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Posts Tagged ‘Hampstead Theatre’

I’m not being perverse by reviewing the last night; as I was travelling for most of the run, it was the first chance I had to see it, and I’m glad I did.

Ryan Craig’s family drama takes us through fifteen years, from the late 60’s to the early 80’s. Widow Yetta Solomon is the matriarch of an East London Jewish family whose business is in ‘rubber goods’. Both her sons, Nat and Leo, are in the business, but they are forever fighting. Leo is intent on escape, but Yetta always has a trick up her sleeve to stop him. Leo’s son Micky doesn’t want to join the business, but Yetta draws him in and eventually he, and other grandson Gerard, are involved, fighting just like their dads. There are references to real events of the period, which was indeed a fascinating one.

Yetta is full of contradictions. She is benevolent to workers like Monty and Rosa, until they cross her. Everything she does is to keep the family together and the business alive, but we eventually learn just how manipulative she is and just how dirty her tricks have been. It’s a commanding performance by Sara Kestelman, owning the stage as she does her family and her staff. Louis Hillyer and Dorian Lough are very good as the bickering brothers, as are Callum Woodhouse, Jack Bannon and Callie Cooke as the next generation. Ashley Martin-Davies’ two-story set is full of period detail and you can almost smell the rubber. 

I really took against Craig’s 2009 play Our Class and wasn’t at all keen on his 2011 play The Holy Rosenbergs – https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/the-holy-rosenbergs and this one becomes a bit too melodramatic at times, with some of the twists and turns a touch contrived, but it’s a big improvement on his previous work.

A meaty play with a superb late career performance by Sara Kestleman at it’s core.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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The 20(ish)-year revival rule applies again for this Terry Johnson play, which I first saw at Hampstead Theatre in 1994. Natural justice was served that night when David Haig was indisposed and the playwright had to step in to play a role he wrote for a middle-aged man with a paunch who has to get his kit off!

The play follows members of a society which celebrates the classic British comedy of the 1960’s to 1980’s. They meet to reminisce, recollect and relive classic characters and shows, in this case the recently departed Benny Hill and, as news of his death arrives during the play, Frankie Howard. Couple Nick & Lisa, singleton Brian and host Richard are all committed members, but Richard’s wife Ellie isn’t. During the play we learn that Richard & Ellie are having problems having sex (and a baby) and Nick hasn’t really taken to his new-born, for reasons that emerge.

It does start slowly, with few laughs at first, and this time around I felt there was an imbalance between the light comedy of the first act and the significantly darker and much better second half. It’s natural audience is British people of a certain age and there were a number in the audience (young or foreign!), who missed many of the references, including my Icelandic companion, even though he was of a certain age and brought up in a country and at a time when British TV was plentiful. This is a homage to the comedy families used to stay in and watch together on a Saturday night and that narrows its demographic significantly.

You can’t fault the performances or the staging by the playwright or the design of a 90’s suburban living room by Richard Kent. Katherine Parkinson is particularly good as Ellie, having to play against the flow, a role played by Zoe Wanamaker in the original production. I don’t really know the work of Rufus Jones, but he too was impressive as Richard, having to be believable as a surgeon who likes Benny Hill! Steve Pemberton handles the impressions best as Brian, perhaps because he started in TV comedy, as well as his touching revelation towards the end.

I was glad I revisited it, but it wasn’t the classic I thought it might be. I suspect this is partly due to the passage of time, partly due to its suitability for my companion (though he loved the second half) and partly due to the fact that James Graham’s recent Monster Raving Loony (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/monster-raving-loony) is a better and more comprehensive homage to the same British comedy, even though it’s actually a biography of a politician, albeit a comic one.

 

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Playwright Richard Bean was late to his eventual career, of which he is now pre-eminent, starting at 40. He’s made up for it since, writing 23 plays including two adaptations and one musical in twenty years. One of the features of his output is the diversity of subject and style. Another feature is its quality. No. 23 is unlike any of the others, a finely polished little gem.

It’s set soon after the First World War. A man arrives at the lodgings of a war widow. He’s been sent by a doctor because she wants a baby. It’s something he does for women like her, plus the wives of the war wounded. He wasn’t in the war. They exchange pleasantries, but they aren’t allowed to know their real names, or anything about each other, under the parameters established by the doctor. In the end she can’t go through with it. They part but something is left behind which enables her to find him, and another sort of relationship starts. 

It’s easy to see why, despite his drawing power, it’s in Hampstead Theatre Downstairs; it needs its intimacy. With the audience facing each other on two sides, it takes place on and around a solitary bed in a small space. It’s beautifully written, with a depth of characterisation that’s astonishing given its 70 minute length. It often surprises you and there’s a gentle, warm humour in keeping with the subject matter. He says some nice things about the Welsh too, but that didn’t influence me!

Anna Ledwich’s direction is very sensitive to the material, and to the audience too, given the traverse staging. Both Claire Lams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes are a delight, managing to convey the repression of the period but the intimacy of their relationship.

