Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Eugene O’Neill’

This is the second show I’ve caught up with late in its run and what a pleasure it is to see serious work of this quality in the commercial sector. This autobiographical play is probably Eugene O’Neill’s most depressing, featuring the dysfunctional Tyrone family, drugs and an awful lot of alcohol; not the most obvious way to spend a hot and sunny July evening!

James Tyrone is a Shakespearian actor who’s got caught up in more populist but profitable work. His wife is a drug addict and his youngest son is seriously ill. His eldest son has followed him into the profession but spends more time in bars and brothels. It’s extraordinary that this could be staged in the mid-1050’s! O’Neill wrote it 15 years earlier and died leaving instructions that it shouldn’t be published for 25 years after his death and was never to be staged. Neither wish were respected. The play has been cut for this production, though you can’t really see the joins and it doesn’t feel as if it has lost anything as a result. It’s as powerful a family drama and you’ll ever see.

The action takes place in one location, a summer home beautifully designed by Lez Brotherston, on the same August day in 1912 – after breakfast, before & after lunch and late at night. It becomes more tragic and intense as the day progresses. The strength of Anthony Page’s impeccable production lies in four well matched and stunning performances. David Suchet switches between benevolent autocrat and bully with total believability. Laurie Metcalf breaks your heart as the mother lost to addiction. Kyle Soller adds to his recent outstanding performances in The Faith Machine, The Government Inspector and The Glass Menagerie to make it a quartet of beautifully realised characterisations. Trevor White’s sparring with his dad was as real as his protection of his little brother was moving.

This is classy but risky stuff for the West End, so nine gold stars to the nine producers it took to bring it to us!

Read Full Post »

I don’t think this rare Eugene O’Neill play has had a production here for 25 years – and that was in German, part of Thelma Holt’s international season at the NT. In fact, I don’t remember any other production in London in my theatre-going lifetime. Like The Emperor Jones, written just before it (and 20 years before Long Day’s Journey Into Night), it’s an expressionistic piece with a strong social(ist) message.

Yank (representing the working man?) is the natural leader amongst the stokers on a transatlantic liner, where the play starts. A visit by a posh girl, an industrialists daughter who seems to regard her sojourn below deck as an exciting adventure to see another species in their natural habitat, results in her insulting him – ‘a filthy beast’. When in port in NYC, Yank’s walk on 5th Avenue is just as alien for him and, with the insult ringing in his ears, he hits out, resulting in a prison spell. Here he hears of a new union which he seeks to join on release, but his unbelievability means they think he’s a spy and reject him. He heads for the zoo where attempts to communicate with a hairy ape (filthy beast) result in tragedy.

It’s nothing like his intense naturalistic dramas, and it’s not a great play, but it is fascinating if you’re interested in 20th century drama, particularly American drama, and O’Neill in particular. At Southwark Playhouse, every aspect of this production comes together to create a stunning staging – director Kate Budgen. Jean Chan’s design makes brilliant use of this atmospheric space in traverse form with a central crossing. A grill and some smoke conjours up the engine room, a pair of ropes the ship’s deck and a handful of hospital screens, rope replacing fabric, turn into seven prison cells. Crowded 5th Avenue is more crowded with each actor carrying a manequin head. Richard Howell’s lighting does much to aid these transformations, as does Tom Gibbons sound scape (the final scene, in virtual darkness, is particularly effective). The opening is also superb, as the men seem to rise as one from the bowels of the ship – this, and the rest of Lucy Cullingford’s  movement work, is outstanding.

There isn’t a fault in the casting and sometime Corrie bad boy Bill Ward is a revelation as Yank. It couldn’t be much further from his last job, Million Dollar Bash, as the only non-singing character. Here he brings huge passion and conviction to the role and the transition when he leaves his comfort zone, and his leadership position, is completely believable.

A must in my book – a fringe theatre showing how talented people can create great theatre on a shoestring. An unmissable opportunity to catch that rare species – an early 20th century play with bite.

Read Full Post »

These three short early Eugene O’Neil plays, when played together as they are here, provide an evocative picture of seafaring life in the early 20th century. The Old Vic tunnels provide the perfect atmosphere, aided by harbour ‘installations’ (barrels and nets!) and men shovelling coal in a side tunnel as you enter. They’re far from O’Neill’s best work, but for anyone interested in this titan of modern drama, they’re a must-see.

