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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Kent’

The first time I saw Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, on the same Olivier stage almost 30 years ago, it was so slow and turgid we decided an earlier dinner would be preferable to the second half. We’d finished our meal before the rest of the audience left the theatre, rather pleased with ourselves. I felt a bit like that at the first interval of this version by David Hare ‘after Henrik Ibsen’, but there were enough moments in Jonathan Kent’s production to send me back and see it through. It’s overlong and uneven, but there is much to enjoy.

Peter is Scottish, from Dunoon, and that’s where the story starts when he returns from a war, though not to a hero’s welcome. His girlfriend is about to get married to someone else and just about everyone, including his mother, sees him for the pathological liar and fantasist he is. It’s a while before he starts his journey (too long), first to meet the mountain king in the land of the trolls, who have selfish ways and intentions. From here, we find him at his golf course in Florida (yes!) a businessman with fingers in lots of pies, but a Frenchman, Icelander & Russian woman wipe him out. On to North Africa and the Middle East to make mischief and money before returning home to discover his legacy and destiny.

It’s a good time to revive it, in a world full of self-obsession, ego and greed, and Hare’s updating often works well. Amongst the highlights are the mountain king scene, Florida, at sea and the final scene, but it’s crying out for some editing to provide more focus and improve its pacing. Peter is a hugely challenging part, but James McArdle rises to it with a towering performance, often commanding the stage alone. Richard Hudson’s design sometime fills the stage thrillingly (the scene at sea) but other scenes seem lost on this vast stage. There’s great use of music, with particularly fine vocals from Tamsin Carroll.

It’s heading to the Edinburgh Festival (hence the Scottish setting?) where I suspect the somewhat conservative ladies from Morningside will go beyond their customary tut-tutting and vote with their feet, as quite a few did in an already sparse audience on Wednesday. I’m glad I didn’t, though, but I do wish they’d had the nerve to trim it to improve it; it’s not too difficult to see where that would be possible. In this form, only a partial success.

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Brunhilde Pomsel was an ordinary German woman, spending most of her life working in an office. What made her extraordinary is that during the Second World War she worked for Goebbels in his propaganda ministry. She was interviewed in her home in Munich for a documentary of the same title shortly before her death, aged 105. From this, Christopher Hampton has created a one-woman play, with Maggie Smith as Pomsel speaking directly to the audience as if we are the interviewer. It’s a captivating story and a virtuoso performance.

Pomsel sits in her room at the old peoples home as she tells us about her life from early memories of the First World War onwards. She’s the eldest of five (the other four boys), her father away in the war during much of her early childhood. She leaves school at sixteen, her father quashing her ambitions, becoming a typist, very proud of her shorthand skills. In her early twenties all around her were joining the Nazi’s, including her boyfriend Heinz. She remained somewhat detached from this, though she sometimes attended rallies, and she recalled voting for them in 1932.

She speaks very matter of factly about her life during the Second World War, perhaps because she was unaware of much of what was happening outside her office, maybe because she had chosen to blank it out, but mostly because she didn’t see what it had to do with her. To the end, she didn’t feel she, or other ordinary Germans, had anything to apologise for. Even after five years imprisoned by the Russians in a former concentration camp, knowing by now what had gone on there, she had little guilt or remorse.

There’s an objectivity to the piece which leads you to question but not judge. You can’t help wondering what you would do in similar circumstances. This personal first-hand testimony is unique and fascinating. Maggie Smith delivers the monologue without emotion, even when talking about personal tragedies. Her speech is completely natural, with hesitation, pauses and imperfections. Her audience contact is extraordinary, to the point where you often feel she is talking directly to you and no-one else. The stage moves imperceptibly towards you as the play progresses, drawing you in physically too. The rapt silence of the audience is testimony to their engagement with the story.

It was a privilege hearing this fascinating testimony conveyed by one of our greatest actresses still at the height of her powers, at 84.

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This is the fifth Florian Zeller play produced in London in just over three years, with a sixth scheduled before four years are up – no other playwright has achieved that, I suspect, though they were written over eight years. This French playwright has really caught the eye of both producers and audiences.

The previous four were in two stylistic pairs – The Father & The Mother and The Truth & The Lie – with this one closest to the former (as it appears will the sixth one, as it’s called The Son). They’ve all been translated by Christopher Hampton and the common feature is their inventive structure – he likes to mess with your head – and length (under ninety minutes), oh, and two word titles (with the exception of this one!). I loved the first three, but I think I might already be tiring of the somewhat smug cleverness, as I eventually did with Stoppard.

