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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Bean’

What better way to launch London’s newest theatre than to reunite the creative team behind London’s biggest recent comedy hit, One Man, Two Guvnors, and it’s great to report that both the theatre and the show are a big success.

Richard Bean & Clive Coleman’s play tells the true story of Karl Marx’s period of exile in London, whilst he writes his definitive work, Das Kapital. He’s living in Soho with his wife Jenny, children Qui Qui and Fawksy and their housekeeper Nym (all nicknames). They are spied on by the Prussians and their Communist League is watched over by the British authorities too. Good friend and benefactor Friedrich Engels pays regular visits from Manchester, where he’s a cotton baron, but a secret commie. They are broke, so the police, pawnbrokers and bailiffs all make appearances. Everyone indulges Marx, until he crosses a line which threatens to turn them all away.

Though it’s historically true, it’s often very funny, occasionally farcical and always entertaining. There’s a delicious running joke about the early days of the police and Charles Darwin turns up in a delightful cameo. It’s surprising how the political views still sound fresh; you could hear them being spoken today by left-wing politicians, and increasingly by disaffected ordinary people – like me! Designer Mark Thompson has built a revolving structure which becomes the Marx living room, a pub where the league meets, a pawnbrokers, the British Library Reading Room, the outside of a church and Hampstead Heath! Nicholas Hytner’s production has great pace, but it’s never rushed. It takes an unexpected dark turn, and ends more gently and thoughtfully.

Rory Kinnear’s performance as Marx is very athletic, with great comic timing. At one point, from my front row seat, I feared for his safety. Nancy Carroll is superb as Jenny, loyalty tested at every turn. Oliver Chris continues to impress, this time as Engels, with great chemistry with Kinnear’s Marx. The ever wonderful Laura Elphinstone is excellent as Nym. In the supporting cast, Eben Figueiredo, Miltos Yerolemou and Tony Jayawardena all shine as Konrad Schramm, Emmanuel Barthelemy and ‘Doc’ Schmidt respectively.

A lovely evening to welcome a new theatre and the return of a great contemporary playwright. With this, Ink, Oslo, Labour of Love and Albion, we’re on a real new writing roll in London.

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Playwright Richard Bean was late to his eventual career, of which he is now pre-eminent, starting at 40. He’s made up for it since, writing 23 plays including two adaptations and one musical in twenty years. One of the features of his output is the diversity of subject and style. Another feature is its quality. No. 23 is unlike any of the others, a finely polished little gem.

It’s set soon after the First World War. A man arrives at the lodgings of a war widow. He’s been sent by a doctor because she wants a baby. It’s something he does for women like her, plus the wives of the war wounded. He wasn’t in the war. They exchange pleasantries, but they aren’t allowed to know their real names, or anything about each other, under the parameters established by the doctor. In the end she can’t go through with it. They part but something is left behind which enables her to find him, and another sort of relationship starts. 

It’s easy to see why, despite his drawing power, it’s in Hampstead Theatre Downstairs; it needs its intimacy. With the audience facing each other on two sides, it takes place on and around a solitary bed in a small space. It’s beautifully written, with a depth of characterisation that’s astonishing given its 70 minute length. It often surprises you and there’s a gentle, warm humour in keeping with the subject matter. He says some nice things about the Welsh too, but that didn’t influence me!

Anna Ledwich’s direction is very sensitive to the material, and to the audience too, given the traverse staging. Both Claire Lams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes are a delight, managing to convey the repression of the period but the intimacy of their relationship.

A much shorter theatrical feast than iHo upstairs, but a feast nonetheless.

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A very early revival for this 2014 show, a new smaller scale actor-musician production, is showing at the nearest producing theatre to the Ford Dagenham plant, just five miles away. You could hear and feel the connection the audience made with the story. I’d loved the show in the West End and couldn’t resist seeing it again. One of my better decisions as it turns out; it’s an excellent production. 

The 1968 strike by the Dagenham machinists started as a dispute about down-grading through job evaluation but became a key moment in the campaign for equal pay, a battle which in truth continues to this day. They had to win over their own union reps, their male colleagues (many their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers) and the TUC before the government would intervene. It’s largely told through Rita, their unlikely and reluctant leader, whose relationship with her husband Eddie comes under great strain. She finds an unlikely ally in the Ford site manager’s posh wife and a powerful enemy in the parent company’s hit man (who seemed very Trump-like last night!).

