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Posts Tagged ‘Aidan Kelly’

The National Theatre has a strong track record staging great family shows at Christmas in the Olivier – Wind in the Willows, His Dark Materials, Coram Boy, Was Horse – most of which have returned in subsequent years and one of which will be on 5 stages in 4 countries this Christmas. The last five years or so have seen less rich pickings, and I’m afraid that trend continues.

Many of the ingredients of this production are outstanding. Lizzie Clachan’s design – from the make-up and tattoos of Bill Bones through the punk-gothic costumes to the stage which transforms from inn to port to ship to island – is terrific. There are some great special effects. Jon Tams has provided some lovely songs. The characterisations – particularly the pirates – are excellent. Yet despite this it has no real sense of adventure, which is a bit of a problem for an adventure story! The way the story is told is a bit patronising and somehow at odds with the style. The actors were trying hard, maybe too hard. The fighting is completely lame. It all seemed ever so half-hearted. Byrony Lavery’s adaptation seems to have removed all of the magic from a classic which has captivated children for 130 years and inspired many other successful adaptations.

Director Polly Findlay has decided to cast women as Jim Hawkins and Dr Livesey. I’m not sure why (though the line ‘girls like adventures too’ is a clue) but it didn’t bother me and both performances, by Patsy Ferran and Helena Lymbery, were excellent. Gillian Hanna was delightful as Grandma and Aidan Kelly positively terrifying as Bill Bones. I thought Nick Fletcher’s Squire Trelawney was too much of a caricature and Arthur Darvill just seemed to be going through the motions as a very low energy Long John Silver, almost devoid of swash and buckle.

At the curtain call, they didn’t look like a particularly happy company – Arthur Darvill couldn’t raise a smile (or even a baddie’s sneer), just a ‘get me out of here’ expression. I felt much the same – much admiration for the craftsmanship, but not in the slightest bit captivated by the story.

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What an odd play. This 1928 Irish anti-war piece must have been very radical then. They declined to produce it in Ireland, so it was first seen London, though it was seen in Sean O’Casey’s home country seven years later. It seems to have divided people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

In the first of four acts, we’re in a Dublin home during the first world war, just before Harry is about to go to the front. Sylvester & Simon, whose relationship with each other and others was unclear to me, are engaging in japes and banter. The woman upstairs seems to be on the receiving end of some domestic abuse from husband Teddy, also about to head for the front. Susie is trying to convert everyone and Harry’s mum is anticipating and dreading his departure. Harry returns triumphant from the football match, holding the cup which gives the play it’s title, and the celebration begins.

We then have the most extraordinary transition to the war front as the set changes before your eyes, amidst explosions and gunfire that made me jump more than a few times, until we’re in a bombed out village in the field of battle. This second act is a completely different expressionistic picture of the horrors of war, told partly in song. The staging is brilliant, but it didn’t move me (well, apart from the jumps).

We start the second half in a hospital back home. Harry has returned injured and Teddy has returned blind. Somewhat inexplicably, Sylvester & Simon are also patients and now become a fully fledged comedy double-act. Nurse Susie is being pursued by the doctor, who flirts mercilessly and openly with her. We learn that Harry’s girlfriend is now being courted by his rescuer Barney, who has received the VC for doing so. In the final act, we’re back at another post-football celebration watching Harry as a broken man.

I think O’Casey was trying to contrast the lives of those who went to war and those who stayed behind, but this doesn’t seem to me a particularly effective way of conveying the tragedy of war. It fails to engage at all on an emotional level, which is its biggest failure. It’s just a puzzling curiosity which begs a lot of questions.

What you can’t fault though is Howard Davies stunning staging, Vicki Mortimer’s superb design and a fine cast who give it their all. Even though I didn’t ‘get it’, Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy make a great comic partnership. Judith Roddy is superb as the feisty religious zealot, Aidan Kelly terrifies as violent Teddy and Aoife McMahon is excellent as his put upon wife.

I saw the Almeida revival of this 19 years ago, and Mark Anthony Turnage’s opera four years later, but I don’t remember thinking either were as odd as this. It seems to me now that it’s a great production of a play that’s full of incongruity.

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