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Posts Tagged ‘Olivier Theatre’

Rufus Norris & Katrina Lindsay have created a new musical adaptation of Sleeping Beauty which is visually stunning, often funny, gradually getting darker, with a terrific central performance by Rosalie Craig as Fairy. With all the Covid malarky, there’s only two weeks left, so they’ve already announced it’s return next Christmas / New Year, delaying the press night until then.

The King & Queen, Rex and Regina, can’t get their daughter Rose to sleep, so they send their steward Smith into the woods to find a fairy who can put a sleep spell on her. Fairy returns with him but is reluctant because it will require something strong that she doesn’t really do, a hex. She does, however, eventually comply, but loses her powers in the process.

Rose sleeps until she is sixteen, when a kiss from a prince will break the spell. Of the ten contenders, Fairy has brought Ben, the son of reformed ogre Queenie, and he successfully wakes her and takes her away to wedlock and children. A few years later, Fairy decides its time he reconnected with his mother so that she can meet his wife and her grandchildren, but she has reverted to type and it all turns dark, very dark.

It could do with a bit of trimming in the first half. Tanya Ronder’s book doesn’t really live up to Rufus Norris’ lyrics, which are left to carry the weight of the narrative more than the dialogue. Jim Fortune’s score is patchy, at it’s best in the opening and closing song Make It All Good and the two songs for the loser princes’ – One Of These Days and Mine Is The Kiss. It’s lowest point is Sixteen, which is like an X-factor contestant over-singing something from Wicked.

In addition to Rosalie Craig, there are excellent performances from Tamsin Carroll as Queenie and Michael Elcock as Ben and Kat Rooney’s turn as baby Rose was spookily brilliant. It’s full of invention, with the palace and a whole load of wheels and broomsticks hanging above the stage, with superb projections onto these and the characters by Ash J Woodward. Lindsay’s costumes are outstanding, with generic styles and colours for both the loser princes and the thorns. I loved the fact the Olivier revolve has its own manual operator!

There’s much to enjoy and they now have time to deal with its faults. Our first date was cancelled, but I’m glad I rearranged it. Above all, a visual treat.

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It’s somewhat ironic that this revival of Larry Kramer’s partly autobiographical AIDS play was delayed by an epidemic / pandemic, though that probably makes it resonate more. The contrast between the response to AIDS it shows and the response to Covid-19 we’ve just experienced is also striking. The parallel between the current debate about differing types of protest, and in particular the use of civil disobedience by environmentalists, wasn’t lost on me either. So an up-to-date 36-year-old play, then.

By the time this was written / produced, US deaths from AIDS had exceeded 5000; the disease had been around for four years. Our protagonist Ned Weeks is a founding member of a HIV support group and much of the play is devoted to the contrast between his confrontational style of advocacy and the more reserved ways of his colleagues, some of whom hadn’t come out. Despite clear medical advice on safe sex, though, all were reluctant to promulgate such advice. It was all about resources to respond and support the stricken community and how best to lobby for these.

As the play develops, we learn more about the disease and are drawn in to personal stories, not least that of Ned’s partner Felix, a closeted journalist dying of it. Ned’s passion becomes anger. He is marginalised by his colleagues as he is losing his lover. The authorities’ response to AIDS is sadly lacking. It makes the reaction to Covid-19 seems so much better (vaccines in less than a year?!), because of the speed of spreading and mode of transmission, perhaps because of what we learnt from AIDS, perhaps because AIDS was seen as only affecting the gay community.

The first part seemed a bit too laboured, perhaps because it focuses too much on the political and not enough on the disease, but the second half punches you in the stomach as it becomes devastating, personal and deeply moving. This is helped by staging in the round, which provides more intimacy than the Olivier can usually muster. The setting, with just benches inside a circular metal structure and four entrances, facilitates a pace and urgency for the storytelling.

Ben Daniels plays Ned with such passion and commitment, on stage virtually the whole time; he inhabits the role fully. A towering, career defining performance. Liz Carr is superb as straight-talking Dr Emma Brookner, just about the only character who challenges Ned effectively. Daniel Monks stands out as Mickey in an older, very different role to his impressive UK debut in Teenage Dick at the Donmar. The rest of the 13 strong cast, all men, provide excellent support.

