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Posts Tagged ‘Bridge Theatre’

I didn’t bother with a ‘Best of’ last year as my theatre-going, apart from a handful of open air shows, came to a standstill after just over two months. 2021 started as badly as 2020 had ended, but I managed to see something like 65 shows in the last half of the year, so it seems worth restoring the tradition.

There were nine new plays worthy of consideration as Best New Play. These include Indecent at the Menier, Deciphering at the New Diorama, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic and Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. Something that wasn’t strictly speaking a play but was a combination of taste, smell and music, and very theatrical, was Balsam at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival. Out of town, in the Reading Abbey ruins, The Last Abbot impressed. Three major contenders emerged. The first was Grenfell: Value Engineering at the Tabernacle, continuing the tradition of staging inquiries, verbatim but edited, very powerfully. The remaining two had puppetry and imaginative theatricality in common. Both Life of Pi, transferring to Wyndham’s from Sheffield Theatres, and The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage at The Bridge were adaptations of books, but were thrilling on stage, and both had star performances from Hiran Abeysekera and newcomer Samuel Creasey respectively – I couldn’t choose between them.

The leanest category was New Musical, where there were only a few to choose from. I liked Moulin Rouge for the spectacle, but it was really just spectacle, and I enjoyed Back to the Future too, but it was the sense of tongue-in-cheek fun of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep and the sheer energy of Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, with a towering performance by Arinze Kene as Bob Marley, that elevated these jukebox musicals above the other two.

More to pick from with play revivals, including excellent productions of Under Milk Wood and East is East at the NT, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Lyric Hammersmith and two Beckett miniatures – Footfalls & Rockaby – at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. GDIF’s Belgian visitors staged Blue Remembered Hills brilliantly on wasteland in Thamesmead, and Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter had a great new production at the Watermill near Newbury, but it was Yeal Farber’s Macbeth at the Almeida, as exciting as Shakespeare gets, that shone brightest, along with Hampstead’s revival of Alan Plater’s Peggy For You, with a stunning performance from Tamsin Greig, which ended my theatre-going year.

The musical revivals category was strong too, probably because we needed a dose of fun more than anything else (well, except vaccines!). I revisited productions of Come from Away and Singin’ in the Rain, though they don’t really count as revivals, likewise Hairspray which was a replica of the original, but I enjoyed all three immensely. Regents Park Open Air Theatre brought Carousel to Britain, in more ways than one, and the Watermill continued its musical roll with an excellent Top Hat. It was South Pacific at Chichester and Anything Goes at the Barbican that wowed most, though, the former bringing a more modern sensibility to an old story and the latter giving us Brits an opportunity to see what Broadway has been getting that we’ve been missing in Sutton Foster. If only we could detain her permanently.

In other theatrical and musical forms…..there were dance gems from New Adventures with Midnight Bell at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet’s Dante Project at Covent Garden, and a beautiful concert performance of Howard Goodall musical of Love Story at Cadogan Hall. There were lots of classical music highlights, but it was the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs at the Barbican, accompanying footage of his beloved Arsenal, that packed the hall with football fans and proved to be a refreshing and surreal experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world (and I’m not a football fan, let alone an Arsenal one!). Somewhat ironically, most of my opera-going revolved around Grimeborn and Glyndebourne and it was a scaled down but thrilling Die Walkure at Hackney Empire as part of the former that proved to be the highlight.

Let’s hope its a full year of culture in 2022.

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The 2003 stage adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was a highlight of Nicholas Hytner’s period at the NT, now the first book of his next trilogy is one of the best things the Bridge Theatre has done since it opened in 2017. Pullman has said the Book of Dust trilogy is not a prequel, the second part jumping forward twenty years, but this first part is. Bryony Lavery’s adaptation worked for a friend who’d read the book, another who hadn’t read any Pullman, and me – a devotee of HDM with this book waiting to be read, another lockdown failure.

