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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

It’s very hard to write about this extraordinary, captivating piece by Rita Kalnejais. It defies both categorisation and description, but I’ll try…..

Set near Chartres, France towards the end of the Second World War, it tells the story of the love at first sight between young German soldier Otto and local girl Elodie. Otto believes everything he’s been told about ‘Mr. Hitler’ and the objectives and progress of the war. He’s expecting to begin an invasion of England at dawn, when in reality the allies are in the process of liberating France. This contrasts with his naivety and charming innocence wooing Elodie. She too is naive and innocent and, well, charming, but they both get a dose of reality, when Otto finds he’s missed the retreat rather than the invasion and Elodie realises there will be consequences to befriending a Nazi. An intimate love story against a backdrop of war.

Whilst the story is being played out on a turfed stage representing their secret isolated spot, there are two adults in karaoke boxes with microphones and headphones who sing songs and occasionally read lines from a video screen, before they join the youngsters at the conclusion. Perhaps they represent those who were once lovers like Otto and Elodie? Their presence is incongruous but fascinating. Their songs are current pop tunes, as contemporary as the language and behaviour of the teenagers. The quirkiness, the surprise, the ambiguity is all part of this charming cocktail.

Cecile Tremolieres’ design looks beautiful and Jay Miller’s staging is delicate. Bradley Hall and Hannah Millward are delightful as the young couple. I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage for its 70 minutes running time. Take a chance on it if you can get a ticket in this extra, final week.

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We used to see a lot of US playwright Richard Nelson’s work; he wrote or co-wrote eight plays in eight years between 1989 and 1997 for the RSC. Of late he has been working with the Public Theatre New York, with the four-play Apple family cycle and now the three-play Gabriel family cycle, a fictional family in his real home town of Rhinebeck, New York. The plays cover eight months in 2016, ending two hours before polls closed at the presidential election.

Each play takes place in real time, in the kitchen of the Gabriel family home, with the same six characters, each time preparing a meal. In the first play they are gathered to scatter the ashes of Thomas Gabriel, husband of Mary, son of Patricia and brother of George and Joyce. His first wife Karen is in attendance, as is George’s wife Hannah. Patricia now lives in a home. It’s the day after Mary’s birthday in the second play, as the extent of the mother’s debts becomes clear, they try and work out how to deal with them and Thomas’ first wife Karen has moved into the house with third wife and widow Mary. Mother now has to share a room in the home. By the third play, the house is on the market and everyone is making plans to move on. It’s election day, but we end before polls close and the result is known. As a family of liberals, they wish for and hope for the right result, though not 100% confident in their chosen candidate.

The political situation only creeps onto the last third of each play; until then it’s a gentle Chekhovian family drama. They aren’t political plays as such; the election is a backdrop, though the issues of our times are in the foreground. Staged virtually in-the-round, you feel very connected to the characters. It’s one of the most naturalistic things I’ve ever seen. It’s a slow burn at first, but it draws you in and by the third play I was impatient for it to start. The six actors have been with it for over a year and they appear to have by now inhabited their characters. Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Jay O Sanders, Maryann Plunkett and Amy Warren are all wonderful.

After a hesitant start, I became captivated in the Gabriel family story. Great theatre.

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I’ve never read any Paul Auster books, so I came to this stage adaptation by Duncan Macmillan cold, though it’s the third time in six days I’ve seen the work of projection masters 59 Productions, this time expanded to almost all creative inputs. As much as I admired the extraordinary stagecraft, I’m afraid I didn’t engage with the story, perhaps because I was spellbound by the staging and thereby distracted from the story. I found myself admiring the artistry without any involvement in the tale.

It’s a Chandleresque film noir tale, somewhat convoluted, involving a manic chase across New York City by reclusive novelist Daniel Quinn provoked by a call to the wrong number. He takes on the persona of Auster as private detective, but we seem to enter all sorts of alternative realities. To be honest, I got a bit lost. I was however gawping in wonder as the stage turned from one home to another to street to station and so on, through some of the slickest projections I’ve ever seen.

