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Posts Tagged ‘Max Pappenheim’

There’s something wonderful about visiting a 70-seat underground theatre a stones throw from Piccadilly Circus, where you have to cross the stage to get to the loo, to see four world class actors, directed by the man who ran both the RSC and NT, in three Samuel Beckett plays – for a few pounds more than going to the cinema around the corner. I love this city.

Beckett wrote twenty-two stage plays, many of them one act, some as short as fifteen minutes. You don’t always (ever?) entirely understand them, but you can bask in the language and exercise your brain finding meaning. Always fascinating and intriguing, never dull, somewhat addictive. I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. Another two will come along in three weeks with four more great actors in a theatre with 997 more seats!

The first of this triple-bill is Krapps Last Tape, where a man sits at a table reading his diary of some thirty years before, digging out, listening to and occasionally commenting on the meticulously indexed reel-to-reel tapes which contain the audio record of his 40th year. Oh, and he eats bananas. I’ve been lucky enough to see John Hurt and Harold Pinter, and now James Hayes in this fascinating memory play.

In Eh Joe, a man sits on his bed in silence listening to a woman’s voice in his head, his face telling you everything you need to know about his feelings as he listens to her. You can’t take your eyes off Niall Buggy, so expressive, whilst the great Becket interpreter and scholar Lisa Dwan voices the woman. This was written for TV. I first saw it on stage with Michael Gambon in a theatre 10 times the size but watching Niall Buggy, a few feet away, his face projected live on the wall behind him, was mesmerising, a way more intimate experience. Another memory piece, looking back.

The best is saved until last. The Old Tune, a radio play adapted from a Robert Pinget stage play, where two men in their seventies meet one Sunday morning and sit on a bench reminiscing, as the noisy traffic passes by. They have clear recollections, though they often differ, a source of irritation and indignation for them and humour for the audience. Memory again, but lighter and funnier and performed to perfection by Niall Buggy as Gorman and David Threlfall as Cream, a thirty minute gem that fully justifies its move from radio to stage and will stay with me forever.

These three plays belong together as if they were written as companion pieces. Though each was originally in a different form, they were written only eight years apart in the late 50s / early 60s. Trevor Nunn stages them beautifully, with help from set and costume designer Louie Whitemore, sound designer Max Pappenheim and lighting designer David Howe.

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Revivals of this 1961 Tennessee Williams play don’t come along as often as most of his other classics. I first saw it at the NT in 1992 with Alfred Molina as Shannon, then again in the West End in 2005, where Woody Harrelson took the lead. Now its Clive Owen’s turn, with American Anna Gunn and our own Lia Williams as the women in his life at this moment in time. It has TW’s usual biographical strands, with a predatory man who exploits young women adding a timeliness.

Rae Smith’s extraordinary set creates a mountain lodge with four shacks, palm trees, walkways and a mountain! It conjures up the tropical coastal location in Mexico where Irish American ex-priest, now tour guide, brings a group of ladies from a Baptist college in Texas. The tour isn’t going well; he’s already accused of sex with one of the underage girls and they are refusing to stay at the lodge run by Shannon’s friend and sometime lover Maxine, recently widowed.

It’s late season in 1940 and the only other guests are four German tourists who sing Nazi songs and rejoice in the bombing of London! Then New England lady Hannah, an artist, and her 97-year-old grandfather, ‘America’s oldest living poet’, turn up. Maxine is reluctant to accommodate them, but succumbs under pressure from Shannon, who is clearly attracted to Hannah. Their problems and their demons emerge and unfold on this one night, with sexual tension between Shannon and both Maxine and Hannah, but in very different ways, and an unspoken rivalry between the two women.

Clive Owen seemed to take a short while to get into his character, but was soon commanding the stage. Anna Gunn and Lia Williams are both excellent in their very different roles, Gunn as feisty promiscuous Maxine and Williams as gentle serene Hannah. There’s terrific support from Julian Glover as Hannah’s grandfather and Finty Williams as Mrs Fellowes, the church group leader who takes no prisoners. In addition to Rae Smith’s set, James Macdonald’s fine production boasts some great lighting from Neil Austin and an atmospheric soundscape by Max Pappenheim.

Good to see it again, done so well.

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It’s easy to think that the economic crisis we’ve lived through in the last eight years is unique. As this play shows us, by explaining the Latin American Debt Crisis of the early 80’s, a prequel to the latest one, everything that has and is happening to Greece happened to Mexico, and other Latin American countries, more than thirty years before. History repeats itself and we just never learn.

In Beth Steel’s brilliant play we follow the career of John. He’s not your usual highly driven Ivy League Long Island banking type, but top banker Howard sees something in him and takes him on, to be groomed by high-flier Charlie in the macho world of international lending. As Charlie rises in the Latin American department, so does John. They loan money for projects that will never come to fruition, with money that won’t, because it can’t, be repaid. We learn of John’s troubled childhood, with his small-time fraudster father in prison while his mother loses everything. His dad comes back into his life and is a ghostly presence during the rest of the play, his dishonesty compared and contrasted with the monumentally bigger stunts being pulled by John and Charlie for their bank. John is a clever guy and by putting forward the idea that gets the banks off the hook, overtakes his mentor.

