a bible to signify which; I think it would have been better to have two actors here.

Rebecca Frecknall’s staging, Tom Scutt’s design, Lee Curran’s lighting and Angus MacRae’s compositions combine to create something very fresh from timeless material. A must-see.

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The 1971 film was a flop, as was the 1980 English language stage adaptation, though the film went on to become a cult hit and turned a profit twelve years later. There was also a French TV adaptation, which itself was adapted for the stage in Canada. It’s been described as a romantic black comedy, the romance being between an eighteen year old boy, with a bit of an obsession about death, and an eccentric 79-year-old woman.

Harold lives with his widowed mother in middle-class American suburbia. She’s a social climber who is set on finding Harold a wife using computer dating. He stages fake suicides and attends real funerals where he meets Maude, an Austrian Countess who lives a Bohemian lifestyle seemingly without money. Cautious at first, Harold is drawn in by her infectious love of life and they become good friends. After rejecting the three suitors his mother introduces, he realises Maude is the love of his life and plans to propose at the 80th birthday party he is planning for her, but she has other plans.

Michael Bruce has added musical accompaniment which the actors play live on instruments including double -bass, cello and accordion, in character, just like those actor-musician musicals, though it isn’t a musical. It gives it the feel of one of those charming French films. Francis O’Conner’s set has an equally lovely other-worldly quality and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are a delight, Harold in seventies style, Maude in Bohemiana and Harold’s mother power dressed.

Sheila Hancock is perfectly cast as Maude, a beautifully judged, delicate performance, as light as air. Bill Milner’s transition from existential angst to love-struck teen is navigated superbly, with real chemistry with Hancock. Rebecca Caine is excellent as the controlling mother and Joanna Hickman is a delight as all three suitors. in an outstanding supporting cast, Samuel Townsend makes a great seal, as well as a cop.

Thom Southerland’s production is as quirky as the material, which is a touch absurd, a bit surreal, but rather captivating. I wasn’t entirely sold on the story but it’s hard to imagine a better production or better performances. Well worth a visit.

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