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Posts Tagged ‘Phil Willmott’

This 1950 adaptation of Ibsen by Arthur Miller came midway between All My Sons & Death Of A Salesman and The Crucible & A View From A Bridge, an extraordinarily productive and successful eight years for Miller, fired up by the McCarthy trials. It’s rarely produced these days, so Phil Willmott’s revival at the Union Theatre is very welcome, and as it turns out very timely.

Miller didn’t change much, just gave it contemporary relevance 68 years later and Willmott has done the same another 68 years on. The small town of Kirsten Springs is in the process of building a spa resort. Town doctor Thomas Stockmann has been following up patterns of illness by having the water tested and he’s ready to go public, with the local newspaper on his side. It will delay and increase the cost of the project and when his sister the Mayor gets wind of it she points out how much damage it will do to the town and how much extra tax the people will have to cough up. The newspaper withdraws its support so Stockmann calls a public meeting, which is hijacked by the mayor and newspaper in cahoots. He becomes an enemy of the people, with consequences to his family’s safety, job loss, eviction and blackmail from the mayor, the newspaper and even his father-in-law, but not everyone can be bought.

It proves to be absolutely timeless, resonating in our current political climate where finding anyone with principles is like finding a needle in a haystack and where fake news rules. The production has great pace and passion. They even manage to make the public meeting rousing with just nine actors and some recorded crowd noise. It’s an excellent ensemble led by terrific performances from David Mildon as Stockman and Mary Stewart as his sister The Mayor. Willmott has breathed new life into it as he did to The Incident at Vichy two years ago. An absolute must for Miller fans and strongly recommended for anyone who likes gripping drama.

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It’s taken thirteen years for Arthur Miller’s last play to cross the Atlantic, and on this showing you can’t help wondering why. As if the Finborough Theatre didn’t have enough feathers in its cap, here’s another one for this European premiere of a fascinating play.

Though Miller insisted it was a work of fiction, he is clearly revisiting a period in his life he first did with After the Fall forty years before. His five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe was disintegrating during the filming of The Misfits in 1960, for which Miller wrote the screenplay, and it’s hard not to see this play as based that real-life experience.

We’re on a troubled film set where the leading lady’s behaviour is raising a lot of eyebrows. Famous director Derek Clemson is desperate to complete his film, cinematographer Terry Case anxious she looks right in his shots and Philip Oschner, the producer sent by the company’s new owners, just wants to finish it before his boss closes it down. Actress Kitty’s assistant Edna and coach Flora try and keep her together; they even fly in Flora’s husband Jerome, another coach. Our other character is screenwriter and Kitty’s husband Paul, their marriage breaking down before our eyes.

There are a couple of striking things about the play. The first is that it revolves around a character we never see, and the second is that the third act is made up almost entirely of a series of monologues by all of the characters talking to Kitty through a gap in the doorway of her hotel room. Most of the characters are probably archetypes or ‘composites’, as Miller said, but there are too many parallels between Kitty and Monroe and Phil and himself to make this anything other than an exorcism of a troubled period sixty-five years before, through guilt perhaps.

I much admired Phil Willmott’s staging and the work of design team Isabella Van Braeckel (set), Penn O’Gara (costumes), Rachel Sampley (lighting) and Nicola Chang (sound). Oliver Le Sueur creates a totally believable period perfect rookie producer in Philip. Jeremy Drakes, with the help of some specs perhaps, actually looks like Miller and I very much liked his restrained performance. Rachel Handshaw makes much of her role as assistant Edna, embarking on a relationship with producer Philip. Patrick Bailey looks and sounds every bit the down-to-earth cinematographer Terry. Stephen Billington, Nicky Goldie and Tony Wredden complete the picture with fine characterisations.

For a Miller fan like me, this is a huge treat, but it’s a decent play regardless, and a lot better than the other two of the final trio – Mr Peter’s Connections and Resurrection Blues – which I’d recommend to anyone.

