Posts Tagged ‘Old Vic Theatre’

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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I have to confess I wasn’t looking forward to this. It wasn’t received well at the Edinburgh Festival last August, when it was in two parts with a total playing time of 5.5 hours. The anticipation of even one part at just over four hours filled me with dread. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much!

It’s set in a future where men and women are segregated after a plague which killed many men. They believe the women are infected carriers. Same sex partnerships have, by necessity, become the norm and in their half of The Divide the women partner with one another as MaMa and MaPa, the former having children by some form of artificial insemination. Male children are sent to the other half of the divide when they come of age. There is a governing council with three parties whose names speak for themselves – orthodox, moderate and progressive – ruled by the Book of Certitude. The story revolves around the orthodox Clay family, and in particular brother and sister Elihu and Soween, told in flashback by the latter reading her teenage diary which goes on become a book, but its Elihu who threatens the equilibrium of this dystopian state when he falls in love with Giella, the daughter of progressives, whom his sister has already identified as her future life partner.

There was too much talking direct to the audience at the expense of character interaction, but given it was written in prose as a diary / memoir, that’s not surprising. The staging is well paced and it didn’t feel like 3.5 hours playing time; in fact, it felt shorter than last week’s marathons, John and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Annabel Bolton’s production is full of invention, with great use of projections and curtains, and has an organic flow to it. At first I found the black / white palette a bit dull, but I warmed to it. The big surprise was a live ensemble and 26-piece choir and Christopher Nightingale’s music added much to the feel of the piece.

The role of Soween is huge and Erin Doherty, who has already impressed me three times in the last year, is sensational, investing an extraordinary amount of emotion into her performance. Jake Davies as Elihu and Weruche Opia as Giella are also terrific, with a fine ensemble who have learnt their parts for an unfathomably short run of ten days.

It owes something to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaidens Tale and it’s the most un-Ayckbourn of Ayckbourn plays, which wasn’t even meant to be a play. It’s a cry for tolerance and a rage against fundamentalism, much lighter than you might think, and an evening I wasn’t looking forward to became a very pleasant surprise indeed.

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I’d got it into my head it was going to be just another A Christmas Carol, so the theatrical magic of the Old Vic’s production caught me by surprise. Matthew Warchus’ staging is very special indeed.

The theatre has been reconfigured again, this time ‘in-the-round’ with banks of seats onstage, the front stalls turned sideways, eight entrances to what is a surprisingly small playing area the length of the stalls, and lots of lamps hanging above. When you add terrific period costumes, Rob Howell’s design brilliantly evokes Victorian London. The addition of Christmas carols accompanied by folky instrumentation, with the inspired use of hand bells, completes the magic.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation is very bleak at first, with Rhys Ifans’ Scrooge as dark as the material. After the ghosts of Christmas’ past, present and future have had their say, his redemption is more joyful and uplifting as a result. It’s hard to imagine a better Scrooge than Ifans, his scenes with Tiny Tim as loving as his earlier treatment of family and friends had been vile. His transition from grumpy to warm is beautifully handled. He doesn’t even have to comb his hair! The morality of Charles Dickens’ story is stronger than its ever been, and in this version often very moving.

When Scrooge is organising Christmas dinner for the families of his nephew and former employee Bob Cratchit, the arrival of the food is a thing of great wonder, the snow inside the theatre is as heavy as it would be outside, and when Silent Night is played by hand bells the silence was extraordinary. As the snow melts, your heart melts, and you leave the theatre with a warm glow.

My Christmas started seven weeks earlier with the Hackney panto. This was its biggest treat. I now declare it officially over.

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This play with music places songs by Bob Dylan into a story set in his home town in 1934, seven years before he was born. The title comes from Dylan’s version of Scarborough Fair, but here the north country is Duluth, Minnesota and 1934 was in the middle of the Great Depression. It’s bleak and beautiful.

Nick runs a boarding house, up to his eyeballs in debt. His wife Elizabeth has dementia, his son Gene is an unemployed wannabe writer with a drink problem and his adopted daughter Marianne (a black baby abandoned at the boarding house) is pregnant. All of his guests are down on their luck. Widow Mrs Neilson is waiting for her inheritance, having an affair with Nick while she waits. Mr & Mrs Burke are waiting for money they’re owed; they have an adult son Elias with severe learning difficulties. Bible seller Rev Marlowe and boxer Joe Scott turn up late one night. They might not be who they say they are. Joe takes a shine to Marianne, though Nick has other plans for her. Then there’s the doctor, who acts as our narrator.

