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Posts Tagged ‘Rae Smith’

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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David Hare’s new play is about an art form I love and institution I loathe. The birth of Glyndeborne. It does come after a 26 day theatrical famine and a 36 day absence from London theatre, so perhaps that helped me enjoy it despite that – oh, and a brilliant performance from Roger Allam.

John Christie was clearly a true British eccentric. His plan for a 300-seat opera house on his Sussex country estate was more than a bit bonkers. When you add that he wanted it to stage Wagner, apparently with a full cast but only a string quartet and organ, even more insane. He persuaded two German pre-war exiles (though one was actually of Irish and Polish descent) and an Austrian to fulfil his ambition, though they persuaded him to start more modestly and appropriately with Mozart and to hand over much control (on condition his wife Audrey, the moderate soprano of the title, played Susanna in Figaro). Audrey was very much his muse, his visionary partner and his moderator.

It’s good subject matter, but Hare has focused so much on the role of Christie, who has all the best lines, that it comes out imbalanced, with other characters much less well developed. In the middle of a series of short scenes over just 100 minutes, there is a much longer central scene where the German’s provide background to their exile. Despite the importance of this background, it’s overlong relative to the rest of the piece. The time-hopping away from the core period wasn’t always clear enough too. There’s much to enjoy in the play, particularly it’s humour and its central character, but it is flawed and I was left feeling it could be developed into a better one.

What makes it unmissable is the central performance of Roger Allam as Christie, a very likeable character whose eccentricity charms the socks off you in Alam’s characterisation. I thought Paul Jesson was excellent too as the imported Musical Director Fritz Busch, but the part of Christie’s wife Audrey was underwritten so even an actress as good as Nancy Carroll had too little to work with. The same applies to Nick Sampson’s Carl Ebert and George Taylor’s Rudolf Bing (who went on to run The Met), both doing very well with what they had.

As much as I enjoyed it, and Jeremy Herrin’s staging and Rae Smith’s design both serve it well, it felt more like work-in-progress than the finished article. I also felt it might make a better TV play than a stage one. Worth a visit nonetheless.

 

 

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Perhaps I should start with the two reasons why you should see this show, because you should. This is Rosalie Craig’s big moment and she rises to it in every respect; her performance as Althea is stunning. The imagination of director Marianne Elliott and designer Rae Smith have run wild; it’s a visual feast – clever, colourful and often captivating.

To say ‘suggested by’ a story by George MacDonald is a bit disingenuous – ‘based on’ or ‘adapted from’ might be a fairer way to recognise the origin of Samuel Adamson & Tori Amos’ musical adult fairytale. In this case ‘light’ means floating rather than illuminating as Althea doesn’t do gravity. Though occasionally on wires, this is mostly created by ‘acrobats’ who move her around in a way that is simply extraordinary.

There is animosity between the two kingdoms (a wilderness divides them), both with widowed kings, one with the light princess and her brother (who dies early on) and the other with two princes. This eventually leads to war, but it’s a fairytale, so it all ends happily, with some right-on environmental stuff and some tongue-in-cheek feminism thrown in for good measure. There’s actually nothing wrong with this adult fairytale, except it’s length and unevenness.

The glorious moments sit alongside some very dull ones, which a judicious scissors would have dealt with and turned it into a much better show. There’s too much of everything really – too much story, too much music (particularly sung dialogue) and too much gratuitous spectacle. Despite this, from the whistle-stop but overlong prologue, it still seems rushed. The score is as uneven as the book. There are some nice songs hiding inside some dull recitative; it’s almost sung-through in that irritating ‘pop opera’ style.

This was the last preview, so it’s too late to change it now. This is deeply frustrating, as it’s fresh and original and has much going for it. If only Mr Hytner had given them more of those notes we’ve been told about, it could have been great rather than just good.

 

 

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Like Lucy Prebble’s last piece, ENRON,  Rupert Goold’s production turns a good play into a great evening, though on this occasion I’m not sure Miriam Buether’s reconfiguration of the Cottesloe is entirely necessary – in a similar way to Rae Smith’s design for This House, which is sharing the Cottesloe in rep., the Pit has been turned into a clinic, with the audience in two rows on all sides, padded walls interspersed with coffee tables on which sit magazines and vases of flowers. 

In essence this is a love story. Two clinical trials volunteers fall in love during their 6-week stay at the clinic, but as the trail is for an anti-depressant and some volunteers have a placebo, we never know whether this has impacted the relationship. The only other characters are two doctors, whose relationship was itself affected by depression, though that is in the past. Along the way, we peep into the world of clinical trials and their ethics and the workings of the brain, but not in much depth and that’s not really what the play is about.

