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Posts Tagged ‘Donmar Warehouse’

I know a reasonable amount about the first world war – I’ve got things that used to be called ‘O’ levels and an ‘A’ level in history, after all – but it took this play to make me understand the profound implications of the fragile peace that followed it. This really was an enriching theatrical experience.

Peter Gill’s play is set over six months in 1919. In the first act we meet the middle-class Rawlinson’s – mother Edith, son Leonard & daughter Mabel – and their neighbours and friends and explore what the war meant for each of them. Leonard is a civil servant about to go to Paris to work behind the scenes on what will become the Treaty of Versailles. Mabel and maid Ethel’s boyfriends Hugh and William have returned from the war but friends & neighbours the Chater’s son Gerald hasn’t. Local businessman Geoffrey is raising money for a memorial and trying to woo Leonard’s much younger university friend Constance. Talk turns to current affairs and politics and the issues suddenly seem contemporary – Ireland, the Middle East, Europe…..

In Act II we’re with Leonard and fellow civil servant Henry working on the peace proposals. Leonard is idealistic and passionate whilst Henry just does his job. Leonard becomes disillusioned as he prophesies disastrous consequences of a botched peace where national self-interest and the wish to punish Germany override long- term European security. Leonard begins a dialogue with the dead Gerald Chater and we learn that they were more than friends.

In the third act, Leonard is forced to explain his premature return, issues of class picked up in Act II are developed and the likely outcome of Versailles and changes to come and debated. Mabel tells Hugh she won’t marry him, Constance goes cold on Geoffrey and Edith and the Chater’s just wish things would get back to normal. At this point, the profound impact of this moment in time slaps you in the face.

It’s a slow burn, but in the second act it grabs you and doesn’t let go. You have to work at it – it comes in at 3h 10m with 2 intervals, though I’ve seen plays half as long that don’t sustain their length as well as this. By the end, my head was so full it almost hurt. Richard Hudson’s period design is elegant and the ensemble is superb. Gwilym Lee is wonderfully passionate as Leonard, well matched with Tom Hughes’ Gerald and Edward Killingback’s Eton toff Henry. Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn are great as the two matriarchs. It’s a bit invidious to single anyone out really as it’s such a good unstarry cast.

A fascinating, enlightening and timely play which will surely be a contender best new play of 2014.

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I almost always find Racine’s plays turgid, but this was a ‘new version’, it was in the lovely Donmar space and it had Anne-Marie Duff in it, so how could I not go? Well, she was the best thing about it, but sadly also about the only good thing about it.

Josie Rourke continues the penchant for re-configuration she started at the Bush. This time, the right side four rows becomes the back two rows, the stage is sand and there’s a walkway over the top which looks like c.50 chairs glued together. When you take your seat, with sand falling from the ceiling, it looks beautiful, but after the play starts it all seems a bit pointless. The temptation to tell the actors to use the short stairs at the left rather than walk all the way over the top and down was very hard to resist.

Berenice’s proposed marriage to Titus makes infatuated Antiochus distraught. It’s quashed for political reasons (Emperor Titus marry a foreign queen – I don’t think so!) but Antiochus’ love remains unrequited. No-one marries anyone and that’s about it really – though it takes 100 minutes to tell you that and that’s where it fails as a play;  it’s very dull and doesn’t sustain its length.

The ‘new version’ by Alan Hollingshurst doesn’t really add or take away anything. Stephen Campbell Moore seems more like a school teacher than an Emperor and Dominic Rowan more like a civil servant, both devoid of passion. You spend most of the time waiting for people to make the irritatingly long walk across the top and down onto the stage.

Luckily for the Donmar, there wasn’t an interval.

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This American musical had its first production here in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse in 1997, directed by Sam Mendes no less and starring a then largely unknown John Barrowman. Writers John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe went on to write the stage musical of The Witches of Eastwick three years later, which got a big scale production in the West End under the auspices of Cameron Mackintosh, but have not done a lot in the 12 years since than.

This revival at the Union Theatre has Michael Strassen at the helm; his recent productions of Company, Assassins, The Bakers Wife and Godspell at the same venue have wowed. He has a knack of creating stylish and slick shows with next to no set, relying on costumes lighting and the odd prop or two, as it is here. It looks terrific, but there’s no set – Neil Gordon’s costumes and Steve Miller’s lighting do it all.