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Opera directors regularly take liberties with the work of dead composers, but this isn’t Carmen the opera, and Phil Willmott won’t be the first person to rob Bizet’s grave – Oscar Hammerstein did it for his musical Carmen Jones and Matthew Bourne for his dance piece Car Man. What Willmott has done is create a largely new story, set some 12 years before Prosper Merimee’s novella, on which the book for the opera was based, when Napoleon’s army had taken Spain. It’s inspired by a Goya painting, which appears to have dramatically changed his life. In two highly effective coup d’theatre, they create a tableau of this painting and dramatise the effect on Goya, who is the narrator.

There are elements of Merimee’s  story – the cigarette factory and Carmen herself, now a resistance spy  – but not a bullfight in sight. In essence, it’s the story of a fight for independence, though it sometimes can’t make its mind up if it’s Spain or Catalonia, in recognition of recent events. He’s placed Bizet’s tunes into this story, arranged by Teddy Clements, with new lyrics and book by himself. The recycling of the tunes works well.

Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s design is excellent, as are the costumes of Penn O’Gara and the lighting of Ben Jacobs, and it’s a great use of the Union’s space. There are some thrilling dances choreographed by Adam Haigh, where recordings of Bizet’s orchestral score are used to rousing effect. Otherwise, it was played on piano, with occasional guitar. Rachel Lea-Gray was very good indeed as Carmen, supported by an enthusiastic and passionate cast of sixteen.

I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but there’s much to enjoy here.

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This Arthur Miller play hasn’t had a professional production here in over fifty years and I’ve been waiting most of those years to see it myself, but it was worth the wait for Phil Willmotts’s excellent, timely production at the indispensable Finborough Theatre.

It’s set in a police waiting room in the French city of Vichy during the German occupation. Vichy is of course the centre of unoccupied France but German soldiers are present as part of the collaboration deal. The ten men are ostensibly there to have their papers checked but it’s clear they have not been selected randomly. They discuss what it must all be about, with some of the view it is just routine and others with more radical theories including racial selection. When ‘the professor’ and a German officer disagree loudly, the reason becomes clear – they are rounding up Jews.

The group includes a psychiatrist, painter, waiter, electrician, actor, gypsy and an Austrian prince. ‘The professor’ is accompanied by a French policeman as well as the German officer. The discussion extends beyond theories to options and issues of morality, notably the lengths people will go to in order to protect and save themselves. In the end both the German officer and Austrian prince show their humanity. It’s a tense and gripping ninety minute debate, set in a claustrophobic white box. The characterisations are finely detailed and the acting is outstanding. 

This was a mid-career Miller play, coming between After the Fall and The Price, 10-20 years after classics like All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View From a Bridge. It’s a puzzle why it’s so rarely produced, but this is a very welcome opportunity to see it and the Finborough have done Miller proud.

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This was only the second show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and it was his first flop, running for only 21 performances (12 of which were previews!), though in my view it’s lack of success is more to do with Arthur Laurents’ story / book. It’s a satire about corruption in local government which we last saw here at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations.

The nameless US town is bankrupt and Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (the musical theatre debut of Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production!) and her treasurer, judge and head of police invent a miracle spring to put the town on the map and restore its fortunes, and line their pockets at the same time. They have to stop the lunatics (here called cookies) from the sanatorium (here called the cookie jar – this is 1964!) from visiting, lest the lack of a cure becomes too obvious.

What follows is a romp involving cookies, townspeople and the corrupt gang of four, until they are usurped by another miracle in a nearby town. Nurse Apple, with the help of new doctor Hapgood (who isn’t, as we later find out) try to destroy patient records and set them free, but fail. It’s daft, but not daft enough to be good daft and the score is just OK, though here the choruses shone bright, better than most of the solos and ensembles. Sondheim was learning his craft; it’s the work of a novice, but interesting to see where genius starts.

Phil Willmott has more space at the Union than they did in Jermyn Street and he uses it, most notably during a chase on foot when the numbers appear to swell significantly through clever (and exhausting) staging. Holly Hughes’ choreography is energetic, sometimes frenetic, with tap and ballet thrown in for good measure. I felt the production was a touch ragged and might also have benefited from a little more restraint. There clearly wasn’t much of a design budget!

