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Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Cranham’

When you go to the revival of a play that once shocked, you usually wonder why. What shocked in the past rarely shocks as much as time passes. Not in this case. John Lahr’s virtually verbatim 1986 play based on Joe Orton’s diaries, which Lahr had only just edited and published, displays behaviour and attitudes, like under-age sex, we find completely unacceptable in 2002.

I was familiar with the 1987 film and 2009 stage play based on Lahr’s 1987 biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, the former adapted by Alan Bennett and the latter by Simon Bent, but I didn’t even know this earlier stage work based on the diaries themselves existed. It apparently started as a 45 minute NT early evening ‘platform’ performance, was almost immediately expanded into a complete play at the Kings Head Theatre and then transferred to the suitably seedy Boulevard Theatre, but hasn’t been seen in London in the 36 years since.

Orton was a working class boy from Leicester who got into RADA in 1951, even more of an achievement then than now given his background. There he met Kenneth Halliwell, with whom he had a complicated relationship. Sixteen years later Halliwell murdered him, then took his own life. They lived in Halliwell’s Islington bedsit the whole of that time, even after Orton had made significant money. Halliwell was a source of ideas for his work, his partner and lover, but Orton was never faithful and Halliwell often felt confused and rejected by him.

Joe’s short playwriting career is based on just two full evening stage plays produced in his lifetime – Educating Mr Sloane & Loot, works which combined irreverence, cynicism and absurdity to great comic effect, a highly original voice. There were other pieces, produced and un-produced, including radio and TV plays, a few one-act plays and a screenplay for The Beatles, and another major play, What the Butler Saw, produced posthumously.

This is a real insight into Orton and Halliwell, perhaps the first example of verbatim theatre, though only one voice. Nico Rao Pimpare’s production zips along but has much depth, packing a lot into less than two hours playing time. George Kemp captures the cheeky irreverent charm of Orton whilst Toby Osmond conveys the emotional complexity of Halliwell, both excellent. There are forty-six other characters, including agent Peggy Ramsey, Kenneth’s Williams & Cranham, Paul McCartney & Brian Epstein, their neighbours and Orton’s relatives, all played by just four actors – Jemma Churchill, Jamie Zubairi, Sorcha Kennedy and Ryan Rajan Mal – in a dazzling display of quick-fire role switching.

A very welcome revival that proves to be a fascinating evening.

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Yes, it’s a play not a scientific theory. You can always rely on Simon Stephens for something different – he must have the most diverse body of work of any playwright. Here, he uses the concepts of uncertainty and unpredictability to tell the story of the most unlikely relationship between a 42-year-old woman and a 75-year-old man. It’s a very intuitive piece that I wasn’t sure about at first, but it drew me in and I left the theatre with a warm glow!

It’s beautifully set and lit by Bunny Christie and Paule Constable within a box of light, like a James Turrell installation, that changes size, shape and colour from scene to scene. There’s a lovely soundscape too, with music by Nils Fram. In the first scene, London Butcher Alex Priest meets American school receptionist Georgie Burns at a train station. From here, their extraordinary relationship unfolds from a chance encounter, unravelling of the truth, a mutual fascination with some brittleness to a romantic liaison and a full-blown relationship. At first it seems implausible, but somehow becomes believable. I put this down to superb chemistry between two fine actors.

In Marianne Elliott’s delicate, sensitive staging, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff give the sort of uninhibited performances that deliver the believability of the relationship. Every time it turns a corner, implausibility returns but is then dispelled. Even though it runs less than ninety minutes, it does leave you satisfied.

I would have preferred to see it in a space more suitable, like the Dorfman, Royal Court, Donmar or Almeida, and more accessibly priced for a one-act two-hander, but in other ways it’s good that the West End can support work like this.

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A play about dementia. Depressing? Well, yes – as people get older, it’s often their greatest fear, more so than any physical condition – but its also insightful and not as heavy as you might think.

What’s so clever about Florian Zeller’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is that by messing with your head you get to peep inside the head of the demetia sufferer and it helps you understand what it must be like to experience this condition. It starts very straightforwardly, but soon becomes disorientating. Andre’s daughter Anne may or may not have a husband, may or may not be moving to London, may or may not have a sister. Our confusion parallels Andre’s confusion and we begin to understand, and dread, his predicament.

In a series of short, sharp scenes we see the condition deteriorate through the eyes of its victim. Characters and their back stories change and the room in which it is set changes as he moves home. It’s a very original way of conveying the agony of the condition for both the sufferer and their family. The final scene when Andre is in a rest home is devastating. It’s beautifully written / translated, with every moment contributing to the story and it’s extraordinary how much understanding you accumulate in less than 90 minutes. There is humour as well as frustration and sadness to lighten the tone without disrespect.

James McDonald’s direction is very sympathetic to the subject matter, as are the six excellent performances. As Andre, Kenneth Cranham navigates the decline very delicately and movingly. Clare Skinner gives a nuanced performance as Anne, full of love for her father whilst struggling to balance the demands of caring with her need to live her own life.

A subject rarely spoken of is given a thoughtful and illuminating presentation, something sometimes only theatre can so.

 

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