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Posts Tagged ‘Old Vic Theatre’

Am I the only one who finds it somewhat ironic that the premiere of this anti-woke play is at the theatre that cancelled Terry Gilliam, resulting in the ‘deprogramming’ of Into the Woods?

Jonathan Spector’s play is set in a very liberal American school, where everyone is keen to please and upset no-one. The task the governors are undertaking when we join them is determining what ethnicity categories should be included in their website’s drop-down box. You quickly get a flavour of the culture of the institution we’re observing, on Rob Howell’s brilliant Day-Glo set.

The big issue that faces them, though, is on the horizon, when an outbreak of mumps pits the anti-vaxxers against those who don’t want to put their children at risk. It becomes very personal as the child of one of them is a victim of the disease. As with most things these days, it escalates very quickly from a debate and disagreement to outright war, in this case one that will lead to a dramatic change in their culture.

Though it’s refreshing to see such arguments aired in a theatre, its uproarious humour risks burying the debate of what are important issues in modern society – polarisation, divisiveness, bandwagons, lack of healthy discussion, comments taken out of context, jumping to conclusions……That said, it delivers as a satirical comedy, with fine performances (but why so many American imports?) though you can’t hear what they are saying in the funniest scene involving a zoom meeting, as they are upstaged by the ‘chat’ exchanges projected above.

Sitting in an audience made up of mature members of society who lapped it up, I couldn’t help wondering what a much younger audience would make of it. Go for the laughs, particularly if you’re tired of the woke new world. I suspect a sequel called ‘bloody health & safety’ would go down just as well.

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August Wilson wrote a series of ten plays between 1982 and 2005 covering the black American experience in each decade of the 20th Century, all bar one set in his home city of Pittsburgh, most in the Hill District of that city. They are now known as the American Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle. Jitney was the first to be written, covering the 1970’s. It visited the NT twenty-one years ago, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Play. This is the first time we’ve seen it in London since, in a home grown production.

A jitney is an unlicensed cab serving communities licensed cabs won’t cover. The play is set in the office of one such service, run by well respected Becker. The drivers include recent Vietnam vet Youngblood, older Korean vet Doub, drinker Fielder and Turnbo – a gossip and a stirrer. Shealy runs a betting business from the office and Philmore, hotel doorman and frequent passenger, is a regular visitor. With the backdrop of gentrification (the office is about to be demolished), there are two main stories – Becker’s son Booster’s release from prison and Youngblood’s determination to buy a house for his wife and child.

It takes a while to take off, with a lot of scene-setting and character introductions, and it could do with losing 20 minutes or so, but there’s no doubting the quality of the writing and its importance as a modern classic. Tinuke Craig’s production and Alex Lowde’s uber realistic design give it real authenticity and the ensemble is simply terrific. Yet again an understudy, Blair Gyabaah playing Booster, rises to the challenge with an impressive professional stage debut. There isn’t a weak link in this outstanding cast.

Great to see it again, and in such a good production.

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This is my 18th Mike Bartlett play (inc. 3 adaptations) in just fourteen years of his twenty as a playwright, and the second new play by him in eight days. That’s what I call prolific. The diversity of his subjects and forms has always been one of his trademarks. Given the subject matter of this one, well the subject really, I was expecting something wildly satirical and hysterical. To some extent it is, but its also serious, sometimes chilling.

It starts brilliantly, with a spin on one of Shakespeare’s most famous opening scenes. We’re in the middle of Biden’s term as President, with Trump and his three eldest children – Donald Jnr, Ivanka & Eric – and he’s about to kick start his comeback plan. What evolves eventually becomes a continuation of the Capitol Hill insurrection, but his attempt at re-election takes some surprising though not implausible turns. In between, we attend campaign rallies and TV debates, plus behind-the-scenes meetings within the Trump family, political parties and the US Administration.

Bertie Carvel’s characterisation of Trump is extraordinary. He captures every stance, expression and vocal inflection so perfectly it’s uncanny. The trouble is, when he’s offstage you find yourself waiting for his return, Trump is such an overpowering character and Carvel’s is such a towering performance that it imbalances the play. Our cast of other real life characters includes President Joe Biden & his VP Kamala Harris and Republican Senator Ted Cruz, all played by an excellent supporting cast of nineteen actors (though the actors playing the Trump siblings seem to be playing well above their years). Miriam Buether’s design takes us from golf course to the Oval Office via many other locations with a judicious use of projections. Her revolve is thrust out into the stalls making the Old Vic seem more intimate.

Rupert Goold’s production has a lot of high spots, but it suffers from uneven pacing, perhaps because of the Trump dominance (though that’s a bit like reality too!), meaning it did lag at times. Overall, though, I thought it was a fascinating speculation that did illuminate the power of this man to appeal to seemingly unlikely constituencies like blue collar workers. Lets hope its prophesies don’t come true.