The stand-out performances for me were Rachel Delooze as the nurse and Oliver Stanley as Hapgood, though in all fairness their roles do allow them to breathe rather more than the others. The rest of the mostly young cast sing and dance their socks off.

Just for Sondheim ‘collectors’, I’d say.

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This new musical is based on the true story of a West Country vagrant who fooled ‘society’ into believing her to be an exotic princess. It was the subject of a 1994 film (co-written by John Wells, no less) and a 2012 novel by Catherine Johnson, but I’d never heard of it! It was intended for a big-scale production in Bristol, but that never materialised, so the Finborough Theatre has the privilege of presenting its world premiere.

An Iberian sailor introduces the ‘princess’ to benevolent aristocrats Sir Charles & Lady Elizabeth Worrall. She reminds them of their dear departed daughter and they ‘adopt’ her and introduce her to society. Their destitute nephew Eddie returns from his travels at sea and attempts to decipher her language, in the process of which he falls for her and she for him. His old school chum, now Lord Marlborough, a better catch, also courts her, though his attraction seems to be more lust than love. She is eventually found out and her benefactors humiliated by The Times revelations of the truth. She returns to poverty before finding her escape route.

It’s good subject matter for a musical and Phil Willmott has done a very good job adapting it for the stage, though the opening is a bit muddled as we’re presented with an illustrated ‘lecture’ by Worrall, with scenes played out by his staff. The lecture as narration might work better on its own without the play-within-a-play idea. The shows strongest point is a lovey, tuneful score by Willmott and Mark Collins, here very well sung (though occasionally a touch more vocal restraint by some would have made it even better) with excellent orchestrations played by a trio of keyboards, violin & winds led by MD Freddie Tapner

You can see how it would work on a bigger scale, though it works perfectly well on this scale, with ten performers playing all of the roles. Choreographer Thomas Michael Voss even manages to get some effective dance & movement in this tiny space. The production values are very good, with a simple uncluttered design by Toby Burbridge, making particularly good use of a large mirror and models of houses and ships, and Penn O’Gara’s costumes are excellent. It’s a fine cast without a weak link. Phil Sealey and Sarah Lawn were delightful as the Worrall’s, Christian James made a charming Eddie and Nikita Johal a fine Princess. I was particularly impressed by Oliver Stanley as Marlborough, as close to a baddie as we get in this show.

It’s refreshing to have a new musical whose setting isn’t contemporary, which has more than four characters and which isn’t Sondheimesque! I’m sure this won’t be its last outing, but anyone interested in musical theatre should head for the Finborough in the next two weeks.

 

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This latest (last?) Stephen Sondheim musical has had a tortuous journey since it was first workshopped by Sam Mendes in New York City in 1999. First produced in Washington and Chicago (where I first saw it) in 2003, it re-appeared Off-Broadway in 2008 but never made The Great White Way. It started as Wise Guys before it became Gold!, Bounce and eventually Road Show. It’s not even five years since it’s UK premiere at The Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/road-show), but it’s good to see it again in this revival by Phil Willmott at the Union Theatre.

The show presents the story of the real life Mizner brothers. Younger brother Wilson was a serial entrepreneur / chancer / con-man and Addison a self-trained architect. Their adventures started with the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, moved to New York City in its hey-day and ended with ground-breaking property development in Florida. In between, Wilson gambles, runs a saloon, becomes a boxing manager, writes plays, sells Latin American furniture, becomes a hotelier and marries a very rich widow. Addison’s journey was less colourful! In truth, in the show their story isn’t anywhere near as exciting and doesn’t make as good source material as any other Sondheim show, but compared to mere mortals it ain’t half bad. The score has too few proper songs and a bit too much ensemble sung dialogue / story, with a lot of melodies that seem familiar from other Sondheim shows.

