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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Hall’

This is the fifth new Howard Brenton play in seven years at Hampstead Theatre; what I call his late flowering period. I’ve enjoyed the previous four, on subjects as diverse as Charles I, Ai Wei Wei, the partition of India & Lawrence of Arabia, but this one didn’t really work for me. It’s inspired by, rather than adapted from, Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude the Obscure, which began life as a magazine serial.

The themes of education, class, religion and morality are still there, but the protagonist is now a Syrian refugee called Judith. She cleans for teacher Sally, who befriends her but soon finds her somewhat demanding. Somewhere along the way she has a child by laddish local Jack, though he doesn’t seem to figure much in her life. Judith learns Greek and Latin and moves to Oxford, where she lives with (and beds) her cousin Merch and studies for A levels. Here she befriends Deirdre, an eminent professor who, when she gets her results, finds her a place and a bursary at the University. Then the secret services intervene.

The story is a bit thin and more than a touch implausible. The first half is particularly slow, but things do step up a notch or two after the interval. It’s not a patch on his other work though, and Edward Hall’s somewhat static production fails to bring it alive, looking lost on a big round virtually bare stage. Isabella Nefar is extremely watchable as Judith, with an edginess that is sometimes mesmerising. Caroline Loncq is particularly good as Deirdre, though she does have the best lines, chief among them one where she describes the application of a self-educated Arab single mother as boxes ticking themselves.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Brenton’s best writing about true subjects and real people.

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This is Polish American playwright Martyna Majok’s UK debut with her 2018 Pulitzer prizewinning play. It’s cleverly structured, drawing you in to two seemingly separate stories which eventually meet. I rather liked it, and I learned a lot from it.

We first meet Eddie in a bar. He’s lost his his job and his wife. He’s been texting her phone and somewhat spookily getting replies. We then flash back in Eddie’s life prior to this, and to the life of disabled academic John. Eddie’s wife Ani had an accident which seriously disabled her after they had separated and he was with another woman. He offers to become her carer, something she can otherwise ill afford to pay for, and as this new relationship progresses it kindles a new warmth between them. John has enough money to be independent and hire his own carer Jess and after a brittle start, they become close too.

There’s a delicacy to both the writing and Edward Hall’s staging that captivates you. Very intimate scenes emphasise the difficulties of dependence, and the frustration that can drive people apart or closer together. It illustrates the difference in care in the US between those with means and those without. It also shows the struggle there for those with limited means, even those with an education. Jess appears to be at least a semi-autobiographical character; Majok is clearly writing from experience.

The characters come alive in four superb performances. It’s great to see Adrian Lester back on stage as Eddie, an emotional rollercoaster of a role unlike any of his others. It’s good to welcome Katie Sullivan to these shores to reprise the role of Ani which she created in the original production. Emily Barber and Jack Hunter are well matched as the feisty Jess and fiercely independent John.

There’s real humanity in this play, which I haven’t stopped thinking about since I left Hampstead Theatre. The programme tells us this is their 100th premiere since 2010 – a fine achievement, and this is amongst the best of them.

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This 1995 Simon Gray play is more famous for one of its stars, Stephen Fry, going AWOL a few days after it opened, bringing about it’s early closure after just over a month. It’s gestation was problematic too – rejected as a TV script, a failed attempt to turn it into a film script, abandoned by its first theatre producer and getting its first outing on the radio. It even changed title several times, ending up as Cell Mates, but they weren’t. I think this might be it’s only London stage revival. It would have been nice to have added ‘long overdue’.

It concerns the real life case, in 1966, of infamous spy and traitor George Blake and his break-out from Wormwood Scrubs and escape to Russia. Blake was assisted by a young Irishman, Sean Bourke, who he met inside, and the play starts at their first meeting in the prison library, where Blake invites him to help (in reality this didn’t happen at their first meeting). We then see them holed up in a bedsit awaiting departure to Russia after Bourke, newly released, has sprung him. Bourke is persuaded to accompany Blake to Moscow and the rest of the play sees them in a KGB flat there, in four scenes over some ten months, during which time they separately record their memoirs, receive regular visits from their handlers and are cared for by a maid who takes a shine to Bourke.

