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Posts Tagged ‘Bob Crowley’

The risk of coming to this late (I saved it up for some visitors) is that it wouldn’t live up to its expectations. By the interval, I was beginning to think that was actually going to happen; it was good but not great. The second half lifted it to another level altogether, so it’s good to report (not that you’re that interested by now anyway) satisfaction rather than disappointment, accompanied by some surprise……

……..surprise that it has been rewritten to reflect Thatcher’s death & funeral plus the abdication of both Queen Beatrix & The Pope, surprise that some PM’s turn up two or three times, surprise that it isn’t chronological, surprise at which PM’s have been left out (most notably Blair) and surprised at the combination of light (comedy) and shade (poignancy) that it achieves.

I thought Helen Mirren got off to a shaky start, but she’s soon in her stride. She’s better playing the older queen than the younger queen, and that’s nothing to do with he own age. Her on-stage quick changes are hugely impressive (without the flashing for which she was once notorious!) and her discussions with herself as a child were very effective.

I liked all of the PM performances, particularly Paul Ritter’s comic Major and Haydn Gwynne’s assertive Thatcher, though by his third appearance Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson shone above all and you could see why he won his Olivier. Another surprise was that what I expected to be a series of two-handers turned out to have 16 actors playing 21 roles.

It’s good to be reminded how good a director Stephen Daldry is and we hopefully won’t have to wait so long again. Bob Crowley’s elegant settings facilitate the speedy scene changes so crucial to the smooth flow of a play with so many of them. All-in-all, it’s an impressive staging.

Of course, Peter Morgan’s play is largely speculative, yet somehow I left the theatre feeling that I’d just seen real events portrayed – perhaps because it confirmed my own prejudices, but probably because that’s just what a well made, well staged and well performed play can do. Good to see one originated in the West End for a change.

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I left the theatre last night with two theories – that Alan Bennett decided he wanted to see how many issues he could cover in two hours (more Ackybourn than Bennett!) or that he was downloading everything he wanted to say about everything while he still has a chance. If any play has ever thrown in the kitchen sink, without a kitchen sink, this is it.

I’ve already lost track of how many issues he covers and my brain hurts even trying to recall them. At its heart it’s the heritage industry in general and the National Trust in particular. Within that there’s the sub-issues of conserving & preserving versus access & exploitation, the roles of the ‘volunteers’, the industrial ‘colonialists’ and their victims, the morals of the Church of England, business and pornography……

Buried in all this is a fascinating debate (or three), some great satire and some very funny lines – but he tries to do too much and in so doing turns the characters into caricatures & stereotypes and the situations into farce (particularly in the second half). Even lovely central performances from Francis de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell get a bit buried and delightful cameos from Miles Jupp, Nicholas le Provost and Peter Egan likewise. This all takes place on a stunning set of a run down ‘stately’ home in South Yorkshire by Bob Crowley which transforms spectacularly towards the end.

It’s by no means vintage Bennett and seemed to me like it was something he hadn’t yet finished. I was surprised that director Nicholas Hytner hadn’t reigned it in and given it more focus. What could have been as fascinating a debate about heritage as The History Boys was about education has turned into a fairly pedestrian comedy which raises a lot of issues but doesn’t really explore any in depth.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself, but compared with all the other NT Bennett’s – Single Spies, The Madness of George III, The History Boys and The Habit of Art – this just isn’t in the same league.

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The first word that popped into my head at the close of this play was ‘beautiful’. It was beautiful to look at with its simple evocation of the British countryside. It was beautifully written, closing somewhat appropriately with one of its subject’s poems. The performances were beautifully judged characterisations of real people. It also mentions beautiful Tooting!

Nick Dear’s play tells the story of the relationship between British poet Edward Thomas and American poet Robert Frost. Frost comes to Britain for just three years from 1912 to 1915. He makes his name here and returns to the US more famous that when he left. Thomas reviews Frost and they become friends, enjoying long conversational walks in the countryside. Frost encourages Thomas to write poetry, is in awe of his original prose style and champions him both here and back in the US. Their friendship had a depth and intensity that is extraordinary given they only spent time with one another for two years.

Thomas has a strange relationship with his brittle and passionate wife Helen. When he’s with Frost, he treats her with disdain. She is resentful of his bond with Frost and suspicious of his close relationship with family friend Eleanor Farjeon, who seems obsessed with both Thomas and Frost. Yet they are clearly in love. His relationship with his conventional Welsh father is strained when he quits the Civil Service but repaired when he enlists as an army officer. Less than two years after he enlists and Frost has returned to the US he is killed in action. His real success as a poet under his own name is posthumous.

The play is not chronological, including flash forwards the forties and fifties when Frost returns to the UK. These are fascinating people living at a fascinating time, which Dear has captured perfectly. The depth of characterisation is extraordinary and he doesn’t waste a moment. Richard Eyre’s direction is faultless and Bob Crowley’s design is just a stage of earth with opaque projections and lighting on the brick wall behind. It’s simple but its beautiful. It has been very rewarding to watch the development of both Hattie Morahan and Pip Carter in recent years and here they give perfectly judged performances as Edward and Helen. Shaun Dooley has great presence as Frost and Pandora Colin is a delight as Eleanor.

I loved everything about this play and it really doesn’t matter if you know nothing about these people or indeed poetry; the play stands alone as a captivating biographical drama. Unmissable.

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This is a work of fiction, and if you take it as that, its charming, amusing, clever and well crafted. Some seem to have taken exception to its hijacking of cinematic history which I’m not sure it’s trying to do.

We’re in an East European Jewish village at the turn of the 20th century when Motl returns from the city after the death of his father. Discovering his father’s photographic and early cinematic equipment, he becomes enthralled with the idea of moving pictures and is encouraged and funded by local businessman Jacob to make a film of people in the village. Despite the somewhat critical reception, the idea of a work of fiction is mooted and enthusiasm goes viral as they embark on its making.

Many of the pioneers of early Hollywood were Jews from this part of the world and indeed we do skip forward to 1936 when Motl has changed his name to Maurice and become a successful director, but I don’t think the play is making any claims to present the true origin of cinema as we know it. It does include the genesis of the business model for public exhibition of films and shows technical discoveries like editing, lighting reflectors, the camera dolly and special effects, but it does so with its tongue in its cheek. We have stereotypes like the interfering producer, corner-cutting production accountant, highly strung director and upstaging actors. There are comments from a preview audience (the beginnings of the focus group) and it even hints at the casting couch!

Bob Crowley’s monochrome design cleverly merges live action with film footage, though it only opens up once to reveal the village exteriors (as a film set in 1936) which seems a bit of a shame. It’s a little slow in the first half, but does pick up pace and draws you in. The performances are a bit stereotypical (Fiddler on the Roof – with a fiddler included!) though I really liked Damien Molony as Motl and Lauren O’Neil as the love interest. The other ladies all engage well – Sue Kelvin as Motl’s aunt, Abigail McKern as Jacob’s wife and Alexis Zegerman as his daughter. This isn’t Anthony Sher’s greatest moment, but his somewhat caricatured Jacob does make you smile and laugh.

If you don’t set your sights too high, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours. The Nicholas’s Wright (playwright) and Hytner (director) have done better work, but this is an enjoyable evening nontheless and I’m glad I went.

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When the curtain opens at the Lyttleton (yes, a curtain – that’s a novelty these days) you’re a bit baffled. We’re in what appears to be a squat in an abandoned stately home, yet the play takes place in a Dublin tenement. This is partly explained in a programme essay, but the crux of it is that it robs the play of the intensity of tenement life, even though it is a brilliant design by Bob Crowley.

The problem with the play is its unevenness. The first half is a domestic (black) comedy with not much more than a hint at what’s happening outside (civil war!), played for laughs in Howard Davies’ production, dangerously close to cartoonish. O’Casey leaves much of the story and most of the context to the (shorter) second half which for me is the fundamental flaw. A bit like The Veil, which is currently sharing this theatre (with a design that could be the same stately home before it was abandoned), he could have made so much more of what’s going on outside in a crucial point in Ireland’s history (or at the time he wrote it, current affairs). 

We’re with the Boyle family – father Jack, an old sea dog, is a work shy drunkard; son Johnny is involved with a pre-cursor of the IRA and has lost an arm as a result and daughter Mary has left boyfriend Jerry behind and taken up with Charles (more prospects) Bentham. The family is held together by mother Juno, a feisty matriarch who is both breadwinner and homemaker. Jack’s drinking mate Joxer, who’s cynically taking advantage, is omnipresent – when Juno lets him. They get news of an inheritance and start spending the money before they’ve got it. In the second half, it all unravels. The inheritance never comes through and everything is repossessed, Mary gets pregnant and the IRA come for Johnny who has allegations to answer. 

The real reason for seeing this revival is a set of performances it would be hard to match on any stage. This is the best performance I’ve seen Sinead Cusack give. She beautifully balances the love of her family with the assertiveness needed to keep them together. Ciaran Hinds inhabits Jack, his main concern almost always his next drink, yet naive to Joxer’s exploitation. Risteard Cooper’s Joxer is a brilliant creation, going through life as a chancer and parasite, but with a charm and a swagger. Clare Dunne and Ronan Raftery do well as Mary and Johnny and there’s a fine supporting cast.

It’s an uneven evening, but well worth the visit for the performances alone.

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When they first read the play, I would imagine the reaction was ‘how are we going to stage this?’, such is the cinematic quality of the writing – not surprising given the playwright seems to have only ever done screenplays before. Well, I suppose if anyone was going to pull it off, it would be Nicholas Hytner (with help from Bob Crowley’s clever set with four entrances – and what seems like a lot of dangerous angles).

The starting point is of course true. Stalin liked Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard (brilliantly staged at the National just last year) which led to him being asked (?) to write something about Stalin. Beyond this, much is speculation and fantasy in John Hodge’s play. Stalin ends up writing most of the play about his early life while Bulgakov runs the country, benefiting from Stalin’s patronage to a point where it is almost Faustain.

This is all surprisingly entertaining and often funny (though it gets darker in the second half) with lots of short scenes interrupted by flash forward rehearsal scenes of the play what they are writing. Of course, when you have Alex Jennings as Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale as Stalin, two of our best actors at the height of their powers, you’ve got a head start and both deliver the goods bigtime. Mark Addy is also outstanding as a secret service officer / intermediary and there’s excellent support from Nick Sampson as a doctor, William Postlethwaite (the late great Peter’s son)  as idealistic young writer Grigory and Pierce Reid as Sergei, who inhabits the Bulgakov’s kitchen cupboard in true Bulgakov fashion!

It’s a fascinating picture of the mechanics of a tyranny and in particular Stalin’s. He only has to think of something and its done. There are acts of extraordinary generosity as well as vile deeds – everything, of course, for a reason. There is much depth to the characterisations of Bulgakov and Stalin and their mutually dependent relationship is intriguing.

At last a new play at the National worthy of the venue’s stature.

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Like I did with that other Covent Garden rarity – a new opera (Anna Nicole) – I’m making an exception by blogging an even rarer thing – a new full length ballet. I gather it’s c.15 years since the last one and c.20 years since one with a new score. I’m not a fan of mixed bills and I exhausted the repertoire of full evening works some time ago, so a potential treat was in store.

This is more in the Northern Ballet Theatre dance drama mould than classical ballet, which might be the reason why I enjoyed it so much – the latter can be very fusty and fussy. They’ve engaged playwright Nicholas Wright to provide a scenario, which is maybe why the dramatic flow is so good, and Joby Talbot’s score is hugely impressive. Designer Bob Crowley’s imagination has run wild and produced some stunning witty sets and even more stunning costumes. Jon Driscoll (fresh from creating the extraordinary tornado in Kansas which is one of the highlights of The Wizard of Oz) and Gemma Carrington provide brilliant projections. The production values are second to none and only Covent Garden has the resources to stage something this spectacular (If he’s sees this, NBT’s David Nixon will turn green permanently).

Zenaida Yanowsky takes your breath away as the Queen of Hearts. Eric Underwood is astonishingly agile as the Caterpillar, Steven McRae makes a wonderful Mad Hatter and all three leads – Edward Watson’s White Rabbit, Sergei Polunin as the Knave and Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice – dance brilliantly. Then there’s the Duchess…….why they cast an actor rather than a dancer I don’t know, but if you’re going to have an actor for a Panto Dame-like comic part, you won’t get better than Simon Russell Beale. Watching him take ballet bows at the end, he looked completely at home – like a dancer who has moved on to those ‘character’ parts like they do as they age.

With Anna Nicole, The Wizard of Oz and this within a fortnight, I’m in danger of overdosing on colourful spectacle, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world and there’s so much detail, I’m just going to have to go again when it returns.

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Well you have to, don’t you? Go and see something that divides people. Make your own mind up.

Well, I’m not with the phans and I’m not with the whingers. I actually don’t regret going (though I didn’t pay, so I might have felt differently if I’d coughed up the £67.50 my seat cost) though I wouldn’t go again. The show’s the problem; the production is the reason to go.

The truth is there isn’t much of a story – SPOILER WATCH – Phantom goes to NYC and sets up a freak show – anonymously invites Christine over to sing  (she needs the money as she’s now married to a drunken aristocrat) – her son turns out to be the Phantom’s – she dies. It’s spun out for 2.5 hours with another one of Ben Elton’s pathetic books, undistinguished lyrics from Glenn Slater and another dose of ALW’s mushy pop-opera music.

BUT the production and performances really are good, so there’s stuff to look and wonder at and singing and acting to admire. I wasn’t impressed by Sierra Boggess (the title song was the lowspot of the evening for me) but was hugely impressed by the Phantom’s understudy, Tam Mutu. The boy – Harry Child at the performance I saw – was terrific. Summer Strallen almost steals the show with her quick-change-almost-strip number. A big talent like Joseph Milsom is rather wasted in the rather underwritten role of Raoul.

The orchestrations are great and the 27-piece orchestra really does sound good. There is some nice music, though not enough – but it’s a lot better than Woman In White. Bob Crowley’s design with Jon Driscoll’s projections, Scott Penrose’s special effects and Paule Constable’s lighting are highly effective. The sound is amongst the best I’ve experienced in a musical. Director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell do their best with the material they’re given.

In the end, it proves yet again that ALW really does need a collaborator as good as Tim Rice; chairing a committee with Elton, Slater and Frederick Forsyth (!) just doesn’t produce a good show. So, a great production in search of a good show. You’re left to admire the talent on and off stage and in the orchestra pit.

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