Posts Tagged ‘Dennis Kelly’

Playwright Dennis Kelly seems to switch from musicals to translations to original plays with great ease. His last show was the NT’s Pinocchio and directly before that a Georg Kaiser translation / adaptation, also at the NT. Now it’s a new play, a monologue, featuring the return of Carey Mulligan to the stage where she made her debut 14 years ago, and on which she last appeared 11 years ago.

Our unamed character tells us the story of her relationship with a man she met in the queue to board a plane. He became her husband, and father of her two children. It alternates between a blank stage and a monochrome home with imaginary children; in both she’s talking direct to the audience. It starts very humorously and becomes a lovely romantic story. We learn about their respective careers, and in particular her success as a documentary producer. The challenges of bringing up young children are conveyed charmingly. Then her life takes a tragic turn.

It must be very exposed on stage alone for 90 minutes, having to remember a vast number of lines and stage business including mime, so I have nothing but admiration for Carey Mulligan, who inhabits her character and navigates her emotional roller-coaster journey. My companions thought the story was a touch predictable, but I didn’t. I knew it would turn dark, but didn’t know how. I admired the writing, but I admired Lyndsey Turner’s staging and Mulligan’s performance more.

Great to be reminded what a fine actress Carey Mulligan is.

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If Walt Disney hadn’t adapted this late nineteenth century Italian novel by Carlo Collodi for his second full-length animated film just before the Second World War, it would probably never have become the iconic tale it has, told around the world in many forms and languages. Here we are almost eighty years later seeing a stage adaptation at the National Theatre, and what a treat it proves to be.

The tale struck me as darker (the hand of playwright Dennis Kelly?) and more moralistic than I remembered, with a strong emphasis on the importance of values and truth. In learning these en route from being a puppet to being a boy, Pinocchio encounters a trio of baddies – a sly trickster Fox, puppet-master Stromboli and fairground-master The Coachman. These are juxtaposed with his loving dad, puppet-maker Geppetto, and the Blue Fairy, who adds that touch of magic.

John Tiffany’s staging doesn’t rely on technology, as much modern theatre does, but it is utterly charming and completely magical. Bob Crowley provides a simple, appropriately wooden design of benches, trees and ladders until we move to the puppet theatre’s proscenium and the fairground’s lights. The underwater scene is an understated marvel. Puppets are used for some of the main characters (except the puppet Pinocchio himself!) with Geppetto, Stromboli and the Coachman twice life size, with three handlers as well as the actor in identical dress; this gives the production a somewhat surreal quality and a period feel.

Tiffany’s regular movement collaborator Steven Hoggett creates an athletic child-like world. and the illusions by Jamie Harrison (whose work so impressed me at the Harry Potter plays recently) are brilliant (though there was a minor nose malfunction on the night I went!). Martin Lowe provides a wonderful score to supplement the film’s original five songs and inspired by its incidental music and Italian and Alpine folk music, including the recurrent standard When You Wish Upon a Star, which sounds suitably lush with a 15-piece orchestra under Tom Brady in the pit.

Mark Hadfield’s Geppetto is very moving (was that a real tear I saw at the end?) and Joe Idris-Roberts is an absolute delight as a very malleable Pinocchio. All three baddies deliver the required badness – David Langham’s Fox, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr as Stromboli and David Kirkbride as The Coachman. Audrey Brisson makes Pinocchio’s conscience Jiminy Cricket a lovely companion and Annette McLaughlin is every bit the fairy of your imagination.

Younger kids might be a bit scared, but older ones will love it’s darkness and adults it’s timeless charm and glorious theatricality. One of the best Christmas shows at the National, adding to its impressive seasonal track record.

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Well, Christmas lunch is assured at the National; the turkey has already arrived. In a perverse piece of programming, we have a 100-year-old slice of German expressionism for Christmas. It could have worked, I suppose, but even a hot writer like Dennis (Matilda) Kelly, the director of one of the NT’s great Christmas hits, Coram Boy (Melly Still) and the-designer-with-a-magic-touch – Soutra Gilmour – can’t bring this turkey back to life.

