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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Grandage Company’

Martin McDonagh has cornered the market in dark comedies; his next play is actually called A Very Very Very Dark Matter. We don’t know how dark that will be but, at least until then, this is the darkest of the seven I’ve seen. It’s the second in an unfinished trilogy, and I don’t think it’s been in London since its premiere 17 years ago, though we did see the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, by the same company five years ago. That’s long enough for me to have forgotten much of it’s twists and turns, to be shocked, horrified and thrilled by it all over again.

Irish republican terrorist Padraic is too violent for the IRA and fast becoming unacceptable to the INLA too, but he’s very fond of his cat Wee Thomas, so much so that he aborts a torturing to return home when he hears the cat is poorly. Back home his dad Donny and neighbour Davey concoct an elaborate but clumsy plot to cover up Wee Thomas’ death, whilst his true killers, an INLA splinter group led by Christy, plan to put an end to Padraic. Davey’s sister Mairead has her heart set on both a terrorist career and Padraic’s affections.

I’d forgotten how violent and gory it gets, and the twists and turns that drive the black comedy forward. You find yourself turning your head from the violence whilst laughing uproariously at the absurdities. It’s a brave man who satirises terrorism, particularly in the early 90’s, but in the end, in McDonagh’s own words, it’s ‘a violent play that is wholeheartedly anti-violence’ and there’s no-one else who can combine satire with black comedy with ultraviolence, as Anthony Burgess named it.

It’s clear that much of the audience is there to see Aidan Turner, who is excellent, and if that fills a West End theatre for quality drama, that’s OK by me. Hopefully, it won’t detract from seven other fine performances, chief amongst them the auspicious professional stage debut of Chris Walley, who has already wowed me in both the TV series’ and film of The Young Offenders. With Denis Conway terrific as his partner-in-crime Donny, they make a great double-act. You struggle to accept Charlie Murphy’s Mairead as a sixteen-year-old (as you do Turner as twenty) but it’s a fine performance nonetheless. A largely Irish cast bring an authenticity to the piece.

I liked designer Christopher Oram’s cottage, but I wasn’t sure about the idea of scene’s in front of his frontispiece. The blood splattering effects in Michael Grandage’s production were superb. I’m not sure the insertion of an interval, no doubt to boost bar profits for DMT, helped, but it didn’t hinder as much as I thought it might. A fine revival which has whetted my appetite for his new play in October.

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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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I found this story of scientist Rosalind Franklin rather sad – the lack of recognition of her contribution to DNA science, her unfulfilled personal life and her untimely death are all brought out in Anna Ziegler’s lucid biographical drama. The play suggests the lack of recognition is a combination of sexism, her reluctance to promote herself and her work and a more cautious approach to science. It seems the Cambridge DNA team of Watson and Crick, with the collusion of her London colleague Wilkins, though fully aware of her contribution, fail to acknowledge it publicly and to include her in their Nobel Prize-winning work – which is a great tragedy in itself.

We first meet Franklin when she returns to the UK from France to work at King’s College with Maurice Wilkins. She’s cold, brittle and determined, and she’s immediately faced with the challenge of being a woman in what was still a man’s world in the early 50’s. Wilkins changes her work and status before she’s even begun and snubs her on day one to lunch in the men-only dining room. Her ground-breaking photographic techniques prove crucial to the discovery of DNA but it’s not given recognition, most probably intentionally. Just as those that are recognised are revelling in their Nobel glory, Franklin is dying of tumours which may even have been caused by her work.

Christopher Oram has created an enormous replica of Kings College, above and below ground (where their laboratories were). It’s impressive, and reflects the coldness of the scientific environment and the people and relationships played out within it. Michael Grandage’s staging is rather conservative, with actors stepping forward to narrate parts of the story that are not enacted. The costumes are as grey as the set and with 50’s behavioural restraint and scientific seriousness, the overall feel is clinical.

Nicole Kidman is completely believable in this role, and you soon forget you’re in the presence of a modern film icon. I realised how much she invested in the role at the curtain call when she changed before your eyes from the character into the actress, and this was far from instant. She has five fine performances around her, and makes no attempt to scene steal or attention grab. Stephen Campbell Moore is outstanding as the complex Wilkins, with hints of guilt and longing. Edward Bennet and Will Attenborough are great together as the livelier Cambridge pair of Crick and young American Watson respectively. Patrick Kennedy plays another American scientist Don Caspar with child-like enthusiasm, in awe of Franklin, showing his less scientific feelings for her more overtly than Wilkins. Joshua Silver is very good too as her assistant Gosling, sometimes caught between loyalty to her and their boss.

