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Irish playwright Brian Friel wrote something like 30 plays and adaptations in 45 years from the early 60’s. A handful have been revived fairly regularly, becoming classics. This is the second London revival of the summer, following the highly successful Translations at the NT. Sadly this rather Chekhovian play, written just one year earlier in 1979, is a lot less successful.

Though the story is the same, this isn’t the play I remember seeing at Hampstead Theatre in 1988 or the NT in 2005, and I’m struggling to understand why. Here the Irish ‘big house’ is represented by a faded backdrop and a model around which the action takes place in a shallow pit, with actors waiting at the back until they take part. I found Es Devlin’s design and Lyndsey Turner’s staging a bit puzzling.

The family is gathered for youngest daughter Claire’s wedding to a much older man, who we never meet. Casimir has come from Hamburg where he now lives with his wife and two boys. Alice and her husband Eamon are over from London. Judith runs the home, looking after their father, Uncle George and Claire, though she’d clearly like to be somewhere else with Willie. American historian Tom is visiting as part of the research into his latest project.

Nothing much happens in the first two acts, which is my main problem with it. Claire plays Chopin, encouraged by Casimir, sexually ambiguous, who tells implausible stories. Eamon and Alice, who seems to be the subject of abuse, spar. Willie makes himself useful; fixing intercom speakers so they can hear father’s confused ramblings downstairs. By the interval, I was frankly rather bored.

They make up for it in the final act, where their father’s funeral has usurped the wedding, which is to be delayed for three months. They try and resolve what is to happen to the house, and to Uncle George. Eamon and Alice are to return to London, taking the uncle with them. Casimir is heading back to his family in Germany. Judith wants rid of the liability the house has become so that she can at last live her own life. In a fine cast, David Dawson shines as Casimir, banishing the memory of Niall Buggy and Andrew Scott, who played the role before him.

This time around, I found it dull, uneven and poorly paced, a bit like my bete noire Chekhov!

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The 2011 illustrated children’s novel by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobahn Dowd, who had cancer at the time, has already been made into a successful film, released only 18 months ago. It’s harder to imagine a stage adaptation, but this has been entrusted to theatre-maker Sally Cookson, responsible for the NT’s Jane Eyre and Peter Pan, also co-productions with Bristol Old Vic, who’s got plenty of imagination.

Teenage Conor is very close to his mother, and is struggling to cope with her cancer. His dad, who visits, is separated from Conor’s mum and has a new family in the US. His grandmother is practically supportive but emotionally somewhat distant. Conor is being bullied at school. He has fantasies revolving around the yew tree visible from his room (a tree associated with death and from which cancer treatments have been derived). It appears to become a monster and wake him with a nightmare at the same time each night, telling him stories to teach him lessons that will help him come to terms with the situation. In parallel, in reality, Conor has violent outbursts trashing his grandmother’s house and severely injuring his school bully.

Cookson places the story on a white stage in front a white wall. The nightmares are created by projections and a soundscape and the yew tree and monster by ropes and shadows and they are both extraordinary. The live music by Benji Power and Will Bower is integral to the piece. A terrific cast of thirteen play all of the roles, led by Matthew Tennyson, who gives a deeply moving performance as Conor. I engaged more with the story of the illness and its impact than I did with the fantasy, though it often took my breath away. Maybe that’s because I’m not the child it was intended for.

This is creative, captivating storytelling that shouldn’t really work on such a big stage, but does, as Cookson’s work has also done in the Olivier. The younger members of the audience were initially their usual fidgety selves, but in the second half were silent, which tells you a lot about the effectiveness of the storytelling. Under Matthew Warchus, The Old Vic is heading in a very different and fascinating direction, and I’m enjoying the ride.

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Alan Bennett’s last play, People, at the NT six years ago, was about the heritage ‘industry’. It tried to cover so many issues that it lost focus and proved a bit of a disappointment. He covers a lot of ground here too, but it’s more cohesive, a homage to the NHS with a swipe at the decline in our sense of social responsibility for good measure.

