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Posts Tagged ‘Lucy Osborne’

The National has a track record in the audacious use of musical theatre, though it’s often in co-productions or originated elsewhere. Jerry Springer, London Road and Here Lies Love come to mind. This latest is a co-production with Complicite Associates. Performance Artist Bryony Kimmings seems to have got her commission from Complicite before she got her subject or its specific art form. That came from discussions with her producer Judith Dimant, who was living with cancer at the time, and her research started by accompanying Judith on her treatment journey. They ended up with a musical that explored the subject through one day with NHS patients and hospital staff.

Emma leads us on our stage journey. She’s taking her baby son for tests. Along the way we meet five other patients of differing ages with different cancers facing different issues and we learn what they want and what they get that they don’t want. The song and dance at first seems a bit incongruous, but you get more comfortable with it as it progresses. The stage is occasionally invaded by cancer cells, people in costume and inflatables that enter through doors, windows and vents as they inflate. It isn’t as dark as you might expect, until after the interval when we experience Emma’s son’s diagnosis through hospital sounds and then understand the relationship between the staged stories and the research, before we finally meet one of the people actually living with cancer and are invited to make any personal connections known if we wish.

By the interval I wasn’t sure where it was going or what I thought of the journey, but it ended up convincing me, moving me and making me realise I’d learnt quite a lot too. I don’t think it’s entirely successful, but I have a lot of respect and admiration for its bravery and experimentation.

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I try not to read reviews of shows I’ve booked before I see them, but it’s difficult to avoid star ratings coming within your line of vision and impacting your expectations. In this case they lowered them, but the play in performance exceeded them, by quite a lot.

Set in the US, Rebecca Gilman’s play revolves around Caroline, a social worker specialising in child care and custody, and the monumental decisions she has to make. Luna Gale is a child who’s young parents’ drug taking is out of control, resulting in Caroline’s intervention to find both short-term and long-term solutions. The child’s grandmother wants custody, initially temporarily but soon permanently, with her strong religious beliefs driving her. The parents are given the only counselling and rehab that’s available, but its second rate. Caroline is overloaded and her boss is an administrator with little experience, driven by a combination of rules and expediency based on financial considerations, though his objectivity comes into question too. We see Caroline’s propensity to get personally involved through a sub-plot involving a ‘success story’ and we discover she has personal baggage which brings into question her own objectivity. She may be trying to do the right thing, but she may be crossing ethical lines in doing so.

Even though this is set in the US, it could easily be here. What I liked about it is that it covers a lot of important issues effectively, without taking sides (well, except perhaps with the helpless Luna herself), in less than two hours playing time. The plot twists and devices may seem a bit contrived – the audience gasps on a few occasions – but they do facilitate a fascinating discussion on an important subject. My one gripe would be that the slow scene changes (and there are a lot of them) rob it of pace which in turn robs it of some tension. That notwithstanding, it held my attention throughout.

Lucy Osborne has designed a giant backdrop of files in front of which offices, waiting rooms, homes etc are introduced; realistic locations though too slowly created. The performances are outstanding, with Sharon Small cleverly and carefully navigating her complex journey through events and emotions. I was hugely impressed by relative newcomer Alexander Arnold as Peter and his transition from incoherent mess to responsible dad. Rachel Redford follows her impressive performance in the Donmar’s Closer with an equally impressive but more difficult performance as the complex character of Karlie. It’s good to see director Michael Attenborough back at his eighties home directing a new play (though I’m not sure I’ve forgiven him for the Almeida’s Knot of the Heart yet!).

I chose to see this because of my previous experience of seeing five other Gilman plays and I thought it was much better than the critics might have you believe. The lesson seems to be to trust your instincts rather than the critics; taste is a very personal thing. You have two more weeks to make up your own mind.

