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Posts Tagged ‘national theatre’

Writer / director Alexander Zeldin’s last play LOVE, about homelessness, also in the Dorfman Theatre at the National, had a huge impact on me. Although I knew what was happening to our welfare system, it confronted me with the consequences very vividly in an emotional rollercoaster that made me sad, angry and ashamed. This is a companion piece, very much in the same style.

Hazel is a volunteer running a drop-in centre providing a hot meal to anyone who needs one, but it becomes much more than that. There’s a choir, with it’s temporary choirmaster Mason, who also helps with the lunches, and advice, counselling, companionship, and belonging provided by Hazel, a woman brimming with compassion and a heart of gold. Just about everything the state no longer provides, in fact.

One of the main threads in the play involves Beth, whose daughter has been taken into care, and her sixteen-year-old son, who’s been forced to become the responsible one in this single parent family. Young Anthony and old Bernard live in an unwelcoming hostel which they escape from for a few hours. Karl fills at least one gap of the many his carer can no longer fill. Tharwa and her daughter Tala come for food, but get so much more. A slice of life in uncaring Britain.

Zeldin’s theatrical style is heightened realism and natural pacing. Natasha Jenkins’ extraordinary design places the audience as onlookers in an authentic community centre in natural indoor light, with characters sometimes occupying seats amongst us. The cast, including three from the previous play, inhabit these characters fully, with the wonderful Cecilia Noble as Hazel, the heart of the piece in every sense, Nick Holder excellent as the very complex Mason, and an empathetic performance from Alan Williams as Bernard.

In some ways it’s LOVE Part Two, but I didn’t find it as bleak and harrowing, perhaps because Hazel represents the kindness real people offer to compensate for what the system no longer does, and there are flashes of humour which provides some release. It still had much impact, though; important, urgent theatre that has to be seen.

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Simon Woods is a very lucky man to get his debut play on an NT main stage with two of our finest actors to bring his characters alive, but I have to say his play deserves it.

It’s set in the Cotswold home of the Hesketh’s in late May 1988. Robin is a Tory MP, just home from Westminster on his birthday to find Diana his wife still in her dressing gown. She clearly doesn’t share his politics and is particularly scornful of the Thatcher government’s latest slice of right wing homophobic divisiveness, Clause 28, designed to prevent local authorities ‘promoting’ homosexuality or gay lifestyles.

They bicker and snipe, sometimes gentle banter, but sometimes viscously, on topics including politics and Westminster personalities or more personal matters. Diana is suspicious of Robin’s fidelity and he is disapproving of her drinking. The dialogue sparkles and there are some terrifically funny lines, which Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings deliver to perfection. When the subject turns to a tragedy from the past, the tone changes completely and it becomes deeply moving.

Duncan captures the essence of the melancholic, unfulfilled Diana beautifully, whilst Jennings combines the old Etonian boyishness with the pomposity of a man who feels he’s born to lead. The performances are delicate and nuanced, as is Simon Godwin’s staging. Everything about the production serves the play. The Lyttelton seems to shrink as two people captivate an audience of 900 people.

It felt very timely, and not just because of the Eton jokes! It says a lot about the disconnect between those who govern and those being governed, but it’s also a very absorbing and entertaining story of the lives of these two people.

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It’s a tribute to the Sydney Theatre Company that they’ve gone ahead with this NT run after the tragic death of the story’s narrator Ningali Lawford-Wolf at the end of their Edinburgh Festival visit, and to Pauline Whyman who has flown from Australia to read the part in her place. Director Neil Armfield’s moving tribute before it started dedicated the performance to Ningali.

It’s adapted by Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s novel, inspired by her research into her ancestors. South Londoner William Thornhill was deported for what would now be considered a very minor crime as an alternative to execution. After a period of incarceration he is pardoned and with his wife Sal and sons Dick and Willie sets his sights on building a new life in Australia, though Sal reluctantly so, and for only five years. They take 100 acres on the Hawkesbury River, just 30 miles from Sydney, where a handful of other settlers have set up home, and begin to farm it whilst William also earns money from the use of his boat. The land is of course already inhabited by the indigenous Dharug people, and conflict ensues. There are attempts to build a friendship between these two peoples, notably by William & Sal, even more so their youngest son Willie, but other settlers’ actions lead to bloodshed.

It’s a surprising emotional ride. You find yourself sympathising with these settlers, disowned by their own country for the pettiest of crimes which would today incur a small fine, community service or even a caution, sent thousands of miles away from their homes and families to what they see as a hostile place. The fact they once lived on the doorstep of this theatre some 200 years ago adds a certain frisson. As the story progresses though, you become angry at their hostility, racism and violence, with more than a touch of shame; they are our ancestors after all.

The Aboriginal actors speak Dharung and there is no attempt at translation or surtitling, which I thought added authenticity to the storytelling. There is superb atmospheric music written by Iain Grandage, played live by Isaac Hayward. The simple design, a bare stage with just a fire, surrounded by branches and occasionally covered in water, earth or powder is very evocative. It’s a terrific ensemble, excellently led by Nathanial Dean and Georgia Adamson as the Thornhill’s. Pauline Whyman has great presence as Dhirrumbin and given her role is the story’s narrator, reading the part is not at all detrimental. I’ve admired Neil Armfield’s work in theatre and opera since I saw Cloudstreet at the Riverside Studios twenty years ago, and his staging here is masterly.

It’s great to welcome the Sydney Theatre Company to the NT, despite the tragedy en route. A very fine play, a very fine production and a fitting tribute.

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This 1912 play was last seen at the NT 25 years ago, in a production by Katie Mitchell (before she went on to deconstruct and destroy plays!). Since then, it’s been named one of the 100 most influential plays of the 20th Century, and its easy to see why. It must have been shocking to see a prominent industrialist portrayed as a bully on stage over 100 years ago.

John Rutherford owns a glassworks in the industrial North East. Though we’re not explicitly told, he appears to be a widower, living with and looked after by his sister Ann and his spinster daughter Janet. His children have been a big disappointment to him. Richard has become a curate and John Junior, who he hoped would take over the business, has married beneath him and shows no interest in the family firm, though he has returned home to try and sell his father an invention. John thinks he’s entitled to be given it after spending a small fortune on John Junior’s education at Harrow. As the play unfolds he belittles Richard, sends John Junior and Janet away and manipulates John Junior’s wife Mary into involving him in bringing up his grandson.

Sowerby was the daughter of a North East glass manufacturer, so this may be wholly or partly biographical. In any event, the play was brave. It was first attributed to a writer with initials, so the sex was ambiguous and widely assumed to be a man. After all, there weren’t any female playwrights. The first act is a bit slow, and I’m not sure if this is the writing or the production, but it gains pace after the interval. Polly Findlay’s production, with designs by Lizzie Clachan, has great authenticity, with atmosphere created by rain and the movement of the house in which they live, plus a group of female voices singing folk inspired songs a capella.

Roger Allam is brilliant as Rutherford, commanding the stage as well as his family. Sam Troughton, Justine Mitchell and Harry Hepple are excellent as the three siblings who have grown into such different people. Joe Armstrong is great as Rutherford’s right hand man and Barbara Marten is superb as the ice cold uber conventional sister Ann. Lovely performances all round.

Good to see it again, in as fine a production as you could wish for.

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Coming full circle, Michael Frayn’s clever and funny subversive farce comes back to the theatre where it started 37 years ago. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and subsequent productions – the NT in 2000, the Old Vic in 2011 – have confirmed it’s enduring power, as does this revival.

Frayn got the idea when he saw a short farce of his from backstage and realised it was even funnier, so he wrote a farce about a farce called Nothing On touring the UK. The first act is the final rehearsal, the ‘technical’, just hours before the premiere performance in Weston-super-Mare, the second is a month later in Ashton-under-Lyne at the midweek matinee, and the third is the final night of the three month tour in Stockton-on-Tees. The same act of Nothing On is performed in each act of Noises Off, except the second act is actually backstage during the performance. Still with me? As the tour progresses, relationships between the actors and backstage staff form, break and change, becoming very dysfunctional by Stockton.

Good farce is intricate, requiring high precision, but this even more so, and the pleasure you derive from the comedy is matched by the awe you have of the actors’ skills in pulling it off. The second act in particular is masterly, as it’s effectively two plays playing simultaneously, one a kind of dumb-show in front of you ‘backstage’ and another on the stage behind seen through the set window, Act One of Nothing On in front of the Ashton audience. When I wasn’t weeping with laughter, I was agape at the sheer hutzpah of it’s execution.

The class of 2019 are a match for those that went before, with Jonathan Cullen as Jonathan Fellowes playing Philip Brent and Daniel Rigby as Garry Lejeune playing Roger Tramplemain taking the brunt of the physical demands of Frayn’s play, though the other seven actors all shine too. Max Jones’ set makes an impressively short change between the interval-less backstage second act and the front-stage third. Jeremy Herrin’s staging is as slick at being unslick as you could wish for.

Though farce has gone out of fashion, Mischief Theatre, with their ‘goes wrong’ series, have proven that there’s still an audience for it if you make it clever and skilful. Frayn did that with this 37 years ago, and it’s still the pinnacle of the form, about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on! The previous three London productions all transferred to the West End, the first running five years and the second two years, both with multiple casts. It would be a brave person who bet against this following suit; it would be a particular tonic at the present time.

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I missed this at the Bush Theatre last year, so I was pleased the NT picked it up. By the time it finished, pleased became delighted. It’s a play which tackles serious issues with great warmth, delicacy and humour. I loved it.

Kelly is a feisty, funny twenty-something with Down syndrome living with her mum Agnes in Skegness and working for a charity. She has a high degree of independence, but Agnes is very protective. They are very close, but the relationship is tested when Kelly strikes up a friendship with Neil, who works in an amusement arcade. This friendship becomes a relationship which Agnes tries hard to break up, including finding Dominic from Scunthorpe on the internet, a boy with asperger’s, to date Kelly, which makes Kelly even more entrenched.

Agnes finds it hard to believe that Neil is genuinely in love, fearing exploitation. The relationship continues, though the course becomes rockier, for reasons it would be a spoiler to disclose, and they separate at one point. Neil and Kelly are subjected to disbelief, discrimination and abuse by some they meet. Dominic becomes a wise confidante of both Agnes and Kelly. 

It sensitively covers issues around disability, particularly reconciling the genuine wish and need to protect with the appropriate degree of independence and freedom, but it does so with such humour it is at the same time truly entertaining, without losing any of its impact. It’s beautifully written by Ben Weatherill, who has a real talent for sharp and witty dialogue that often surprises.

Sarah Gordy is captivating as Kelly, clearly relishing and identifying with her gutsy, sharp-tongued character. In an appropriately restrained performance, Sion Daniel Young brings an authenticity to this loving relationship, investing his character with gentleness, sensitivity and empathy. Penny Layden captures both the love and protectiveness of Agnes, bringing a seriousness that balances the humour of other characters. Nicky Priest is delightful as Dominic, delivering some of the funniest lines to perfection with deadpan delivery, the whole audience falling for his charm.

It’s a tonic to see such a heart-warming, hopeful show, informing and entertaining in equal measure. A real treat.

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The first time I saw Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, on the same Olivier stage almost 30 years ago, it was so slow and turgid we decided an earlier dinner would be preferable to the second half. We’d finished our meal before the rest of the audience left the theatre, rather pleased with ourselves. I felt a bit like that at the first interval of this version by David Hare ‘after Henrik Ibsen’, but there were enough moments in Jonathan Kent’s production to send me back and see it through. It’s overlong and uneven, but there is much to enjoy.

Peter is Scottish, from Dunoon, and that’s where the story starts when he returns from a war, though not to a hero’s welcome. His girlfriend is about to get married to someone else and just about everyone, including his mother, sees him for the pathological liar and fantasist he is. It’s a while before he starts his journey (too long), first to meet the mountain king in the land of the trolls, who have selfish ways and intentions. From here, we find him at his golf course in Florida (yes!) a businessman with fingers in lots of pies, but a Frenchman, Icelander & Russian woman wipe him out. On to North Africa and the Middle East to make mischief and money before returning home to discover his legacy and destiny.

It’s a good time to revive it, in a world full of self-obsession, ego and greed, and Hare’s updating often works well. Amongst the highlights are the mountain king scene, Florida, at sea and the final scene, but it’s crying out for some editing to provide more focus and improve its pacing. Peter is a hugely challenging part, but James McArdle rises to it with a towering performance, often commanding the stage alone. Richard Hudson’s design sometime fills the stage thrillingly (the scene at sea) but other scenes seem lost on this vast stage. There’s great use of music, with particularly fine vocals from Tamsin Carroll.

It’s heading to the Edinburgh Festival (hence the Scottish setting?) where I suspect the somewhat conservative ladies from Morningside will go beyond their customary tut-tutting and vote with their feet, as quite a few did in an already sparse audience on Wednesday. I’m glad I didn’t, though, but I do wish they’d had the nerve to trim it to improve it; it’s not too difficult to see where that would be possible. In this form, only a partial success.

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