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Posts Tagged ‘Nicola Walker’

Welsh actor-writer Emlyn Williams wrote fifteen plays (including one adaptation) over a twenty year period between the mid 1930’s and 1950’s, many adapted into films. For some reason they are rarely revived; this is only the fourth produced in London during my forty or so theatre-going years here. I suspect this one could seem a bit stodgy more than eighty years on, but Dominic Cooke’s inventive production is very fresh, despite still being set in the same period.

Firstly, he brings the the playwright onto the stage from his 1930’s party, providing stage instructions, narrating and at one point changing the plot. Secondly, he adds a chorus of miners, a small group dressed like they’ve just completed their shift, who add a deeply emotional layer (well, for a Welshman at least) and tell you everything you need to know about the community in which the story is set. At first, without a set and just a few props, it’s a piece of storytelling, but it eventually transforms into a realistic room as if a painting was nearing completion, or indeed the production of a play evolving.

Miss Moffat is an English woman of means who chooses this community for her project to bring education to the working classes. There is resistance from the local squire, who scuppers her plans to turn a neighbouring barn into a school, but she recruits two locals to help her and sets up anyway on a smaller scale in a room in her rented home. Her pupils are young miners, one of whom stands out and he becomes a very specific and personal project, with the objective of getting him a scholarship to Oxford. By now, the squire has melted and the boy, Morgan Evans, becomes a beacon for advancement by the local community, who are now rooting for their boy. He makes it, but his plans are endangered by a ghost from his past. By now, though, Miss Moffat and her colleagues will do anything to ensure he makes the journey.

It’s clearly semi-autobiographical, a tribute to Williams’ own teacher and mentor Miss Cooke, which is partly why the inclusion of the writer, though initially uneasy, works well. The production draws you in to the point where you are rooting for Morgan too, virtually part of this community. I found it deeply moving at times, but that might be because I’m a miner’s son from the South Wales valleys, though if nothing else, the music will move anyone with a heart.

Nicola Walker is perfect as the emotionally controlled, even repressed, teacher, a contrast to the passion of Richard Lynch’s fellow teacher John Goronwy Jones, a lovely performance. Iwan Davies makes a superb professional stage debut as Morgan, capturing everyone’s heart. Gareth David-Lloyd (unrecognisable from his turn as Ianto in Torchwood – one of the few dead TV characters with a shrine, in Cardiff Bay!) is excellent as the 30’s society figure which Williams by then had become. There were a number of cast changes at the performance we saw, with two covers carrying their script, but this had no negative impact; if anything, given the production style, it seemed oddly appropriate. Will Stuart’s uplifting music makes more of a contribution than in any other production I can remember.

I’m probably biased, with shared heritage, albeit a few decades apart, but I loved both the play’s themes and this creative interpretation. The NT on great form.

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Mark Ravenhill’s new play is tackling the issues of power, control and abuse that have become everyday topics since Operation Yew Tree and #metoo, but he’s wisely chosen historical corporal punishment in schools as the vehicle for the debate, something that doesn’t carry the baggage of recent events.

School Deputy Head Edward is in his last week before retirement after 45 years in teaching. He’s under siege at home with his wife Maureen, baying crowds of hundreds outside. His estranged daughter Anna has turned up unexpectedly. We learn that knowledge of his caning of pupils, before it became illegal 30 years ago, has spread and is what’s brought the crowds to his door. The headmaster is due to arrive to discuss his farewell party.

It covers a lot of ground. Anna is a believer in Academy schools, very much a modern educationalist, a contrast with her father’s traditional approach, which makes for an interesting discussion in itself. She appears to have been on the receiving end of abuse as a child, which challenges Edward’s ‘doing his job’ defence. Maureen seems to have turned a blind eye, which may make her complicit. The crowd represents our contemporary mob mentality. Shouldn’t we forget what happened so long ago?

It’s a very interesting and objective debate; I found my sympathies changing more than once. As drama, though, it’s very static. All three performances – Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed & Nicola Walker – are riveting, but they are too much like talking heads, it feels a bit contrived and its overlong. The one room set, with a ceiling that lowers as Edward becomes trapped, seemed a bit over-engineered to me.

