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Posts Tagged ‘Bridge Theatre’

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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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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In Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play The Pillowman there is a character who writes stories in the style of the Brothers Grimm featuring violence on children that seem to mirror recent child murders. His latest play concerns Hans Christian Andersen, the writer of somewhat lighter tales, and our own Charles Dickens, but it is very very very dark nonetheless, though I’m not sure what the point is.

We learn that Andersen is rather full of himself, but also rather sinister, imprisoning an African pygmy woman he calls Marjory who seems to be the source of his tales. He visits the Dickens family in England, who appear to have a pygmy of their own, Marjory’s sister Ogechi, and outstays his welcome. There are a lot of puzzling references to the death of millions in the Congo, Marjorie’s homeland, at the hands of the Belgians, in the name of rubber, with a lot of Belgian jokes and a pair of red Belgian thugs. Hans fondness for a young man and for children generally are hinted at, both he and Dickens are racists and their expletive laden dialogue jarred with the period. It has some darkly funny moments, but also disturbing ones, a lot of uncomfortable ones and quite a few boring ones too. The narrator is Tom Waits no less (recorded, not live!).

To be honest, I think an unknown playwright would have either had it rejected, or been sent home to rewrite and improve it, but it’s McDonagh, so it gets a high profile production on a major stage and it becomes his eight play seen in London and his first flop. Anna Fleishle’s design and an auspicious stage debut from Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory are to be admired, but otherwise I’m afraid I felt it fell flat. It seemed to me like a half-baked attempt to shock, pointlessly, and it’s not a patch on his other seven plays.

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Alan Bennett’s last play, People, at the NT six years ago, was about the heritage ‘industry’. It tried to cover so many issues that it lost focus and proved a bit of a disappointment. He covers a lot of ground here too, but it’s more cohesive, a homage to the NHS with a swipe at the decline in our sense of social responsibility for good measure.

We’re in a Yorkshire general hospital, led by trust chairman and former Mayor Slater, that’s facing closure. They’re campaigning against it, and in the geriatric ward they’ve set up a choir as part of the campaign. There’s an omnipresent film documentary team, which Slater hopes will aid their campaign. Dr Valentine (anglicisation of his real name) is a caring doctor with a gentle bedside manner and genuine affection for his geriatric patients, but he’s facing deportation. Sister Gilcrest is old school, obsessed with continence and cleanliness. Nurse Pinkney is more focused on contentment and happiness. The real interest of Salter is his own career. Amongst the visitors, patient Mrs Maudsley’s family are predatory fortune hunters and coal-miner Joe’s son Colin is up from London, exorcising his fraught relationship with his dad; he’s a Management Consultant advising the Health Minister, an architect of closure plans. Just before the interval it takes a sinister turn.

Bennett’s acute observation of people shines again with finely drawn characterisations, delicious turns of phrase and a very clever unfolding narrative. I couldn’t stop smiling at the new ward names, changed at the suggestion of the minister. The twelve geriatric patients each have lovely back stories, which they share with us between songs. Our attitudes to the old, patient abuse, bed blocking and the obsession with targets, specialisation, outsourcing and privatisation are all covered. Of course, its very funny, but its also poignant and bang on target much of the time. Valentine’s final words direct to the audience pierced my heart.

The twelve patients are a delight, veteran thespians relishing such great writing. Deborah Findlay is brilliant as the cold but seemingly loyal, hard-working ward sister who becomes positively chilling. Sacha Dhawan has genuine warmth and empathy as Valentine. Samuel Barnett’s character Colin is rather unsympathetic, but he spars with Jeff Rawle’s brittle dad and both do eventually melt. There’s a lovely cameo from David Moorst as work experience affable Andy, who also turns unexpectedly. Peter Forbes makes a great job of the pompous self regarding Salter. Director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bob Crowley have worked with Bennett a lot, and they continue to serve his plays well.

I think the play divides people in many ways, with older audience members, NHS advocates and lefties the most positive. I loved it!

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It’s only four months since our own Carey Mulligan wowed with her one-woman show at the Royal Court, now on Broadway. American actress Laura Linney is premiering here, but I suspect she’s Broadway-bound too. They both gave virtuoso performances, but the stories they tell couldn’t be more different.

Rona Munro has adapted Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel. Laura Linney is Lucy Barton, but she plays her mother too. Lucy is looking back on a period when she was seriously ill in a New York hospital. Her husband and young children rarely visited, but her estranged mother turns up unexpectedly. This triggers childhood memories, when she felt as lonely as she does in the hospital. Her upbringing in rural Illinois was in a poor family with seemingly unloving parents, remote from her two siblings. We learn about these relationships, but also learn about her family life at the time she’s in hospital, her career as a writer and forward fifteen or so years to see how it unfolded.

It’s storytelling, and you know it’s good storytelling because you have vivid pictures of the characters and places in your head. Structurally, it hops around, back and fore in time, which is one reason why it engages you throughout. The other reason is the storyteller. Laura Linney moves around the space, engaging with her audience on three sides, and the Bridge Theatre shrinks in your imagination (not difficult for me in the front row!). The performer is as lonely as the character, which increases your empathy with both. It’s a big stage, with only a hospital bed and chair in Bob Crowley’s design, and projections by Luke Halls of the New York skyline through the hospital window, moving us to the streets of her New York neighbourhood and back to her rural homeland. I was captivated by it, and I’m renowned for not liking monologues!

I’ve been a fan of Laura Linney since the 1993 Tales of the City Channel 4 series and I have nothing but admiration for the bravery that must be required to play this role. Getting a novel adapted and on stage in another country in just two years is some feat, but with playwright Rona Munro and director Richard Eyre, you have a premiere league team to pull it off in style.

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