Senator Reed Chandler dies on the eve of becoming president and his widow Violet becomes obsessed with the objective of ensuring her son Cal follows in his footsteps and makes it to the White House. She’s helped by her scheming and spinning brother-in-law Grahame, the architect of Reed’s campaign. Cal follows a fast track trajectory from the forces through City Hall to Governor acquiring a loveless marriage (and child), a mistress or two and a cocaine habit along the way. The family’s unsavory Mafia friends become their downfall as history repeats itself.

This production is brilliantly staged and paced; you’re on the edge of your seat for much of the time. The pop rock score sounds great with a (sadly uncredited) five-pice band under MD Simon Lambert in this snug venue, and outstanding unamplified singing from all involved. The three leads are simply extraordinary – Louis Maskell as son Cal has great presence and a fantastic voice, Liz May Brice convey’s Violet’s ambition, determination and passion superbly and Miles Western is terrific as the machiavellian fixer.

A musical I remember to be OK has scrubbed up great. Maybe it’s found its time now that such scheming and manipulation is more commonplace, or maybe its just a fine cast and creative team on top form. Whatever it is, you have to go!

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Sometimes plays take so long to get to the point that they lose you along the way; you either walk physically or wander mentally. For me, with this play, it was the latter.

This early 60’s German piece tackles the ethics of science and in particular how scientific discoveries, like ‘the bomb’,  are often hijacked and misused when they leave the ‘laboratory’ and enter ‘society’. The trouble is, it’s well into the second half before this very interesting debate unfolds.

Until then, we are in an asylum with Mobius (who thinks King Solomon talks to him), Beulter (who thinks he’s Newton) and Ernesti (who thinks he’s Einstein). All three murder a nurse but instead of being charged, they continue their incarceration, with two former boxers as their new ‘nurses’.

We eventually learn that Mobius is ‘hiding’ himself and his discoveries, that ‘Newton’ and ‘Einstein’ are spies trying to get hold of them and that their psychiatrist Dr Mathilde von Zahnd is really an industrialist who know’s the truth and has stolen Mobius’ work – but all of that is crammed into the last quarter of the play.

What isn’t in doubt is the quality of the production, with a brilliant design by Robert Jones which itself provides a superb climax, and a set of terrific performances from John Heffernan, Justin Salinger and Paul Bhattacharjee as the ‘physicists’ and Sophie Thompson, unrecognisable and brilliant as their doctor.

Sadly though, it’s a fatally flawed play which lost me before it got round to engaging me.

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The last time I went to Southwark Playhouse, it was to see a musical called Parade I hadn’t really rated at the Donmar three years before but loved second time round. Well, now its the other way round – I loved this at the Bridewell 13 years ago, yet I’m now not so sure it’s a good show (though it is a good production).

Adam Guettel & Tina Landau’s musical tells the true story of a man who is trapped in a cave in Kentucky for several days in 1925 whilst seeking out a new entrance to the show cave he and his family own. A young cub reporter picks up the story and it travels like wild-fire, capturing the imagination of the whole country. A media circus and a commercial carnival ensues, a local mining executive tries to take over the rescue and the family bicker.

The Vaults, Southwark Playhouse’s space in the arches under London Bridge station, is a superb location for a show largely set in a cave – though this does bring some acoustic problems they don’t entirely overcome, and a distance from the audience which doesn’t help you engage with the story and characters. Derek Bond’s staging is imaginative and James Perkins evocative design and Sally Ferguson’s atmospheric lighting cleverly use just eighteen ladders and some rope & boxes.

The score is beautifully played, under MD Tim Jackson, by a lovely combination of string quartet, acoustic guitar / banjo, harmonica and percussion and the performances are uniformly good. Ryan Sampson contrast his superb performance in the Kitchen Sink recently at the Bush with a completely different but equally superb one as the dimunitive cub reporter Skeets. The role of Floyd is a tough one – it carries the first 15 minutes virtually alone yet there are long scenes overground where he’s silent – and the excellent Glenn Carter works hard but doesn’t quite pull it off. I very much liked Kit Benjamin as the mine owner Carmichael and Gareth Chart as brother Homer and the three reporters – Vlach Ashton, Dayle Hodge and Roddy Peters – bring some much-needed fizz in their ‘chorus’ number.

