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Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Flynn’

In the seven years between 1996 and 2003 we had six Martin McDonagh plays, then nothing for twelve years until this. Well, the McDonagh famine is over and his distinctive quirky black comedy voice is to be heard again at the Royal Court in what might be his best play to date, and the best new play at the Court for some time.

This is the first of his plays to be set in England rather than Ireland. It’s the early 60’s, capital punishment is being abolished and Britain’s hangmen take up new careers. Former hangman Harry, his wife April and daughter Shirley run a typical Northern boozer, whose regulars include Police Inspector Fry and a group of hardened drinkers who are in awe of Harry’s infamy. He decides to tell his story to a local cub reporter and the published article is unkind to his rival Pierrepoint, who pays him a visit later in the play. His ex assistant Syd, a mousy somewhat passive character, is intent on taking Harry down a peg or two and colludes with the mysterious and menacing Mooney, who may be connected to Harry’s last victim. How this plays out is the heart of the play, which I won’t spoil.

At the interval, I wasn’t sure what to make of it as there was so much to unravel, but the second half plays out brilliantly and unpredictably with horror and humour in equal measure in a style only McDonagh could write, with some of the most un-PC lines you’ll hear in a theatre today! The cast is outstanding. David Morrisssey is terrific as Harry, with a very commanding presence, and Reece Sheersmith is the perfect foil as the hapless Syd. Johnny Flynn captures the menace of Mooney in the best performance I’ve seen him give. The ever-present drinkers are superbly characterised by Ryan Hope, Graeme Hawley and especially Simon Rouse as partially deaf Arthur. When we eventually meet John Hodgkinson’s Pierrpoint, he’s every inch the No. 1 hangman, towering over Harry’s No. 2.

The first scene is two years earlier in prison and when the location changes, the transformation is quite a shock, and perhaps a bit over-engineered and unnecessarily expensive. There’s a third location, a cafe, which is cleverly created more modestly. There’s a real attention to period detail for the main pub set; Anna Fleschle’s design is impressive, as is Matthew Dunster’s direction.

I thought we might have lost McDonagh to films. He never completed the Aran Islands trilogy as he wasn’t happy with the third play and his only subsequent work was written specifically for New York and we haven’t seen it here, so this return is a real treat and the production and performances do full justice to a cracking play.

 

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Imagine if you hoovered up the contents of playwright Bruce Norris’ brain just after a brain-storming session on how to present the financial crisis as theatre, pointed your vacuum pipe at the stage floor and switched from suck to blow. Well, that’s what The Low Road seemed to me. A download.

This is my fourth Norris play and up to now I’ve either liked or loved them all. This seemed to me the perfect subject for him. His ‘big idea’ of an allegory, setting the play in the late 1700’s in the US, is inspired. The trouble is it gets totally out of control, swamps what he’s trying to say and ends up as an overlong, occasionally funny, often clever but ultimately dull mess.

It’s narrated by Bill Patterson as Scottish philosopher-economist of the period, Adam Smith. We start with the illegitimate son of Washington left in a basket on the doorstep of Mrs Trumpett’s brothel and end with his illegitimate grandson, the product of a rape, orphaned and left with his mother’s retarded brother ‘poor Tim’. In between we see young Jim grow up to be brilliant but morally bankrupt. He uses his genius to make a fortune for his benefactor which he then steals. There’s a brief flash forward to a Q&A at a present day economic conference where his descendent, a banker (obviously), is a panel member and proceedings are interrupted by protesters, we debate slavery (at length) and there’s an epilogue involving aliens!

With some judicious editing and a firmer directorial hand, this could have been another Enron – a biting, illuminating and entertaining satire on real events. Instead it’s a patchy, overlong jumble which leaves you frustrated and dissatisfied. There’s a big hard-working cast of 18 playing c.50 parts between them. Johnny Flynn as Jim has done nothing better. Elizabeth Berrington successfully morphs from brothel madam to contemporary conference host back to 18th century society hostess. Simon Paisley Day’s transformation from British army captain to ‘poor Tim’ to modern American banker is extraordinary. If only someone had taken control and turned the download into a play.

Dominic Cooke started at the Royal Court on a low with some absurdist revivals. It was uphill from there and it has been a truly great period for them. Sadly, with this and Narrative upstairs, he ends on a low – but with anarchy rather than absurdity.

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Director Tim Carroll has been responsible for some of the best things The Globe has done, notably Twelfth Night (about to be revived), Richard II and Romeo & Juliet. This too is a  ‘traditional practices’ all-male production and it has Mark Rylance, a great Shakespearian actor, in the lead. Sad to report then that in my view it’s a bit of a misfire.

On this occasion, Jenny Tiramani’s costumes are part of the problem. They are loud and cartoonish and make it difficult to take any male character seriously. The second problem is that Roger Lloyd-Pack is badly miscast as Buckingham; he has no presence and doesn’t project. On this occasion, engaging the Globe audience gets in the way of the drama, rather than drawing you in. The fatal flaw, though, is the decision to play Richard as some sort of cartoon baddie rather than a tyrant. You just couldn’t believe he could dispatch so many in his desperation for power.

There are some things to enjoy! Claire van Kampen’s music is lovely (thought the musicians participate in costumegate). Performance-wise, Samuel Barnett makes a great queen and Johnny Flynn and James Garnon are very good as Lady Anne and the Duchess of York respectively. The young actors playing the princes, despite their bright pink satin costumes, spoke the verse beautifully and clearly. In fact, Lloyd-Pack notwithstanding, the standard of verse speaking was excellent, though placing too much at centre stage went against audience engagement and resulted in even poorer sight lines than we’re used to at The Globe (those two bloody pillars!).

The show is still in preview, so there is hope they might make a partial recovery, but it’s probably too late to make enough changes to rescue this misguided outing of a great play.

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The Royal Court really is on a roll. In less than two years, we’ve had great new plays like Jerusalem, Enron, Posh, Clybourne Park, Sucker Punch and Tribes – and now Richard Bean’s terrific new play The Heretic. Its evenings like this that remind me why go to the theatre; I’d sit through five Greenland’s for one play as good as this!

I’ve long been a fan of Bean, but he’s excelled himself here. Unlike the NT’s Greenland, this isn’t a play about climate change, but it uses it as a back-drop to develop its main themes of science v activism whilst weaving in the stories of the complex relationships of its four main protagonists. It’s rich in detailed story-telling, well developed characters, sparklingly sharp & funny dialogue and boy does it make you think. It twists and turns continually – sometimes you see them coming and grin in expectation, but sometimes you don’t and smirk at the surprise. He sets you up for an obvious outcome, only to confound you by doing the opposite. It’s clearly well researched; he even shows a HR Manager arranging the chairs for a disciplinary meeting exactly as HR managers do!

As someone who was heavily involved in a major employment law case which resulted in the interpretation of ‘religious or similar philosophical beliefs’ to include views on climate change, I’d already begun to buy Bean’s proposition that climate change has become a religion and in doing so the debate has ceased to be objective. He puts this point centre stage and debates it more eloquently and entertainingly than you would ever think possible – whilst, unlike Greenland, remaining objective and not patronising or preaching to his audience.

Peter McKintosh has created two excellent realistic sets and Jeremy Herrin’s direction is impeccable. The performances are terrific. The wonderful Juliet Stevenson clearly relishes her meaty role. James Fleet has never been better than here as her boss. Johnny Flynn and Lydia Wilson are both terrific in the complex roles of Ben and Phoebe, and there are fine cameos from Adrian Hood and Leah Whitaker.

The Royal Court is now fully established as the place where you go for intelligent, thought-provoking, topical, entertaining plays and this one is an absolute unmissable treat!

 

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