Posts Tagged ‘Ben Allen’

Nell Leyshon’s play was a Covid cancellation casualty which got a BBC radio production instead. Finally, its on stage at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, where it has even more impact as a thoughtful, charming piece about both folk song collecting and life in early 20th Century Somerset.

Louie and Lucy are half-sisters, living in the Somerset levels. They are very different personalities, though they both make gloves at home and sing the songs their recently deceased mother taught them. Lucy flirts with John, who collects the finished gloves. He has another job working for the local minister and persuades Louie to take on the role of maid for the minister’s visitor, Cecil Sharp, who is on a song collecting mission. He persuades Louie to sing her mothers songs so that he can write them down for posterity, something she struggles to understand, seeing songs as things passed on orally. Their relationship develops, Sharp in awe of her songs and singing, and Louie fascinated by her glimpse into his musical world.

The personal story of the sisters is seamlessly interwoven with the story of Sharp’s song collecting, as John moves in with Lucy and Louie’s relationship with Sharp continues with his second visit. He’s brought with him a book of the songs he collected on the first visit, which provokes the debate at the heart of the play about what right he has to take these ever evolving songs with their oral tradition and arrange them so that others can sing them uniformly. Louie feels he has stolen or hijacked her mother’s songs. He doesn’t even credit her in his book of them.

Simon Robson brilliantly captures the complexity of Sharp – genuine admiration and empathy, but with a less attractive superiority and arrogance. Mariam Haque plays Louie beautifully, liking the attention and opportunity to share the songs, but resisting the changes of both Sharp and her sister. Sasha Frost is a delight as feisty, flirty Lucy, whose own rejection brings her closer to her sister. Ben Allen is excellent as John, only really concerned with his own interests. The singing and piano playing is lovely.

Roxanna Sibert’s direction is delicate, very sensitive to the material, and Rose Revitt’s design is very evocative of both the place and the period. The writing is very economical; the play never outstays its welcome. I thought it was lovely, and would heartily recommend it.

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American playwright Martin Sherman rose to fame with the play Bent, about the treatment of homosexuals in the holocaust, which starred Ian McKellen in London and Richard Gere on Broadway, then became a major film. He settled in London, where he had five high profile premieres over fifteen years in the 80’s and 90’s, attracting actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Olympia Dukakis to star in them, but he hasn’t been particularly prolific. It’s taken ten years since Onassis to get this new play, though in all fairness he is now 80!

It’s a reflection on the changes that have impacted the gay community over the years, told through the life of Beau, an American cocktail pianist who’s moved from New Orleans to San Fransisco and Paris, settling in London. In a series of monologues, we learn about the changes in gay life through his life, over forty or fifty years. These are interspersed with contemporary scenes, over another twelve years, from when he meets his much younger partner Rufus to when Rufus has left for a new life with his new younger partner Harry and Beau becomes a father, and grandfather, figure.

It’s a warm, gentle, understated piece, even when its reflecting on tough, challenging times. Rufus is somewhat conservative and loves all things retro, including his lovers it seems, so we get references to films and music from the middle of the 20th century when Beau’s career was in full swing but Rufus wasn’t even born. In particular, we hear about a British singer called Mabel Mercer, apparently a real life character, who’s career took her in the opposite direction to Beau, to cocktail bars in NYC, where Beau played for her.

Jonathan Hyde is excellent as Beau, with fine support from Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey. Sean Mathias’ sympathetic staging brings you slowly into these lives. It perhaps lacks some bite, but it tells its story well and really does make you realise how much things have changed in a relatively short time.

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With this third play (in the order I’m seeing them), the RSC’s Romans season comes alive. In my view, that’s down to a period staging, an excellent design and a set of fine performances. Not a mobile phone in sight! My luck with this play continues.

For someone who’s only directed a handful of Shakespeare plays, I thought Iqbal Khan’s staging was masterly. He gets so much right – the passionate relationship at it’s core, the ruthless ambition of Octavius, the dignity of the Egyptian women and the essence of the conflicts. After being critical of Robert Innes Hopkins designs for Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus, here he delivers a beautiful, classical setting with wonderful costumes. There’s even a superb score by favourite Laura Mvula.

I’ve seen some great pairings in the titular roles – Anthony Hopkins & Judi Dench, Alan Rickman & Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart & Harriet Walter, Paul Sheeley & Mark Rylance (!) – and Anthony Byrne & Josette Simon are a match for any of them; intelligent, passionate, nuanced performances. They have a fine supporting cast, many of whom have been in the other plays. In particular, Andrew Woodall is exceptional as Enobarbus and Ben Allen’s characterisation of Octavius is outstanding.

In one of those connections I’m fond of, this play begins shortly after the end of the Imperium plays (which I saw nine days before in Stratford), and though there’s 400 years between their authorship, it almost feels like a sequel.

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