It’s hard to imagine a better venue or a more talented cast, band and creative team, yet it ultimately fails because the subject matter, the story and the sub-operatic score just aren’t good enough. I didn’t feel engaged and the music only occasionally impressed. I felt I was observing a piece of work, not involved in the tale.

These second looks do confound sometimes!

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There was a time when Schiller’s plays were dull and turgid. Then along came Mike Poulton with adaptations which breathed new life into them. His  adaptation of Don Carlos was masterly and now he excels with this cross between Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Romeo & Juliet.

The Chancellor’s son, an army major, is in love with court musician’s daughter Luise, but his father plans to wed him to the Prince’s mistress to provide cover for the Prince and obtain influence for himself.  The Chancellor’s private secretary, appropriately named Wurm, wants Luise himself and with the help of Lady Milford and Hofmarschall ( I wasn’t quite sure what his role is) his machiavellian plans unfold, ending tragically with its R&J moment. It’s a cracking story and the dialogue is sharp and often witty; not a word is wasted.

The Donmar space is simply but beautifully designed and lit by Peter McKintosh and Paule Constable respectively and Michael Grandage’s staging is as ever impeccable. I don’t think even the Donmar has ever assemble an ensemble this good. You totally believe in the love and passion of Felicity Jones and Max Bennett as Luise and Ferdinand. Ben Daniels has never been better than here as the Chancellor, whose craze for power unleashes such tragedy and results in his own deep remorse. John Light and David Dawson provide the intrigue in their deliciously smarmy, oleaginous fashion (and in the case of Dawson, very camp) whilst Alex Kingston is every bit the arch manipulator whose only interest is herself – at any cost . I also really liked Paul Higgins devoted passionate father who does much to illustrate the backdrop of the class divide.

This will I’m sure be one of the highlights of the year, and one of the defining productions of Grandage’s reign at the Donmar. Miss at your peril.

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I rather liked this quirky tongue-in-cheek celebration of a peculiarly American tradition, the high school spelling competition.

The composer William Finn has shown promise for a long time, but failed to fulfil it. I remember seeing the first outing of March of the Falsettos zonks ago and thinking ‘he’ll go far’ – but he hasn’t. In truth, the simplistic formulaic music here shows he hasn’t moved on much, which is perhaps the reason. The show’s success has more to do with a terrific idea, the right theatre with a brilliant design, funny lyrics, a production that fizzes and performances bursting with enthusiasm and energy.

Designer Christopher Oram has turned the Donmar into a school gym with a blue and yellow colour scheme that extends to the letters at the end of the rows of special blue seats and the ‘confetti’ which falls from the rafters. Jamie Lloyd’s staging and Ann Yee’s choreography are just as bright and they’ve teased lovely portraits of archetypal kids from Harry Hepple, Iris Roberts, Chris Carswell, David Fynn, Hayley Gallivan and Maria Lawson. Steve Pemberton and Katherine Kingsley are excellent as the adults as is Ako Mitchell as the helper on community service.

Adding four volunteers from the audience as ‘extras’ is an inspired idea and on the night we went, they were so good I wondered if some of them were actually plants. The way their characters are  ‘invented’ is clever and when one manages to spell a word that was clearly meant to be her exit, it brought the house down.

95 minutes of infectious fun – it won’t change your life, you might struggle to remember it in 10 years, but you probably won’t regret going – and it’s a whole lot better than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg!

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It was a bit of a risk going to see this Sondheim show just three months (to the day) after the Donmar’s extraordinary concert staging and less than two years after the Union Theatre’s excellent production, but it’s a risk which paid off.

This is a fresh look at the show in a contemporary setting which works very well indeed. The life and experiences of central character, singleton Bobby, are if anything more believable today, 40 years after its first outing. His friends, five couples, are relentless in their pressure on him to settle down, though this hides their jealousy; to some extent, they are living their lives through him. Each couple has their own story which weaves in and out of Bobby’s with three very different girlfriends.

