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Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Ward’

This is the fifth Florian Zeller play produced in London in just over three years, with a sixth scheduled before four years are up – no other playwright has achieved that, I suspect, though they were written over eight years. This French playwright has really caught the eye of both producers and audiences.

The previous four were in two stylistic pairs – The Father & The Mother and The Truth & The Lie – with this one closest to the former (as it appears will the sixth one, as it’s called The Son). They’ve all been translated by Christopher Hampton and the common feature is their inventive structure – he likes to mess with your head – and length (under ninety minutes), oh, and two word titles (with the exception of this one!). I loved the first three, but I think I might already be tiring of the somewhat smug cleverness, as I eventually did with Stoppard.

This one features an elderly couple, wonderfully played by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, and their two daughters. We’re in their country home outside Paris, but just about everything else is left for you to work out. At various points, either or both parents might be dead, ghosts or in other characters’ imagination. The themes are love, grief, death, dependency, dementia (again), secrets, legacy and the obligations of children to their parents. I was intrigued and attentive, but it was too obtuse and left me unsatisfied.

Jonathan Kent’s production is very gentle, poetic and beautiful, with a lovely design by Anthony Ward. It’s superbly performed, with extraordinary chemistry between Pryce and Atkins, and fine support from Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley and nice cameos from Lucy Cohu and James Hillier. It has a very melancholic feel and works well at an emotional level, but on this occasion that wasn’t enough for me, I’m afraid.

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We don’t see many Theatre of the Absurd plays these days (well, apart from Beckett, if you include him), and its an important part of the history of modern theatre, so it’s good to catch this one. Ionesco only wrote something like nine full-length plays, and four of them feature the character Berenger, three as some sort of everyman, but here as King Berenger, in the last 98 minutes if his life.

He’s lived for 483 years, but his kingdom is shrinking and crumbling and his health deteriorating. His household consists of two Queens, doctor, guard and servant. They encourage him to accept his fate, but he’s determined to hang on to life and power, which is how we spend the 98 minutes. Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma, lots of majestic presence and authority) is the realistic, stern one. Queen Marie (Amy Morgan, delightfully coquettish), his favourite, French, is much more flaky and emotional. The Doctor (the excellent Adrian Scarborough) is a somewhat offhand doom merchant. The very put-upon servant is forever clearing up (Debra Gillet, lovely) and the Guard (a rare appearance from Derek Griffiths) acts as a sort of MC, most of the time from his elevated position in the Throne Room.

Anthony Ward’s cartoonish design cleverly reduces the stage size by a back wall, and projects the action forward into the stalls with a carpeted platform. I don’t know if or how Patrick Marber’s adaptation differs (he also directs, again). It’s impossible to say what it is about because it’s not clear what it’s about, except coming to terms with death. You just need to go along for the ride, enjoy the fine acting, especially Rhys Ifans’ towering performance as The King, and add to your education in 20th century drama. Ionesco plays don’t come along that often (I’ve only seen two others), and it’s good to see this one at last. Just don’t ask me to explain it!

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Cicero gets nine lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; here he gets a play in two parts, each of three acts, with a playing time of six hours. The RSC have given us a number of two-part epics in recent years. from Nicholas Nickleby through Canterbury Tales to Wolf Hall. Mike Poulton was responsible for the adaptation of the last two of these, as he is for this adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, a big slice of fascinating Roman history littered with contemporary parallels, and it’s brilliant.

Cicero may be the most significant Roman you don’t know much about. That’s because he was an orator and lawyer rather than an Emperor or military figure, but was considered the father of the republic and the go-to man for legal advice and rhetorical coaching, becoming a philosopher in later life. His life was extraordinarily well documented by his slave-turned-confidente & biographer Tiro. Though his papers were lost, they were known to Plutarch, who was the source for Shakespeare’s play, so Harris’ books and these plays have a solid foundation in fact, based on Plutarch.

When it starts, Rome is a republic, with democracy of a sort, two consuls elected annually by a senate made up of the great and the good of Rome, most rich patricians, but some self-made plebeians like Cicero. Cicero is a Consul and protector of the republic, but Julius Caesar is due back in triumph intent on turning Cicero’s precious republic into a dictatorship. Cicero is sent into exile, but is allowed to return before Caesar’s assassination, in which he doesn’t really play a part, though he does approve of the return of the republic, or so he thinks.

Next up is Mark Anthony, whose wife Fulvia is ‘the power behind the throne’ and he seems permanently pissed. Cicero is their biggest critic but he fails to take the Senate with him in his plan to deal with Mark Anthony, and ends up in exile once more, while Mark Anthony & Fulvia continue their life of excess and corruption. Cicero is approached by Julius Caesar’s chosen heir Octavian, who he takes a shine to and decides to help, but he too is more than meets the eye. and when he forms an alliance with Mark Anthony, Cicero is violently dispatched. Octavian will go on to become Augustus, the next dictator.