The show works well because it presents us with important social history in a very entertaining way. Richard Bean’s book and Richard Thomas’ lyrics are very funny and very authentic. As Mark Shenton says in his programme note, there have been a few of musicals revolving around strikes – Billy Elliott, The Pajama Game, The Cradle Will Rock – but surely this is the funniest and the edgiest. I will forever be puzzled why it had such a mixed reception and a ridiculously short life in the West End, as this lovely revival reminds me.

The musical standards are very high with 20 of the 21 cast contributing instrumentation. Daniella Bowen and Alex Tomkins were excellent as Rita and Eddie O’Grady. Foul-mouthed Beryl is a peach of a part and Angela Bain was terrific. The always wonderful Claire Machin made a great job of Barbara Castle, clearly relishing the role. The rest of the ensemble, half of them doubling or tripling, was first class. I don’t think I’ve seen the work of director Douglas Rintoul, the Queens newly appointed AD, but on this showing I’d very much like to see more.

The show was 45 minutes shorter than my round-trip to Hornchurch, but it was well worth going. Head East, folks.

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In his fifteen year playwriting career Richard Bean has written no less than twenty shows (including two adaptations and the book for a musical) and we’re already getting revivals – his first play Toast at the Park Theatre last year and now his 2002 third play, originally seen at the NT’s first temporary space, The Loft. This one gets a West End run, presumably on the strength of his One Man, Two Guvnors success and the casting of Stephen Merchant in his stage debut.

It’s a two-hander set in a grubby hotel room in north London. Ted has decided to set up a utopian community based on an obscure novel he’s read and he has asked best friend Morrie (Steffan Rhodri) to film a video to help him promote it. By the interval, I was wondering if this really was a Richard Bean play. It was a bit dull. The second half though is packed with revelations, twists and turns. We learn about the nature of their friendship and back stories, we begin to differentiate between realities and fantasies and we learn what the play is really about. For me, though, the imbalance between the acts, holding back so much until the second act, is a fatal flaw.

Stephen Merchant acquits himself well as a stage actor and Steffan Rhodri does very well to play ‘straight man’ (with the attention and focus all on Merchant), but the play isn’t good enough to be a vehicle in itself and I left disappointed. If they’d mounted a lower profile Off West End production as a 90-minute show without the interval I think it would have fared a lot better. In the glare of the West End, with the expectations that (and the ticket prices) generates it sets itself up and fails to deliver.

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Like Billy Elliott before it, they’ve taken a great British feel-good film and made it into an even better musical. Though the lyricist has written musicals before, the book writer and composer haven’t, which makes the achievement hugely impressive.

Of course, it’s the true story of the Ford Dagenham sewing machinists who took on the multinational, the UK government and their male colleagues over equal pay. It was a landmark in equal opportunity, with the Equal Pay Act following two years later. Many would argue that we still haven’t got true equality today, but the Ford women’s strike was the first big step on the journey. The triumph here is that they respect the true story, which is both stirring and moving, whilst injecting it with boundless energy and humour. Richard Bean’s first musical book is as funny as his plays and it propels the story well, Richard Thomas has produced lyrics that are sharp, witty, naughty and sometimes just a little bit shocking and David Arnold has come up with some great songs – some funny, some moving – and rousing choruses. Bunny Christie’s design seems to be inspired by a model aircraft kit and transforms into a busy factory floor, machine room, family home, hospital ward, Westminster office and the TUC conference in Eastbourne! The costumes are retro joy – the multi-coloured world of the swinging sixties. It’s all pulled together by director Rupert Goold with his usual inventiveness and pizzazz.