The original off-Broadway production never made it to Broadway, which seems to echo the response to the disease shown in the play, but the Royal Court’s UK production, initially with Martin Sheen as Ned, did get to the West End. It might be worth noting that the 1988 Cambridge University production was directed by Sam Mendes, with Nick Clegg as Ned!

Like Channel 4’s It’s A sin, this is very timely, though a completely different take. That TV series could only be written now, whilst this was written at the time. The Olivier audience was on it’s feet, and that doesn’t happen very often.

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I’m fond of a Greek tragedy and welcomed the opportunity to catch this rarely revived one. Kae Tempest has adapted Sophocles 2500-year-old play about warrior Philoctetes, stranded for ten years on an island after a dispute with fellow soldier Odysseus. Neoptolemus, son of Philoctetes’ friend Achilles, now dead, has been sent to bring him back to the war front. Tempest has been faithful to Sophocles in the first part, but makes a significant change to its conclusion, producing an interesting roundedness, if not a faithful retelling.

The Olivier is back in the round and the action takes place in a ‘bear pit’ with the playing area extended to replace the left side stalls and use the ‘shelf’ above the right side stalls. The chorus of nine women seem to be a refugee camp, onstage throughout. Sometimes a chorus seems incongruous in modern adaptations, but here they prove to be a key element of both the story and the staging. It’s a while before we meet our protagonist, out hunting as usual, but we are introduced to Neoptolemus soon after and the story of how Philoctetes got there, and Neoptolemus’ intentions, are revealed.

The arrival of Philoctetes’ nemesis Odysseus, at first hidden from Philoctetes, begins the twist in the tale, and what follows is both a battle over the moral high ground and over Philoctetes fate, with deceit and lies employed by Neoptolemus and Odysseus in an attempt to achieve their objectives. The chorus reveal where their sympathies lie and become involved rather than remain onlookers.

Ian Rickson’s taut, visceral production casts all three warriors as women playing men with Lesley Sharp, Gloria Obianyo and Anastasia Hille all investing their characters with deep passion and determination. All nine chorus members are terrific, both when reacting as one and when standing out individually. Rae Smith’s evocative design and Mark Henderson’s brilliant lighting create a compelling setting for this war of words.

A show which fits the Olivier perfectly, brilliantly staged and designed, with a fine set of performances. Proper drama.

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I haven’t really got back into the swing of blogging theatre yet. I’ve already seen 10 shows (one twice) but have only blogged one, the actor-less Flight at the Bridge Theatre, so I thought I’d catch up. I have an interest in three of the rest, so I’ll just cover the remaining six, in one blog.

Call Mr. Robeson – Greenwich Theatre

It was almost three weeks after Flight, the actor-less one, before this one-man show, for one night only. I have to confess that even though I knew who Paul Robeson was, and was well aware of his historical significance, I didn’t know much about the man and his life. Tayo Aluko, who both wrote and plays Robeson, redressed that with a 90-minute whistle-stop biography with songs, accompanied by Roland Perrin. The vocals were sometimes shaky, and barely audible in the lower register – it was his first live performance for over a year – but it was a comprehensive and captivating biography of a fascinating life.

Out West – Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

It was another two weeks before my next outing, to not one but three one-person plays in one evening, the first of six consecutive days at the theatre. Tanika Gupta’s The Overseas Student told the story of Gandhi’s period in London qualifying to be a lawyer, his first exposure to the idiosyncrasies of the West. Both the play and Esh Alladi’s performance were utterly charming. In Simon Stephens’ Blue Water and Cold and Fresh, Tom Mothersdale’s Jack grapples with his relationship with his dad, whose racism comes to the surface when he embarks on a mixed race marriage which leads to a mixed race son, in a deeply moving tale. Favourite playwright Roy Williams completed the unrelated trio with Go, Girl, a lovely story of a single mum’s pride in her daughter, beautifully realised by Ayesha Antoine, an uplifting conclusion to the evening. Fine writing and fine performances all round.

