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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Longhurst’

The day after I’d hailed a golden age of new plays in my review of 2017, there I was in the Donmar seeing another impressive new play, the UK debut by American playwright Amy Herzog.

American paediatrician Zak and his wife Abby have moved to Paris for Zak’s important new research job. They’ve rented a garret in a Bohemian neighbourhood from a Senegalese couple, Alioune and Amina, who live downstairs. It’s difficult for Abby to work as she doesn’t speak French (and has given up her classes), but she is giving yoga lessons. She’s at best high maintenance, at worst neurotic and paranoid; a real handful. They are way behind with the rent, which is testing Zak’s friendship with Alioune, with whom he smokes (way too much) weed. Abby’s in daily phone contact with her widowed dad and pregnant sister back home. Just when you think Abby’s the real problem, the truth about Zak begins to unravel, and it’s all secrets and lies towards its tragic conclusion

I thought Zak and Abby were really well drawn characters and there’s a plausibility about both the relationship and the situation. The play continually surprises you, going down paths you weren’t expecting, just about keeping on the right side of melodrama. There’s palpable tension in Michael Longhurst’s masterly production, aided by Ben & Max Ringham’s soundscape, which gripped me for the whole 100 unbroken minutes. The realism and claustrophobia of Tom Scutt’s design adds much to what unfolds like a thriller.

I was very impressed by Imogen Poots’ stage debut last year in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and I was even more impressed by her characterisation of fragile, highly strung, vulnerable Abby. James Norton is hugely impressive too, a very edgy Zak, who changes from protective to controlling in a blink. Malachi Kirby and Faith Alibi provide fine support, communicating mostly in French (entirely in the final scene) but somehow comprehensible even if you don’t speak the language!

A great start to 2018, hopefully a continuation of the golden age.

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Just five weeks after seeing his UK debut Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre, there I was at Hampstead Theatre seeing the entirely different but just as impressive Gloria, which does prove Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a major new playwriting talent, though how I’m going to write about this one without spoiling it I don’t know………

We’re with the ‘assistants’ in the outer office of a magazine publisher where everyone seems to be playing politics to further their careers, except long-serving Lorin in the next office and Gloria, who everyone seems to see as a bit weird. Dean is the only one who went to Gloria’s party the night before, and he only went because he thought the others were going. We’re lulled into a false sense of security until there’s a major incident in the office as Act I closes. When we return we meet two of the characters from Act One, and another we hadn’t seen, to see how they are responding to earlier events and how they, and the world, reacts to and processes such things in this day and age. It ends very suddenly, perhaps too suddenly.

The change of tone is indeed dramatic, from everyday life in a modern office to cynical, tasteless exploitation of events. Like Octoroon, its structurally clever and very unpredictable. They make a big thing of avoiding spoilers, to the point of sealing four pages of the programme which you can have broken by the ushers at the interval; a theatrical first, I think. Michael Longhurst’s staging and Lizzie Clachan’s design serve the play well and there are six fine actors, three of which play two roles and two play three. I first saw Kae Alexander in Kiss Me Kate in her final year at GSMD, then she impressed me in the Open Air Theatre’s Peter Pan, now she’s hugely impressive as both Kendra and Jenna. Bayo Gbadamosi impresses too in three very different roles as intern, barista and media darling.

I’m now waiting for his next play with more than a touch of anticipation.

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How can you not like a musical whose characters include a washing machine, dryer, radio, bus and the moon?! That makes it sound silly, but it certainly isn’t. Tony Kushner’s highly innovative, ground-breaking, partly autobiographical Olivier Award winning show, with an operatic score by Jeanine Tesori, is ten years old, not seen since it’s NT UK premiere, and this is a hugely successful revival at Chichester’s intimate Minerva Theatre.

Caroline is the black maid in the Louisiana household of the Jewish Gellman family. Young Noah’s mum has died and he lives with his dad Stuart, with whom his relationship isn’t strong, his step-mom Rose, who’s trying hard but has yet to be accepted, and grandma and granddad Gellman. He’s fond of Caroline, who seems to spend most of her time in the basement doing a seemingly endless volume of laundry, where her appliances come alive to sing, her radio as an archetypal black girl trio. There’s often money left in trouser pockets and Rose tells Caroline to keep it, to teach the lazy a lesson, but perhaps as charity too.