This one features an elderly couple, wonderfully played by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, and their two daughters. We’re in their country home outside Paris, but just about everything else is left for you to work out. At various points, either or both parents might be dead, ghosts or in other characters’ imagination. The themes are love, grief, death, dependency, dementia (again), secrets, legacy and the obligations of children to their parents. I was intrigued and attentive, but it was too obtuse and left me unsatisfied.

Jonathan Kent’s production is very gentle, poetic and beautiful, with a lovely design by Anthony Ward. It’s superbly performed, with extraordinary chemistry between Pryce and Atkins, and fine support from Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley and nice cameos from Lucy Cohu and James Hillier. It has a very melancholic feel and works well at an emotional level, but on this occasion that wasn’t enough for me, I’m afraid.

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This late 50’s Tennessee Williams play started out as a one-act, two-character piece, until he bolted on another play called Pink Bedroom to form the second act. In this production, you can see the join. The part of the faded movie star, written for Tallulah Bankhead, has always attracted star actresses. I saw Lauren Bacall play it 32 years ago in the West End and Kim Cattrall played her in the last London outing at the Old Vic. Here we have American stage and film actress Marcia Gay Harden, with another American Brian J Smith hot-footing it from his superb turn in The Glass Menagerie in the West End. I assumed, with only a three-week Chichester run, it was West End or Broadway bound.

Chance Wayne is a gigolo and his latest customer is Hollywood’s Alexandra Del Lago, travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis (was TW taking the piss?!). Their booze and drug fuelled journey West stops off in his Mississippi home town of St. Cloud so that he can see the love of his life, Heavenly(!). Unbeknown to him, he gave her an STD when he was last back and this resulted in a life-changing medical condition. Oh, and his mother has died and been given an undignified burial by charitable contributions. He’s not good at leaving contact details. Heavenly’s dad is standing for political office on a somewhat disingenuous ticket disguising his racism and they get caught up in the campaign and the revenge plotted by Heavenly’s brother Tom.

It’s not one of TW’s best and the two acts really are a contrast. It does come alive in the second, but it’s sometimes farfetched and overly melodramatic in writing and too reverential and melodramatic in Jonathan Kent’s production. The entire first act takes place in a hotel bedroom, and its asking a lot of the Chichester main stage to create such an intimate setting. The hotel bar scene which takes up much of the second act opens it up, but also shows up the differences. Anthony Ward’s design is excellent, as are the performances, if a bit OTT in the TW way, with Richard Cordery as Boss Finley and Graham Butler as Tom Finlay deserving mention alongside the star pairing.

I’ve never been in such a small audience at Chichester – less than a quarter full, I’d say – which is a puzzle, and a shame for our American guests, who deserve better. I doubt we’ll see it in London, but maybe Broadway? I’ve had a lot of better TW experiences, but I don’t regret the trip.

 

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Musical theatre lovers are very precious about this show. Many consider it the greatest Broadway has seen, but I wouldn’t agree with that (Guys & Dolls and West Side Story, to name but two, would be ahead of it in my list). The only other time I saw it, on Broadway with Bernadette Peters as Mamma Rose 10 years ago, right in the middle of the show a huge man stood up, said ‘well, she ain’t no Ethel Merman’ and stomped out of the theatre. It’s forever associated with Merman and Angela Lansbury, who was London’s first Mamma Rose, and any actress attempting it is very brave indeed.

It’s the archetypal showbiz show and Rose is the archetypal stage mom, pushing her daughters forward relentlessly, regardless of their own wishes. She keeps their kids act way beyond its sell-by date, recycling it with variations on a theme. She loses her youngest and favourite June, who escapes and elopes, only to turn her attention to the elder Louise who she had hitherto virtually ignored. The declining standards of the act and the demise of vaudeville happen simultaneously and they find themselves in burlesque, providing cover for the racier stuff. In her final act of self obsessed determination, she puts Louise on stage as a stripper, renamed Gypsy Rose Lee, the real life person on whose memoirs it’s based.

