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Posts Tagged ‘Old Vic Theatre’

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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As playwright Lucy Prebble proved with Enron, you can learn a lot about a subject of which you know little in a few hours in a theatre, and when it concisely summarises what you may have followed over years, it can be illuminating. This clearly well researched play packs in so much knowledge yet, also like Enron, you are royally entertained.

We were drip-fed information about the Litvinenko poisoning as the facts emerged. Here they are presented to you in less than 2.5 hours playing time in a very concise and lucid account. It starts after his death with his wife Marina discussing the possibilities of an inquest or public enquiry, the government having shamefully washed its hands of the case for political reasons. It then goes back further to the days immediately after the poisoning, and back again to the Litvinenko’s life in Russia and the events which led to him becoming a subject for assassination by the Russian state, moving chronologically forward to where it begins. The defiant Marina acts as a narrator, with Putin a counter-narrator in the second half.

Also like Enron, the story is told with great ingenuity, playfully, employing a variety of clever theatrical devices. The fourth wall is broken continually, with characters talking directly to the audience, and there are some deliciously cheeky swipes at the form and the venue. It took a while to take off, but from halfway through the first half it was gripping like a thriller. It’s already lost c. 20 minutes from the published running time; another 10 minutes from the first half would probably make it even better. It’s a fine ensemble, with almost everyone in multiple roles, led by an outstanding performance by Tom Brooke as Litvinenko. Tom Scutt’s design is clever; I particularly liked the way it moves between London meeting locations leading up to the poisoning, with all of them remaining on stage. John Crowley’s inventive staging even makes use of Peter Polycarpou’s musical theatre talent to great effect.

I suspect it will still tighten before press night, but even at this late preview it proves to be a thrilling ride. What more can you ask for when going to the theatre than leaving it feeling both informed and entertained?

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Coming full circle, Michael Frayn’s clever and funny subversive farce comes back to the theatre where it started 37 years ago. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and subsequent productions – the NT in 2000, the Old Vic in 2011 – have confirmed it’s enduring power, as does this revival.

Frayn got the idea when he saw a short farce of his from backstage and realised it was even funnier, so he wrote a farce about a farce called Nothing On touring the UK. The first act is the final rehearsal, the ‘technical’, just hours before the premiere performance in Weston-super-Mare, the second is a month later in Ashton-under-Lyne at the midweek matinee, and the third is the final night of the three month tour in Stockton-on-Tees. The same act of Nothing On is performed in each act of Noises Off, except the second act is actually backstage during the performance. Still with me? As the tour progresses, relationships between the actors and backstage staff form, break and change, becoming very dysfunctional by Stockton.

Good farce is intricate, requiring high precision, but this even more so, and the pleasure you derive from the comedy is matched by the awe you have of the actors’ skills in pulling it off. The second act in particular is masterly, as it’s effectively two plays playing simultaneously, one a kind of dumb-show in front of you ‘backstage’ and another on the stage behind seen through the set window, Act One of Nothing On in front of the Ashton audience. When I wasn’t weeping with laughter, I was agape at the sheer hutzpah of it’s execution.

The class of 2019 are a match for those that went before, with Jonathan Cullen as Jonathan Fellowes playing Philip Brent and Daniel Rigby as Garry Lejeune playing Roger Tramplemain taking the brunt of the physical demands of Frayn’s play, though the other seven actors all shine too. Max Jones’ set makes an impressively short change between the interval-less backstage second act and the front-stage third. Jeremy Herrin’s staging is as slick at being unslick as you could wish for.

Though farce has gone out of fashion, Mischief Theatre, with their ‘goes wrong’ series, have proven that there’s still an audience for it if you make it clever and skilful. Frayn did that with this 37 years ago, and it’s still the pinnacle of the form, about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on! The previous three London productions all transferred to the West End, the first running five years and the second two years, both with multiple casts. It would be a brave person who bet against this following suit; it would be a particular tonic at the present time.

