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Posts Tagged ‘Dominic Cooke’

It’s thirty years since I saw a large-scale production of this show – it’s first, and only, West End outing – though there were three others in quick succession between 2002 and 2010 – a semi-staged version at the Royal Festival Hall, a delightful fringe production at the Landor and another in Walthamstow during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations. Along with A Little Night Music, it’s never been my favourite Sondheim show, though it contains some of his best songs, but just five days after a stunning revival of that other show in Newbury, here we are at the National being blown away by Dominic Cooke’s sensational production, taking us back to the original Broadway version without interval. Now, where did I put my superlatives thesaurus……

It’s a reunion at the New York theatre where the Weismann Follies were between the wars. It’s about to be demolished and the girls of the 30’s and 40’s have been invited back one last time. Nostalgia gives way to regret for lost love and lost opportunities, as the main characters Buddy & Sally and Ben & Phyllis reminisce. There have been follies in their lives as well as Follies in their careers, and we learn how their relationships were formed and how they progressed. All four have the ‘ghosts’ of their former selves onstage, as do ten of the other stars from the past. Interwoven with their story, and ‘character songs’ as Sondheim calls them, we have routines and turns reenacted and a pastiche called Loveland within which all four leads sing of their individual follies.

Imelda Staunton follows her Mrs Lovett, Rose and Martha with another stupendous performance as Sally. It’s wonderful to see Philip Quast again, on fine form too as Ben, and Janine Dee is a terrific acid-tonged Phyllis, a particularly fine dancer as it turns out. Peter Forbes is less of a musicals regular, but he makes a great Buddy. Another piece of surprising but inspired casting is Di Botcher as Hattie, delivering Broadway Baby as if she was. Tracie Bennett takes I’m Still Here hostage with a particularly ballsy rendition, and the duet between opera singers Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as older and younger Heidi is another stand-out moment in a show full of them. Dawn Hope’s Stella gamely leads the veterans in a thrilling tap dancing number with their former selves. The National is saved from prosecution by the musicals police by casting a Strallen, Zizzi, as Young Phyllis. This teally is a stunner of a cast.

Dominic Cooke isn’t known for musicals, but teamed with choreographer Bill Deamer, he’s done a great job, an elegant staging which is brash when it needs to be, at other times restrained and often very moving. Vicki Mortimer has created an atmospheric set and fantastic costumes. The unbroken 130 minutes was packed full of showstoppers and by the time we got to Loveland, I was overwhelmed and deeply moved. I think my previous, less enthusiastic reaction is down to timing. I was too young and too new to Sondheim and wasn’t really ready for this show – until now.

To the 37 performers and 21 musicians on stage, and the 200 production staff, and of course Messrs Sondheim & Goldman, it was worth every second of your time and effort. Unforgettable.

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This August Wilson play, based on a real-life character – the so-called mother of blues – was his first big success in 1984, getting its first London production five years later in the Cottesloe Theatre. It became the first of his 10-play cycle covering the black American experience (each in a different decade of the 20th century) to be staged, though two are set before it. This very welcome revival is in the much bigger Lyttelton next door.

The whole play takes place in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920’s. Ma Rainey’s a bit of a diva who turns up an hour late for the recording session insisting that her stuttering nephew sings the intro to the title song using a different arrangement, that songs are changed, that her car (damaged en route) is repaired and returned to the studio and that coca cola is fetched from the deli before she starts. The band attempt to rehearse while they are waiting, but horn player Levee’s heart isn’t in it; he’s more concerned with his ambition and his new shoes.

The rest of the play moves between the band room and the studio, with Ma’s manager and the record producer regularly leaving the elevated control room, usually to argue with or placate Ma. Her daughter, the delightfully named Dussie Mae, flirts with Levee – well, more than flirts! The band banter and fight, and occasionally relate a real experience of horrific racist abuse and violence which is particularly chilling contained within the lighter tone. You’d expect the play to revolve around its title character, but in fact it’s heart is in the band room scenes, with their stories and relationships, which take a dramatic turn at the end.

It’s more of a ‘slice of life’ than a linear plotted play, but it achieves its purpose of taking us to a 20’s black American world. It’s a touch slow and low-energy in the slightly longer first half, but its still in preview so it may tighten. The Lyttelton is a much less intimate space than the Cottesloe, but Dominic Cooke’s production and Ultz design work well, with the long narrow band room rising stage front and the control room like an elevated container, both linked by a metal spiral staircase. 

At first I thought the band’s actors – an unrecognisable Clint Dyer on trombone, Giles Terera on bass, horn player O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati on piano – were playing live, but I came to the conclusion the music was recorded, which is a great compliment to both their miming and Paul Arditti’s sound design. It’s a great cast, led by the incomparable Sharon D Clarke, who commands the stage and everyone on it when she is. Fagbenle is a very edgy and passionate Levee and Msamati is superb as Toledo, a role unlike any I’ve seen him play before.