A welcome debate which doesn’t really make an entirely satisfying play.

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I’m not very keen on directors messing with my favourite (dead) playwrights. I’ve seen enough disrespect of dead composers by opera directors to give me a very acute arrogant director detector. My more knowledgeable companion reminded me that Arthur Miller was particular about staging instructions; in this case, including an all-important telephone and a record player, both missing. So I approached this radical production of one of my play-writing hero’s best plays with some trepidation, unnecessarily as it turns out as I thought it was revelatory.

Ivo van Hove stages it in a rectangular space like a swimming pool. The actors can sit on three sides and there’s a door in the wall of the fourth. You only see this when the walls rise slowly as two longshoremen are washing ready for home, testosterone fills the air and the continual brooding soundscape starts. There are no props and the uninterrupted action is played out in this claustrophobic space, people pacing and prowling with increasing intensity as the drama unfolds – and here drama means drama.

The unhealthy relationship between Eddie and his niece Catherine is more overt and very physical in this production, and I think modern audiences are more attuned to such things. His obsession with her is clearly uncontrollable and the consequences inevitable and tragic. The Italian cultural background is more to the fore, with clearly defined male roles, family bonds and principles of honour explicitly laid out before you. The narrator is more integral and more involved. The drama is heightened and the intensity often cuts the air. I thought it served Miller’s play very well. The slow burn developed momentum as events unfolded in an unbroken 120 minutes. There were moments when you gasped and others where you wanted to break the fourth wall and restrain people. There’s a coup d’theatre ending which takes your breath away.

The acting is universally superb, with Nicola Walker playing a particularly tragic Beatrice and Phoebe Fox an effervescent Catherine against Luke Norris’ passionate Rodolpho. Towering over them all is a stunning Eddie from Mark Strong with extraordinary physical presence and palpable rage at the thought of anyone taking Catherine from him. My reference point for Eddie is Michael Gambon’s 1987 Olivier award winning performance at the Cottesloe, but this disappeared completely as Strong made Eddie his own.

This won’t please traditionalists, and some – like my companion – will find it overly stylised and ill-serving of the story, but I found it a thrilling interpretation which made me look at a great 20th century classic, and a favourite play, afresh. The Young Vic continues it’s roll

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I wasn’t at all convinced that staging Mark Haddon’s iconic book was wise, but I was wrong. For once, it was just like it was in my head when I read it. Playwright / adapter Simon Stephens appears to have been successful by not messing with it!

In case you didn’t know, it’s the story of teenage Christopher, brilliant but challenged by being in a world of his own because of asperger’s syndrome. He decides to investigate the death of his neighbour’s dog, which leads him to some revelations closer to home and a solo adventure from Swindon to London to find his mother. It’s the strain on his parents, struggling to cope with their son, that is at the heart of the play, but Christopher is its focal point.

Luke Treadaway gives an extraordinary performance as Christopher, on stage for the whole 2hrs 45mins with the audience unable to take their eyes off him. He inhabits Christopher and you do all the things he can’t – laugh, smile and cry. At times, you just want to give him a hug, but if you could, it would be the worst thing you could do. It’s hard to play against this, but Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker as his parents do so so well, you want to get up out of your seat and help and console them.

Marianne Elliott’s production is staged in a rectangular ‘bear pit’ with three entrances that illuminates, with projections (Finn Ross) onto it, including the mathematic formulae which Christopher is so brilliant at (designer Bunny Christie). Those Frantic Assembly boys Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett have provided brilliant choreography / movement which proves so crucial to the flow of the story. Naimh Cusack is lovely as Christopher’s teacher, also part narrator. Five other actors play the remaining 36 roles! There’s lots of quirkiness, including direct references to the fact this is a play, which is completely in  tune with the story.

I loved the book and I loved the play. Maybe it was good that many years have passed between reading and watching, but nothing can take away the fact that this is a compelling and funny, yet ultimately deeply moving show. Unmissable, whether you’ve read the book or not.

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