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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Tennyson’

The 2011 illustrated children’s novel by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobahn Dowd, who had cancer at the time, has already been made into a successful film, released only 18 months ago. It’s harder to imagine a stage adaptation, but this has been entrusted to theatre-maker Sally Cookson, responsible for the NT’s Jane Eyre and Peter Pan, also co-productions with Bristol Old Vic, who’s got plenty of imagination.

Teenage Conor is very close to his mother, and is struggling to cope with her cancer. His dad, who visits, is separated from Conor’s mum and has a new family in the US. His grandmother is practically supportive but emotionally somewhat distant. Conor is being bullied at school. He has fantasies revolving around the yew tree visible from his room (a tree associated with death and from which cancer treatments have been derived). It appears to become a monster and wake him with a nightmare at the same time each night, telling him stories to teach him lessons that will help him come to terms with the situation. In parallel, in reality, Conor has violent outbursts trashing his grandmother’s house and severely injuring his school bully.

Cookson places the story on a white stage in front a white wall. The nightmares are created by projections and a soundscape and the yew tree and monster by ropes and shadows and they are both extraordinary. The live music by Benji Power and Will Bower is integral to the piece. A terrific cast of thirteen play all of the roles, led by Matthew Tennyson, who gives a deeply moving performance as Conor. I engaged more with the story of the illness and its impact than I did with the fantasy, though it often took my breath away. Maybe that’s because I’m not the child it was intended for.

This is creative, captivating storytelling that shouldn’t really work on such a big stage, but does, as Cookson’s work has also done in the Olivier. The younger members of the audience were initially their usual fidgety selves, but in the second half were silent, which tells you a lot about the effectiveness of the storytelling. Under Matthew Warchus, The Old Vic is heading in a very different and fascinating direction, and I’m enjoying the ride.

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I’ve always thought Britain didn’t produce 20th century dramatists to equal the three great Americans – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neil. After The Dance at the NT last year was a nudge in the ribs, but here’s a poke in the stomach; by the end of this centenary year, I may have to bury such thoughts for good.

In Flare Path, we’re at a hotel next to an airbase at wartime where aircrew are staying – Teddy, a seemingly gung-ho Flight Lieutenant whose inner insecurities are revealed as the play progresses, down-to-earth bomber Dusty doing his bit and trying to stay alive and a Polish Count set on revenge and a heroic death. Teddy’s married to a glamorous actress and can’t quite believe his luck, Dusty’s equally down-to-earth wife is a bit of a nag but clearly worships him and the Count has swept a barmaid off her feet despite their inability to communicate in English. We stay with the wives waiting for the return of their men from bombing raids and live the tension, relief and celebrations before, during and after the missions. The arrival of Teddy’s wife’s old flame – a Hollywood matinée idol – provides an additional tension to be resolved.

You can tell that Rattigan, a Second World War airman himself, knew exactly what these people were going through and it results in a set of characterisations of great depth. In any other play / production, Sheridan Smith – fresh from her wonderful Olivier Award winning musical comedy turn in Legally Blonde – would steal the show. She moves from chirpy ex-barmaid and social catalyst to tragic wife on the turn of her face and her real tears triggered real tears in the audience. The day after bagging the Olivier for a musical, she must already be on the list for another in a play……but there are nine other exceptional performances – yes, nine! – so casting Director Maggie Lunn must get a mention.

It must be much harder to play an unsympathetic character than a sympathetic one (or a downright baddie) but James Purefoy manages it superbly – every inch the Hollywood heart-throb who eventually exposes his inner emotional core. Harry Hadden-Paton and Sienna Miller grow into the roles of Teddy and his wife as the play progresses and the depths of their characters are revealed, but for some reason Miller’s appearance is the only one that doesn’t quite seem 1940’s. We empathise easily with Mark Dexter’s tongue-tied defiant Polish Count, as we do with Joe Armstrong as wartime everyman Dusty and Emma Handy as his wife visiting for just one night. There are lovely cameos from Sarah Crowden as the battle-axe hotelier, Matthew Tennyson (still at drama school!) as her barman son and Clive Wood’s archetypal Squadron Leader, determined to keep up the spirit and morale of the boys.

Trevor Nunn’s detailed and subtle production grips you for every minute of its 150 minute running time. Stephen Brimson Lewis has created another of those period sets that simply take you to the location and the period, and the projections and sound used to convey the take-offs are excellent.

If this were the only revival for the Rattigan centenary, it would do him proud; but there’s a lot more to come yet. My withdrawal symptoms following After the Dance have been temporarily sated, but I’m now even more excited about what’s to come, but if I have a more satisfying evening in the theatre this year, I shall be a very lucky boy indeed. By now, you should be on the web or the phone because you just cannot give this a miss.

 

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