Gemma Arterton is very impressive and sweet voiced in her first musical role as Rita. It’s wonderful to see Adrian der Gregorian centre stage in the West End at last and he’s great as Rita’s husband Eddie. There are so many other excellent performances, but I have to single out Sophie Stanton, whose performance as foul-mouthed Beryl continually brings the house down, Sophie-Louise Dann who is a terrific Barbara Castle, Mark Hadfield’s hilarious Harold Wilson (though he needs to do a bit more work on the accent) and Naomi Fredericks, who has to play serious amidst all the hilarity and pulls it off brilliantly. Steve Furst plays Tooley, the American sent in the sort out the Brits, with great brash panache and there’s an excellent cameo from Scott Garnham launching the new Cortina in song with dancing girls.

There was a great buzz in the full house and a spontaneous standing ovation. The show again proves that our social history can be staged as entertainment whilst respecting the events and characters portrayed. We don’t yet know what the Dagenham ladies think, but my guess is they’ll think it as much fun as the rest of last Thursday’s audience. It’s only halfway through previews but its already in great shape and any lover of musical theatre will book now while they can. I’m certainly going back!

 

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The settlement of tiny Pitcairn island by the Bounty’s mutineers and their Tahitian wives seems to me like a good subject for a play and it seems well suited to a theatre like The Globe. The trouble is the production is a bit too panto, so its only partially successful.

Prolific playwright Richard Bean frames the piece with a visit from a couple of British warships looking for the mutineers. By then though there’s only one left, a nobody (apparently) called Adams, who’s allowed to stay. The balance of the play follows the settlers from when they arrived from Tahiti to make a new life of sexual promiscuity in paradise – until some of the men crossed the line from consent to force, which leads to the women exacting tough and bloody punishment. And then there was one….. Back in the real world, Pitcairn has had it’s own recent sandals where promiscuity was again pushed too far, but in a different direction.

It’a very playful, with Bean’s trademark irreverence and wit, but not very substantial. Breaking the fourth wall frequently, but not always successfully, it exploits the Globe’s capacity for inclusiveness, and occupies the groundling space a fair bit, but at the expense of some depth I thought. The design places a rocky ‘island’ on the stage and rocks on the ground, relying on authentic costumes for time and location. There’s some good movement and use of music and I loved the spin on the Globe’s customary closing dance – a hacker!

There are good performance all round and the cast’s sense of fun is infectious, but it’s not really enough – there’s something missing. It’s hard to see where it could be changed, so maybe its just another partially successful new play here at The Globe – there have been a fair few. Worth a visit, as long you don’t set your expectations too high. As it was Mr Bean, mine were.

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Playwright Richard Bean is a busy man. His 2011 NT hit One Man, Two Guvnors has been seen all around the world and is still touring the UK, his new play Pitcairn opened in Chichester last night, heading for The Globe, and the musical adaptation of Made in Dagenham arrives in the West End this autumn. You’d be forgiven for missing this revival of his first professionally produced play, first seen at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1999, now on the fringe in Finsbury Park for just over 3 weeks. You certainly have to accept he’s prolific – believe it or not, there have been 16 plays and two adaptations in the 15 years since this. Looking back at this early work proves fascinating.

Toast is set in a Hull bakery, like the one Bean worked in aged 18 – and it shows, with realism and naturalism running right through it. There’s old timer Nellie, put-upon at work and home, and chirpy sexually frustrated practical joker Cecil. Younger Peter has more fire (and pretensions) whilst contemporary Dezzie is laid back, taking life as it comes, some of it passing him by. There’s tension between charge-hand Blakey and shop steward Colin, each with a personal agenda. The arrival of student Lance is more than a bit unsettling, for some more than others. We spend just one night shift with these characters, but we learn a lot about them and their disparate lives.

James Turner has designed an uber-realistic canteen, with stairs leading to the off-stage bakery. The performances are as good as the characterisations. They seemed uncannily like people I worked with in my three brief periods in a factory, particularly a summer in a jam factory in Bristol ! The production needs more pace, particularly in the achingly slow opening moments. It would benefit if the passage of time were made clearer – we start the first act at 2.50pm and the second at 10pm, but the timespan of each is a lot longer than real time. I also think they should dispense with the interval, which seemed to me to interfere with the dramatic flow (I don’t recall an interval at the first production). This was the second of only two previews though, so it may be too late to fix.

The chief reason for seeing this – and you should – is to see how one of our great contemporary playwrights started out, writing brilliantly real characters and situations from real life experience, and to see seven fine, and finely matched, performances.

 

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