A much shorter theatrical feast than iHo upstairs, but a feast nonetheless.

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Tony Kushner writes great plays with dreadful titles. The full title of this one is The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. He wrote one of the greatest plays of the second half of the 20th century, the two-part six-hour Angels in America, both parts first seen together here in 1993 and returning to the NT in 2017. He hasn’t produced much original work since, none of it anywhere near a match for AiA. It’s been a long time since I saw a big, meaty play and I found this a real theatrical feast.

Whereas AiA was epic, iHo is a family saga, though it seems like a lot more once you’ve taken it all in. Gus Marcantonio is an Italian American longshoreman who made his name as a union man. His eldest son Pill is gay, in a long-term relationship but with an addiction to paying for sex, latterly with money borrowed from his sister Empty, four years his junior. Empty has left her husband Adam and is in a lesbian relationship with Maeve, who is pregnant with a child from sperm donated by Empty’s younger brother V, who is married with two young children. V is ten years younger, his mother died giving birth to him, and he’s the only one of Gus’ children who hasn’t followed his politics or indeed career. Keeping up?

They meet at the family brownstone in Brooklyn because Gus thinks he’s getting Alzheimer’s so he wants to sell the house, share out the proceeds and die, a year on from an earlier attempted suicide. His sister Clio is currently in residence. She used to be a nun, before becoming involved in dubious left-wing militant groups like Shining Path. Empty’s ex Adam is also in residence. All sorts of family history, some surprises and more than one cupboard full of skeletons emerge in this dense, complex and dramatically rich concoction. It becomes a struggle to keep up when the dialogue overlaps, which is often. This adds to the realism, but is pushed a bit two far in the second section. 

Tom Piper has designed an austere three-story revolving house, though most of the action takes place in a ground floor living room occupied by little more than a couple of tables and some chairs. There’s not much to distract you from the unfolding story. It would be invidious to single out performances from such a terrific ensemble. Quite how they keep it all together at times is beyond me; it must be a real challenge to speak your lines in a conversation with another character whilst there are several other conversations going on – it was hard enough listening.

I left the theatre deeply satisfied, full to the brim but not bloated after an excellent theatrical meal. We get so few of these really meaty plays in the Miller / O’Neill / Tennessee Williams mould these days. Now I can’t wait for the AiA revival next year.

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It’s easy to think that the economic crisis we’ve lived through in the last eight years is unique. As this play shows us, by explaining the Latin American Debt Crisis of the early 80’s, a prequel to the latest one, everything that has and is happening to Greece happened to Mexico, and other Latin American countries, more than thirty years before. History repeats itself and we just never learn.

In Beth Steel’s brilliant play we follow the career of John. He’s not your usual highly driven Ivy League Long Island banking type, but top banker Howard sees something in him and takes him on, to be groomed by high-flier Charlie in the macho world of international lending. As Charlie rises in the Latin American department, so does John. They loan money for projects that will never come to fruition, with money that won’t, because it can’t, be repaid. We learn of John’s troubled childhood, with his small-time fraudster father in prison while his mother loses everything. His dad comes back into his life and is a ghostly presence during the rest of the play, his dishonesty compared and contrasted with the monumentally bigger stunts being pulled by John and Charlie for their bank. John is a clever guy and by putting forward the idea that gets the banks off the hook, overtakes his mentor.

It’s an intelligent, well researched and superbly written play which manages to make the complex comprehensible. It builds, slowly at first, like all the best thrillers, except this isn’t fiction. It’s traverse staging has a clever, clinical, uncluttered design by Andrew D Edwards, with brilliant lighting and light effects by Richard Howell and a soundscape by Max Pappenheim. I haven’t seen any of director Anna Ledwich’s work before but I was really impressed by this. John is a big role and the character has an extraordinary journey and Sean Delaney, a 2015 RADA graduate, is stunning. Tom Weston Jones is outstanding as Charlie, as is Martin McDougall as Howard and Philip Bird as John’s dad Frank.

It owes something to Enron in terms of subject and style, but it’s its own thing, telling a different story brilliantly. I much admired Beth Steel’s previous play Wonderland, about the miners strike, but this couldn’t be more different, and it confirms her as an exciting new playwriting talent. A must see, and a candidate for Best New Play. What are you doing reading this when you should be booking tickets?!

 

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This is the second play about Lawrence of Arabia in this centenary year of the Arab Revolt. When I saw Howard Brenton’s Lawrence After Arabia recently at Hampstead, I had no idea Terence Rattigan had written a play about the same man 46 years ago. This rare revival at Chichester was therefore an opportunity not to be missed for a Rattigan fan with a new interest in T E Lawrence. 

Like Brenton’s play, it starts and ends with scenes after his return from the Middle East, but this time during his first spell of attempted anonymity in the RAF rather than his second spell in the army, and we’re there with him rather than on leave at the home of G B Shaw and his wife. The filling in this sandwich is a more substantial period in the Middle East. Rattigan uses his RAF experience once more in writing terrific scenes of camaraderie, funny at the beginning, more moving at the end. There’s real emphasis on his genuine affection for, and friendship with, the Arab rebels he effectively leads. The Turkish forces appear this time and the account of the horrors he experienced when apprehended by them are very graphic. Though I enjoyed Brenton’s play, I found this had more depth, both in narrative and characterisation, but it did lag a bit in the initial Middle East scenes.

The eighteen strong all-male cast won’t win any awards for diversity, but that was unlikely to be on Rattigan’s mind 46 years ago. It’s a uniformly excellent ensemble too, led by Joseph Fiennes as an introspective but passionate Lawrence. Peter Polycarpou and Michael Feast are both very good, and virtually unrecognisable, as Sheik Auda Abu Tayi and the Turkish Military Governor respectively. Paul Freeman is great as General Allenby and Brendan Hooper a delight as Flight Sergeant Thompson. The stage seems much deeper than usual and William Dudley’s superb design features very imposing Egyptian pillars at the back and an open rough sandy stage which can change from British barracks to desert to office with just the minimum of furniture. I thought Adrian Noble’s staging was outstanding.

Well worth suffering Southern Rail’s chaos on a trip down to Chichester, good to see both Fiennes brothers in the same week, and to see the second of three plays by or about Rattigan in a three week period!

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I’m a big fan of both designer Miriam Buether and director James Macdonald, but why on earth didn’t they check the audience sightlines when they were creating this? Their failure to do so certainly spoilt my evening – from my top price seat! If you’ve already got side seats, change them now. If you haven’t booked, make sure you’re in the centre.

Mike Bartlett’s new play takes Edward Snowden as its starting point. We’re in a Moscow hotel room with the Snowden-like character Andrew and a woman who appears to be his ‘handler’. She’s rather off-the-wall, playful and cheeky. In the next scene there’s a male ‘handler’ with the same name, much more earnest and serious, but the woman’s back for the next scene. Assumptions are made by Andrew (and us) about who they represent – Wikileaks he hopes – but ambiguity reigns as we explore the ease and consequences of leaks and the idea of identity. Nothing is what it seems, which is the theme of the rest of the play and it’s coup d’theatre. Sadly on the night I went a technical glitch halted the final scene and by the time it restarted people were playing with their phones, then the sight lines (which hadn’t been good at the sides from the start) got so bad (particularly on the right facing the stage) it rather spoilt it, but I won’t spoil it for you by saying more.

I’m also a big Mike Bartlett fan, but this isn’t his best work. It’s a good rather than great play, like many of the others. Notwithstanding the sightline issues, it’s well staged and very well performed by Jack Farthing as Andrew and Caoifhionn Dunne & John Mackay as the ‘handlers’. It’s hard to ignore my personal experience and no doubt it affects my view, but I’m a full-price paying punter so I’m entiltled to it and to share it. Sorry, Hampstead, but you need to see things from the audience perspective if you want to please them.

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It’s an odd experience seeing a historical drama referencing places we’re now used to seeing regularly on the news. It’s a century since the Arab Revolt for which T E Lawrence (of Arabia) is famous and we appear to be witnessing the very real consequences of the West’s actions at its conclusion.

Howard Brenton’s play is set upon Lawrence’s return. He enlisted in the RAF under a false name in search of anonymity and when he was found out he did the same back in the army where he was once a Colonel. During this time he visited his friends G B and Charlotte Shaw who, with GB’s secretary, was editing his major tome on the Revolt. This is where most of the play is set, with three flashbacks to the Middle East at the inception of the Revolt and at its conclusion. 

He was being pursued by Lowell Thomas, the American journalist and photographer who had accompanied him for much of his time in the Middle East and was now cashing in with a lecture tour, and his former boss Field Marshall Allenby who wanted him back, but he was disillusioned with the politicians’ duplicitous actions (he’d turned down a knighthood, telling the King face to face), failing to deliver on his promise of Arab freedom to Prince Feisal.

It’s a quiet and surprisingly light staging by John Dove. Designer Michael Taylor’s drawing room slides gently and effectively into the wings for the other scenes. I was impressed by Jack Laskey’s enthusiasm and passion as Lawrence. It’s lovely to see Geraldine James again in the pivotal role of Charlotte. There are excellent performances in supporting roles from William Chubb as Allenby, Khalid Laith as Prince Feisal and Rosalind March as GB’s secretary Blanch. 

He was clearly a complex and enigmatic person, loved and admired by many, particularly by Charlotte it seems. I found it a fascinating insight into something and someone I knew little about (my O and A level History syllabus ended in 1914!). I am so enjoying Brenton’s late flowering – historical dramas on apostle Paul, Anne Boleyn, Charles I, the 1st World War, the partition of India, Macmillan and (more topical than historical) Ai WeiWei. Long may it continue.

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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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