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Posts Tagged ‘Polly Findlay’

This is the fourth Caryl Churchill play I’ve seen in the last twelve months – three revivals (two of which I’d seen before) and one new play(s). I first saw this seventeen years ago at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. Cloning was a hot topic at the time. Eight years later there was a certain frisson seeing a real father and son – Timothy & Sam West – playing it at the Menier, something that was tried again at the Young Vic in 2015 with John & Rex Shrapnel. So this is my third exposure and I’m still confused. That’s Caryl Churchill for you.

It’s set in the home of Salter, where he is visited by someone who turns out to be a clone of his son, who was sent to some sort of home by his father when he was struggling after the suicide of his wife. Salter realises the doctors have created more than one clone and is preoccupied with suing them. His actual son then visits, furious with his father about the cloning. Salter now says he was just trying to have a second chance to bring up a son properly. The first clone returns, knowing the truth, now hating Salter. After another visit from his real son, now very troubled, Salter invites another of the clones, Michael, who proves to be very normal and unfazed by it all.

Polly Findlay’s excellent staging plays out in five scenes over sixty minutes, superbly performed by Colin Morgan as all of the boys and Roger Allam as Salter. In Lizzie Clachan’s clever set we’re in the same room, but from a different perspective in each scene, miraculously transforming in the darkness between them. It’s a much more realistic setting than previous productions, and Morgan is much better at creating different personalities than his predecessors. The nature versus nurture debate is interesting, but I was left wanting to understand more about Salter and the doctor’s motivations, and the extent of and reasons for the cloning.

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This 1912 play was last seen at the NT 25 years ago, in a production by Katie Mitchell (before she went on to deconstruct and destroy plays!). Since then, it’s been named one of the 100 most influential plays of the 20th Century, and its easy to see why. It must have been shocking to see a prominent industrialist portrayed as a bully on stage over 100 years ago.

John Rutherford owns a glassworks in the industrial North East. Though we’re not explicitly told, he appears to be a widower, living with and looked after by his sister Ann and his spinster daughter Janet. His children have been a big disappointment to him. Richard has become a curate and John Junior, who he hoped would take over the business, has married beneath him and shows no interest in the family firm, though he has returned home to try and sell his father an invention. John thinks he’s entitled to be given it after spending a small fortune on John Junior’s education at Harrow. As the play unfolds he belittles Richard, sends John Junior and Janet away and manipulates John Junior’s wife Mary into involving him in bringing up his grandson.

Sowerby was the daughter of a North East glass manufacturer, so this may be wholly or partly biographical. In any event, the play was brave. It was first attributed to a writer with initials, so the sex was ambiguous and widely assumed to be a man. After all, there weren’t any female playwrights. The first act is a bit slow, and I’m not sure if this is the writing or the production, but it gains pace after the interval. Polly Findlay’s production, with designs by Lizzie Clachan, has great authenticity, with atmosphere created by rain and the movement of the house in which they live, plus a group of female voices singing folk inspired songs a capella.

Roger Allam is brilliant as Rutherford, commanding the stage as well as his family. Sam Troughton, Justine Mitchell and Harry Hepple are excellent as the three siblings who have grown into such different people. Joe Armstrong is great as Rutherford’s right hand man and Barbara Marten is superb as the ice cold uber conventional sister Ann. Lovely performances all round.

Good to see it again, in as fine a production as you could wish for.

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This is the most famous of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels, her 6th, published in 1961, which was on stage within five years, on film within eight and a TV series ten years after that. Last seen on stage in London twenty years ago, at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a production by Phyllida Lloyd starring Fiona Shaw, this is a new version by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Though he’s done a lot of adaptations, he seemed an odd choice, but as it turns out he’s taken an interesting, fresh look.

Set in the thirties in a private girls school in Edinburgh, teacher Jean Brodie’s determination to teach her girls about life sets her on a collision course with Miss Mackay’s strict adherence to the curriculum. She treats them like friends, telling them about her relationships and her experiences, inviting them to her home. They are more like followers than pupils. At first it all seems mildly subversive and rather charming, until you realise how much control she exerts, her attempts to make choices for and mould her girls, not forgetting her fascist leanings. There is a dalliance with married art teacher Mr Lloyd and a long relationship with music teacher Mr Lowther, whose proposal she spurns. She is eventually betrayed and is forced to leave the school. It’s often very funny, but at times it’s sinister and dark too.