Gray skirts around the issue of the nature of the relationship between the two, and in particular why Bourke is so loyal to Blake, who betrays him as he did his country. As this is fundamental to the story, it derails the play and it ends up a rather dull telling of a fascinating true story; even speculation would be better than nothing. This is compounded by Edward Hall’s tentative, rather conservative production which rarely comes to life, despite some fine performances. Not really worthy of revival, I’m afraid.

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This David Lindsay-Abaire play pre-dates Good People, his 2014 hit here in the UK, which also started in Hampstead before transferring to the West End. Though it has some similarities, it’s a fundamentally different play, more gentle and sensitive. I liked it.

Howie and Becca are trying to come to terms with their personal tragedy, the loss of a four-year-old son, each in very different ways. Howie joins a support group whilst Becca copes alone. He likes reminders but she wants them removed. Lindsay-Abaire introduces his class theme again, with Becca’s sister Izzy and mom Nat coming from a very different part of suburban New York. The family has suffered unexpected loss before, though Nat and Becca see that very differently too. Izzy announces her pregnancy, adding another car to the emotional roller-coaster.

The play explores the differing responses to grief, starting after eight months, moving forward a few more. It’s a very delicate play, not without humour, but much gentler humour than the acerbic kind in Good People. With the audience wrapped around an unelevated stage, Hampstead Theatre seems more intimate, very much in keeping with the piece. Ashley Martin-Davies set manages to contain four rooms without seeming in any way cramped, with plenty of space in the main playing area. Edward Hall’s staging is empathetic, as sensitive as the material and indeed the performances. 

Tom Goodman-Hill and Clare Skinner beautifully convey the strain events place on their relationship. Georgina Rich brings Izzy a down-to-earth plain-speaking warmth and Penny Downie gives a nuanced performance as mother Nat, who has complex relationships with her daughters as well as the ghost of her dead son. Sean Delaney has an impact much bigger than the role of Jason, the young man involved in son Danny’s death, himself trying to come to terms with it all.

The play wasn’t at all what I was expecting after Good People, which is good as it proves Lindsay-Abaire has both breadth and depth. This one is very much its own play, well structured and well written and, like the other, every moment matters. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking evening.

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The miners strike was the most divisive period in my lifetime. Some saw it as a breakthrough in Britain’s economic recovery. Others saw it as a cruel destruction of communities and lives in pursuit of a business ideology which replaced British coal with coal subsidised by foreign governments, eliminating British jobs but saving jobs in other countries. I’m from a mining village in South Wales and my father was a miner, so you can guess where I stand.

Beth Steel’s play starts in a mine, immediately before the strike . This ensures we can see these dreadful jobs, the appalling conditions they suffer and the risks they take on a daily basis, but also the team spirit and camaraderie. This is interspersed with scenes where the politicians and their hired hands plot the downfall of an entire industry. Edward Hall’s staging is extraordinary, with Ashley Martin-Davies’ design a huge metal structure, with vast pit, elevated walkways and a working mine cage. There are so many fine performances that it would be invidious to single any out; I was a bit shocked to discover that only twelve actors (and six ‘extras’ ) played all of the roles. A true ensemble indeed.

In the longer second half, the spectacular gives way to the human stories. Communities and families pitted against one another, miners struggling to feed their families, gloating police flaunting their obscene overtime earnings and the dirty tricks played to secure a ‘victory’ for Thatcherism. David Hart, an odious character in Thatcher’s circle who was new to me, but apparently very real, sinks to unbelievable depths without the slightest hint of humanity.

This is a very impressive second play from Steel; well researched, well written and respectful without being overly sentimental. I thought the second half, without the distraction of the spectacle, was better, but it was telling the story of an extraordinarily eventful twelve months. Yes, you know where she stands too (with me) but it still has enough objectivity to come over as real social history. Some aspects of the strike were conveyed well in the musical of Billy Elliott – dividing families, the attitude of the police brought up from the south – but this is a more rounded dramatic presentation of a key point in recent years – staged exactly thirty years on.

A triumph for Hampstead Theatre.

 

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Just before the interval in this show there’s a scene onstage in Cardiff where the conflict between The Kinks Mick & Dave comes to a head with an attack by one on the other. I was there! Hampstead Theatre can’t pass for Cardiff Capitol (now deceased), but a wave of nostalgia swept over me nonetheless. This bio-musical is much more than nostalgia, though, but it’s a particular treat for someone for whom The Kinks are part of the soundtrack of my life.