The first two plays are set at sea (so seamlessly in this production, I thought it was one play!). In the first, Bound East for Cardiff, the ship enters stormy waters resulting in the death of one of the crew. In the second, In the Zone, set at a time of war, a seaman who is ‘different’ is suspected of being a spy and as his true story is revealed he is broken. In the third play, The Long Voyage Home, we’re in a port bar where a naïve Swedish seaman is drugged and fleeced by the bar owner in collusion with a prostitute and assorted lowlife.

They are slight stories but they do add up to something much more than the parts. They’re well staged by Kenneth Hoyt (the opening of the first is particularly thrilling) and well performed. You can almost smell the sea & the sweat and the characterisations are surprisingly deep given their short length. I was particularly impressed by the performances in the third play, with Amanda Boxer as a prostitute, Raymond M Sage as the Swedish seaman and Eddie Webber as Joe.

The best of the three shows I’ve seen in the Old Vic Tunnels and well worth catching.

Read Full Post »

The US gave us three great playwrights in the 20th century and Eugene O’Neill was one of them. I’ve been lucky enough to see 10 of his plays, but this one has evaded me. So a chance to see it in a favourite theatre with a favourite actress. Treat watch!

O’Neill was apparently a seaman, and his insight into this world shows. We’re in the bar of an East Coast port with Swedish bargeman Chris and his woman Mathy. At first I wasn’t convinced by David Hayman (an actor who, surprisingly, I’ve never seen on stage before), largely because of his odd accent, but after the play settled, I got there. Jenny Galloway was, as always, excellent as Marthy. When Chris’ long lost daughter turns up, her female intuition means she susses her  profession – a prostitute – quick as a flash. Ruth Wilson in the title role is mesmerizing, with a defensive brashness masking her vulnerability. She is at times delicate and at times hard, prowls the stage with a sexiness and excitement that means you just can’t take your eyes off her. This is her finest performance so far, but I suspect there’s a lot more to come. A Dame in waiting!

We move to sea as a storm erupts, the stage becomes a barge and rises, and we get one of the most exciting stage entrances I’ve ever witnessed as Irish seaman Mat climbs a rope and boards the barge drenched and half-naked. I’ve liked the handful of Jude Law’s performances I’ve seen before, but this is on another level altogether. It’s extraordinarily physical as he picks up Chris like he was a sack of flour, throws an empty crate at a wall to see it shatter and lifts a bed on which Anna lies as if it were a bag of shopping. He acts with every inch of his body, looking every bit the seaman – at home in working clothes but clumsy in a suit, the pupils of his eyes piercing when he’s angry.

The balance of the play explores the relationship between Anna, the dad who deserted her and the man she falls for (and the relationship between the two men) as her profession is revealed. The chemistry between the three actors is terrific and the triangle completely believable and compelling. The proximity and intimacy of the Donmar again works to bring you right in to the minds of the characters and the heart of their story. Wonderful.

For a choreographer, Rob Ashford is turning into one hell of a director. This equals his Streetcar, also here, for impeccable staging. Paul Wills design and Howard Harrison’s lighting create the bar, barge at sea and barge interior superbly with next to no props. The stage tilt (a first at the Donmar?) is an inspired ides.

There have been many great evenings at the Donmar and this is up there with the best of them. I’d like to say ‘book now’ but I’m afraid you’ve missed the boat, as it were.

Read Full Post »

Until last month, I hadn’t seen an Edward Bond play. Given that I’ve been an avid playgoer for more than 30 years, this tells you something about how often his plays are put on in the UK. This is a British dramatist who has written 50 plays. He appeared at joint number 12 in the list of  ‘most selected playwrights’ in the NT’s poll of 20th Century drama (somewhat ironically with Caryl Churchill, whose A Number I also saw last month – revived after just 8 years!) and his play Saved was ‘the most selected play’ of 1965. You’d be forgiven then for thinking that this season is at the NT or the Royal Court, but no it takes a tiny but enterprising unfunded pub theatre in Kilburn to mount an ambitious season of six of his plays, including a brand new play Bond has written for them, another he’s especially re-written and Bond himself directing one of the plays, with a season ticket that enables you to see them for c.£8 each with free programmes and a photocopy of the new play!

The Pope’s Wedding

This was the second to be mounted, but the first I saw (somewhat appropriately, as it was Bond’s first play back in 1962). At first I thought it might have influenced Pinter, then I realised The Caretaker and The Birthday Party pre-dated it, so it might be the reverse influence.