It concerns the baby Lyra, daughter of Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel and the subject of a prophesy, and the battle for her guardianship / fate up to the point she takes refuge in Jordan College. Malcolm, the 12-year-old son of the landlady of the Trout Inn seeks to protect her, with the aid of the pub’s helper Alice, one order of nuns, rebel leader Boatwright, academics Dr. Relf & Lord Nugent, a good witch and her father, whilst the all powerful Magisterium, another order of nuns, a rogue academic and her mother have other plans! It races along, but I thought it was very clear storytelling.

Bob Crowley’s design relies upon the extraordinary projections of Luke Halls, which move you from pub to convent to college and many more locations, and create rivers, storms and floods that take your breath away. With a thrust stage and a back rake this is at times intimate and at times epic. A visual treat. The daemons are puppets, the smaller of which sit on their host, with the bigger ones manipulated by actors, some of whom speak.

The exceptional cast include actors of the stature of Dearbhla Molloy, John Light, Naomi Fredericks, Pip Carter, Holly Atkins, Nick Sampson and Julie Atherton (who gamely covered Malcolm’s daemon Asta on the night I went), but it’s Samuel Creasey as Malcolm and Ella Dacres as Alice who carry the play. This is Creasey’s stage debut, one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, with newcomer Dacres shining alongside him. The chemistry between them is superb.

I thought it was a captivating evening of storytelling, family theatre at its best. Don’t miss.

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I haven’t really got back into the swing of blogging theatre yet. I’ve already seen 10 shows (one twice) but have only blogged one, the actor-less Flight at the Bridge Theatre, so I thought I’d catch up. I have an interest in three of the rest, so I’ll just cover the remaining six, in one blog.

Call Mr. Robeson – Greenwich Theatre

It was almost three weeks after Flight, the actor-less one, before this one-man show, for one night only. I have to confess that even though I knew who Paul Robeson was, and was well aware of his historical significance, I didn’t know much about the man and his life. Tayo Aluko, who both wrote and plays Robeson, redressed that with a 90-minute whistle-stop biography with songs, accompanied by Roland Perrin. The vocals were sometimes shaky, and barely audible in the lower register – it was his first live performance for over a year – but it was a comprehensive and captivating biography of a fascinating life.

Out West – Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

It was another two weeks before my next outing, to not one but three one-person plays in one evening, the first of six consecutive days at the theatre. Tanika Gupta’s The Overseas Student told the story of Gandhi’s period in London qualifying to be a lawyer, his first exposure to the idiosyncrasies of the West. Both the play and Esh Alladi’s performance were utterly charming. In Simon Stephens’ Blue Water and Cold and Fresh, Tom Mothersdale’s Jack grapples with his relationship with his dad, whose racism comes to the surface when he embarks on a mixed race marriage which leads to a mixed race son, in a deeply moving tale. Favourite playwright Roy Williams completed the unrelated trio with Go, Girl, a lovely story of a single mum’s pride in her daughter, beautifully realised by Ayesha Antoine, an uplifting conclusion to the evening. Fine writing and fine performances all round.

Under Milk Wood – National Theatre

By now it was time for a stage full of people, a cast of 14 led Michael Sheen, a real favourite of mine, in one of the greatest literary works of my homeland, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It wasn’t written for the stage of course, though I’ve seen it presented successfully as such twice before, once in this very theatre, the National’s Olivier. This version is ‘framed’ by scenes in an old peoples home written by Sian Owen,where Owain Jenkins, a writer, visits his dad, seemingly desperate for reconciliation. The ‘play for voices’ emerges organically as if from the memories of the home’s residents, who play all the characters. I wondered if Owain, who becomes our narrator, was meant to be Thomas. In any event, his words were beautifully spoken by an excellent cast that included Sian Phillips no less, playing three characters.

