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Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Ward’

I hadn’t read any reviews, so my expectation was a biographical play about Josephine Baker – but this is a much more ambitious, complex, brave and multi-layered piece that truly wears its heart on its sleeve. It also features one of those rare virtuoso performances that stand alone regardless of the material.

What Cush Jumbo does is weave her personal story (some of the ‘current’ story is so personal, it surely can’t be entirely autobiographical?) with that of the extraordinary life of the icon. Cush became obsessed with Baker at an early age and we see her Josephine doll and her scrapbook. She finds parallels between their lives, notably the racism both experienced. She often switches between the character and her real self in mid-flow. At first this is all a bit puzzling, but it does find its rhythm and it’s surprising how much you learn about Baker’s life, albeit occasionally rushed.

Cush is both writer and performer and she’s lucky enough to have world-class director Phyllida Lloyd and world-class designer Anthony Ward to help provide a highly original, inventive and superlative staging. They’ve turned The Bush into a lovely night club with table seating on two levels (and chilli table cloths to die for!) and a bare stage which transforms with curtains and projections. There are props all over the place, which enables her to pick one up and move quickly into the next episode. On the side of the stage, pianist Joseph Atkins plays as both soloist and accompanist.

Whatever you think of the show, it is impossible not to be impressed by Cush’s passionate, energetic full-on performance. She can sing and dance as well as act. She has the ability to transform, to switch characters, to age and above all to connect with the audience whoever she is at that moment. I hardly took my eyes off her for 100 minutes. She has gone from a delightful turn in From She Stoops to Conquer at the NT to a thrilling one in Julius Caesar at the Donmar to this mesmerizing and extraordinary performance in just eighteen months. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is a very special actor indeed.

This has to be seen, so if you haven’t or haven’t planned to, you know what you have to do!

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When I was trying to buy a beer at a rock concert in Albuquerque, they asked to see my wristband. I didn’t have one so I was shown where to get one and told I would need ID to do so, but the only reason they gave me for needing a wristband was ‘to buy a beer’ (I was twice the minimum age). When I asked the wristband people why I needed it they said ‘to get a beer’. I still don’t know why I needed to produce ID to get a wristband to get a beer, but this recollection popped into my head half-way through the first half of this play and helped me identify with the absurdity of Wilhelm Voigt’s situation . Fresh out of prison, he needs a passport to get a resident permit to get a home or a job.

Given the history and pedigree of the play, based on a true story, you can see why the NT wanted to stage it, Adrian Noble to direct it, Ron Hutchison to adapt it and Anthony Sher to play the lead role. A satire set in an early thirties Germany in transition from the Kaiser to Hitler? Yes please! They don’t quite pull it off, but I don’t think you’d be able to predict that from the page; there is however enough to enjoy to make it a worthwhile evening.

It’s the longer first half that’s the problem. It starts very well, but then takes too long to get to Voigt’s big con – impersonating an army Captain and getting all the way from the street via the Town Hall to the Interior Ministry, embarrassing the establishment of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany along the way. We don’t actually get there until the second half where it turns into absurdist farce and finds its form. The first half’s satire on bureaucracy and authority is just too long. They’ve clearly already shortened it; another 15 minutes would do it.

Anthony Ward’s Vorticist city backdrop is great, they use the Olivier’s drum revolve to great effect and the use of music adds much. Anthony Sher is excellent as Voigt, contemptuous of the absurdity around him and visibly relishing the process of showing it up. The role does dominate, but there’s excellent support from a large cast of 26, particularly Anthony O’Donnell as The Mayor of Kopenick & a toilet cleaner (!), Adrian Schiller as a revolutionary tailor, Nick Samson as a banker and Minister of the Interior and David Killick as a pair of shopkeepers.

Playwright Carl Zuckmayer is better known as the writer of The Blue Angel, though this play did get three film adaptations. Voigt was apparently a bit of a folk hero and after a couple of years back in prison was touring Europe to capitalise on this fame. It’s fascinating stuff, even if it doesn’t quite make great theatre in this adaptation / production.

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I wasn’t sure I needed another Carousel – it wasn’t long since I’d been on the last one. Then I remembered how much I’d enjoyed Ruddigore last year (also at the Barbican, also Opera North, also directed by Jo Davies) so, encouraged by a ticket offer, I succumbed in its last few days.