Under Milk Wood – National Theatre

By now it was time for a stage full of people, a cast of 14 led Michael Sheen, a real favourite of mine, in one of the greatest literary works of my homeland, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It wasn’t written for the stage of course, though I’ve seen it presented successfully as such twice before, once in this very theatre, the National’s Olivier. This version is ‘framed’ by scenes in an old peoples home written by Sian Owen,where Owain Jenkins, a writer, visits his dad, seemingly desperate for reconciliation. The ‘play for voices’ emerges organically as if from the memories of the home’s residents, who play all the characters. I wondered if Owain, who becomes our narrator, was meant to be Thomas. In any event, his words were beautifully spoken by an excellent cast that included Sian Phillips no less, playing three characters.

Romeo & Juliet – Shakespeare’s Globe

This was less successful for me (so my search for a definitive R&J continues). Statements and facts about contemporary teenage mental health and suicide puncture the scenes of Shakespeare’s story of the star crossed lovers, underlined in neon above the stage. I felt it was aimed at a young audience, somewhat heavy-handed, and failed to engage me, despite some fine performances. It had its moments, but the choice of Juliet’s mode of despatch was the final straw for me, steering too far from Shakespeare for my liking. The ‘greatest love story ever told’ becomes a contemporary lecture on mental health.

Bach & Sons – Bridge Theatre

Nina Raine’s play focuses on Johann Sebastian’s family more than his music, as the title suggests, and in particular on the two sons who followed in his footsteps (of the 20 children he had with his two wives, only 10 of whom survived into adulthood). His favourite, Wilhelm, is a drunkard who lives with, and off, his dad. His younger brother Carl ends up working as a musician for Frederick the Great, with whom his relationship is somewhat ambiguous. A scene where JS visits Frederick only to be humiliated by him and his son for his obsession with counterpoint is the only time we see Bach away from home. Simon Russell Beale is perfect for the part and I enjoyed the play, though it was a bit slow and dark (lighting wise) in the first half. I felt it needed more than the 7 characters and more (live) music to animate it, in an Amadeus way, but Covid no doubt put paid to that.

Last Abbott of Reading – Reading Abbey Ruins

An outdoor treat from Rabble Theatre amidst the ruins of the abbey on the 900th anniversary of its founding. Staged very effectively in-the-round, it tells the story of Abbott Hugh Faringdon’s rise from nowhere to become a key religious figure and friend of Henry VIII, until the king, under Cromwell’s influence, closes the Abbey and has Hugh murdered. The Abbott’s mother Alice acts as a narrator, a device which worked really well. The costumes were excellent, the space atmospheric, the performances very good indeed; Beth Flintoff’s play was excellent storytelling. Well worth a trip to Reading.

It’s good to be back, and all venues took safety seriously and organised things well, but I can’t wait to be maskless, for me the one deterrent left to true enjoyment of theatre.

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Though it’s still set in the 50’s, but relocated to the US, the moral message of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play seem very now. Though it’s a long evening, I really enjoyed it.

The North Eastern US town of Slurry is down on its luck. Factories have closed, jobs are hard to get and no-one has money to spend, but the world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, is about to return home, and expectations are high. She has a track record of philanthropy, traveling the world scattering money as she goes. She also seems to collects husbands along the way. Trains no longer stop at Slurry, but she makes sure hers does.

It isn’t long before she offers an extraordinary sum – one billion dollars – to the town and its people, but there are conditions. People start spending, running up credit with willing retailers, and the town makes expensive plans. There’s a sense of anticipation, even though the price would be very high indeed, particularly for her old flame Alfred. Finally a meeting is called where the residents will vote on whether to accept the money, and therefore accept and implement her demands. Claire looks on, in control, vengeance on her mind.

Director Jeremy Herrin has resources only the NT could provide – a cast of twenty-eight, five musicians, a choir, children and supernumeraries. Designer Vicki Mortimer conjures up a railway station, town hall, shops, homes and a forest, with excellent period costumes by Moritz Junge and superb lighting from Paule Constable. Paul Englishby’s jazz infused score adds much to the period feel and atmosphere.