It’s great storytelling, as we’ve come to expect from Conor McPherson, and somehow the songs, written 30 to 60 years later, fit the time, place and characters like a glove, though they aren’t sung in character or even by one character; they’re not there to propel the narrative, more for atmosphere. McPherson directs too, and for a playwright he makes a mighty fine director, unusual in my experience! The arrangements and orchestrations by Simon Hale have a period feel and they are are beautiful, breathing new life into the songs. The band wrap around the outstanding vocals, always accompanying, never drowning. The staging, and Rae Smith’s design, reminded me of the musical Once – simple but atmospheric, particularly the photographic panels that come and go.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances; it is such a superb ensemble, benefiting I think for limited musical theatre experience and bad habits! Perhaps I should start with Karl Queensborough, an understudy playing Joe, who really was excellent. Ciaran Hinds has great presence as Nick and towers over diminutive Shirley Henderson as his wife, who is unpredictable and edgy and has the most sensational voice which I’m not sure has ever been heard on stage before. Sam Reid is great too as Gene, delivering I Want You so well a woman in the front stalls said out loud a perhaps unintended ‘wonderful’. Sheila Atim, also in fine voice, is ever so good as Marianne and Stanley Townsend, Bronagh Gallagher and Jack Shalloo give a fine trio of performances as the Burkes. Probably the most experienced musical theatre performer, the great Debbie Kurup, delivers Dylan’s songs beautifully.

Some may call it a musical, some the now derogatory term juke-box musical, for me its a play with music and its it’s own thing, something unique, and I loved it.


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I think I might be falling out of love with Tom Stoppard. I didn’t really like his latest play The Hard Problem and I took against Travesties in it’s recent revival at the Menier. I last saw this play six years ago, when it left me with the same feeling as the recent Travesties – ‘look how clever I am’ – but I decided to give it another go as I recall enjoying earlier productions.

The titular characters are of course minor characters in Hamlet and you probably do need to know that play, which is effectively playing concurrently, mostly off-stage, to ‘get’ this one. What we get is these minor Hamlet character’s musings, adventures at sea en route from Denmark to England and interaction with The Player and his troop. Hamlet, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Horatio and Fortinbras all put in appearances.

Today it seems the work of a clever clogs young playwright showing off. It’s undoubtedly intelligent, but that comes with an air of superiority and glibness which for me rather stifles it. Whatever you think of the play, though, David Leveaux’s production is as good as it gets, with a superb impressionistic design from Anna Fleischle.

The chemistry of the titular pair is crucial. The last paring I saw was Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett, who had worked together for years on The History Boys but didn’t have that chemistry. Daniel Ratcliffe and Joshua Maguire don’t appear to have worked together before, yet they have it in abundance. I admire Radcliffe for how he has managed his post-Potter career and here he takes a role often upstaged by two others without any attempt to use his star status or upstage his colleagues. David Haig as The Player is a larger-than-life ‘Lord of Misrule’ with punk gothic followers,  like some sort of Pied Piper, and he almost steals the show.

Great production. Great performances. Maybe the play has had its day.


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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.


Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..


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It’s a while since I’ve been to The Mill at Sunning dinner theatre – their programming of whodunit’s alternating with farce’s isn’t really to my taste – but I couldn’t resist ‘big’ musical High Society in this intimate space, even though it’s less than eighteen months since I saw it in a big space, or perhaps because I had…….

It’s set in the elegant thirties amongst the rich socialites of Long Island. Tracey is about to marry ever-so-dull George, but not before she has an elongated drunken flirt with tabloid photographer spy Mike and has been visited by her ex (and true love) Dexter. Her feisty teenage sister Dinah is determined to reignite her relationship with Dexter and spike the wedding. Her mum is rather pre-occupied with reigniting her relationship with her own ex Seth, a bit of a philanderer, and Uncle Willie chases any woman in sight, but particularly tabloid journalist spy Liz, who’s love for colleague Mike is unrequited. Liz and Mike have been promised the wedding story in exchange for burying the story of Seth’s fling with a dancer. Still with me?

It’s based on the 1939 Hollywood film The Philadelphia Story and started out as a film musical in 1956 before making it to the stage in 1987 in London in a Richard Eyre adaptation (nine years before another stage version on Broadway). The Broadway version had a very successful Ian Talbot production at the Open Air Theatre in 2003, which toured before transferring to the West End, where it only lasted a few months. The latest incarnation was Maria Friedman’s sensational in-the-round production at the Old Vic in 2015. The show’s trump card is Cole Porter’s score-to-die-for with more standards than just about any other show.

Scaled down for a cast of eleven and a three-piece band, it works superbly on this scale. Though it’s occasionally unclear which location we’re in, it’s a simple elegant design by Ryan Light (with great costumes by Natalie Titchener) which enables fast-moving action and scene changes, leaving enough space for director / choreographer Joseph Pitcher’s nifty staging and movement. The musical standards under MD Charlie Ingles are excellent. There isn’t a fault in the casting, with a lovely leading lady in Bethan Nash, a great comic turn from David Delve as Uncle Willie and Kirsty Ingrams’ spirited Dinah.

I love musicals on this scale and this was certainly a treat, and where else can you see a quality musical with a decent two-course meal, coffee and a programme for not much more than £50! On this form, a deserved winner of the 2016 UK Theatre Most Welcoming Theatre Award.

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