The main problem is that the staging swamps the story, and there’s no emotional engagement at all. You find yourself staring in wonder at the spectacle, but uninvolved in the events that unfold. I admired the performances, Leo Warner’s direction, Jenny Melville design and Lysander Ashton’s projections, but I didn’t engage with it.

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When the prodigiously talented Georg Buchner died aged 23, leaving behind this unfinished play, little did he know that in the following 180 years it would get more than thirty stage adaptations as well as three musicals, two operas, and a ballet. I find the attraction a bit of a puzzle. This latest one by another prodigious talent, Jack Thorne, is set in Berlin towards the end of the cold war and Woyzeck is a young British squaddie. The story is reasonably faithful to the original, and it’s given a stunning production by Joe Murphy.

Woyzeck was an orphan who spent much of his early life in foster care. Things start going wrong before the play begins when he joins the army and is posted to Northern Ireland, where amongst other things he goes AWOL, but he falls in love there with catholic girl Marie who, with their child, joins him in the next posting in Germany. Here he teams up with rather cocky fellow soldier Andrews and is befriended by Captain Thompson, whose interest in him may not be as innocent as it seems. Woyzeck, Marie and their child have to live in town in a seedy flat as they are unmarried. They are broke and amongst their money making schemes, they allow Andrews to use the flat for his assignations with the Captain’s wife and Woyzeck participates in dubious drug trials. With everything life has thrown at him, Woyzeck is on an irreversible downwards mental health spiral which inevitably ends in tragedy.

Tom Scutt’s design features twenty-five thick Berlin wall like panels which fly or slide onto the stage, creating different configurations, stunningly lit by Neil Austin, with an atmospheric soundtrack by Isobel Waller-Bridge and Gareth Fry. It’s a uniformly superb cast. I’m used to seeing Nancy Carroll in much safer roles; here she’s brilliantly racy and sexy. I was hugely impressed by Ben Batt as Andrews, Sarah Greene is terrific as Marie and Steffan Rhodri is excellent as the Captain, but its John Boyega’s show and he rises to the challenge, and more.

It’s not an easy ride, but it is an impressive achievement. 

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I was very much looking forward to seeing two favourite actresses, both dames in waiting, in the revival of a play I have fond memories of first time around. It was the night after press night and the reviews hadn’t been great. The signs in the theatre said that Felicity Kendal was indisposed, the speech from the stage, somewhat differently, said personal reasons; perhaps she’d read the reviews! We were told they hadn’t scheduled understudy rehearsals until the following day, which seems like a lack of foresight to me, but her understudy Rachel Laurence had agreed to perform. You can probably guess what’s coming……word perfect and pitch perfect, she stole the show, and her generous co-star, Maureen Lipman, made a lovely speech at the curtain call.

Peter Shaffer’s 30-year-old play revolves around Lettice, a tour guide at a heritage property, with a background in acting, who is caught by her employer embellishing and exaggerating and is fired. Lotte, her employer’s Personnel Manager, feels guilty and subsequently visits Lettice to tell her that she can help her get a new job as a guide on Thames river boats, where embellishment and exaggeration will be fine. An unlikely but mutually satisfying relationship develops, where they meet to act out pieces of history, but it leads to an incident and a brush with the law over mistaken circumstances,

It has to be said that it doesn’t seem as good a play in revival. It makes one think how much of this is the passage of time and how much is the towering presence of Maggie Smith as the original Lettice. It’s an OK play and a serviceable revival, which for me probably benefitted from the extra frisson of the understudy situation. I remember going to a special afternoon understudy run of Jerusalem, to give them all a chance to play it at least once. Mark Rylance was the only one who wasn’t an understudy. It was the fourth time I’d seen it and some were better than those they understudied. Then there was Natasha J Barnes at this very venue……..I have respected this normally invisible lot ever since, and on Thursday it was good to cheer the achievement of just one of them.