Outside this world there is a lot going on, notably the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. It’s a time of change, represented by Caroline’s friend Dotty who is going to night school to attempt to improve her lot, and her daughter Emmie who challenges the servile, reverential attitudes of Caroline’s generation. We learn how Caroline became a single mom, and how she struggles to bring up Emmie and her two younger brothers on $30 a week. The blending of the personal stories of Noah and Caroline with the social history of the deep south in the sixties is deftly handled and Tesori’s sung-through score is packed full of lovely melodies rather than songs as such.

It’s a fabulous, faultless cast, with people of the calibre of Alex Gaumond and Beverley Klein in relatively minor roles. Nicola Hughes and Abiona Omouna are terrific as Dotty and Emmie respectively. Ako Mitchell, Angela Caesar, Me’sha Bryan, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng and Keisha Amponsa Banson are all wonderful in their various non-human, but far from inanimate, roles. Daniel Luniku is sensational as Noah, and there is yet another towering performance from Sharon D Clarke, the second in as many months, as Caroline. She is absolutely perfect for this role, acting of real power and soaring vocals. 

It’s only six month’s since Kushner’s great new play iHo at Hampstead and his masterpiece Angels in America is currently blowing people’s minds at the NT, all three proving his importance to world theatre. Michael Longhurst’s staging of this is masterly, Fly Davies design is brilliant and the musical standards under MD Nigel Lilley are sky high. I left on a high. This is why I go to the theatre. 

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The original NT production of Peter Shaffer’s most famous play was before my time in London, but I did see Peter Hall’s 1998 revival (with David Suchet and Michael Sheen), and a subsequent production at Wilton’s Music Hall ten years ago (with Matthew Kelly and Jonathan Broadbent). What makes this Michael Longhurst revival stand out for me is the additional impact of live music by 20 members of Southbank Sinfonia and 6 opera singers. 

Most scholars believe the central premise – that Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart’s talent led him to spike his career, and ultimately poison him – is untrue, and indeed Shaffer never suggested his play was anything other than fiction. It seems to have the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Mozart & Salieri as it’s origin, which the Arcola gave us an opportunity to see this year as part of Grimeborn. This is Shaffer’s rewrite, which begins and ends more than thirty years after Mozart’s death, with Saleiri riddled with guilt and regret. We them flash back to see how their respective careers unfold chronologically. Salieri does his utmost to place obstacles before Mozart whilst posing as his friend and advocate. He is particularly baffled and annoyed that his god has bestowed such talent on someone so uncouth. Two Counts at the court of Joseph II do some of Salieri’s bidding, such as insisting on the removal of the marriage dance from The Marriage of Figaro lest it break Joseph’s rule of no ballets in opera. Mozart becomes increasingly unbalanced as he battles against such restraint and dies writing his Requiem. 

The orchestra aren’t in a pit, but move with the action, as do the singers, playing as they stand and even whilst they move. The two narrators, the Venticelli, become part of them, carrying instruments when they aren’t narrating the story. It’s a brilliant idea, which adds so much to the shape and flow of the piece. Lucien Msamati is magnificent as Salieri, managing to convey his admiration and jealousy, the torture of and triumph over his victim and his guilt and ultimately remorse. I was less convinced by Adam Gillen’s Mozart, which I felt could have been a touch more restrained. The show was still in preview when I saw it and I felt the first half needed tightening, but the second half was terrific.

Great to see it once more on a big stage like the Olivier, with so much added by the integration of live music. 

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This is a comprehensive examination of the complex issues, past and present, facing the ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo, told through its diaspora in London and NGO’s. It’s also surprisingly funny, using black humour to emphasise the tragedy and hopelessness of the situation.

Stef was born on Kenya, the daughter of a white farmer who is now dead. She now lives in the UK, working in government. She’s trying to organise a festival called Congo Voice to raise awareness about the issues facing the country. She insists that one-third of the steering committee comes from the Congolese diaspora in London, the rest made up of representatives of NGO’s plus her ex, a PR man who still carries a torch for her. They go about persuading musicians, poets, writers and photographers to become involved but their planning is jeopardised by London members of a Congolese militant organisation. At the end of the first half, we learn more about Stef’s motivation with a flashback to her brief time in the DRC witnessing the aftermath of an atrocity.

