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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Fleischle’

The two ladies in question are the First Lady’s of France and the USA, thinly disguised from the present ones by changing their nationalities and a few other things. Nancy Harris’ new play is an interesting examination of the roles of First Ladies, supplemented by some insightful quotes from, and commentary on, nineteen real First Ladies from seven countries spanning seventy years in the accompanying programme.

Their husbands / the Presidents are at an emergency summit on the Cote d’Azur following recent terrorist outrages, trying to agree on an appropriate response. The two ladies have been taken to a side room following an incident when a protester threw something at one of them. Whilst the clean-up takes place, and their assistants discuss and reschedule their day, they share their respective husband’s positions, one seemingly in agreement with hers, the other more radical than her husband.

They also share information about their respective lives and feelings, sometimes willingly, sometimes coerced. It takes some interesting turns, some a touch implausible perhaps, but it does make you think about their roles and potential to influence their husbands and thereby world events. As Ladybird Johnson put it, they are ‘an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband’. It holds you in its grip for 100 minutes.

It’s somewhat limited dramatically by its confinement to one room, with views outside to the corniche from one side and to the corridor from the other. Zoe Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitesic play their respective roles well and are very good together, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord. They are occasionally joined by their assistants, Yoli Fuller as diplomatic Georges and Lorna Brown as assertive Sandy, both well played, plus Fatima the maid, Raghad Chaar, whose role goes way beyond serving drinks.

Hopefully neither president will sue!

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It’s seventy years since this iconic American play first appeared on Broadway, the second of Arthur Miller’s four big hits between 1947 and 1955, and it’s forty years since I first saw it in Michael Rudman’s production for the NT, with Warren Mitchel’s revelatory award-winning performance as Willy Loman. For some reason, I’ve only seen it a few times since, less than the other tree. It’s a timeless piece, and now Marianne Elliott & Miranda Cromwell have breathed new life into it, in an extraordinary revival at the Young Vic.

Most productions focus so much on Willy Loman and his late career meltdown that they ignore the greater sweep of family tragedy and its many layers. Willy is indeed burnt out by a relentless life on the road. When he tries to get his employer to let him return to base, he gets fired. His loyalty and service mean nothing to the son of the man who hired him, and his mental health declines, but added to his woes are the fact that his sons have been disappointments, Biff a failed sportsman who ended up as a farm labourer, Happy a womaniser with a low level job. His wife Linda struggles to manage the tensions and keep the peace. Their neighbour Charley, whose son, a contemporary of Biff, is a successful lawyer, loans them money to keep them afloat. Flashbacks to times past include Willy’s visits to his mistress, once witnessed by Biff, and there are imaginary conversations with his dead Uncle Ben, both interspersed with the family saga’s inevitable progress to its tragic conclusion.

In this production, the Loman’s are a black Brooklyn family and this adds another layer but changes nothing. Wendell Pierce is outstanding as Willy, navigating this emotional roller-coaster of a role with great skill. Sharon D Clarke’s Linda loves her man and her boys but shares his disappointments and frustrations; as stunning a performance as we’ve become used to from this fine actress. Arinze Kene and Martins Imhangbe are simply terrific as Biff and Happy, trying but failing to please, carrying their own disappointments on their shoulders. They are supported by another eight performances in a fine ensemble, including superb cameos from Joseph Mydell as Uncle Ben and Matthew Seadon-Young as Willy’s young employer Howard. Femi Temowo’s music adds much, particularly with fine singers like Sharon D Clarke and Arinze Kene in the company. Anna Fleischle’s design serves the play well.

The unofficial Miller mini-fest reaches it’s pinnacle here with a revival that’s too good to see only once. I’ll be back!

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Brunhilde Pomsel was an ordinary German woman, spending most of her life working in an office. What made her extraordinary is that during the Second World War she worked for Goebbels in his propaganda ministry. She was interviewed in her home in Munich for a documentary of the same title shortly before her death, aged 105. From this, Christopher Hampton has created a one-woman play, with Maggie Smith as Pomsel speaking directly to the audience as if we are the interviewer. It’s a captivating story and a virtuoso performance.

Pomsel sits in her room at the old peoples home as she tells us about her life from early memories of the First World War onwards. She’s the eldest of five (the other four boys), her father away in the war during much of her early childhood. She leaves school at sixteen, her father quashing her ambitions, becoming a typist, very proud of her shorthand skills. In her early twenties all around her were joining the Nazi’s, including her boyfriend Heinz. She remained somewhat detached from this, though she sometimes attended rallies, and she recalled voting for them in 1932.

