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Posts Tagged ‘Cush Gumbo’

When I first heard that the Donmar had programmed an all-female Julius Caesar, I thought it was the new (female) Artistic Director making a point. A bit of a gimmick. I nearly didn’t book. Well, gobble gobble (sound of me eating my words).

The RSC’s African version earlier in the year had me thinking how much more relevant it was in a 20th century banana republic with all the intrigue and machiavellian machinations. This one, set in a women’s prison, made me feel just the same. Somewhere where power, control and ‘politics’ loom large.

The Donmar has had another one of its extraordinary transformations. Fading painted walls, metal walkways and even authentic light switches; it’s every inch a prison – right down to the grey plastic chairs replacing the usual padded benches; not that my bum noticed – I was too engrossed. Bunny Christie’s design is superb.

Even though it is done as a play-within-a-play, its with a very light touch in Philida Lloyd’s production and Shakespeare’s play doesn’t get swamped in any way. It seemed to me perfectly plausible that Caesar would get done over by a gang of fellow prisoners, leading to tussles for control and  power games. It just worked, no better than in Mark Anthony’s great speech, which was electrifying.

It’s a great cast and the four central performances tower. Seeing Frances Barber as Julius reminds you how good an actor she is. Cush Gumbo, who I’ve only seen in a restoration comedy(!), is a revelation as Mark Anthony. Harriet Walter is a passionate, defiant yet vulnerable Brutus. Only months after welcoming Jenny Jules in her first Shakespearean role, here she is as the best Cassius I’ve ever seen.

This is as gripping and thrilling a couple of hours can get in a theatre. Don’t miss it.

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I loved everything about this production – a thing of great joy and a triumphant NT debut for director Jamie Lloyd. It’s the equal of the recent London Assurance on the same stage and for a play that’s almost 250 years old, it’s as fresh as they come.

Oliver Goldsmith’s restoration comedy has always seemed less dated and funnier than its contemporaries, but this is unquestionably the best production I’ve seen. Mark Thompson’s design somehow makes the Olivier more intimate. Most of the time, we’re in the Hardcastle’s living room in front of a huge hearth with a welcoming fire. The scene changes are accompanied by delightful jolly choruses and dances and the one from living room to woods and back is a marvel that takes your breath away. The only thing that isn’t in period is modern gestures, but rather than being incongruous they somehow add to the freshness.

City boy Marlow, accompanied by his friend Hastings, is off to the country to meet his intended Kate Hardcastle. Kate’s step-brother Tony Lumpkin convinces them the Hardcastle home is an inn – cue inappropriate behaviour and an outraged Mr Hardcastle. The tongue-tied Marlow has a stumbling meeting with confident Kate where he can’t even look at her, thus enabling Kate to subsequently pose as a barmaid (she stoops to conquer) and see a very different Marlow.

Running in parallel we have the story of Mrs Hardcastle’s niece and her love of Hastings but betrothal to Lumpkin (Mrs Hardcastle’s son by her first marriage, who doesn’t really want marriage), complete with a mix up over a box of jewels. It’s a riot of confusion with city meets country and rich meet poor providing ample opportunity for satire. The humour is broad so the playing is broad, but it manages to stay the right side of OTT. Of course, it all ends happily with both couples united and parents content.

Harry Hadden-Paton is proving equally adept at drama and comedy and here he’s terrific as Marlow. This may be a career high for John Heffernan, equally terrific as Hastings. It’s hard for Katherine Kelly and Cush Jumbo to play against these comic master classes but they do so very well. I assume there is some sort of exchange programme that resulted in Ian McKellern in Coronation Street in exchange for Kelly in this?! Well, she’s been the best thing about Corrie for years (yes, I’m a fan!) and though it was sad to see her go it’s great to see her cutting it in restoration comedy one week later – and there’s something delicious about the former barmaid at the Rovers Return stooping to conquer as a barmaid! Steve Pemberton and Sophie Thompson are great as the Hardcastles, with the latter giving us another of her over-the-top-and-higher-still performances. I was also hugely impressed by David Fynn as Lumpkin.  The ensemble is faultlessly cast and impeccably drilled.

A delightful evening from beginning to end. Miss at your peril.

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