I have to confess my memories of the 1989 production are feint, but its great to see it again and the audience reception was very positive indeed.

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Plays usually cross the Atlantic with ease, but I’m not sure this one has. It’s set on a US college campus, somewhere that’s so uniquely American that it effectively distances a non-American audience; well me, anyway. The subject matter of Christopher Shinn’s play should engage and impassion, but it left me rather cold.

It doesn’t revolve around the the title character, but around openly gay Gabe, moving between his somewhat complicated personal life and college life for the LGBT community. Gabe has recently started a relationship with Drew, who writes for the college rag. His best friend Tim, outgoing student president, is (apparently) straight. Tim and his girlfriend Jenny and Drew’s black gay colleague Nicky are involved in Gabe and Drew’s relationship in surprising and not always plausible ways. 

Teddy Ferrara and disabled gay Jay enter Gabe’s life as leader of the college LGBT society, the former wanting someone to talk to and the latter wanting a relationship. As the college president hosts the first meeting of a group set up in response to the college’s diversity committee, Drew’s paper publishes speculation that a recent suicide victim was gay, suggesting gay campus life might be difficult. Teddy Ferrara discovers his room-mate is streaming his casual sex with partners picked up on the internet and his suicide soon follows.

Even though the setting is uniquely American, Shinn’s play, like Neil LaBute’s, are cynically un-American and his characters manipulative and self-centred, even the victims. There’s a lot of story, the issues are relevant and important, but its all very slow and unengaging I’m afraid. I didn’t really care about anyone, which makes it hard to care about the issues. It left me cold.

There are some fine performances, particularly from Mathew Marsh as the clumsy college president and would-be senator, Ryan McPartland in the title role and Pamela Nomvete as lecturer Emma. The accents are uniformly excellent. Hildegard Bechtler’s design is as cold and clinical as the play and Dominic Cooke’s staging lacks pace.

I think it would have worked a lot better if it had been relocated to the UK and shortened by twenty minutes. As it is, a disappointment for me.

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Imagine if you hoovered up the contents of playwright Bruce Norris’ brain just after a brain-storming session on how to present the financial crisis as theatre, pointed your vacuum pipe at the stage floor and switched from suck to blow. Well, that’s what The Low Road seemed to me. A download.

This is my fourth Norris play and up to now I’ve either liked or loved them all. This seemed to me the perfect subject for him. His ‘big idea’ of an allegory, setting the play in the late 1700’s in the US, is inspired. The trouble is it gets totally out of control, swamps what he’s trying to say and ends up as an overlong, occasionally funny, often clever but ultimately dull mess.

It’s narrated by Bill Patterson as Scottish philosopher-economist of the period, Adam Smith. We start with the illegitimate son of Washington left in a basket on the doorstep of Mrs Trumpett’s brothel and end with his illegitimate grandson, the product of a rape, orphaned and left with his mother’s retarded brother ‘poor Tim’. In between we see young Jim grow up to be brilliant but morally bankrupt. He uses his genius to make a fortune for his benefactor which he then steals. There’s a brief flash forward to a Q&A at a present day economic conference where his descendent, a banker (obviously), is a panel member and proceedings are interrupted by protesters, we debate slavery (at length) and there’s an epilogue involving aliens!

With some judicious editing and a firmer directorial hand, this could have been another Enron – a biting, illuminating and entertaining satire on real events. Instead it’s a patchy, overlong jumble which leaves you frustrated and dissatisfied. There’s a big hard-working cast of 18 playing c.50 parts between them. Johnny Flynn as Jim has done nothing better. Elizabeth Berrington successfully morphs from brothel madam to contemporary conference host back to 18th century society hostess. Simon Paisley Day’s transformation from British army captain to ‘poor Tim’ to modern American banker is extraordinary. If only someone had taken control and turned the download into a play.

Dominic Cooke started at the Royal Court on a low with some absurdist revivals. It was uphill from there and it has been a truly great period for them. Sadly, with this and Narrative upstairs, he ends on a low – but with anarchy rather than absurdity.

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The Royal Court has taken a lot of risks with its decisions surrounding this play, including the risk that they generate so much hype they are setting the audience up for a disappointment (more risk evaluation later!). After giving us Jerusalem, in my view one of the greatest plays in decades, playwright Jez Butterworth is a hot property. Though at least four good plays preceded Jerusalem, this was inevitably going to be the theatrical equivalent of ‘the difficult second album’.

