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Posts Tagged ‘Ian MacNeil’

There is much to admire in this radical, inventive though somewhat self-indulgently written Medea, but it falls at the last hurdle I’m afraid.

I’d never heard of novelist Rachel Cusk. Her Medea is a writer like her. She’s in the middle of a messy divorce (like hers, it seems) from Jason, an actor on the brink of stardom. He’s traded her in for a younger model who we don’t meet, but we do meet her dad, who’s a bit pissed off he’s losing his little girl. The chorus are Sloaney yummy mummies, initially cradling baby dolls. In the brilliant first scene her mum and dad are spouting ‘I told you so’ wisdom like only mums and dads can. She has a Brazilian cleaner who’s pretty good at revenge ideas. 

It’s a radical contemporary take, but I liked it – until it’s time to spill some blood, when it all went wrong for me in ways I won’t describe so as not to spoil it. Ian MacNeil’s striking modern two-story home (creating significant sightline issues for some) turns into an an equally striking impressionistic landscape, and the costumes seem to change at about the same time. Amanda Boxer and Andy de la Tour are terrific as the deadpan mum and dad, the latter returning as a Creon with great presence. Charlotte Randle, in addition to her part in the chorus, is an extraordinary half woman / half man messenger. Justin Salinger is excellent as Jason and Kate Fleetwood swops her Tracy Lord in High Society for a role as different as you can get as a vengeful modern Medea. I liked Michelle Austin’s cleaner, though her accent seemed to be all over the place. The two boys, whichever of the six they were, were great.

I felt the seemingly autobiographical elements were rather self-indulgent and this, together with the liberties taken with the story’s conclusion, were the fatal flaws in AD Rupert Goold’s production, which meant that it didn’t live up to the highs set by the previous plays in Almeida Greeks. A shame, that.

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There are lots of parallels between contemporary playwrights Simon Stephens, who wrote this, and Mike Bartlett. Both are prolific, both have given us adaptations as well as original work and both are eclectic. Stephens has been more hit-or-miss for me, but this one is a hit.

Rock star Paul is filling stadiums worldwide and the play starts in Moscow and moves to Berlin, Paris and finally London. We see him become a premiere league monster, exploiting people close to him as well as new ones he meets on tour. He thinks he can buy anything and tries to do so. In Moscow, he makes a play for a married journalist and adds a member of the hotel staff to his entourage. His treatment of band-mate Johnny is particularly heinous, something which results in sweet revenge. He reaches an all time low when he visits Johnny’s deceased girlfriend’s parents. It’s a portrait of a rock star’s descent and the impressionistic staging represents this by black water rising as the decline progresses.

Andrew Scott is mesmerising as Paul. He does mad and manic ever so well, he turns emotion on and off at lightning speed and he really can move. He has fantastic support from Alex Price as Johnny and, in multiple roles, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Charlotte Randle, Yolanda Kettle and a brilliant Daniel Cerqueira who is totally believable as Paul’s dad and his exploitative manager. Designer Ian MacNeil gives us another of his inventive spaces – a platform with a moving arch structure on top, surrounded by what slowly becomes a pool of water. Carrie Cracknell’s expert staging squeezes every ounce of tension, surprise and shock out of the material.

In truth, I think the staging and performances are better than the writing, but it’s a must-see if only for Andrew Scott on blistering form.

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If you ask anyone around here what Amen Corner is, they’ll tell you it’s a junction where roads to / from Tooting, Streatham & Mitcham meet. Back home, they’d have said it was Andy Fairweather Low’s band (born 6 miles away – almost a neighbour). On the South Bank, it’s a 1955 semi-autobiographical play by American James Baldwin (one of only two he wrote) which I first saw 26 years ago at the Tricycle Theatre and again 13 years ago at the same venue. In Rufus Norris’ production for the NT, it seems quite a different play.

Harlem preacher Margaret separated from her jazz musician husband Luke and brought up son David alone. She lives below the tabernacle with David and sister Odessa. As the play starts, all is well in this devotional world, with her sister a church elder and her son its pianist. Luke turns up sick (and drunk), David starts to develop a life outside this insular world and Margaret’s life is turned upside down. The other church elder’s see this as part of her descent, making them intent on a coup. The personal story is played out against the contradictions of this 1950’s Harlem world – evangelical services full of people possessed and seedy clubs full of the fallen.

What makes the play very different from previous productions is that Norris has infused it with music – mostly the gospel of Margaret’s world, but also the jazz of Luke’s world. Ian MacNeil’s design cleverly delineates these worlds with the home stage front, the tabernacle above and the jazz world behind and to the side. The singing of the cast with the London Community Gospel Choir is uplifting, even to a hardened atheist like me, and contrasts with the sultry, sensual jazz soundscape. This does so much to create the dichotomy so important to the story.

I’ve already seen two stunning black casts in recent weeks, with Fences and A Season In the Congo (and there’s The Colour Purple to come in a matter of days), and here’s another one. It’s wonderful to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste again and her performance as Margaret towers over proceedings but doesn’t steal the limelight. Lucian Msamati is excellent as Luke, a difficult role requiring believable sickness and drunkenness. Recent graduate Eric Kofi Abrefa is hugely impressive as David and Sharon D Clarke has great presence as Odessa, successfully stretching herself away from the musicals we are more used to seeing her in. There are three brilliant performances as the machiavellian elders from Cecilia Noble, Jacqueline Boatswain and Donovan F Blackwood.

This must be the definitive production of this excellent play (a better play than August Wilson’s Fences across the river, in my view) and a great use of the difficult Olivier stage. I would have preferred the interval earlier, or two intervals, as the first half is twice the length of the second, but it didn’t get in the way of a thrilling evening at the theatre.

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This isn’t one of Eugene O’Neil’s best plays, chiefly because it’s too melodramatic, though this production at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith is so good it makes it seem as if it is.

Seventy something Ephraim marries for the third time, to a girl who’s about the same age as Eben, his son by his second wife. Eben and the two sons by Ephraim’s first wife, Simeon and Peter (keep up!), can see their inheritance slipping away. For some reason, Eben buys out his brothers’ share of the farm on which they live (even though it looks like they won’t inherit it) and Simeon and Peter head west to join the gold rush. Eben stays to fight his corner, his dad and his new step-mother – until, that is, he falls for her and fathers her baby. Of course, it all ends in tears – well, wails really.

In the first 30 minutes, as the story is set up, we just see the three brothers. Mikel Murfi and Fergus O’Donnell are simply mesmerizing as hirsute elder brothers Simeon and Peter and its hard for Morgan Watkins to play the ‘softer’ Eben against this; he comes into his own though when Abbie arrives and his lust for her takes over. Finbar Lynch is a commanding Ephraim, at his best in the christening party scene where everything revolves around him (literally at times). Abbie is a complex character – defiant fortune hunter, passionate lover, lost soul – and Denise Gough plays her brilliantly. You’d be struggling to get five performances this good on any stage.

I wasn’t convinced by Ian MacNeil’s design at first. The house front disappears soon after the start, four mobile boxes open up to become rooms in the house, a screen at the back changes colour with the time of day and the stage rear and wings are in clear view. There’s also a platform jutting out half-way into the stalls with steps out to the side for entrances and exits. Somehow, though, it eventually made sense and its movement contributed much to the flow of the play (even though from the front stalls, entrances, exits and speeches from the platform were irritating).

Sean Holmes’ masterly direction, with brilliant music (Ry Cooder?) played live on guitar by Jason Baughan, brings this slice of 19th century New England to life and I was gripped throughout. A contender for the year’s best revival methinks and only 10 more days to catch it.

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Another deeply rewarding late catch-up and the best production of this play I’ve ever seen. Simon Stephen’s new translation of Ibsen’s play removes all the fustiness and even though the lack of restraint might seem uncharacteristic for its Scandinavian setting, it serves the story very well indeed.

Wife and mother of three Nora has a secret and expends much effort in keeping it, even though the secret is effectively covering up a kind act. When it is revealed, her relationship with her husband crumbles irreparably as he is too focused on honour and what others will think than he is on the strength of the relationship and the love that led to the secret.

Hattie Morahan’s performance as Nora is a career highlight. She is child-like, naive, highly strung and fragile. The contrast, until the final scene, with Dominic Rowan’s coolly dominant Torvald makes her plight all the more believable. Rowan’s performance is also fine, as are the smaller but key roles. Steve Toussaint is an excellent Dr Rank, the family friend who becomes obsessed with Nora as his health deteriorates. Kristine is an odd character because her sudden arrival isn’t entirely plausible, but Susannah Wise makes her so. Nick Fletcher does well to make disgraced lawyer (and Nora’s nemesis) Nils both nasty and sympathetic. I’m not sure I approve of the use of a real baby, though!

I’m not familiar with director Carrie Cracknell’s work, but for me her staging here catapults her into the premiere league. Ian McNeil’s has designed an apartment that revolves to reveal drawing-room, dining room, bedroom, study and hall and its movement is brilliantly choreographed to stage a playful lovers chase, children’s games and all the comings and goings.

The long first half is a bit of a challenge on the buttocks and the bladder, but it’s well worth suffering for what must be a definitive production of this classic which really is a classic.

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