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Posts Tagged ‘Duncan McLean’

It’s ten years since American playwright Katori Hall wowed London with the world premiere of her debut play The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King. All we’ve had since then is her excellent book for the musical Tina, but now she’s back with the same director, James Dacre, at his Northampton base, for the UK premier of a play about visions of the Virgin Mary in Rwanda, which fully justified a day-trip from London, even for a non-believer like me.

It revolves around a convent school in Kibeho in 1981 where one girl has a vision. She is disbelieved and persecuted by the Deputy Head Sister Evangelique and most of her fellow pupils. The Head, Father Tuyishime, is more inclined to believe her, then two more girls make the same claim. Bishop Gahamanyi turns up smelling a commercial proposition. The Vatican send Father Flavia to obtain evidence for possible confirmation. Local people start to buy in and nickname the girls The Trinity, with local boy Emmanuel claiming visitations too.

The ghost of Belgian colonialism is ever present in this Roman Catholic community, and there is an undercurrent of hate between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The visions continue as Father Flavia continues to gather evidence and people’s positions change and evolve until a special visitation is announced by the girls and the local community comes in numbers to hear prophesies of doom, the conflict and genocide that actually followed. Father Flavia is convinced, the Bishop sees his hope of a pilgrimage site disappear and Father Tuyishime refuses to believe in fear the prophesies might be true.

The story is brilliantly told by a terrific cast of twelve, supplemented by a community ensemble of another eleven. Jonathan Fensom’s design, with video projections by Duncan McLean, beautifully lit by Charles Balfour, is truly evocative. Orlando Gough had added both incidental music and gorgeous acapella songs, with Claire Windsor’s soundscape, both adding so much to the atmosphere. Dacre’s staging is nothing short of masterly.

Quality oozes from every department in this outstanding production which will hopefully have a life beyond this three week run. So glad I went.

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Sometimes shows don’t cross the Atlantic successfully (either way) and I think this is one of them. It’s quintessentially American, with rather more schmaltz than most Brits can stomach. Though there’s much to like, it falls short of complete success, though it’s fair to say that the audience’s reaction on the night I went was much more positive than the critical reception, so perhaps its a populist rather than critical success. I think I’m more with the critics than the audience.

It’s based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, made into a film by Tim Burton in 2003 (somewhat ironically with Brits Albery Finney and Ewan McGregor as the leading man and his younger self). John August was responsible for the screenplay as he is here for the book, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. It starts at Edward Bloom’s son’s wedding, during which he is taken ill. From his hospital bed, he tells tall tales which are re-enacted as song and dance fantasy sequences. These include a witch, a giant and a werewolf and times in a circus, at war and as a travelling salesman. His son has been hearing these all his life and doesn’t believe any of them, but one day he tracks down his dad’s old school friend Jenny and discovers a true tale he hadn’t been told, which enables them to repair their relationship before Edward dies.

Like Lippa’s The Wild Party at the same venue earlier in the year, the story is subservient to the ‘turns’, so there are some great comic song and dance routines but they don’t really add up to a satisfying musical theatre work. The songs are OK, the comedy broad but fun, but the story sentimental tosh which I found rather pointless, I’m afraid. The lead role isn’t very demanding, but Kelsey Grammer, the main draw here, is likeable and playful. The real work is left to the younger members of the cast, most notably Jamie Muscato as the young Edward and Matthew Seadon-Young as his son Will, amongst the best of the new generation of musical theatre performers and both on fine form. The comic honours belong to Forbes Masson in more than one role.

I liked the intimacy that The Other Palace facilitates, but it’s a big show for that space and it sometimes felt a touch cramped. Given the space, Liam Steel works wonders with the choreography, with a particularly fine sequence for Muscato involving hula hoops. Tom Rogers design, with projections by Duncan McLean, works well and Nigel Harman, relatively new to directing, marshals his resources well. In fact, all of the creative and performing contributions are excellent, it’s the material that lets them down, though I don’t regret going.

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Who says theatre doesn’t confront the issues of the day? For the second evening running, it is – this time a verbatim piece about the radicalisation of young people. I feel privileged to live in a country where I can see such things.

Gillian Slovo interviewed people affected by or involved in this issue, most notably school children in Tower Hamlets and mothers in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, much in the news since the recent Paris and Brussels incidents. Add to this political & religious leaders, military & police figures and others in the community and you have a lot of perspectives to present in ninety minutes. What comes out is a pretty objective look at the issue. I found the testimony of the school children particularly revelatory and the Belgian mothers deeply moving. It certainly helps you understand how we’ve got to where we have, but sadly not to see any solutions.

Director Nicholas Kent, the master of such work, provides a simple staging with just a few chairs in front of a highly effective video wall by Duncan McClean. A cast of thirteen convey the words and feelings of some eighteen people. I found it more cerebral than the more emotional Boy the evening before, partly because of the style of this type of theatre and partly because of the complexity of the issues, but the mothers still got to me in the end.

Nicholas Kent’s track record in using theatre to show us what others don’t and can’t is second to none and it’s great to have him back and great that the National has given him a high profile stage to put such work on. Long may it continue.

 

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