It’s told partly in flashback from post-war scenes where one of the girls, who went to Oxford and published a memoir, is interviewed by a journalist just before she enters a convent, and I’m not sure this worked that well or if was really necessary in telling the story. They’ve put in a middle aisle and swapped the front two rows of the stalls for wooden school chairs, which I’m also not sure is entirely necessary. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create a partly glazed back wall and ceiling, yet Lizzie Clachan’s design still seems to be missing something. I did love the use of bells, though, which emphasise both the school setting and the period.

If you need only one reason to see Polly Findlay’s revival it’s Lia Williams brilliant performance. She makes the role her own, delightful in her opinionated rebelliousness but ultimately transformed into a tragic figure. I’ve long admired her work, but this is a career high. In a fine supporting cast, Rona Morrison is terrific as Sandy, who sees the negatives in Brodie’s approach, and Sylvestra Le Touzel provides the contrasting sternness of Miss Mackay.

Good to see it on stage again, and warmly recommended.

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We appear to be in a golden age of new plays. Bartlett, Bean, Butterworth, Graham, Kirkwood & Raine have all delivered gems this year and now David Aldridge joins them. His is on a much more intimate scale, but it’s as captivating as any of the others.

It’s the fag end of a party, the early hours of Sunday morning, and the host Laura and guest Danny, who she doesn’t really know, are the last two standing. There is clearly a mutual attraction. He’s damaged – deserted, divorced, estranged and lonely – and socially clumsy. She’s successful and independent, but with no family, also lonely, and too frank, forward and direct for Danny. They play out the difficult first 100 minutes of their relationship in real time.

Though it’s mostly about loneliness and relationships, there are a whole load of other themes including father’s rights, desperation for children, impersonal modern dating methods and more. It’s voyeuristic to watch, but it’s not uncomfortable. The characters are superbly well drawn and the performances of Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton are stunning. Troughton in particular perfectly captures the complex cocktail of emotions and vulnerability of Danny. Polly Findlay’s direction is totally in harmony with the writing and Fly Davis’ uber-realistic design anchors it.

I’ve never thought Eldridge’s work as consistent as other playwrights, but he has produced gems before, notably In Basildon, maybe when he’s writing from experience. Somewhat ironically, he produced the least plausible play about middle-class life, Knot of the Heart at the Almeida, and has now produced the most plausible! This is an enthralling experience, particularly welcome at the NT.

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As I get older I find myself seeing plays anchored in modern history that I’ve lived through, though with unreliable memories. This is another timely one, about the creation of the SDP as a reaction to a Labour lurch to the left on a tide of member activism with a policy of EU withdrawal and an unelectable leader. Who said history doesn’t repeat itself! To add an extra frisson, I saw it on the day Article 50 was invoked, something there will no doubt one day be a play about, but probably not in my lifetime.

It takes place the day after the Labour conference which cemented the lurch, in David Owen’s fashionable East End home (uber realistic design by Alex Eales). The gang of four, as they were known, are convened by Owen. His attempts to pick the others off one by one are rumbled and seen as manipulative and divisive. His American wife Debbie is key to toning down his excesses, which are clearly winding the others up. They struggle to make decisions under time pressures of their, well Owen’s, making, but they make it in the end, after the debate on alternative options leads them back to there being only one real option. Though the initiative failed in the end, it may in some way have paved the way for New Labour’s later successful bid for power from the same middle ground and the Lib Dems eventual entry into coalition. It lags a bit in the middle, with circular debates that go nowhere (which may be true, but don’t make good drama) and it doesn’t have the pace, energy or incisiveness of something like James Graham’s This House, but it’s a fascinating piece of history and way more timely that you could ever imagine.

