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Posts Tagged ‘Old Vic Theatre’

For the third Arthur Miller play this year we move forward to 1980, to his biggest Broadway flop – just 12 performances after opening night – which six years later, revised, was an NT hit, moving from the Cottesloe to the Olivier. We’re back in the 30’s, continuing his examination of the aftermath of the Great Depression.

We follow the Baum family from 1929 through the loss of their money and home, moving to Brooklyn to live with relatives. Son Lee’s hopes of college disappear. Finding a job is tough. Navigating the welfare system is humiliating. Hopelessness seems to be around every corner. Robertson, a Wall Street professional, who’s prophesied the crash, narrates the story. Miller nicknamed it a Vaudeville after the revised version in Britain added thirties songs.

Director Rachel Chavkin’s big idea is to have three Baum families of different ethnic backgrounds – Jewish, South Asian and African American – sharing the three roles. This is confusing and distracting, particularly as the nine all also play other roles, as does just about everyone, and derails the first part of the play. She’s also made the music more eclectic and added dance, with one of those dance marathons people enter for money running through it. For me, this didn’t really work, and got in the way of the story.

The onstage seating and Chloe Lamford’s design detract too. There are huge trading floor indicator boards on both sides and the stage is elevated which, even from the 5th row of the stalls, seemed to be rather remote, making it hard to engage with the play. There’s a fine ensemble who work very hard, giving it their all, but the effort and passion dissipates because it’s not involving the audience. There’s so much going on that the story gets lost.

I saw the NT production at the Cottesloe and Phil Willmott’s excellent revival at the Finborough in 2012, and both served the play much better. it cries out for a simpler staging in a more intimate space, which the vast Old Vic can be, but isn’t on this occasion. I rarely leave a Miller play disappointed, but I did here.

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Most 80-year-olds would celebrate such a milestone birthday with a meal, maybe a party, perhaps a holiday. Ian McKellen is celebrating his with a tour of a one-man show to 80 theatres the length and breadth of the UK, for more than 80 shows as they’ve been adding at some places due to the extraordinary demand, many in venues significant in his career, and all to fund projects of the theatres’ choice. From national treasure to hero in 80 steps.

At the Old Vic, a significant venue, they’re using the money to double the number of ladies loos and improve disabled access, and if you needed proof, you have to enter via temporary entrances and use portable loos. It would be enough just to offer support for such an initiative, but in return you get an enthralling evening of biography, anecdotes, and performance that made this vast theatre seem as intimate as a living room, such is the great man’s ability to engage and connect with an audience.

The first half is mostly biographical, from childhood through school and university, to his professional stage career. There are some nods to the big and small screen, indeed we open with the wizard himself, but its mostly stage. He brings things out of his travelling prop box to illustrate his stories. It’s often very funny, always interesting.

The second half is mostly Shakespeare, as he removes the plays from the box and takes them to a table as we shout out titles, stopping to perform scenes and tell tales of his experiences with some of them, acknowledging important people along the way. At one point he movingly names some recently departed colleagues, ending with Albert Finney, who died just ten days earlier, a few miles away, just three years older. There were many moments of rapt silence as we hang on every word of the bard spoken by a master.

As he finished, his eyes swept all three levels of the audience in a great arc, so we all left feeling a personal connection. Few people can communicate and captivate so well.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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Though I wasn’t a fan of Emma Rice as Globe Theatre Artistic Director, I am a big fan of Emma Rice, theatre-maker, and this is something like my eighteenth show. It’s her first production since leaving Shakespeare’s Globe and the first for her new company, named after Angela Carter’s 1991 novel, on which this show is based, somewhat ironically inspired by Carter’s admiration for Shakespeare.

The story concerns a theatrical dynasty. Our narrators, twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, look back to the generation which preceded them, and forward to the ones that followed. It starts on their 75th birthday, which is also their father Melchior’s 100th birthday. Flashing back, we meet him and his twin brother Peregrine, his various wives, daughters and son, the sisters half-brother and Grandma Chance. It’s a complex, and very adult, story involving ambiguous parenthood, incest, child abuse, suspected murder and more, interwoven with the everyday story of theatre folk, for which there is a troupe of singing actors.

You’d know it was an Emma Rice show within seconds. All of her customary ingredients are here – puppetry, music, dance, inventive staging, men playing women & vice versa and above all child-like playfulness – which was part of my problem with the show. It seemed to be recycling things she’s done before and therefore felt a bit stale. I also didn’t engage with the story and characters, which was the other problem. I’m afraid I felt I was at an Emma Rice show for people who’ve never seen an Emma Rice show and it wasn’t a patch on recent gems like Romantics Anonymous, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and the revival of Brief Encounter. I suppose this is a problem when you have such a distinctive house style. In all fairness, most of the audience seemed to love it.

