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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Fleischle’

If the nickname ‘The Welsh Les Mis’ hadn’t already been taken by My Land’s Shore (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/my-lands-shore), soon to have its Welsh stage premiere (www.mylandsshoremusical.com), it might be applied to this, though it’s more Les-Mis-meets-Oliver! Whilst half of Wales seemed to be watching rugby at the Millennium Stadium, the other half seemed packed into the Wales Millennium Centre last Saturday afternoon. We travelled from London and the journey was rewarded; there’s much to enjoy here.

It’s set in Cardiff docks at the beginning of the 20th century. This is the busiest port in the world, exporting coal to fuel industry worldwide, run by the world’s richest man, the Marquess of Bute, who lives in Cardiff Castle. It’s a backdrop of child labour, prostitution, the birth of trade unions and suffragettes in one of the world’s first melting pots, nicknamed Tiger Bay by Portuguese sailors. There are several story strands against this backdrop. The Marquess is obsessed with finding his former mistress Mary, who he believes has a son by him. His harbour-master is pursuing shop girl Rowena, but he’s also feeding his boss’ obsession and exploiting the workers and children. African labourer Temba is also attracted to Rowena, and he has a score to settle with O’Rourke.

It’s a blend of fact and fiction, and Michael Williams’ book needs some work to tighten it and shorten it, but it’s a good story for a musical drama. Though Daf James’ score sometimes seems derivative (you can hear echoes of Les Mis, even Sondheim’s Into the Woods) it has some cracking tunes and rousing choruses and we’re in Wales, so the singing is glorious. The producers, writers and directors have lots of experience, but not so much in musical theatre, and I felt they could have done with some help from someone who had, to turn a good show into a great one.

I loved Anna Fleischle’s design, dominated by a ship’s prow with similar metallic screens that move to create different settings, shadows created by Joshua Carr’s lighting often playing on them atmospherically. Melly Still & Max Barton marshal their cast of over 40 very well, though I felt dance was over-used, sometimes inappropriately or incongruously.

John Owen-Jones is a commanding presence as the Marquess, but the part wasn’t really big enough for his talents. Noel Sullivan was hugely impressive as harbour-master O’Rourke, as was recent RWCMD graduate Vikki Bebb as Rowena, both with superb vocals. Dom Hartley-Harris gave a passionate performance as Temba and local girl Suzanne Packer was terrific as Marisha. The show is a co-production with Cape Town Opera in their ongoing partnership with WMC and Busisiwe Ngejane and Luvo Rasemeni as Klondike Ellie and Fezile respectively, both veterans of the wonderful Isango Ensemle, continue in the roles they created in the Cape Town premiere.

Well worth the trip to Wales!

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The four Florian Zeller plays we’ve seen here in London in the last few years have been in a different order to how they were written / first produced. We’ve had The Father, The Mother, The Truth and now The Lie in that order, but The Mother, The Truth, The Father and The Lie is how they were written. The significance of this is that The Lie follows The Truth, 18 months later rather than the three years after, and this, in my view, affects its welcome. I felt it was more of the same and I left the theatre disappointed.

The Lie concerns a couple, Paul & Alice, and their friends, another couple, Michel & Laurence (female). It’s a who’s-having-an-affair-with-whom concoction full of false trails and even a false ending, which to be honest I found irritating. It’s clever, but that’s about all. I felt I was being manipulated by a writer for his enjoyment rather than mine.

The whole thing is set in Paul & Alice’s apartment and we don’t know how much time has passed between scenes. It’s expertly performed by real-life husband and wife Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond, supported by Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath, all of whom who also seemed to be enjoying it more than me.

There’s a fine, elegant apartment setting by Anna Fleischle and Lindsay Posner’s staging works like clockwork, but I’m afraid it left me cold. Cleverness for its own sake, it just seemed pointless. I have enjoyed this other three plays and I hope we have better to come as I’d identified Zeller as a real find. Hopefully a blip rather than a burst bubble.

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I think I might be falling out of love with Tom Stoppard. I didn’t really like his latest play The Hard Problem and I took against Travesties in it’s recent revival at the Menier. I last saw this play six years ago, when it left me with the same feeling as the recent Travesties – ‘look how clever I am’ – but I decided to give it another go as I recall enjoying earlier productions.

The titular characters are of course minor characters in Hamlet and you probably do need to know that play, which is effectively playing concurrently, mostly off-stage, to ‘get’ this one. What we get is these minor Hamlet character’s musings, adventures at sea en route from Denmark to England and interaction with The Player and his troop. Hamlet, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Horatio and Fortinbras all put in appearances.