Hugo Weaving is superb as Alfred, with a huge physical presence and a pitch perfect vocal tone and accent. Lesley Manville plays Claire brilliantly, ice cool, determined, vindictive and unforgiving. They are surrounded by a terrific ensemble that includes luxury casting like Nicholas Woodeson as the Mayor, Sara Kestelman as the school principal and Joseph Mydell as the church minister.

They seem to have cut it considerably during previews, but it’s still too long at 3.5 hours, albeit with two intervals. That said, it’s a wonderful production which in my view has to be seen. The story of a town that sells its soul to the devil in a Faustian pact with the richest woman in the world proves timeless. As it is, was and forever will be, there’s nothing people won’t do for money.

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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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It seems to me that adapting Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels for the stage is hugely ambitious, not that I’ve read them, and though there’s much to enjoy in Melly Stills’ terrific production of April De Angelis’ adaptation, it didn’t quite come off for me.

It has an epic span of sixty years, with forty-six characters, combining the personal story of two women with the concurrent history of a city and the socio-political history of a country. Lenu and Lila are working class Naples girls, who we first meet when they are eight as they become best friends. Their lives diverge when Lila’s very traditional parents force her to leave school, whilst Lenu continues at school, then becomes one of the first in their neighbourhood to go to University.

Lenu moves into academia and becomes a writer, marries a professor, moves to Florence and has two children, but struggles to remain a successful author. Feisty Lila is much more of a rebel and leaves her marriage to ‘the boy next door’, a puppet of gangsters, for a rather wild life that starts with factory work but leads her to fighting for workers and women’s rights and brushes with terrorists and gangsters before she marries a local boy again and sets up a business. Their lives converge again when Lenu leaves her husband for a old flame, returning to Naples.

They’ve captured the edginess of Naples very well and Soutra Gilmor’s set of four movable steps with projections, shadows and silhouettes is impressionistic and very evocative. There’s so much story that it is inevitably episodic, but the staging is very inventive, using every trick in the book, including puppetry and stylised movement; the fights, riots, killings and an earthquake (!) are particularly well staged, some gruesomely. You have to keep your wits about you to keep up, though, as it occasionally fails to signpost something that can derail you. An excellent cast of twenty-three actors play all forty-six roles, led by Niamh Cusack as Lenu and Catherine McCormack as Lila.

I admired the production and performances more than I liked the storytelling. I’m not sure they could have done a better job, except perhaps lengthening it and turning it from two parts into three. I’m glad I went, though. I admired the ambition and the inventiveness.

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It’s a tribute to the Sydney Theatre Company that they’ve gone ahead with this NT run after the tragic death of the story’s narrator Ningali Lawford-Wolf at the end of their Edinburgh Festival visit, and to Pauline Whyman who has flown from Australia to read the part in her place. Director Neil Armfield’s moving tribute before it started dedicated the performance to Ningali.

It’s adapted by Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s novel, inspired by her research into her ancestors. South Londoner William Thornhill was deported for what would now be considered a very minor crime as an alternative to execution. After a period of incarceration he is pardoned and with his wife Sal and sons Dick and Willie sets his sights on building a new life in Australia, though Sal reluctantly so, and for only five years. They take 100 acres on the Hawkesbury River, just 30 miles from Sydney, where a handful of other settlers have set up home, and begin to farm it whilst William also earns money from the use of his boat. The land is of course already inhabited by the indigenous Dharug people, and conflict ensues. There are attempts to build a friendship between these two peoples, notably by William & Sal, even more so their youngest son Willie, but other settlers’ actions lead to bloodshed.

It’s a surprising emotional ride. You find yourself sympathising with these settlers, disowned by their own country for the pettiest of crimes which would today incur a small fine, community service or even a caution, sent thousands of miles away from their homes and families to what they see as a hostile place. The fact they once lived on the doorstep of this theatre some 200 years ago adds a certain frisson. As the story progresses though, you become angry at their hostility, racism and violence, with more than a touch of shame; they are our ancestors after all.

