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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Attenborough’

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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It seems to me the chief reason why Michael Attenborough’s King Lear is so successful is that he hasn’t messed with it! No overwhelming concept, no directorial conceit, no gimmicks. A play as good as Lear needs none of these – just good staging, fine performances and excellent verse speaking and this Almeida production has all three.

The theatre has acquired an additional curved back wall, identical except for several entrances. A handful of props and atmospheric lighting do the rest. Simple. This gives the play great pace, unencumbered by scene changes. The tale of two dysfunctional families, ungrateful daughters and feuding sons, grips from the start and never lets you go. The verse is beautifully spoken and you seem to be hearing words and phrases you never heard before.

In a uniformly fine cast, it’s great to see one of my favourite actresses, Jenny Jules, in a classical role as Regan. Clive Wood continues his career renaissance with a superb Gloucester, the newer / younger Kieran Bew delivers another impressive performance as Edmund and my favourite Geordie, Trevor Fox, is great as The Fool. Towering over them all is a magnificent Lear from Jonathan Pryce. I’ve seen some fine Lear’s in my time – Robert Stephens, Anthony Hopkins, Brain Cox, Ian Holm, Ian McKellern, Derek Jacobi, Nigel Hawthorne, Pete Postlethwaite – and this interpretation is as good as any of them. I usually find it hard to believe he turns on Cordelia, but here I didn’t. His madness was more subtle and more authentic. For once, his journey seemed completely plausible.

I think this is Michael Attenborough’s second Shakespeare at the Almeida. The other, Measure for Measure, was also a fine production. This space suits simple interpretations of the bard, so more please!

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Well, persisting with playwright Neil LaBute has paid off at last. I’ve seen a handful of his plays before now, but never really found them particularly satisfying; too cynical for my taste. Until now, the worst of them was Mercy Seat and the best The Shape of Things & Fat Pig and this play continues his reflections on our obsession with appearance that the latter two started, but for me it’s on another level altogether….and how refreshing to have a play with ‘blue collar’ characters and a warehouse setting!

The play starts with a brilliantly staged row over something Greg is alleged to have said about his partner Steph, relayed by her friend Carly. Carly is pregnant (a late change to accommodate Billie Piper’s actual pregnancy!) by Greg’s work colleague and friend Kent. The subsequent unfolding of these relationships is absolutely fascinating and completely captivating. There is extraordinary depth to the characterisation, an authenticity to the story and brilliantly realistic dialogue. I haven’t felt so involved in a story for some time.

I’m often in awe of an actor’s talent and here I’m in awe of all four of them. You really feel for Tom Burke’s Greg, caught up in his girlfriend’s insecurities and his friend’s infidelities. Bille Piper is terrific as Carly, starting as the source of Greg & Steph’s conflict and ending as a victim. Kieran Bew has the difficult task of playing the deeply unsympathetic Kent, so the fact you want to get on stage and punch him is a tribute to how well he does. Steph’s emotional rollercoaster is beautifully played by Sian Brooke.

Soutra Gilmour’s settings in and around a container convey the workplace at the heart of the play but allow scenes to move to three other locations speedily, with the scene changes themselves very watchable. Michael Attenborough’s fine attention to detail serves the play very well in a sensitive production without a wasted moment.

So the Almeida ends 2011 as it began it – with a fine new play that will join Becky Shaw in the list of the very best new plays of the year. A veritable sky full of gold stars.

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Though I don’t doubt middle class addiction is a real issue, this play and its characters don’t seem in the slightest bit believable.

TV presenter Lucy is on the slippery slope of addiction watched but her surprisingly sympathetic mother Barbara, who herself shows signs of alcoholism. There is a sister, though it’s not clear why her character is there at all. All of the men are played by the same actor – and your point is?

This is all played out as ‘designer theatre’ on a slick revolve that takes us relentlessly from one location to another and one room to the next (designer Peter McKintosh). Lucy and her mother are deeply unsympathetic characters who just whine on and on in an enormously irritating way; if they had seemed more real I would have wanted to get out of my seat, give them a slap and tell them to get a grip. For some reason – writing (David Eldridge) and direction (Michael Attenborough), I suppose – normally fine actors like Lisa Dillon and Margot Leicester provide us with flat cardboard characterisations.

I’m sure it improved in the second half – they often do! – but I just couldn’t face another 70 minutes of this implausible story full of unbelievable characters. I can’t help but contrast this example of a poor new play with Mogadishu, a great new play at the Lyric Hammersmith. This one’s a premiere league dud.

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Yet another film I haven’t seen ends up on stage. This time, Ingmar Bergman’s study of a family’s attempts to cope with mental illness within it.

The husband, a doctor,  just tries to deal with the practical implications and consequences. The teenage brother is scared; he just isn’t mature enough to deal with it at all. The father, who is reliving what happened to his wife, has a complex bag of emotional responses that include running away, intellectual curiosity and hopelessness……and that’s it really; yet somehow, it makes for a compelling and fascinating 90 minutes.

It speeds along at quite a pace in a way that draws you in without seeming rushed;  it doesn’t waste words but doesn’t linger risking your attention or your patience. Michael Attenborough’s staging is simple yet atmospheric (helped by superb use of music and sound by the chap behind Kursk). The performances are all excellent and Ruth Wilson is yet again positively mesmerizing.

I’m not going to analyse why I found it a very satisfying evening, I just did!

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The last Shakespeare at the Almeida was a dreadful production I named ‘The Designer Macbeth’ which was devoid of any passion and the only occasion I’ve ever seen the talents of Simon Russell Beale wasted.

Fortunately, this is a fine interpretation of a very difficult ‘morality’ play. The modern setting works really well (it starts with lap dancers!) as the themes, including the abuse of power, are just as relevant today. Les Brotherston’s set allows the action to move swiftly between office, street, prison etc. and Michael Attenborough handles the ambiguity of the ending brilliantly.

Rory Kinnear as Angelo and Anna Maxwell-Martin as Isabella are both hugely impressive; it’s a pity Angelo is offstage for much of middle of the play as he’s enthralling when he’s on. Amongst a very good ensemble, I have to single out an outstanding Lucio from Lloyd Hutchinson. I was less convinced by Ben Miles’ Duke – he seemed distracted, resulting in somewhat idiosyncratic verse speaking! – though he did improve as the play went on.

Great to have such a good Shakespeare production anywhere, but particularly welcome at the Almeida.

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