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Posts Tagged ‘national theatre’

I’ve rarely left the theatre of late feeling totally satisfied by a new play. Until this. The pandemic has made the wait five rather than three years for the second in David Eldridge’s relationships trilogy, but it was well worth the wait. Hopefully, it won’t take as long for the third – End? – as I for one am already full of anticipation.

Like Beginning before it, it’s a two-hander, played in real time over 100 minutes during a sleepless night in Maggie & Gary’s Essex home. Gary’s trajectory from market boy to City slicker is like many of his generation from Essex. It’s enabled him to afford the six-bedroom home, private prep school for daughter Annabel and holidays abroad, at a price. Maggie was late to motherhood, after problems conceiving, and has only recently returned to her career. This should be a success story in so many ways.

It’s a lot more than this personal story, though. It covers universal themes, things so many experience in midlife, many important and prescient issues, as Maggie & Gary’s marriage unravels before your eyes. They include the cost of success and the price (in fulfilment) of motherhood. I found myself connected and emotionally engaged with these, which seem to have become even more urgent during the pandemic, with many people focusing so much more on the work-life balance. If only Maggie and Gary had.

Though they are both regulars on our TV screens, we don’t see enough of Clare Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan on stage. Clare has already provided a cinematic highlight this year with Ali & Ava, now she provides a stage highlight to match it, a woman late to motherhood struggling to bond with her child and achieve the fulfilment her career once provided. Daniel is on an equally captivating roller coaster ride from frustration and despair to helplessness and rage with a character that’s high on ambition, but low on emotional intelligence. These are such visceral, committed performances you can’t help but empathise with their characters. The same creative team – director Polly Findlay and designer Fly Davis – handle the material with the same sensitivity.

You could never have the same intense, deeply rewarding experience as this in any other art form. It’s why I go to the theatre. You’d be completely bonkers to miss it.

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I have to confess I knew next to nothing about the assassination of Gandhi, and not much more about post-war Indian history. What I knew about the partition I learnt from another play, Howard Brenton’s Drawing the Line. When I was at school history studies focused on Europe and ended in 1939! So if nothing else, I learnt a lot from this play, and the excellent programme.

Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar chooses to tell the story through the eyes of the assassin, Nathuram Godse, interweaving his early life with key events in Gandhi’s life, plus the politics of colonialism, race and religion. He narrates his story, talking directly to the audience with an irreverence, and with contemporary references. This is audacious, but it works.

None of the interested parties come out of that period of history well, the British too focused on a quick fix and the regional players struggling to compromise. Any solution was going to upset someone and it was inevitable that implementation would be fraught and long. The revelation for me was that the love for Gandhi, the ‘father of the country’ wasn’t universal and it was the detractors who felt he was betraying the Hindu cause that dealt the fatal blow.

Indhu Rubasingham’s production has an organic flow, using the often problematic Olivier stage to great effect, with an impressionistic design by Rajha Shakiry, whose focal point is a giant partly woven cloth. Siddhartha Khosla’s music and Oliver Fenwick’s lighting add atmosphere. It’s a great ensemble of British Asian actors, with Paul Bazely embodying Gandhi and Shubham Saraf a defiant Godse, and a cheeky narrator. Marc Elliott was particularly good as Nehru, independent India’s first leader.

Good to see the NT’s main stage hosting some non-European history for a change, and on an epic scale like this.

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I don’t think there’s been a stage adaptation of this George Orwell novella in London for thirty-eight years, when Peter Hall put it on in the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre. That was in 1984 – spooky! Orwell’s novel 1984 was last adapted for the stage, very successfully, just eight years ago by Robert Icke at the Almeida and on tour. He’s also responsible for this equally successful page to stage transfer. In the annals of theatre, there is pre-War Horse and post-War Horse. We’re well into the latter epoch, so the key to this one’s success is Toby Olie’s extraordinary puppetry.

Orwell’s allegorical fable is said to be inspired by the Russian revolution, where the push for equality ultimately results in dictatorship, still the case there more than a century later. At Manor Farm the animals, led by one of the pigs, Napoleon, successfully usurp Farmer Jones in their quest for freedom, happiness and equality, with seven commandments outlining their objectives and governing principles. Power of course corrupts and the pigs break them one by one, until Napoleon reinvents himself as a clone of Jones. More animals die in the post-revolutionary days than ever did during it.

The entire ‘cast’ of horses, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks and geese, together with dogs, cats and birds, populate the virtually bare stage, expertly handled by fourteen puppeteers, a few of which also take acting roles. It’s performed at great pace, aided by corrugated iron screens which move from side to side. Electronic displays signpost the scenes, notably the weekly meetings which go from democratic debate and voting to autocratic declarations, tell us how much time has passed and somewhat macabrely announce each loss of life.