In the second half the plans unravel as virtually everyone pulls out for one reason or another. The whole situation is mired in politics and vested interests, burying the interests of the Congolese people in the conflicting perspectives and priorities of people in London, many of whom have never even been there. Throughout the play there is a ghostly presence that no-one can see, an African dandy, Stef’s conscience. It covers so much ground, from the Portuguese slave trade of the 16th century through Belgian colonisation to dictators past and present. No-one is spared – colonists, Western governments. African neighbours, global businesses, Congolese tribal militia, NGO’s, members of the diaspora themselves and even consumers whose desire for gadgets fuels the trade in rare minerals that itself fuels the violence, particularly on women.

I very much liked Adam Brace’s play, as I did his earlier piece Stovepipe (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/stovepipe), and Michael Longhurst’s excellent production, with a fine cast of just twelve in multiple roles and an on-stage three-piece band. Definitely worth catching.

 

Gareth on the move

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I’ve got a soft spot for this late Shakespeare play. How can you not like something with a man-eating bear, Time as a character to explain the passing of sixteen years between acts, a sheep-shearing festival with a dance of satyrs and a statue that comes alive! This production in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker is the finest I’ve ever seen.

It’s got a very dark beginning, with the king’s rampant suspicion and unfounded jealousy leading to deaths of the queen and the young prince and the abandonment of a baby princess. When the oracle declares the queen innocent, the king is initially unrepentant, but later becomes wracked with guilt. Meanwhile in Bohemia, the prince has fled and hooked up with a shepherd’s daughter but get’s found out at the aforementioned sheep-shearing festival. The progress from here to the happy ending is a joy.

Like Cymbeline a couple of weeks ago the play, also written for an indoor playhouse, fits this one like a glove. Again, it had few props but gorgeous costumes from Richard Kent and some particularly original and quirky choreography from Fleur Darkin.

John Light is a terrific Leontes and Rachael Stirling is great as Hermoine. I very much liked Niamh Cusak as Paulina and there was a superb comic turn from James Garnon as Autolycus. Luxury casting in the smaller parts too, with David Yelland particularly good as Antigonus and Fergal McElherron likewise as Camillo. Director Michael Longhurst has assembled an outstanding ensemble.

This late play season at the SWP is turning into a real treat. Bring on The Tempest!

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Penelope Skinner’s new play explores ‘body fascism’ through the life of Linda, a successful, award winning businesswoman. Though it takes a while to take off, and it didn’t quite sustain its 2h 40m length, it’s a worthwhile play exploring an important subject in a very interesting way.

Linda is Marketing Director for a cosmetics company and she’s responsible for making them global players and taking them in a new direction with anti-ageing products. Her boss and colleagues revere her and she’s happily married with two daughters. Then her life begins to fall apart. Her husband has a brief fling with a much younger girl. An ambitious and somewhat Machiavellian employee sets her up for an indiscretion and subsequently ensures it goes viral, just like she did for her daughter when they were both at school. Within this narrative there is a lot of stuff about attitudes to the female body, ageing and the way women are treated in comparison to men.  I felt some of the message was a touch heavy-handed and the play a shade melodramatic in tone, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Es Devlin has created another of her extraordinary designs, this time a multi-level revolving white structure which sits in a pool of water and contains multiple rooms at home and office. I think it’s meant to symbolise the company’s name – Swan – whose motto is ‘Changing the world, one girl at a time’. The all pervading muzak and bright glitzy corporate look are just as cringe-worthy as the motto. This design has given director Michael Longhurst full reign for an imaginative staging which gets dramatically expressionistic towards the end.

Linda is a big part and Noma Dumezweni only had a week to learn it. She sometimes refers to pieces of script, but this hardy distracts as she carries them like normal documents at work and home. It’s a Herculean task which she pulls off with great style to give a fine performance. I was also impressed by Amy Beth Hayes ice cool turn as her nemesis Amy.

Though it has its flaws, it’s amongst the best of the Court’s recent crop of new main house plays.

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