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Posts Tagged ‘Duchess Theatre’

I didn’t plan on seeing two 20th century German plays on consecutive nights, but the first was booked ages ago and this is about to close, so it had to be. My view of this (much better) play may be enhanced even more by the pairing.

Brecht’s parody of the rise of Hitler was written in 1941 but not seen until 1958, after his death, which is a bit of a puzzle. 50-70 years on, the satire seems a bit heavy-handed (I would have expected reviser Alistair Beaton to have done something about that) but its ‘we let this happen, don’t let it happen again’ point still packs a punch. Set in gangster-era Chicago, Arturo Ui develops his protection racket in the vegetable trade (!), becoming more and more brutal in his relentless rise to power. Individual scenes have parallels in pre-war Germany, though those are a bit lost on a modern audience, but by the end the message isn’t lost. In the long 95 min first half, the scenes are somewhat laboured and it could do with some cuts, but the second half has much better pacing. The end is chilling and the epilogue a thought-provoking wake-up call.

The Duchess is a small theatre for a big play with a cast of 18, but it benefits from the intimacy, with a new middle aisle used for entrances and exits and characters occasionally appearing in the auditorium. Director Jonathan Church’s staging, with great use of live music, draws you in to the gangster story then sharply reminds you of its metaphor. Designer Simon Higlett effectively creates warehouses and mansions in this small space and the arrival of a car is a coup d’theatre. Though I’ve seen a couple of good actors play the title role (Anthony Sher & Griff Rhys Jones!) Henry Goodman is the best match for it. He is particularly good at conveying Ui ‘s transition as the power drug makes him more and more manic. It’s an excellent supporting cast, with fine actors like Colin Stinton, William Gaunt and Michael Feast in relatively small roles.

Another successful transfer for the indispensable Chichester Festival Theatre.

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August Wilson’s 1987 play ended up as part of a cycle of ten, each representing a decade of the 20th century black American experience (though not written in sequence). This one represents the 50’s and was the 3rd to be written (the last was written in 2005, the year of his death).

The play revolves around 50-something Troy, a dominant husband, brother and father who spent time in prison and is a bit fixated on death. Brother Gabriel has returned from the war deeply disturbed and Troy uses his compensation money to buy a home. He failed to make a career in baseball, the odds loaded heavily against black players at the time, but makes a decent living as a garbage man with his best friend Jim Bono. He falls out with his son Cory when he prevents him from perusing his own baseball ambitions. He’s unfaithful to his wife Rose and when his lover dies giving birth to his child, Rose takes the baby as her own. The first half is overlong and overwritten, but it picks up considerably after the interval. It’s an interesting enough family drama, but I’m not sure it really goes anywhere.

The chief reason for seeing it is as fine a set of performances as you could wish for. You can tell these actors have been on the road for three months as they are now inhabiting their characters seemingly effortlessly. Colin McFarlane is excellent as friend Bono and has great chemistry with Lenny Henry’s Troy. Tanya Moodie is wonderful as the put-upon wife who also plays off Henry brilliantly. Ian Charleston Award winner Ashley Zhangazha is simply terrific as Cory; a real one-to-watch. It’s just four years since Lenny Henry’s acting debut (baptism of fire) as Othello. Then he had great presence and a great speaking voice, but you could see him acting; now he’s the real deal – a hugely impressive, towering performance; you can’t take your eyes off him as he becomes Troy.

The action takes place in the front yard and on the porch of a two-story house (designed by Libby Watson) which dominates the stage of this small theatre, bringing further intensity to the drama. A welcome addition to the West End, which looks like it’s broadening its audience healthily.

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Mike Leigh’s work is never cosy and comfortable and this is no exception. He has the knack of lulling you into a false sense of security, laughing at his ever so real characters, before shocking, horrifying and shaming you into sympathy with (most of) them. It’s not a fun night out, but one you can’t help admiring.

Ecstasy takes place in Jean’s bedsit in Kilburn around the time the 70’s become the 80’s. Her friend Dawn is encouraging her to go out and have fun. Unbeknown to her, she’s a lonely alcoholic being abused (again?) by a casual sexual partner. After a short first act, the second is a continuous 100 minutes of post-pub revelry with Dawn and her husband Mick and mutual acquaintance Len. Of course, it all ends in tears.