An interesting story that unfolds grippingly over just 95 minutes. The production is as restrained as the characters, so what might seem conservative may perhaps be a true reflection of this period and this world. I still haven’t forgiven myself for choosing not to see Kidman in La Ronde at the Donmar seventeen years ago now, but this is some recompense. She proves to be a fine stage actress.

 

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NEW PLAYS

Chimerica – Lucy Kirkwood’s play takes an historical starting point for a very contemporary debate on an epic scale at the Almeida

Jumpers for Goalposts – Tom Wells’ warm-hearted play had me laughing and crying simultaneously for the first time ever – Paines Plough at Watford Palace and the Bush Theatre

Handbagged – with HMQ and just one PM, Moira Buffini’s 2010 playlet expanded to bring more depth and more laughs than The Audience (Tricycle Theatre)

Gutted – Rikki Beale-Blair’s ambitious, brave, sprawling, epic, passionate family saga at the people’s theatre, Stratford East

Di & Viv & Rose – Amelia Bullimore’s delightful exploration of human friendship at Hampstead Theatre

Honourable mentions to the Young Vic’s Season in the Congo and NTS’ Let the Right One In at the Royal Court

SHAKESPEARE

2013 will go down as the year when some of our finest young actors took to the boards and made Shakespeare exciting, seriously cool and the hottest ticket in town. Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar and James McAvoy’s Macbeth for Jamie Lloyd Productions were both raw, visceral, physical & thrilling interpretations. The dream team of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear provided psychological depth in a very contemporary Othello at the NT. Jude Law and David Tennant as King’s Henry V for Michael Grandage Company and the RSC’s Richard II led more elegant, traditional but lucid interpretations. They all enhanced the theatrical year and I feel privileged to have seen them.

OTHER REVIVALS

Mies Julie – Strindberg in South Africa, tense and riveting, brilliantly acted (Riverside)

Edward II – a superb contemporary staging which illuminated this 400-year-old Marlowe play at the NT

Rutherford & Son – Northern Broadsides in an underated 100-year-old northern play visiting Kingston

Amen Corner – The NT director designate’s very musical staging of this 1950’s Black American play

The Pride – speedy revival but justified and timely, and one of many highlights of the Jamie Lloyd season

London Wall & Laburnam Grove – not one, but two early 20th century plays that came alive at the tiny Finborough Theatre

Honorable mentions for To Kill A Mockingbird at the Open Air, Beautiful Thing at the Arts, Fences in the West End, Purple Heart – early Bruce (Clybourne Park) Norris – at the Gate and The EL Train at Hoxton Hall, where the Eugene O’Neill experience included the venue.

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Until last night I’ve always considered this pay to be a fairly straightforward gung- ho slice of patriotic revisionist history. In this production, it seems to have more depth and complexity.

The young king puts his wayward past behind him and, goaded by the French Dauphin, sets off to teach them a lesson or two. An unlikely defeat of the much stronger French army (well, more of them, anyway) leads to the unification of the two nations by the marriage of Henry to the French king’s daughter. The depth and complexity come in the changing attitudes to war.

I found the first half uneven (as much the play as the production), but after the interval, as the British forces leave these shores, the production really takes off. The scene where Henry inspires his forces is brilliant and his wooing of Catherine is wonderfully staged. Where the production succeeds is in coping with the contrasts and contradictions – love & war, compassion & hate, poignancy & humour.

Christopher Oram’s design seems inspired by his earlier one for Lear at the Donmar – a semi-circle of rough wood painted roughly which takes its shape from the ‘cockpit’ of the prologue. Unlike the NT’s recent modern setting, save for the chorus / narrator in modern dress (a terrific Ashley Zhangazha, who continues to impress – I’m already getting excited about seeing his Othello!) it’s in period and the costumes are superb.

It’s been great to watch Jessie Buckley put the Oliver TV casting show I’ll Do Anything behind her; in just five years, she’s played Sondheim for Trevor Nunn at the Menier / West End, been to RADA, played a couple of shows at Shakespeare’s Globe and is now speaking French and snogging Jude Law in a very impressive performance as Princes Katherine! Matt Ryan is excellent as Fluellen, complete with real leak, and Ron Cook gives us another great turn as Pistol, eating the said leak.

I’ve only seen Jude Law a handful of times since Les Patents Terribles at the NT 19 years ago (where you saw quite a lot if I remember correctly) but he has impressed on each occasion. Here, he handles the various Henry’s very well – the lad with new-found responsibility, the patriot, the warmonger, the leader, the statesman, the lover…..it’s a fine performance.

