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Posts Tagged ‘Kate Fleetwood’

Rodney Ackland is a bit of a lost playwright; I’ve only known three of his twelve original plays and nine adaptations, including this one, produced in more than thirty-five years of London theatre-going. It was first staged in 1952 as The Pink Room, but it must have been in a very sanitised form, given the existence of theatre censorship at the time. It was very badly received and Ackland became dejected and only wrote two more plays, yet he lived for another forty years. Post-war London just didn’t have the stomach for his slice of bohemian Soho life. He returned to it thirty-six years later when this new, racier version was produced at the Orange Tree, on BBC TV and here at the Lyttelton, the latter two with Judi Dench in the lead.

It’s set in members club La Vie en Rose over a month in the summer after the end of the war in Europe, during the general election campaign where Labour ousted Churchill. It revolves around club proprietor Christine Foskett and her best customer, writer Hugh, who’s relationship with his partner Nigel and his career are both rocky, oblivious to his mum and her friend who he bizarrely invites to the club. Other members include Austrian black marketeer Siegfried and his girlfriend Elizabeth, film producer Maurice and his secretary Cyril, batty Julia and even battier Madge, a soapbox crusader, posh Lettice ‘the treacle queen’ and wild-man artist Michael, not forgetting assistant Doris and the cook. Into this melange, American GI’s Butch and Sam arrive to satisfy Christine and steal Elizabeth.

It’s character-driven rather than story-driven; the Labour Party offices visible next door link it to what’s happening outside the club. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine. Designer Lizzie Clachan turns the Lyttelton into a vast space, with stairs down to the kitchen and two floors up to the restaurant and beyond. I wasn’t convinced by the idea of prostitute Fifi almost continually walking around the space, and sometimes there’s so much going on, and so much background talk and music, that you’re struggling to focus on the essence of a scene, but that still didn’t detract from what was for me an enthralling, immersive experience which has lost 40 minutes, including two-thirds of the second interval, since the first preview and I suspect is better for it.

You’d be hard pressed to find so many fine performances on one stage in one night. Kate Fleetwood is superb as gin-soaked vamp Christine, as is Charles Edwards as highly-strung homosexual Hugh. Surrounding them are terrific turns from Jonathan Slinger as manipulative Maurice (hot-footing it over from The Old Vic), Patricia England as delightfully batty Julia, Joanna David as Hugh’s loyal but naive mum, Lloyd Hutchinson as larger-than-life artist Michael, Liza Sadovy as aloof Lettice, Esh Alladi as camp Cyril, Eileen Walsh as mad Madge and Prasanna Puwanarajah as Hugh’s on-off partner Nigel. There are twenty-four named parts and twenty-eight actors! Joe Hill-Gibbins marshals them very well.

The comments on exit and the walkers at the intervals proved it’s a marmite show, but those still there at the end cheered. Great to see it again after 23 years. More Ackland please!

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A play about the use of virtual reality to relieve severe pain in injured war veterans doesn’t sound particularly promising, but by including the personal stories of one veteran and her family and friends, and given a superb production by Indhu Rubasingham, it becomes rather captivating.

Jess is the protagonist in Lindsey Ferrintino’s play. She returns to her Florida home from Afghanistan with massive injuries, disfiguration and severe disability. The VR therapy she undertakes does reduce the pain significantly, by taking her to a calming mountainscape. She lives with her sister Kacie, a primary school teacher, in their mom’s house – she’s in some sort of home. Kacie has a new boyfriend Kelvin, a bit of a loser, courtesy of her ‘dream board’ it seems. Jess bumps into her ex Stevie and we learn that her third (voluntary) tour of duty causes their break-up. Though Jess’ world and her story is the core of the piece, the other three very different world’s revolve around it and connect with it, with a fourth added towards the end. Significantly, it’s set nearby and at the time of the final shuttle launch.

I loved Es Devlin’s design, with Luke Halls’ brilliant projections. When we’re in the real world, we can also see out to the environment around us. The virtual world is wrapped around the stage, revolving and evolving. Kate Fleetwood as Jess in on stage throughout and it’s a virtuoso performance, with the audience wincing as she feels her pain. Olivia Darnley captures the charming naivity of the almost childlike Kacie. I also very much liked the characterisations of Kelvin and Stevie by Kris Marshall and Ralf Little respectively.