The Aboriginal actors speak Dharung and there is no attempt at translation or surtitling, which I thought added authenticity to the storytelling. There is superb atmospheric music written by Iain Grandage, played live by Isaac Hayward. The simple design, a bare stage with just a fire, surrounded by branches and occasionally covered in water, earth or powder is very evocative. It’s a terrific ensemble, excellently led by Nathanial Dean and Georgia Adamson as the Thornhill’s. Pauline Whyman has great presence as Dhirrumbin and given her role is the story’s narrator, reading the part is not at all detrimental. I’ve admired Neil Armfield’s work in theatre and opera since I saw Cloudstreet at the Riverside Studios twenty years ago, and his staging here is masterly.

It’s great to welcome the Sydney Theatre Company to the NT, despite the tragedy en route. A very fine play, a very fine production and a fitting tribute.

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The first time I saw Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, on the same Olivier stage almost 30 years ago, it was so slow and turgid we decided an earlier dinner would be preferable to the second half. We’d finished our meal before the rest of the audience left the theatre, rather pleased with ourselves. I felt a bit like that at the first interval of this version by David Hare ‘after Henrik Ibsen’, but there were enough moments in Jonathan Kent’s production to send me back and see it through. It’s overlong and uneven, but there is much to enjoy.

Peter is Scottish, from Dunoon, and that’s where the story starts when he returns from a war, though not to a hero’s welcome. His girlfriend is about to get married to someone else and just about everyone, including his mother, sees him for the pathological liar and fantasist he is. It’s a while before he starts his journey (too long), first to meet the mountain king in the land of the trolls, who have selfish ways and intentions. From here, we find him at his golf course in Florida (yes!) a businessman with fingers in lots of pies, but a Frenchman, Icelander & Russian woman wipe him out. On to North Africa and the Middle East to make mischief and money before returning home to discover his legacy and destiny.

It’s a good time to revive it, in a world full of self-obsession, ego and greed, and Hare’s updating often works well. Amongst the highlights are the mountain king scene, Florida, at sea and the final scene, but it’s crying out for some editing to provide more focus and improve its pacing. Peter is a hugely challenging part, but James McArdle rises to it with a towering performance, often commanding the stage alone. Richard Hudson’s design sometime fills the stage thrillingly (the scene at sea) but other scenes seem lost on this vast stage. There’s great use of music, with particularly fine vocals from Tamsin Carroll.

It’s heading to the Edinburgh Festival (hence the Scottish setting?) where I suspect the somewhat conservative ladies from Morningside will go beyond their customary tut-tutting and vote with their feet, as quite a few did in an already sparse audience on Wednesday. I’m glad I didn’t, though, but I do wish they’d had the nerve to trim it to improve it; it’s not too difficult to see where that would be possible. In this form, only a partial success.

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I haven’t read Andrea Levy’s book, but I did see the TV adaptation ten years ago. Now Helen Edmundson has adapted it for the stage where she had her greatest triumph with Coram Boy.

It starts in Jamaica when young Hortense is sent to live with relatives, and we glimpse her childhood with her god-fearing adopted parents and her cousin Michael, who becomes a playmate and close friend. We move to wartime London and meet our other protagonist, cheery cockney Queenie. The rest of the first half moves between Queenie’s story, Jamaicans in London joining the forces and Hortense back in Jamaica, now grown up. I thought this first half was overlong and structurally weak. It lacked cohesion and clarity, though it ended brilliantly as we see people boarding the now infamous Empire Windrush, bound for the UK.

The second half opens as Hortense arrives in London six months after her husband Gilbert, who came on the Windrush, shocked by the conditions in the boarding house Queenie now runs after her husband Bernard’s failure to return from the war and her father-in-law’s death. This shorter second half is absolutely brilliant as we see what these immigrants have to put up with and the trials and tribulations facing Queenie before, when and after Bernard returns. This second half, though, covers less than a year. It’s very uncomfortable listening to the racism of the post-war period.

Small intimate scenes sometimes seem lost on that vast stage, but it’s used to great effect when the whole cast of over 40 populate it and when Jon Driscoll’s brilliant giant projections shrink it. Director Rufus Norris marshals his cast well, with excellent movement by Coral Messam. There’s superb incidental music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. It’s a fine ensemble with particularly good performances by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus as Hortense and Queenie respectively. If only the first half had been tighter and shorter.

The warmth of the reception was a striking contrast with the period racism on show. We have come a long way, even if the journey’s not over and may never be.

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