This is a lot better than the Michael Grandage Company’s other crack at Shakespeare and ends the season on a high. It’s been good to see a 5-play season of such quality succeed in the unsubsidised West End, like Jamie Lloyd’s shorted 4-play season. In the spirit of competition and to encourage a rematch, Lloyd wins though!

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Michael Grandage’s big idea is the have the forest as a new age encampment and the faeries as hippy eco-warriors, with snatches of The Mamas & Papas and Simon & Garfunkel playing in the background. It also comes in at 2h 10m inc. interval; quite possibly the shortest mainstream Shakespeare production ever!

It’s a patchy affair, though. I liked Christopher Oram’s design – burnished bronze panels, rising to reveal a landscape backed by a giant full moon, with side panels a nod to Arthur Rackham. The verse speaking is often weak. The forest scenes work well, with the lovers firing brilliantly off one another, but the rude mechanicals are badly let down by David Walliams’ misguided and predictably camp Bottom (Walliams does Walliams) mercilessly trying to steal the show but just being bloody irritating.

Padraig Delaney is OK as Oberon but has little presence as Theseus. Sheridan Smith is OK as both Titania and Hippolyta but she’s done much better work than this. Chief acting honours belong to the four lovers – Sam Swainsbury, Susannah Fielding, Stefano Braschi & Katherine Kingsley – who are well matched, suitable sparky and by far the best verse speakers.

It’s a bit pedestrian really. It doesn’t illuminate or add anything and is seriously undermined by the miscasting of Walliams, who’s a diva rather than a company man. You won’t miss much if you miss it, as you’ve probably seen a better one and if not a better one will come along soon!

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I much admire Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Potter bravery in selecting stage roles. First he got his kit off in Equus, ten he put his head in the lion’s den of a big Broadway musical, now a black comedy where he has to transform himself into a disabled Irish boy!

It’s 10 years since we lost Martin McDonough to film, 12 since the last of his Irish comedies and 16 years since this was produced at the NT. I’d almost forgotten how original, how dark and how funny these plays were and this revival proves it.

It’s 1934 in a small West Ireland village when news arrives that a Hollywood director is coming to make a documentary on an offshore island. Crippled orphan Billy, adopted by the Osbourne spinsters, tells a lie to get Babbybobby to take him with fellow teenagers Helen & Bartley to seek fame. Billy does indeed end up in California (without returning from the island to collect the passport he already has, presumably!)  for a screen test;  unforgivable in Helen’s eyes, something he discovers on his return. The humour is ever so dark and even more shocking in the even more politically correct 21st century, the story twists and turns satisfying and the 2.5 hours rush by.

The casting is impeccable. Ingrid Craigie & Gillian Hanna are marvellous as the sisters. There’s a terrific turn as the local gossip with a wonderful name, Johnnypateenmike, from Pat Shortt. Sarah Greene is superb as feisty red-head bully Helen, as is Conor MacNeill as her put-upon brother Bartley. We even get another of June Watson’s delicious cameos as Johnnypateenmike’s Ma. So, it’s no star vehicle. It’s hard to see behind the iconic film character, but I did much admire Radcliffe’s performance as Billy. His accent holds up well against the others, all of whom seem to be native, and he sustains a believable deformity throughout.

Great to see a McDonough play again, great to see this fine young actor continue to stretch himself and great to see the Michael Grandage season continue to provide us with quality like this. Off you go…..

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With Privates on Parade a recent big success as the opening production of the Michael Grandage Company, an acclaimed A Day in the Death of Joe Egg en route from Liverpool to Kingston and this one on its way into the West End, it looks like we’re in for a long-awaited Peter Nichols revival. I’m sure he’d rather see some of his later plays produced (so would I), but I suppose we have to be thankful for small mercies. Nichols was one of the best and certainly most original British playwrights of the 20th century and he has, up to now, been sadly neglected in this century.

Passion Play is about adultery. The children of music teacher Eleanor & art restorer James have now left home. Friend Albert traded in his wife Agnes for younger model Kate before he died. Kate, with a penchant for older men, now has her sights on James. Nichols big idea is to place Nell & Jim on stage too – Eleanor & James’ alter ego’s who comment, invisible to other characters, giving us the thoughts to accompany the behaviours. Agnes turns up occasionally to present Eleanor with some home truths that drive the story forward.

For a 32-year old play, this still seems innovative and ever so contemporary. David Levaux’s production sparkles. He’s lucky enough to have a premiere league cast with Zoe Wanamaker and Samantha Bond both superb as Eleanor & Nell. Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton are less alike as James & Jim, but succeed in presenting the outer and inner man. Annabel Scholey is an ice cool sexy vamp as Kate and Sian Thomas is luxury casting as Agnes. This was only the second performance of it’s pre-West End run in Richmond, but it’s in remarkably good shape already.