We’re in a Yorkshire general hospital, led by trust chairman and former Mayor Slater, that’s facing closure. They’re campaigning against it, and in the geriatric ward they’ve set up a choir as part of the campaign. There’s an omnipresent film documentary team, which Slater hopes will aid their campaign. Dr Valentine (anglicisation of his real name) is a caring doctor with a gentle bedside manner and genuine affection for his geriatric patients, but he’s facing deportation. Sister Gilcrest is old school, obsessed with continence and cleanliness. Nurse Pinkney is more focused on contentment and happiness. The real interest of Salter is his own career. Amongst the visitors, patient Mrs Maudsley’s family are predatory fortune hunters and coal-miner Joe’s son Colin is up from London, exorcising his fraught relationship with his dad; he’s a Management Consultant advising the Health Minister, an architect of closure plans. Just before the interval it takes a sinister turn.

Bennett’s acute observation of people shines again with finely drawn characterisations, delicious turns of phrase and a very clever unfolding narrative. I couldn’t stop smiling at the new ward names, changed at the suggestion of the minister. The twelve geriatric patients each have lovely back stories, which they share with us between songs. Our attitudes to the old, patient abuse, bed blocking and the obsession with targets, specialisation, outsourcing and privatisation are all covered. Of course, its very funny, but its also poignant and bang on target much of the time. Valentine’s final words direct to the audience pierced my heart.

The twelve patients are a delight, veteran thespians relishing such great writing. Deborah Findlay is brilliant as the cold but seemingly loyal, hard-working ward sister who becomes positively chilling. Sacha Dhawan has genuine warmth and empathy as Valentine. Samuel Barnett’s character Colin is rather unsympathetic, but he spars with Jeff Rawle’s brittle dad and both do eventually melt. There’s a lovely cameo from David Moorst as work experience affable Andy, who also turns unexpectedly. Peter Forbes makes a great job of the pompous self regarding Salter. Director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bob Crowley have worked with Bennett a lot, and they continue to serve his plays well.

I think the play divides people in many ways, with older audience members, NHS advocates and lefties the most positive. I loved it!

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I’ve been banging on about the extraordinary ambition of the All Star Productions team in Walthamstow for a while now, but I really thought they’d lost the plot when I heard they were mounting this infamous West End flop. Wrong again; they’ve turned into a cult fringe hit.

In 1989 it went straight into the cavernous Piccadilly Theatre. I liked it. It was an unusual pairing of American composer Joe Brooks (music) and British playwright Dusty Hughes (book & lyrics). Before becoming a playwright, Hughes had been Time Out’s theatre editor and the Bush Theatre’s joint AD. His plays had been put on at the NT, RSC & Royal Court, but he had no musicals pedigree. Brooks had written America’s biggest selling song in the 70’s, an Academy & Grammy award winner, but hadn’t written a musical. They chose to adapt Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film.

It occupies that sparsely populated SciFi musical sub-genre. Set in a dystopian future, the overground world of the Elitists of Metropolis is powered by the Workers underground, in a city founded by John Freemen. The workers have a new-found charismatic leader in Maria, who has fallen in love with Freeman’s son Steven. Freeman has her abducted. He’s also hired an inventor to find a robotic alternative to the troublesome and increasingly scarce workers. These two actions come together.

The big surprise for me was how good the score is, with some great tunes and rousing choruses, freshly orchestrated and arranged by MD Aaron Clingham. The vocal quality is sky high, with particularly strong vocals from Rob Herron as Steven. My namesake Gareth James makes a fine baddie (Brian Blessed in the West End!) and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut by Miiya Alexandra as Maria. The excellent ensemble deliver the choruses with passion, expertly choreographed by Ian Pyle. The design team of Justin Williams, Jonny Rust & Joana Dias work wonders with limited resources, creating an inventive set and costumes. The show seems to be a favourite of director Tim McArthur, and it shows.

