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Posts Tagged ‘Chichester Festival Theatre’

This late 50’s Tennessee Williams play started out as a one-act, two-character piece, until he bolted on another play called Pink Bedroom to form the second act. In this production, you can see the join. The part of the faded movie star, written for Tallulah Bankhead, has always attracted star actresses. I saw Lauren Bacall play it 32 years ago in the West End and Kim Cattrall played her in the last London outing at the Old Vic. Here we have American stage and film actress Marcia Gay Harden, with another American Brian J Smith hot-footing it from his superb turn in The Glass Menagerie in the West End. I assumed, with only a three-week Chichester run, it was West End or Broadway bound.

Chance Wayne is a gigolo and his latest customer is Hollywood’s Alexandra Del Lago, travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis (was TW taking the piss?!). Their booze and drug fuelled journey West stops off in his Mississippi home town of St. Cloud so that he can see the love of his life, Heavenly(!). Unbeknown to him, he gave her an STD when he was last back and this resulted in a life-changing medical condition. Oh, and his mother has died and been given an undignified burial by charitable contributions. He’s not good at leaving contact details. Heavenly’s dad is standing for political office on a somewhat disingenuous ticket disguising his racism and they get caught up in the campaign and the revenge plotted by Heavenly’s brother Tom.

It’s not one of TW’s best and the two acts really are a contrast. It does come alive in the second, but it’s sometimes farfetched and overly melodramatic in writing and too reverential and melodramatic in Jonathan Kent’s production. The entire first act takes place in a hotel bedroom, and its asking a lot of the Chichester main stage to create such an intimate setting. The hotel bar scene which takes up much of the second act opens it up, but also shows up the differences. Anthony Ward’s design is excellent, as are the performances, if a bit OTT in the TW way, with Richard Cordery as Boss Finley and Graham Butler as Tom Finlay deserving mention alongside the star pairing.

I’ve never been in such a small audience at Chichester – less than a quarter full, I’d say – which is a puzzle, and a shame for our American guests, who deserve better. I doubt we’ll see it in London, but maybe Broadway? I’ve had a lot of better TW experiences, but I don’t regret the trip.

 

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Daniel Evans’ reign at Chichester begins with a rare revival of an early Alan Bennett play, almost fifty years old now, not seen in London since the 1968 premiere production. It might be flawed, and somewhat dated, but its given a fine production that’s well worth catching. 

It’s set in a boys public school where the headmaster is about to retire and pass the reigns to senior master Franklin, a more reforming figure, who has put together a play, to be performed by both staff and boys, and we, the audience, are the parents. The play-within-the-play weaves in and out and appears to be historical scenes from two world wars, plus satirical sketches involving contemporaries like T E Lawrence and the Bloomsbury set, and that’s the crux of the problem – it’s a bit of a muddle; well at least until the interval, when I did some belated research to understand what Bennett was getting at, which appears to be a review of changes in society since the end of the First World War, well, forty years on.

CFT has been turned into an authentic public school, dominated by a huge pipe organ and two big war memorial plaques in Les Brotherston’s superb design. There’s even organ accompaniment to rousing hymns and the school song which sounds like it’s coming from the onstage organ pipes, though it clearly can’t be. The apron stage is invaded by some fifty ‘extras’ in uniform, on one occasion straight from the rugby pitch, in addition to the ten actors playing named pupil roles, with just a handful of staff. It’s highly animated and oozes authenticity. The Headmaster has a lot of speeches and Richard Wilson is clearly reading some, but it doesn’t really matter; he has great presence and is every bit the old school head. In the supporting cast, I very much liked Danny Lee Wynter’s younger master, Tempest, a part originally played by Bennett himself.

The critical reception this has received is, in my view, a bit unfair and I was glad I caught it – but mug up first to get the most out of it.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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This 1963 show was written as a vehicle for Tommy Steele, who also took it to Broadway and starred in the 1967 film. This is a substantial re-working, with a new book by Julian Fellows and new songs from Stiles and Drew. I thought it was a big old-fashioned populist treat!

It’s based on H G Wells semi-autobiographical rags-to-riches-to-rags-to riches-again novel Kipps. Getting a story from the Downton creator where the toffs are the baddies is a bit odd, but it’s a good book. Arthur Kipps is an apprentice draper until he inherits a fortune, falls in love with posh Helen Walsingham, is exploited and left penniless by her brother and mother, realises he doesn’t belong with the toffs and returns to his old world to marry his first love Ann. Working class meets upper class and wins. The characters are all rather stereotypical, but hey its musical theatre. Many of David Heneker’s original songs have been retained, with seven new ones added, including excellent ensemble pieces Look Alive, Back the Right Horse and Pick Out a Simple Tune.

The creation of the two contrasting worlds is brilliantly done by Paul Brown’s set, and even more importantly his superb costumes, and Andrew Wright’s choreography, which is amongst the best I’ve ever seen on any stage, light as air, athletic and witty. Director Rachel Kavanagh presides over this with staging of great flair. Whatever you think of the show, the production is masterly. With great vocals all round and a decent size twelve-piece band, it all sounds wonderful.

