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Posts Tagged ‘Alexis Zegerman’

This is another of those occasions when you gasp as you walk into Hampstead Theatre’s auditorium. Lizzie Clachan has built an extraordinary three-story house on the stage, the interior of a New York City brownstone. Characters even make trips up and down to two other (invisible) floors. The new play within, Alexis Zegerman’s The Fever Syndrome, is a meaty drama and uses the space well in Roxana Silbert’s production.

Professor Richard Myers is one of the founding fathers of the scientific community that gave us IVF, and a lot more. His illustrious career is about to be recognised with a lifetime achievement award and his family have gathered to celebrate with him. He’s been married three times. Dorothea is his eldest child, by his first wife. She’s the one very much in control in her marriage to Nate. They have a daughter, Lily, who has Fever Syndrome, a genetic condition. Twins Thomas, a gay artist, and Anthony, a West Coast entrepreneur, are by his second wife. He has no children by his third and current wife Megan, his carer too, as he has Parkinson’s Disease. They are joined by Thomas’ partner Philip, ex-military, ex-drug user.

In the evening before and morning of their departure for the ceremony, relationships unravel. Dorothea sees Megan as some sort of fortune hunter and is anxious to secure her daughter’s future, and pay her medical bills, setting up a trust fund with her father’s money. Philip’s marriage proposal catches Thomas unawares and threatens their hitherto stable relationship. Richard has trusted Anthony with his investments, which may not have been a wise idea, and his wife’s relationship with him looks more than a touch unhealthy. Richard seems to be haunted by Dorothea’s childhood, seeing and hearing her younger self taunt him. Megan just wants everyone to get on, and to look after Richard as best she can.

It’s a family saga in the American style we were used to seeing in the late 20th Century, with the science that Richard spent his life in woven through. It leaves a bit too much to be revealed too late, and becomes overly melodramatic for my taste. That said, it’s the sort of substantial drama we see too rarely these days and I much admired the ambition and staging.

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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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