Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Hampstead Theatre’

This is another of those occasions when you gasp as you walk into Hampstead Theatre’s auditorium. Lizzie Clachan has built an extraordinary three-story house on the stage, the interior of a New York City brownstone. Characters even make trips up and down to two other (invisible) floors. The new play within, Alexis Zegerman’s The Fever Syndrome, is a meaty drama and uses the space well in Roxana Silbert’s production.

Professor Richard Myers is one of the founding fathers of the scientific community that gave us IVF, and a lot more. His illustrious career is about to be recognised with a lifetime achievement award and his family have gathered to celebrate with him. He’s been married three times. Dorothea is his eldest child, by his first wife. She’s the one very much in control in her marriage to Nate. They have a daughter, Lily, who has Fever Syndrome, a genetic condition. Twins Thomas, a gay artist, and Anthony, a West Coast entrepreneur, are by his second wife. He has no children by his third and current wife Megan, his carer too, as he has Parkinson’s Disease. They are joined by Thomas’ partner Philip, ex-military, ex-drug user.

In the evening before and morning of their departure for the ceremony, relationships unravel. Dorothea sees Megan as some sort of fortune hunter and is anxious to secure her daughter’s future, and pay her medical bills, setting up a trust fund with her father’s money. Philip’s marriage proposal catches Thomas unawares and threatens their hitherto stable relationship. Richard has trusted Anthony with his investments, which may not have been a wise idea, and his wife’s relationship with him looks more than a touch unhealthy. Richard seems to be haunted by Dorothea’s childhood, seeing and hearing her younger self taunt him. Megan just wants everyone to get on, and to look after Richard as best she can.

It’s a family saga in the American style we were used to seeing in the late 20th Century, with the science that Richard spent his life in woven through. It leaves a bit too much to be revealed too late, and becomes overly melodramatic for my taste. That said, it’s the sort of substantial drama we see too rarely these days and I much admired the ambition and staging.

Read Full Post »

French playwright Florian Zeller has had the most meteoric rise. This is his seventh play to be produced in London in eight years, and that includes almost two years where virtually nothing new was produced. They’ve had many awards and transfers and the first we saw, The Father, became on Oscar winning film. I loved this, plus The Mother, The Son (soon to be a film too) and The Truth. I was less enamoured with The Lie, which along with The Mother didn’t get a West End transfer, and Height of the Storm, which went straight to the West End, but you can’t expect the standard of his best work to be sustained forever.

I occasionally felt he was in danger of being too clever and glib, in a Stoppardian way, notably in The Lie. I now feel he’s following more of a Pinter / Churchill trajectory, writing for himself more than his audience, perhaps becoming obtuse to cover up his lack of fresh ideas. Anyway, I really took against this latest one. A lot of talent wasted on an eighty minute jigsaw puzzle you have little chance of completing, with an old fashioned feel to it, very much to the detriment of the female characters. Gina McKee had such a meaty leading role in The Mother, here she’s wasted on a totally underwritten role as The Wife.

Toby Stevens is Man 1, a successful surgeon. His wife is there to welcome him home and look after him. Their daughter has split up with her partner at a time when they were trying for a baby. Man 2, played by Paul McCann, is having an affair with a singer who wants to be more than just the mistress. We also meet a male friend and female friend, a couple, who don’t really serve much purpose. There’s a young man, who may be the daughter’s estranged partner, or maybe not. Then there’s a mysterious man with white make-up, the ‘Man in Black’, another character whose point or purpose were lost on me. The singer appears to die, scenes are repeated with changes, Man 1 and 2 may be the same character (they are both called Pierre). Even the title is a puzzle.

After seeing it, I heard a radio interview with Zeller where he repeated something he says in the programme about wanting the audience to piece it together. He went on to give us a spoiler, that it’s about a man wracked with guilt and mental health issues because of his fidelity. So much for unravelling it for yourself. For me, it was a huge disappointment from a playwright I had hitherto admired. I hope it doesn’t herald the beginning of Zeller’s decline, but my intuition tells me it probably is. He’s given us four gems, which is more than many playwrights, but one might have expected more from a prolific 42-year-old. C’est la vie.

Read Full Post »

I didn’t bother with a ‘Best of’ last year as my theatre-going, apart from a handful of open air shows, came to a standstill after just over two months. 2021 started as badly as 2020 had ended, but I managed to see something like 65 shows in the last half of the year, so it seems worth restoring the tradition.

There were nine new plays worthy of consideration as Best New Play. These include Indecent at the Menier, Deciphering at the New Diorama, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic and Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. Something that wasn’t strictly speaking a play but was a combination of taste, smell and music, and very theatrical, was Balsam at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival. Out of town, in the Reading Abbey ruins, The Last Abbot impressed. Three major contenders emerged. The first was Grenfell: Value Engineering at the Tabernacle, continuing the tradition of staging inquiries, verbatim but edited, very powerfully. The remaining two had puppetry and imaginative theatricality in common. Both Life of Pi, transferring to Wyndham’s from Sheffield Theatres, and The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage at The Bridge were adaptations of books, but were thrilling on stage, and both had star performances from Hiran Abeysekera and newcomer Samuel Creasey respectively – I couldn’t choose between them.