Phil Willmott’s production is very effective, probably more so that the Menier’s traverse staging. The big two-way mirror at the back works really well and full use is made of the space, making it seem bigger than usual. I particularly liked Thomas Michal Voss’ choreography and Richard Baker’s trio does full justice to the complex, difficult score. The casting of the brothers is crucial to the success of this show and this is its trump card. Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig, both recent RAM graduates with fine vocal and acting skills, are terrific, conveying the completely different personalities, yet totally believable as brothers. The other three leads and ensemble of ten are all very good, but they carry the show.

I wasn’t sure we’d ever see this flawed but fascinating show again and I worried it might be soon to return to it, but I’m very glad I did.

 

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Well, you have to admire Phil Willmott’s ambition. The starting points for this musical are that the young soldiers in the trenches would have been brought up on Peter Pan and one of them was its creator J M Barrie’s adopted son George (who may have had a copy with him). Though set in the trenches, the show is in reality one long dream sequence involving Peter Pan and other characters from the book. Over-ambitious, perhaps?

There are some excellent songs and for me this is its greatest strength. They are, intentionally, in lots of styles, which didn’t really work for me as it made the show seem a bit of a musical ragbag. The dream includes Music Hall, Parisian clubs and a song about Jungian psychology of dreams (!) and though each were good on their own, they don’t make a cohesive whole. The choruses are particularly good, with the Act One closer a real high.

I liked the look of Philip Lindley’s set, with a Victorian wrought iron colonnade at the back and impressionistic trenches behind, but with this and the band on the left of the stage, it doesn’t leave much room for excellent choreographer Racky Plews to work with. The Finborough has looked less cramped before with more than twelve on stage. I suspect it will open out when it gets to Charing Cross Theatre.

There are some very good performances, most notably Joanna Woodward as Tinker Bell, though some of the less experienced cast members struggled a bit with the big demands of some of Willmott’s songs. I liked the keyboard / cello / clarinet arrangements and the three-piece band were well balanced with the cast.

Even though it was the night after press night it was only the fourth performance and it did feel like work-in-progress. At almost 2.5 hours, it doesn’t really sustain its length. It isn’t always a good idea for a writer to direct his own work; another director might have added some much needed criticality. It will no doubt improve and for once I think Charing Cross Theatre, though less intimate, may prove a better home for it. It’s probably too late to change much during this incarnation, but a rewrite might well bring out a very good musical that I felt was itself lost inside this.

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I don’t think so. I blame the 17th century book binders who bound this with two other plays in a volume they then labelled ‘Shakespeare Volume I’. Here we are, over 400 years later, seeing the ‘modern world premiere of the disputed Shakespeare comedy’. Well, if he wrote it, I’ll eat my copy of The Complete Works. The other theory, that he acted in it, is more plausible.

The play is made up of two stories which don’t come together until the very end, and then only obliquely – William the Conqueror’s pursuit of a Swedish princess imprisoned in the Danish court and the pursuit of the lady of the title, a miller’s daughter, by three suitors in Britain. The structure, plotting and verse bear little resemblance to Shakespeare. It’s a frivolous romp with little depth.

Director Phil Willmott makes the best of it. The production values, particularly the costumes, are good and the performances by a  large cast of 17 (the same number as the audience on the night I went!) are fine. I liked the use of English folk music, though by the end it was a bit over-used.

The same team gave us another disputed Shakespeare, Double Falsehood, a while back at the same venue. That was more believable but still unlikely. One can’t help thinking that second time round it’s a bit cynical as without ‘the dispute’ it would probably remain unproduced or there would be even less in the audience.

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Well, I’ve got seriously behind with my blog, so instead of individual play reviews, I’m adding them to the customary monthly round-up, which given I only spent 12 days of April in the UK, wasn’t much to round-up!

The highlight was undoubtedly the ballet – Scottish Ballet’s new working of A Streetcar Named Desire at Sadler’s Wells. I felt just like I did the first time I really ‘got’ ballet as dance drama, when I saw Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet. This wordless form was more dramatic than any production of the play I’d seen – and both operas adapted from it. Starting with Blanche’s back story (way before her arrival in New Orleans when the play starts) was inspired. The drama unfolded chronologically from her childhood to her incarceration in an asylum by her sister Stella & husband Stanley. The fingerprints of director Nancy Meckler were all over it and the choreography of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa matched it seamlessly. Graeme Virtue’s jazz influenced score was hugely atmospheric, played beautifully by a small 13-piece orchestra. Niki Turner’s designs were elegant, evocative and simply beautiful. You got every bit of the play’s intensity, the longing, the sadness, the testosterone, the fragility….this is a masterpiece I can’t wait to see again.

