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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Grandage’

A musical at the Open Air Theatre has been one of my summer institutions for decades. Evita is one of the few Andrew Lloyd-Webber shows I like, I hadn’t seen it for thirteen years and the director and designer are favourites of mine, but it didn’t catch my imagination and I didn’t book early as usual. The reviews suggested it was more of a rock concert and I hadn’t liked a similar treatment of Jesus Christ Superstar, so decision confirmed. Then in its final week, a free evening, sunny days, a few single tickets available, a dose of FOMO and no willpower…….

It’s staged on eight large steps the width of the theatre with the band at the back in a corrugated roofed shed behind a giant EVITA sign. It isn’t long before the smoke and confetti bombs confirm the rock concert aesthetic, later joined by more of the same plus fire and fireworks. Even Fabian Aloise’s quirky, grungy choreography owes more to pop videos that musical theatre. Soutra Gilmour’s design palette goes from funereal black through greys to the Peronist pale blue, with at one point Evita’s white dress spectacularly coloured before our eyes.

Some of this works well, particularly big numbers like the opening Requiem, Act I’s closer A New Argentina, the European visit’s Rainbow Tour & the charity fundraising The Money Keeps Rolling In, but it doesn’t always serve the story well, with some of Tim Rice’s sharp lyrics inaudible. Somewhat ironically, presenting it as a rock concert emphasised how operatic it is, but opera really needs more subtlety and some restraint to go with its spectacle. This is a bit of a one dimensional Evita and I couldn’t help fondly recalling Hal Prince’s ground-breaking original in 1978 and Michael Grandage’s stylish revival in 2006.

I liked the all-shapes-sizes-and-colours ensemble very much, and Alan Williams’ band was simply terrific. Trent Saunders was an excellent Che and Ektor Rivera good as Peron. I felt Samantha Pauly was too shouty as Eva and her vocals sometimes shaky, though in all fairness it was a cool evening (I had a jumper and fleece on) and she was clothed in next to nothing, albeit under bright lights most of the time. I can’t help wondering why all three leads are American when we have many here, some no doubt unemployed, who would jump at and excel in these roles.

I enjoyed it more than Superstar, I respect and admire Jamie Lloyd for taking a fresh look and I don’t regret going, but can we move on from ALW revivals in concert and get back to business as usual please? Ah, Carousel next year – now you’re talking……

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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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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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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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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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