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Posts Tagged ‘Laura Hopkins’

This is the second time this week that I’ve seen a stage adaptation of a film I haven’t seen. This one is Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical three-hour film, which was also a five-hour TV series, adapted by Stephen Beresford, best known for The Last of the Hausmans at the NT and the screenplay for the film Pride. It’s an everyday tale of theatre folk in Sweden, well at least initially.

In the first act, we’re with the theatrical Ekdahl family, theatre owners and performers. Husband and wife Oscar and Emilie, Oscar’s mother Helena, brothers Carl and Gustav and their wives Alma and Lydia, Gustav & Lydia’s daughter Petra and Fanny and Alexander themselves, Oscar & Emilie’s children. We’re onstage, backstage and at home in what seems to be an idyllic world, until Oscar dies suddenly. There was plenty of character development, but not enough story in this first part and I went into the interval a touch underwhelmed.

The second act is very dark, as Emilie marries the widowed Bishop, a frightfully stern bully into whose austere and joyless home Emilie, Alexander and Fanny arrive. His sister Henrietta is unwelcoming, fearing her loss of power in charge of the home. Alexander is a bit of a fantasist and gets on the wrong side of the Bishop very quickly, resulting in brutal punishment. Emilie, by now pregnant, wants to leave, but the law and societal conventions prevent this.

In the third act, with the help of Oscar’s brothers and Helena’s friend Issak and his nephew Aaron, they plot to free them all from the Bishop’s tyranny. These latter two parts are much more satisfying and feel almost Dickensian, sweeping along at a fast pace, drawing you in to these characters lives. I haven’t seen much of director Max Webster’s work, but his staging here is impressive, helped by Tom Pye’s excellent set, Laura Hopkins’ lovely costumes and atmospheric music by Alex Baranowski, played live on piano and cello.

It’s a tribute to Kevin Doyle’s performance that there was palpable hatred in the audience for the evil Bishop. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as a seasoned thespian and the head of the Ekdahl family. I loved Catherine Walker, an actress who hasn’t been on my radar before, as Emilie and it was great to see Lolita Chakrabarti again in a pair of contrasting roles as Alma and Henrietta. Jonathan Slinger’s role was relatively small, but he almost stole the show when the Ekdahl brothers confront the Bishop in the third act – the whole audience were willing him on. The actors playing Fanny & Alexander were brilliant, in what are big roles for child actors, especially Alexander.

It was a slow burn at first but it won me over, oozing quality in every department.

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I’ve not seen anything by playwright John Donnelly before and on this form he’s one to add to my catch-them-when-you-can list. I like my plays well structured and this has a roundedness that makes it very satisfying.

His play starts in a Bulgarian hotel room the night before a football match where Jason & Ade, two 17-year-old ‘academy’ players and good friends, will be assessed for the first team. They dart around the room playing practical jokes on one another, overdosing on banter, before a frisson of attraction changes their relationship forever. It is likely only one will make it to the first team and so it is.

Their lives diverge and in the second act we’re in another hotel room, this time in Spain seven years later, glimpsing some of the more unpleasant results of success with the chosen one and a table dancer. In the third act, the boys are reunited after twelve years in a UK hotel room. What follows is a wild scene where they are joined by a concierge, the same age as they were when they met, on an alcohol and pill-fuelled binge of dangerous games and hotel damage before the boy leaves and they revisit that first night.

In Laura Hopkins’ design, with traverse staging, the hotel rooms are created by reconfiguring beds and minibars. There’s a balcony at one end and a shower room at the other. The floor’s green covering resembles a football pitch, with floodlights high in each corner to complete the reference. John Tiffany’s superb staging is energetic, highly physical, edgy and sometimes unpredictable, with touches of the stylised ‘movement’ we saw in Black Watch and more recently Let The Right One In downstairs. The pace never lagged and the time flew by.

Russell Tovey has clearly worked hard to look the part and probably needed to given that he spends almost the entire evening in his pants. He has to age 12 years without physical change and from naive young lad to manipulative, materialistic and somewhat obnoxious celebrity footballer and he does so very well by subtle changes in behaviour, demeanour and manner. Gary Carr has to show more restraint and jump from twelve to twenty-nine between his two scenes; this is another fine performance. Lisa McGrillis & Nico Mirallegro (an auspicious professional stage debut)have smaller but pivotal roles which they play to perfection.

We’re used to shorter less substantial fare at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs. I felt this was a fully-formed play with a lot to say which it did so unpredictably and entertainingly. The first contender for this year’s best new play.

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This show ‘inspired by the music, life and times of Ike & Tina Turner’ starts when Anna Mae Bullock auditions for Ike Wister Turner Jr in St. Louis in 1956 and ends at Tina Turner’s career re-launch 27 years later. It’s a fascinating story, though the telling of it is a bit clunky; it could do with a better book. Musically (well, for me anyway) the second half is a lot better than the first, which ends where I came in with River Deep, Mountain High.