Like his other adaptations, this is rich in story and narrative and is a real theatrical feast. It’s a slow burn at first, but by the third act of the first part you’re in its grip, until its subject’s head is on a pole! In Anthony Ward’s design, the Swan has stairs behind, a pit below and a giant globe above, which provide a brilliantly flexible but evocative setting. Paul Engishby’s music, heavy on brass, is particularly good at accompanying the triumphant entries into Rome. This is the sort of production director Greg Doran does so well – lucid, well paced and often thrilling.

Cicero is a huge part and Richard McCabe is magnificent, a career high I’d say. I loved Joseph Kloska as diffident but loyal Tiro, whose journey takes him from slave to assistant to confidente to advisor and biographer. Peter de Jersey has great presence as Julius Caesar and Joe Dixon shines as both Catiline and Mark Anthony, two power hungry chancers, as does Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s protege Rufus and Octavian and Eloise Secker as Clodia and Fulvia. A terrific ensemble of seventeen actors play all of the remaining roles.

It was a difficult trip to Stratford, where I almost got stranded in the snow, but it was a real theatrical banquet and I don’t regret the travails one bit. This is the sort of theatre you remember for years.

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This late 50’s Tennessee Williams play started out as a one-act, two-character piece, until he bolted on another play called Pink Bedroom to form the second act. In this production, you can see the join. The part of the faded movie star, written for Tallulah Bankhead, has always attracted star actresses. I saw Lauren Bacall play it 32 years ago in the West End and Kim Cattrall played her in the last London outing at the Old Vic. Here we have American stage and film actress Marcia Gay Harden, with another American Brian J Smith hot-footing it from his superb turn in The Glass Menagerie in the West End. I assumed, with only a three-week Chichester run, it was West End or Broadway bound.

Chance Wayne is a gigolo and his latest customer is Hollywood’s Alexandra Del Lago, travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis (was TW taking the piss?!). Their booze and drug fuelled journey West stops off in his Mississippi home town of St. Cloud so that he can see the love of his life, Heavenly(!). Unbeknown to him, he gave her an STD when he was last back and this resulted in a life-changing medical condition. Oh, and his mother has died and been given an undignified burial by charitable contributions. He’s not good at leaving contact details. Heavenly’s dad is standing for political office on a somewhat disingenuous ticket disguising his racism and they get caught up in the campaign and the revenge plotted by Heavenly’s brother Tom.

It’s not one of TW’s best and the two acts really are a contrast. It does come alive in the second, but it’s sometimes farfetched and overly melodramatic in writing and too reverential and melodramatic in Jonathan Kent’s production. The entire first act takes place in a hotel bedroom, and its asking a lot of the Chichester main stage to create such an intimate setting. The hotel bar scene which takes up much of the second act opens it up, but also shows up the differences. Anthony Ward’s design is excellent, as are the performances, if a bit OTT in the TW way, with Richard Cordery as Boss Finley and Graham Butler as Tom Finlay deserving mention alongside the star pairing.

I’ve never been in such a small audience at Chichester – less than a quarter full, I’d say – which is a puzzle, and a shame for our American guests, who deserve better. I doubt we’ll see it in London, but maybe Broadway? I’ve had a lot of better TW experiences, but I don’t regret the trip.

 

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Playwright Patrick Marber has shot himself in the foot by producing a very dull 50-minute first act. I’ve never seen so many people fail to return after the interval. What followed were two much better acts, but it never really recovered, for those who stayed.

We’re in the world of semi-professional football, in the changing room, so I was rather surprised to find it is a three-hander. There’s the manager Kidd, a bit of a spiv but he appears to have turned the team around. Then there’s the kit man John, a former player who fell on hard times. He’s a bit of a father figure who commands respect and love. Finally, there’s the new player Jordan who shows much promise. Scene-setting and character introductions are about all we get in this first act.

For those that did return, in the second act we see the murkier side of football, where people are on the make, more interested in business and money than sport. To many, the new boy is a commodity rather than a player and we realise the processes of realising value from such commodities are both formal and informal and complex. I’ve thought for ages that business has swallowed up football, but I hadn’t realised that included obscure semi-professional clubs. In the third act it all comes home to roost and John proves to be the only truly honest one, with his principles intact, and a love of the game and the club which overrides everything else. The ending is somewhat melodramatic.

Anthony Ward has created a high-ceilinged uber-realistic dressing room, complete with tacky signs and mud. This is one of Peter Wight’s very best performances, a deep and delicate characerisation of John. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Mays and he’s perfect for the role of the manager, though I felt he overplayed it occasionally. Calvin Demba continues to show the promise he showed in the even more disappointing Wolf at the Door at the Royal Court; let’s hope he gets a better role and play next time.