The play has less heart than other Nichols’ plays and one of my companions found it too cynical. Personally, I think it’s revival is perfectly timed and will hopefully propel the renewed interest in this underrated playwright. Now what we really need is to see Poppy again – a musical about the relationship between China and the west during the opium wars times in the favourite theatrical form of those times – the pantomime. A masterpiece!

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I’m one of the few people who took against John Logan’s last play, Red, about Mark Rothko. The first hour was a rant by the artist, by the end of which I had lost the will to live. This play is a whole lot better.

Peter was one of five Llewelyn Davies boys who were befriended by J M Barrie and the source of his famous character, Peter Pan. Rev. Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll wrote his first Alice story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for Alice Liddell, having first told her the story on an outing. This is the fame they live with and share. In the play they meet on the centenary of Dodgson’s birth when they are 35 and 80 respectively. Davies, now a publisher, uses the opportunity to encourage Liddell, now Hargreaves, to write her memoirs, which sends us on a journey to meet the respective writers and their characters.

It’s a multi-layered play which tells the stories of these real people, whose lives were both touched by the tragedy of loss – Alice of two sons and Peter of two brothers – but also of their relationships with both the writers and their characters and the impact of their somewhat unusual fame. This opens the play up as we flash back in time and meet Carroll & Barrie plus the fictitious Peter & Alice. The writing isn’t entirely even – it does lag at times, despite the short 90 minute length, and Alice has all the best lines – but it’s an inspired idea and unfolds intriguingly.

One of the chief pleasures of Michael Grandage’s production is seeing Judi Dench, as captivating as ever, and Ben Whishaw, who has grown into such a fine actor. The age difference between the actors is almost the same as their characters. There’s excellent support from Nicholas Farrell as Dodgson / Carroll and Derek Riddell as Barrie. Olly Alexander & Ruby Bentall bring the fictional characters alive impressively. Grandage’s regular designer Christopher Oram has created a superb transformative design.

Alice is a role worthy of Dench’s talent (her last West End outing was the dreadful Madame de Sade!) and Peter is a role worthy of Whishaw’s first proper West End showcase. It’s great to see a new play open in the West End, with the real buzz of full house signs and autograph hunters crowding the stage door; most start life in the subsidised sector these days. It’s also the only new play in Grandage’s five-play first season, so success might help get us more new work next time.

In a delicious twist, both works of fiction were staged in this very theatre. Another fact new to me was that Logan also wrote Skyfall, in which both Dench & Whishaw of course acted. Adele didn’t do the music, though!

If you can get in, you should.

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This Peter Nichols play with music (Dennis King) was first seen at The Aldwych Theatre in 1977, the then London home of the RSC, when the playwright was very much in their favour. A year before he became Artistic Director of the Donmar, director Michael Grandage  staged it there (with Roger Allam, Malcolm Sinclair and the relatively unknown James McAvoy and Nigel Harman). Now, he’s staging it back in the West End (at the very appropiately named Noel Coward Theatre) as the first in his 5-play season, just after leaving the Donmar.

It’s an autobiographical piece set just after the second world war in a forces entertainment troupe in South East Asia. The rag-bag of performers is led by as-camp-as-they-come (Acting Captain!) Terri Dennis. We see them rehearse and perform, plus backstage relationships, banter and abuse. There are two mute locals whose sinister demeanor tell you they are more than servants to these extraordinary masters.

If you’ve got a decent seat it works well, though not quite as good, in a bigger space – though it has aged a bit and seemed a little overlong this time. It’s a fascinating period and situation though with all sorts of issues explored and the music is completely at home given the context.

The chief reason for seeing it is a superb cast and chief amongst those is Simon Russell Beale with yet another career high. He has the uncanny capacity to act with every part of his body, striking poses that bring the house down, breaking into facial expressions that have you laughing out loud. Angus Wright is perfectly cast as the pompous Major, as is Mark Lewis Jones as the somewhat unsympathetic Sergeant Major, and John Marquez is great as the unlikely Corporal. Joseph Timms, Sam Swainsbury, Harry Hepple and Brodie Ross make a great quartet of singing & dancing soldiers. 

Designer Christopher Oram appears to have re-cycled and roughed up his design for Evita, but it works well as the frame for various South East Asian locations. Grandage’s staging is as always impeccable and there’s a fine band under Jae Alexander hiding in the upper tier on the right.

If you’ve seen the play before, go again to see a fine cast. If you haven’t, go to see a highly original play by one of Britain’s most underrated playwrights. Whatever, you have to go to see Simon Russell Beale at the height of his powers – again!

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