Even more than the inventive production, what propels the evening into greatness are the performances. I’ve only seen Billie Piper three times (I think she’s only done three plays!) and on each occasion she has impressed, investing extraordinary emotionality into her charaterisations. Now I want to see her in a classical role (Ophelia, anyone?). Here she matched by a stunning performance from Jonjo O’Neill. I’ve only seen him a handful of times, but this is in another league altogether. Anastasia Hille and Tim Goodman-Hill are very good as the doctors but its the roles of the volunteers that are are at the heart of the play and enable Piper & O’Neill to shine.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the first half, but the play goes up several notches after the interval and it proves to be a very satisfying evening. I’d like to see a more minimalist production (like Mike Bartlett’s Cock at the Royal Court) to test my theory that its the production wot does it, but I suspect I never will. 2012 really was a brilliant year for new writing at the NT – this is the fourth gem (third in the Cottesloe).

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What an enthralling and entertaining evening in the theatre. Who’d have thought the period 1974-79 in British politics would make such a good play – and much more illuminating than living through it! From possibly the worst seat in the house on the upper level looking down, that’s praise indeed.

Designer Rae Smith has built a replica of the House of Commons in the Cottesloe Theatre. The pit audience sit on the green benches on either side, whilst most of the play takes place in the respective whips offices created from a few tables and chairs on the floor of the house. The Speaker’s chair is at one end, as it should be, and there’s a giant projection of the face of Big Ben high at the same end. They’ve even put the gargoyles of Westminster Hall on the upper level railings.

This was the last period when we had parties with slim or non-existent majorities leading to minority governments reliant on bargaining with ‘the odds and sods’ or more formal arrangements like the Lib-Lab Pact. The premiership moved from Wilson to Heath to Callaghan with Thatcher rising to lead her party and become PM as the play ends.

James Graham’s play focuses on these bargaining processes, together with the party discipline necessary to ensure everyone turned out, the process of ‘pairing’ whereby the absence of one member would be matched with the non-attendance of another in the opposing party and the absurd lengths they had to go to, bringing in the sick and infirm and propping up the drunk.

It’s surprisingly thrilling stuff and often very funny too. Jeremy Herrin’s staging is brilliant (with an occasional nod to Enron’s movement and music). I was gripped for the duration as I laughed, gasped and nodded in recognition. It somehow showed the best and worst of our parliamentary system.

The Labour whips are brilliantly played by Vincent Franklin, Philip Glenister, Richard Ridings and Lauren O’Neill (plus Phil Daniels in the first half) and the Tory whips equally well by Julian Wadham, Charles Edwards and Ed Hughes and there’s a great supporting company of eight who between them play 29 other characters, mostly MP’s, requiring quick change accents as well as costumes (though the Welsh was South East when it should have been South West!). I loved the way the MP’s were referred to by their parliamentary seat rather than their names, as they are in ‘real life’.

The timing of this play, during the next period of minority government (albeit this time a proper coalition), is impeccable and despite the period clothes, dodgy wigs and dated behaviour (Philip Glenister is well-practiced at this after TV’s 70’s Life on Mars and 80’s Ashes to Ashes) it’s relevant and fresh. I adored it.

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There are lots of interesting strands to this Conor McPherson play. It’s set in colonial Ireland in the early 19th century where the landowners and their tenant farmers are struggling, the former to maintain their aristocratic lifestyles and the latter to survive. Against this sociopolitical backdrop, there’s the story of one family’s solution to their economic crisis (marry off the daughter!) and the hopelessness of love across the class divide. Add to that a supernatural layer, and you have the recipe for what should be a very good play.

Where it goes wrong is that it doesn’t make enough of the sociopolitical background and over-plays the supernatural, with a touch of implausibility in the way it handles the infatuation of a member of staff for his mistress. A lot revolves around the defrocked priest and his chum, who come to escort the daughter to her wedding in England, but I never really believed in them. The daughter’s relationship with her mother also seems a lot less respectful than you would expect at this time, as was the over-familiarity between the staff and the family.

Rae Smith’s design brilliantly evokes the stately home in decline, just grand enough but just shabby enough too. The performances of Brid Brennan, Peter McDonald and Caoilfhionn Dunne as the staff are excellent, and Ursula Jones is terrific as the virtually wordless grandmother with a nice range of expressions from indignant to wicked and everything in between. The rest of the performances didn’t convince me though.

It kept my attention but it didn’t really satisfy me. This may be another case where the playwright should not be allowed to direct his own work – no challenge and all that.  A bit of a disappointment, I’m afraid.

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