 

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How can you not like a musical whose characters include a washing machine, dryer, radio, bus and the moon?! That makes it sound silly, but it certainly isn’t. Tony Kushner’s highly innovative, ground-breaking, partly autobiographical Olivier Award winning show, with an operatic score by Jeanine Tesori, is ten years old, not seen since it’s NT UK premiere, and this is a hugely successful revival at Chichester’s intimate Minerva Theatre.

Caroline is the black maid in the Louisiana household of the Jewish Gellman family. Young Noah’s mum has died and he lives with his dad Stuart, with whom his relationship isn’t strong, his step-mom Rose, who’s trying hard but has yet to be accepted, and grandma and granddad Gellman. He’s fond of Caroline, who seems to spend most of her time in the basement doing a seemingly endless volume of laundry, where her appliances come alive to sing, her radio as an archetypal black girl trio. There’s often money left in trouser pockets and Rose tells Caroline to keep it, to teach the lazy a lesson, but perhaps as charity too.

Outside this world there is a lot going on, notably the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. It’s a time of change, represented by Caroline’s friend Dotty who is going to night school to attempt to improve her lot, and her daughter Emmie who challenges the servile, reverential attitudes of Caroline’s generation. We learn how Caroline became a single mom, and how she struggles to bring up Emmie and her two younger brothers on $30 a week. The blending of the personal stories of Noah and Caroline with the social history of the deep south in the sixties is deftly handled and Tesori’s sung-through score is packed full of lovely melodies rather than songs as such.

It’s a fabulous, faultless cast, with people of the calibre of Alex Gaumond and Beverley Klein in relatively minor roles. Nicola Hughes and Abiona Omouna are terrific as Dotty and Emmie respectively. Ako Mitchell, Angela Caesar, Me’sha Bryan, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng and Keisha Amponsa Banson are all wonderful in their various non-human, but far from inanimate, roles. Daniel Luniku is sensational as Noah, and there is yet another towering performance from Sharon D Clarke, the second in as many months, as Caroline. She is absolutely perfect for this role, acting of real power and soaring vocals. 

It’s only six month’s since Kushner’s great new play iHo at Hampstead and his masterpiece Angels in America is currently blowing people’s minds at the NT, all three proving his importance to world theatre. Michael Longhurst’s staging of this is masterly, Fly Davies design is brilliant and the musical standards under MD Nigel Lilley are sky high. I left on a high. This is why I go to the theatre. 

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Daniel Evans’ reign at Chichester begins with a rare revival of an early Alan Bennett play, almost fifty years old now, not seen in London since the 1968 premiere production. It might be flawed, and somewhat dated, but its given a fine production that’s well worth catching. 

It’s set in a boys public school where the headmaster is about to retire and pass the reigns to senior master Franklin, a more reforming figure, who has put together a play, to be performed by both staff and boys, and we, the audience, are the parents. The play-within-the-play weaves in and out and appears to be historical scenes from two world wars, plus satirical sketches involving contemporaries like T E Lawrence and the Bloomsbury set, and that’s the crux of the problem – it’s a bit of a muddle; well at least until the interval, when I did some belated research to understand what Bennett was getting at, which appears to be a review of changes in society since the end of the First World War, well, forty years on.

CFT has been turned into an authentic public school, dominated by a huge pipe organ and two big war memorial plaques in Les Brotherston’s superb design. There’s even organ accompaniment to rousing hymns and the school song which sounds like it’s coming from the onstage organ pipes, though it clearly can’t be. The apron stage is invaded by some fifty ‘extras’ in uniform, on one occasion straight from the rugby pitch, in addition to the ten actors playing named pupil roles, with just a handful of staff. It’s highly animated and oozes authenticity. The Headmaster has a lot of speeches and Richard Wilson is clearly reading some, but it doesn’t really matter; he has great presence and is every bit the old school head. In the supporting cast, I very much liked Danny Lee Wynter’s younger master, Tempest, a part originally played by Bennett himself.

The critical reception this has received is, in my view, a bit unfair and I was glad I caught it – but mug up first to get the most out of it.

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