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2013 will go down as the year when some of our finest young actors took to the boards and made Shakespeare exciting, seriously cool and the hottest ticket in town. Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus joins James McAvoy’s Macbeth as a raw, visceral, physical & thrilling role interpretation. The dream team of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear provided psychological depth in a very contemporary Othello. Jude Law and David Tennant as King’s Henry V & Richard II led more elegant, traditional but lucid interpretations. They enhanced the theatrical year and I feel privileged to have seen them all.

The Donmar has provided some great Shakespeare evenings in recent years – Othello, Richard II, King Lear & Julius Caesar – and this is a match for them all. It’s a deeply intelligent, imaginative and thrilling interpretation that was riveting from beginning to end. When we got to the interval after 90 minutes, I wanted a pee, but not an interval! It’s the most objective reading of the play I’ve seen, with a less sympathetic Coriolanus. It balances his scorn at the public reaction to his heroic defence of the state with Rome’s concern over his propensity for tyrannical autocracy. This most political of plays gets a most political production, yet a very personal mother-son relationship shines through.

There are so many highlights, I don’t quite know where to start. The opening food riot uses live and projected graffiti to great effect. The fight scenes are so well staged (by Richard Ryan) you almost feel the blows. The battle to take a city is brilliantly staged by climbing ladders, one real and the rest projections. The disrespect shown at his banishment is truly shocking. The scene where Volumnia pleads with her son not to take Rome is deeply moving. Coriolanus’ death makes you gasp. Josie Rourke’s staging and Lucy Osbourne’s designs are masterly.

Tom Hiddleston exceeds expectations as Coriolanus, with huge presence and great passion, but he has extraordinary support from a faultless cast. Deborah Findlay conveys the mother’s pride and love superbly; a strong woman of great conviction. I loved Birgitte Hjort Sorensen somewhat neurotic Virgilia (without a hint of her native Danish accent), Mark Gatiss fatherly Menenius adds much-needed humour and Hadley Fraser leads the bearded Volscians with tribal passion yet respect and love for a fellow soldier, even if he is the enemy. You admire Peter de Jersey for his loyalty and you’re deeply suspicious of the motives of Tribunes Brutus & Sicinia played by Elliot Levey & Helen Schlesinger – effective sex-blind casting there, as there is with Rochenda Sandall as a one-woman crowd who almost bursts a blood vessel before your very eyes.

This ended my theatrical year on a real high. A triumph for all involved and great to report that those Hiddleston fans were enthralled, quiet and respectful. Wonderful.

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Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink at the Bush Theatre was one of my best new plays of 2011 and I will be surprised if this doesn’t end up as one of the best of 2013. He seems to have cornered the market in feel-good, charming, heart-warming, uplifting plays. It’s appropriate that it’s co-produced by Hull Truck as it’s very much in the spirit of their 1980’s work (and indeed in the spirit of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, about to get a West End revival).

We’re back in Hull, in a changing room after each of six football matches. It’s a Sunday 5-a-side league comprising just four gay teams and our team, Barely Athletic, are up against The Lesbian Rovers, Man City and Tranny United! Coach / player Viv has been thrown out by the lesbians and is determined to win something, anything; deputy coach / player Danny is using this experience as part of his coaching studies and Viv’s bereaved brother-in-law Joe is the token straight. Busker Beardy can’t decide what to play at his Hull Pride audition and new boy, library assistant Luke, has been recruited by Danny for more than footballing interest.

It’s a bit of a slow start, but once you get to know the characters its captivating. Danny & Luke’s relationship develops, Joe’s grief is exposed, Viv’s competitiveness becomes obsessive and Beardy’s promiscuousness risks team success. Even though you’re only with these people for 90 minutes, you feel like you’ve known them for a whole lot longer; great characterisation. Add to this some very funny lines and deeply human stories to tell, and they play has you under its spell. Watford Palace is a big theatre for such an intimate piece, but Lucy Osborne’s design draws you into the changing room to compensate.