So by now you know you have three weeks to head to the northern end of the Victoria Line, where the centre of gravity of fringe musicals now clearly resides.

 

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Playwright Martin Crimp has been very loyal to theatres and they to him. His first seven plays were staged at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, who appear to have nurtured him. The next nine were at the Royal Court, where he was writer in residence. Another one back at OTT and one at the Young Vic and that’s it. He’s been more promiscuous with his eleven translations / adaptations, including one here at the Almeida. His plays are rarely revived here in London, with the NT’s Attempts On Her Life a notable exception ten years ago. This one was his first Royal Court main stage play in 1993 and I think this might be the first major London revival.

Anne is bullied by her husband Simon, who tapes her mouth, amongst other things. Somehow she gets to tell her story to husband and wife Andrew & Jennifer who are in the business of developing films. They may live in the same big city but Anne’s and Jenifer’s worlds are far apart. They bring on board writer Clifford and big name John and Anne’s story gets changed beyond recognition. Anne has a fling with Andrew and their sex is observed by Clifford, which makes her so mad she returns to Simon and draws him into her plan for revenge. The film gets released, but by now Anne isn’t involved, and its not her story any more. On the night of the premiere Andrew goes looking for her and Jennifer follows. Along the way the play takes a surreal turn when Anne gets a blind cab driver, who turns up again later when Clifford needs a cab! It’s a satire, but it covers a lot of other ground too.

It’s played out in a series of short scenes moving from Andrew & Jennifer’s office to their favourite Japanese restaurant to the street and the subway and eventually to Anne & Simon’s home. Fifteen ‘extras’ populate the office, street, subway and first night party. It’s a pretty bland design, so the extras brought a bit of life to the stage. It is very well performed, with Aisling Loftus and Matthew Needham excellent as Anne & Simon and Indira Varma hitting just the right satirical note as Jennifer. Gary Beadle has hot-footed it over form the Royal Court Upstairs for fine turns as John and a New York cop. The original was directed by Lindsay Posner who has passed the baton to Lyndsey Turner for this revival.

I appear to have wiped the Royal Court production from my memory, so it was good to see it again. It hasn’t dated, though it isn’t a classic, and it may provide an illustration as to why Crimp is rarely revived.

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Opera

I didn’t get off to a good start with the ENO’s Peter Grimes after a twitter spat over their withdrawal of standby concessions, despite a large number of empty seats. No production will probably ever match Grimes on the Beach, but musically this is top notch, mostly due to the fact that conductor Edward Gardiner, the orchestra and the chorus were as good as it gets.

Though I’ve seen Tippet’s King Priam before, I’d forgotten how challenging it is musically. This ETO production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was quality fare, but I found it hard to engage with the story and even harder to penetrate the music.

Death & the Powers is a SciFi opera by the Royal Academy of Music’s visiting professor of composition Tod Machover, so we (staff, students and Friends) were privileged to participate in its global simulcast from Dallas Opera. It’s more of a technological marvel than a musical one, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, including interaction through the specially created app on my iPhone!

I enjoyed the second ETO offering, Britten’s Paul Bunyan, a lot. I’ve only seen it once before, 15 years ago, but preferred this smaller scale more homespun folk opera treatment. It’s not really an opera, more a musical drama with a mythic quality and some lovely tunes. It was a bit cramped on the Linbury Studio stage, but better seen in such an intimate space.

I ventured to Godalming for the first time to see a friend in one of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas I’ve never seen, Princess Ida. Somehow, it seemed completely at home performed by an amateur company (of 43!) in the Borough Hall, even though they were almost falling over each other on the tiny stage! The second act is a bit long, but it’s the usual G & S fun, here with terrific costumes and a proper orchestra of 26.