This production reveals the play inside the musical without losing the impact of the extraordinary songs. It’s edgier and sexier and really does seem like it was written yesterday. The bare staging is very much like the Union production – you don’t have to do much to conjour up a Manhattan loft apartment in a space beneath the railway arches! The band is hidden in a space behind one of three banks of seats (good to see them come out and take a well deserved bow at the end).

Yet again, the casting director (on this occasion, Menier co-founder Danielle Tarento) has done a cracking job. The couples each have real chemistry. As a chorus they dance well and sound great – the title song and Act II opener are both terrific. Michelle Bishop sang ‘Another Hundred People’ better than I’ve ever heard it before. Cassidy Janson climbed the mountain that is ‘Getting Married Today’ with a real manic intensity. Siobhan McCartney was an excellent Joanna, though I felt ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ was a little harsh, adding passion at the expense of musicality. Rupert Young has yet to fully inhabit the very challenging role of Bobby, but it was only his 5th performance.

Director Joe Fredericks and his team are to be warmly congratulated for this fresh look at a modern musical classic, taking risks which paid off and providing some definitive and thrilling moments.

 

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I set out to see as many Sondheim shows as I could in his 80th year. I confined myself to London and managed 10 – 9 staged and 1 in concert – out of his grand total of 15. Given that one has yet to get its UK premiere and one has to be staged in a swimming pool, that’s not bad! Anyway, I decided it was worthy of a few tributes…..

The best West End production was without doubt Into The Woods at The Open Air Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/into-the-woods). Never have a theatre and a show been so made for each other. An honourable mention must go to the Donmar’s Passion (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/passion) which was a great production of my least favourite show.

Best fringe production was Assassins underneath the railway arches at that musicals powerhouse, The Union Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/assassins) sung better than I’ve ever heard it before.

Best Drama School contribution was the Royal Academy of Music with A Little Night Music (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/sondheim-at-the-royal-academy-of-music). Hugely ambitious for a young cast, but it paid off (though their Assassins fared less well).  Unfortunately, RADA’s ambition with Company proved over-ambitious, I’m afraid (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/sondheims-company-rada)

Best amateur production was the NYMT’s extraordinary Sweeney Todd (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/nymt-sweeney-todd) thrillingly staged in a nightclub masquerading as a lunatic asylum.

Gold star for ambition and sheer balls must got to All Star Production’s Follies in Walthamstow (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/follies) – staging Sondheim’s ‘biggest’ show in a room above a pub! Will someone please stage this at Wilton’s Music Hall, it’s London spiritual home…..

Turkey of the year, I’m afraid, to Hornchurch Queens Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-forum). A long trek for little reward.

The biggest surprise was how concert performances could be so so good – the Donmar’s Company and Merrily We Roll Along at the Queens Theatre were both simply breathtaking (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/donmar-warehouse-sondheim-at-80-concerts)

London did Sondheim proud. If only every year could be an 80th year!

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Laden with superlative reviews, I suppose it was going to be difficult to live up to them – and so it proved. Perhaps I was a little over-excited. Tennessee Williams is one of my top ten playwrights. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins is new to be but I was bowled over by his Beauty Queen of Leenane earlier in the year in the same theatre. Deborah Findlay is a favourite actress who we don’t get to see anywhere near often enough.

There was a little too much of deconstructionist Katie Mitchell’s influence in the staging, like musicians and ‘backstage’ on view throughout, which I’m not convinced suits an intense drama where it seems to me realism is crucial. As much as I Love Deborah Findlay, I felt she was OTT, turning Amanda into too much of a comic creation. The concept, and Jeremy Herbert’s design, distanced the audience from the play and the characters where I feel you need to be on top of it – maybe I just can’t get the Donmar’s terrific staging out of my head.

The only scene which gripped fully was the ‘courting’ of Laura (a little over-acted by Sinead Matthews) & Jim (an excellent Kyle Soller), where a back curtain brought the scene nearer to the audience and blocked out the backstage distractions. Otherwise, the acting honours mostly belonged to Leo Bill, who brought the sort of light and shade TW needs – passion where the role needs passion, diffidence where necessary etc. The music / soundscape was very atmospheric but I think would have been more so had it not been given such visual prominence.

There was much to enjoy, but it wasn’t the exciting re-invention I was led to expect. I didn’t read the reviews, but caught the stars in passing – maybe I should avoid this in future lest it makes me expect too much (or too little!).

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