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Posts Tagged ‘Minerva Theatre Chichester’

The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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This is the third new play by the prolific James Graham in four months, the other two (Ink & Labour of Love) still running in the West End, perhaps soon to become a trio with this. He’s cornered the market with recent history plays and what I love most about his work is that he recalls history you’ve lived through, illuminates and educates, but never forgets to entertain.

This has stylistic similarities with his underrated Monster Raving Loony, where he used British comedy shows to tell the story of that indispensable political party led by Screaming Lord Sutch. Here, the focus is on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire cheating scandal through the history of quiz shows, with examinations of the psychology of, and motivation for, participation and that very British obsession with fairness and equality along the way. It’s got the same playfulness (an audience quiz, with prizes, voting and even participation) and sense of fun, enhancing the storytelling and guaranteeing the entertainment.

We move from the creation of ITV, it’s earlier game shows and the pitch for this one to the entry and preparation by a network of very determined and thorough individuals to the show itself and the court case which followed, which itself became a bit of an entertainment in a life-imitates-art sort of way. It was fascinating on so many levels and always entertaining. Robert Jones’ terrific set takes you right into the TV studio, but also becomes the court and other locations. Lights, music, live projection and recorded video all add to the authenticity.

Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street are excellent as the Ingram’s, the couple at the centre of the storm that became an (untelevised) courtroom drama and international media circus. Nine other actors play over forty roles between them, from three to seven each. Keir Charles gets to be Chris Tarrant, Des O’Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Bruce Forsyth in quick succession; five terrific turns! We even get a Corrie cameo to illustrate a question, with Sarah Woodward and Nadia Albina bringing the house down as Hilda Ogden & Elsie Tanner respectively. The audience voted on their guilt twice and the verdict changed from one to the other, as it had in the vast majority of previous shows (but not me!)

Daniel Evans’ production zips along, captivates and entertains, but you also get an intriguing story within a frame of recent social history, this time popular culture. The return trip to Chichester was twice as long as the play, but it was well worth it.

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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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It’s always good to see theatre tackling current issues, and it’s particularly good to see the Chichester theatres, home of musicals, revivals and ‘safe’ new plays, doing so; particularly as Fracking is also a local issue. On the whole, this was successful in presenting all sides of the arguments and does so entertainingly, though it comes off the fence in the end.

Deerland Energy is applying for a fracking permit, aided by a PR firm with some dubious methods. The local council appear to be about to cave in, but they haven’t accounted for the unlikely opposition of retired professor-turned-campaigner Elizabeth, who starts by outing a university professor in the pay of oil companies and continues by turning the planning chair’s sister against him by pointing out the chaos it would unleash on her quiet neighbourhood. She’s seen by the activists as a trump card and becomes so passionate she follows the path from campaigner to activist herself. Odious PR man Joe digs into his dirty tricks bag and the planning chair wavers.

It’s a satire and it’s often very funny. It’s very up-to-date, with some lines bringing the house down with their acid response to very recent events. That said, it does cover a reasonable amount of ground when it comes to scientific background and different perspectives. The environmental consequences are covered, but so are the NIMBY attitudes of the local hypocrites driving gas-guzzling cars. The endless switching from short scenes in Elizabeth’s home to the PR office and back, where most of the play takes place, became a bit irritating, but Richard Wilson’s production is otherwise well paced, and it held my attention throughout.

As always, Anne Reid is a pleasure to watch, and this is a very different role for her, one which she appears to relish. James Bolam is excellent as her put-upon husband who doesn’t share her passion and resents its intrusion into his quiet retirement. Oliver Chris is well cast as the PR man you love to hate, a real modern day baddie. Michael Simkins makes the energy company CEO sympathetic, at least initially, which helps give the play balance. They are well supported by nine other actors in multiple roles.

Following mediocre reviews, this exceeded my expectations again and, paired with Half a Sixpence, made for a great day out in Sussex!

 

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This is the second collaboration between British musical theatre team George Stiles & Anthony Drewe and American book writers Ron Cowan & Daniel Lipman and it’s just as quintessentially British as their previous offering, Betty Blue Eyes (a musical adaptation of the Alan Bennett film A Private Function). This musical adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel isn’t as good as the previous show, but it still has much to commend it.

I rather wish I’d had an Aunt Augusta; someone to lead you astray, show you the world and encourage you to live life to the full, as she does with her somewhat old, recently retired nephew Henry Pulling. Come to think of it, I didn’t really need an Aunt Augusta. Their adventures take them from London on trains, boats and planes to Paris, Milan and Istanbul, and even further afield to Argentina and Paraguay, where she is at last reunited with her former lover Visconti. It lends itself well to musical adaptation and the songs are particularly good at emphasising the location of scenes. I wouldn’t say it was a great score, but it’s OK. The feel of the novel is maintained and the characterisations are spot on.

Patricia Hodge is perfectly cast as Aunt Augusta – stern, strong willed and more than a bit naughty. She’s not really a singer, but her sung dialogue seemed in keeping with the character. Steven Pacey also perfectly captures the conservative Henry, more than a bit dull, torn between continuing to be stuck in the mud and being led astray, but plumping for the latter in the end. In a fine supporting cast, I particularly liked Hugh Maynard’s Wordsworth, the life and soul of the party. Colin Falconer’s clever design anchors it in an old-fashioned railway station, with the band in an elevated signal box, a waiting room that moves, destination board and those iconic cast iron pillars. His costumes are great too. Christopher Luscombe’s staging benefits from the intimacy of the Minerva Theatre.

I’m not sure why it doesn’t quite sparkle, but there’s enough to make it a worthwhile adaptation and a decent night out.

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Well, it isn’t going to be a fun-filled theatrical week, that’s for sure. On Monday, it was a chemotherapy clinic, later today it’s the man who invented the bomb, tomorrow it’s Les Miserables (schools edition!), Saturday it’s Greek tragedy (in Dutch) and this one concerns the Nazi horrors of the 1930’s! Playwright Mark Hayhurst is not content with making both a TV drama and a TV documentary on the same subject, he wrote a play too, and a playwriting debut to boot, now transferred from Chichester to the West End. It’s the little known story of Hans Litten, a young lawyer who put Hitler in the dock in 1931 and cross-examined him and its rather good.

It’s told from the perspective of his mother, who talks direct to the audience as well as appearing in scenes with other characters, all male, and there’s nothing like a mother to tell her son’s story with passion. We follow Hans from arrest through three concentration camps to his death whilst his mother works tirelessly for better treatment or even release for her son, confronting Gestapo officers head on. Penelope Wilton combines steely determination with defiance and dignity in a superb performance as Irmgard Litten. The scenes of imprisonment and torture are harrowing, but the story could not be told properly if they weren’t. We only see the cross-examination which unleashes the Nazi wrath towards the end, in flashback.

In addition to Dame Penelope, there are fine, sensitive performances from Martin Hutson as Hans and Pip Donaghy and Mike Grady as fellow prisoners Erich Muhsam and Carl von Ossietzky (who won a Nobel Prize for peace whilst captivated), John Light as Nazi Dr Conrad and David Yelland as a British peer who seeks to help Irmgard. Robert Jones’ design has a suitably claustrophobic ‘corridor’ at the rear where prison scenes are enacted and the stage is thrust forward into the stalls, bringing a real engagement with Irmgard’s story. It’s beautifully staged by Jonathan Church. Not an easy ride, but one worth making.

 

 

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This is the sixth, and probably last, of my Rattigan centenary productions. His short one-acter, The Browning Version, set in a public school in the 40’s is usually paired with another one-acter called Harlequinade. Here it’s paired with a new play from David Hare set in a similar school 20 years later.

Rattigan’s play is a deeply moving tale of a school master with an unfaithful wife and unfair employer, but at its heart is an act of kindness by a pupil. A set of superb performances make Angus Jackson’s production shine like a gem. Nicholas Farrell as the master is initially pompous and irritating, but then almost breaks your heart. Anna Chancellor is icy cold as his unfaithful wife and Mark Umbers diffident but ultimately sympathetic as her lover. Liam Morton gives a very nuanced performance as the boy, a most auspicious professional debut. It’s a subtle and sensitive staging which benefits greatly from the intimacy of the Minerva space.

Hare’s ‘curtain raiser’ shows 60’s boys more questioning and challenging, but little else has changed in public schools with bullying a fact of daily school life. Older pupil Jeremy takes young John under his wing introducing him to his mother, Anna Chancellor now in a much more sympathetic role.  Again, an act of kindness is at the heart of the play, but this time we see things from the perspective of the pupil. The younger boys – Alex Lawther’s John, Jack Elliott’s Gunter (two more outstanding professional debuts) and Bradley Hall’s Jenkins are terrific and again the staging, this time by Jeremy Herrin, is subtle and sensitive.

Though they are very different plays, they sit very comfortably together and provide a deeply rewarding and very human evening, linked by these acts of kindness 20 years apart and 50-70 years ago, yet timeless.

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