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Posts Tagged ‘Dervla Kirwan’

It’s hard to believe that it’s 17 years since this had its UK premiere at the Donmar. In this terrific production it feels freshly minted, and I can’t help wondering why its taken so long to be revived. We’ve had three other plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis since, most notably 2015’s The Motherf***er With The Hat. which gave the NT’s marketing department an interesting challenge, so its good to look at the first once again.

Set in a New York prison, we meet Lucius, a serial killer waiting for extradition to Florida, where his killing spree started and where the death penalty exists. He has a benevolent guard Charlie in his solitary 23-hour lock up wing. Much younger Angel is awaiting trial for a shooting. He’s moved to the same wing for his own protection after an assault. Charlie leaves and the far from benevolent Valdez is sent to persecute them. The only other character is Angel’s lawyer Mary Jane who visits intermittently to discuss defence strategy and tactics.

The discussions between Lucius and Angel are the heart of the piece as we debate responsibility & accountability and redemption. We learn about the prisoners’ motivations and personal histories in what becomes a psychological sparring match. How much do the actions of the victims justify the crime? How much does a tragic past excuse a crime? It’s played out on a traverse stage with moving glass walls / doors with blinding lighting and deafening drums between scenes to keep up the tension. It shocks, though there are flashes of humour that relieve the tension. and your brain almost hurts as you decide what you think about these people and their actions. I found it riveting.

Oberon K A Adjepong (a very welcome visitor from the US) as Lucius and Ukweli Roach as Angel are mesmerising to watch, with great physicality, spitting out dialogue at frenetic speed. Dervla Kirwan is excellent as the Irish American lawyer Mary Jane who we learn a surprising amount about. Joplin Sibtain is terrific as their nemesis Valdez, prodding and provoking them for fun. Matthew Douglas’ Charlie is such a contrast, and comes back to surprise us towards the end.

Director Kate Hewitt and designed Magda Willi have done an excellent job creating the tension which the play needs. Yet more thrilling stuff at the Young Vic.

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Samuel Foote, an eighteenth century actor, the subject of Ian Kelly’s play, may well be the most fascinating person you’ve never heard of – well, I hadn’t. He was a friend of David Garrick and Peg Woffington, the most famous actors of their day, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin and King George III. He appears to have invented a new form of theatre – improv! – getting around the stringent restrictions of the day by having no script to be approved and charging for the tea rather than the entertainment. The play is as enthralling as it is entertaining.

We meet Foote as a well-established member of London society. He’s moved on from acting to semi-improvised prologues and epilogues and on again to create comic and satirical one-man ‘entertainments’ and impersonations of infamous brothel madam ‘Mrs Cole’. He runs the second largest theatre company in the land, but after a riding accident he has to have his leg amputated, which of course impacts his career (and may have affected his mental condition). He does get a prosthetic leg, something that was being pioneered by John Hunter, the father of modern surgery, at that time, but he never really recovers. The sympathetic George III grants him a Theatre Royal license for the Haymarket Theatre, but his fortunes begin to decline when he satirises a Duchess who responds with accusations of sodomy which ultimately bring him down. Why have I never heard of this man or his plays!

Richard Eyre’s production is uproariously funny, though it does get darker as it progresses. Tim Hatley seems to have designed an intentionally small set which is both faithful to the period and rather intimate. Simon Russell Beale’s towering performance is amongst his best, showcasing his brilliant comic timing and ability to raise a laugh without speaking a word. He is as extraordinary as a large eighteenth century society lady as he was as a Carmen Miranda impersonator in Privates on Parade. He’s surrounded by a host of other lovely performances, with Joseph Millson as Garrick and Dervla Kirwan as Woffington and the writer himself as Prince / King George. I was hugely impressed by Micah Balfour as his ‘blackamoor’ servant and Jenny Galloway was a delight as his other help, Mrs Garner.

It was another co-incidence that this play about 18th century theatre folk followed the previous day’s play about 17th century theatre folk, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. It is unthinkable that this doesn’t transfer, and it would be particularly wonderful if it were to be to the Theatre Royal Haymarket which he took over 250 years ago next year!

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I didn’t join in with the seemingly universal euphoria when I saw this play’s premiere 16 years ago at the Royal Court. I warmed to it more in this finely cast revival in the Donmar’s perfect intimate space, but I still can’t see it as the modern classic it’s claimed to me.

You’re virtually inside Tom Scutt’s hyper-realistic pub; it’s as if they built the seating around it rather than built the set on stage. The play starts with a bit of inconsequential everyday business and chatter between publican Brendan and customer Jack. They are joined by another customer Jim, and Jack announces that boy-made-good hotelier Finbar is showing a new lady resident around and will soon be joining them. They speculate on his motives with just a touch of distaste and jealousy.

When Finbar and Valerie arrive, she becomes the focus of attention as they seek to uncover her story and impress her with their stories of fairies and ghosts. The play turns when Valerie tells her tale, which reveals her tragedy. When Finbar and Jim leave, Jack tells his own real story of an unfulfilled life and loneliness as Brendan, who seems to be heading for the same fate, looks on.

This time, the real lives of the three lonely men struck me more. Jim looking after mammy, Jack unable to make the break and escape when he could and Brendan tied to the family pub with visits from his sisters guarding their share. I also enjoyed the running joke of the arrival of the German tourists and the brilliant final reference to them. In the end though, it’s still a bunch of blokes in a pub telling stories, which doesn’t make a modern classic in my book.

The chief pleasure for me was the performances. It’s great to see Brian Cox back on stage in a role that really suits him. It’s good to watch the relatively unsung Peter McDonald develop his craft. Risteard Cooper impresses as he did in his English debut in the NT’s Juno and Dervla Kirwan pulls off the difficult task of portraying her character’s sadness alongside all of the banter. Ardel O’Hanlon was a bit one-note for me, but it didn’t deter from the overall effect of a fine ensemble.

It should really be called ‘The Irish’ because in the end it’s just the Irishness brand on stage – charming, wistful, nostalgic, self-deprecating, conservative. The gift of the gab indeed.

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