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Posts Tagged ‘Lyttleton Theatre’

This is the most famous of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels, her 6th, published in 1961, which was on stage within five years, on film within eight and a TV series ten years after that. Last seen on stage in London twenty years ago, at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a production by Phyllida Lloyd starring Fiona Shaw, this is a new version by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Though he’s done a lot of adaptations, he seemed an odd choice, but as it turns out he’s taken an interesting, fresh look.

Set in the thirties in a private girls school in Edinburgh, teacher Jean Brodie’s determination to teach her girls about life sets her on a collision course with Miss Mackay’s strict adherence to the curriculum. She treats them like friends, telling them about her relationships and her experiences, inviting them to her home. They are more like followers than pupils. At first it all seems mildly subversive and rather charming, until you realise how much control she exerts, her attempts to make choices for and mould her girls, not forgetting her fascist leanings. There is a dalliance with married art teacher Mr Lloyd and a long relationship with music teacher Mr Lowther, whose proposal she spurns. She is eventually betrayed and is forced to leave the school. It’s often very funny, but at times it’s sinister and dark too.

It’s told partly in flashback from post-war scenes where one of the girls, who went to Oxford and published a memoir, is interviewed by a journalist just before she enters a convent, and I’m not sure this worked that well or if was really necessary in telling the story. They’ve put in a middle aisle and swapped the front two rows of the stalls for wooden school chairs, which I’m also not sure is entirely necessary. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create a partly glazed back wall and ceiling, yet Lizzie Clachan’s design still seems to be missing something. I did love the use of bells, though, which emphasise both the school setting and the period.

If you need only one reason to see Polly Findlay’s revival it’s Lia Williams brilliant performance. She makes the role her own, delightful in her opinionated rebelliousness but ultimately transformed into a tragic figure. I’ve long admired her work, but this is a career high. In a fine supporting cast, Rona Morrison is terrific as Sandy, who sees the negatives in Brodie’s approach, and Sylvestra Le Touzel provides the contrasting sternness of Miss Mackay.

Good to see it on stage again, and warmly recommended.

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American playwright Sophie Treadwell wrote this expressionistic play in 1928, not long after Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic masterpiece Emperor Jones. It was based on a real murder case, and its premiere provided Clark Gable with his Broadway debut. I first saw it in its last London outing twenty-five years ago, directed by Stephen Daldry at the Lyttleton Theatre. I thought then, as I do now, that it must have been way ahead of its time 90 years ago. It’s feminist aesthetic and focus on mental health means it still resonates today.

In ten scenes over ninety minutes we follow our protagonist – ‘young woman’ – doing what society expects of her, from the office job she doesn’t like, or do well, to marriage to the boss who repels her and the birth of the child she struggles to bond with, before she turns and is propelled to an unexpected and tragic conclusion.

Each scene in Natalie Abrahami’s production starts by the parting of screens to reveal locations which are mirrored diagonally above. Miriam Buether’s clever design is accompanied by a brooding mechanical soundscape from Ben & Max Ringham and striking lighting by Jack Knowles. The scene changes are a bit slow, but its an immersive experience nonetheless, though I did find myself admiring the stagecraft and performances at the expense of emotional engagement with the story.

Elizabeth Berrington is hugely impressive in the lead role, at first in fear of just about everything, growing enough confidence to betray her husband Jones, played well, with period behaviour, by Jonathan Livingstone. In a supporting cast of ten, there is an excellent cameo from Denise Black as Helen’s mother.

Treadwelll wrote many more plays, with a diverse range of themes and styles, but this is just about the only one that’s ever been revived. She found it increasingly difficult to get her work produced, and many remained unpublished. Neglected in a man’s world it seems, which makes it even more timely today. It would be good to see more of them.

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Strindberg’s 130-year-old play has been successfully updated / adapted before, most notably to apartheid South Africa as Mies Julie (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/mies-julie), and this is another successful interpretation by playwright Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell. I found it edgy and bleak, but brilliant.

We’re in present day North London. Julie is the daughter of a rich man who seems to ignore her. Her mum is dead and her boyfriend has dumped her. It’s her 33rd birthday and a party is in progress, though it seems to be populated by hangers on. Back in the kitchen, the maid and her fiancée the driver, go about their business – until, that is, the suppressed attraction between Julie and driver Jean comes to the surface and it progresses to its tragic conclusion.

I thought the rave aesthetic worked well, but the kitchen scenes sometimes lacked intimacy. That said, there was a real sexual chemistry between Vanessa Kirby as Julie and Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean, whose movements around one another seem animalistic. Kirby’s Julie comes over as a lonely, very troubled contemporary thirty-something who’s lost her way. Jean is torn between his perceived place in life and his desires. Thalissa Teixeira is excellent as Kristina, loyal and loving until she is betrayed by both. There are twenty non-speaking roles to ensure we get a realistic party.

Designer Tom Scutt has created a giant white rectangular box with a kitchen up front and a screen rising to reveal the party, but it is a big space for a play that is often just a two-hander, so as much as I admired the adaptation, the staging and the performances, there were times when it did feel a bit lost on the Lyttleton stage. Well worth catching, though.