Whether he set out to produce the antidote or not I don’t know, but he has. Where Jerusalem was epic, this is intimate. Where Jerusalem was in your face, brash and loud; this is subtle, gentle and almost trance-like. The reason for staging it in a space so small that only just over 3000 people will see it was apparently ‘artistic reasons’. Though it does clearly benefit from the intimacy, I’m not convinced it benefits so much as to deprive another 10,000 from seeing it (the number it would have played to with the same length of run in the main house).

Designer Ultz has delivered one of his extraordinarily immersive sets which put you right there in the situation at the moment; this time a cabin by a river. Our nameless main character, obsessed with fishing, is there at his favourite time – the one night of the year with no moon. There is a woman with him and as the play unfolds we have more than one woman. He appears to be giving different women the same experience at different times. Or is he? If the script hadn’t specified ‘The Other Woman’ I might have thought it was the same woman at different times or different outcomes with the same woman or….. It’s a bit obtuse.

Director Ian Rickson has taken this material and created something highly atmospheric and mysterious. It’s hypnotic and compelling, I don’t really understand it, but I enjoyed the ride. Amongst many such moments, The Man preparing a fish for dinner was mesmerizing. Moments later, you could smell it as it came out of the oven and onto the dinner table. There are outstanding performances from Dominic West, Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly and Charles Balfour’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sound contribute much to casting the spell.

The risk of over-hype may have paid off, but I don’t think the risk of day-seats-only has. The Royal Court is a publicly funded theatre and you can’t expect the taxpayers that fund it to block out a month in their diaries just in case they win the lottery that getting a ticket was. You either queued outside (if you’re nearby and don’t have work to do to pay the tax that funds the theatre) or participated in an online game of who-clicks-first at precisely 9am. This is no way to distribute tickets to a publicly funded show. It’s unfair on people who work and who don’t live nearby and it has brought the touts to Sloane Square. It has pissed off loyal ‘Friends’ like me and if it transfers to the West End with tickets at 2.5 times the price and fat royalty cheques to the writer and director, don’t go anywhere near the fan! Dominic Cooke has hardly put a foot wrong in his all-too-short tenure as AD of the Court, but this is one big mistake.

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Do schools like this really exist in the US? Somehow, it’s difficult to identify with the Charles R Drew school – an American all-black public school. If you replaced Pharus, Bobby, Junior, Anthony & David with  Tarquin, Justin, Oliver, Henry & Julian, you could be at a British public school (though I confess I do not have personal experience). It all feels a bit otherworldly and incongruous.

We only have five boys in Ultz’ extraordinary wood-paneled school, so we have to use our imagination (helped by a configuration which involves the audience, with the boys seated amongst us on occasion). In the attic space of the Royal Court Upstairs, he’s also fitted in a bedroom and changing room and the play really does happen all around you.

School life involves sport, a famous choir, some bullying, politics…..just like any old school really. Pharus leads the choir; he’s effeminate and gay and his relationships with his fellow pupils are complicated, particularly with the headmaster’s nephew with whom he has a power struggle. An old master is brought back to teach creative thinking, though what this contributes I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not really sure what playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is trying to say at all. It’s a slice-of-life play that doesn’t really go anywhere and takes a long time not to do so.

Having said that, Dominic Cooke’s production is terrific, largely due to five superb performances from the boys – Dominic Smith, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Kwayedza Kureya, Khali Best & Aron Julius – two of them 2012 drama school graduates (one making his professional debut) and one still studying A-levels! The two adults, Gary McDonald & David Burke, don’t get a look in. In addition to acting, they sing as well as any young choristers I’ve ever heard. The use of music is indeed one of the play’s strengths.

Despite the fact that it didn’t seem to go anywhere, I was engaged for the duration, impressed by the creativity and staging and in awe of the talent.

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It’s hard to believe that this excellent new play comes from the same pen as my 2011 Turkey of the Year, Knot of the Heart! This uber-realistic and authentic piece is a huge contrast with the other’s implausibility. As playwright David Eldridge hails from the area in which it is set, I suspect this time he’s writing from experience – and it shows.

Len is dying of prostate cancer and we’re in the living room of his home (in Basildon, obviously) where a bedside vigil is in progress – sister Doreen (who lives with Len) & her son Barry (for whom Len was a father figure) and Len’s best mate Ken; neighbour Pam is on tea duty. We’re soon joined by estranged sister Maureen who won’t talk to her sister (and vice versa) directly. The family feud is revealed but not understood. Doreen is further upset when it becomes obvious that Ken knows more about Len’s wishes than she does.

We move on to the wake, joined by Barry’s wife Jackie and Maureen’s daughter Shelley & her boyfriend. Shelley is the one member of the family who escaped to university. She became a teacher and returned to the East End where the family originated and where she now lives with boyfriend Tom, who’s own escape was in the opposite direction from his investment banker dad. The family feud is further fueled by the reading of a letter from Len laying out the highlights of his will, but we still don’t understand its origin. We finally flash back 18 years where the circumstances of the rift are at last revealed.

