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Posts Tagged ‘Denise Gough’

When I first saw these Tony Kushner plays 24-25 years ago, in the NT’s Cottesloe auditorium, there was a gap of more than a year between them; the second play, Perestroika, hadn’t been written when the first, Millennium Approaches, opened. I saw both parts of the only London revival, Headlong at the Lyric Hammersmith ten years ago, in one day, but then it seemed like recent history. I repeated that experience at the latest revival in the National’s Lyttelton theatre on Wednesday, but now ‘the AIDS plays’, as many called them, feel like much more than that, and in so many ways bang up-to-date.

Prior and Louis are a gay couple; the former hails from early English immigrants and the latter from more recent Jewish immigrants. Pryor has AIDS and his close gay African-American friend Belize is an AIDS nurse, who is reluctantly looking after a racist, homophobic, corrupt Jewish lawyer called Roy Cohn, who disguises his condition as liver cancer. Roy’s protege, object of his desires, and possible sexual partner, is a closeted Mormon called Joe, whose agoraphobic, depressive wife Harper and Mormon mom Hannah, who becomes Pryor’s unlikely friend, are also characters. Joe begins a relationship with Louis when the latter deserts his sick lover. Roy M Cohn was a real person, right-hand man to chief witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy, and sometime lawyer to Donald Trump, representing him in the now infamous racist rental case, who appears to have been a mentor, even role model, to the current president. Of course, it’s set in the reign of that other celebrity president Ronald Regan, but in lines written 26 years ago, we hear things we heard last year.

Marianne Elliott’s new staging starts intimately, with scenes stage front on small sets on three side-by-side revolves. This continues for two of the three parts of the first play and, though emotionally engaging, wasn’t as epic as I remembered, and for someone who needs visual as well as narrative stimulation, constituted a slowish start. From here, though, it opens out with small scenes in a giant space giving the epic feel I expected, with scenes in the second play changed by the Angel’s spider-like puppeteers crawling eerily. It fully sustained it’s 6.5 hour playing time, over a 10 hour period, to the point where the gaps felt like waiting time during which you became impatient to return. The inclusion of two intervals in each part was the right decision though.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast, packed full of favourite actors. I first saw a very promising Andrew Garfield eleven years ago in another theatre in the same building, but I had no idea he would grow into the extraordinary talent that plays Prior now. I’ve admired James McArdle’s stage work for years, most notably as King James, also next door, but his Louis is a new career high. Russell Tovey first wowed me at the opening night of The History Boys on the same stage and here he is owning it in a more difficult role as introspective Joe, whose eventual emotional explosions take your breath away. I’ve only seen (and loved) Nathan Lane in The Producers, so watching him create the monster that is Roy Cohn was a revelation. I’ve seen little of Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s work, but now can’t wait to see more; he brings Belize alive by wordless facial expressions, then adds a delicious bite with his dialogue. Denise Gough continues to impress in another tough role in the shadow of so many larger-than-life characters, her restraint amplifying the emotional outbursts. In addition to Hannah, who Susan Brown navigates from conservative Mormon to loving friend, she plays three men – a Rabbi, a doctor, and an old Bolshevik – plus the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, one of Roy Cohn’s victims, in a series of terrific performances. The ever wonderful Amanda Lawrence gives us our Angel, but also many others in another set of fine turns. What an ensemble.

When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, this will be another of those days that justify my obsession with the stage. No other art form could provide such a dramatic feast that leaves you exhausted and emotionally drained, but energised, thrilled and deeply satisfied at the same time. I woke up the following morning feeling completely blessed.

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This wasn’t an easy watch. Duncan MacMillan’s play concerns an actress’ addiction to drink and drugs and it’s a harrowing affair. It’s something you admire rather than enjoy, but there’s a lot to admire in Jeremy Herrin’s production for Headlong at the NT.

There’s a brilliantly clever and disorientating opening scene, but we’re soon checking into rehab with very raw experiences of reception, withdrawal, group therapy and failures along the way. Our protagonist, Emma / Sarah isn’t very likeable but she is very plausible. She’s rather self-obsessed, with a tendency to talk down, and her commitment to, and motivation for, getting clean isn’t always clear. Her relationships with the medical and care staff and fellow ‘patients’ aren’t good. It’s a rocky road, made more rocky by her own attitude and disposition. Watching it is an intense, sometimes shocking and very emotional experience.