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A lot of characters in plays have changed gender of late, in Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, the RSC’s current Taming of the Shrew and Sondheim’s Company, where it breathed new life into the show. Now the gender of two of Noel Coward’s characters have been changed to produce something extraordinarily fresh, which would never have seen the light of day when it was first staged during the Second World War, but in my view is the play Coward may well have written today.

Actor Garry Essendine is surrounded by his staff – secretary Monica, valet Fred and Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson – and a coterie of producers – Morris, estranged wife Liz, Helen and her husband Joe – and then two ‘super-fans’, Daphne and Roland, crash into his life. He both loves the attention and adulation and feels suffocated by it. As he prepares to tour six plays to Africa, Monica and Liz try to keep him in control whilst Helen and Morris go against his wishes for his next project, Daphne and Roland’s obsession gets out of control and his promiscuity runs rampant. Coward’s dialogue crackles and sparkles right up to a surprisingly poignant ending. The issues around fame seem bang up-to-date.

Matthew Warchus’ production makes it feels like a newly minted piece, set in Rob Howell’s brilliantly designed art deco apartment that is thrust forward to bring more intimacy in this big theatre, with as fine a set of performances as you could wish for. Essendine is a larger-than-life character who gets a stunning larger-than-life, finely detailed characterisation from Andrew Scott, with a hitherto unseen (by me) flair for comedy. The role of Monica suits Sophie Thompson’s style of acting and here she milks it for every ounce of comedy. Indira Varma’s Liz is the perfect foil to Scott’s Essendine, with their final moments together movingly underlining the play’s original title Sweet Sorrow. Liza Sadovy does some nifty doubling-up as Miss Erikson and Daphne’s Great Aunt Lady Saltburn and Joshua Hill as Fred delivers some great lines so well he makes them even greater.

Above all, it’s very funny and hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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There’s something astonishing and wonderful about having two Arthur Miller classics revived at the same time at theatres on the same street less than 200 meters apart, at the Old and Young Vic’s. They were first staged two years apart, this being his first big hit 72 years ago. I’ve seen a number of great revivals over the years and this one is up there with the best. Seeing it sixteen hours after I’d left Death os a Salesman made me think how alike they are, though this is entirely naturalistic, without flashbacks and imaginary scenes. As productions, they are very different, Jeremy Herrin taking his lead from this naturalism and opting for a more conventional take and a realistic setting. Both however are absolutely unmissable.

It’s just after the end of the Second World War and only one of Joe & Kate Keller’s two sons have returned. Older son Larry is still missing in action, his mother convinced he’s still alive, whilst most think he’s dead. Younger son Chris has survivors guilt, though Larry’s girlfriend Ann is visiting and he is set on proposing marriage, despite his mother’s conviction. Chris works in his dad’s engineering business, which sold faulty parts to the military, resulting in deaths. His father’s business partner Steve Deever, Ann’s dad, took the rap and went to prison, though many think Joe is really to blame.

It’s a surprise that Broadway could stomach this story just two years after the war ended, but they did, and it ran for almost a year and was made into a film just one year later. It’s timeless, as Miller often is, with corporate ethics as much of an issue today, but it’s a family tragedy, so its as much about the complex relationships within and between the Keller’s and the Deever’s. Max Jones’ uber-realistic design places a suburban home and garden on the Old Vic stage in a way that draws you in, seemingly shrinking this big theatre, well at least from the stalls.

Jeremy Herrin’s production is impeccable, building the tension slowly, taking hold of you. As I was across the road the night before, I was in awe of the acting talent on stage. Bill Pullman’s performance as Joe has a naturalism that makes you forget he’s acting. Sally Field is superb as Kate, holding on to hope her son is alive and belief in her husband’s innocence. Colin Morgan navigates Chris’ complex emotional journey brilliantly. This appears to be Jenna Coleman’s stage debut, and an auspicious one it is too. In an excellent supporting cast, I very much admired Oliver Johnstone as George Deever and Sule Rimi and neighbour Dr Jim Bayliss.

How lucky we are to have two outstanding revivals of these modern classics at the same time. The informal Miller fest becomes a Miller feast on The Cut!

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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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