Posts Tagged ‘Old Red Lion Theatre’

The Old Red Lion Theatre had a huge success the same time last year with the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s first play No Villain, which transferred to the West End. Within minutes of it starting, you knew it was Miller. This J B Priestly piece was his second novel in 1928, then filmed by James Whale in 1932, but this is its world premiere on stage, and its an adaptation. Unlike the Miller, you wouldn’t really know it was Priestly if you hadn’t been told. If only it was a fraction as good as the Miller, though in all fairness the genre isn’t my favourite, even though Priestly is a favourite playwright.

The Waverton’s and their friend Roger get lost driving through the borders of Wales at night in a dreadful storm and take shelter in a scary mansion occupied by the equally scary Femm family. William and Gladys then arrive, but they aren’t a couple, which we soon discover when Gladys takes a shine to Roger. In addition to the Femm family, the mansion houses the even more scary butler Morgan. It’s more about the comic gothic horror than it is the story. There’s a lot of short scenes with people forever going in and out of doors and I’m afraid I found it irritating and inconsequential. It didn’t really go anywhere, but as I said, it isn’t my genre.

They make great use of the small space with an excellent design by Gregor Donnelly and staging by Stephen Whitson. There’s great sound and lighting. The acting is all very tongue-in-cheek. I appreciate that the novel / film was to some extent the first of its type and an influence for later things like The Rocky Horror Show, but I just couldn’t understand why Duncan Gates bothered to adapt it for the stage, though it has brought in the Priestly fans (including me!), it’s selling out, and the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it a lot more. So lets just say ‘not for me’ and don’t let me put you off.

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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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This is a real coup for director Sean Turner. We knew of the existence of this first Arthur Miller play, an entry for a university competition (he needed the money), because he mentioned it in his autobiography, though he never allowed it to be published. Even Miller’s agent and the Arthur Miller Trust had no idea if a script existed. It was eventually located in the archives of the University of Michigan. To their great credit, all three organisations have agreed to this world premiere in a room above a pub in Islington. 

The first thing to say is that if you didn’t know it was the first play by a 20-year-old student, you’d never know it. It’s better than many plays I’ve seen by mature playwrights. It’s uncanny how it contains themes Miller would return to in his greatest plays 10-20 years later. In a ‘blind tasting’ I’d know it was a Miller play within minutes. That all may be because it’s clearly autobiographical. The Simon family are in the rag trade but the business is struggling, partly down to their striking workers. Their son Arnold, a communist, is conflicted when he comes home from college, pressed to choose between his family and his politics.

It’s a beautiful production with designs by Max Dorey that make great use of the space. Populating some rails with coats takes you from home to business. The costumes perfectly anchor the piece in the period. There’s an outstanding atmospheric jazz soundtrack from Richard Melkonian. All of the creative contributions gel to produce a very cohesive whole.

I very much liked Adam Harley’s passionate Arnold, struggling to reconcile his idealism with his family loyalty. David Bromley captures the very archetypal Miller patriarch very well, trying to keep the family afloat, as does Nesba Krenshaw the matriarch, trying to keep the family together. There isn’t really a weak link in the rest of this cast, who can all claim to have originated a Miller role – not a lot of actors can say that!

On it’s own its a rewarding evening’s theatre, but when you add in the script hunt and the significance of the work in helping us understand the evolution of one of the world’s greatest playwrights, it’s a bit of a triumph. For me, along with Northampton Royal & Derngate’s The Hook (a staging of Miller’s unproduced film script) this is the highlight of the Miller Centenary.

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This play examines the relationship between Richard Burton & Liz Taylor at a high point of their career, whilst they are filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This is 17 years earlier than the BBC bio drama with Dominic West & Helena Bonham-Carter, which used their last stage appearances in Private Lives, but the idea is the same and the period just as ripe for dramatisation, just two years into their first marriage.

The professional and personal differences which lead to such a spiky relationship are on display. The miners son and the spoilt child. The man of theatre and the screen queen. Burton’s jealousy of her recent Oscar. Fuelled of course by plenty of alcohol. Despite focusing on a moment in time there are scenes where both, but mostly Burton, address the audience, filling in their thoughts and opinions.

For the second time this week, I thought the performances were better than the material, which lacked structure and depth. The pacing was uneven, with puzzling gaps and pauses, and it needed tightening. I don’t know how much experience writer / director Dhanil Ali has (he’s chosen to put a joke biography in the programme) but on this form I suspect not much. Maybe another director would have provided some welcome challenge to the writer?

Ken McConnell creates a very believable Burton and Lydia Poole a very plausible Taylor, and the chemistry between them is very good, and that’s the chief reason for seeing this bio drama, showcasing a fascinating, iconic couple.

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I’d be surprised if you could find a funnier hour in a theatre as this. A welcome transfer for Mischief Theatre from the Old Red Lion in Islington to the West End’s Trafalgar Studio Two (thankfully, at prices not a lot higher), this is an absolute hoot.

We’re with an AmDram company mounting Murder at Haversham Hall. The farce includes technical glitches, fluffed lines, missing & incorrect props, collapsing scenery and the inept cover ups that each requires. When an actor is knocked out, she has to be removed from the stage with the minimun of fuss (!) and replaced by a nervous stage manager. At one point, we end up in a circular sequence as one actor repeats the same line and at another, an actor begins to visibly acknowledge the audience’s response to unintentional events. To get through it all, the company is required to improvise (somewhat appropriately for a company that made its name in improv). 

This is all played with such skill and superb comic timing by seven talented performers, a technician and a set that itself performs. Some of it is so physical, they must be covered in bruises, and I couldn’t believe that they were going to clean up and do it all again 30 mins later!

I haven’t laughed so much in ages and urge you to go.

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The Revenger’s Tragedy

It’s a long time since I was at The Old Red Lion and it’s a much nicer venue than I remember. This summer they’ve paired Henry V with this, big plays in pocket stagings with the same cast.

Thomas Middleton’s revenge drama has one of the most convoluted plots you can imagine. The Vindice family and the Duke’s family get involved in the procurement of girls for sex, rape, incest and more murders than its possible to count. Shortening this to just over two hours does increase the pace, but at the expense of understanding. You’ve got to keep up with this one. No dozing here. Sadly, I didn’t.

It’s been given a modern setting and that works perfectly well, but it all seemed rushed to me, as if they just wanted to get it over with – and that made me want them to get it over with. The acting seemed to be reflecting that, though it’s well staged in this small space with a highly effective design and lighting. In the end though, I’m afraid it just didn’t hold my attention.

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