It is a sort of rural Pinter, featuring a bunch of young men growing up angry in a rural backwater. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of scenes and scene changes which destroy the narrative flow and pace of the piece and it takes a long time to turn from a picture of rural life to the menace that ensues. Having said this, some of the staging by Conrad Blakemore was outstanding – particularly a cricket match brought to life on a pocket-handkerchief stage.

The real reason for seeing it though is a wonderful ensemble of young actors who quite took my breath away. Amongst them, Tim O’Hara was magnificent as Scopey and well matched by Rebecca Tanwen’s Pat and veteran John Atterbury as Allen. For the second time in a week – the other being Love on the Dole the previous week at the Finborough – British acting talent shone brightly.

Olly’s Prison

This 1990’s screenplay gets it’s UK stage premiere and it’s a much better play than The Pope’s Wedding. The psychologically complex story starts with a man murdering his daughter after a 30-minute monologue during which she just stares silently. We move to the prison where he is now incarcerated and to the death of a cellmate in which he is implicated. He is confronted by the cellmate’s mother, who has taken in her son’s victim, and goes on to develop a relationship with her. His dead daughter’s boyfriend, now a policeman, colludes with the cellmate’s victim to frame the man we first meet ranting at his scary daughter! Still with me? In the end we’re left to question who really are the victims.

Well, actually, I found it a fascinating piece and it was extremely well staged by Gareth Corke. The performances were again outstanding. Ewan Bailey was excellent as murdering Mike with Melissa Suffield (until recently Lucy Beale in East Enders) pulled off the tough task of spooking us with her stare for half-an-hour as his daughter. Robin Berry was great as older Frank the boyfriend (as the younger Frank, he was rather hampered by a dreadful wig!), as was James Kenward as cellmate Smiler and Frankie McGinty as his victim Olly. Elicia Daly’s and Charlotte Fields delivered fine characterisations of the women in all their lives.

The Under Room

This third play takes place in the pub’s cellar. We had to go up one flight of stairs, through the theatre during rehearsals for the next play (with the playwright in attendance) and back down two flights of stairs! It’s a hugely atmospheric space with a real soundscape of cellar machinery in action.

This fairly recent play is set 67 years in the future. A stranger breaks into a woman’s house and she comes embroiled in his world. He owes money to a man who has assisted in his illegal entry into the country; this man may be a corrupt policeman or member of the army in what is clearly a police state. It’s all a bit difficult to get into, particularly as the stranger is played by a dummy with an actor in view speaking the lines from behind and occasionally coming forward to dress / undress the dummy.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and it’s well played by the cast of three, but I can’t say I found the play particularly accessible or illuminating.

The Fool

This is actually a biographical play about 19th century poet John Clare. In the first act, we see the events that influenced and preceded his writing. In an earlier recession, the poor rise up and rob the gentry in order to buy food to live. Some are imprisoned and hung, but Clare remains free. In the second act, we see him in London under the patronage of the rich and feted for his poetry. Back in East Anglia he goes insane and ends his days in an asylum.

Like The Pope’s Wedding, it’s the performances that make the evening; they’ve again assembled a terrific company of 17 to play the 37 parts and amongst them I was hugely impressed by Ben Crispin as Clare, James Kenward (also excellent in Olly’s Prison) as Darkie / Jackson and Rosina Miles as Patty. There is some excellent staging, particularly a bare-fisted boxing match (fight movement Lawrence Carmichael) which had you on the edge of your seat. I was gripped for the whole 2 hours 45 mins, despite the intensely uncomfortable benches!

There Will Be More

Before this play could start we had to wait for the pub’s Sunday lunchtime one-man band to finish his set. There was something surreal about standing and waiting whilst he played Irish songs to a bunch of heavy drinkers, some of which were indulging in a sort of swaying / dancing – one woman banging her stick loudly on the pub table. Maybe this was intentional?! 

This is the world premiere of Bond’s new play. In the first 20-minute act we get a double infanticide and a rape. After the interval and eighteen years have passed, things quieten down for a while before another rape, a murder and a spot of incest!

I think Bond is making a point about the eternal cycle of war, but for me he obscures this so much, which seems rather pointless if you’re trying to make a point!  Again, the staging and performances are excellent, with Stephen Billington, Helen Bang and Timothy O’Hara (who also played Scopey in The Pope’s Wedding) pulling off the difficult task of making this all seem believable. 

