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Posts Tagged ‘national theatre’

I haven’t read Andrea Levy’s book, but I did see the TV adaptation ten years ago. Now Helen Edmundson has adapted it for the stage where she had her greatest triumph with Coram Boy.

It starts in Jamaica when young Hortense is sent to live with relatives, and we glimpse her childhood with her god-fearing adopted parents and her cousin Michael, who becomes a playmate and close friend. We move to wartime London and meet our other protagonist, cheery cockney Queenie. The rest of the first half moves between Queenie’s story, Jamaicans in London joining the forces and Hortense back in Jamaica, now grown up. I thought this first half was overlong and structurally weak. It lacked cohesion and clarity, though it ended brilliantly as we see people boarding the now infamous Empire Windrush, bound for the UK.

The second half opens as Hortense arrives in London six months after her husband Gilbert, who came on the Windrush, shocked by the conditions in the boarding house Queenie now runs after her husband Bernard’s failure to return from the war and her father-in-law’s death. This shorter second half is absolutely brilliant as we see what these immigrants have to put up with and the trials and tribulations facing Queenie before, when and after Bernard returns. This second half, though, covers less than a year. It’s very uncomfortable listening to the racism of the post-war period.

Small intimate scenes sometimes seem lost on that vast stage, but it’s used to great effect when the whole cast of over 40 populate it and when Jon Driscoll’s brilliant giant projections shrink it. Director Rufus Norris marshals his cast well, with excellent movement by Coral Messam. There’s superb incidental music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. It’s a fine ensemble with particularly good performances by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus as Hortense and Queenie respectively. If only the first half had been tighter and shorter.

The warmth of the reception was a striking contrast with the period racism on show. We have come a long way, even if the journey’s not over and may never be.

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It does seem timely, reviving Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking 1982 play, which takes a look at differing views of feminism, but is it a modern classic or a play of its time?

The story centres on Marlene, a ruthlessly ambitious Thatcherite who gets the top job at recruitment agency Top Girls, beating Howard, who everyone expected to be promoted. In the first act, she’s celebrating at a fantasy dinner party to which she’s invited five unpredictable historical figures with differing perspectives on being a woman. We see her in action in the agency, where each of the historical characters has a contemporary parallel, before we travel back in time to visit her sister back home in Suffolk and learn what she’s really given up.

The first act is brilliantly inventive, but it outstays its welcome and becomes irritating, the second act’s first scene is a trip back to Suffolk with Marlene’s niece and her friend and seemed unnecessary to me, and the second scene of this act, in the agency, seemed a bit overcooked, a touch too caricature. The third act is the heart of the play, and its staged and performed to perfection.

Director Lyndsay Turner has assembled a fine cast of actresses, including many favourites of mine. Katherine Kingsley is terrific as Marlene and there’s brilliant support from Amanda Lawrence, Siobhan Redmond, Ashley McGuire, Lucy Ellinson and Lucy Black and an outstanding performance from Liv Hill as Marlene’s niece Angie.

It seems to be the first time the play has been performed without doubling up, and I wondered if the frisson this provides, given the historical / contemporary parallels, was missing. I was glad I saw it, but it seems more play of its time than modern classic to me.

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This early David Hare play was first staged at the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre 33 years ago, paired with another called Wrecked Eggs. It’s now flying solo at the Menier in an impeccable production by Richard Eyre with a stunning design by Fotini Dimou, but I’m not sure its substantial enough to hold an evening on its own.

It’s 1955 and Valentina Nrovka has been invited to the Hermitage in St Petersburg to contribute to the debate about the provenance of a painting believed to be by Matisse, who was her friend. Valentina’s daughter Sophia comes too, and much of the play is in fact about their relationship and Sophia’s intention to leave her husband for a much older man, Peter, who also turns up. The personal story, the art and the Soviet state are interwoven to form the narrative.

Valentina is acid tongued and Hare has written some brilliant lines for her, delivered to perfection by Penelope Wilton, so much so that she dominates the piece, a bit like Lady Bracknell does in The Importance of Being Earnest. Ophelia Lovibond provides fine support as Sophia, and David Rintoul as Peter and Martin Hutson as the Assistant Curator give fine cameos, but it’s Wilton’s evening, worth the visit for her masterclass in acting, plus a truly evocative design of a seemingly vast room in the Winter Palace.

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American playwright Bruce Norris is no stranger to controversy. His Olivier, Tony & Pulitzer winning Clybourne Park was a brilliant and funny look at race and class in his home country. Here he puts sex offenders under the microscope and produces his best play since Clybourne, a remarkably objective 360 degree look at attitudes of and to sex offenders, and society’s reaction and response, something has has been a major preoccupation in this country for some time now.

Four men are effectively under house arrest, tagged and supervised in a group home in downstate Illinois. There are geographic limits for their movement, within which they can work, if they can get it, drive, bus, walk, shop. Their crimes and their address are published, so the fear of attack is never far away. They have no access to the internet or smart phones.

When we first meet them, wheelchair-bound Fred, now an old man, is visited and confronted by Andy, a man he assaulted as a boy, still seeking closure. Andy returns later without his wife for a more angry confrontation. In the second pivotal scene, the police officer in charge of their cases holds court. Her most important task is to present Felix with evidence of his rule breaches.

There are so many issues and angles, all deftly and sensitively handled. Remorse and forgiveness, and lack of, and revenge. The need for punishment but the value of it on its own. Though you’re an an emotional roller-coaster throughout, moving from anger to disgust to sympathy to hopelessness, it’s never played for these emotions and reactions, so objectivity is preserved.

It’s great to welcome Steppenwolf, America’s pre-eminent repertory company, to these shores again and the five fine actors who have made these characters so real – Glenn Davies, Francis Guinan, K Todd Freeman, Eddie Torres and Tim Hopper as Fred’s victim. Our own Cecilia Noble is on blistering form again as Ivy the cop.

If you like your theatre challenging, unsettling and illuminating, head to the NT’s Dorfman post haste.

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This is the fourth collaboration between writer / director Enda Walsh and performer Cillian Murphy, the last two shows seen in London at the NT’s Lyttleton Theatre. The full house is testament to Murphy’s pulling power since TV’s Peaky Blinders, but as it happens its both a deeply moving play and a virtuoso performance, and a welcome debut by new theatre company Wayward Productions.

Based on Max Porter’s debut novel, with a nod to Ted Hughes’ poems, it’s a study of grief. A widowed father is struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife and to bring up his two sons. He conjures up an imaginary crow to help him on his journey, while his sons are largely left to their own devices. We’re inside his head experiencing his grief with him as Will Duke projects text and images onto Jamie Varton’s set, and a visceral soundtrack and soundscape by Teho Teardo & Helen Atkinson create an extraordinary tense atmosphere.

Murphy’s very athletic performance is a real tour-de-force, transforming from Dad to Crow by donning a black floor-length hoodie, with synthesised vocals aiding the transformation. As he progresses through his grief, his affection for his sons, beautifully played by Taighen O’Callaghan & Adam Pemberton on the night I went, comes through, and it ends with a sense of a completed emotional journey for all three.

Technically, it’s a triumph. As words are scrawled onto screens, the sound gets you on edge. We meet his deceased wife through projections of her life. As with the more Beckettian Misterman, which I much admired, and Ballyturk, which I didn’t, the stage seems vast and is fully used, and indeed roughed up. You are immersed in Dad’s world, feeling his pain, in what is a surprisingly poetic evening.

A unique piece that disturbs but ultimately satisfies.

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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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