Our protagonist is a bank cashier who runs off with 60,000 marks (£900k today, the programme tells us) after becoming a bit besotted with an Italian woman who visits his bank. In one day, he goes in search of the meaning of life, starting in the Italian woman’s hotel room, moving to a field of snow, on to a velodrome (where he offers the lot as prize money, but abandons the idea because the royals turn up and dampen the atmosphere), a sex club and a mission hall…..and it all ends in tears. The truth is, wherever he goes, the play goes nowhere. When you resist the temptation to quit at the interval, it’s a very long 2.5 hours.

The inventive staging and design do their best (there was so much going on in the opening scene, I didn’t quite know where to look) but it’s not enough. The actors work very hard, particularly Adam Godley as the bank clerk, but they’re flogging a dead horse too. There was much silence in the auditorium – disbelief? boredom? sleep? (it certainly felt like a dream at times). I hope the rest of the NT’s Christmas lunch tastes better; the turkey’s tasteless.

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I’ve come late to this love-it-or-hate-it Dennis Kelly play at the Royal Court, having had to cancel a planned visit earlier in the run. I almost left at the interval, but didn’t, and this was one occasion when I’m glad I didn’t. It’s taken me another week to decide what I think about it, during which time I also read it (I knew those programme / playscripts would come in handy one day).

In the first thirty minutes we get the whole life of the title character from birth to the end of his first marriage, told by the ensemble as narrators, in turns, mostly in short one-liners. This went on for an irritatingly long time and the play appeared to be going nowhere. Then we have a scene where nice(ish) Gorge becomes nasty Gorge when he aids a predatory takeover of his employer’s company, knowing full well it isn’t in his boss’ best interests. From here on it’s the rise (and fall) of a man who has lost his moral compass. He builds a business empire, ensnares his second wife by mirroring her abusive past, writes a book about his own and ends up rich but sad, thinking everything can be bought – including his brother and unknown grandson who turn up and turn his life upside down.

The final two acts are a big improvement on the prologue and first act, but it’s still a long and heavy-handed way of showing us how morally corruptible one man can become – presumably presented as a sign of our times. The three acts are interrupted by similar, but shorter, narration as the prologue and that continued to irritate me. It’s an overlong and uneven ride, but it has its moments and I have sympathy with the underlying message. Tom Brooke is remarkable as Gorge (I’m still not sure if and why he’s lost his ‘e’) and there’s excellent support from the rest of the cast.

This isn’t Dennis Kelly at his best, and not a particularly auspicious start for Vicky Featherstone’s tenure at The Royal Court, but it isn’t as bad as some would have you believe and it is timely and original – but not the success we’d have liked to bring in the new.

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Walking through the foyers to your seats at the Cambridge Theatre is great fun as they’ve covered the walls with mini blackboards, each with a different chalked comment. When we got to our seats, in pole position in the front row of the Dress Circle, our mouthes fell open – Rob Howell’s extraordinary design spilled out from the stage onto the auditorium walls and ceiling.

Sadly, when the show started the sound was so bad we were missing a good quarter of the dialogue and lyrics (the developing cacophony of crisp & sweet rusting and malteser rolling increased that to 33%). What followed was brilliantly performed and executed (well, apart from the 15 minute pause to solve a technical problem – and I’m not entirely convinced it re-started at the exact point it stopped), but I didn’t think the book, music or lyrics were really that good. Has everyone been seduced by the spectacle and the hugely talented kids? 

I don’t know which Matilda we had, but she was brilliant. Bertie Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull is a wonderful creation, and Paul Kaye and Josie Walker as the parents are excellent. Matthew Warchus’ staging and Peter Darling’s choreography are also superb….but at the end of the day, I really do think this is all papering over mediocre material. It’s not a ‘great British musical’ – it’s an up-market kids show and somehow I feel Roald Dahl’s story would be served better by a minimalist imaginative staging at the Young Vic or BAC where the kids could use their imagination rather than have it shoved in their faces like a video game.

Of course, it’s not for me. Maybe it’s great if you’ve got a few hundred quid and a couple of kids with ADHD to amuse for a few hours……

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