Charlie Stemp is a real find. His Arthur has bags full of charm coupled with innocence and naivety. He’s strong vocally and moves superbly. Devon-Elise Johnson and the great Emma Williams make a fine pair of romantic leads as humble Ann and silver-spooned Helen respectively. Arthur’s fellow apprentices Sid, Buggins and Flo are a delight as played by Alex Hope, Sam O’Rourke and Bethany Huckle, with John Conroy the suitably pompous boss Shalford. Vivien Parry, Jane How and Gerard Carey are all excellent as the ladies and gentlemen ‘upstairs’. Chitterlow is an odd character, a bit of an older H G Wells perhaps, but Ian Bartholomew gives another of his fine characterisations. It’s hard to imagine a finer cast.

I thought it was a delight and I predict it will be another big hit for the Chichester musicals machine.

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This is the second play about Lawrence of Arabia in this centenary year of the Arab Revolt. When I saw Howard Brenton’s Lawrence After Arabia recently at Hampstead, I had no idea Terence Rattigan had written a play about the same man 46 years ago. This rare revival at Chichester was therefore an opportunity not to be missed for a Rattigan fan with a new interest in T E Lawrence. 

Like Brenton’s play, it starts and ends with scenes after his return from the Middle East, but this time during his first spell of attempted anonymity in the RAF rather than his second spell in the army, and we’re there with him rather than on leave at the home of G B Shaw and his wife. The filling in this sandwich is a more substantial period in the Middle East. Rattigan uses his RAF experience once more in writing terrific scenes of camaraderie, funny at the beginning, more moving at the end. There’s real emphasis on his genuine affection for, and friendship with, the Arab rebels he effectively leads. The Turkish forces appear this time and the account of the horrors he experienced when apprehended by them are very graphic. Though I enjoyed Brenton’s play, I found this had more depth, both in narrative and characterisation, but it did lag a bit in the initial Middle East scenes.

The eighteen strong all-male cast won’t win any awards for diversity, but that was unlikely to be on Rattigan’s mind 46 years ago. It’s a uniformly excellent ensemble too, led by Joseph Fiennes as an introspective but passionate Lawrence. Peter Polycarpou and Michael Feast are both very good, and virtually unrecognisable, as Sheik Auda Abu Tayi and the Turkish Military Governor respectively. Paul Freeman is great as General Allenby and Brendan Hooper a delight as Flight Sergeant Thompson. The stage seems much deeper than usual and William Dudley’s superb design features very imposing Egyptian pillars at the back and an open rough sandy stage which can change from British barracks to desert to office with just the minimum of furniture. I thought Adrian Noble’s staging was outstanding.

Well worth suffering Southern Rail’s chaos on a trip down to Chichester, good to see both Fiennes brothers in the same week, and to see the second of three plays by or about Rattigan in a three week period!

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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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Even though it’s based on the 1919 novel by P G Wodehouse which became a silent movie the following year, a stage play by Wodehouse with Ian Hay eight years later that was turned into a film musical written by Wodehouse and others, with music by the Gershwin’s, nine years after that in 1937, this is actually a world première! What’s actually new is Jeremy Sams & Robert Hudson’s book and the Gershwin’s back catalogue has been mined for additional songs.

George Bevan is in the process of transferring his Broadway show to the West End and has brought his female star Billie Dore with him. Whilst he’s trying to make changes that the British director and some of the cast are reluctant to make, he meets and falls in love with Maud, Lord Marshmoreton’s daughter, who is betrothed to hapless, star-struck Reggie. George and Billie visit the Marshmoreton castle as tourists where Maud, prone to wander, is imprisoned by her father’s formidable sister Lady Caroline. So begins the rescue of the damsel in distress and the resulting marriage or four. It’s silly stuff but it provides some good comedy and Gershwin tunes (though it has to be said second division Gershwin) and who can resist a song called I’m A Poached Egg!

Christopher Oram’s revolving castle is terrific and his costumes excellent. The staging is traditional, perhaps a little too so, and I wondered if Director / Choreographer Rob Ashford should have delegated the latter to someone else (Stephen Mear, perhaps) to bring some freshness and more sparkle. It’s a great cast, led by Sally Ann Triplett (welcome back!) and Richard Fleeshman, building on his work in Ghost and Urinetown and fast becoming an excellent musicals leading man. Nicholas Farrell is a fine actor but not someone I associate with musicals and I was very pleasantly surprised by his excellent turn as the Lord. I loved Richard Dempsey as Reggie and Desmond Barrit as the butler; both great comic creations. There’s a Strallen of course (Summer, playing Maud) and some lovely turns in smaller roles from Isla Blair as Lady Caroline and David Roberts & Chloe Hart as the cooks, who brought the house down.

Chichester FT has been on such a roll with great musical productions in recent years (Singing in the Rain, Love Story, Sweeney Todd, Pajama Game and last year’s pair of  Gypsy and Guys & Dolls, which between them will spend a year at the Savoy Theatre in London) that good productions like this struggle to live up to their own extraordinarily high standard. Still, it’s summer fun and there’s much to enjoy – and the inspiration for the location of the Lord’s home in the show is apparently close to Chichester and the other location is indeed the Savoy Theatre, so maybe they’ll also move this to the real one and occupy it even longer.

 

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