The leanest category was New Musical, where there were only a few to choose from. I liked Moulin Rouge for the spectacle, but it was really just spectacle, and I enjoyed Back to the Future too, but it was the sense of tongue-in-cheek fun of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep and the sheer energy of Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, with a towering performance by Arinze Kene as Bob Marley, that elevated these jukebox musicals above the other two.

More to pick from with play revivals, including excellent productions of Under Milk Wood and East is East at the NT, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Lyric Hammersmith and two Beckett miniatures – Footfalls & Rockaby – at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. GDIF’s Belgian visitors staged Blue Remembered Hills brilliantly on wasteland in Thamesmead, and Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter had a great new production at the Watermill near Newbury, but it was Yeal Farber’s Macbeth at the Almeida, as exciting as Shakespeare gets, that shone brightest, along with Hampstead’s revival of Alan Plater’s Peggy For You, with a stunning performance from Tamsin Greig, which ended my theatre-going year.

The musical revivals category was strong too, probably because we needed a dose of fun more than anything else (well, except vaccines!). I revisited productions of Come from Away and Singin’ in the Rain, though they don’t really count as revivals, likewise Hairspray which was a replica of the original, but I enjoyed all three immensely. Regents Park Open Air Theatre brought Carousel to Britain, in more ways than one, and the Mill at Sonning continued its musical roll with an excellent Top Hat. It was South Pacific at Chichester and Anything Goes at the Barbican that wowed most, though, the former bringing a more modern sensibility to an old story and the latter giving us Brits an opportunity to see what Broadway has been getting that we’ve been missing in Sutton Foster. If only we could detain her permanently.

In other theatrical and musical forms…..there were dance gems from New Adventures with Midnight Bell at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet’s Dante Project at Covent Garden, and a beautiful concert performance of Howard Goodall musical of Love Story at Cadogan Hall. There were lots of classical music highlights, but it was the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs at the Barbican, accompanying footage of his beloved Arsenal, that packed the hall with football fans and proved to be a refreshing and surreal experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world (and I’m not a football fan, let alone an Arsenal one!). Somewhat ironically, most of my opera-going revolved around Grimeborn and Glyndebourne and it was a scaled down but thrilling Die Walkure at Hackney Empire as part of the former that proved to be the highlight.

Let’s hope its a full year of culture in 2022.

Read Full Post »

This revival of Alan Plater’s 1999 play is the final offering in Hampstead Theatre’s look back over 60 years of new plays, a season sadly blighted by closures, at a theatre with a track record of new plays to be proud of. Plater’s play is particularly appropriate, being about plays and playwrights, though its central character is an agent. I saw the original production here, with Maureen Lipman as Peggy, and this is a great revival. Though set in the sixties, and first staged at the turn of the millennium, it feels as fresh as if it was written today.

Its protagonist is legendary theatrical agent Peggy Ramsey, a force of nature, who represented some 400 playwrights, a list that reads like a who’s-who of writers of the second half of the 20th Century, including Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Caryl Churchill, J B Priestly, Stephen Poliakoff, Joe Orton (she appears in his biopic played by Vanessa Redgrave) and Plater himself. Here, her writers are represented by fictional archetypes – the new kid on the block, the current golden boy and the mature one who’s now struggling. She clearly loved nurturing new talent, she revelled in the glory of her successful clients, but she appeared to lose interest after that, at least in their eyes.

It all takes place on one day in her office, and that of her secretary Tessa, in Dickensian Godwin’s Court in theatre-land. In the morning she’s teaching, and playing with, 21-year-old Simon, who’s submitted a modern spin on Romeo & Juliet. She lunches with Philip, the toast of both the West End and Broadway with his somewhat superficial fare. In the afternoon, she is confronted by gritty northerner Henry, when it turns more serious, darker and edgier, without losing the sharp witty dialogue we’ve become used to by then. Plater very cleverly takes someone he knows well and sends us home feeling like we know her well too. His affection and admiration for her comes through, but he shows us her flaws as well.

When he wrote it he wondered who it was for, so he sent it to his friend Alan Ayckbourn who felt very much the same. Well, it’s certainly for me, an avid theatre-goer, but I can see how many of the references and in jokes might be lost on someone who isn’t, or someone younger. However, anyone can admire such outstanding writing, great characterisation (fictional or otherwise) and sparkling dialogue. Director Richard Wilson, and his designer James Cotterill (who’s excellent set is littered with play-scripts and posters) bring it alive two decades on, and the performances are terrific.