I think the performances and production paper over the cracks in what seemed like an unfinished play, a touch slight to be on a major stage like the Lyttleton, but it’s an original piece, there was much to enjoy, it held me throughout and I was glad I caught it. 

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There is much to admire in this radical, inventive though somewhat self-indulgently written Medea, but it falls at the last hurdle I’m afraid.

I’d never heard of novelist Rachel Cusk. Her Medea is a writer like her. She’s in the middle of a messy divorce (like hers, it seems) from Jason, an actor on the brink of stardom. He’s traded her in for a younger model who we don’t meet, but we do meet her dad, who’s a bit pissed off he’s losing his little girl. The chorus are Sloaney yummy mummies, initially cradling baby dolls. In the brilliant first scene her mum and dad are spouting ‘I told you so’ wisdom like only mums and dads can. She has a Brazilian cleaner who’s pretty good at revenge ideas. 

It’s a radical contemporary take, but I liked it – until it’s time to spill some blood, when it all went wrong for me in ways I won’t describe so as not to spoil it. Ian MacNeil’s striking modern two-story home (creating significant sightline issues for some) turns into an an equally striking impressionistic landscape, and the costumes seem to change at about the same time. Amanda Boxer and Andy de la Tour are terrific as the deadpan mum and dad, the latter returning as a Creon with great presence. Charlotte Randle, in addition to her part in the chorus, is an extraordinary half woman / half man messenger. Justin Salinger is excellent as Jason and Kate Fleetwood swops her Tracy Lord in High Society for a role as different as you can get as a vengeful modern Medea. I liked Michelle Austin’s cleaner, though her accent seemed to be all over the place. The two boys, whichever of the six they were, were great.

I felt the seemingly autobiographical elements were rather self-indulgent and this, together with the liberties taken with the story’s conclusion, were the fatal flaws in AD Rupert Goold’s production, which meant that it didn’t live up to the highs set by the previous plays in Almeida Greeks. A shame, that.

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Maybe I’ve seen too many Lear’s (10). Maybe it was because I was tired, having braved the rain, wind & a tube strike. Maybe I was just over-excited about seeing a favourite actor climb this infamous acting mountain. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really engage with this Lear. I found myself in detached observation admiring it rather than being involved or moved by it.

I’ve heard the word ‘epic’ so many times in connection with this Sam Mendes production, but it didn’t seem that epic to me. I’m not sure why Anthony Ward’s design has blue-green abstract painted panels and stage floor, though it is attractive. Screens cut the stage in half for the more intimate scenes and sometimes when they rise the image behind takes your breath away. It works best in the storm scene when clouds and lightning are projected onto the screens as thunder claps, though I don’t know why a strip of stage with Lear & The Fool on it has to rise and move around.

I don’t have a problem with the modern setting, but I’m not sure the military concept works as well for this as it does for plays like Othello where the characters are military. I always have a problem believing he would divide the country, giving a third to the daughter who marries a Frenchman(!), and then cast out this favourite daughter just because she won’t match her sisters sycophancy, but here Lear doesn’t even look like a king. Simon Russell Beale may have concentrated so much on the madness / dementia that he neglects the other facets of this complex man.

There are some great performances, though. Anna Maxwell-Martin and Kate Fleetwood are excellent as Regan & Goneril, the former becoming vicious and the latter a bit of a vamp. Tom Brooke is a superb Edgar, particularly when disguised as Tom. Stephen Boxer invests Gloucester with great passion and Adrian Scarborough is a highly original and rather cool Fool. SRB completely transforms himself – not just shaving his head and growing a bushy beard, but his whole body seems to take on a new shape.

There is much to admire, but it didn’t wow me like I thought and hoped it would. I may have not done it justice, so I’ve booked to go back at the end of the run as I have to know if it’s me or the production!

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This is very different to The Kitchen Sink, the last play at the Bush. It also has a kitchen sink – well, a whole kitchen – but that’s about where the similarities end. Whereas the previous ‘blue collar’ play was warm funny and feelgood this slice of middle class life is colder but just as thought-provoking and a little bit scary.