All five actors are excellent. Vivienne Gibbs conveys Viv’s drive, energy and competitiveness, you really feel for Matt Sutton’s Joe and Andy Rush (also superb in The Kitchen Sink) makes Geoff hapless but completely loveable. Jamie Samuel invests real emotional power in Danny and Philip Duguid-McQuillan is simply extraordinary as naive, lonely, socially inept 19-year-old virgin Luke. There is a moment when he reads from his diary when I was laughing out loud and crying at the same time.

Don’t wait until the promised autumn tour – get to Watford to see it in its final week and you’ll probably want to see it again in the autumn. Another triumph for the indispensable Paines Plough.

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I wasn’t very excited by Josie Rourke’s opening season at the Donmar, but I may have to eat a few words. Her opener is something the Donmar doesn’t normally do (restoration comedy) and it gets a handsome production with a full set of great performances.

The theatre has had its biggest makeover since the 25th Putman County Spelling Bee. It has been turned into an 18th century playhouse with the stalls back wall removed, the circle railing replaced with a wooden one, wooden floors and (false) wooden ceiling, a painted back screen with candle holders and real lit candles, more real lit candles around the auditorium and three chandeliers, also with real lit candles! Lucy Osbornes’ setting is warm, welcoming and gorgeous, as are the period costumes.

George Farquhar’s comedy takes place in Tewksbury where two army captains are recruiting using all means, fair and foul. Both  have designs on different local girls, Sylvia and Melinda – who also has the attentions of local businessman Worthy. The girls fall out and Sylvia returns disguised as a man, Wilful, who both captains seek to recruit. Captain Plumes’s Sargent Kite plumbs new depths of deception, there’s a lot of confusion but it all ends happily – except for the recruits. It’s a comedy but it does make a serious point about the treatment of recruits and ends with a powerful statement as they head for the war.

In addition to the lovely design, the use of music is terrific. The jigs and reels played brilliantly by five of the actors add much – including a delicious twist on the ‘turn off you mobiles’ advice now common at the start of plays. The performances too are terrific, with Nancy Carroll and Rachel Stirling as Sylvia and Melinda shining and Tobias Menzies commanding the stage with great authority as Captain Plume. Mark Gattis’ excellent comic turn as Captain Brazen suggests we need to see as much of him on stage as we already do his League of Gentlemen colleagues Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. The other two leads, Nicholas Burns as Worthy and Mackenzie Crook as Sargent Kite, complete an excellent set of leads and the supporting cast of eight are all excellent.

Somehow though it didn’t add up to the sum of the parts; the first half in particular was uneven and didn’t sweep you away anywhere near as much as the second half did. I don’t know whether this is the play or the production. It’s not the complete delight the NT’s She Stoops to Conquer is, but it’s still an impressive start to the Rourke reign. Don’t wear too many clothes though, as for some reason the Donmar is set at sauna level temperatures.

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When I heard that the Bush Theatre was on the move, my heart sank. I’ve been going to that room above a pub in Shepherd’s Bush for nigh on 30 years and have lost track of how many plays I’ve seen there (somewhere between 100 and 200 I’d think) with a ‘hit rate’ that is second to none. Other theatre moves, notably Hampstead, have resulted in a loss of magic associated with the space and I found the thought that this might also happen with the Bush positively devastating.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to this playful exploration of the yet-to-be-finished new space in an old library round the corner, where three short plays in three configurations (thrust, in-the-round and end on staging) using nine props from the NT’s store are coupled with wanders around the building, giving feedback on how you’d like it to be. It’s a terrific idea and it was brilliantly executed (helped by an unplanned evacuation between the first two plays for the fire brigade to deal with an exploding light!). It has, for now, put my mind to rest, though my fingers remain crossed.

The first play was the most successful for me as it fitted so well with the concept. Deidre Kinahan’s piece shows a theatre company rehearsing a PC adaptation of Wind in the Willows and the resulting theatrical send-up seemed so appropriate. One of the contrivances is to ask three directorial luminaries to provide stage directions, and Alan Ayckbourn’s for Tom Wells play seem longer than the play itself, which may be why it was less successful. Jack Thorne’s piece was the best written, but coming last and being far from playful, it somehow didn’t have the impact it might have done in other circumstances; maybe he  should work it up for a proper production.

