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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Oram’

Martin McDonagh has cornered the market in dark comedies; his next play is actually called A Very Very Very Dark Matter. We don’t know how dark that will be but, at least until then, this is the darkest of the seven I’ve seen. It’s the second in an unfinished trilogy, and I don’t think it’s been in London since its premiere 17 years ago, though we did see the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, by the same company five years ago. That’s long enough for me to have forgotten much of it’s twists and turns, to be shocked, horrified and thrilled by it all over again.

Irish republican terrorist Padraic is too violent for the IRA and fast becoming unacceptable to the INLA too, but he’s very fond of his cat Wee Thomas, so much so that he aborts a torturing to return home when he hears the cat is poorly. Back home his dad Donny and neighbour Davey concoct an elaborate but clumsy plot to cover up Wee Thomas’ death, whilst his true killers, an INLA splinter group led by Christy, plan to put an end to Padraic. Davey’s sister Mairead has her heart set on both a terrorist career and Padraic’s affections.

I’d forgotten how violent and gory it gets, and the twists and turns that drive the black comedy forward. You find yourself turning your head from the violence whilst laughing uproariously at the absurdities. It’s a brave man who satirises terrorism, particularly in the early 90’s, but in the end, in McDonagh’s own words, it’s ‘a violent play that is wholeheartedly anti-violence’ and there’s no-one else who can combine satire with black comedy with ultraviolence, as Anthony Burgess named it.

It’s clear that much of the audience is there to see Aidan Turner, who is excellent, and if that fills a West End theatre for quality drama, that’s OK by me. Hopefully, it won’t detract from seven other fine performances, chief amongst them the auspicious professional stage debut of Chris Walley, who has already wowed me in both the TV series’ and film of The Young Offenders. With Denis Conway terrific as his partner-in-crime Donny, they make a great double-act. You struggle to accept Charlie Murphy’s Mairead as a sixteen-year-old (as you do Turner as twenty) but it’s a fine performance nonetheless. A largely Irish cast bring an authenticity to the piece.

I liked designer Christopher Oram’s cottage, but I wasn’t sure about the idea of scene’s in front of his frontispiece. The blood splattering effects in Michael Grandage’s production were superb. I’m not sure the insertion of an interval, no doubt to boost bar profits for DMT, helped, but it didn’t hinder as much as I thought it might. A fine revival which has whetted my appetite for his new play in October.

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Apparently Laurence Olivier, the first Archie Rice, only took an interest in playwright John Osborne, asking him to write a play for him, because Arthur Miller told him he was good – he was working with his wife Marilyn Monroe on a Terence Rattigan screenplay at the time! I first saw John Osborne’s angry middle-aged man play (a follow on from his angry young man play Look Back in Anger the year before) when it was 30 years old (with Peter Bowles), then again when it was 50 (Robert Lindsay) and now on the eve of it’s 60th birthday with Kenneth Branagh. It’s one of only a handful, a third of his solo original plays that have been produced, that I’ve seen. Each time it has had less impact and today seems even more like a museum piece.

Music Hall entertainer Archie Rice is declining and failing, as is Musical Hall itself. His career has followed in the footsteps of his dad Billy, now an archetypal grumpy old man. His wife Phoebe works on the electrical counter at Woolworths and tolerates his infidelities. His daughter (not Phoebe’s) lives in London, has become an independent, politicised woman and left her fiancé Graham. Son Mick is away fighting in the Middle East (it’s 1956, the Suez crisis), a bit of a hero it seems. In contrast, his other son Frank was imprisoned for draft-dodging. A dysfunctional family and a metaphor for the decline of a nation.

The scenes in the cramped family digs are interspersed with Archie’s act, now a comic song & dance man in shows where nudity is the real attraction. They sit around talking, sometimes affectionately, sometimes angrily, drinking an awful lot of neat gin. Tragedy hits twice when Mikey doesn’t make it back from the war, then Billy goes to meet the great song & dance man in the sky. In 2016 it’s hard to swallow the racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia, however ironic it was intended.

