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Posts Tagged ‘national theatre’

If you changed the title, and maybe the character names, you’d never know this was an adaptation of a 350-year-old French play. You’d think it was a contemporary farce set in North London with a touch of social satire. It’s jolly good fun, but it’s not really Moliere.

Making it contemporary stretches the plausibility of Orgon falling under the spell of imposter Tartuffe rather a lot, so suspending disbelief is mandatory. Here Tartuffe is some sort of guru, with a hint of religiosity and Buddhism, who looks like an ageing hippy and spends a lot of time in his pants. Both Orgon and his mother Pernelle worship him, believing he is the antidote to the decadence of the family – wife Elmire and her brother Cleante, son Damis & daughter Mariane and her boyfriend Valere, plus housekeeper Dorine.

Orgon tries to marry Mariane to Tartuffe, who is trying to bed Elmire. All are concerned about Orgon’s wealth and Orgon has a bit of a secret that looks like its going to come back to haunt him. The family seek to entrap Tartuffe in order to avoid Mariane’s marriage and keep the money in the family. With the exception of a changed ending to accomodate the updating, the story is intact, though John Donnelly’s new version dispenses with the rhyming couplets, but it does go into verse at the denouement.

Robert Jones superb design is tasteless nouveau riche. The performance style in Blanche McIntyre’s production of John Donnelly’s adaptation is uniformly broad and loud, which does suit farce. Denis O’Hare plays Tartuffe very physically, a larger than life figure, which suits the role well. Kevin Doyle is the perfect foil as Orgon. As Elmire, Olivia Williams proves very adept at the comedy, also becoming very physical as the play progresses. I loved Kitty Archer and Enyi Okoronkwo as the spoilt kids. There’s great work from Kathy Kiera Clarke as the all knowing housekeeper, Hari Dhillon as an indignant Cleante and Geoffrey Lumb as lover & poet Valere, and a delightful cameo from Susan Engel as Pernelle, who gets the show off to a terrific start.

Just go for some fun and you’ll enjoy it, just don’t go expecting a faithful revival of a French classic.

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It would be difficult to find two productions of this play as far apart as this and Joe Hill-Gibbins staging at the Olivier just over five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/edward-II). The latter was on one of London’s biggest stages, this on one of its smallest. At the National, it was a radical take, with live video footage, here it oozes period. The NT’s thrilled me, but this left me rather cold I’m afraid.

It struck me for the first time how much weaker Marlowe’s dialogue is than Shakespeare’s verse; more accessible but nowhere near as beautiful. He packs in 20 years of history, and this production seems to have lost something like thirty minutes, which compounds the issue by making it feel rushed in a ‘let’s get it over with’ sort of way, with characters going into exile and back seeming a bit ‘here we go again’ tiresome. Like other contemporary staging’s, the true nature of Edward & Gaveston’s relationship is more overt but, given the setting of this production, the passionate kisses and embraces seemed at odds with the play. Above all, the story just didn’t engage, or even thrill, as it should. I felt no emotional involvement at all.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a very suitable theatre, and the space is used well. Jessica Worrall’s period costumes are excellent, and the glistening black & gold backdrop takes you to the 14th century. The music mostly suits it, except the use of the West African Kora, beautiful though it is, which seemed totally out of place, conjuring up exotic foreign places rather than medieval Britain. Some of the touches of humour work, like Edward’s propensity to dish out titles played like a running joke, but sometimes it feels a bit flippant. The double and triple casting, using women in male roles, also works, though you have to suspend disbelief when you see a bishop who looks like he’s still at school.

I’ve rarely been disengaged in this lovely theatre by a play I have hitherto found fascinating. Maybe it hasn’t settled yet, but I’m afraid indifference was my primary reaction.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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This is the third year The Mill at Sonning have put a big musical on their small stage, striking gold yet again. It’s amazing how quickly traditions can be established and these shows are already firm seasonal favourites; I now can’t imagine a Christmas without them.

I’ve got a very soft spot for this tale of gamblers, showgirls and the Salvation Army on the streets of 50’s New York City, with a brief visit to the playground that was pre-Castro Cuba. My love of it started at Bristol Old Vic in the 70’s, confirmed by three visits to the iconic NT production in 1982, 1990 & 1996, two to the 2005 Donmar West End revival, the 2015 Chichester production both there and in London, a fine production on the fringe Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in GSMD & LAMDA drama schools and at Wandsworth Prison! It always brings me joy.

The strengths of Joseph Pitcher’s production are the outstanding cast, exceptional musical standards and thrillingly staged scenes in Havana and the sewers of New York. In the opening scene it struggles to conjure the street-life of New York City, but it quickly grows and draws you in to the world of lovable rogues, earnest missionaries and seemingly hopeless relationships. Showstoppers like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sit alongside comic gems A Bushel and a Peck and Take Back Your Mink and romantic ballads I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. I loved the curtain call with the entire cast dressed in Salvation Army uniform with tambourines.

Stephane Anelli makes a great commitment-phobic Nathan, desperate for a venue for his game, bullied by Big Jule from Chicago when he gets one. Natalie Hope is outstanding as Adelaide, capturing her indefatigable devotion to Nathan, great at both the comedy and the naivety, with a spot-on accent. Victoria Serra excels at the earnestness, drunken dancing and helpless infatuation of Sarah, singing beautifully. Richard Carson has a commanding presence as expert gambler Sky and genuine passion in his pursuit of Sarah. Four fine leads and an excellent supporting cast.

I’m now looking forward to what they dish up in Sonning next year, and to my next Guys & Dolls, wherever that might be.

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We seem to be going through a phase of filleting and re-ordering Shakespeare’s plays. The Donmar gave us a shortened Measure for Measure, twice in one evening, with gender swops between them. The National’s Anthony & Cleopatra started as it ended. Now the Almeida’s Richard II has lost an hour and nine characters and also brings forward a later scene. Somewhat ironically, this hyper-radical interpretation returns to Shakespeare’s original title. What comes out the other end is a frantic portrait of a country falling apart; not too difficult to identify with that at the moment. Shakespeare purists probably won’t like it; I found it bold, but not without its faults.

Eight actors play the thirteen characters remaining, in a large metal box, designed by ULTZ with excellent lighting by James Farncombe. in contemporary casual clothes. It’s somewhat manic in style, with fast speech and rapid movement and exaggerated gestures. Buckets of water, blood and soil (amusingly, labelled) get poured over characters and more gauntlets get thrown down in anger and challenge than you’re likely to have seen in your entire Shakespeare playgoing experience. There’s not a lot of subtlety, characterisations are weakened, verse loses beauty and the narrative of the play suffers……but it is a gripping 100 unbroken minutes and you can’t take your eyes off the stage.

The cast, led superbly by Simon Russell Beale as Richard, are uniformly excellent, but I didn’t feel Joe Hill-Gibbins production allowed them to get under the skin of their characters and reveal their psychological depth and motivation. I see Richard II as an introverted, introspective king who didn’t want to be king, uncomfortable with power, as most productions convey, and this didn’t come over here. Though I respect and admire the audacity and creativity, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. It was a bit like watching the Tory party tearing itself and the country apart, and I’d done that before I got to the theatre that day, and indeed every other day at the moment.

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Anais Mitchell’s take on the Orpheus & Eurydice myth is more gig theatre than musical, a brilliantly realised song cycle that fills the Olivier Theatre, maybe the first pinnacle of this new genre.

Rachel Hauck’s brilliant set is part jazz club, part factory, with the band on three tall sections which come apart, and the necessary deep pit for Hades, all superbly lit by Bradley King. Hermes is our MC / narrator, both playful and sinister. The Fates are like a 60’s girl group, slithering sexily around the space. The ‘workers’ are a chorus in both senses of the word, musical and Greek. The seven-piece band plays the jazz influenced score superbly.

Within all of this, the story seems incidental, and I found myself admiring the exceptional score and imaginative stagecraft of Rachel Chavkin’s production more than I did engage with it; I felt no emotional involvement with the doomed couple, perhaps in part because the performances, though musically accomplished, lacked passion. Hades had a compelling malevolence though, and Persephone a cheeky decadence, but Hermes was the one who drew you in.

Eva Noblezada sings beautifully, but she lacked credibility as a modern day Eurydice and Reeve Carney was more pop singer than contemporary Orpheus. Patrick Page’s deeper than deep bass alone was enough to characterise Hades and Amber Gray felt truly captured as Persephone. Andre De Shields as Hermes our narrator though was the star of the show for me. Above all, it’s the music that shines, a fantastic score which leaves you wanting more.

With the leads and creative team all imported, I do worry about our subsidised stages being used as Broadway try-outs, but perhaps I should just be glad we get to see it first, and cheaper!

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Nina Raine’s new play concerns a woman’s attempts to have a child before its too late. Her younger husband Tom leaves her in her late thirties, not wanting the child she does, and she begins to navigate the world of sperm donation. Though it covers a lot of serious issues, it’s an entertaining ride.

Anna approaches many of the men she knows and some she doesn’t, straight and gay, old and young, mostly single, but to no avail. They either decline or agree then subsequently change their minds. She even looks at buying sperm from an online catalogue featuring donor photos and key information like intelligence scores. She discusses options with her family and friends. As time goes on, desperation sets in. We learn a lot about the different options, and issues like ongoing involvement of the donors and the child’s rights.

At first I thought she might be taking the subject lightly, but serious issues are covered well, most notably in a very moving scene where she visits an adult with an anonymous donor father to see things from the child’s perspective. The psychological and emotional strain on women of late child-bearing age wanting children has bern covered before, most recently in the Young Vic’s harrowing contemporary take on Yerma, but this is more specifically about sperm donation, and much lighter in tone, yet just as serious in its own way.

Claudie Blakley is excellent as Anna, on stage virtually the whole time. The rest of the adult cast play two or three roles, with Sam Troughton giving a virtuoso performance as husband Tom and no less than five potential donors, changing character with the turn of the head or a hand brushed through the hair. It’s a simple traverse staging, with characters and props coming from the other two sides and it’s very well paced, the playwright directing.

This is the fourth Raine play tackling important contemporary issues very effectively whilst at the same time providing entertaining, satisfying drama. Well worth a visit.

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