Rogers & Hammerstein’s show was way ahead of its time given the seriousness of its subject matter. Julie Jordan falls for fairground worker Billy Bigelow who gets involved with a bad ‘un and gets shot during a botched robbery which he’s persuaded into so that he can make a life for his now pregnant wife. Their life is in stark contrast to that of Julie’s friend Carrie who marries dull-but-good Enoch Snow and has nine children! It takes a surreal turn in the second half as, on the way to the afterlife, he’s offered the chance to return to earth one more time.

It’s an uneven show because the second half is a lot better than the first and it doesn’t get going for a while – until the second scene, when ‘June is bustin’ out all over’. This production looks gorgeous with Anthony Ward’s set and costumes. With a full opera orchestra and chorus it also sounds gorgeous. Sometimes the voices of opera singers just don’t suit musicals (the recording of West Side Story with Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras and anything Lesley Garrett has been in, including the last West End production of this, come to mind) but that isn’t the case here. There are two sets of leads and I saw Eric Greene as Billy, who acted brilliantly and sang beautifully. Gillene Herbert and Claire Boulter were lovely as Julie & Carrie and Elena Ferrari was a fine Nettie. Joseph Shovelton came into his own as Enoch in the second half.

Yet again, an afterthought proves to be a treat. Quite why a publically funded opera company up north were down here doing a musical is beyond me, but I’m glad they were.

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It’s surprising how much you learn about Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, from a play in which she’s a character who remains offstage. Nicholas Wright cleverly tells the story through her two biographers – Caroline Blackwood and Diana Mosley – and her lawyer & assistant.

The play takes place in the Duchess’  Paris home late in her life when she is a recluse guarded by the somewhat imposing lawyer / advisor / friend Maitre Suzanne Blum. Lady Caroline Blackwood is trying to get an interview with the Duchess for a Sunday supplement, dangling the carrot of a Snowden photo shoot. In the end, she opts for an interview with the secretive but fascinating Blum herself. The play happens before she writes her biography of the Duchess; indeed the events the play focuses on may have inspired her to write it. 

The characters and the play speculate on the relationship. Is she just a gatekeeper? Is she ripping off the Duchess by selling her possessions? Is she just an up-market groupie? Is she in love with her? The rip off theory seems to be dismissed by Lady Diana’s investigations and interrogations (she’s already written her biography) but the rest is left ambiguous.

I’ve seen some stunning performances in the last two weeks – Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, Douglas Hodge in Inadmissable Evidence and Tasmin Greig in Jumpy – and Sheila Hancock here as Maitre Blum is another one. With a very authentic sounding French accent, her performance is very nuanced and subtle. Anna Chancellor had less than two weeks between coming off the Minerva Chichester stage (well, floor actually) and her first performance here. I loved her in the first act, but felt she pushed it too far in the second. John Heffernan’s transition from mere assistant to protector was well played and Angela Thorne’s cameo as Lady Diana Mosley was terrific (though she did have some great lines, including some lovely references to her Nazi sympathies). Lord Snowden is another character who remains offstage.

Anthony Ward’s opulent Parisian drawing-room is perfect for both period and station and Richard Eyre’s direction as sensitive as always. I’m not sure its a great play – I suspect I won’t remember it as long as Wright’s best play, Vincent in Brixton – but it’s well worth seeing, for Sheila Hancock’s performance if nothing else.

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This is my tenth Sweeney Todd, but I don’t think I’ve laughed or squirmed so much at any of the others. This is very dark but often very funny, which makes it a great Sweeney.

I’d always thought Imelda Staunton was born to play Mrs Lovett, but boy did she exceed my expectations. She starts as a bit of a naive chancer but soon matches Sweeney’s blood thirstiness as she becomes more and more besotted with him. The real revelation though is Michael Ball’s Sweeney, whose transition from revenger to serial murderer is brilliantly played. Together they are extraordinary.

Jonathan Kent’s production is as dark as they come. I had to turn my head quite often as the blood flowed and the bodies piled up. The black comedy is not lost though; indeed it’s heightened. The duet where Sweeney and Mrs Lovett discuss who might end up in their pies is as good as it gets. Anthony Ward has created a seedy Dickensian London with fencing and caging, a central two-story platform for the barber shop, an elevated gallery and a rather large oven!