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I’m not that keen on Caryl Churchill’s cloning play, though this is the fourth production I’ve seen, of only five staged in London. ‘So why do you keep going?’ I hear you ask. Well, I keep getting drawn to it by the casting – Michael Gambon & Daniel Craig in 2002, father and son Timothy & Sam West in 2010 and Roger Allam & Colin Morgan just two years ago. Now it’s the turn of favourites Lennie James, who we haven’t seen on stage for too long, and brilliant new talent Paapa Essiedu.

Salter is a father whose son has either died, or been put into care following his wife’s suicide (there are conflicting scenarios). He agreed to cloning to give him a second chance at being a father, but he later learns the doctors created multiple clones without his consent. Over five short scenes we meet two clones and his original son (supporting the care rather than death scenario). When the clone he’s brought up finds out, he is angry. When the real son finds out, he resolves to kill the clone. When Salter realises there may be twenty, he sets out to meet them and we see the first encounter, a maths teacher married with three children who has little interest in how he was created and little interest in Salter.

I still struggle with this one-hour play, but it was the best of the four productions I’ve seen. It’s usually cold and clinical, but Lindsey Turner’s staging also has passion and humour. Paapa Essiedu differentiates between his three characters more (and can now add quick change artist to his impressive CV!), playing the first clone and real son more emotionally. Lennie James conveys the complexity of Salter’s feelings and reactions superbly. Two fine performances. Designer Es Devlin seems to have created an orange version of her 2018 blue monochrome design for Girls & Boys at the Royal Court.

I’m glad I gave it another go, though I hope I’m not drawn to a 5th outing by yet more enticing performers, though there’ll probably be a female version soon with two favourite actresses to tempt me!

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I knew nothing of the existence of Nazi camps for children of German extraction in pre-war USA. Even now, the thought is chilling. Bess Wohl’s play presents us with one such place, in Yaphank New York, seen through the eyes of two teenagers who meet there, just referred to as Him and Her.

He seems to have been a convert before he even arrived, revelling in his heritage, in admiration of what the National Socialists are doing in Germany. She’s been dragged there, and is much more ambivalent about it all, though she appears to make a journey of discovery and conversion, ending up making the major speech at the closing rally.

We follow their personal relationship as well as the camp journey. They buy into the need to reproduce for the fatherland, he considers going there to work or fight for the homeland, but there are more parochial preoccupations too, involving their fellow campmates and their friends and relatives.

In effect, we are seeing how young people can be drawn in to idealised concepts and causes, despite their incompatibility with the principles of the land of freedom and opportunity that they have been brought up to value. There’s a tension between the two, and a tension between Him and Her.

Though it’s an intimate play for such a big stage, it didn’t get as lost at the Old Vic as I thought it might, perhaps because they play almost exclusively at the front of the stage, before an impressionistic forest, or perhaps because of the power of the characterisations and the performances, or indeed both.

Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon are both terrific, playing totally believable 16 and 17-year-olds respectively. Ferran has the biggest transformation, but Thallon has more of an emotional roller-coaster ride. For me, these performances are reason alone for seeing the play.

Brave programming for the Old Vic which may not come off commercially, but does so artistically.

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Emma Rice is first and foremost a storyteller. She sprinkles her stories with an inventiveness that makes them sparkle. Her best work, like Brief Encounter, Romantics Anonymous, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and Tristan & Yseult is captivating. The problem with this adaptation of Percy & Eleonore Adlon’s German indie film is that there isn’t enough story. What comes out is still inventive, with exceptional stagecraft and excellent performances, but it isn’t substantial enough. I admired the work that had gone into it, but I was left thinking ‘what’s the point?’. Maybe she’s too close to the source (her favourite film) to be truly objective?

It’s set in the Mojave Desert in the South West US at a cafe / gas station miles from nowhere. Two German tourists are passing through, but for some reason Herr Munchgstettner abandons his wife Jasmin there. She befriends the bartenders, truckers and other travellers who are also passing through, makes herself useful enough to earn her stay there, and bonds with proprietor Brenda. Cue songs, magic and some dance, and that’s about it really. It’s more of a stage picture than a story, which is the crux of the issue for me.

The Old Vic stage transforms well into this desert landscape in Lez Brotherston & Vicki Mortimer’s design. There’s some good music, with Sandra Marvin and Le Gateau Chocolat in particularly good voice. There’s a fine collection of quirky characters passing through. In addition to the magic, there’s some mime, puppetry and other bits of fun business. The community choir on video at the curtain call was a lovely touch. It just doesn’t go anywhere, and in comparison with most of Rice’s work left me hungry. Idiosyncratic and charming, but slight and insubstantial.

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I’ve long had a problem with staged monologues; I like to see characters interacting in my plays. I thought I might have melted after all those streamed performances, having enjoyed Sea Wall & Three Kings with Andrew Scott in particular. This 1979 play by Brian Friel consists of four monologues by three characters, but I’m afraid at 2.5 unbroken hours it did’t hold my attention, as it hadn’t on stage.

