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Posts Tagged ‘James Cotterill’

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.

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This is a new version of a 10-year-old Richard (one-man-two-guvnors) Bean play first set in Newcastle, now relocated to Kingston and jam-packed with local references (the detail of many was lost on me, someone who lives a whole nine miles away, though you do get the gist). It’s a black comedy about a drug dealing family.

Gavin & Catherine Robinson are children of the 60’s who have since been Kingston main dealers. Son Robert is a few grams short of a wrap but big enough and thick enough to be their enforcer. Other son Sean is in the process of taking over the business and taking it down a much darker street occupied by Russians and the like. Daughter Cora seems to be the white black sheep, more keen on her studies than boys, booze & drugs, much to her mother’s disdain. As the play starts, Robert’s junkie wife has died.

Bean really knows how to write cracking comic lines and it’s packed full of them. The populist local references are clever but come a touch close to overuse and in danger of being too contrived. The dark aspects of their trade – addiction, violence and death – didn’t sit entirely comfortably inside the comedy for me, but I suppose that’s the point of a black comedy. They’re loveable rogues who kill people!

Keith Allen & Denise Welch are very good as the parents, but the real acting honours belong to Matthew Wilson, whose Robert is a superb characterisation, and Harry Melling, who walks a fine line brilliantly between heartless bully and mummy’s boy. Kate Lamb has a real transition to make as Cora and pulls it off well. Richard Wilson’s staging loses pace occasionally, but is otherwise excellent. James Cotterill’s design captures the world of criminal middle class snobs really well and fits the difficult Rose stage better than any other in my experience.

This isn’t vintage Bean, but its a lot of fun and well worth the (9 mile!) trip.

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