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Posts Tagged ‘Harry Hepple’

This 1912 play was last seen at the NT 25 years ago, in a production by Katie Mitchell (before she went on to deconstruct and destroy plays!). Since then, it’s been named one of the 100 most influential plays of the 20th Century, and its easy to see why. It must have been shocking to see a prominent industrialist portrayed as a bully on stage over 100 years ago.

John Rutherford owns a glassworks in the industrial North East. Though we’re not explicitly told, he appears to be a widower, living with and looked after by his sister Ann and his spinster daughter Janet. His children have been a big disappointment to him. Richard has become a curate and John Junior, who he hoped would take over the business, has married beneath him and shows no interest in the family firm, though he has returned home to try and sell his father an invention. John thinks he’s entitled to be given it after spending a small fortune on John Junior’s education at Harrow. As the play unfolds he belittles Richard, sends John Junior and Janet away and manipulates John Junior’s wife Mary into involving him in bringing up his grandson.

Sowerby was the daughter of a North East glass manufacturer, so this may be wholly or partly biographical. In any event, the play was brave. It was first attributed to a writer with initials, so the sex was ambiguous and widely assumed to be a man. After all, there weren’t any female playwrights. The first act is a bit slow, and I’m not sure if this is the writing or the production, but it gains pace after the interval. Polly Findlay’s production, with designs by Lizzie Clachan, has great authenticity, with atmosphere created by rain and the movement of the house in which they live, plus a group of female voices singing folk inspired songs a capella.

Roger Allam is brilliant as Rutherford, commanding the stage as well as his family. Sam Troughton, Justine Mitchell and Harry Hepple are excellent as the three siblings who have grown into such different people. Joe Armstrong is great as Rutherford’s right hand man and Barbara Marten is superb as the ice cold uber conventional sister Ann. Lovely performances all round.

Good to see it again, in as fine a production as you could wish for.

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I wish working class playwright D H Lawrence would come into fashion like middle class playwright Terence Rattigan has, so that we could see more of his work. The polymath novelist / poet / playwright wrote eight plays, only two of which were performed in his lifetime. The last we saw in London was a ‘mash up’ of his three early mining village plays, of which this is one, as Husbands & Sons at the National a couple of years ago, but revivals of his plays are few and far between.

It’s written in strong local dialect, so you have to put in a bit of work, but you do get into the rhythm of the language, which is an essential component of the piece, fairly quickly. It takes place in family homes represented evocatively in Louie Whitemore’s design by just four pieces of furniture on a platform, with the audience in two rows on four sides, and this intimacy results in extraordinary engagement, five actors shining in their respective roles. The backdrop is the 1912 miners strike and we’re in the village of Eastwood on the Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire border. This is the world of D H Lawrence’s youth. A matriarchal society, but a man’s world.

Luther, in his early thirties, has recently married Minnie, who left life in service to do so. They are late to marriage because of his hesitancy in proposing long before, and perhaps because his mother has been holding him back. His younger brother Joe is still at home. Neighbour Mrs Purdy visits mother and younger son to inform them Luther has fathered a child with her daughter and suggests money could buy their silence. Mother, somewhat bitter at the loss of her elder son, not keen on her daughter-in-law and the inheritance she brought with her, refuses, so Mrs Purdy visits Luther.

It’s a brilliant play with excellent characterisations, superbly structured. It’s not just a personal story, but also social history and sociology, examining the roles and relationships between the sexes at that time, and archetypal mother and son relationships. Harry Hepple is simply terrific as Luther, torn between wife and mother, struggling to assert himself, clumsily when he does. Ellie Nunn is superb as a feisty Minnie, defiant and determined, but ultimately loving. Veronica Roberts is wonderful as the boys’ mum, worshiping them and pampering them. Matthew Biddulph is great as the more immature Joe, winding others up without considering the consequences and cheekily flirting with Minnie. Tessa Bell-Briggs gives a fine performance as Mrs Purdy. A brilliant cast.

Jack Gamble’s finely detailed staging is impeccable. This is an unmissable revival which I can only hope leads to many more.

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On Thursday 20th February, I appear to have seen a different show than the one reviewed by the critics. None of them mentioned that Lesley Sharp overacts mercilessly, turning Helen into a caricature of the person Shelagh Delaney wrote, with Kate O’Flynn coming dangerously close to challenging her for the OTT title as the play progressed. She has either diverted from Bijan Sheibani’s direction (the same appeared to happen when I saw The Rise & Fall of Little Voice) or Shebani has decided to send up a 50’s British classic. Frankly, I thought it was a travesty unworthy of a National stage. Carry On Up North.

Written by a very young Delaney in 1958 and produced and directed by Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, this was as much of a landmark show as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Brassy barmaid Helen is a shit mother, more interested in her men than her daughter Jo, who is perilously close to following in her footsteps. Helen marries Peter and leaves Jo, now pregnant by a black sailor, to fend for herself in their seedy flat. Art student Geoff befriends Jo and moves in to look after her, until Helen returns professing maternal feelings to hide the fact that Peter has thrown her out.

Hildegard Bechtler’s enormous set is a bit over-engineered for a five-hander virtually set in one room, but it looks authentic. The men appear to be in a different play, with more restrained performances in keeping with the period location and story, particularly Harry Hepple who hits the spot perfectly with his interpretation of Geoff in the second half. If Sharp and O’Flynn were performing as Sheibani intended, this disrespects the memory of both Delaney and Littlewood; if they have veered away from his intentions, it’s just as disrespectful but also unprofessional.

I’ve been disappointed by Sheibani’s work at the NT before – Our Class, Greenland, Damned for Despair – and I’m beginning to wonder why he warrants such prominence in the NT programming. I think I will have to shall steer clear in future because I’m not sure I can stomach such misguided directorial arrogance which Is common at the opera (where they don’t really care what dead composers intended) but less so at the theatre. The mute applause last night suggested I’m not alone.

You have been warned!

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This Peter Nichols play with music (Dennis King) was first seen at The Aldwych Theatre in 1977, the then London home of the RSC, when the playwright was very much in their favour. A year before he became Artistic Director of the Donmar, director Michael Grandage  staged it there (with Roger Allam, Malcolm Sinclair and the relatively unknown James McAvoy and Nigel Harman). Now, he’s staging it back in the West End (at the very appropiately named Noel Coward Theatre) as the first in his 5-play season, just after leaving the Donmar.

It’s an autobiographical piece set just after the second world war in a forces entertainment troupe in South East Asia. The rag-bag of performers is led by as-camp-as-they-come (Acting Captain!) Terri Dennis. We see them rehearse and perform, plus backstage relationships, banter and abuse. There are two mute locals whose sinister demeanor tell you they are more than servants to these extraordinary masters.

If you’ve got a decent seat it works well, though not quite as good, in a bigger space – though it has aged a bit and seemed a little overlong this time. It’s a fascinating period and situation though with all sorts of issues explored and the music is completely at home given the context.

The chief reason for seeing it is a superb cast and chief amongst those is Simon Russell Beale with yet another career high. He has the uncanny capacity to act with every part of his body, striking poses that bring the house down, breaking into facial expressions that have you laughing out loud. Angus Wright is perfectly cast as the pompous Major, as is Mark Lewis Jones as the somewhat unsympathetic Sergeant Major, and John Marquez is great as the unlikely Corporal. Joseph Timms, Sam Swainsbury, Harry Hepple and Brodie Ross make a great quartet of singing & dancing soldiers. 

Designer Christopher Oram appears to have re-cycled and roughed up his design for Evita, but it works well as the frame for various South East Asian locations. Grandage’s staging is as always impeccable and there’s a fine band under Jae Alexander hiding in the upper tier on the right.

If you’ve seen the play before, go again to see a fine cast. If you haven’t, go to see a highly original play by one of Britain’s most underrated playwrights. Whatever, you have to go to see Simon Russell Beale at the height of his powers – again!

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Those of us who go to opera have long got used to radical directorial reinvention / reinterpretation. 2011 was a particularly bad year, with Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust (I asked ENO for my money back as I thougth I’d booked for Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust – the composer uncredited in the marketing) followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream relocated from a forest to a boy’s public school! It happens less in theatre – well, except with Shakespeare and other dead writers who can’t answer back – and even less in  musicals. In this case, though, it seems composer Stephen Schwartz hasn’t objected, though I’m not sure he’s seen it!

Director Mitch Sebastian’s ‘big idea’ is to turn it into a video game, which actually isn’t a bad idea. I didn’t think much of this early Schwartz show when I first saw it at the Bridewell Theatre 13 years ago (he went on to write Godspell and Wicked – come to think of it, I don’t think much of those either) so I was up for a radical reinvention / reinterpretation. The production is probably the most visually in-your-face I’ve ever seen. After you enter through the game-player’s bedroom, the stage seems to take up more space than you thought the Menier had and you have to use all of your peripheral vision – and move your head back and fore as if you’re watching a tennis match from the net – to take in as much of the 180 degree staging as you can (it’s impossible to take it all in). The projections by Timothy Bird, often interacting with the performers, are simply extrordinary.

The story concerns the son of Emperor Charles (Charlemagne), his second wife Fastrada, son Pippin and step-son Lewis and in particular to Pippin’s search for purpose and meaning. The problem is the production is a complete mismatch with the predominent musical style (70’s pop-rock) and the story’s period (9th century France) so it’s littered with uncomfortable anachronisms, jarrs frequently and just doesn’t work – and it confirms the view that it isn’t a particularly good show. I have to say though that I have much admiration for the craftsmanship – it’s extraordinarily slick as you move from one open-mouthed moment to another, and another….

Matt Rawle has great presence and a great voice as the Leading Player (another narrator role to follow his Che in the recent revival of Evita). Ian Kelsey and Frances Ruffelle are very good as the king and queen, as is David Page as the step-son, despite the S&M nature of their costumes! Harry Hepple pulls off the difficult transition from naivety to defiance and back to naivety as Pippin. Louise Gold provides a lovely one-song cameo as grandmother Berthe but the introducion of the role seems completely pointless and the song (with audience participation, complete with panto songsheet!) feels like it popped in from the panto down the road for added seasonality. The musical standards are much higher than the quality of the music and Tom Kelly’s band is good, if somewhat loud for such a small venue – this adds to the feeling that you are being bashed over the head relentlessly to compensate for the mediocre material.

I admire the attempt to breathe new life into an ify show, but have to report that for me it failed – and found me asking the same question I’ve asked a few times recently – what on earth is happening to the Menier?

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I rather liked this quirky tongue-in-cheek celebration of a peculiarly American tradition, the high school spelling competition.

The composer William Finn has shown promise for a long time, but failed to fulfil it. I remember seeing the first outing of March of the Falsettos zonks ago and thinking ‘he’ll go far’ – but he hasn’t. In truth, the simplistic formulaic music here shows he hasn’t moved on much, which is perhaps the reason. The show’s success has more to do with a terrific idea, the right theatre with a brilliant design, funny lyrics, a production that fizzes and performances bursting with enthusiasm and energy.

Designer Christopher Oram has turned the Donmar into a school gym with a blue and yellow colour scheme that extends to the letters at the end of the rows of special blue seats and the ‘confetti’ which falls from the rafters. Jamie Lloyd’s staging and Ann Yee’s choreography are just as bright and they’ve teased lovely portraits of archetypal kids from Harry Hepple, Iris Roberts, Chris Carswell, David Fynn, Hayley Gallivan and Maria Lawson. Steve Pemberton and Katherine Kingsley are excellent as the adults as is Ako Mitchell as the helper on community service.

Adding four volunteers from the audience as ‘extras’ is an inspired idea and on the night we went, they were so good I wondered if some of them were actually plants. The way their characters are  ‘invented’ is clever and when one manages to spell a word that was clearly meant to be her exit, it brought the house down.

95 minutes of infectious fun – it won’t change your life, you might struggle to remember it in 10 years, but you probably won’t regret going – and it’s a whole lot better than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg!

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