Romeo & Juliet – Shakespeare’s Globe

This was less successful for me (so my search for a definitive R&J continues). Statements and facts about contemporary teenage mental health and suicide puncture the scenes of Shakespeare’s story of the star crossed lovers, underlined in neon above the stage. I felt it was aimed at a young audience, somewhat heavy-handed, and failed to engage me, despite some fine performances. It had its moments, but the choice of Juliet’s mode of despatch was the final straw for me, steering too far from Shakespeare for my liking. The ‘greatest love story ever told’ becomes a contemporary lecture on mental health.

Bach & Sons – Bridge Theatre

Nina Raine’s play focuses on Johann Sebastian’s family more than his music, as the title suggests, and in particular on the two sons who followed in his footsteps (of the 20 children he had with his two wives, only 10 of whom survived into adulthood). His favourite, Wilhelm, is a drunkard who lives with, and off, his dad. His younger brother Carl ends up working as a musician for Frederick the Great, with whom his relationship is somewhat ambiguous. A scene where JS visits Frederick only to be humiliated by him and his son for his obsession with counterpoint is the only time we see Bach away from home. Simon Russell Beale is perfect for the part and I enjoyed the play, though it was a bit slow and dark (lighting wise) in the first half. I felt it needed more than the 7 characters and more (live) music to animate it, in an Amadeus way, but Covid no doubt put paid to that.

Last Abbott of Reading – Reading Abbey Ruins

An outdoor treat from Rabble Theatre amidst the ruins of the abbey on the 900th anniversary of its founding. Staged very effectively in-the-round, it tells the story of Abbott Hugh Faringdon’s rise from nowhere to become a key religious figure and friend of Henry VIII, until the king, under Cromwell’s influence, closes the Abbey and has Hugh murdered. The Abbott’s mother Alice acts as a narrator, a device which worked really well. The costumes were excellent, the space atmospheric, the performances very good indeed; Beth Flintoff’s play was excellent storytelling. Well worth a trip to Reading.

It’s good to be back, and all venues took safety seriously and organised things well, but I can’t wait to be maskless, for me the one deterrent left to true enjoyment of theatre.

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This was my third attempt to see this ‘show’, the first two cancelled late last year as we played a game of now-we’re-in-lockdown-now-we’re-not. It’s at the Bridge Theatre, but not as we know it, and it tells a story, but it’s not a play. Glasgow company Vox Motus are renowned for breaking new ground and, based on this experience, they certainly do.

You’re led to a personal booth where you don headphones and sit waiting for the lights to go down. When they do, the whole panel before you begins to move slowly, revealing tableaus of short scenes accompanied by recorded dialogue and a soundscape. Between them, they tell you the story of two Afghan brothers and their long two-year journey via Tehran, Athens, Rome and Paris to their desired destination, England.

Along the way they are befriended, exploited and abused. They work to raise money to supplement their meagre inheritance, to pay those that provide them with illegal and dangerous modes of transport. The only things that are constant are their love for one another and their determination to make it. It tells their story movingly and beautifully. The dolls house like miniatures, voices and sounds combine to fire your imagination and bring the story of orphans Aryan and Kabir alive.

Based on the novel Hinterland by Caroline Brothers, adapted by Oliver Emanuel, it’s superbly directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison and beautifully designed by Harrison with Rebecca Hamilton. Original, inventive and a deeply moving spotlight on the plight of refugees.

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This is the fourth Caryl Churchill play I’ve seen in the last twelve months – three revivals (two of which I’d seen before) and one new play(s). I first saw this seventeen years ago at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. Cloning was a hot topic at the time. Eight years later there was a certain frisson seeing a real father and son – Timothy & Sam West – playing it at the Menier, something that was tried again at the Young Vic in 2015 with John & Rex Shrapnel. So this is my third exposure and I’m still confused. That’s Caryl Churchill for you.

It’s set in the home of Salter, where he is visited by someone who turns out to be a clone of his son, who was sent to some sort of home by his father when he was struggling after the suicide of his wife. Salter realises the doctors have created more than one clone and is preoccupied with suing them. His actual son then visits, furious with his father about the cloning. Salter now says he was just trying to have a second chance to bring up a son properly. The first clone returns, knowing the truth, now hating Salter. After another visit from his real son, now very troubled, Salter invites another of the clones, Michael, who proves to be very normal and unfazed by it all.

Polly Findlay’s excellent staging plays out in five scenes over sixty minutes, superbly performed by Colin Morgan as all of the boys and Roger Allam as Salter. In Lizzie Clachan’s clever set we’re in the same room, but from a different perspective in each scene, miraculously transforming in the darkness between them. It’s a much more realistic setting than previous productions, and Morgan is much better at creating different personalities than his predecessors. The nature versus nurture debate is interesting, but I was left wanting to understand more about Salter and the doctor’s motivations, and the extent of and reasons for the cloning.

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One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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The two ladies in question are the First Lady’s of France and the USA, thinly disguised from the present ones by changing their nationalities and a few other things. Nancy Harris’ new play is an interesting examination of the roles of First Ladies, supplemented by some insightful quotes from, and commentary on, nineteen real First Ladies from seven countries spanning seventy years in the accompanying programme.

Their husbands / the Presidents are at an emergency summit on the Cote d’Azur following recent terrorist outrages, trying to agree on an appropriate response. The two ladies have been taken to a side room following an incident when a protester threw something at one of them. Whilst the clean-up takes place, and their assistants discuss and reschedule their day, they share their respective husband’s positions, one seemingly in agreement with hers, the other more radical than her husband.

They also share information about their respective lives and feelings, sometimes willingly, sometimes coerced. It takes some interesting turns, some a touch implausible perhaps, but it does make you think about their roles and potential to influence their husbands and thereby world events. As Ladybird Johnson put it, they are ‘an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband’. It holds you in its grip for 100 minutes.

It’s somewhat limited dramatically by its confinement to one room, with views outside to the corniche from one side and to the corridor from the other. Zoe Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitesic play their respective roles well and are very good together, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord. They are occasionally joined by their assistants, Yoli Fuller as diplomatic Georges and Lorna Brown as assertive Sandy, both well played, plus Fatima the maid, Raghad Chaar, whose role goes way beyond serving drinks.

Hopefully neither president will sue!

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The Bridge Theatre’s biggest success so far was probably their promenade Julius Caesar last year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2018/01/29/julius-caesar-bridge-theatre). This even more immersive promenade staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream proves how suitable the space is for this style of performance. I found it captivating from start to finish.

They’ve really cracked the promenade form at the Bridge, largely because of their ability to bring platforms up from the floor, and this time flying in the space above. There are no sightline issues for either promenaders or those looking on from the galleries, and the marshalling is very unobtrusive. This Dream starts in serious tone with Athenians dressed like puritans as Hermia’s arranged marriage is confirmed, emphasising its unacceptability like I’ve never seen before, before we’re whisked away to the forest.

The very acrobatic fairies swing above the promenaders and the lovers and royal couple move along platforms with leaf-strewn beds on. The simple change of spell from Titania to Oberon heightens the comedy greatly. The lovers are particularly feisty and modern, and Puck is a marvellous creation, looking like a punk, wicked, funny and brilliantly athletic. The use of music is terrific, with the promenaders, seemingly unprompted, breaking into moves in unison. They take a lot of liberties with Shakespeare’s words, and there are ad libs and audience involvement, but they are all completely justified by the result.

Gwendoline Christie has great presence as Hippolyta / Titanya, towering over Puck and the fairies in a long green dress. Oliver Chris brings his considerable gift for comedy to the role of Oberon; his scenes with Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom, as great a performance in this role as I’ve ever seen, are positively sublime. David Moorst continues to deliver on his early promise with a simply terrific Puck and a contrasting Philostrate. It was great to see half of the rude mechanicals played by women, with Ami Metcalf’s butch Snout feared by all.

The Bridge must do more in this configuration, with the unique possibilities the building affords. Director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bunny Christie have created a magical tale with a great sense of fun, a Dream for our times. Take every young person you know as it may convert them to live theatre for life. They were still partying as we left.

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Brunhilde Pomsel was an ordinary German woman, spending most of her life working in an office. What made her extraordinary is that during the Second World War she worked for Goebbels in his propaganda ministry. She was interviewed in her home in Munich for a documentary of the same title shortly before her death, aged 105. From this, Christopher Hampton has created a one-woman play, with Maggie Smith as Pomsel speaking directly to the audience as if we are the interviewer. It’s a captivating story and a virtuoso performance.

Pomsel sits in her room at the old peoples home as she tells us about her life from early memories of the First World War onwards. She’s the eldest of five (the other four boys), her father away in the war during much of her early childhood. She leaves school at sixteen, her father quashing her ambitions, becoming a typist, very proud of her shorthand skills. In her early twenties all around her were joining the Nazi’s, including her boyfriend Heinz. She remained somewhat detached from this, though she sometimes attended rallies, and she recalled voting for them in 1932.

She speaks very matter of factly about her life during the Second World War, perhaps because she was unaware of much of what was happening outside her office, maybe because she had chosen to blank it out, but mostly because she didn’t see what it had to do with her. To the end, she didn’t feel she, or other ordinary Germans, had anything to apologise for. Even after five years imprisoned by the Russians in a former concentration camp, knowing by now what had gone on there, she had little guilt or remorse.

There’s an objectivity to the piece which leads you to question but not judge. You can’t help wondering what you would do in similar circumstances. This personal first-hand testimony is unique and fascinating. Maggie Smith delivers the monologue without emotion, even when talking about personal tragedies. Her speech is completely natural, with hesitation, pauses and imperfections. Her audience contact is extraordinary, to the point where you often feel she is talking directly to you and no-one else. The stage moves imperceptibly towards you as the play progresses, drawing you in physically too. The rapt silence of the audience is testimony to their engagement with the story.

It was a privilege hearing this fascinating testimony conveyed by one of our greatest actresses still at the height of her powers, at 84.

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A hit new play at the Bridge Theatre? I’d say so. A proper play, too. Remember those? Stories, plots, characters. Something that takes you on an enjoyable journey to somewhere. It’s a stage adaptation of Harriett Lane’s novel by playwright Lucinda Coxon, and jolly good it is too.

Frances works for the arts supplement of a Sunday paper, specifically the Books section. She’s very put upon – fetching coffee, fixing couriers – someone always in the background. Returning home from Christmas with her family, she witnesses a fatal car accident, the last person to speak to its victim Alys, whose family ask the police if they can meet her. She declines at first, but when she discovers Alys’s husband is famous author Laurence Kyte, she changes her mind.

Frances’ boss Mary is surprised to bump into her at Alys’ memorial service where she is seen speaking to her family, as a result of which her currency at work rises sharply, and she gets books to review and functions to attend. At the same time, she inveigles herself into the Kyte family, at first as a confidante for Alys’ daughter Polly, but becoming much more. Underneath the cloak of invisibility lurks a rather cunning, determined, intelligent and somewhat manipulative person, who creates a future for herself and cleverly navigates the journey towards it.

Nicholas Hytner’s staging is very well paced, drawing you in and keeping you engaged with Frances’ story. Bob Crowley’s design, with video projections by Luke Halls, allows the action to move swiftly and fluidly from offices to rooms and gardens in a handful of locations. I thought Joanne Froggatt perfectly captured the seemingly unobtrusive Frances, revealing what’s really going on in her head by a subtle glance or a hint of a smile. The supporting cast are first class, with Sylvestra Le Touzel giving another of her nuanced performances as Mary, then turning up virtually unrecognisable as Audrey.

Five week run? I smell a transfer for this thoroughly entertaining tale.

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