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Great to be back in the NT’s Dorfman Theatre, one of my favourite spaces, configured as a large room in an institution where we go for a week when we die to choose the one memory we will take with us to the afterlife. Filing cabinets and shoes represent the people who have, will and are passing through. We watch a handful of arrivals on Monday and follow them through the week, each led by a guide, someone who came before but never passed through.

It may sound like a depressing premise, but it leads to a lighter, charming and thought-provoking play in the hands of favourite Jack Thorne (based on the Japanese film by Hirokazu Kore-eda), developed by him with designer Bunny Christie and director Jeremy Herrin. It does have the feeling of a collaboration about it, with every component – performances, staging, movement, design, lighting, music, sound – working in harmony. I’ve been rather preoccupied since trying to decide which memory I would choose!

The new arrivals at first struggle with the concept of making such a choice, then grapple with the process of choosing, but by Saturday they are fully absorbed by the memory; well, most of them. The guides take their roles with different levels of seriousness, but all become engaged with their subject’s former life in the process. It’s a necessary process, but a benevolent one; they are genuinely trying to help them move on. They are of all ages and backgrounds, but of all of them, its 90-year-old Beatrice, beautifully played by June Watson, who melts your heart.

The production has a lightness of touch that gives it an other-worldliness in keeping with the material. I found it captivating, moving without being sentimental, it lulled me into a very reflective state. Lovely.

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I haven’t really got back into the swing of blogging theatre yet. I’ve already seen 10 shows (one twice) but have only blogged one, the actor-less Flight at the Bridge Theatre, so I thought I’d catch up. I have an interest in three of the rest, so I’ll just cover the remaining six, in one blog.

Call Mr. Robeson – Greenwich Theatre

It was almost three weeks after Flight, the actor-less one, before this one-man show, for one night only. I have to confess that even though I knew who Paul Robeson was, and was well aware of his historical significance, I didn’t know much about the man and his life. Tayo Aluko, who both wrote and plays Robeson, redressed that with a 90-minute whistle-stop biography with songs, accompanied by Roland Perrin. The vocals were sometimes shaky, and barely audible in the lower register – it was his first live performance for over a year – but it was a comprehensive and captivating biography of a fascinating life.

Out West – Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

It was another two weeks before my next outing, to not one but three one-person plays in one evening, the first of six consecutive days at the theatre. Tanika Gupta’s The Overseas Student told the story of Gandhi’s period in London qualifying to be a lawyer, his first exposure to the idiosyncrasies of the West. Both the play and Esh Alladi’s performance were utterly charming. In Simon Stephens’ Blue Water and Cold and Fresh, Tom Mothersdale’s Jack grapples with his relationship with his dad, whose racism comes to the surface when he embarks on a mixed race marriage which leads to a mixed race son, in a deeply moving tale. Favourite playwright Roy Williams completed the unrelated trio with Go, Girl, a lovely story of a single mum’s pride in her daughter, beautifully realised by Ayesha Antoine, an uplifting conclusion to the evening. Fine writing and fine performances all round.

Under Milk Wood – National Theatre

By now it was time for a stage full of people, a cast of 14 led Michael Sheen, a real favourite of mine, in one of the greatest literary works of my homeland, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It wasn’t written for the stage of course, though I’ve seen it presented successfully as such twice before, once in this very theatre, the National’s Olivier. This version is ‘framed’ by scenes in an old peoples home written by Sian Owen,where Owain Jenkins, a writer, visits his dad, seemingly desperate for reconciliation. The ‘play for voices’ emerges organically as if from the memories of the home’s residents, who play all the characters. I wondered if Owain, who becomes our narrator, was meant to be Thomas. In any event, his words were beautifully spoken by an excellent cast that included Sian Phillips no less, playing three characters.

Romeo & Juliet – Shakespeare’s Globe

This was less successful for me (so my search for a definitive R&J continues). Statements and facts about contemporary teenage mental health and suicide puncture the scenes of Shakespeare’s story of the star crossed lovers, underlined in neon above the stage. I felt it was aimed at a young audience, somewhat heavy-handed, and failed to engage me, despite some fine performances. It had its moments, but the choice of Juliet’s mode of despatch was the final straw for me, steering too far from Shakespeare for my liking. The ‘greatest love story ever told’ becomes a contemporary lecture on mental health.

