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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Edwards’

Rodney Ackland is a bit of a lost playwright; I’ve only known three of his twelve original plays and nine adaptations, including this one, produced in more than thirty-five years of London theatre-going. It was first staged in 1952 as The Pink Room, but it must have been in a very sanitised form, given the existence of theatre censorship at the time. It was very badly received and Ackland became dejected and only wrote two more plays, yet he lived for another forty years. Post-war London just didn’t have the stomach for his slice of bohemian Soho life. He returned to it thirty-six years later when this new, racier version was produced at the Orange Tree, on BBC TV and here at the Lyttelton, the latter two with Judi Dench in the lead.

It’s set in members club La Vie en Rose over a month in the summer after the end of the war in Europe, during the general election campaign where Labour ousted Churchill. It revolves around club proprietor Christine Foskett and her best customer, writer Hugh, who’s relationship with his partner Nigel and his career are both rocky, oblivious to his mum and her friend who he bizarrely invites to the club. Other members include Austrian black marketeer Siegfried and his girlfriend Elizabeth, film producer Maurice and his secretary Cyril, batty Julia and even battier Madge, a soapbox crusader, posh Lettice ‘the treacle queen’ and wild-man artist Michael, not forgetting assistant Doris and the cook. Into this melange, American GI’s Butch and Sam arrive to satisfy Christine and steal Elizabeth.

It’s character-driven rather than story-driven; the Labour Party offices visible next door link it to what’s happening outside the club. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine. Designer Lizzie Clachan turns the Lyttelton into a vast space, with stairs down to the kitchen and two floors up to the restaurant and beyond. I wasn’t convinced by the idea of prostitute Fifi almost continually walking around the space, and sometimes there’s so much going on, and so much background talk and music, that you’re struggling to focus on the essence of a scene, but that still didn’t detract from what was for me an enthralling, immersive experience which has lost 40 minutes, including two-thirds of the second interval, since the first preview and I suspect is better for it.

You’d be hard pressed to find so many fine performances on one stage in one night. Kate Fleetwood is superb as gin-soaked vamp Christine, as is Charles Edwards as highly-strung homosexual Hugh. Surrounding them are terrific turns from Jonathan Slinger as manipulative Maurice (hot-footing it over from The Old Vic), Patricia England as delightfully batty Julia, Joanna David as Hugh’s loyal but naive mum, Lloyd Hutchinson as larger-than-life artist Michael, Liza Sadovy as aloof Lettice, Esh Alladi as camp Cyril, Eileen Walsh as mad Madge and Prasanna Puwanarajah as Hugh’s on-off partner Nigel. There are twenty-four named parts and twenty-eight actors! Joe Hill-Gibbins marshals them very well.

The comments on exit and the walkers at the intervals proved it’s a marmite show, but those still there at the end cheered. Great to see it again after 23 years. More Ackland please!

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Soon after this Eugene O’Neill play started, I was thinking how experimental it was; how different to all his other plays. Then I remembered Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape and realised what an experimental playwright he really was – though this is still very different, largely because of the extensive use of soliloquies, where the actors switch from talking to each other to talking direct to the audience.

Nina loses Gordon, the love of her life, before they’ve got going, when he goes to war and never returns. Family friend Charles is obsessed with her, but she choses doctor Edmund to impregnate her and hapless Sam to marry her & bring up baby Gordon with her, with the on-off affair with Edmund continuing. When Gordon grows up and Sam dies, she’s faced with choosing between Charles and Edmund again.

This must have been radical stuff in 1928, when it ran five hours. It’s pretty radical 85 years later, though more because the soliloquies still make it original. It’s mercifully now just over three hours; the first half is still overlong, but it redeems itself in the second. I couldn’t make my mind up if the production was sending it up a bit, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. It’s not an entirely satisfying evening, but it is an intriguing one.

In as fine a set of performances as you’d wish for, Anne-Marie Duff shines as complicated new woman Nina, but she’s well matched by a superb turn from Charles Edwards as, well, Charles, and a lovely characterisation of Sam by Jason Watkins. American Darren Pettie’s UK debut is certainly an auspicious one; his performance as Edmund is very compelling. Soutra Gilmour’s terrific design is a Frank Lloyd Wright style home in the first act and transforms cleverly from a NYC 5th Avenue apartment to a boat to a pier-side in the second.

If only they’d been even more radical with the scissors and trimmed another 20/30 minutes from the first half, it would have been a lot sharper. As it is, it’s a flawed but fascinating glimpse at a play that was clearly way ahead of its time and still seems original today.

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What an enthralling and entertaining evening in the theatre. Who’d have thought the period 1974-79 in British politics would make such a good play – and much more illuminating than living through it! From possibly the worst seat in the house on the upper level looking down, that’s praise indeed.

Designer Rae Smith has built a replica of the House of Commons in the Cottesloe Theatre. The pit audience sit on the green benches on either side, whilst most of the play takes place in the respective whips offices created from a few tables and chairs on the floor of the house. The Speaker’s chair is at one end, as it should be, and there’s a giant projection of the face of Big Ben high at the same end. They’ve even put the gargoyles of Westminster Hall on the upper level railings.

This was the last period when we had parties with slim or non-existent majorities leading to minority governments reliant on bargaining with ‘the odds and sods’ or more formal arrangements like the Lib-Lab Pact. The premiership moved from Wilson to Heath to Callaghan with Thatcher rising to lead her party and become PM as the play ends.

James Graham’s play focuses on these bargaining processes, together with the party discipline necessary to ensure everyone turned out, the process of ‘pairing’ whereby the absence of one member would be matched with the non-attendance of another in the opposing party and the absurd lengths they had to go to, bringing in the sick and infirm and propping up the drunk.

It’s surprisingly thrilling stuff and often very funny too. Jeremy Herrin’s staging is brilliant (with an occasional nod to Enron’s movement and music). I was gripped for the duration as I laughed, gasped and nodded in recognition. It somehow showed the best and worst of our parliamentary system.

The Labour whips are brilliantly played by Vincent Franklin, Philip Glenister, Richard Ridings and Lauren O’Neill (plus Phil Daniels in the first half) and the Tory whips equally well by Julian Wadham, Charles Edwards and Ed Hughes and there’s a great supporting company of eight who between them play 29 other characters, mostly MP’s, requiring quick change accents as well as costumes (though the Welsh was South East when it should have been South West!). I loved the way the MP’s were referred to by their parliamentary seat rather than their names, as they are in ‘real life’.

The timing of this play, during the next period of minority government (albeit this time a proper coalition), is impeccable and despite the period clothes, dodgy wigs and dated behaviour (Philip Glenister is well-practiced at this after TV’s 70’s Life on Mars and 80’s Ashes to Ashes) it’s relevant and fresh. I adored it.

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Well, the Rose Theatre at Kingston is full at last – but it took a Dame to do it. I hope this has given the good people of Kingston and environs a theatre-going habit, because their excellent new theatre won’t survive relying on us Londoners risking our street credibility to venture into the suburbs. 

This isn’t a particularly revelatory production, but it stands out in two ways – uniformly well acted and beautifully spoken. I particularly liked the physicality of the lovers scene in the forest and though the rude mechanicals were rather too subdued at first, they came into their own when they got to put on their play.

In the acting department, there’ a lot more than a Dame, including Rachel Stirling’s passionate Helena, Oliver Chris’ very funny Bottom and a fine regal pair in Charles Edwards and Julian Wadham. As for Her Highness, well you have to take any opportunity these days to be in the presence of her greatness and she’s as great as ever.

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