It’s an intelligent, well researched and superbly written play which manages to make the complex comprehensible. It builds, slowly at first, like all the best thrillers, except this isn’t fiction. It’s traverse staging has a clever, clinical, uncluttered design by Andrew D Edwards, with brilliant lighting and light effects by Richard Howell and a soundscape by Max Pappenheim. I haven’t seen any of director Anna Ledwich’s work before but I was really impressed by this. John is a big role and the character has an extraordinary journey and Sean Delaney, a 2015 RADA graduate, is stunning. Tom Weston Jones is outstanding as Charlie, as is Martin McDougall as Howard and Philip Bird as John’s dad Frank.

It owes something to Enron in terms of subject and style, but it’s its own thing, telling a different story brilliantly. I much admired Beth Steel’s previous play Wonderland, about the miners strike, but this couldn’t be more different, and it confirms her as an exciting new playwriting talent. A must see, and a candidate for Best New Play. What are you doing reading this when you should be booking tickets?!

 

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This 1979 Jerry Herman show was the third of three flops sandwiched between Hello Dolly & Mame and La Cage aux Folles. The second of the three, Mack & Mabel, was rehabilitated and is now often revived, but this one disappeared until this enterprising European premiere 35 years later. Gold stars to the Finborough Theatre and producer Danielle Tarento for enabling us to see it at last.

It’s based on S N Berman’s 1944 stage play, itself adapted from Franz Werfel, who wrote it after he’d fled to the US, via France, in the 30’s. There seems to be an autobiographical influence on the story. The National Theatre staged the play in 1986 and my recollection is that it was a comedy. This certainly isn’t.

Eternal optimist Jacobowsky is a Polish Jew who has moved around Europe and now finds himself in a France under German occupation. He befriends a Polish colonel, Stjerbinsky, and they begin a journey through France by car, train and boat. Stjerbinsky is trying to get important papers about undercover agents in Poland to the Polish government in exile in England. En route they visit a cafe where they meet Marianne, who joins them. They pair up with a circus, get split up and reunited at a Jewish wedding Jacobowsky is performing, and take refuge in a convent before getting to the port and the boat that will take them to England.

If you know Herman’s other shows, you’ll know this is hardly typical Herman fare and that’s the crux of it – the story doesn’t really work as musical theatre. That said, Director Thom Sutherland and his team have made a good fist of it. Set Designer Phil Lindley’s pop-up book set is ingenious; a giant map of Europe from which other sets fold out. Sophia Simensky has added fine period costumes and Max Pappenheim some great sound effects. Though no doubt driven by the duel needs of economy and space, the twin pianos are perfect for this music. I thought some of the performances were a little tentative, but Alastair Brookshaw and Nic Kyle were very assured as Jacobowsky and Stjerbinsky.

A flawed show, but a good production, and above all a great opportunity to catch such a rarity by a titan of musical theatre.

 

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When this was first produced 37 years ago it was controversial, to put it mildly. It’s an autobiographical play co-written by notorious Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle, still in prison for murder at the time, and darling of the 60’s underground, and founding editor of the infamous International Times, Tom McGrath. Now we get to see it without any baggage, but still in the evocative, rich dialect in which is was written.

In the first act we follow Johnny Byrne from childhood petty crime like shoplifting through burglary to more sinister knife-carrying and recruitment by local gangster Danny. It’s not long before ambitious Johnny topples Danny and becomes a fully-fledged gangster with his own enforcers, by which time the police are determined to get him behind bars. An initial term of two years just results in criminal learning and networking, but then a murder means life.

In the second act, set entirely in a prison cell, we see the battle of wills between Byrne and the authorities and his futile attempts at DIY appeals. He’s subjected to the sort of violence he’s more used to dishing out and comes to earn the ‘animal’ soubriquet that he’s taken with him to prison. The tone of this second half is much darker and the violence ever so realistic. The final image at such close quarters is truly shocking.

There is a stunning central performance from Martin Docherty as Byrne. You rarely see an actor invest such physical and emotional energy so effectively and the transition from schoolboy to gangster is simply brilliant. Six actors play the other 23 roles – family, friends, neighbours, victims and all of the authority figures – with great skill. If any of them are not native Scots, then their accents are brilliant! I much admired Mark Dominy’s uncompromising staging, with impressive fight direction by Ronin Traynor. Max Pappenheim’s soundscape adds much atmosphere.

The controversy at the time was largely around giving a platform to an evil man and allowing him to rewrite his personal history. I think the play does do this, but 37 years on we can view it as drama without having to take a view and as drama, it’s about as dramatic as it gets. People like Boyle still exist, drugs and arms their new currency, many coming here from other lands, so the story of the evolution of a gangster still resonates.

The Finborough proving essential yet again. Don’t miss.

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