There’s no disputing the talent on show, including many Kneehigh regulars. Vicki Mortimer’s excellent design feels at home on the Old Vic stage, and though it’s probably the biggest theatre I’ve ever seen one of her shows in, I didn’t feel that was a problem. Etta Murfitt (who also plays Nora – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her act before) has choreographed it very well. I wasn’t so sure about the cocktail of original music with standards and contemporary songs; they did signpost the periods, but seemed a bit of an inconsistent rag bag.

A bit of a misfire for me, but don’t let me put you off, particularly if you’re new to Rice and Kneehigh.

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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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Playwright Joe Penhall’s last work for the stage was the book for the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon, much of which revolved around the exploitation of a bunch of sixties teens by a load of music biz men (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/sunny-afternoon). This is a contemporary tale of similar exploitation, of an artist by a producer. The artist is young and female, which adds another layer, and a timeliness.

Record producer Bernard takes on young Irish singer-songwriter Cat, produces her album and plays in the band that tours to promote it. He claims credit for much more than production and when it wins an award, claims recognition too. Their musical collaboration works well, but the power games result in them talking through lawyers and confiding in psychotherapists, amidst much debate about the importance of the truth of the music.

The structural idea of the lawyers and therapists is a good one, but too much is told through conversations between just two parties – the musical protagonists, artist and their lawyer, therapist and their client and lawyer to lawyer. This damages the dramatic narrative if not the debate, making it often too static. However, the discussion is wide-ranging, thorough and intelligent and its bang up-to-date, so I admired and enjoyed it nonetheless.

I’m not sure the thrust staging, presumably intended to bring an intimacy, worked that well; in truth, the play needs a smaller theatre like the Donmar or the Dorfman. Ben Chaplin’s performance as Bernard is reason enough to go, though; he’s simply brilliant as the manipulative, narcissistic, archetypal middle-aged pop-rock figure. Seana Kerslake plays Cat with a totally believable vulnerability and naivety. The therapist roles are a bit underwritten, both played as cool and detached, as they often are in reality, by Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter; the lawyers are more fiery and confrontational, as lawyers are, played well by Neil Stuke and Kurt Egyiawan.

Yet again the indifferent critical reception lowered my expectations, which were exceeded on the day. Go and make your own mind up.

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This is the second time this week that I’ve seen a stage adaptation of a film I haven’t seen. This one is Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical three-hour film, which was also a five-hour TV series, adapted by Stephen Beresford, best known for The Last of the Hausmans at the NT and the screenplay for the film Pride. It’s an everyday tale of theatre folk in Sweden, well at least initially.

In the first act, we’re with the theatrical Ekdahl family, theatre owners and performers. Husband and wife Oscar and Emilie, Oscar’s mother Helena, brothers Carl and Gustav and their wives Alma and Lydia, Gustav & Lydia’s daughter Petra and Fanny and Alexander themselves, Oscar & Emilie’s children. We’re onstage, backstage and at home in what seems to be an idyllic world, until Oscar dies suddenly. There was plenty of character development, but not enough story in this first part and I went into the interval a touch underwhelmed.

The second act is very dark, as Emilie marries the widowed Bishop, a frightfully stern bully into whose austere and joyless home Emilie, Alexander and Fanny arrive. His sister Henrietta is unwelcoming, fearing her loss of power in charge of the home. Alexander is a bit of a fantasist and gets on the wrong side of the Bishop very quickly, resulting in brutal punishment. Emilie, by now pregnant, wants to leave, but the law and societal conventions prevent this.

In the third act, with the help of Oscar’s brothers and Helena’s friend Issak and his nephew Aaron, they plot to free them all from the Bishop’s tyranny. These latter two parts are much more satisfying and feel almost Dickensian, sweeping along at a fast pace, drawing you in to these characters lives. I haven’t seen much of director Max Webster’s work, but his staging here is impressive, helped by Tom Pye’s excellent set, Laura Hopkins’ lovely costumes and atmospheric music by Alex Baranowski, played live on piano and cello.

It’s a tribute to Kevin Doyle’s performance that there was palpable hatred in the audience for the evil Bishop. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as a seasoned thespian and the head of the Ekdahl family. I loved Catherine Walker, an actress who hasn’t been on my radar before, as Emilie and it was great to see Lolita Chakrabarti again in a pair of contrasting roles as Alma and Henrietta. Jonathan Slinger’s role was relatively small, but he almost stole the show when the Ekdahl brothers confront the Bishop in the third act – the whole audience were willing him on. The actors playing Fanny & Alexander were brilliant, in what are big roles for child actors, especially Alexander.

It was a slow burn at first but it won me over, oozing quality in every department.

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