She speaks very matter of factly about her life during the Second World War, perhaps because she was unaware of much of what was happening outside her office, maybe because she had chosen to blank it out, but mostly because she didn’t see what it had to do with her. To the end, she didn’t feel she, or other ordinary Germans, had anything to apologise for. Even after five years imprisoned by the Russians in a former concentration camp, knowing by now what had gone on there, she had little guilt or remorse.

There’s an objectivity to the piece which leads you to question but not judge. You can’t help wondering what you would do in similar circumstances. This personal first-hand testimony is unique and fascinating. Maggie Smith delivers the monologue without emotion, even when talking about personal tragedies. Her speech is completely natural, with hesitation, pauses and imperfections. Her audience contact is extraordinary, to the point where you often feel she is talking directly to you and no-one else. The stage moves imperceptibly towards you as the play progresses, drawing you in physically too. The rapt silence of the audience is testimony to their engagement with the story.

It was a privilege hearing this fascinating testimony conveyed by one of our greatest actresses still at the height of her powers, at 84.

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This is one of those occasions where writing, design, performances and staging all come together to create something special. Laura Wade’s play may prove to be the year’s best new play. Whilst I find the superlatives thesaurus, you may wish to stop here if you haven’t read any other reviews and you’ve booked to see it; what follows won’t spoil it, but might just take the edge off it.

Judy and Johnny are obsessed with the 50’s, their friends Fran and Marcus share their interest, but less obsessively. All we know about Johnny is that he’s an estate agent who didn’t go to university. Judy was brought up by her feminist mother in a Sussex commune, went to university and became an accountant. Voluntary redundancy gives her the opportunity to give up work and plunge them fully into a 50’s lifestyle, becoming a housewife, aspiring domestic goddess.

Their reserves are disappearing as Johnny’s commission is declining. One less income, and all that retro furniture and clothes which don’t come cheap. Still, they seem completely wrapped up in their fantasy, until Johnny’s failure to get a promotion triggers a series of events involving his new very driven boss Alex, who’s bemused by their lifestyle, and Judy’s mum Sylvia, who disapproves of the patriarchal accoutrements it brings with it. There’s a clever sub-plot involving problems Marcus is having at work.

What I like about Wade’s play is the many layers she achieves, exploring attitudes and behaviour then and now, as Judy and Johnny change as their fantasy progresses, and how that is seen by those left in the here and now. Things are not always what they appear to be, so it often surprises you. We’ve travelled a long way from the 50’s but in many ways not far enough, as juxtaposing the two periods, even one as a fantasy, proves. It’s like a conversation between then and now. Director Tamara Harvey’s production draws you in; even the activity of the scene changes prove captivating.

Anna Fleischle’s extraordinarily detailed design is stunning, as obsessive as the obsession that drives Judy & Johnny. The period music makes for a superb soundtrack. Katherine Parkinson is terrific as Judy, never leaving the home, so on stage the whole time. Richard Harrington gives a nuanced portrayal as Johnny, revealing insecurities and doubts as well as his devotion to Judy. Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay are excellent as Fran and Marcus, sometimes contributing nifty period dance routines between scenes. Sian Thomas shines as the mum whose values Judy seems to be rebelling against, as does Sara Gregory as Johnny’s boss, oblivious to his attraction to her.

An unmissable night in the theatre that reminds you why you go.

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This theatrical debate about our patriarchal society is bang up-to-date. Ella Hickson’s play is original, challenging, audacious and sometimes uncomfortable. I found it hugely stimulating and I’m still processing it.

It revolves around a writer and her interactions with the director of her play and her partner. In a Pirandellian way, it mugs you into thinking a scene is something it isn’t, giving it an unpredictability that proves gripping in itself. Starting in a theatre after a show, an audience member and a theatre producer discuss the play that’s just been performed. From here, we move off and on stage in a way it’s impossible to describe without spoiling it. The issues are debated in six scenes over two unbroken hours and I was enthralled.

Blanche McIntyre’s staging and Anna Fleische’s design also continually surprise too; you can’t take your eyes off the scene changes as well. Romola Garai’s passion for the subject comes over in her brilliantly passionate performance as the writer, but there are great performances too from Michael Gould as the director and Sam West & Lara Rossi in more than one role each, which would also be a spoiler to describe.

