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Posts Tagged ‘Katherine Parkinson’

This is one of those occasions where writing, design, performances and staging all come together to create something special. Laura Wade’s play may prove to be the year’s best new play. Whilst I find the superlatives thesaurus, you may wish to stop here if you haven’t read any other reviews and you’ve booked to see it; what follows won’t spoil it, but might just take the edge off it.

Judy and Johnny are obsessed with the 50’s, their friends Fran and Marcus share their interest, but less obsessively. All we know about Johnny is that he’s an estate agent who didn’t go to university. Judy was brought up by her feminist mother in a Sussex commune, went to university and became an accountant. Voluntary redundancy gives her the opportunity to give up work and plunge them fully into a 50’s lifestyle, becoming a housewife, aspiring domestic goddess.

Their reserves are disappearing as Johnny’s commission is declining. One less income, and all that retro furniture and clothes which don’t come cheap. Still, they seem completely wrapped up in their fantasy, until Johnny’s failure to get a promotion triggers a series of events involving his new very driven boss Alex, who’s bemused by their lifestyle, and Judy’s mum Sylvia, who disapproves of the patriarchal accoutrements it brings with it. There’s a clever sub-plot involving problems Marcus is having at work.

What I like about Wade’s play is the many layers she achieves, exploring attitudes and behaviour then and now, as Judy and Johnny change as their fantasy progresses, and how that is seen by those left in the here and now. Things are not always what they appear to be, so it often surprises you. We’ve travelled a long way from the 50’s but in many ways not far enough, as juxtaposing the two periods, even one as a fantasy, proves. It’s like a conversation between then and now. Director Tamara Harvey’s production draws you in; even the activity of the scene changes prove captivating.

Anna Fleischle’s extraordinarily detailed design is stunning, as obsessive as the obsession that drives Judy & Johnny. The period music makes for a superb soundtrack. Katherine Parkinson is terrific as Judy, never leaving the home, so on stage the whole time. Richard Harrington gives a nuanced portrayal as Johnny, revealing insecurities and doubts as well as his devotion to Judy. Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay are excellent as Fran and Marcus, sometimes contributing nifty period dance routines between scenes. Sian Thomas shines as the mum whose values Judy seems to be rebelling against, as does Sara Gregory as Johnny’s boss, oblivious to his attraction to her.

An unmissable night in the theatre that reminds you why you go.

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The 20(ish)-year revival rule applies again for this Terry Johnson play, which I first saw at Hampstead Theatre in 1994. Natural justice was served that night when David Haig was indisposed and the playwright had to step in to play a role he wrote for a middle-aged man with a paunch who has to get his kit off!

The play follows members of a society which celebrates the classic British comedy of the 1960’s to 1980’s. They meet to reminisce, recollect and relive classic characters and shows, in this case the recently departed Benny Hill and, as news of his death arrives during the play, Frankie Howard. Couple Nick & Lisa, singleton Brian and host Richard are all committed members, but Richard’s wife Ellie isn’t. During the play we learn that Richard & Ellie are having problems having sex (and a baby) and Nick hasn’t really taken to his new-born, for reasons that emerge.

It does start slowly, with few laughs at first, and this time around I felt there was an imbalance between the light comedy of the first act and the significantly darker and much better second half. It’s natural audience is British people of a certain age and there were a number in the audience (young or foreign!), who missed many of the references, including my Icelandic companion, even though he was of a certain age and brought up in a country and at a time when British TV was plentiful. This is a homage to the comedy families used to stay in and watch together on a Saturday night and that narrows its demographic significantly.

You can’t fault the performances or the staging by the playwright or the design of a 90’s suburban living room by Richard Kent. Katherine Parkinson is particularly good as Ellie, having to play against the flow, a role played by Zoe Wanamaker in the original production. I don’t really know the work of Rufus Jones, but he too was impressive as Richard, having to be believable as a surgeon who likes Benny Hill! Steve Pemberton handles the impressions best as Brian, perhaps because he started in TV comedy, as well as his touching revelation towards the end.

I was glad I revisited it, but it wasn’t the classic I thought it might be. I suspect this is partly due to the passage of time, partly due to its suitability for my companion (though he loved the second half) and partly due to the fact that James Graham’s recent Monster Raving Loony (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/monster-raving-loony) is a better and more comprehensive homage to the same British comedy, even though it’s actually a biography of a politician, albeit a comic one.

 

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I’ve waited 18 years to see another Rodney Ackland play. During this time, we’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of Chekov’s, Pinter’s and Shaw’s, but nothing by this sadly neglected 20th Century British playwright. Why? He wrote c.25 plays, almost half of them adaptations, and to my knowledge only two of them have been produced in London in the last 30 years or so.

It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the play, largely because the characters are like living museum pieces. They don’t make them like this anymore! Or do they? The Skinner’s are an upper middle-class family of five with three staff (only one of whom we meet). We’re in the immediate post-war period, where rationing, and attempts to overcome it, is still a fact of life. Aubrey is a lawyer seeking the local Conservative nomination. His wife Blanche is a bit useless. Elder daughters Laura & Kathleen forever bicker; Laura has returned from the Gold Coast a widow but already has a new man in her life and spinster Kathleen is lonely & jealous. Younger daughter Susan can’t understand any of them.

Aubrey, Blanch & Kathleen are dreadful snobs, more than a bit racist, contemptuous of the staff and the lower classes and obsessed with how others see them. Social climbers, their over-riding need is to conform, so they are outraged that Laura would abandon her mourning clothing and contemplate re-marriage so soon. Things get worse as the truth of her husband’s death emerges, then turn again as her boyfriend David’s pedigree becomes known. The ending is very clever.

This must have been way ahead of its time with such sharp social satire. It’s bitingly funny and occasionally shocking and you love to hate these people, whist you recognise aspects of their attitudes and behaviours in yourself and others. We never see the party, but spend the whole play in Laura’s bedroom before and after it; projected animations of the exterior of the home and the journey back from the party provide a highly original way to link to it.

Director Matthew Dunster is lucky to have such a terrific cast. Michael Thomas & Stella Gonet bring alive the period values brilliantly. June Watson is a treat to watch as Nanny, seemingly loyal yet with an undercurrent of contempt. Michele Terry, playing perhaps the most conservative of them all, captures but contains the repressed feelings of Kathleen. Laura is a psychologically complex character and it must be hard to find the right balance, but Katherine Parkinson does this beautifully. I loved Anna Fleischle’s period perfect design which somehow brought the stage towards you so that felt very close to it all.

The extraordinary production of Absolute Hell at the NT in 1995 should have prompted lots more Ackland, but it didn’t. Lets hope this fine revival does better.

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