The trio of operas in my latest visit to WNO in Cardiff were programmed as ‘Fallen Women‘. It started with Puccini’s early and rarely performed Manon Lescaut which had a striking modern production and was beautifully sung and played. Henze’s Boulevard Solitude takes the same source and story and gives in a mid-20th century spin with a surprisingly accessible score and a similar modern staging, again with sky high musical standards. I’d seen this La Traviata before, which is why I wanted to see it again and it didn’t disappoint. It’s elegant and moving, though two intervals and a twenty minute overrun did mar the dramatic flow this time. Three operas, two talks, a programme and a drink all for less than £70; opera at its most accessible.

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Theodora is quite possible the most perfect performance of a Handel oratorio I have ever heard. All five soloists were outstanding and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street sounded gorgeous. It’s not a particularly engaging story, but the music is consistently good and the 3h 45m flew by.

Contemporary Music

Kings Place was the perfect venue for Laura Cantrell, with just another guitarist rather than her band. It was a perfect 75 minute set culled from all of her records, plus some covers, but mostly her lovely new album. Her personality comes over so well on stage, too. Sturgill Simpson, supporting, sounded good when his singing wasn’t too nasal and I liked his songs (though too many covers for a man with an interesting new album) but I couldn’t understand a word of any of them, such was his heavily accented diction!

Dance

I wasn’t sure whether to categorise this dansical, Drunk, as a musical or dance, but the lack of a story as such made me plump for dance! Eight performers, solo, as an ensemble and in different combinations dance scenes about being the worse for wear. There’s terrific music from Grant Olding and the talent on show is extraordinary. It has bags of energy and its slick, sassy and sexy, but it’s also a bit relentless and a bit samey, without much shade to break up the light. Choreographer Drew McOnie’s ambitious and welcoming new company, though, is one to watch.

Film

My confidence in film critics took another dent when August: Osage County turned out to be way better than they led me to believe. It worked as well on film as it did on stage and there were a handful of superb performances, notably Meryl Streep as an absolute monster.

I loved Nebraska, a really heart-warming film – in black & white – with wonderful performances by a cast mostly made up of actors of a certain age. It fired me up for a road trip to that part of the US; watch this space!

Private Lives was the first play filmed live that I’ve ever seen (though not shown live in this case). The ability to see things in close-up added something (I saw the same production on stage) though you do sometimes miss the reactions of other characters and the lighting was occasionally poor. I like the fact that more people can see great productions at accessible prices, but I think I’ll stick to the live experience.

Dallas Buyers Club was a slow burn, but it eventually repaid its investment with a compelling David & Goliath story with a heart-warming ending. Unquestionably a career high for Matthew McConaughey, who must be in pole position for an Oscar.

Saving Mr Banks was a big surprise; it had much more depth than I was expecting, largely because of the switch between PL Travers childhood and her Disney experience. It was one of those occasions where staying for the titles paid off as you heard the original recordings she insisted on during the script meetings, which proved it was more than a work of fiction.

I enjoyed Her a lot more than I thought I was going to. It’s a bit overlong (and occasionally soporific!) but it feels very plausible, which makes it scary indeed. I’m going to switch off Siri before it’s too late!

Common People is an independent feature film shot entirely on Tooting Common, on my doorstep. It’s a bit slow to get going, but it builds into a charming, warm-hearted slice of life. It’s been showcased in US festivals and now gets a handful of local screenings which will hopefully lead to more because it very much deserves it.

I’m amazed that The Invisible Woman hasn’t had more BAFTA or Oscar nominations. It’s such a well-made film, full of fine performances. I don’t know how true the story of Charles Dickens personal life is, but I was captivated.

Art

The annual Landscape Photography competition exhibition at the NT continues to demoralize me as a photographer but captivate me as a viewer. Some are almost too good to be true, but hopefully the organizers have ways of ensuring there’s no funny business editing-wise!