The main reason for seeing this play is a set of outstanding performances. Stepping into the shoes of original cast members like Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea must be tough, but they all make the roles their own. Sian Brooke has the most difficult role and her journey from fear and repressed emotion to moving confession is extraordinary. I thought Sinead Matthews over-acted in The Glass Menagerie at the Young Vic last year, but here she gets the loud grotesque Dawn spot on, with some superb physical acting. If one of those slips of paper that fall out of programmes hadn’t, you would never have known Jack Bennett was the understudy for Len – a terrific performance. It is to Daniel Coonan’s credit that you positively detest Roy, Jean’s abuser. Allen Leech is good as Mick, as is Clare Louise-Cordwell in the small part of Val, Roy’s wife.

Alison Chitty’s cramped bedsit looks lost, even on the Duchess’ small stage, but provides a suitably claustrophobic performance space with excellent period detail. Leigh’s direction is of course masterly.

It is a bit overlong, but in a way that’s why it has such impact when it slaps you in the face – life is full of dull moments before the high’s and low’s turn up. We’re also more used to this kind of gritty realism today, so it’s less shocking and ground-breaking than it no doubt was in 1979 (or when I first saw it in the early 90’s in a revival at the New End in Hampstead).

It’s good to see serious stuff like this make it to the West End and do well. As I said, not an easy ride, but one I’m very glad I took.

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I’ve decided it’s time for my very own awards, but I’m going to stick to productions rather than recognise individuals and I’ve chickened out of ranking them, so here’s the best (39! )of 2010, in four categories but no particular order! A terrific year…..

BEST NEW PLAY – an impressive year, particularly for the Royal Court

Clybourne Park, Tribes, Posh & Sucker Punch – all at the Royal Court / The White Guard & Blood and Gifts – both at the National / Canary & Dunsinane – both at Hampstead / Women Power and Politics – Tricycle / The Big Fellah – Lyric Hammersmith / My Romantic History – Bush / Ruined – Almeida / The Animals and Children Took To The Streets – BAC

…..and all in subsidised theatres!

BEST NEW MUSICAL – less than a handful!

Love Story – Chichester to Duchess / Legally Blonde – Savoy / Departure Lounge -Waterloo East / Reasons to be Cheerful – Theatre Royal Stratford

BEST PLAY – REVIVAL – an embarrassment of riches; the NT shining

After the Dance , Men Should Weep, London Assurance, Hamlet, Beyond the Horizon & Spring Storm – National / Love on the Dole – Finborough / The Crucible – Open Air / Beauty Queen of Leenane – Young Vic / Broken Glass – Tricycle / Design for Living – Old Vic / All My Sons – Apollo Theatre / Measure for Measure – Almeida Theatre / Shirley Valentine – Menier Chocolate Factory

BEST MUSICAL – REVIVAL

Assassins & Bells Are Ringing – Union Theatre / Into The Woods – Open Air Theatre / Sweet Charity – Menier Chocolate Factory / Sweeney Todd – NYMT / Me & Juliet – Finborough / Pins & Needles – Cock Tavern

Not qualifying as they weren’t staged, but a special mention for the Donmar Warehouse Sondheim at 80 concert performances

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This first play by the Evening Standard’s vitriolic theatre critic is deeply old-fashioned, riddled with caricatures, cliches and stale jokes.

Though the event at it’s core – John Geilgud’s arrest in a gents toilet – may not have been, the historical territory and the issues have been well covered before. This play doesn’t add or illuminate anything and cramming 28 scenes into two hours results in a complete lack of depth.

I found Michael Feast’s Geilgud unbelievably camp, but I shall bow to his better judgement as he worked with him.  The rest of the cast do the best they can with the material the’re provided with and the director and designer have served the play well.

Why has Bill Kenright and this excellent  cast chosen to get involved with it? I can only assume Celia Imrie’s post-show Q&A joke ‘in the hope that Nicholas De Jongh doesn’t pan her in the future’ is actually true!

Despite most of his fellow critics rather shameful kid glove treatment, it clearly hasn’t found an audience – without the Whatsonstage.com crowd last night, it would have been very empty indeed and as the young actor charmingly said at the end of the Q&A ‘it was great to see so many people here tonight’. It seems all those dreadful bloggers might have more of a say than you think, Mr De Jongh.

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