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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Flynn’

I’ve become very fond of Barney Norris’ plays. This is my 5th. They occupy a space all of their own. Concerned with the human condition. Gentle, charming, wistful, poetic. When so much theatre is angry, opinionated & shouty, they are a breath of fresh air.

This one starts slowly as we meet concert pianist David and his wife Fiona, a singer, who’ve just put their young children to bed. David’s elderly parents are coming to the end of a visit. He seems somewhat intolerant of his dad, His wife is fond of both of them. From here we move forward in their lives, through breakups, new relationships, new careers and new homes. Fiona connects with a former colleague and they have a daughter. The (unseen) children grow. The grandparents Bert & Peggy see to be the only constant.

This is a character driven piece, and it wasn’t long before I realised how autobiographical it was; the characters being the playwright’s parents and grandparents. He’s the eldest child. It’s all about growing old, growing apart, growing up, growing close, a very personal presentation of almost thirty years of one family, where music connects the parents generation.

Naomi Petersen is excellent as Fiona, whose journey is the most emotional, and she sings beautifully. It’s a tough call for David Ricardo-Pearce playing his somewhat unsympathetic namesake, but he does it well, with great piano playing too. It’s lovely to see Barbara Flynn and Robin Soans (who was also in Barney Norris’ first play The visitors in the same theatre’s smaller studio) growing old gracefully in lovely roles as grandparents Bert, looking back, and Peggy, looking forward. George Taylor completes the picture as Fiona’s second husband who has to navigate his way into the family.

The inclusion of live music is a great contribution. Norris himself directs, which doesn’t seem to have stopped him telling his family story, warts and all. Don’t expect high drama, but it is a perceptive and moving play which left me thoughtful and reflective; a satisfying study of three generations of a family, which was less fiction and more reality than I was expecting.

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Apart from his big hit Constellations, I’ve been less enamoured than most with playwright Nick Payne’s work, and I’ve seen a handful of his plays now. They often seem like snacks rather than a full meal, leaving me feeling hungry on the journey home, as this did. It’s a slight, somewhat insubstantial seventy minutes.

He seems to have a bit of an obsession with the brain. This, like Incognito two years ago, takes it as its theme. This time it’s about Lorna and her brain surgery. Starting and ending after the operation, it explores the impact of her surgery on memory. She’s lost all of the memories of her life with wife Carrie, who is of course devastated by this. The surgeon Miriam warns of the consequences in advance, trying, but not entirely succeeding, to explain the science. That’s about it really.

There’s nothing wrong with Josie Rourke’s staging. Tom Scutt’s setting is elegant and atmospheric. The three fine actresses – Zoe Wanamaker, Barbara Flynn and Nina Sosyana – are all excellent. Sadly, that wasn’t enough for an evening of theatre. I had to eat again when I got home.

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I know a reasonable amount about the first world war – I’ve got things that used to be called ‘O’ levels and an ‘A’ level in history, after all – but it took this play to make me understand the profound implications of the fragile peace that followed it. This really was an enriching theatrical experience.

Peter Gill’s play is set over six months in 1919. In the first act we meet the middle-class Rawlinson’s – mother Edith, son Leonard & daughter Mabel – and their neighbours and friends and explore what the war meant for each of them. Leonard is a civil servant about to go to Paris to work behind the scenes on what will become the Treaty of Versailles. Mabel and maid Ethel’s boyfriends Hugh and William have returned from the war but friends & neighbours the Chater’s son Gerald hasn’t. Local businessman Geoffrey is raising money for a memorial and trying to woo Leonard’s much younger university friend Constance. Talk turns to current affairs and politics and the issues suddenly seem contemporary – Ireland, the Middle East, Europe…..

In Act II we’re with Leonard and fellow civil servant Henry working on the peace proposals. Leonard is idealistic and passionate whilst Henry just does his job. Leonard becomes disillusioned as he prophesies disastrous consequences of a botched peace where national self-interest and the wish to punish Germany override long- term European security. Leonard begins a dialogue with the dead Gerald Chater and we learn that they were more than friends.

In the third act, Leonard is forced to explain his premature return, issues of class picked up in Act II are developed and the likely outcome of Versailles and changes to come and debated. Mabel tells Hugh she won’t marry him, Constance goes cold on Geoffrey and Edith and the Chater’s just wish things would get back to normal. At this point, the profound impact of this moment in time slaps you in the face.

It’s a slow burn, but in the second act it grabs you and doesn’t let go. You have to work at it – it comes in at 3h 10m with 2 intervals, though I’ve seen plays half as long that don’t sustain their length as well as this. By the end, my head was so full it almost hurt. Richard Hudson’s period design is elegant and the ensemble is superb. Gwilym Lee is wonderfully passionate as Leonard, well matched with Tom Hughes’ Gerald and Edward Killingback’s Eton toff Henry. Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn are great as the two matriarchs. It’s a bit invidious to single anyone out really as it’s such a good unstarry cast.

A fascinating, enlightening and timely play which will surely be a contender best new play of 2014.

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