I found myself admiring the production but not really engaging with the play. Christopher Oram has designed a superb crumbling music hall within which the family living room sits. The performances are fine, particularly Gawn Grainger as granddad. Kenneth Branagh shows us again, as he did in Harlequinade and The Painkiller, that he has excellent comic timing and physical acting skills (his dancing here is excellent), but I’m not sure he captured all of the complexity of Archie Rice, and I’m not sure the camp touches fitted the character.

The Branagh season’s disappointment for me has been the choice of plays. Neither Harlequinade nor this were, in my view, worthy of revival, and The Painkiller, though enjoyable, was hardly ground-breaking. I didn’t see the two Shakespeare’s and had already seen the ‘afterthought’, Red Velvet, at The Tricycle. Both this, and the season, were a bit of a disappointment for me.

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I found this story of scientist Rosalind Franklin rather sad – the lack of recognition of her contribution to DNA science, her unfulfilled personal life and her untimely death are all brought out in Anna Ziegler’s lucid biographical drama. The play suggests the lack of recognition is a combination of sexism, her reluctance to promote herself and her work and a more cautious approach to science. It seems the Cambridge DNA team of Watson and Crick, with the collusion of her London colleague Wilkins, though fully aware of her contribution, fail to acknowledge it publicly and to include her in their Nobel Prize-winning work – which is a great tragedy in itself.

We first meet Franklin when she returns to the UK from France to work at King’s College with Maurice Wilkins. She’s cold, brittle and determined, and she’s immediately faced with the challenge of being a woman in what was still a man’s world in the early 50’s. Wilkins changes her work and status before she’s even begun and snubs her on day one to lunch in the men-only dining room. Her ground-breaking photographic techniques prove crucial to the discovery of DNA but it’s not given recognition, most probably intentionally. Just as those that are recognised are revelling in their Nobel glory, Franklin is dying of tumours which may even have been caused by her work.

Christopher Oram has created an enormous replica of Kings College, above and below ground (where their laboratories were). It’s impressive, and reflects the coldness of the scientific environment and the people and relationships played out within it. Michael Grandage’s staging is rather conservative, with actors stepping forward to narrate parts of the story that are not enacted. The costumes are as grey as the set and with 50’s behavioural restraint and scientific seriousness, the overall feel is clinical.

Nicole Kidman is completely believable in this role, and you soon forget you’re in the presence of a modern film icon. I realised how much she invested in the role at the curtain call when she changed before your eyes from the character into the actress, and this was far from instant. She has five fine performances around her, and makes no attempt to scene steal or attention grab. Stephen Campbell Moore is outstanding as the complex Wilkins, with hints of guilt and longing. Edward Bennet and Will Attenborough are great together as the livelier Cambridge pair of Crick and young American Watson respectively. Patrick Kennedy plays another American scientist Don Caspar with child-like enthusiasm, in awe of Franklin, showing his less scientific feelings for her more overtly than Wilkins. Joshua Silver is very good too as her assistant Gosling, sometimes caught between loyalty to her and their boss.

An interesting story that unfolds grippingly over just 95 minutes. The production is as restrained as the characters, so what might seem conservative may perhaps be a true reflection of this period and this world. I still haven’t forgiven myself for choosing not to see Kidman in La Ronde at the Donmar seventeen years ago now, but this is some recompense. She proves to be a fine stage actress.

 

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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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Seeing both of these plays in the same day immerses you in 35 years of Tudor history, but it seems odd to hear it unfold in 21st century speech as we’re so used to our history plays being written hundreds of years ago. It’s Shakespearean in scale, narrative drive and characterisation and somehow it feels like something Shakespeare would have written if he’d been writing today. Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s books are actually a bit of a triumph.

Wolf Hall covers the period from Henry VIII’s decision to dump Katherine through to his courting of Jane Seymour whilst still married to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up The Bodies covers a shorter period up to Anne’s execution. Both are told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. It’s an unusual way to present history and it works well because it broadens the canvas from ‘the royals’ to embrace the stories of all of the characters. We don’t have to concentrate so much on the dialogue because it’s everyday speech, so we think more about people’s motivations. In Jeremy Herrin’s production, it races along without feeling rushed and rarely lags.