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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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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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The Lyttelton has been turned into a TV News Studio, with a control room and make-up & meeting rooms. There’s also a fully functioning restaurant on stage, with kitchen behind, where audience members are served and eat a full meal during the play (the clatter of cutlery as they did was occasionally irritating!) and where several scenes take place. It’s one of the best uses of this vast space ever; a brilliant design by Jan Versweyveld.

It’s more than forty years since the film on which this is based was made, but you’d never know it, even though Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay remains in the 70’s. It may be timeless, well it’s certainly found its time now, in a world of fake news and wholesale disaffection, even though we’ve now also got news from the internet and social media. I thought it was thrilling and timely.

Howard Beale is a long standing news anchor who appears to have a meltdown on air. The fictional NBS network’s initial reaction is to dump him, until they realise there is mileage, and money, in having someone madly prophetic on TV. He continues to plough his own furrow, at all odds, whilst engaging with the world around him, even turning against his paymasters.

American actor Bryan Cranston is best known for his screen work, only making his Broadway debut a few years back. He has terrific presence and is as good as Howard Beale on stage as Peter Finch was on film. He’s surrounded by a high quality supporting cast, notably Douglas Henshall as his friend and protector Max, Michelle Dockery as bright young producer Diana and Tunji Kasim as the company CEO.

van Hove uses his trademark live video again, this time for scenes in partially obscured spaces, outside the building, and for close-ups in the studio and the restaurant. There’s a big screen centre stage and a strip screen high up, right along the three sides. The last two of his productions worried me, that he was becoming a master of reinvention, but with this he regains his place as the master of invention with a production that’s technically hugely accomplished but also serves the material well, making it resonate once more in a new age.

After the curtain calls there was historical video footage on the big screen which resulted in cheers and boos from the exiting audience and, in a life-imitates-art moment as it ended, there were loud cries of ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’! Unmissable.

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When I first saw these Tony Kushner plays 24-25 years ago, in the NT’s Cottesloe auditorium, there was a gap of more than a year between them; the second play, Perestroika, hadn’t been written when the first, Millennium Approaches, opened. I saw both parts of the only London revival, Headlong at the Lyric Hammersmith ten years ago, in one day, but then it seemed like recent history. I repeated that experience at the latest revival in the National’s Lyttelton theatre on Wednesday, but now ‘the AIDS plays’, as many called them, feel like much more than that, and in so many ways bang up-to-date.

Prior and Louis are a gay couple; the former hails from early English immigrants and the latter from more recent Jewish immigrants. Pryor has AIDS and his close gay African-American friend Belize is an AIDS nurse, who is reluctantly looking after a racist, homophobic, corrupt Jewish lawyer called Roy Cohn, who disguises his condition as liver cancer. Roy’s protege, object of his desires, and possible sexual partner, is a closeted Mormon called Joe, whose agoraphobic, depressive wife Harper and Mormon mom Hannah, who becomes Pryor’s unlikely friend, are also characters. Joe begins a relationship with Louis when the latter deserts his sick lover. Roy M Cohn was a real person, right-hand man to chief witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy, and sometime lawyer to Donald Trump, representing him in the now infamous racist rental case, who appears to have been a mentor, even role model, to the current president. Of course, it’s set in the reign of that other celebrity president Ronald Regan, but in lines written 26 years ago, we hear things we heard last year.

Marianne Elliott’s new staging starts intimately, with scenes stage front on small sets on three side-by-side revolves. This continues for two of the three parts of the first play and, though emotionally engaging, wasn’t as epic as I remembered, and for someone who needs visual as well as narrative stimulation, constituted a slowish start. From here, though, it opens out with small scenes in a giant space giving the epic feel I expected, with scenes in the second play changed by the Angel’s spider-like puppeteers crawling eerily. It fully sustained it’s 6.5 hour playing time, over a 10 hour period, to the point where the gaps felt like waiting time during which you became impatient to return. The inclusion of two intervals in each part was the right decision though.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast, packed full of favourite actors. I first saw a very promising Andrew Garfield eleven years ago in another theatre in the same building, but I had no idea he would grow into the extraordinary talent that plays Prior now. I’ve admired James McArdle’s stage work for years, most notably as King James, also next door, but his Louis is a new career high. Russell Tovey first wowed me at the opening night of The History Boys on the same stage and here he is owning it in a more difficult role as introspective Joe, whose eventual emotional explosions take your breath away. I’ve only seen (and loved) Nathan Lane in The Producers, so watching him create the monster that is Roy Cohn was a revelation. I’ve seen little of Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s work, but now can’t wait to see more; he brings Belize alive by wordless facial expressions, then adds a delicious bite with his dialogue. Denise Gough continues to impress in another tough role in the shadow of so many larger-than-life characters, her restraint amplifying the emotional outbursts. In addition to Hannah, who Susan Brown navigates from conservative Mormon to loving friend, she plays three men – a Rabbi, a doctor, and an old Bolshevik – plus the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, one of Roy Cohn’s victims, in a series of terrific performances. The ever wonderful Amanda Lawrence gives us our Angel, but also many others in another set of fine turns. What an ensemble.

When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, this will be another of those days that justify my obsession with the stage. No other art form could provide such a dramatic feast that leaves you exhausted and emotionally drained, but energised, thrilled and deeply satisfied at the same time. I woke up the following morning feeling completely blessed.

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