Red Black & Ignorant

This 1980’s play is again spoilt by the obfuscation of its meaning. It appears to tell us the story of one man’s journey from life to death, trying to make an anti-war point but this time losing me by making me feel like I’m being preached at and patronised. It consists of  nine short scenes with occasional dialogue spoken direct to the audience.

It’s again effectively staged and well acted. Andrew Lewis as ‘Monster’, whose life we appear to be following, is excellent (with terrific make-up by Jess Harling), Melanie Ramsay is suitably spooky as Mother / Wife and Alex Farrow’s transition from Boy to Son is impressive (the character’s titles illustrate my earlier point, I think). Like There Will Be More, I’m afraid I think they are let down by the material.

So there you have it. I think I’ve given Bond a fair chance, but I’m not at all convinced by either the plays or the playwright. Like Pinter and Churchill, as he develops he loses me. This could be because I’m as thick as shit, of course, but it could be that he was becoming less creative and clouded this with obscurity and obfuscation (yes, that word again!) or it could be a sign of intellectual arrogance. Whatever it is, give me the American 20th century greats – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neill – or British contemporaries like Jez Butterworth and Roy Williams any day of the week.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the outset, but based on six plays and his programme notes / essays, I think I can understand why he has been ‘neglected’ and considered ‘difficult’. He’ll certainly go into MY difficult playwrights list with Pinter, Churchill, Chekhov and Shaw.

That notwithstanding, a standing ovation for the Cock Tavern and its artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Jones for their ambition, the accessibility (£50 for six plays and programmes!), the opportunity to review a playwright’s work in this way and for some terrific staging and wonderful performances. A fascinating Autum project.

Read Full Post »

The National Youth Music Theatre doing Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd? This makes the decision of RADA, the UK’s premiere drama school, to do Company seem decidedly unambitious. Despite the fact people like Jude Law, Sheridan Smith and Matt Lucas did their first work for NYMT, I was still somewhat sceptical…..

When we entered the former Victorian warehouse closer to where its set than any production before it (apart from the Bridewell Theatre’s virtually in Fleet Street itself), we’re confronted by ‘the outsiders’ wandering around the space talking to themselves, pushing supermarket trolleys and generally behaving spookily. This could be completely naff, but it’s actually rather disturbing and uncomfortable and a great scene-setter.

It’s performed on the floor of the space in a sort of traverse staging with seats on three sides and the barber shop on the fourth and it’s very atmospheric. The action mostly takes place in the centre with the ‘barbering’  and ‘baking’ on a two-level platform at one end.

The 25-piece orchestra, hidden behind screens behind & to the side of the audience plays this complicated score superbly; you’d never believe this was a youth orchestra. The performances are simply extraordinary – Matt Nalton and Lizzie Wofford are terrific as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett and in an outstanding supporting company, a very young Michael Byers as Tobias is so good it takes your breath away.

I’ve seen nine Sweeney Todd productions before this, including Covent Garden, Opera North and the National Theatre and it has never been better than this. It’s a triumph for NYMT and a highlight of Sondheim’s 80th celebrations; I really hope he’s hung around after Saturday’s Prom to see this as the enthusiasm of the young cast and the excitement of the young audience prove that his legacy as the king of musical theatre will be as long-lasting as fellow American 20th century theatrical gods  Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

Read Full Post »

What a great pairing this early Eugene O’Neill play is with Tennessee Williams’ Spring Storm, also transferred from Northampton to the National.

The three great playwrights of the 20th century were all American and seeing these two plays reveals the direct line from O’Neill to Williams to Arthur Miller like never before. This was O’Neill’s first full length play, a very assured work that I’m astonished has not been seen here before as in so many ways it betters later work.

The story revolves around two brothers love for the same woman and her unexpected choice, which leads to a tragic turn of events. The one she chooses proves incapable of providing for his family and the one she doesn’t goes to sea so that he doesn’t have to live with the consequences of her choice.

Again, Liz Smith and Michael’s Thomson and Malarkey give absolutely committed and passionate performances and the remainder of the small cast give fine support – particularly Joanna Bacon as a crabby mother / mother-in-law. The staging is impeccable and the design this time is spot on. The final death scene, with the characters not part of the scene observing in silence, was masterly. 

Another deeply satisfying theatrical experience. I think we’ll have to detain Northampton’s director Laurie Sansom here in London – he’s clearly far too good to let go!

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts