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Posts Tagged ‘John Simm’

I gave up on Pinter some time ago. I put him with my other problem playwrights, Shaw (verbose) and Chekov (watching paint dry). Then this company lured me back to see The Hothouse because of the cast and creative team and I liked it. Now they’ve lured me back to this 50th anniversary production for the same reasons. What dawned on me last night was that it was the overly reverential, earnest, dull, humourless productions that had put me off. I enjoyed this one too. I think I’m beginning to enjoy the ambiguity.

Widowed Max, his two youngest sons Lenny and Joey, and brother Sam live together in a big house. Max was a butcher, Sam now a chauffer, Joey a demolition man and sometime boxer and Lenny some sort of pimp. They are nasty to one another, especially Max to the rest. Older brother Teddy returns home from the US. He’s a philosophy professor, married with two boys. His wife Ruth, who his family never knew about let alone met, accompanies him. They all continue to be nasty to one another, deeply misogynistic and thoroughly unpleasant. It’s the subtext what counts, and that’s where the ambiguity come in.

Soutra Gilmour’s set is derivative of Francis Bacon with a red metal frame and floor, a few items of furniture and a door and stairs which lead upstairs and downstairs. There’s a brooding soundtrack and dramatic lighting. Jamie Lloyd’s production is both menacing and humorous, and strikingly different to vanilla Pinter productions.

Ron Cook is outstanding as Max, a seemingly loveless monster dad, with hints of a paedophile past. Keith Allen camps up Sam, in keeping with the suggestion that he’s gay (at a time when it was still illegal). John Macmillan is brilliantly dumb as Joey. Gary Kemp plays Teddy as a gentle soul who takes the knocks from the family, but is a possessive, even dominant, husband. I was disappointed by the indisposition of John Simm but hugely impressed by his understudy John Hastings as Lenny. Gemma Chan’s TV role as an android in Humans has prepared her well for the ice cool Ruth; another impressive performance.

There were fascinating and insightful questions and comments from audience members at the post-show Q&A which added much value to the evening. After two rewarding Pinter’s, I think Jamie Lloyd may well have changed my mind about him.

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This ‘version’ of Turgenev’s 1869 play is set over three days in mid-19th century Russia on the estate of Arkady and his wife Natalya and young son Kolya. Arkady’s mother Anna, her companion Lizaveta and Natalya’s ward Vera also live with them, but its a small family unit for the place and time. Turgenev was more of a novelist than a playwright (the only other piece of his I’ve known staged in modern times was actually adapted from a novel) and somehow it shows here; it felt at times like a reading.

The recent arrival of assistant tutor Belyaev seems to have worked wonders on Kolya, but caused havoc amongst the ladies as Vera, Natalya and maid Katya have all fallen for him. This puts a couple of noses out of joint – family friend Rakitin, who has carried a torch for Natalya for some time, and manservant Matvey, who loves Katya. Add in two sub-plots of neighbour Bolshintsov seeking to wed Vera and the doctor, Shpigelsky, proposing to Lizaveta (one of the highlights of the play) and you have a lot of love and relationships to unfold in three stage days (a month in Turgenev’s original), under two hours playing time, and it turns into an eighteenth century soap opera.

This is all played out in front of a giant painting (design Mark Thompson), the canvas of which appears to continue to cover the stage, ending in rough edging at the front. The wings are exposed and the actors often sit at the back and sides when not performing. There is some furniture, but it feels like a oversized space much of the time, perhaps intentionally, representing the vast estate.

The evening’s chief pleasure is a uniformly excellent cast, though they appear to have been directed to play in a less naturalistic, somewhat old-fashioned way. Amanda Drew is exceptional as Natalya, able to instantly convey passion and emotion. John Simm impresses in the role of Rakitin, unlike any other I’ve seen him in. Mark Gatiss provides much of the comedy as Shpigelsky, particularly in scenes with the superb Debra Gillett as his love interest. Though the role is a bit underwritten, John Light is great as Arkady and Royce Pierreson gives a fine performance in the pivotal role of Belyaev.

When a writer directs his own work, I worry where the creative tension will come from. Patrick Marber has directed three of his own plays here at the NT (though not The Red Lion, currently running next door https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/the-red-lion) but not his other two adaptations, both at the Donmar. I found the seated actors a bit passe, pointless and distracting and the I found the playing style a bit quirky, so I did leave wondering what another director would have made of the material, which was indeed well written. A more conventional period staging may have served it better.

It was a pleasant enough evening, and I enjoyed it more than The Red Lion, but it didn’t wow me and I left feeling that it was a bit unfair giving over two of the three NT stages at the same time to the same playwright for plays which may not be entirely worthy of them.

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With a cast including favourites Simon Russell Beale, John Simm, John Heffernan, Harry Melling and Clive Rowe, it didn’t take much to break my self-imposed Pinter ban, and indeed it lived up to expectations – it was the brilliant acting that made the evening worthwhile.

It seemed a very different play to the one I saw at the NT in 2007 – Jamie Lloyd’s production is 30 minutes shorter, more hysterical than chilling and could easily be retitled ‘When did you last see the patient?’ and billed as farce. Its point about state repression and torture is still made, still obtusely, though somewhat hidden by more laughs. I still think it’s pumped up and over-rated as a play.

Simon Russell Beale continues to show us his range with a masterclass in manic comedy as Roote. When he’s got the specs on, he’s a dead ringer for Ronnie Barker and yet again he acts with those big white eyes. Like Elling, John Simm’s channelling his inner nerd again as Gibbs and it’s delicious. John Heffernan’s very physical performance as Lush is simply superb. Harry Melling’s Lamb’s electrocution is masterly. Indira Varma is a delight as the predatory Miss Cutts.

Well worth the trip for such fine acting. Pity about the play.

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