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Posts Tagged ‘Rae Smith’

Revivals of this 1961 Tennessee Williams play don’t come along as often as most of his other classics. I first saw it at the NT in 1992 with Alfred Molina as Shannon, then again in the West End in 2005, where Woody Harrelson took the lead. Now its Clive Owen’s turn, with American Anna Gunn and our own Lia Williams as the women in his life at this moment in time. It has TW’s usual biographical strands, with a predatory man who exploits young women adding a timeliness.

Rae Smith’s extraordinary set creates a mountain lodge with four shacks, palm trees, walkways and a mountain! It conjures up the tropical coastal location in Mexico where Irish American ex-priest, now tour guide, brings a group of ladies from a Baptist college in Texas. The tour isn’t going well; he’s already accused of sex with one of the underage girls and they are refusing to stay at the lodge run by Shannon’s friend and sometime lover Maxine, recently widowed.

It’s late season in 1940 and the only other guests are four German tourists who sing Nazi songs and rejoice in the bombing of London! Then New England lady Hannah, an artist, and her 97-year-old grandfather, ‘America’s oldest living poet’, turn up. Maxine is reluctant to accommodate them, but succumbs under pressure from Shannon, who is clearly attracted to Hannah. Their problems and their demons emerge and unfold on this one night, with sexual tension between Shannon and both Maxine and Hannah, but in very different ways, and an unspoken rivalry between the two women.

Clive Owen seemed to take a short while to get into his character, but was soon commanding the stage. Anna Gunn and Lia Williams are both excellent in their very different roles, Gunn as feisty promiscuous Maxine and Williams as gentle serene Hannah. There’s terrific support from Julian Glover as Hannah’s grandfather and Finty Williams as Mrs Fellowes, the church group leader who takes no prisoners. In addition to Rae Smith’s set, James Macdonald’s fine production boasts some great lighting from Neil Austin and an atmospheric soundscape by Max Pappenheim.

Good to see it again, done so well.

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I last saw this 1980 play by the late Brian Friel in Sam Mendes’ Donmar Warehouse Theatre production twenty-five years ago. Ian Rickson’s revival in the National’s Olivier Theatre makes a virtue of the bigger space and it works even better on this scale, with a superb design by Rae Smith, beautifully lit by Neil Austin, making great use of the Olivier stage (something that lately hasn’t been said that often!).

We’re in rural Ireland in 1833, in an independent and potentially illegal ‘Hedge School’, giving a classical education to adults in Latin and Irish. The school is run by Hugh and his son Manus. Hugh’s other son Owen is working as a translator for the British army, which is mapping this part of Ireland, renaming places in English. When British army Lieutenant Yolland and Manus’ girlfriend fall for each other, events take a dramatic turn. The disappearance of Yolland incurs the wrath of the British, who threaten to kill animals, evict people and demolish homes. The true purpose of the British forces mission becomes clear.

It all takes place in a school room, with a large green space behind and brooding clouds above providing an atmospheric and evocative picture of rural Ireland. It takes a while before you realise the Irish are speaking Irish (Gaelic) and the British speaking English; at this time English was rarely spoken by the people of Ireland. Ciaran Hinds is great as Hugh, with Seamus O’Hare as Manus and Colin Morgan as Owen both excellent. In a fine supporting cast, Dermot Crowley shines as the erudite, knowledgable but often drunk Jimmy Jack Cassie, who studies Greek and Latin.

This is an excellent revival of a fascinating play, anchored in history, beautifully staged and performed.

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I saw the three previous Barney Norris plays at the Arcola and the Bush, in their smaller spaces, so I was wondering if his unique brand of wistful, poignant charm would survive scaling up to a big London theatre like the Bridge. Half-way through I wasn’t convinced, but by the end I was.

We’re back in rural south England, this time a Hampshire farm. The two years since her husband’s illness and subsequent death have been a struggle for Jenny, her son Ryan, daughter Lou and her boyfriend / Ryan’s best friend Pete. Ryan and Pete were involved in a drunken incident which resulted in Pete’s imprisonment and his split from Lou. The farm, which Ryan is somewhat reluctantly continuing to run, is deep in debt. Ryan and Pete have taken a huge risk by siphoning oil from the pipeline running through the farm (a touch implausibly, I thought). They’re all grieving in different ways.

A hell of a lot more happens in the second half where we see the games people play. We learn that Jenny and Ryan knew more about Pete’s fate than was thought. Lou and Pete rekindle their relationship. Jenny struggles to keep the family together and some of her tactics backfire. We begin to wonder if Ryan’s friendship with Pete, for him, is more than it seems. Lou and Pete make plans to leave and Ryan seeks to persuade his mother to sell up. In the end, the family saga and rural decline come to a rather sad conclusion.