It’s got a very good score by Jules Styne, with a high quota of standards, a book by Arthur Laurents and terrific lyrics by Stephen Sondheim no less. A bit of a dream team, I’d say. Chichester has matched it with their own creative dream team – director Jonathan Kent (responsible for their stunning Sweeney Todd just three years ago), inventive choreographer Stephen Mear and Designer Anthony Ward (who co-incidentally designed my only other Gypsy – which was itself directed by Sam Mendes!). The band under Nicholas Skilbeck make a thrilling sound; I can still hear that wonderful brass.

Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand brought the house down as strippers who Gotta Get A Gimmick, Lara Pulver plays the transition from second string daughter Louise to star Gypsy Rose Lee superbly and Gemma Sutton is great as favourite daughter June growing up before your very eyes. I was surprised to see Kevin Whately cast as Herbie, but he pulled it off. What can you say about Imelda Staunton? Following a definitive Mrs Lovett with a brilliant down-on-her-luck Boston woman in Good People to this truly commanding performance. I knew she’d act it well, but the vocals were a revelation. She started with a great Some People, ended the first act with a stunning Everything’s Coming Up Roses and ended the show with a deeply emotional Rose’s Turn. She inhabits this single-minded woman, combining humour with an extraordinary range of emotions – whilst singing and dancing! You don’t see many performances that good in a lifetime of theatre-going; thrilling stuff.

London producers are now spoilt for choice – should they transfer Guys & Dolls or this or both? I’d put my money on this for sure – London has to see Dame Imelda’s finest hour.

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A new play who’s protagonist is a working class woman is quite rare these days, so this is indeed welcome. It’s an American play, but it could just as easily be set in any British city, and its a timeless story, but it seems particularly relevant today. It’s also got one of the best ensembles you’re likely to see on any stage.

Margaret is a down-at-heel middle-aged single mum with an adult ‘retarded’ daughter who needs 24-hour care. She makes do by working in a dollar store and giving her neighbour part of her measly wages to sit with Joyce, but she’s forever late and her boss is forced into firing her. South Boston is an Irish Catholic run-down neighbourhood and jobs are hard to come by these days, but her friend Jean has bumped into Margaret’s ex Mike, now a successful doctor, and persuades her to see if he can provide work.

Her reconnection with Mike takes the play into a look at class as Margaret sees Mike as burying his past and deserting his people, becoming what South Bostonians call ‘lace curtains’, which Mike defiantly denies. Neighbour, carer and landlady Dottie is demanding rent and threatening eviction and there’s still no job, so Jean goads Margaret into a spurious claim on Mike and a whole load of skeletons come out of a whole load of cupboards. This second-half scene where Margaret visits Mike and his wife Kate at home is masterly – in writing, staging and acting.

There’s an authenticity to the story, no doubt because playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is himself South Bostonian lace curtains and his characters are well drawn and the situations plausible. There’s no padding – it unfolds in six scenes in five locations in less than two hours – and a lot of sharp humour. It works as both a personal story, a rare view of class in America and the consequences of our present economic situation on people we rarely hear from. Jonathan Kent’s staging is faultless.

Imelda Staunton has an extraordinary range and a capacity to inhabit just about any character totally believably and she shines here as Margaret. Every line is made to count and her timing is impeccable. When she got a huge laugh out of the way she said ‘you gave her a vase’ I was in awe of her talent. This is no star vehicle though, with Lorraine Ashbourne (who we see too little of on stage) terrific as Jean and the wonderful June Watson superb as straight-talking Dottie. Lloyd Owen comes into his own in the pivotal second half scene where Margaret challenges him, and Angel Coulby handles wife Kate’s switches from charming to brittle really well. Matthew Barker completes the cast in a nicely drawn performance as boss Stevie with divided loyalties and a liking of bingo.

This is a thoroughly entertaining, intelligent play performed to perfection. If it doesn’t transfer, I’ll eat my programme. Talking of programmes, Hampstead’s have become some of London’s best, full of interesting and relevant background; too good to eat!

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This is a new chamber version of the Michel Legrand – Herbert Kretzmer / Alain Boubil / Claude-Michel Schonberg (the Les Mis team) – Jonathan Kent 2008 West End flop. I loved it first time around; went twice and bought the music. It’s much scaled down and now feels more like a Howard Goodall show, which is a compliment not a criticism.

It’s occupied Paris in the second world war and Parisian chanteuse Marguerite is a ‘kept woman’, showered with attention and gifts by a Nazi general. She falls for Armand, a young jazz pianist, but after an intense initial three-day relationship, its doomed. There’s no way her Nazi is going to allow her to go off with a younger model. Tragedy ensues as her best friend is killed and she is forced to reject Armand. Armand’s sister and her friends join the resistance and urge him to follow, but he’s obsessed with Marguerite.