Martin Creed‘s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, What’s the Point of it?, is huge fun. The man has an imagination the size of the planet and amongst the items on show was a giant revolving neon sign just inches above your head, a room full to the brim of white talcum-filled balloons you walk through and, on the outdoor terraces, a car which comes alive when all its doors open and wipers and radio start up and a video of a penis changing from erect to flaccid & back!

The NT‘s 50th celebrations included an exhibition of its history in cartoons, National Theatre Lampoon, but I only just discovered it before it closes; it’s both informative and funny and they should keep it longer.

I’m going to have to return to David Bailey’s Stardust exhibition at the NPG. It takes over the whole ground floor with over 250 photos and was a bit crowded on my first visit. What I did see was great, with many now iconic pictures from my lifetime.

A trip to Greenwich for a couple of exhibitions was a mixed affair. There were a lot of paintings not by Turner (23, only 5 less) for an exhibition called Turner & the Sea. I didn’t care for the early work in this exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, but it was probably worth the trip for the watercolours, sketch books and late works. Up the hill at the Royal Observatory there was a small but breathtaking exhibition of astronomical photographs. You couldn’t tell the difference in composition or quality between the main prize entries and the young person’s entries, such was the quality of the work.

Spoken Word

I got in touch with my inner Welshman with a celebration of Dylan Thomas’ centenary at Kings Place. Readings by Guy Masterson were interspersed with a potted biography by Andrew Lycett and observations by other Welsh poets Gwyneth Jones and Owen Sheers. I’d have liked more voices for the readings, but that’s a little gripe. As Owen Sheers said, what other poet could pack out a venue 60 years after he died, requiring an overspill room with a video link!

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I’ve waited 18 years to see another Rodney Ackland play. During this time, we’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of Chekov’s, Pinter’s and Shaw’s, but nothing by this sadly neglected 20th Century British playwright. Why? He wrote c.25 plays, almost half of them adaptations, and to my knowledge only two of them have been produced in London in the last 30 years or so.

It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the play, largely because the characters are like living museum pieces. They don’t make them like this anymore! Or do they? The Skinner’s are an upper middle-class family of five with three staff (only one of whom we meet). We’re in the immediate post-war period, where rationing, and attempts to overcome it, is still a fact of life. Aubrey is a lawyer seeking the local Conservative nomination. His wife Blanche is a bit useless. Elder daughters Laura & Kathleen forever bicker; Laura has returned from the Gold Coast a widow but already has a new man in her life and spinster Kathleen is lonely & jealous. Younger daughter Susan can’t understand any of them.

Aubrey, Blanch & Kathleen are dreadful snobs, more than a bit racist, contemptuous of the staff and the lower classes and obsessed with how others see them. Social climbers, their over-riding need is to conform, so they are outraged that Laura would abandon her mourning clothing and contemplate re-marriage so soon. Things get worse as the truth of her husband’s death emerges, then turn again as her boyfriend David’s pedigree becomes known. The ending is very clever.

This must have been way ahead of its time with such sharp social satire. It’s bitingly funny and occasionally shocking and you love to hate these people, whist you recognise aspects of their attitudes and behaviours in yourself and others. We never see the party, but spend the whole play in Laura’s bedroom before and after it; projected animations of the exterior of the home and the journey back from the party provide a highly original way to link to it.

Director Matthew Dunster is lucky to have such a terrific cast. Michael Thomas & Stella Gonet bring alive the period values brilliantly. June Watson is a treat to watch as Nanny, seemingly loyal yet with an undercurrent of contempt. Michele Terry, playing perhaps the most conservative of them all, captures but contains the repressed feelings of Kathleen. Laura is a psychologically complex character and it must be hard to find the right balance, but Katherine Parkinson does this beautifully. I loved Anna Fleischle’s period perfect design which somehow brought the stage towards you so that felt very close to it all.

The extraordinary production of Absolute Hell at the NT in 1995 should have prompted lots more Ackland, but it didn’t. Lets hope this fine revival does better.

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