Bach & Sons – Bridge Theatre

Nina Raine’s play focuses on Johann Sebastian’s family more than his music, as the title suggests, and in particular on the two sons who followed in his footsteps (of the 20 children he had with his two wives, only 10 of whom survived into adulthood). His favourite, Wilhelm, is a drunkard who lives with, and off, his dad. His younger brother Carl ends up working as a musician for Frederick the Great, with whom his relationship is somewhat ambiguous. A scene where JS visits Frederick only to be humiliated by him and his son for his obsession with counterpoint is the only time we see Bach away from home. Simon Russell Beale is perfect for the part and I enjoyed the play, though it was a bit slow and dark (lighting wise) in the first half. I felt it needed more than the 7 characters and more (live) music to animate it, in an Amadeus way, but Covid no doubt put paid to that.

Last Abbott of Reading – Reading Abbey Ruins

An outdoor treat from Rabble Theatre amidst the ruins of the abbey on the 900th anniversary of its founding. Staged very effectively in-the-round, it tells the story of Abbott Hugh Faringdon’s rise from nowhere to become a key religious figure and friend of Henry VIII, until the king, under Cromwell’s influence, closes the Abbey and has Hugh murdered. The Abbott’s mother Alice acts as a narrator, a device which worked really well. The costumes were excellent, the space atmospheric, the performances very good indeed; Beth Flintoff’s play was excellent storytelling. Well worth a trip to Reading.

It’s good to be back, and all venues took safety seriously and organised things well, but I can’t wait to be maskless, for me the one deterrent left to true enjoyment of theatre.

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Though it’s still set in the 50’s, but relocated to the US, the moral message of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play seem very now. Though it’s a long evening, I really enjoyed it.

The North Eastern US town of Slurry is down on its luck. Factories have closed, jobs are hard to get and no-one has money to spend, but the world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, is about to return home, and expectations are high. She has a track record of philanthropy, traveling the world scattering money as she goes. She also seems to collects husbands along the way. Trains no longer stop at Slurry, but she makes sure hers does.

It isn’t long before she offers an extraordinary sum – one billion dollars – to the town and its people, but there are conditions. People start spending, running up credit with willing retailers, and the town makes expensive plans. There’s a sense of anticipation, even though the price would be very high indeed, particularly for her old flame Alfred. Finally a meeting is called where the residents will vote on whether to accept the money, and therefore accept and implement her demands. Claire looks on, in control, vengeance on her mind.

Director Jeremy Herrin has resources only the NT could provide – a cast of twenty-eight, five musicians, a choir, children and supernumeraries. Designer Vicki Mortimer conjures up a railway station, town hall, shops, homes and a forest, with excellent period costumes by Moritz Junge and superb lighting from Paule Constable. Paul Englishby’s jazz infused score adds much to the period feel and atmosphere.

Hugo Weaving is superb as Alfred, with a huge physical presence and a pitch perfect vocal tone and accent. Lesley Manville plays Claire brilliantly, ice cool, determined, vindictive and unforgiving. They are surrounded by a terrific ensemble that includes luxury casting like Nicholas Woodeson as the Mayor, Sara Kestelman as the school principal and Joseph Mydell as the church minister.

They seem to have cut it considerably during previews, but it’s still too long at 3.5 hours, albeit with two intervals. That said, it’s a wonderful production which in my view has to be seen. The story of a town that sells its soul to the devil in a Faustian pact with the richest woman in the world proves timeless. As it is, was and forever will be, there’s nothing people won’t do for money.

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No other art form could tell this story so well. It would have nowhere near the same impact on screen, big or small, or on the page. Clint Dyer & Roy Williams’ one-man monologue takes you hostage at close quarters, and Rafe Spall inhabits his character Michael in a towering performance of energy, passion and playfulness.

Michael is a lovable Londoner. He loves his mum, but worships his dad, who has a flower stall in the market. He’s a bit contemptuous of his sister. His best friend Delroy is black. Football is his game and the family team are Leyton Orient – and England, obviously. These are open, warm-hearted people, salt of the earth. We see the best of them. Then they are confronted by a political choice and a resurgent England head for the World Cup and for some patriotism becomes nationalism and racism and we see the worst of them.

Rafe Spall prowls the cross-shaped platforms, with almost every member of the audience in touching distance, making eye contact with virtually all of them. There’s no set as such, but the design team cleverly integrate the enclosed space with lighting and sound, with objects left all over the auditorium that Michael uses to illustrate his story. His character engages with us, banters, cheekily. It’s funny and charming, until Michael has a meltdown at a funeral when it becomes angry and passionate and incredibly powerful. These people have been used by other more powerful people, which has made some of them ugly.