This is a very believable family story, but the play has at least two more layers. It shows the late 20th century exodus from the East End via inner Essex towns like Romford to places like Basildon even further away. We glimpse the reasons for the moves and attitudes that accompanied them. Furthermore, it explores how the political changes of the last 30 years have impacted these particular working class families. I lived and worked in Essex for 18 years during this period and it oozes authenticity. The family story also resonates with me!

The theatre has been reconfigured for Dominic Cooke’s pitch perfect production, with the audience on two sides and two levels. Though this does provide a bit of a bear pit for the family exchanges (well, from where I was sitting anyway), I’m not sure it was worth the trouble and expense.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Linda Bassett and Ruth Sheen are both terrific as the sisters, both in estrangement and closeness. Lee Ross brilliantly conveys the complex set of emotions Barry experiences – living with the family feud, his hinted financial troubles and Jackie’s more overt desperation for her own home and child (superbly played by Debbie Chasen). Peter Wight’s conveys that special relationship of ‘the best mate’ with a nice touch of old man letch.

It owes something to Mike Leigh (and there are a couple of Leigh regulars in the cast and a reference to his most famous play), but it’s an original, well structured and deeply rewarding play which will undoubtedly feature in the list of 2012’s best and another must-see at the Royal Court.

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I haven’t seen an entire street on the Olivier stage sine John Gunter built part of the city of Bath for The Rivals in 1984. Bunny Christie’s street has an extra third storey on the houses and is a bit (intentionally) shabbier, but is spectacular nonetheless. It transforms to create an apartment block, shops, nightclub and a clinic.

There is much else to enjoy in Dominic Cooke’s NT debut, but it doesn’t really sparkle like other productions I’ve seen, most recently Propeller at Hampstead in 2010 and I’m not entirely sure why. The pacing is a bit uneven; one minute it’s zipping along, then appears to have ground to a halt. I don’t know whether it has been cut, but it came in at just 2 hours 10 mins with a 20 minute interval, so I suspect it has – though not noticeably.

I liked the idea of acting out Egeon’s opening speech describing how he lost his wife and twin sons (and their twin servants). The more frenetic scenes are given a ‘keystone cops’ style that somehow made them seem fresh though still appropriate for the material. The Abbey has become the Abbey Clinic and one half of both twins end up ‘sectioned’ there after a particularly slick chase scene involving an ambulance driving onto the stage! I also like the idea that the twins have different accents, having been brought up in different places, though Shakespeare didn’t write any lines like ‘why are you speaking funny?’ to support this, so there’s even more disbelief to be suspended than usual! Despite the comedy that preceded it, the closing scene was much more moving than I’ve ever seen it before. I wasn’t sure about the band playing familiar songs in a foreign language at first, but I warmed to it.

After what seemed like a hesitant start, the acting was first-rate. The twins are well matched, particularly Lucien Msamati and Daniel Poyser as the Dromio’s. Lenny Henry has as much presence and as good a  speaking voice as he did in Othello, but is much more relaxed in a comic role where he is able to use his full range of facial expressions. Claudie Blakely’s Adriana and Michelle Terry’s Luciana are deliciously chavvy creations.

So a good rather than great Comedy of Errors, but one I’m glad I saw.

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It took me a while to get into this intriguing and clever play, but by the end I felt deeply satisfied by a very funny yet unsettling drama. In many ways, my reaction was similar to the same venue’s Posh – the reviews led me to expect a more straightforward satirical comedy, but it had so much more depth than that.

There are many layers to this play, the first act of which is set in 1959 as a couple prepare to move home and the second act in the same house 50 years later as another couple are seeking to demolish it and rebuilt on the land. The attention to detail is extraordinary – from Robert Innes-Hopkins brilliant sets to the nuances of the acting. I was captivated throughout and there was a roundedness to the structure which I just loved.

It’s rare you get a set of seven impeccable performances, but here you get that and more as each actor has two very different roles. They’re all terrific – Steffan Rhodri morphs from bereaved dad to straightforward workman, Sophie Thompson from highly strung unfulfilled housewife to icy cold lawyer, Lorna Brown for servile to assertive, Sam Spreull from passive priest to gay lawyer, Lucien Msamati from quiet disbelief to assured confidence , Martin Freeman from 50’s racist neighbour to fashionably liberal and Sarah Goldberg goes from deaf & dependent  to politically correct & defiant. Under Dominic Cooke’s direction, these characters come alive and Bruce Norris’ dialogue sparkles.

The play’s devastating message is that in 50 years everything’s changed but nothing has changed. Clybourne Park is this year’s Jerusalem and I suspect we won’t see a better new play for some time. Go! Go! Go!

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