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Posts Tagged ‘George Bernard Shaw’

A musical based on a 2500-year-old Greek play featuring Shakespeare and G B Shaw as characters to be staged in a swimming pool. Well, you have to admire the ambition of Bert Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim. This later version was meant for theatres and here we are getting the UK professional premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre more than twenty years after Broadway and more than forty years after the Yale original.

Sondheim appears to have only contributed choruses to the Yale show, perhaps as a favour for Shevelove as by now he’d had success with Company, Follies and A Little Night Music, but wrote extra songs for Nathan Lane’s revision. The Yale original is now probably just as famous for featuring actresses Meryl Streep & Sigourney Weaver and playwright Christopher Durang in the cast.

It’s faithful to Aristophanes in that Dionysos, the god of drama, decides that there’s a desperate need for good dramatists and heads off to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw. He meets Shakespeare there too and decides to stage a contest to choose between them (Euripides and Aeschylus in the original). Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare beats the old windbag (Aeschylus wins in the original) and returns with Dionysos. A simple story, but with a timeless theme of the importance of the arts.

Lane’s version is a bit of a romp and, though far from Sondheim’s best score, there are some nice tunes and witty lyrics to propel the story, with cheeky contemporary references which delight. It’s well staged by Grace Wessels, with great use of Jermyn Street’s tiny space and nifty movement from Tim McArthur. The fun that the cast of just nine, let by Michael Matus as Dionysos and George Rae as his sidekick Xanthias, are clearly having is infectious and the musical standards under MD Tim Sutton were particularly high.

An unmissable opportunity for Sondheim fans. 

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Githa Sowerby is an early 20th century female playwright you may never have heard of, but two of her plays have just opened. The first, Rutherford & Son was produced at the NT in 1994 (directed by Katie Mitchell, before she became a born again deconstructionist) and it was brilliant. It has just been revived by Northern Broadsides and is on tour, coming to The Rose in Kingston in March. When it was produced at The Royal Court in 1912 it was credited to K G Sowerby as they thought it would be panned if it was known to be by a woman. It was a big success, but for some reason she wasn’t very prolific (4 plays?) and this play came twelve years later. Based on the two plays, she seems to me to have been streets ahead of contemporaries like Shaw. This is a superb play.

The beginning of the story is unusual, even unlikely. When a woman dies, her 17-year old companion Lois is taken in by the woman’s brother and aunt. Lois proves to be the beneficiary of the will and brother Eustace goes about taking financial control and indeed marrying her, so she becomes stepmother to his two daughters. He’s a real loser and Lois ends up as wife, mother and breadwinner, though the marriage is far from happy. She sets up a successful dressmaking business and develops a relationship with neighbour Peter.

The second act moves us forward ten years. Monica, one of her stepdaughters, wants to marry, but her intended’s father (a family friend with whom Eustace has clashed) insists on a dowry. At this point, the true financial picture emerges and Eustace is revealed as devious, manipulative and heartless. A complex series of events unfolds as the futures of Eustace, Lois and Monica are determined.

This is such a cleverly structured, well written play. It must have been very brave to tackle these issues at that time. It’s brilliant storytelling and it’s never predictable. Acts 2 & 3 (the fast-paced second half) are dramatic masterpieces. The audience was gasping and audibly commenting in outrage as facts are revealed, such is the intensity of the drama. Sam Walters staging is masterly. It’s a while since I was at the Orange Tree Theatre and I’d almost forgotten how involved you become in this in-the-round (well, square) space in such close proximity to the action.

Christopher Ravenscroft was simply brilliant as Eustace; I was half expecting someone to leave the audience and give him a slap, such was the realism of his interpretation. Katie McGuinness was just as good as Lois, handling the emotionality of the role with great delicacy. There were lovely performances in the smaller roles of the adult stepdaughters from Jennifer Higham and Emily Tucker and a delightful cameo from Alan Morrisey as Monica’s intended, Cyril.

This is a deeply satisfying and unmissable evening. It’s such a good play, you will be astonished that it had only one performance when it was written and has not been seen again until this production. Now I can’t wait to revisit Rutherford & Son in five weeks time. Please tell me there are more Sowerby plays to be unearthed.

You have only three weeks left to see this neglected masterpiece.

 

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