Today it seems the work of a clever clogs young playwright showing off. It’s undoubtedly intelligent, but that comes with an air of superiority and glibness which for me rather stifles it. Whatever you think of the play, though, David Leveaux’s production is as good as it gets, with a superb impressionistic design from Anna Fleischle.

The chemistry of the titular pair is crucial. The last paring I saw was Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett, who had worked together for years on The History Boys but didn’t have that chemistry. Daniel Ratcliffe and Joshua Maguire don’t appear to have worked together before, yet they have it in abundance. I admire Radcliffe for how he has managed his post-Potter career and here he takes a role often upstaged by two others without any attempt to use his star status or upstage his colleagues. David Haig as The Player is a larger-than-life ‘Lord of Misrule’ with punk gothic followers,  like some sort of Pied Piper, and he almost steals the show.

Great production. Great performances. Maybe the play has had its day.

 

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Looking at those on stage and in the audience on Tuesday, it was clear Jonathan Larson’s ground-breaking 20-year-old rock opera is being played by and for a new generation, and indeed it felt more like a new show than a revival. This production is grungier and edgier, and probably the better for it.

A modern spin on Puccini’s La Boheme (a melody from which weaves through it), it’s the most emotional of shows and I was surprised at how much it swept me away all over again. The original production opened in 1996 in New York, the first preview on the day after Larson’s death; he never knew the impact it would make. It opened in London two years later; I think I saw it three times. There was a somewhat sanitised ‘remix’ in London ten years ago and here we are now with a 20th Anniversary production. Even though the spectre of AIDS is important to the show, as TB was to Puccini’s, we’re now in a world of living with it rather than dying of it, yet it still seems timeless.

It’s set amongst a young Bohemian artistic community in East Village, New York City at Christmas, centred on the apartment of budding film-maker Mark and musician Roger. They struugle to pay the rent and to stay warm. Their former flatmate Benny is now their unsympathetic landlord. Their gay friend Collins is befriended by drag queen Angel, both HIV positive, and they form a relationship. Their neighbour and exotic dancer Mimi has her eyes on Roger, who is also HIV positive. Mark’s ex Maureen is now in a relationship with Joanne. The story of the relationships is interspersed with the story of their art, the disease and their housing crises.

I call it a rock opera because there is very little dialogue, and because the score propels the story in what in opera is called recitative between the songs. It is a great score and the musical and vocal standards here are very high, not least in the gorgeous second act opener Seasons of Love, which enables those in smaller roles to move briefly into the spotlight. There’s a lot of music to tell a lot of story and the first half is a touch too long, but it’s a pacey production by Bruce Guthrie, with great choreograhy by Lee Proud. Anna Fleischele’s set conveys the fire escape covered apartment blocks of this part of NYC very effectively. All eight leads are excellent, with a stand-out performance by Layton Williams as Angel, and there’s a fine ensemble of another eight in support.

It was great to see it again, to see how much it meant to another generation, and to see it staged with such energy and passion.

 

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You can always rely on National Theatre Wales to take you on a new journey or to take a new route on an existing one. This isn’t the first play on dementia I’ve seen in recent years, but unlike The Father, which messed with your head to confront the condition, this one goes straight to the heart, with it’s choir setting and lovely contemporary choral music.

Most of the play takes place in the local library where the dementia choir rehearse, though we also visit homes to see some of the realities of living with the condition for both the patients and the carers. As it establishes itself, the therapeutic power of the choir becomes clear, though social services prove less than fully committed and the library is facing an uncertain future. The divisiveness of the miners strike return as an activist miner Rocky and former policeman Evan clash once more. Early onset alzheimer’s brings the much younger Joe and his carer Dyanne to the choir. We have a brief glimpse at carer abuse and a more difficult confrontation with a representative of the result of the demise of the valleys.

It’s a touch bitty, with lots of scene changes slowing the pace (and an awful lot of chair movement!), but it handles the issues effectively and sensitively and the music, including an excellent brand new Manic Street Preachers song written specially for the show, is uplifting. The performances are deeply moving, especially Dafydd Hywel as Rocky, Desmond Barrit as his nemesis Evan and Martin Marquez as Tom. NTW have been working with choirs like this and it’s great to see some of them on stage. Anna Fleischle’s design is uber-realistic and Matthew Dunstster’s staging brings out the best of Patrick Jones’ heart-on-sleeve writing.

I continue to admire NTW’s capacity to engage, educate, challenge, provoke and entertain and was glad I was in Wales to catch this.