The Swan space is unadorned; just a few props and some fire. There’s an atmospheric (mostly musical) soundscape. Christopher Oram’s costumes are superb and you see the passage of time through Cromwell’s increasingly grander outfits and Henry’s additional padding! Ben Miles is excellent as Cromwell, unassuming but loyal and determined. I loved Nathaniel Parker’s Henry; I particularly admired the way he captured the changes in him over the period of the plays. Theer are too many more fine performances to single any out; suffice to say it’s an excellent ensmeble.

This is accessible historical fiction. Easy to digest, often funny and always entertaining. I left the theatre feeling very satisifed indeed.

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Until last night I’ve always considered this pay to be a fairly straightforward gung- ho slice of patriotic revisionist history. In this production, it seems to have more depth and complexity.

The young king puts his wayward past behind him and, goaded by the French Dauphin, sets off to teach them a lesson or two. An unlikely defeat of the much stronger French army (well, more of them, anyway) leads to the unification of the two nations by the marriage of Henry to the French king’s daughter. The depth and complexity come in the changing attitudes to war.

I found the first half uneven (as much the play as the production), but after the interval, as the British forces leave these shores, the production really takes off. The scene where Henry inspires his forces is brilliant and his wooing of Catherine is wonderfully staged. Where the production succeeds is in coping with the contrasts and contradictions – love & war, compassion & hate, poignancy & humour.

Christopher Oram’s design seems inspired by his earlier one for Lear at the Donmar – a semi-circle of rough wood painted roughly which takes its shape from the ‘cockpit’ of the prologue. Unlike the NT’s recent modern setting, save for the chorus / narrator in modern dress (a terrific Ashley Zhangazha, who continues to impress – I’m already getting excited about seeing his Othello!) it’s in period and the costumes are superb.

It’s been great to watch Jessie Buckley put the Oliver TV casting show I’ll Do Anything behind her; in just five years, she’s played Sondheim for Trevor Nunn at the Menier / West End, been to RADA, played a couple of shows at Shakespeare’s Globe and is now speaking French and snogging Jude Law in a very impressive performance as Princes Katherine! Matt Ryan is excellent as Fluellen, complete with real leak, and Ron Cook gives us another great turn as Pistol, eating the said leak.

I’ve only seen Jude Law a handful of times since Les Patents Terribles at the NT 19 years ago (where you saw quite a lot if I remember correctly) but he has impressed on each occasion. Here, he handles the various Henry’s very well – the lad with new-found responsibility, the patriot, the warmonger, the leader, the statesman, the lover…..it’s a fine performance.

This is a lot better than the Michael Grandage Company’s other crack at Shakespeare and ends the season on a high. It’s been good to see a 5-play season of such quality succeed in the unsubsidised West End, like Jamie Lloyd’s shorted 4-play season. In the spirit of competition and to encourage a rematch, Lloyd wins though!

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Michael Grandage’s big idea is the have the forest as a new age encampment and the faeries as hippy eco-warriors, with snatches of The Mamas & Papas and Simon & Garfunkel playing in the background. It also comes in at 2h 10m inc. interval; quite possibly the shortest mainstream Shakespeare production ever!

It’s a patchy affair, though. I liked Christopher Oram’s design – burnished bronze panels, rising to reveal a landscape backed by a giant full moon, with side panels a nod to Arthur Rackham. The verse speaking is often weak. The forest scenes work well, with the lovers firing brilliantly off one another, but the rude mechanicals are badly let down by David Walliams’ misguided and predictably camp Bottom (Walliams does Walliams) mercilessly trying to steal the show but just being bloody irritating.

Padraig Delaney is OK as Oberon but has little presence as Theseus. Sheridan Smith is OK as both Titania and Hippolyta but she’s done much better work than this. Chief acting honours belong to the four lovers – Sam Swainsbury, Susannah Fielding, Stefano Braschi & Katherine Kingsley – who are well matched, suitable sparky and by far the best verse speakers.

It’s a bit pedestrian really. It doesn’t illuminate or add anything and is seriously undermined by the miscasting of Walliams, who’s a diva rather than a company man. You won’t miss much if you miss it, as you’ve probably seen a better one and if not a better one will come along soon!

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