Seeing Closer at the Donmar last year made me realise what good plays Marber has written. He preceded this with Dealer’s Choice and After Miss Julie and followed it with Don Juan in Soho, but that’s nine years ago now. Perhaps he’s lost his mojo, or perhaps he’s too involved in semi-professional football himself to see the flaws in his own play, but I would have expected a director as good as Ian Rickson to have addressed that. There’s a much better, shorter, more evenly balanced play in here crying to get out. A disappointment.

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Though I’ve seen most of Pedro Almodovar’s later films, I haven’t seen the one on which this musical is based, so I came to it cold. Sadly, I left it a bit cold too.

The story revolves around serial lover Ivan, his most recent Pepa, his ex Lucia and his new flame Paulina. Lucia is still pursuing him through the courts almost twenty years on and Paulina is her lawyer. Pepa is obtaining advice from Paulina for her neurotic model friend Candella who has come under the spell of terrorist Malik. Ivan & Lucia’s son Carlos is engaged to Marisa but takes a shine to Candella (like father, like son). It’s a quirky black comedy.

Most of David Yazbek’s songs have a Spanish flavour. They’re OK, but the score isn’t really good enough for a full-blown West End show. The narrative moves along apace and there are a fair few laughs, but it doesn’t fizz and sparkle. The biggest question for me is what is the point of a musical adaptation in the first place? It doesn’t seem to add or illuminate anything. It all seemed to be a bit flat and even though its in previews and beset by cast illness, it’s hard to see what could be done to breathe life into it. It flopped on Broadway four years ago, so what made them think they could turn that around here?

Both Tamsin Greig (Pepa) and Willemjin Verkaik (Paulina) were ill on the night I went, but their covers, Rebecca McKinnis and Holly James respectively, acquitted themselves well, so I don’t think that contributed to my disappointment. I was impressed most by Anna Skellern as Candella and Ricardo Afonso as Taxi Driver, a sort of narrator, and I liked Haydn Gwynne as Lucia. Michael Matus, a fine musical performer, is wasted in his small roles. Anthony Ward’s day glo two-tier set is fun and facilities speedy changes of location.

I didn’t dislike it, I wasn’t bored by it, but it didn’t capture my imagination and I left feeling indifferent I’m afraid.

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Musical theatre lovers are very precious about this show. Many consider it the greatest Broadway has seen, but I wouldn’t agree with that (Guys & Dolls and West Side Story, to name but two, would be ahead of it in my list). The only other time I saw it, on Broadway with Bernadette Peters as Mamma Rose 10 years ago, right in the middle of the show a huge man stood up, said ‘well, she ain’t no Ethel Merman’ and stomped out of the theatre. It’s forever associated with Merman and Angela Lansbury, who was London’s first Mamma Rose, and any actress attempting it is very brave indeed.

It’s the archetypal showbiz show and Rose is the archetypal stage mom, pushing her daughters forward relentlessly, regardless of their own wishes. She keeps their kids act way beyond its sell-by date, recycling it with variations on a theme. She loses her youngest and favourite June, who escapes and elopes, only to turn her attention to the elder Louise who she had hitherto virtually ignored. The declining standards of the act and the demise of vaudeville happen simultaneously and they find themselves in burlesque, providing cover for the racier stuff. In her final act of self obsessed determination, she puts Louise on stage as a stripper, renamed Gypsy Rose Lee, the real life person on whose memoirs it’s based.

It’s got a very good score by Jules Styne, with a high quota of standards, a book by Arthur Laurents and terrific lyrics by Stephen Sondheim no less. A bit of a dream team, I’d say. Chichester has matched it with their own creative dream team – director Jonathan Kent (responsible for their stunning Sweeney Todd just three years ago), inventive choreographer Stephen Mear and Designer Anthony Ward (who co-incidentally designed my only other Gypsy – which was itself directed by Sam Mendes!). The band under Nicholas Skilbeck make a thrilling sound; I can still hear that wonderful brass.

Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand brought the house down as strippers who Gotta Get A Gimmick, Lara Pulver plays the transition from second string daughter Louise to star Gypsy Rose Lee superbly and Gemma Sutton is great as favourite daughter June growing up before your very eyes. I was surprised to see Kevin Whately cast as Herbie, but he pulled it off. What can you say about Imelda Staunton? Following a definitive Mrs Lovett with a brilliant down-on-her-luck Boston woman in Good People to this truly commanding performance. I knew she’d act it well, but the vocals were a revelation. She started with a great Some People, ended the first act with a stunning Everything’s Coming Up Roses and ended the show with a deeply emotional Rose’s Turn. She inhabits this single-minded woman, combining humour with an extraordinary range of emotions – whilst singing and dancing! You don’t see many performances that good in a lifetime of theatre-going; thrilling stuff.

London producers are now spoilt for choice – should they transfer Guys & Dolls or this or both? I’d put my money on this for sure – London has to see Dame Imelda’s finest hour.

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