Rae Smith’s design manages to evoke the countryside without losing the intimacy of the individual scenes in yet another different use of the new Bridge space. In thirty-five years of London theatre-going, its the first time I’ve seen a pipeline and actual brick-laying live on stage! All four performances – Claire Skinner as mum, Sion Daniel Young as Ryan, Ophelia Lovibond as Lou and Ukweli Roach as Pete – are excellent. Laurie Sansom’s staging is as fine as we’ve come to expect from him.

Despite an unevenness between the two halves, Norris just about survives the scale-up. To be recommended.

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Reading his biography in the programme, it appears this is the National Theatre’s Director Rufus Norris’ first Shakespeare production. Perhaps he should have asked one of his predecessors for some coaching. He’s fallen into the trap of swamping it with concept and directorial conceit, losing the essence of Shakespeare’s play in the process.

His two big ideas seem to be to set it in some sort of dystopian present / future and to ramp up the magic; the latter works better than the former. In the process he’s lost the psychological depth of the story, the subtlety of the characterisations and much of the verse is chewed and spat out rather than spoken, sometimes competing with the soundscape. It’s dark, bleak and relentless and actors of the calibre of Rory Kinnear, Anne-Marie Duff and Patrick O’Kane struggle to shine.

Rae Smith’s design has an arc platform on the revolve which is used to great effect; otherwise it’s all hanging black plastic, concrete rooms, tacky furniture and grubby clothes. There are a lot of severed heads in clear plastic bags. The soundscape has eerie wind instruments. The lighting is striking, but ever so dark, so that you are sometimes straining your eyes trying to work out who’s speaking.

It’s not all bad – some scenes work well, like Macduff learning of the fate of his children, Macbeth finding his dead wife and the weird sisters during the final battle, but much of it was un-engaging. When it ended some 20-25 minutes before the published time, the shortest Macbeth I’ve ever seen, I wondered if they’d lost confidence in it themselves.

A big disappointment.

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Another half-baked new play on the high profile Olivier stage. Following hot on the heels of Common, Rory Mullarkey’s good idea doesn’t really work in its present form. This brings into question the NT’s QC process again. Were Rufus Norris, his deputy Ben Power and head of New Work Emily McLaughlin all on holiday at the same time?

It’s an allegory of the history of England which uses its patron saint St. George to take us to three periods. First he arrives in mediaeval times where the dragon ruler is about to sacrifice sweet Elsa on his feast day. He overcomes him and liberates the people. In the industrial revolution, the evil dragon capitalist is in control and George frees them again, this time by helping them to take control of their own destiny. Finally, in modern times, the dragon is within us all and liberation seemingly impossible. Here, the English football team is used as a metaphor – again, a good idea. The same characters appear in each scene, behaving as if only a short time has elapsed between them.

It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t engage, it doesn’t bite, it’s rarely funny and its too long, so you find your mind wandering, thinking about the next meal or drink or what you could be doing with your time and money. Rae Smith’s design is excellent; in fact, there’s not much wrong with Lyndsey Turner’s staging. I felt sorry for John Heffernan, a favourite actor of mine, doing his best, imprisoned in this misguided piece. In a pretty empty theatre (so rare at the NT, particularly in the very accessibly priced Travelex Season), with a fair few not returning after the interval, it just fell flat I’m afraid.

I would have thought that, during the commissioning and development process, you could see that it wasn’t ready for twenty-one actors, six musicians and the technical resources of one of the country’s biggest stages. I’m ready and willing to accept the odd mistake, but too many on such a high profile stage……

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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 was captivated by this piece from the cheeky pre-show audience engagement, when my beard was put under threat, to the deeply moving final scene, where a widowed, childless barber and his eighteen-year-old fatherless customer strike up a relationship.

Inua Ellams play takes us from a London barber shop back-and-forth to similar establishments in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa, to explore issues of culture and identity for black men of all ages. The stories only connect by their barbershop setting, their themes include politics, family and friendship and somehow it hangs together brilliantly. The music, dance and humour provide an extraordinary warmth. It’s performed brilliantly by a dozen terrific actors, too many to name.

The audience are on all sides and the shop signs around the 1st level illuminate to tell us which barber shop we’re in. The scene changes themselves are highly entertaining and the pace of Bijan Sheibani’s production never lets up for 105 unbroken minutes. Rae Smith’s design conveys the essence of the barbershop settings and different cities and countries. I particularly loved Aline David’s movement, at its best at the end with an inspired dance using barbers capes like bullfighters.

The unlikely midweek matinee audience rose to its feet. I might have to go again.

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