I’ve long admired Roy Williams’ writing and here, with co-writer Clint Dyer, his ear for natural dialogue shines once more. Dyer directs too, and his visceral staging, and Spall’s extraordinary performance, create this testosterone-fuelled world, bringing alive the unseen characters and propelling the personal story and its socio-political parallels. I was enthralled and captivated for 100 minutes.

It was a co-incidence that I had returned to see Mike Bartlett’s Albion the night before and I was struck by how much they seemed like companion pieces. Michael and Albion’s Audrey couldn’t be more different, but they are affected and infected by the same thing. Two state of the nation plays, poles apart but resonating in the same world. Theatre doing what it does best, putting up a mirror to help us see and understand the world in which we live.

Absolutely unmissable.

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After contemporary works about China – US relations, a nuclear incident and a sibling relationship as experimental physics, playwright Lucy Kirkwood has turned her hand to something set 260 years ago, women’s place in society at that time, in particular the legal and political worlds. I thought it was a fascinating play, with a superb ensemble of fine actors and a stunning design by Bunny Christie.

We start by briefly watching these women carrying out their daily chores, underlining their limited roles in the world. After a crime is committed and a young girl, Sally Poppy, arrested and tried, a ‘jury of matrons’ is formed to establish if she is pregnant, as she says she is. If she is, her execution will be postponed or she may be transported instead. The jury of matrons for this specific purpose provides the only role women can have in legal affairs at the time; they cannot be jurors who convict.

The final person to join this group of twelve women is midwife Elizabeth Luke, who is sympathetic to Sally. She proves Sally is pregnant, but not all of the others will accept this. As their deliberations progress, conflicts of interest and prejudices emerge. They are offered a (male) doctor to examine Sally and they accept this, but even this doesn’t break the impasse. It twists and turns in ways that surprise you and when they do reach a conclusion, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be implemented.

Bunny Christie has created a brilliant design whose jury room fills the Lyttleton stage, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, with Carolyn Downing’s sound design letting us know there’s an angry lynch mob just outside. The costumes establish the period and the accents the location as East Anglia. The ensemble, led by Maxine Peake in the best role I’ve seen her in, contains fine actors like Cecilia Noble, June Watson, Jenny Galloway and Haydn Gwynne. Ria Zmitrowicz is superb as feisty Poppy. James Macdonald’s staging is masterly.

Good to see another Lucy Kirkwood play, a bit of a departure, of a fascinating subject I’m not sure anyone has tackled before.

 

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One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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Joel Horwood’s stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel, inspired by his own childhood, proves to be enthralling storytelling, inventively staged and beautifully performed, and much darker than I was expecting.

It’s a complex story which starts at a funeral, where a mysterious old woman reminisces with a man, before we are taken back to his childhood home where he lived with his widowed father and younger sister. The family, particularly the boy, is shattered when their lodger commits suicide. He befriends Lettie, a neighbour who lives with her mum and grandma, all who seem to have special powers. Lettie and the boy take an adventure into the woods, which contains all sorts of weird creatures, and the boy gets bitten when he wanders off. Back at home, he finds that they have a new lodger, the very controlling Ursula, who he takes an instant dislike to. From here, the conflict between them escalates and he asks Lettie’s family to help him find a solution. Ursula is vey sinister, the creatures in the wood scary and it’s a very dark tale.

Samuel Blenkin is simply extraordinary as the boy, on stage virtually throughout, in a role that is both physically and emotionally challenging. Jade Groot as his feisty younger sister and Marli Siu as Lettie are both terrific too, all three totally believable as young kids. In fact, the whole cast are excellent, including an ensemble dressed in black who make scene changes captivating, brilliantly choreographed by Steven Hoggett; they even move people around the apron stage, which itself gives an intimacy to the storytelling. Fly Davies and the rest of the design team weave their magic with relatively simple but creative components that spark your imagination. I’m not familiar with the work of director Katy Rudd, but I was greatly impressed by her staging.

A great addition to the NT repertoire, which I think is going to be a big hit.

 

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It seems to me that adapting Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels for the stage is hugely ambitious, not that I’ve read them, and though there’s much to enjoy in Melly Stills’ terrific production of April De Angelis’ adaptation, it didn’t quite come off for me.

It has an epic span of sixty years, with forty-six characters, combining the personal story of two women with the concurrent history of a city and the socio-political history of a country. Lenu and Lila are working class Naples girls, who we first meet when they are eight as they become best friends. Their lives diverge when Lila’s very traditional parents force her to leave school, whilst Lenu continues at school, then becomes one of the first in their neighbourhood to go to University.