The opera was ROH 2’s Opera Shots in the Linbury Studionew operas by those new to opera. Graham Fitkin’s Home wasn’t really an opera but a dance drama with music! Nice music though, and lovely flowing movement. What it was about is another matter; don’t ask me. Neil (the Divine Comedy) Hannon’s Sebastopol was more substantial, but still felt more like a staged song cycle than an opera. Again, nice music – though lots of missed words with opera singers singing the way they do i.e often unintelligibly!

I first saw Filumena in the West End in 1977 in a Zeffirelli production starring Joan Plowright – though I didn’t really know who Zeffirelli and Plowright were! Samantha Spiro at the Almeida makes a great Filumena and Clive Wood is an excellent Domenico. Robert Jones’ vast set is so realistic it looks fake (all those artificial plants!). Somehow though the play doesn’t seem that good now. There’s an implausibility to the story of a prostitute who ‘goes native’ but never manages to bag her man, even using the parentage of her sons as bait. A good production, but I’m not sure the play has stood the test of time.

I was recalling my first trip to NYC in my recent travel blog and in particular that one of the plays I saw in that 1980 visit was a preview of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (which closed soon after opening, but got an NT production some years later). The co-incidence was that I’d booked to see it at the Finborough two days after my return – and very glad I was that I had. Director Phil Wilmott’s idea of framing the play with scenes at a present day exhibition of great depression photos was inspired and heightened even further the parallels between 1929 and today. Given the number of scenes, the production has to be simple and it was, and the acting was the usual high standard we’ve got used to at the Finborough – but what grabs you is the uncanniness of the contemporary relevance of Miller writing 30 years ago about something that happened 80 years ago. Spooky!

Big & Small’s big draw is its movie star lead – Cate Blanchette – and she is an extraordinarily good stage actor. Sadly, her vehicle here is a load of pretentious bollocks about a woman searching for meaning in her life. I will allow the director’s quotes in the programme to sum it up as I can’t – ‘It alludes simultaneously to the spiritual and political dimensions of life; macro / micro, cosmos / cell, state / individual, history / present, eternity / now. The expansion and contraction of being…..the seemingly fragmented de-centred dramatrugy…..the slow-motion detonation of character and narrative…..the existential puzzle…..the play offers a radical perspective on society. Lotte’s odyssey confronts us with the limits of rational order. She is a stranger in her own culture. A fool and a saint dancing on the rim of the abyss. As I said, bollocks.

Making Noise Quietly gets a gentle loving production from Peter Gill and the three playlets are finely acted. Again the problem is the material, Robert Holman’s 27-year old piece, now apparently an ‘A’ level text! Loosely connected by the second world war and the Falklands war, I didn’t really find them satisfying, particularly the last (title) play which I found unbelievable; I just couldn’t buy in to the characters and situation. Not the Donmar at its best.

Babes in Arms wasn’t the Union at its best either. Hampered by a weak book, this musical just didn’t sparkle as it could and has. The musical standards weren’t up to the Union’s usual high, though the choreography of Lizzi Gee was outstanding so all was well in the dancing department. Overall, a disappointment though.

I’ve lost track of the number of Alan Ayckbourn shows I’ve seen – maybe half of his 75? – but of late the new ones have seemed dated and the old ones like veritable museum pieces. Neighbourhood Watch at the Tricycle (what’s it doing here?) was no different. The one location and setting was dull and restrictive and the whole thing was just a bit predictable and dull. The premise was fine and it was nicely acted, but it didn’t sustain its 130 minute length and left me thinking ‘so what?’

Not the greatest eight days in theatre, then…..

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