Theatre can be very powerful in debating current issues and so it proves here. It’s difficult to describe, not always easy to watch, but essential to see.

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Theatre owes a lot to The Restoration, the fifty-year period from 1660 to 1710 that followed an eighteen-year theatre ban. Playwrights, including the first women playwrights like Aphra Behn, wrote meaty roles for women who could at last play them themselves. Many of these ‘comedies of manners’, like this, have survived. I’ve seen around a dozenn and the last one, The Beaux Stratagem at the NT, sparkled. So I was looking forward to William Congreve’s last play, returning home to Covent Garden.

It’s a convoluted plot revolving around the relationship between Mirabell (an excellent Geoffrey Streatfield) and Millamant (wonderfully played by Justine Mitchell, hotfooting it over from Beginning at the Ambassadors around the corner). They need Lady Wishforth’s blessing to marry, but she wants Millamant’s hand for her nephew Sir Wilfull Witwoud. Mirabell’s friend Fainall is having an affair with Mrs Marwood, who once had an affair with him. Mirabell’s servant secretly marries Lady Wishforth’s servant and they plot to help Mirabell by deceiving Lady Wishforth.  As with all restoration comedy, it’s flowery character names, social satire that’s a bit lost on us three-hundred years on and much wordplay. The production is beautifully designed by Anna Fleischle, whose costumes are simply gorgeous, and it’s atmospherically lit by Peter Mumford.

For a comedy there are nowhere near enough laughs, particularly in the first half, which is one long, dull set-up. It picks up after the interval, with some particularly good scenes, notably the ‘proviso’ scene where Mirabell and Milamant negotiate the terms of their marriage, but it’s too late (particularly for the significant number who didn’t return!). It’s an excellent ensemble, with great performances from Jenny Jules as Mrs Marwood and Tom Mison as Fainall, both cold and calculating, and Christian Patterson as a very hearty and funny Sir Wilfull. There are lovely cameos from Fisayao Akinade and Simon Manyonda as Witwoud and Petulant and Alex Beckett and Sarah Hadland as the pair of plotting servants.

I came to the conclusion that the play is of its time and has nothing to say to a contemporary audience. If it was entertaining, it might still be worth reviving, but it isn’t – at 3 hours 15 minutes, it’s a long, dull evening. So much talent, but a play not worthy of it today.

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This is a breath of fresh air for the West End, full of energy and life-affirming joy, and perhaps the first musical to be inspired by a documentary?

Sixteen-year-old Jamie wants to be a drag queen, and to wear a dress to the school prom. His divorced mum Margaret, her friend Ray and his bestie Pritti support him, but his dad, his school and some of his classmates don’t approve. He’s befriended and coached by Hugo, a former drag queen, now owner of a shop supplying drag outfits, and starts developing an act for an invited audience at the local drag club where three other drag queens also provide advice and support. The showcase goes ahead, followed by the even bigger challenge of the prom.

Dan Gillespie Sells score and Tom Macrae’s book and lyrics are excellent; they bring a fresh pop sound, rather than a bog standard musicals one, the style of songs changing to match the characters. Kate Prince’s choreography is simply terrific, again fresh rather than standard musicals movement. The school scenes in particular have extraordinary authenticity and high energy. I liked Anna Fleischle’s design, with projections by Luke Halls, and it’s staged with great pace by Jonathan Butterell.

It seems like a very happy cast, visibly enthusiastic, many of them transferring from Sheffield with the show. Lucie Shorthouse is outstanding as Pritti, comfortable with both her Muslim culture and Jamie’s personal choices. The relationship between Jamie and his mum is at the heart of the show and Josie Walker invests a lot of emotional energy into Margaret, with her big second act song feeling like a big hug from your mum. Mina Anwar is lovely as the ballsy Ray, who’s love for Margaret and Jamie knows no bounds. John McRea towers over all of this with a supremely confident, passionate performance; an astonishing West End debut.

I watched the documentary after seeing the show and it proves it’s very faithful to Jamie’s story. The show’s message of tolerance, of everyone being allowed to be who they are, comes over loud and clear in what is clearly a populist and critical success. Lets hope it’s a commercial success too, so that we can get more fresh air like this into the West End.

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