Covering just four years their their formation to Waterloo Sunset, Joe Penhall’s biography of The Kinks, with Ray Davies’ songs, takes us from Dave Davies’ band The Ravens, backing a stockbroker at posh parties, through their signing to not one but four managers, their disastrous US tour (where their refusal to toe the union line got them banned from the country), their signing by serial turnaround manager Alan Klein to the redemptive recording of Waterloo Sunset and the triumphant return to the US to play Madison Square Gardens. The music pervades it all, in snatches and full songs, a lot now iconic but many rarely heard.

I gasped when I entered to see Miriam Buether’s set of three walls of speakers. The auditorium has been reconfigured with a central platform thrust halfway into the stalls and a middle horizontal aisle and two side aisles which bring the action into the audience very effectively. The period feel is conveyed by the clothing, including those now infamous bright red suits – great retro style, looking completely authentic. Edward Hall’s staging, with choreography by Adam Cooper no less, is excellent.

The songs feel as if they belong with their scenes. Ray & Dave’s dad sings Deadend Street like he’s telling you his life story. Dedicated Follower of Fashion accompanies their first visit to the stylist who created those suits. Days is sung acapella as they look like they’re about to break up. Sunny Afternoon accompanies a summer of World Cup euphoria. Waterloo Sunset becomes their reconciliation and seems to be created for the first time before your very eyes.

It’s a great story and its great storytelling, with a soundtrack to die for of songs that seem to have been especially written. In his programme note, Penhall says he wants people to come out ‘profoundly moved, euphoric and transported’. Well, he succeeded for me. This is no juke-box musical; like Jersey Boys, it’s musical biography, but this one’s British and maybe easier to identify with. I adored it.

George Maguire looks every inch the pop star, spending most of the evening with bottle in hand and some of it in a frock! John Dagliesh’s Ray is more restrained and thoughtful as is the man himself, and the relationship between them feels very real. Lillie Flynn (Johnny’s sister!) is lovely as Ray’s child bride Rasa and Adam Sopp & Ned Derrington, as Mick & Pete respectively, complete the band with fine characterisations.

It’s still in preview, but it seems pretty ready to me – though the sound needs a bit of attention. Ray Davies’ music is like bottled London and potted Englishness. It’s the essence of living here, nostalgic but fresh and timeless. By the end I was on my feet, singing along, with a warm glow and a tear in my eye (and none of that bloody screaming at Cardiff Capitol). A triumph for all involved, but particularly for the bard of Muswell Hill. Time to book again, I think…..

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I wasn’t convinced I wanted to see this film adapted for the stage, despite the fact a favourite playwright of mine, Mike Bartlett, adapted it, so I was late booking and ended up at the last performance before its transfer to the West End. Ten minutes in, I thought I’d been right all along – there was so much going on it felt like a bit of a mess. It takes a while to get into the pace and rhythm of this piece, but when you do there’s much to enjoy.

Miriam Buether gives us another of her extraordinary design transformations. Hampstead Theatre becomes a stadium with a race track around the lower level, behind the audience – rather like the original production of Starlight Express but without the budget (or the roller skates). Scott Ambler’s choreography is brilliant and Edward Hall’s staging manages to make both the epic and intimate moments work; the personal stories of Abrahams and Liddell both come through well and the race scenes take your breath away. The music is an effective combination of Vangelis’ iconic soundtrack and Gilbert & Sullivan with a tear-jerking finale of Jerusalem. It’s patriotic & sentimental, but hey who cares, it’s the London Olympics in a minute, this is great timing and we’re entitled!

The young cast of athletic actors, excellently led by James McArdle as Abrahams and Jack Lowden as Liddell, is outstanding, and there are lovely cameos from oldies Nicholas Woodeson as Abrahams’ coach, Nickolas Grace as the Master of Trinity & the Duke of Sutherland, Simon Williams the Master of Caius & Lord Birkenhead and Simon Slater in four roles (and as MD!). Tam Williams also stands out as Andrew, Lord Lindsay.

I’m glad I saw it at Hampstead pre-transfer and I’m glad I sat in the second level; I’m not sure how its going to work in the much bigger space of the Gielgud.

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