 

 

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In the seven years between 1996 and 2003 we had six Martin McDonagh plays, then nothing for twelve years until this. Well, the McDonagh famine is over and his distinctive quirky black comedy voice is to be heard again at the Royal Court in what might be his best play to date, and the best new play at the Court for some time.

This is the first of his plays to be set in England rather than Ireland. It’s the early 60’s, capital punishment is being abolished and Britain’s hangmen take up new careers. Former hangman Harry, his wife April and daughter Shirley run a typical Northern boozer, whose regulars include Police Inspector Fry and a group of hardened drinkers who are in awe of Harry’s infamy. He decides to tell his story to a local cub reporter and the published article is unkind to his rival Pierrepoint, who pays him a visit later in the play. His ex assistant Syd, a mousy somewhat passive character, is intent on taking Harry down a peg or two and colludes with the mysterious and menacing Mooney, who may be connected to Harry’s last victim. How this plays out is the heart of the play, which I won’t spoil.

At the interval, I wasn’t sure what to make of it as there was so much to unravel, but the second half plays out brilliantly and unpredictably with horror and humour in equal measure in a style only McDonagh could write, with some of the most un-PC lines you’ll hear in a theatre today! The cast is outstanding. David Morrisssey is terrific as Harry, with a very commanding presence, and Reece Sheersmith is the perfect foil as the hapless Syd. Johnny Flynn captures the menace of Mooney in the best performance I’ve seen him give. The ever-present drinkers are superbly characterised by Ryan Hope, Graeme Hawley and especially Simon Rouse as partially deaf Arthur. When we eventually meet John Hodgkinson’s Pierrpoint, he’s every inch the No. 1 hangman, towering over Harry’s No. 2.

The first scene is two years earlier in prison and when the location changes, the transformation is quite a shock, and perhaps a bit over-engineered and unnecessarily expensive. There’s a third location, a cafe, which is cleverly created more modestly. There’s a real attention to period detail for the main pub set; Anna Fleschle’s design is impressive, as is Matthew Dunster’s direction.

I thought we might have lost McDonagh to films. He never completed the Aran Islands trilogy as he wasn’t happy with the third play and his only subsequent work was written specifically for New York and we haven’t seen it here, so this return is a real treat and the production and performances do full justice to a cracking play.

 

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I’ve waited 18 years to see another Rodney Ackland play. During this time, we’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of Chekov’s, Pinter’s and Shaw’s, but nothing by this sadly neglected 20th Century British playwright. Why? He wrote c.25 plays, almost half of them adaptations, and to my knowledge only two of them have been produced in London in the last 30 years or so.

It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the play, largely because the characters are like living museum pieces. They don’t make them like this anymore! Or do they? The Skinner’s are an upper middle-class family of five with three staff (only one of whom we meet). We’re in the immediate post-war period, where rationing, and attempts to overcome it, is still a fact of life. Aubrey is a lawyer seeking the local Conservative nomination. His wife Blanche is a bit useless. Elder daughters Laura & Kathleen forever bicker; Laura has returned from the Gold Coast a widow but already has a new man in her life and spinster Kathleen is lonely & jealous. Younger daughter Susan can’t understand any of them.

Aubrey, Blanch & Kathleen are dreadful snobs, more than a bit racist, contemptuous of the staff and the lower classes and obsessed with how others see them. Social climbers, their over-riding need is to conform, so they are outraged that Laura would abandon her mourning clothing and contemplate re-marriage so soon. Things get worse as the truth of her husband’s death emerges, then turn again as her boyfriend David’s pedigree becomes known. The ending is very clever.

This must have been way ahead of its time with such sharp social satire. It’s bitingly funny and occasionally shocking and you love to hate these people, whist you recognise aspects of their attitudes and behaviours in yourself and others. We never see the party, but spend the whole play in Laura’s bedroom before and after it; projected animations of the exterior of the home and the journey back from the party provide a highly original way to link to it.

Director Matthew Dunster is lucky to have such a terrific cast. Michael Thomas & Stella Gonet bring alive the period values brilliantly. June Watson is a treat to watch as Nanny, seemingly loyal yet with an undercurrent of contempt. Michele Terry, playing perhaps the most conservative of them all, captures but contains the repressed feelings of Kathleen. Laura is a psychologically complex character and it must be hard to find the right balance, but Katherine Parkinson does this beautifully. I loved Anna Fleischle’s period perfect design which somehow brought the stage towards you so that felt very close to it all.

The extraordinary production of Absolute Hell at the NT in 1995 should have prompted lots more Ackland, but it didn’t. Lets hope this fine revival does better.

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