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Posts Tagged ‘Abigail McKern’

This is a work of fiction, and if you take it as that, its charming, amusing, clever and well crafted. Some seem to have taken exception to its hijacking of cinematic history which I’m not sure it’s trying to do.

We’re in an East European Jewish village at the turn of the 20th century when Motl returns from the city after the death of his father. Discovering his father’s photographic and early cinematic equipment, he becomes enthralled with the idea of moving pictures and is encouraged and funded by local businessman Jacob to make a film of people in the village. Despite the somewhat critical reception, the idea of a work of fiction is mooted and enthusiasm goes viral as they embark on its making.

Many of the pioneers of early Hollywood were Jews from this part of the world and indeed we do skip forward to 1936 when Motl has changed his name to Maurice and become a successful director, but I don’t think the play is making any claims to present the true origin of cinema as we know it. It does include the genesis of the business model for public exhibition of films and shows technical discoveries like editing, lighting reflectors, the camera dolly and special effects, but it does so with its tongue in its cheek. We have stereotypes like the interfering producer, corner-cutting production accountant, highly strung director and upstaging actors. There are comments from a preview audience (the beginnings of the focus group) and it even hints at the casting couch!

Bob Crowley’s monochrome design cleverly merges live action with film footage, though it only opens up once to reveal the village exteriors (as a film set in 1936) which seems a bit of a shame. It’s a little slow in the first half, but does pick up pace and draws you in. The performances are a bit stereotypical (Fiddler on the Roof – with a fiddler included!) though I really liked Damien Molony as Motl and Lauren O’Neil as the love interest. The other ladies all engage well – Sue Kelvin as Motl’s aunt, Abigail McKern as Jacob’s wife and Alexis Zegerman as his daughter. This isn’t Anthony Sher’s greatest moment, but his somewhat caricatured Jacob does make you smile and laugh.

If you don’t set your sights too high, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours. The Nicholas’s Wright (playwright) and Hytner (director) have done better work, but this is an enjoyable evening nontheless and I’m glad I went.

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Peter Nichols’ playwriting career is a real puzzle to me. Between 1969 and 1982 London saw almost a play each year. He was one of the freshest, most inventive and funny writers around. In the last 28 years we’ve had no new plays and a handful of revivals, two at the Donmar and one elsewhere in the West End. Apparently he has a drawer full of unproduced work and I understand his take on it is that he’s been deserted by institutions like the NT and RSC who had earlier championed his work. So I jumped at the chance to see this new Nichols play at the tiny Finborough; the stellar cast was a bonus.

Set in a language school on post-war Florence, it explores the lives of its Italian administrator and expatriate teachers; the students are just off-stage voices. The central character is new boy Steven (passionately played by Chris New) who may be autobiographical (in which case Nichols has written himself as a bit of a shit!). He is stalked by infatuated Peggy (Charlotte Randle no less) but beds holocaust-denying Heidi (well-played by Natalie Walter) who had the attentions of administrator Gennaro (an excellent performance from Enzo Cilenti, whose name suggests he’s well qualified to play it!) before an anti-semitic rant. Add to the cocktail Abigail McKern’s terrifically plain speaking Aussie, Ian Gelder’s very English Italophile (who makes no compromises for living in Italy) and Rula Lenska, perfectly cast as an elegant smokey-voiced Russian, and you have a fascinating cast of characters.

The play is an interesting look at sensibilities in post-war Europe, but the narrative doesn’t  really live up to the excellent characterisation. The dramatic flow is damaged by a profusion of very short scenes and monologues and the play doesn’t really go anywhere, though it’s an interesting slice-of-life set in a period few have dramatised. Designer James Macnamara has worked wonders with  four shutters and some projections and director Michael Gieleta uses the tiny space well, with a ‘sound scape’ for the city and the students.

Still, I’d rather be in the sweaty Finborough watching a cast any West End producer would be proud of put on a play that’s better than any new play the National have done recently whilst they (and the Donmar) are pre-occupied with pointless revivals of 19th century German mediocrity. On this form, I think I’m inclined to side with Mr Nichols.

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