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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Fensom’

It’s ten years since American playwright Katori Hall wowed London with the world premiere of her debut play The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King. All we’ve had since then is her excellent book for the musical Tina, but now she’s back with the same director, James Dacre, at his Northampton base, for the UK premier of a play about visions of the Virgin Mary in Rwanda, which fully justified a day-trip from London, even for a non-believer like me.

It revolves around a convent school in Kibeho in 1981 where one girl has a vision. She is disbelieved and persecuted by the Deputy Head Sister Evangelique and most of her fellow pupils. The Head, Father Tuyishime, is more inclined to believe her, then two more girls make the same claim. Bishop Gahamanyi turns up smelling a commercial proposition. The Vatican send Father Flavia to obtain evidence for possible confirmation. Local people start to buy in and nickname the girls The Trinity, with local boy Emmanuel claiming visitations too.

The ghost of Belgian colonialism is ever present in this Roman Catholic community, and there is an undercurrent of hate between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The visions continue as Father Flavia continues to gather evidence and people’s positions change and evolve until a special visitation is announced by the girls and the local community comes in numbers to hear prophesies of doom, the conflict and genocide that actually followed. Father Flavia is convinced, the Bishop sees his hope of a pilgrimage site disappear and Father Tuyishime refuses to believe in fear the prophesies might be true.

The story is brilliantly told by a terrific cast of twelve, supplemented by a community ensemble of another eleven. Jonathan Fensom’s design, with video projections by Duncan McLean, beautifully lit by Charles Balfour, is truly evocative. Orlando Gough had added both incidental music and gorgeous acapella songs, with Claire Windsor’s soundscape, both adding so much to the atmosphere. Dacre’s staging is nothing short of masterly.

Quality oozes from every department in this outstanding production which will hopefully have a life beyond this three week run. So glad I went.

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For Mark Rylance’s return to Shakespeare’s Globe, as Iago, he’s paired with American actor Andre Holland as Othello, in a pared-down production by his wife, and the Globe’s former Director of Music, Claire van Kampen, and it’s good to report its success.

With just twelve actors, running at a little over 2.5 hours, there are cuts in both lines and roles, some doubling up and two actresses play male roles, but none of these changes seem to damage Shakespeare’s tragedy. If anything, by concentrating on the six main characters the story has more focus. Holland is a fine Othello, with his accent further emphasising the character’s difference. Rylance shows us a multi-faceted Iago, with touches of flippancy and humour, often speaking and moving around quickly, with makes him seem even more villainous. Emilia, too, gains in significance. It has more pace, without damaging the intimate scenes. Jonathan Fensom’s design concentrates on the costumes, which are excellent, so the performances can breathe in a largely unadorned space.

Holland and Rylance make a fine pairing, but there are other great performances too. Sheila Atim’s superb Emilia is particularly good in the final scene where she realises the role her husband has played in her mistresses demise, and she closes the show singing beautifully. Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona handles her emotional roller-coaster well, and has great chemistry with her husband. Aaron Pierre is a passionate Cassio, a professional stage debut no less. The characterisation of Roderigo is unusual, highly strung and effete, but it made him more interesting, and Steffan Donnelly played him very well.

After the audience ruined my evening at The Two Noble Kinsmen recently, I said that this might be my last visit to Shakespeare’s Globe. The theatre gods must have been listening, as last night’s audience was respectful and rapt, with moments where you couldn’t hear a pin drop, erupting in appreciation at the end. This was indeed a fine night at the Globe.

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You wouldn’t want to be a young boy growing up in 18th Century Italy with a talent for singing. The odds of castration to conserve your voice would be high, and the subsequent odds of a successful career very low. Farinelli (real name Carlo Broschi) was unlucky in that he got the knife (pork butchers, apparently!) but lucky in that he got the singing career. He travelled throughout Italy, then to Munich and Vienna and on to London aged 29, though he wasn’t a favourite of Handel, adopted Londoner and probably the most famous composer of the time.

Three years into his London career, he get’s the call from Spain’s Queen Isabella to come sing for King Philippe V to cure his depression. He pops in on Louis XV in Paris en route (as one does) and on to Madrid. Philippe’s mental health condition was what we now call bi-polar. He was close to being deposed when Farinelli arrived as a singing cure, and he did indeed lift his spirits. In the play, the king is fond of talking to goldfish and plants and at one point moves their home to the middle of the forest where he grows things and his wife cooks things, and Farinelli sings, often in the middle of the night to accommodate Philippe’s nocturnal habits. He stayed, singing exclusively for the royals for more than twenty years; it’s a bit of a puzzle as to why he gave up his career for this.

Claire van Kampen’s play has a lightness of touch and if often very funny. Philippe is at the lovable eccentric end of the madness scale and we are laughing with him more than at him. I can think of no-one more suited to the role than Mark Rylance, an eccentric himself, who seems as if he’s making it up as he goes along, such is the naturalism of his magnetic performance. Farinelli is acted by Sam Crane with counter-tenor Iestyn Davies never far behind in matching costumes with heavenly singing. It’s an unusual evening, but it captured my imagination and wrapped me in its warmth.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the perfect venue. Jonathan Fensom’s design and costumes are sumptuous. Robert Howarth’s period quartet played beautifully from the gallery and onstage. The candlelight is perfect. A lovely evening.

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American playwright Gina Gionfriddo provided one of the best new plays of 2010/11 with Becky Shaw, running over Christmas at the Almeida. This one doesn’t quite live up to that, but its good enough to make the schlep to Swiss Cottage at the start of a tube strike worthwhile.

Feminist writer Catherine returns New England from NYC to care for her mother and turns the lives of her ex Don and his wife Gwen upside down. Academic Don lacks ambition and drive and has descended into a quiet life of non-teaching role, beer and porn. Unfulfilled housewife Gwen looks after their two boys, born ten years apart, and is desperate to ensure her 13-year-old mummies boy fulfils his ambition. Don has a better relationship with the lively 3-year-old.

Catherine starts a feminist summer class at her mum’s home for just Gwen and her 21-year-old ex-babysitter Avery (herself in a troubled relationship) and re-kindles the flame with Don, which Gwen soon realises and reacts to rather mildly. For me, this is where it all gets a bit implausible as an elegant solution that suits everyone is developed.

Like the earlier play, it’s too slow to get going and becomes somewhat uneven. It’s difficult to like Catherine, Don or Gwen, so your sympathies are with mom Alice and young Avery, who also get all the best lines. The feminist debate is often engaging but sometimes rather dry. At its best, it sparkles, but it doesn’t sparkle enough.

It’s nicely set by designer Jonathan Fensom and the performances are all good, but I couldn’t help thinking it could have been a lot better if she’d focused more on the characterisation and less on the debate.

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I have a suspicion we benefitted from waiting until half-way through the run of this. There is extraordinary chemistry between the actors which can only have come from having performed it around 60 times; they are completely believable in their characters and their relationships.

Jonathan Lewis’ play is set in a military hospital in 1984. We’ve yet to send ‘our boys’ to The Gulf, but we have sent them to The Falklands and ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland are ongoing. The six patients have a range of injuries and illnesses, most but not all obtained in combat. The banter at first hides the true pain and emotional turmoil. The introduction of a ‘potential officer’ adds a frisson. In the second half it gets darker as one dies, three are discharged and one returns.

It’s a fine set of performances by six young actors with not a lot of stage experience between them. I was particularly impressed by Lewis Reeves who has to make the biggest transformation, Cian Barry whose role is an emotional roller-coaster and Matthew Lewis who is the butt of many of the jokes. The spin on the Russian roulette sequence from The Deer Hunter didn’t seem like acting at all. David Grindley, who did such a good job with Journey’s End, seems to have an affinity with military subject matter and his staging, on Jonathan Fensom’s hyper-realistic set, is very good indeed.

The black humour (and it is very funny) lulls you into a false sense of security so when it turns you’re really feeling for ‘our boys’. The length of time they seem to spend in hospital seem a bit implausible, but maybe that’s what it was like 28 years ago. It’s better play than I remember the original Donmar production in 1993 being and though I was somewhat sceptical that a West End revival was wise, I will eat my words, It’s good to have stuff like this bringing in Harry Potter and Dr Who fans (though they were a bit irritating in the talking and sweet rustling department at times on Friday evening!).

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It’s over twenty years since I saw the original production of this play. It had a very original structure – a biographical monologue interrupted by ‘illustrations’ by characters described in the monologue (some time later, Improbable Theatre did the same with real people in Lifegame) – and a performance from Peter O’Toole which added a frisson because you couldn’t decide if he was playing drunk or actually was drunk!

Jeffrey Bernard was a journalist, gambler, raconteur and professional drunk. He was notorious to those that came across him, but after the play was staged became what we would call today a ‘celebrity’. In the play he tells his own story whilst locked into Soho’s Coach & Horses overnight by mistake. He drinks as he does and some of those he mentions and some of the stories he tells are illustrated by a host of characters, played by four actors, who come on stage briefly to introduce the character or play out the story.

It was fascinating to return to it after 20 years with a different actor, Robert Powell,  playing Bernard. It’s slightly less shocking, but still very funny and the structure remains clever, fresh and perfect for the story it tells. Powell is clearly enjoying playing this role and does so very well, with almost continual eye contact with the audience and a knowing smile that make it feel like you’re in the pub with him. That’s helped, of course, by a realistic pub set from Jonathan Fensom and in our case by front stalls seats, again within wig spotting distance! Director David Grindley’s staging serves Keith Waterhouse’s play well and is pretty faithful to Ned Sherrin’s original production – no point in messing with something that worked.

I don’t know if this Bath originated touring production is intended for the West End but I think the timing is good and it could well succeed again; my two companions were new to it and enjoyed it as much as I did.

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After an awful lot of revivals, at last here’s the first good new play of the year – and an original, often surprising & often funny one it is too.

The first half’s two scene set up is a bit long, but the second half’s five scenes snap and crackle. We’re with a somewhat dysfunctional family soon after husband / dad’s demise. His widow has MS and a toy boy (who we never see) and her daughter a complex but close relationship with someone her dad took in after his mother died. After a whirlwind romance, she marries the opposite of her ‘friend’ (a penchant for younger men like her mum), then springs a blind date on the ‘friend’. At this point we meet the Becky of the title and begin a whirlwind of unexpected events which is where the play really takes off.

I suspect this production benefits from Director Peter DubBois’ experience with its original US production(s), because its slick but very believable. Jonathan Fensom’s set, with revolve borrowed from the NT (good to se Nicholas Hytner’s sharing strategy in action) enables the action to move between seven locations without slowing it down. The play flows well and there’s a roundedness about it that is very satisfying. As one might expect from a playwright (Gina Gionfriddo) who also writes about rock music, the snatches of music between scenes are well-chosen.

American import David Wilson Barnes is excellent as Max (and a real double for Kevin Spacey), but he does have the best lines, and I loved Daisy Haggard’s hapless Becky. We don’t see much of Haydn Gwynne except in the first and last scenes, but she’s very good as the acid-tongued mum. Anna Madeley and Vincent Montuel do well with much drier parts.

It’s not in the Jerusalem and Clybourne Park league, but its a very good play and a return to form for the Almeida. I smell a West End transfer…..

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