It’s staged in a white plastic structure (designed by Bunny Christie) with the audience in close proximity on the two open sides, which also provide two of the six entrances, settings rising from the floor. This makes for a fast-paced staging. Amongst Jeremy Herrin’s raft of ideas, the representation of her hallucinations is hugely inventive. The production makes you feel uncomfortable, guilty that you are invading someone’s private life, watching something that perhaps you shouldn’t. Though if you have any doubts about the damage drink and drugs can do, you certainly should.

Though it’s a uniformly excellent cast, Denise Gough carries the evening with a stunning central performance, on stage virtually the whole time. Very occasionally you see a performance you know will be a turning point in someone’s career and this is one of those occasions.

Important rather than entertaining, but I’m glad I saw it.

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This isn’t one of Eugene O’Neil’s best plays, chiefly because it’s too melodramatic, though this production at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith is so good it makes it seem as if it is.

Seventy something Ephraim marries for the third time, to a girl who’s about the same age as Eben, his son by his second wife. Eben and the two sons by Ephraim’s first wife, Simeon and Peter (keep up!), can see their inheritance slipping away. For some reason, Eben buys out his brothers’ share of the farm on which they live (even though it looks like they won’t inherit it) and Simeon and Peter head west to join the gold rush. Eben stays to fight his corner, his dad and his new step-mother – until, that is, he falls for her and fathers her baby. Of course, it all ends in tears – well, wails really.

In the first 30 minutes, as the story is set up, we just see the three brothers. Mikel Murfi and Fergus O’Donnell are simply mesmerizing as hirsute elder brothers Simeon and Peter and its hard for Morgan Watkins to play the ‘softer’ Eben against this; he comes into his own though when Abbie arrives and his lust for her takes over. Finbar Lynch is a commanding Ephraim, at his best in the christening party scene where everything revolves around him (literally at times). Abbie is a complex character – defiant fortune hunter, passionate lover, lost soul – and Denise Gough plays her brilliantly. You’d be struggling to get five performances this good on any stage.

I wasn’t convinced by Ian MacNeil’s design at first. The house front disappears soon after the start, four mobile boxes open up to become rooms in the house, a screen at the back changes colour with the time of day and the stage rear and wings are in clear view. There’s also a platform jutting out half-way into the stalls with steps out to the side for entrances and exits. Somehow, though, it eventually made sense and its movement contributed much to the flow of the play (even though from the front stalls, entrances, exits and speeches from the platform were irritating).

Sean Holmes’ masterly direction, with brilliant music (Ry Cooder?) played live on guitar by Jason Baughan, brings this slice of 19th century New England to life and I was gripped throughout. A contender for the year’s best revival methinks and only 10 more days to catch it.

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This is very different to The Kitchen Sink, the last play at the Bush. It also has a kitchen sink – well, a whole kitchen – but that’s about where the similarities end. Whereas the previous ‘blue collar’ play was warm funny and feelgood this slice of middle class life is colder but just as thought-provoking and a little bit scary.

Hazel hasn’t really worked out what parenting means but is now heavily pregnant with her second child. She’s quit her job as a hot-shot lawyer and has misguidedly set up a lifestyle business at home importing olive oil from Sicily. Husband Richard is a successful plastic surgeon whose mercy missions to the third world at first seem altruistic but ultimately prove to be somewhat more self-serving. Son Daniel is a little troubled, and in trouble for his inappropriate attentions to a fellow pupil. Young Annie turns up from Sligo, employed by Richard to help Hazel with childcare (though he didn’t tell her) and their lives turn upside down. We eventually realise that Annie has ‘chosen’ Richard, as he becomes besotted with her. Hazel is betrayed and Daniel is caught in the middle.

Kate Fleetwood is simply terrific as Hazel. It’s a difficult emotional ride from former ice maiden through yummy mummy to woman scorned to epiphany when she ‘gets’ parenthood, but she does it brilliantly. Though pompous and vain Richard comes dangerously close to caricature, it’s a tribute to Mark Bazeley that in the second act much of the audience looked like they were about to march on the stage and give him a slap! Denise Gough’s brings out Annie’s complexity as she moves from naive young Irish girl to somewhat spooky predator. I think it was Jude Willoughby playing Daniel on the night I went and he was outstanding.

It takes a while before you uncover the depths in Nancy Harris’ play, and in the second act the twists and dark humour are occasionally overplayed, but ultimately I found it very satisfying and I’ve been reflecting on the awesome challenge of modern parenting ever since. I didn’t leave the theatre with the warm glow I had after The Kitchen Sink, but I did leave feeling stimulated and entertained in equal measure.

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