Lenu moves into academia and becomes a writer, marries a professor, moves to Florence and has two children, but struggles to remain a successful author. Feisty Lila is much more of a rebel and leaves her marriage to ‘the boy next door’, a puppet of gangsters, for a rather wild life that starts with factory work but leads her to fighting for workers and women’s rights and brushes with terrorists and gangsters before she marries a local boy again and sets up a business. Their lives converge again when Lenu leaves her husband for a old flame, returning to Naples.

They’ve captured the edginess of Naples very well and Soutra Gilmor’s set of four movable steps with projections, shadows and silhouettes is impressionistic and very evocative. There’s so much story that it is inevitably episodic, but the staging is very inventive, using every trick in the book, including puppetry and stylised movement; the fights, riots, killings and an earthquake (!) are particularly well staged, some gruesomely. You have to keep your wits about you to keep up, though, as it occasionally fails to signpost something that can derail you. An excellent cast of twenty-three actors play all forty-six roles, led by Niamh Cusack as Lenu and Catherine McCormack as Lila.

I admired the production and performances more than I liked the storytelling. I’m not sure they could have done a better job, except perhaps lengthening it and turning it from two parts into three. I’m glad I went, though. I admired the ambition and the inventiveness.

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So the Queen of ‘slow theatre’ has speeded up a bit, but for me she’s still going nowhere. My fifth Annie Baker play is a story about storytelling itself. It may be my last.

We’re sitting around a boardroom table where eight people are beginning a writing project, presumably for film or TV, probably a fantasy. Brian takes the notes. secretary Sarah pops in to check if they need anything and take lunch orders from fancy takeaways. They all look up to the boss, Sandy. There’s a vast quantity of Perrier water stacked up in boxes (product placement?), rather at odds with the likely environmental credentials of such folk. The ice-breakers include candid stories from their personal lives.

Danny M2 departs, unexplained but presumed fired. Sandy leaves to deal with family issues. They stay overnight, Sandy using a pending storm as an excuse to get them to stay. They brainstorm, but struggle to come up with ideas, until Adam downloads a big idea that Brian forgets to record, though it may be too late by now, as we learn when Sandy returns. They are all extremely pretentious and irritating and though it is intermittently funny, it’s often dull.

I think the point is that we may have run out of stories, but I didn’t really care. A fine set by co-director Chloe Lamford (with the playwright, interesting) and some good performances can’t really paint over the cracks in the material, and I’m afraid it all seemed rather pointless to me.

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For some reason this early 80’s Athol Fugard play moved me more today than it did during the apartheid period in which it was written and is set. Perhaps it’s relief that, though there’s much wrong with the world today, that particular slice of inhumanity is over.

Fugard’s biographical play is set in a cafe in Port Elizabeth in 1950, the early days of apartheid. It’s owned by a white woman but run by her two black employees, Sam and Willie. The owner’s son Hally regularly visits after school and Sam & Willie have had more to do with his upbringing than his alcoholic father and about as much as his mother; Sam is very much a father figure. They have developed strong supportive relationships, regardless of apartheid. The men are rehearsing for a ballroom dancing competition which at first seems incongruous, but proves both in keeping and charming, when Hally comes home from school to a meal and news of his dad’s discharge from hospital, which sends him into a rage. He takes it out on the men, demanding to be called Master Harold and adopting typical apartheid behaviours of superiority, something he soon regrets.

Fugard hasn’t changed the names of the real people portrayed, including his own, Hally. The piece represents his apology to Sam and Willie; sadly the former died a matter of days before he could have seen it. It’s a gentle piece which shows the inhumanity of apartheid through these relationships more powerfully than shouting from the rooftops would, but its much more than that. The ending is poignant and deeply moving. Lucian Msamati gives yet another beautifully judged performance as Sam. Hammed Animashaun continues to impress with Willie, a very different role that shows and extends his range – from Bottom to Willie in a matter of months! It appears to be Anson Boon’s stage debut as Hally, and an impressive one it is too. Rajha Shakiry’s design anchors the piece in its place and period, beautifully lit by Paule Constable. It’s only the second play I’ve seen by director Roy Alexander Weise, and I’m already a fan.

It’s great to se it again after such a long time, particularly as it proves to be much more than a play of its time. Fugard is not only a key figure in the history of South Africa in the last half of the 20th Century, but a hugely important one in international theatre and this classic belongs on a world stage like the National.

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