All of the supporting roles are well cast. Spring Awakening’s Lucy May Barker continues her impressive stage career with a fine Joanna, Luke Brady is a passionate Anthony and James McConville is the best Tobias I’ve ever seen. John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou both relish their roles as baddies Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford respectively. The musical standards under MD Nicholas Skilbeck are very high, with an excellent 15-piece band and a superb 16-piece ensemble doing full justice to Sondheim’s wonderful score.

This is as fine a Sweeney as you’ll ever see and if it doesn’t end up in the West End before Christmas I shall be very surprised indeed.

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This is like looking at a 30’s Hollywood movie in 3D on a giant screen. The period detail is extraordinary. Unfortunately, in the first half at least, it’s a B movie without much of a story, a poor screenplay and three exaggerated central performances. It is fatally slow and even though it picks up after the interval, it’s too late to recover.

Having a dentist as your central character may be original but is hardly an enticing prospect (unless he is a sadomasochistic dentist like in Little Shop of Horrors, of course). This one’s a real wimp, with a nagging neglected wife, a manipulative father-in-law as benefactor and a tenant dentist who gets away with rent default. There’s another health practitioner in the building (I didn’t quite get his specialty, but it might be something to do with feet) and another neighbour with a fine selection of sharp ties. It’s an offstage character who might provide the clue to why the NT decided to stage this – a certain Mrs Hytner!

The dentist falls for his assistant, as does his father-in-law and the neighbour with sharp ties. His wife is prepared to forgive and forget. The father-in-law wants to  marry her. The neighbour wants a less committed but equally close relationship. The dentist is a wimp…..

I really was puzzled why Joseph Millson, Keeley Hawes and Jessica Raine over-acted. This makes it easy for Nicholas Woodeson to steal the show when he comes on and lights up the stage, though to be fair Peter Sullivan, Sebastian Armesto and Tim Steed do well bringing life to their supporting characters. Anthony Ward’s design is lovely, though so huge the characters do seem a bit lost.

I recall finding it a good play when I saw it forever ago in the West End, so I kept wondering if it was indeed a better play than this production revealed. Director Angus Jackson has form as a plodder (Desperately Seeking Susan – the case for the prosecution rests); perhaps a director with more experience of the great 20th Century American dramatists (not that Clifford – a name subsequently requisitioned forever by Victoria Wood for the classic Acorn Antiques – Odets is one) like Howard Davies might have made more of it.

Today’s word is ‘indifference’……

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Somehow the reviews led me to believe I was in for a raucous satire, so I was very surprised to find this play so disturbing, with a positively chilling final scene.

An Oxford University dining society (think Bullingdon Club) is meeting in the private room of an out-of-town gastropub, their penchant for trashing their venues (but paying the full cost, as if this means it’s OK) having been rumbled in the city. The power struggle to depose the current weak president leads to one trying to prove his point by menu choices, another by hiring a prostitute and a third by organising a post-dinner outing to Reykjavik (good timing, there!) in Dad’s private plane. As the evening progresses, wine is consumed, rituals are observed, behaviour declines and underlying attitudes emerge.

It’s a very cleverly structured play, because it leaves you to make connections and consider what the consequences of these attitudes are. In my case, it explained much of the arrogance of the last few years where our society has been threatened by people who think they have rights to rule and rights to exploit. This is what was so devastating for me, and the ending – which I won’t reveal – is both chilling and depressing in its believability.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with David Dawson – fast becoming the one to watch in his generation – following The Old Vic’s Entertainer, Chichester’s Nicholas Nickleby and Lyric Hammersmith’s Comedians with another terrific performance and Leo Bill a thrillingly vicious toff. Anthony Ward’s extraordinary lifelike set makes you feel like a fly on the wall rather than a member of an audience, but most importantly two young women – playwright Laura Wade and director Lyndsey Turner – have put up a mirror to a small but very real and powerful part of our society in an entertaining but thought-provoking and revealing way without preaching.

After Jerusalem and Enron, this feels like the third in a state-of-the-nation/world trilogy and another theatrical feast.

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