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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Warchus’

A lot of characters in plays have changed gender of late, in Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, the RSC’s current Taming of the Shrew and Sondheim’s Company, where it breathed new life into the show. Now the gender of two of Noel Coward’s characters have been changed to produce something extraordinarily fresh, which would never have seen the light of day when it was first staged during the Second World War, but in my view is the play Coward may well have written today.

Actor Garry Essendine is surrounded by his staff – secretary Monica, valet Fred and Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson – and a coterie of producers – Morris, estranged wife Liz, Helen and her husband Joe – and then two ‘super-fans’, Daphne and Roland, crash into his life. He both loves the attention and adulation and feels suffocated by it. As he prepares to tour six plays to Africa, Monica and Liz try to keep him in control whilst Helen and Morris go against his wishes for his next project, Daphne and Roland’s obsession gets out of control and his promiscuity runs rampant. Coward’s dialogue crackles and sparkles right up to a surprisingly poignant ending. The issues around fame seem bang up-to-date.

Matthew Warchus’ production makes it feels like a newly minted piece, set in Rob Howell’s brilliantly designed art deco apartment that is thrust forward to bring more intimacy in this big theatre, with as fine a set of performances as you could wish for. Essendine is a larger-than-life character who gets a stunning larger-than-life, finely detailed characterisation from Andrew Scott, with a hitherto unseen (by me) flair for comedy. The role of Monica suits Sophie Thompson’s style of acting and here she milks it for every ounce of comedy. Indira Varma’s Liz is the perfect foil to Scott’s Essendine, with their final moments together movingly underlining the play’s original title Sweet Sorrow. Liza Sadovy does some nifty doubling-up as Miss Erikson and Daphne’s Great Aunt Lady Saltburn and Joshua Hill as Fred delivers some great lines so well he makes them even greater.

Above all, it’s very funny and hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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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’d got it into my head it was going to be just another A Christmas Carol, so the theatrical magic of the Old Vic’s production caught me by surprise. Matthew Warchus’ staging is very special indeed.

The theatre has been reconfigured again, this time ‘in-the-round’ with banks of seats onstage, the front stalls turned sideways, eight entrances to what is a surprisingly small playing area the length of the stalls, and lots of lamps hanging above. When you add terrific period costumes, Rob Howell’s design brilliantly evokes Victorian London. The addition of Christmas carols accompanied by folky instrumentation, with the inspired use of hand bells, completes the magic.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation is very bleak at first, with Rhys Ifans’ Scrooge as dark as the material. After the ghosts of Christmas’ past, present and future have had their say, his redemption is more joyful and uplifting as a result. It’s hard to imagine a better Scrooge than Ifans, his scenes with Tiny Tim as loving as his earlier treatment of family and friends had been vile. His transition from grumpy to warm is beautifully handled. He doesn’t even have to comb his hair! The morality of Charles Dickens’ story is stronger than its ever been, and in this version often very moving.

When Scrooge is organising Christmas dinner for the families of his nephew and former employee Bob Cratchit, the arrival of the food is a thing of great wonder, the snow inside the theatre is as heavy as it would be outside, and when Silent Night is played by hand bells the silence was extraordinary. As the snow melts, your heart melts, and you leave the theatre with a warm glow.

My Christmas started seven weeks earlier with the Hackney panto. This was its biggest treat. I now declare it officially over.

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Sometimes revivals of plays can feel like museum pieces, but sometimes they still feel relevant or find a new meaning. So it is with this 38-year-old Sam Shepard piece. First time around there was the US oil crisis, deindustrialisation and stagflation. Now its all those things that have created the disenfranchised and disillusioned American working class who think Donald Trump provides the solution.

Dodge spends his whole life on the sofa, watching TV, drinking alcohol, smoking and taking a vast quantity of medication. His sprightly wife Halie befriends the church minister, well more than befriends it seems. Their sons Tilden & Bradley are a big disappointment and both more than a bit unhinged. Halie worships deceased son Ansel, an all-American boy who has taken on a near mythical status in her eyes; she and the minister are planning a statue. Then there’s the titular buried child…….

When Tilden’s son Vince arrives with his girlfriend Shelly, he doesn’t get the welcome he expects. When he goes out for drink for his granddad, he goes AWOL, leaving his girl with the mad men. When he and his grandma return the following day it all kicks off. The most dysfunctional of families.

You have to pick your way through the metaphors, symbolism and surrealism to find a story of disaffection and the demise of the American dream. The first act is too slow, but then it takes off on its grotesque, absurd ride through the rural mid-West. I found it much darker but more resonant than the last time I saw it in Matthew Warchus’ production at the NT 12 years ago, with another American film actor, M Emmett Walsh, as Dodge. Though Ed Harris and his wife Amy Madigan are the real draw (both excellent) it’s a uniformly excellent cast, including relative newcomer Jeremy Irvine as Vince and an impressive West End debut from Charlotte Hope as Shelley.

I was glad I overcame my reluctance to see it again so soon.

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When I heard they were going to adapt the film as a musical, I was baffled. How? As it turns out, it’s rather brilliant; bettering the film in so many ways. One of those rare occasions where book, music, lyrics, staging, choreography, design and performance come together to create something very special indeed.