Hazel hasn’t really worked out what parenting means but is now heavily pregnant with her second child. She’s quit her job as a hot-shot lawyer and has misguidedly set up a lifestyle business at home importing olive oil from Sicily. Husband Richard is a successful plastic surgeon whose mercy missions to the third world at first seem altruistic but ultimately prove to be somewhat more self-serving. Son Daniel is a little troubled, and in trouble for his inappropriate attentions to a fellow pupil. Young Annie turns up from Sligo, employed by Richard to help Hazel with childcare (though he didn’t tell her) and their lives turn upside down. We eventually realise that Annie has ‘chosen’ Richard, as he becomes besotted with her. Hazel is betrayed and Daniel is caught in the middle.

Kate Fleetwood is simply terrific as Hazel. It’s a difficult emotional ride from former ice maiden through yummy mummy to woman scorned to epiphany when she ‘gets’ parenthood, but she does it brilliantly. Though pompous and vain Richard comes dangerously close to caricature, it’s a tribute to Mark Bazeley that in the second act much of the audience looked like they were about to march on the stage and give him a slap! Denise Gough’s brings out Annie’s complexity as she moves from naive young Irish girl to somewhat spooky predator. I think it was Jude Willoughby playing Daniel on the night I went and he was outstanding.

It takes a while before you uncover the depths in Nancy Harris’ play, and in the second act the twists and dark humour are occasionally overplayed, but ultimately I found it very satisfying and I’ve been reflecting on the awesome challenge of modern parenting ever since. I didn’t leave the theatre with the warm glow I had after The Kitchen Sink, but I did leave feeling stimulated and entertained in equal measure.

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This is ground-breaking theatre. We’ve got used to verbatim plays, where the actual words of interviewees on a subject are edited and dramatised to tell a story; well, here’s a verbatim musical – well, more a play with music. The subject is the Ipswich prostitute murders of 2006 and the story is told from the perspective of the residents of the street where they worked & where their murderer lived and the subsequent invasion by the media. Here I am seeing a musical about five dreadful killings just four days after one about one. Yet again, what seems to be a thoroughly inappropriate art form to tell true stories ends up confounding expectations.

Writer Alecky Blythe interviewed the residents over a period of 2.5 years from the time of the murders to a time when they were returning to some sort of post-trial normality. She tells the story through 11 of them, all members of the Neighbourhood Watch set up at the time of the killings. Every word in the play was said by them and many have been set to music, including the er’s, ah’s and um’s of everyday speech. This produces an extraordinary sung dialogue which occasionally becomes sung chorus. Composer Adam Cork is more used to creating soundscapes and incidental music and it seems to me this is why he’s so good at setting this everyday speech to music.

Rufus Norris’ sensitive direction if often highly effective – people enter in a group from the darkness behind the playing area, as Christmas approaches a giant singing santa turns up, police tape wraps around the residents at the time of the arrest and it ends at a London Road in Bloom contest with a riot of colour and hope as over 30 hanging baskets and window boxes fill the stage. The rest is conjured up with just 10 plastic chairs, 7 black sofas and armchairs and a table.

It must be incredibly difficult to deliver this sung dialogue, but eleven singing actors do so brilliantly. In addition to their main character, they share in playing 52 others – the prostitutes, policemen, councillors and the media. Kate Fleetwood is extraordinary as she morphs from one character to another. Nick Holder is unrecognisable as the Chairman of the Neighbourhood Watch. Hal Fowler, Paul Thornley and Michael Shaeffer’s characterisations of the media types who couldn’t give a shit about the lives of the people they invade are spot on.

There is a surprising amount of humour, though it misfires occasionally when you feel you’re laughing at these people (I’m not sure how I’d feel if I was one of them) but in a way that’s part of the unsettling, uncomfortable experience which gives the play its edge and ultimately its success in conveying the neglected and very real experiences of people whose lives were turned upside down, first by the use of their street by the working girls, then their murder, then the forensic attention of the world and his wife.

When I woke up early this morning, it was all still going round in my head. I couldn’t get back to sleep; I just had to get up and write about it. I think that’s good theatre for you. Not an easy ride, but one I certainly don’t regret making.

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