Given the number of children and young adults in the audience, it must be a set school text (given the contemporary parallels, surely the present government will stop this soon?!). The speed of the storytelling holds the attention of those in the video & social media age. It drives home Orwell’s satirical points brilliantly, without any heavy-handedness, with occasional black humour, veering to chilling at times.

This is a high quality, accessible work that is likely to provide a positive introduction to live theatre for young people, as well as reminding us all of the fine line between democracy and dictatorship. The visit to Richmond is over, but it can still be seen in Wolverhampton and Bromley.

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When you go to the revival of a play that once shocked, you usually wonder why. What shocked in the past rarely shocks as much as time passes. Not in this case. John Lahr’s virtually verbatim 1986 play based on Joe Orton’s diaries, which Lahr had only just edited and published, displays behaviour and attitudes, like under-age sex, we find completely unacceptable in 2002.

I was familiar with the 1987 film and 2009 stage play based on Lahr’s 1987 biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, the former adapted by Alan Bennett and the latter by Simon Bent, but I didn’t even know this earlier stage work based on the diaries themselves existed. It apparently started as a 45 minute NT early evening ‘platform’ performance, was almost immediately expanded into a complete play at the Kings Head Theatre and then transferred to the suitably seedy Boulevard Theatre, but hasn’t been seen in London in the 36 years since.

Orton was a working class boy from Leicester who got into RADA in 1951, even more of an achievement then than now given his background. There he met Kenneth Halliwell, with whom he had a complicated relationship. Sixteen years later Halliwell murdered him, then took his own life. They lived in Halliwell’s Islington bedsit the whole of that time, even after Orton had made significant money. Halliwell was a source of ideas for his work, his partner and lover, but Orton was never faithful and Halliwell often felt confused and rejected by him.

Joe’s short playwriting career is based on just two full evening stage plays produced in his lifetime – Educating Mr Sloane & Loot, works which combined irreverence, cynicism and absurdity to great comic effect, a highly original voice. There were other pieces, produced and un-produced, including radio and TV plays, a few one-act plays and a screenplay for The Beatles, and another major play, What the Butler Saw, produced posthumously.

This is a real insight into Orton and Halliwell, perhaps the first example of verbatim theatre, though only one voice. Nico Rao Pimpare’s production zips along but has much depth, packing a lot into less than two hours playing time. George Kemp captures the cheeky irreverent charm of Orton whilst Toby Osmond conveys the emotional complexity of Halliwell, both excellent. There are forty-six other characters, including agent Peggy Ramsey, Kenneth’s Williams & Cranham, Paul McCartney & Brian Epstein, their neighbours and Orton’s relatives, all played by just four actors – Jemma Churchill, Jamie Zubairi, Sorcha Kennedy and Ryan Rajan Mal – in a dazzling display of quick-fire role switching.

A very welcome revival that proves to be a fascinating evening.

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My relationship with verbatim theatre blows hot and cold. The toughest thing for me is the intrusiveness in the subjects’ lives, and sometimes the humour extracted at their expense. It was particularly acute at this because the subjects were minors, and the latter point was accentuated by some people a couple of rows in front who thought the whole thing was an uproarious comedy, their loud laughter jarring.

Alecky Blythe and her team interviewed twelve teenagers over five years from six schools, both state and public, in all four nations of the UK. Each of her ‘collectors’ followed just two subjects. The twelve represent a diversity of sex, race and class. The six hundred hours of recordings have been edited down to three, during which we watch them change and grow up. The actors who portray them also bring alive and populate the piece with their friends, families and teachers.

There are three parts, but its the third, short one, living through the pandemic, which is the most insightful and moving, as we see the impact on their lives, education & careers and mental health. It took a long time to overcome my concerns (not entirely until I read the programme on the way home to discover the subjects had read, and in some cases seen staged, all of their words being used, though not their portrayals) but in the end it proved to be an extraordinary insight into a generation I rarely engage with, and now feel much more empathy for.

It’s worth seeing just for the superb ensemble, who bring both the subjects and their relationships alive, mostly staying on the right side of caricature. Director Daniel Evans further animates this with music, movement and projections. At 3 hours 40 minutes it is too long, though its hard to see how it could be edited further without detriment to the characterisation and storytelling. That said, the part that packed the most punch was half as long as the other two.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, but read the programme interview about the process first, and respect the subjects who have been generous enough to allow us into their lives at a formative stage.

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Another stage adaptation of a book I haven’t read, Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, in a version by Emma Rice for her company Wise Children. It’s quite a challenge given it’s a relatively complex tale covering three generations of two families. I felt it succeeded in part, though fell short of Rice’s best work.

It starts brilliantly with a storm, during which Lockwood visits Heathcliff, his landlord, at his moorland home Wuthering Heights. One of Rice’s inspired moves is to make the moors themselves a chorus. From here we are told about the entangled lives of both the Earnshaws, their children Hindley & Catherine and adopted orphan Heathcliff, and the Lintons, with their children Edgar and Isabella, plus the next generation – Hareton, the son of Frances Earnshaw and Cathy Linton and Linton, the son of Isabella and Heathcliff – leading up to that moment.

From soon after the opening until we meet the young Linton at the beginning of the second half, I felt it lost it’s way a bit, the storytelling laboured and somewhat forced and the ingenuity we’ve come to expect from Rice on hold, though in all fairness my companions didn’t agree, so maybe I lost interest / concentration. Anyway, the second half was very much a return to form, both in terms of storytelling and imaginative stagecraft. There’s a lot of movement and music, maybe too much, though the chorus is excellent. The screen backdrop, most effective projecting flights of birds in unison with their creation by books on stage could maybe have been used more.

Ash Hunter is a charismatic Heathcliff, troubled and troubling. Nandi Bhebhe is excellent as the head of the moors, leading their vocal narrative. I really liked Tama Phethean’s characterisation of Hareton, an imposing presence. Katy Owen almost steals the show as the frail young Linton. It’s overlong at 2 hours 50 mins and if they tightened the narrative and lost some of the first half’s ninety minutes it might be a better play. There’s lots to enjoy, though I can’t say it has made me want to read the book.

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This is a 1955 work by African American playwright Alice Childress, written and first produced at the beginning of the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks challenged segregation the same year) which was staged off-Broadway but never got its planned Broadway run because of the playwright’s refusal to water down its satire on racism in the American theatre. Until 2021, that is, when it finally made it to the ironically named ‘Great White Way’ (actually named after the white lights on billboards and marquees).

The whole play is a rehearsal for a ‘coloured show’, where black actors play stereotypes like servants and ‘mammies’. It sends them up with exaggerated acting and mannerisms. Leading character Wiletta has a song and dance background but is desperate to become a proper actor, something reserved for white people at the time. Though relationships develop and individual character stories emerge, it’s essentially a one issue play. One reviewer of this production suggested each of the three acts are set in historically different periods, moving forward in time, but I have to confess I didn’t see that.

Though it’s important in highlighting unacceptable practices, I felt it was somewhat laboured, often lacked pace and despite the exceptional performances, 2.5 hours felt like a long time to make its point, perhaps less effectively because of the length. I’m not sure it has stood the test of time. Designer Rajha Shakiry has created a very realistic period backstage environment. Tanya Moodie leads an excellent cast that includes the great Cyril Nri, on fine form, a superb performance from Rory Keenan as the director of the play-within-a-play, a delightful cameo from Gary Lilburn as Henry the stage doorman and an outstanding professional debut from Daniel Adeosun as John Nevins, a newbie actor from the same town as Wiletta.

Though the black lives matter movement has made us realise this issue still exists, I’m not sure this play brings them to the fore in a way that would add to the debate and promote reform. I felt it was an interesting period piece rather than a contribution to the current discussion.

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Rufus Norris & Katrina Lindsay have created a new musical adaptation of Sleeping Beauty which is visually stunning, often funny, gradually getting darker, with a terrific central performance by Rosalie Craig as Fairy. With all the Covid malarky, there’s only two weeks left, so they’ve already announced it’s return next Christmas / New Year, delaying the press night until then.

The King & Queen, Rex and Regina, can’t get their daughter Rose to sleep, so they send their steward Smith into the woods to find a fairy who can put a sleep spell on her. Fairy returns with him but is reluctant because it will require something strong that she doesn’t really do, a hex. She does, however, eventually comply, but loses her powers in the process.

Rose sleeps until she is sixteen, when a kiss from a prince will break the spell. Of the ten contenders, Fairy has brought Ben, the son of reformed ogre Queenie, and he successfully wakes her and takes her away to wedlock and children. A few years later, Fairy decides its time he reconnected with his mother so that she can meet his wife and her grandchildren, but she has reverted to type and it all turns dark, very dark.

It could do with a bit of trimming in the first half. Tanya Ronder’s book doesn’t really live up to Rufus Norris’ lyrics, which are left to carry the weight of the narrative more than the dialogue. Jim Fortune’s score is patchy, at it’s best in the opening and closing song Make It All Good and the two songs for the loser princes’ – One Of These Days and Mine Is The Kiss. It’s lowest point is Sixteen, which is like an X-factor contestant over-singing something from Wicked.

In addition to Rosalie Craig, there are excellent performances from Tamsin Carroll as Queenie and Michael Elcock as Ben and Kat Rooney’s turn as baby Rose was spookily brilliant. It’s full of invention, with the palace and a whole load of wheels and broomsticks hanging above the stage, with superb projections onto these and the characters by Ash J Woodward. Lindsay’s costumes are outstanding, with generic styles and colours for both the loser princes and the thorns. I loved the fact the Olivier revolve has its own manual operator!

There’s much to enjoy and they now have time to deal with its faults. Our first date was cancelled, but I’m glad I rearranged it. Above all, a visual treat.

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It was only a week ago that I reappropriated the term ‘kitchen sink drama’ to describe a play which threw in the kitchen sink in terms of subjects and issues, and here we are again with Moira Buffini’s sprawling satire, staged by her sister Fiona. Climate change, the decline of the aristocracy, white supremacy, racism, the NHS……oh, and there’s a comic fat guy. Obviously.

We’re in a rambling run-down manor house by the sea, the family home of Diana, where she lives with her daughter Isis and partner Pete, a one time rock star, one hit wonder even, who has become some sort of caricature of his former self. There is a raging storm, which brings severe floods, and people take shelter at the manor – the local vicar, married but now gay, Ripley & Dora, a mother who works in A&E and her student daughter from South West London, away from home to study, three members of fascist group Albion – Ted, blind Ruth and Anton – and the funny fat guy Perry.

Diana thinks she’s accidentally killed Pete after a tussle on the stairs. Albion’s leader Ted is trying to bed Diana and recruit fay guy Perry. Isis takes a fancy to Dora, and vice versa. I think it’s meant to be an allegory, though this loses focus as it moves from satire to farce. That said, it’s often very funny, the tongue-in-cheek, sometimes camp performances of a fine ensemble led by Nancy Carroll are pleasing, Lez Brotherston’s comic gothic set is brilliant and the storm effects created by Nina Dunn’s projections and Jon Clark’s lighting, are terrific.

Perhaps I’ve become easy to please since lockdown, as I seem to be at odds with the negative critical consensus of both this and Rare Earth Metal at the Royal Court. It’s like the critics lost some of the contents of their stars box and have been dishing out ones and two’s where three’s seem more appropriate. This may be flawed, and a touch long, but it was enjoyable enough to warrant a visit. Whether it should be on such a high profile stage as the Lyttelton is another matter. The rest of the audience seemed even more positive than me. Decide for yourself.

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It’s somewhat ironic that this revival of Larry Kramer’s partly autobiographical AIDS play was delayed by an epidemic / pandemic, though that probably makes it resonate more. The contrast between the response to AIDS it shows and the response to Covid-19 we’ve just experienced is also striking. The parallel between the current debate about differing types of protest, and in particular the use of civil disobedience by environmentalists, wasn’t lost on me either. So an up-to-date 36-year-old play, then.

By the time this was written / produced, US deaths from AIDS had exceeded 5000; the disease had been around for four years. Our protagonist Ned Weeks is a founding member of a HIV support group and much of the play is devoted to the contrast between his confrontational style of advocacy and the more reserved ways of his colleagues, some of whom hadn’t come out. Despite clear medical advice on safe sex, though, all were reluctant to promulgate such advice. It was all about resources to respond and support the stricken community and how best to lobby for these.

As the play develops, we learn more about the disease and are drawn in to personal stories, not least that of Ned’s partner Felix, a closeted journalist dying of it. Ned’s passion becomes anger. He is marginalised by his colleagues as he is losing his lover. The authorities’ response to AIDS is sadly lacking. It makes the reaction to Covid-19 seems so much better (vaccines in less than a year?!), because of the speed of spreading and mode of transmission, perhaps because of what we learnt from AIDS, perhaps because AIDS was seen as only affecting the gay community.

The first part seemed a bit too laboured, perhaps because it focuses too much on the political and not enough on the disease, but the second half punches you in the stomach as it becomes devastating, personal and deeply moving. This is helped by staging in the round, which provides more intimacy than the Olivier can usually muster. The setting, with just benches inside a circular metal structure and four entrances, facilitates a pace and urgency for the storytelling.

Ben Daniels plays Ned with such passion and commitment, on stage virtually the whole time; he inhabits the role fully. A towering, career defining performance. Liz Carr is superb as straight-talking Dr Emma Brookner, just about the only character who challenges Ned effectively. Daniel Monks stands out as Mickey in an older, very different role to his impressive UK debut in Teenage Dick at the Donmar. The rest of the 13 strong cast, all men, provide excellent support.

The original off-Broadway production never made it to Broadway, which seems to echo the response to the disease shown in the play, but the Royal Court’s UK production, initially with Martin Sheen as Ned, did get to the West End. It might be worth noting that the 1988 Cambridge University production was directed by Sam Mendes, with Nick Clegg as Ned!

Like Channel 4’s It’s A sin, this is very timely, though a completely different take. That TV series could only be written now, whilst this was written at the time. The Olivier audience was on it’s feet, and that doesn’t happen very often.

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