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Posts Tagged ‘Bridge Theatre’

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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I saw the three previous Barney Norris plays at the Arcola and the Bush, in their smaller spaces, so I was wondering if his unique brand of wistful, poignant charm would survive scaling up to a big London theatre like the Bridge. Half-way through I wasn’t convinced, but by the end I was.

We’re back in rural south England, this time a Hampshire farm. The two years since her husband’s illness and subsequent death have been a struggle for Jenny, her son Ryan, daughter Lou and her boyfriend / Ryan’s best friend Pete. Ryan and Pete were involved in a drunken incident which resulted in Pete’s imprisonment and his split from Lou. The farm, which Ryan is somewhat reluctantly continuing to run, is deep in debt. Ryan and Pete have taken a huge risk by siphoning oil from the pipeline running through the farm (a touch implausibly, I thought). They’re all grieving in different ways.

A hell of a lot more happens in the second half where we see the games people play. We learn that Jenny and Ryan knew more about Pete’s fate than was thought. Lou and Pete rekindle their relationship. Jenny struggles to keep the family together and some of her tactics backfire. We begin to wonder if Ryan’s friendship with Pete, for him, is more than it seems. Lou and Pete make plans to leave and Ryan seeks to persuade his mother to sell up. In the end, the family saga and rural decline come to a rather sad conclusion.

Rae Smith’s design manages to evoke the countryside without losing the intimacy of the individual scenes in yet another different use of the new Bridge space. In thirty-five years of London theatre-going, its the first time I’ve seen a pipeline and actual brick-laying live on stage! All four performances – Claire Skinner as mum, Sion Daniel Young as Ryan, Ophelia Lovibond as Lou and Ukweli Roach as Pete – are excellent. Laurie Sansom’s staging is as fine as we’ve come to expect from him.

Despite an unevenness between the two halves, Norris just about survives the scale-up. To be recommended.

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