Roger Allam is the only actor who doesn’t have the responsibility of playing a living figure. His Roy Jenkins, then President of the EU Commission, is uncanny. He’s very old school, a touch bumbling, with a penchant for expensive French wine. David Owen comes over as a somewhat unsympathetic character and Tom Goodman-Hill captures his ambition, passion and manoeuvring well. I loved Debra Gillett’s characterisation of Shirley Williams, the one everyone loves, and the less well-known Bill Rodgers is played by Paul Chahidi as a passive follower, very much in awe of Jenkins. If the play is to be believed, Debbie Owen had a considerable influence, both on her husband and the others, and Nathalie Armin conveys this very well.

I love seeing plays anchored in real events with real people and, like his previous play Temple about Occupy’ s effect on St. Pauls, Steve Waters particularly timely piece is very welcome indeed.

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I was a bit shocked when I walked into the Olivier to find the stage laid out as a cramped modern office. As You Like It?! I still wasn’t convinced during the first few scenes, but from the moment Lizzie Clachan’s extraordinary design transformed the stage to an impressionistic Forest of Arden, I was captivated. I’m still not sure why we start in the offices of the de Bois family business (some sort of trading floor with staff in different uniforms suggesting different roles) but the rest of the play made perfect sense.

The key to the success of the production is the combination the Clachan’s design, Orlando Gough’s music & Carolyn Downing’s sound effects, the human sheep in Arran jumpers and superb casting and staging by Polly Findlay. It might not look like any forest you’ve ever walked through, but it feels like a magical one. People (and sheep!) weave in and out to play out scenes, seeming to appear from nowhere. The music is gorgeous, particularly the songs sung beautifully by Fra Fee and the atmospheric, wordless choruses. The sound of animals, birds and weather conditions are all-pervading. The verse speaking is outstanding and the gentle amplification (necessary given the soundscape) means you hear every word. The play has never felt more other-worldly or magical.

Ellie Kirk, covering Celia for Patsy Ferran, was terrific; word perfect and confident in such a big role. Rosalie Craig is a brilliantly boyish Rosalind / Ganymede and has great chemistry with Joe Bannister’s excellent Orlando. There’s luxury casting in the smaller roles, from Patrick Godfrey’s loyal Adam through Mark Benton’s particularly funny Touchstone, Alan Williams wise old shepherd Corin and Ken Nwosu’s charming young shepherd Silvius, to Paul Chahidi’s introspective Jaques.

This production appears to have divided people, but I thought it was one of the best I’ve seen.

 

 

 

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The National Theatre has a strong track record staging great family shows at Christmas in the Olivier – Wind in the Willows, His Dark Materials, Coram Boy, Was Horse – most of which have returned in subsequent years and one of which will be on 5 stages in 4 countries this Christmas. The last five years or so have seen less rich pickings, and I’m afraid that trend continues.

Many of the ingredients of this production are outstanding. Lizzie Clachan’s design – from the make-up and tattoos of Bill Bones through the punk-gothic costumes to the stage which transforms from inn to port to ship to island – is terrific. There are some great special effects. Jon Tams has provided some lovely songs. The characterisations – particularly the pirates – are excellent. Yet despite this it has no real sense of adventure, which is a bit of a problem for an adventure story! The way the story is told is a bit patronising and somehow at odds with the style. The actors were trying hard, maybe too hard. The fighting is completely lame. It all seemed ever so half-hearted. Byrony Lavery’s adaptation seems to have removed all of the magic from a classic which has captivated children for 130 years and inspired many other successful adaptations.

Director Polly Findlay has decided to cast women as Jim Hawkins and Dr Livesey. I’m not sure why (though the line ‘girls like adventures too’ is a clue) but it didn’t bother me and both performances, by Patsy Ferran and Helena Lymbery, were excellent. Gillian Hanna was delightful as Grandma and Aidan Kelly positively terrifying as Bill Bones. I thought Nick Fletcher’s Squire Trelawney was too much of a caricature and Arthur Darvill just seemed to be going through the motions as a very low energy Long John Silver, almost devoid of swash and buckle.

At the curtain call, they didn’t look like a particularly happy company – Arthur Darvill couldn’t raise a smile (or even a baddie’s sneer), just a ‘get me out of here’ expression. I felt much the same – much admiration for the craftsmanship, but not in the slightest bit captivated by the story.

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