Laura Hopkins design relies almost totally on projections. Though they are often highly effective, and provide the show with its pace, they sometimes change so fast that they are distracting, particularly when they contain words which aren’t there long enough for you to read them!

The band is superb, though the volume (and the bass in particular) meant my seat was vibrating for much of the time (!). Jason Pennycooke’s choreography recreates Tina’s stage style which is a bizarre combination of woman-with-attitude and quirky fun with a somewhat surreal butchness that made me smile. It wouldn’t have been out-of-place at a London 2012 ceremony.

I hadn’t bought in to the ‘star is born’ hype by the interval, but I left hugely impressed by Emi Wokoma, who shone in the second half as Tina herself broke free of her abusive husband and musical partner. In all this hype, the contribution of Chris Tummings as Ike has been lost, which is sad as this is an excellent characterisation of this complex, deeply unsympathetic man.

It ends, like most shows in this genre, as a concert with the audience on its feet joining in, and this is where it really takes off – when the music, superbly recreated, speaks for itself. By now I was reliving an evening more than 20 years ago at Wembley Arena when the woman herself commanded the stage and engaged with her audience like few really do.

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When I booked Ecstasy for the night before this, I wasn’t at all conscious of what I was doing. Chalk & cheese.

Like Pinter, Edward Albee has always been a bit of a problem playwright for me. Where Pinter has too much silence, Albee has too many words! His plays usually have smug characters, glib dialogue and a cynical veneer. I find it impossible to empathise with any of them.

By the time I got to the first interval, I was thinking ‘here we go again; I hate these people!’ Is this an American Knot of the Heart? (the Almeida’s last play, which drove me to drink at the interval, after which I couldn’t bring myself to return).

Agnes and Tobias seem to be going through the motions of life in late middle age, with Agnes’ alcoholic spinster sister providing some conflict and confrontation. Over one weekend, their lives are turned upside down when they are invaded by best friends Harry and Edna (who move in because they are afraid of being at home alone!) and daughter Julia, a thirty-something spoilt brat who has given up on her fourth marriage and comes home. These people, particularly Agnes, speak lines with a quick-wittedness and articulacy that is very implausible – could anyone really think and say all of that spontaneously?

Something compelled me to return after that first interval and in the second and third act things did improve as the drama unfolded, but it’s still people you can’t give a shit about spouting implausible bollocks in unbelievable situations….but it does intrigue and hold you and it does makes you think.

It has not one but two national treasures in the cast – Penelope Wilton & Imelda Staunton – and they are both excellent in roles you wouldn’t usually consider them suitable for. Tim Pigott-Smith, Diana Hardcastle and Ian McElhinney also shine as the other oldies, though Lucy Cohu seems a little uncomfortable throwing adult tantrums. Laura Hopkins set is an extraordinary wood-paneled living room that, as a 60’s upper middle class New England home, is the most believable thing about the evening. James Macdonald’s direction is of his usual high standard.

There’s an intellectual pomposity about it which annoyed me, and it didn’t move me one bit, but it did hold and intrigue me for nigh on three hours. Having said that, when compared with last night’s British social realism, I’m afraid there’s no contest – Ecstasy wins hands down because Leigh has humanity where Albee has disdain.

The Almeida’s next-but-one play is yet another Neil LaBute – the natural successor to Albee, in my view. I’ll have to go of course…..

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I couldn’t describe this show better than its own billing –  a ‘Dance Revue’ about shoes! This could so easily fail and come out as tacky showbiz, but in the hands of Jerry Springer – The Opera creator Richard Thomas and inventive choreographer Stephen Mear it’s a whole lot of fun.

Who’d have thought you could come up with so many clever ideas about footwear; here there are some 30 ‘numbers’ including health and safety advice for walking in high heels, how Hush Puppies can help the promiscuous, Imelda Marcos’ infamous obsession with shoes and the worship of everything from Flip Flops to Ug’s to Jimmy Choo’s (but not Crocs!).

The dancing is terrific and the songs are good (with often hysterical lyrics). Tom Pye’s design, with Laura Hopkins costumes and Tim Hope & Gaelle Denis’ projections, is a colourful gaudy feast for the eye. The dancers are hugely talented and the singers top-notch. A small 8-piece band plays as if their lives depended on it.

Not everything works as well as the high spots and they pull more punches in the first half than the second. I found the opening number too much to take in whilst adjusting to a very different type of show and the sound occasionally buried the lyrics (co-lyricist Alethea Wiles), but these are small points because this is something completely different that continually surprises you, makes you smile from start to finish and above all is original and fresh.

A wonderful post-Edinburgh treat to kick-start the autumn season in London.

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