Frank Hardy is a faith healer who tours Scotland and Wales, and latterly his home country of Ireland. The other characters are his wife Grace and manager Teddy. We hear from them in that order, with Hardy returning to conclude the piece. In addition to their experiences on the road, events like Hardy’s return home after twenty years as his mother dies, the loss of Frank and Grace’s child and Grace’s death are also covered, Friel leaving some questions unanswered. Though the prose is appealingly poetic, the narrative didn’t satisfy me, and it certainly doesn’t sustain its length.

Some great actors have been attracted to these roles over the years. The original London Hardy was Patrick Magee, who was followed by Ken Stott & Stephen Dillane, and now Michael Sheen, who it has to be said is mesmerising. Helen Mirren was London’s first Grace and Sinead Cusack, Geraldine James, Gina McKee, and now Indira Varma, who is excellent, have followed in her footsteps. Ron Cook, Iain McDiarmid and Warren Mitchell (on radio) have all played Teddy, with David Threlfall on top form in this production.

I can’t help making comparisons with Alan Bennet’s recently revived Talking Heads. Their economy and brevity contrasts with this play’s verbosity and they are like colour to Faith Healer’s black & white. Sadly more is less, despite a trio of fine performances.

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I’m fond of a bit of Beckett, something to fire your imagination and stretch your brain. I enjoy my regular trips to the Old Vic Theatre, one of London’s truly great theatre spaces. Director Richard Jones has long been a favourite, though he’s done more opera of late. I’ve much admired how Daniel Radcliffe has managed his post-Potter stage career and liked the three performances I’d seen before this – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Yet I left the Old Vic disappointed.

The double-bill opens with Rough For Theatre II, a rarely performed and arguably unfinished 25-minute piece where two suited men are at desks in a room where a man is standing on the window ledge poised to commit suicide. B (Alan Cumming) reads about his life from files, as if they are justifying or judging whether the act should proceed. A (Radcliffe) comments, smirks, appears to be in charge. They have come from other suicides and will continue to more. It’s intriguing, if slight, but my biggest problem with it was the contrast between A and B, or Radcliffe and Cumming, I’m not sure which. The difference between them didn’t really make sense to me.

The main event, Endgame, isn’t a long play, but it is three times the length of the curtain-raiser, and at 75 minutes outstayed its welcome; I hadn’t felt that on the two previous occasions I’d seen it. Hamm (Cumming) is confined to a chair, waited on by his servant Clov (Radcliffe). They have a seemingly endless repetitive ritual that involves Clov climbing ladders to look out of the high windows and commenting on the world outside and fetching and carrying for Hamm. Their relationship is brittle, Hamm waiting to die, Clov waiting to be free. Hamm’s parents occasionally make an appearance, popping up from their place in adjacent dustbins. Radcliffe brings an expert physicality to his role, but his youth seemed at odds with the character.

Despite both being end-of-life plays, to me they didn’t belong together, and the theatre was too big for both. I liked Cumming’s two characterisations and the casting of Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks was luxurious indeed. On the three previous occasions, I felt Radcliffe had chosen roles that suited him, but here they don’t, which does slightly derail his otherwise impressive short stage career.

This was my second Beckett this year and I’m afraid the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, home of the first, upstaged the Old Vic.

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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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This 2012 Duncan McMillan play gets a very early revival on a much bigger stage in a much higher profile production. What seemed like a nice little play eight years ago now feels like a bit of an epic. I don’t know whether this is because it’s rewritten, in a different space, a different director and performers, the topicality of the environmental debate, the passage of time or a combination of them all. Whatever, it’s a thought-provoking and entertaining ninety minutes, stunningly staged and performed.

The play starts with the man in the couple raising the idea of starting a family. This comes out of the blue and the discussion continues for days and days, with a particular focus on the environmental impact of bringing another life into the world; tens of thousands of tonnes of co2 apparently. It soon becomes a play about their lifelong relationship and its ups and downs, with the deterioration in the environment almost always in the background. The naturalistic dialogue sparkles and its often very funny, but not at the expense of the serious themes. The pace is breathless and it never lags or drags.

It’s extraordinary how much you can pack into 90 minutes; you really do feel as if you get to know these people, understanding their dilemmas and even sharing their emotions. That’s no doubt helped by two terrific performances. Claire Foy’s character talks at a manic pace, so its a tough part which she executes with great skill and emotionality. Matt Smith’s character is cooler and more measured which he invests with a more measured restraint. There’s no set as such, except some (appropriate) solar panels, so they are the focus visually, as they move around the space, in addition to the continuous dialogue. It’s really captivating.

It may be star casting that’s selling the seats, but it’s superb writing, finely nuanced direction and star performances that enthrals you.

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