In case you don’t know, it’s the story of sarcastic, arrogant TV weatherman Phil Connors, who visits Punxsutawney PA with novice producer Rita and cameraman Larry to film a live report on Groundhog Day, an annual event when his namesake Phil the groundhog emerges from his winter home. If he can see his shadow they’re in for six more weeks bad weather, if he can’t, its an early spring. What I hadn’t known is that Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney actually exist! They get stuck after a blizzard closes all roads, so Connors is forced to spend a second night in his B&B. When he wakes up next morning, it’s Groundhog Day again, and again, ad infinitum. At first he’s confused, then scared. A hedonistic period is followed by a period of depression and finally he realises he can actually use it to do good.

Daniel Rubin has adapted his own screenplay which, with Tim Minchin’s lyrics, becomes one of the funniest musical comedies I’ve ever seen. Minchin’s songs fit like a glove, whether rousing choruses or gentle ballads. Matthew Warchus’ staging is terrific, flowing along, as light as air, with a lot of help from Peter Darling’s choreography, which is more organic movement than dance numbers. Rob Howell’s design flows too, with technology taking second place to settings created by the performers. Everything just works so well together, with a palpable sense of real teamwork. 

Though it’s his UK stage debut, Andy Karl has bags of musical theatre experience, which shows in his command of both the stage and the material in a brilliant performance in absolutely every respect. Carlyss Peer is excellent as Rita in what appears to be her musical theatre debut! The second act bravely starts with a ballad, which Georgina Hagen as Nancy sings beautifully. You probably wouldn’t recognise many of the names or faces in the rest of this superb ensemble of twenty-one, but as the programme notes testify, it’s one of the most experienced and it shows.

It’s a ridiculously short two-month run (half of which was previews) and rumour has it it’s heading for Broadway before the West End, so it may be a while before you can see it (and for me to see it again).

A huge treat.

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Enticed to Pinter again by the cast and director, and leaving the theatre glad I was. Matthew Warchus has done what Jamie Lloyd did with The Hothouse and The Homecoming – less reverence leading to a fresh look at the play. I might actually be in danger of becoming a Pinter fan.

Elder brother Aston, with both a physical and mental handicap, befriends tramp Davies when he is threatened by someone and brings him back to his grubby attic room to stay. When younger brother Mick turns up in Aston’s absence, he intimidates Davies. Mick seems to be in charge of the house, delegating everything to his brother, who offers Davies a job as caretaker, as does Mick a while later. Davies begins to exploit and take advantage of their hospitality, which drives the brothers closer and Davies out. As with all Pinter plays, you’re left to decide what’s really going on here.

I think it’s his most Beckettian play and Warchus has mined it for the black comedy without losing much of the menace. He’s blessed with a stunningly ramshackle claustrophobic design by Rob Howell, with the set brought forward in front of the proscenium to increase the intimacy of this vast theatre, and a superb cast.

It’s wonderful to see Timothy Spall back on stage after all these years and he relishes the part, channelling Only Fools and Horses Uncle Albert in the meeker moments, morphing into a more aggressive, manipulative vagrant as the play progresses. Daniel Mays is cast against type as a restrained, passive Aston and he’s very good. George Maguire is very intimidating, with piercing eyes, strutting around the stage in his tight leather jacket looking superior; another fine performance.

Perhaps it’s Pinter’s death that has liberated or encouraged directors to make fresh interpretations, but I for one welcome them!

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Yet another play which caught me by surprise and exceeded my expectations. Who’d have thought a piece about our broken secondary education system could provide both a fascinating debate and good entertainment. For me, its a winning start to Matthew Warchus tenure as the new AD at The Old Vic.

The play weaves together three themes – the absurd process parents have to go through to get their kids into a good school aged 11, the way the educational policy-makers have, and continue to, make a mess of it all, and what teachers have to go through in the real world. The former is told through a group of parents at the school gates, the second at increasingly heated policy meetings and the third through a teacher in the classroom having to contend with disinterested children and disrespectful parents contrasted with the satisfaction of Alia, a Malala-like child’s gratitude and success. It takes a while to get into this rhythm but when it does it proves to be both intelligent and entertaining, and surprisingly moving.

The Old Vic is still in-the-round, but this time there’s nothing more than a platform, with a couple of musicians in the side boxes playing rock guitar between scenes. Warchus’ staging is simple and uncluttered and allows the writing and performances to do the job. Rob Brydon has to speak almost all of his lines to invisible or mute characters, so his stand-up experience proves invaluable in creating characters in this Joyce Grenfel way. I thought he was perfect for the part. Nikki Patel is lovely as the young refugee from Pakistan who hangs on his every word and shows up the policy-makers with her insight and common sense, a very impressive stage debut. The rest of this fine young ensemble create completely believable characters brilliantly from much less material. There were quite a few occasions of exit applause, such was the power of some of the speeches and performances.

The play really does draw you in and there’s real audience engagement demonstrated by laughter, muttering, clapping and more. I was surprised by how much Alia’s story, and Nikki’s performance, moved me and how sympathetic I became to teacher Mr Crane, and Rob’s performance. This is way better than some others would have you believe and a great start for the next phase in the life of this great theatre.

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