The new orchestrations for a small 7-piece band under Alex Parker (who also produces) suits the music and there’s some lovely singing (though a few too many off-key moments and too little subtlety on the night I went). Overly loud solo’s notwithstanding, Yvette Robinson was a believable Marguerite, well matched by Nadim Naaman as Armand looking much like Julian Ovenden,who played the original, but without the age gap we have here. There’s good support from Michael Onslow as Otto, Mark Turnbull at Georges and Jennifer Rhodes as Madeleine. Director Guy Unsworth (who also contributed to the new book) makes good use of the small Tabard space with help from Max Dorey’s evocative set and excellent costumes.

If it had been more consistently sung I would be more enthusiastic. As it is, I was glad I went but don’t feel I saw it at its best.

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This is my tenth Sweeney Todd, but I don’t think I’ve laughed or squirmed so much at any of the others. This is very dark but often very funny, which makes it a great Sweeney.

I’d always thought Imelda Staunton was born to play Mrs Lovett, but boy did she exceed my expectations. She starts as a bit of a naive chancer but soon matches Sweeney’s blood thirstiness as she becomes more and more besotted with him. The real revelation though is Michael Ball’s Sweeney, whose transition from revenger to serial murderer is brilliantly played. Together they are extraordinary.

Jonathan Kent’s production is as dark as they come. I had to turn my head quite often as the blood flowed and the bodies piled up. The black comedy is not lost though; indeed it’s heightened. The duet where Sweeney and Mrs Lovett discuss who might end up in their pies is as good as it gets. Anthony Ward has created a seedy Dickensian London with fencing and caging, a central two-story platform for the barber shop, an elevated gallery and a rather large oven!

All of the supporting roles are well cast. Spring Awakening’s Lucy May Barker continues her impressive stage career with a fine Joanna, Luke Brady is a passionate Anthony and James McConville is the best Tobias I’ve ever seen. John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou both relish their roles as baddies Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford respectively. The musical standards under MD Nicholas Skilbeck are very high, with an excellent 15-piece band and a superb 16-piece ensemble doing full justice to Sondheim’s wonderful score.

This is as fine a Sweeney as you’ll ever see and if it doesn’t end up in the West End before Christmas I shall be very surprised indeed.

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It’s not often you get to see the British premiere of a 138-year old play by a world-famous dramatist. In this case, it’s probably because few theatres have the resources (or the balls) to put on such an epic. Fortunately, we have the National Theatre.

It’s a fascinating 12-year slice of history, from the beginning of soon-to-be emperor Julian’s crisis of faith in AD 351 to his death in AD 363, soon after becoming Emperor. The 20-year old goes from Constantinople to Athens where he dumps christianity for paganism. He returns briefly, to Ephesus, before he’s despatched for a sortie in Gaul (France) from where he returns to become Emperor. Though he claims to champion religious freedom, in actuality he suppresses christianity. He heads off to war with Persia, where he meets his maker on the battlefield.

Ben Power’s adaptation makes all of this very clear and lucid, with modern dialogue peppered with wit. Jonathan Kent’s epic production makes full use of the Olivier drum & revolve with giant projections from Nina Dunn adding to the impact (though the inclusion of helicopters jarred with me). Paul Brown’s design is timeless and classic and allows the drama to unfold without smothering it with concept or detail and slowing it down. Jonathan Dove’s music, using four percussionists, adds atmosphere but I found Mark Henderson’s lighting occasionally too dark. Though there is real pace, a few judicious cuts to the early years in Constantinople and Athens would have sharpened it further and cut the running time by 10 to 20 minutes to a more accessible 3 hours.

The role of Julian is a real challenge but fortunately Andrew Scott is more than a match for it. He’s hardly ever off the stage and speaking most of the time he’s on it. He acts with great passion and evolves believably and seamlessly from troubled youth to troubled tyrant. There’s a fine supporting cast of 49 (half of them from drama schools getting an early shot at the Olivier stage) plus 4 musicians – the largest I think I’ve seen on this stage – which includes the excellent Ian McDiarmid in what I think is only his second National performance.

It’s not a great play, but I’d be surprised if it has ever had such a good adaptation and production and I think it’s part of the NT’s role to stage work that would never otherwise be staged. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it.

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