They’ve attracted some great actors to participate in the experiment, with Nina Sosanya shining both as the first play’s play-within-a-play director and a more tragic and moving role in the final piece. I liked Francesca Annis as the old school theatrical in the first play more than as dotty Helen in the second play. Richard Cordery, Hugo Speer, Debbie Chasen and Hugh Skinner complete the excellent cast. Nathan Curry, with designers Amy Cook & Lucy Osborne, has done a terrific job of covering the building with fun-filled opportunities for the audience to explore and comment on everything from desired seating to programming to the bar. I loved the fact that the playing space had been wallpapered with scripts of previous Bush shows, reminding us of tis illustrious past.

This wasn’t great theatre (I don’t think it was meant to be), but it was a great experience and has moved me from dread to cautious anticipation of my old friend’s new home!

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May 2012

The review below is from the tour of this play one year ago. It’s now at the Royal Court with a new design and a new cast, but the same director, James Grieve. The experience of a Court Friday night crowd was very different from a Northampton midweek matinée!

Despite knowing how it would unfold, I loved the play as much as I did last time. The new design by Lucy Osborne is very good (hats off to the technical team which makes two transformations in such a short time), though no better than the Paines Plough one, so one does wonder why the Court didn’t save a few quid and buy it from them! The new cast though is terrific.

Ben  Miles was so convincing as a 19-year-old in the first act that I googled him in the first interval and was shocked to find he was 44 / 45! This time they’ve cast at the second act, so each has to play both younger and older. Claire Foy is excellent as the daughter, but it was Victoria Hamilton who impressed most – a simply terrific performance(s!).

This is a great play and it occurred to me this time that people probably come out of it having seen a subtly different one, a bit like Oleanna, depending on your attitude to Mike Bartlett’s premise. I’d be surprised if this doesn’t follow Posh and Jumpy into the West End. Another cracking night at the Royal Court.

May 2011

Back in at the lovely Royal Theatre in Northampton for the second time in as many months to catch the Paines Plough tour of this Mike Bartlett three-act play.

We start in 1967 on the night the world first watched TV together and The Beatles premiered All You Need is Love (from which the play takes its title). Oxford student Kenneth is staying with his older brother and proceeds to steal his girlfriend Sandra. Jump forward 23 years and Kenneth & Sandra are now married with careers, two teenagers and a house in Reading, but they’re about to split up. Jump forward another 21 years and we’re in retired Kenneth’s home with his son as the ex-wife and daughter / sister are about to visit.

This is a slow burn because it’s not until the third act we understand what Bartlett is getting at – it’s all the baby boomers fault! Though I think this is a valid and much ignored premise, I don’t agree that the response of the baby boomers is to focus on spending their ‘wealth’ and ignoring the woes of their children in our new inaccessible property / low pay society. Though I don’t have children, most of my friends who do are making significant sacrifices (including re-mortgaging their homes) to help their children. However, it is right to hold them (US!) to account.

It’s an original, captivating and well structured piece. The jumps forward between acts do mean long intervals (with, in our case, an over-run of 20 minutes) that slow down the dramatic flow. It also means actors have to age between 21 and 44 years – a bit of a tall order – and it’s to their credit that they just about pull it off. Ben Addis does particularly well moving from irresponsible student to responsible husband & father and on to irresponsible oldie. James Barrett (so good in the Bush’s 2nd May 1997) is outstanding as both a carefree 14-year old and a troubled 35-year old. Rosie Wyatt’s performed with great passion as an angry 16-year old and an even angrier 37 year-old.

A fascinating and deeply satisfying play from a playwright who is leading the way in modern state-of-the-nation drama that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Well worth the trip to Northampton. Only one more stop on the tour in Oxford – be there!

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