It must be hard for an actor to play against such a larger-than-life character as Peggy, but these four do it brilliantly. Josh Finan is great as young Simon, who proves wiser than his years and not as naive as he first seems. The great Trevor Cooper plays Henry, the jaded, cynical but empathetic older playwright desperate to be staged again, who provides the moral anchor of the piece. Danusia Samal’s Tessa, the latest in a seemingly long line of long suffering assistants who’s names Peggy often gets wrong, is resigned to being put upon, with a fondness for the clients Peggy cannot display. Jos Vantyler plays Philip, riding the crest of a wave, yet respectful to his colleagues. It’s Tamsin Greig’s evening, though. She commands the stage and inhabits the role with brilliant comic timing, switching to show another more thoughtful side of Peggy in the second half. It’s a stunning performance.

Four more weeks to catch this great revival.

Read Full Post »

Sometimes however good the production and performances, and however much you relate to or empathise with the issues raised, you fail to engage with the play, and so it was with this. I’ve been struggling to understand why ever since it ended – too American? Dated treatment of the subject(s)? The writing itself? The fact it followed a much more successful revival of another, very different, mother-daughter story the evening before?

In Marsha Norman’s 1982 play about isolation, loneliness and depression, the relationship between mother Thelma and daughter Jessie is one of mutual dependence, with Jessie ostensibly looking after Thelma, who is effectively a companion for her troubled daughter. There’s an ordinariness about their lives, until Jessie gives her mother notice that she will shortly be killing herself and spends the rest of their time together ensuring Thelma knows where everything is and how things are done, in a very calm matter-of-fact way.

It doesn’t inform, enlighten or illuminate its themes, so it becomes a relatively emotionless tale of a woman who’s tired of living her problematic life – failed marriage, criminal son, epilepsy, loss of her beloved dad, much misunderstood – and how her mother has been hitherto somewhat oblivious to much of this. I couldn’t relate or empathise with it, and learnt little from it.

Stockard Channing (who I haven’t seen since her London stage debut in Six Degrees of Separation twenty years ago) and Rebecca Night were both excellent and director Roxana Sibert and designer Ti Green did their best with the somewhat static one room, continuous timeline material. I can think of a lot of better examples of Hampstead premieres of American plays to celebrate their 60 years, I’m afraid.

Read Full Post »

I’ve always wondered why the late plays of Beckett, Pinter and Churchill are revered as experimental and innovative, whilst those of Tennessee Williams were greeted with contempt. This particular late play was the only TW play to have its world premiere outside the US, at this very theatre in fact (well, the previous building), in 1967. I’ve waited over a year to see this revival but it was certainly worth the wait.

Felice and Clare, brother and sister, are on tour with their theatre company, though the rest of the actors have deserted them and only half of the sets have arrived. This means The Two Character Play is the only one in their repertoire that they can perform, with stage management lighting and sound by Felice and cuts insisted upon by Clare. From here, we move between the play and the play-within-a-play in Pirandellian fashion, both as autobiographical as we’re used to from TW. It isn’t that accessible, but it is absolutely fascinating.

Sam Yates’ masterly staging benefits from a first class design from a team led by Rosanna Vise, with projections, music, sound and lighting all playing an equal part in creating this surreal theatrical world. It moves slickly between on-stage and backstage, like Noises Off with fewer characters and without the laughs! There are virtuoso performances from Zubin Varla and Kate O’Flynn, including song, dance and mime, with Varla playing piano and guitar too.

It probably means more to fans of TW like me, for whom it’s a terrific production of one of the most substantial and fascinating of the late plays. The excellent Hampstead programme was an indispensable companion too, and you don’t get to credit a programme that often these days! Thank you, Hampstead Theatre.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

Read Full Post »

The Humans

This excellent American import arrives from off-Broadway via Broadway & LA with the cast and creative team intact. They bring a heightened realism to Stephen Karam’s contemporary family saga which is a bit of a slow burn at first, but draws you in as it covers a whole host of both personal and wider societal issues.

Brigid and Richard invite her Irish American family from Scruton, Penn to Thanksgiving at their new NYC duplex, a roomy but somewhat grubby place on the wrong side of town. Dad Erik has a non-teaching job in a private school. His wife Deirdre is a much put-upon office manager, now taking orders from, and looking after, men less than half her age earning four times as much. They look after Erik’s mom, who has dementia. Brigid’s music career is going nowhere whilst she waits tables and claims benefits. Things have recently gone badly in both career and personal life for Brigid’s seemingly successful sister Aimee, a gay lawyer. Richard is still studying at 38, but comes from very different stock.

As the evening unfolds, their closeness as a family contrasts with their bitching and sniping, like most families (!), as recent dramatic events are revealed. There’s an air of mystery surrounding the proceedings, generated by the noises and lights of the building and the dreams of Erik and Richard, but though this adds atmosphere, it doesn’t add much more. Along the way, we get references to 9/11, American corporate values & loyalty and economic impact. It feels both a family saga and a comment on our times. There’s an authenticity and naturalism, largely due to a uniformly excellent American cast who’ve been with it now for some time. I found it enthralling.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »