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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Harvey’

This 1995 play by Jonathan Harvey somehow passed me by when it was first staged at the Donmar, despite the fact he’d been on my radar since the first outing of Beautiful Thing, his most enduring play, a couple of years earlier, so this revival at Above the Stag (which isn’t any more) was a good opportunity to catch up with it.

Liverpudlian brothers Shaun and Marti, ten years apart, had until recently been estranged for seven years, since Shaun, the younger of the two, was sixteen in fact. Until then they had been very close, Marti a surrogate dad. We eventually learn the reason for the estrangement. They both now live in London and the play takes place in the bedsitter Shaun shares with his girlfriend Juliet, currently away at her dad’s funeral in Barbados. Shaun has a mobile hairdressing business and Marti sells stretch covers, reverse stereotypes given Marti is gay. The other characters are English teacher George (girl) downstairs, on the rebound from ex Malcolm, who clearly fancies Shaun, mad-as-a-hatter Clarine / Zoe / Sharon upstairs and Dean / Fifi, Marti’s trans friend whose love is also unrequited.

All of these relationships play out in the one room, superbly designed by David Sheilds, in an intimate traverse staging by Steven Dexter which is at times a touch melodramatic but enthralling nonetheless. Harvey’s characters sometimes veer towards caricatures, but they are well drawn and here very well performed by Tom Whittaker and Hal Geller as the younger and older brothers, Phoebe Vigor and Amy Dunn, upstairs and downstairs respectively, and Myles Devonte as Dean.

This was my first visit to Above the Stag’s plush new under-the-railway space, much better than their two previous homes.

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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Another show I had no plans to see until I saw Jumpers for Goalposts, a lovely new play which feels much like it, which prompted me to catch this 20th anniversary revival of Jonathan Harvey’s play before it closed. I’d seen the premiere of this heartwarming, funny and moving play at the Bush and the 2006 outing at the Sound Theatre and I enjoyed this one just as much.

Nikolai Foster’s new production keeps the setting in early 90’s Thamesmead. Single mum and barmaid Sandra is devoted to her teenage son Jamie. Her latest man is socially clumsy but charming artist Tony. Spiky teenage neighbour Leah is obsessed with sex and Mama Cass and has been expelled from school. Other teenage neighbour Ste lives with his dad and brothers; his reward for looking after them is to get beaten senseless. He takes refuge at Sandra’s where his friendship with, and comfort from, Jamie develops into first love.

It’s a timeless story which doesn’t feel the slightest bit dated. You can’t help but love all of the onstage characters, whatever their irritations and quirks; each struggling to make their way in the world or find themselves. The tough life of a singe parent, a dispossessed child, parental and sibling abuse and most importantly coming to terms with your sexuality are all explored sensitively in what is one of the great life affirming feel-good shows. The dialogue crackles and it holds you in its grip from the off.

The Beautiful Thing alumni is impressive. Sophie Stanton played Sandra in both 1993 and 2006. At the Bush, we had Philip Glenister and Jonny Lee Miller no less. In 2006, Leo Bill and Andrew Garfield picked up the baton. Here we have one of Coronation Street’s finest, Suranne Jones, a terrific performance which makes Sandra a bit more feisty and a bit more loving. Oliver Farnsworth’s excellent Tony seems to be a touch cooler, a hippy out of time and in the wrong place. Zaraah Abrahams’ Leah hides her loyalty and warmth underneath bucket-loads of attitude. Above all though, a totally believable journey for Jamie and Ste played with great delicacy and sensitivity by Jake Davies (also great in London Wall at the Finborough recently)  & Danny-Boy Hatchard (an astonishing professional debut).

I’m so glad I caught the last night of this finely cast and beautifully staged revival. Happy Anniversary – see you at the next one no doubt.

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Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink at the Bush Theatre was one of my best new plays of 2011 and I will be surprised if this doesn’t end up as one of the best of 2013. He seems to have cornered the market in feel-good, charming, heart-warming, uplifting plays. It’s appropriate that it’s co-produced by Hull Truck as it’s very much in the spirit of their 1980’s work (and indeed in the spirit of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, about to get a West End revival).

We’re back in Hull, in a changing room after each of six football matches. It’s a Sunday 5-a-side league comprising just four gay teams and our team, Barely Athletic, are up against The Lesbian Rovers, Man City and Tranny United! Coach / player Viv has been thrown out by the lesbians and is determined to win something, anything; deputy coach / player Danny is using this experience as part of his coaching studies and Viv’s bereaved brother-in-law Joe is the token straight. Busker Beardy can’t decide what to play at his Hull Pride audition and new boy, library assistant Luke, has been recruited by Danny for more than footballing interest.

It’s a bit of a slow start, but once you get to know the characters its captivating. Danny & Luke’s relationship develops, Joe’s grief is exposed, Viv’s competitiveness becomes obsessive and Beardy’s promiscuousness risks team success. Even though you’re only with these people for 90 minutes, you feel like you’ve known them for a whole lot longer; great characterisation. Add to this some very funny lines and deeply human stories to tell, and they play has you under its spell. Watford Palace is a big theatre for such an intimate piece, but Lucy Osborne’s design draws you into the changing room to compensate.

All five actors are excellent. Vivienne Gibbs conveys Viv’s drive, energy and competitiveness, you really feel for Matt Sutton’s Joe and Andy Rush (also superb in The Kitchen Sink) makes Geoff hapless but completely loveable. Jamie Samuel invests real emotional power in Danny and Philip Duguid-McQuillan is simply extraordinary as naive, lonely, socially inept 19-year-old virgin Luke. There is a moment when he reads from his diary when I was laughing out loud and crying at the same time.

Don’t wait until the promised autumn tour – get to Watford to see it in its final week and you’ll probably want to see it again in the autumn. Another triumph for the indispensable Paines Plough.

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Another show, another exclamation mark….and here I am outing myself as a Coronation Street fan. Well, if I wasn’t, there’d be no point in going to see this – it’s one long in-joke (shared by between 15 and 20 million people).

Jonathan Harvey has distilled the essence of the show over 50 years into two hours of scenes involving 54 characters played out by six actors and narrated by a Corrie legend in person – Roy Barraclough. The love lives of Ken, Deirdre and Gail provide running jokes, one complicated story line is played out as a ballet and another as a silent movie and the set provides the rooftops, Rovers Return bar, generic door, generic staircase and Hilda’s muriel and flying ducks!

Each actor plays between six and twelve characters with seven female characters played by men. The number of quick changes is extraordinary. The most successful were Jo Mousley as Ena, Hilda, Deirdre, Karen & Shelley; Peter Temple as Audrey, Bet, Blanche, Jason & Roy and Lucy Thackeray as Annie, Elsie, Hayley, Martha, Raquel & Vera. I appreciate how difficult it must be to cover 50 years, but there were some notable omissions, including Reg & Maureen, Mavis & Derek, Len, Curley, Alf, Betty, Liz, Albert and all the Battersby’s and Webster’s!

In style, it reminded me of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) which has been touring for more than 20 years since it first appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. There was a tackiness about the production values that was both necessary, given the number of settings and characters, and somehow appropriate. It was quite rightly played for laughs, though a few scenes didn’t quite work. A lot of the time though it was laugh out loud funny and it was clear how well the audience knew the characters.

Clearly one for fans only, but if you are a fan it’s an affectionate and funny homage that’s difficult to resist.

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I remember the promise shown by Jonathan Harvey’s first major play, Beautiful Thing, 17 years ago at the Bush and have always wondered why he never fulfilled it (though he has written a lot of episodes of Coronation Street!). There have been 7 or 8 OK works, but it has taken until now to truly fulfill that promise in the theatre.

SPOILER ALERT – This is the story of a senior policeman who lives a lie until he is outed by his dead son’s friend, now a famous TV personality. Not only has he denied his own sexuality, but also his son’s death from AIDS. Harvey’s real achievement though is to use this story to present us with a surprisingly lucid 50-year gay social history from Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of light to the return of unsafe sex today with Whitehouse, Margaret Thatcher and Norman Fowler as characters!

It takes a while to get into the non-linear structure, but when you do it becomes a compelling ride. The staging is simple but the 8 actors who play all the roles are superbly versatile (Paula Wilcox makes a convincing Thatcher and Philip Voss an appropriately everagesque Mary Whitehouse!).

It reminded me of Angels in America, but less than half the length with as much depth. There’s a roundedness to it which means that when it ends you feel a great sense of satisfaction with both the storytelling and the presentation of the issues.

A real return to form for Harvey and a very rewarding evening of theatre, but why are there empty seats on a Friday night for work of this quality?

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