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Posts Tagged ‘Rob Howell’

A lot of characters in plays have changed gender of late, in Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, the RSC’s current Taming of the Shrew and Sondheim’s Company, where it breathed new life into the show. Now the gender of two of Noel Coward’s characters have been changed to produce something extraordinarily fresh, which would never have seen the light of day when it was first staged during the Second World War, but in my view is the play Coward may well have written today.

Actor Garry Essendine is surrounded by his staff – secretary Monica, valet Fred and Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson – and a coterie of producers – Morris, estranged wife Liz, Helen and her husband Joe – and then two ‘super-fans’, Daphne and Roland, crash into his life. He both loves the attention and adulation and feels suffocated by it. As he prepares to tour six plays to Africa, Monica and Liz try to keep him in control whilst Helen and Morris go against his wishes for his next project, Daphne and Roland’s obsession gets out of control and his promiscuity runs rampant. Coward’s dialogue crackles and sparkles right up to a surprisingly poignant ending. The issues around fame seem bang up-to-date.

Matthew Warchus’ production makes it feels like a newly minted piece, set in Rob Howell’s brilliantly designed art deco apartment that is thrust forward to bring more intimacy in this big theatre, with as fine a set of performances as you could wish for. Essendine is a larger-than-life character who gets a stunning larger-than-life, finely detailed characterisation from Andrew Scott, with a hitherto unseen (by me) flair for comedy. The role of Monica suits Sophie Thompson’s style of acting and here she milks it for every ounce of comedy. Indira Varma’s Liz is the perfect foil to Scott’s Essendine, with their final moments together movingly underlining the play’s original title Sweet Sorrow. Liza Sadovy does some nifty doubling-up as Miss Erikson and Daphne’s Great Aunt Lady Saltburn and Joshua Hill as Fred delivers some great lines so well he makes them even greater.

Above all, it’s very funny and hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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This is the play that started my obsession with the work of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, more than thirty years ago in a Jonathan Miller production with Jack Lemon as James Tyrone and Kevin Spacey as James Tyrone Jnr. I was the same age as James Jnr. Now I’m the same age as James Snr. Subsequent productions had Timothy West and David Suchet as James Snr. The 2000 West End production had Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone, with Olivia Coleman as the Irish maid. Now its the turn of Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville.

It’s O’Neill’s most biographical play, which he insisted wasn’t published until 25 years after his death, and never staged, but his widow didn’t honour this wish. It’s a long play, 3.5 hours in this Richard Eyre production, part of the Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary programme. It takes place over one day and night in one room in the Tyrone home. James is a Shakespearean actor, drinks a lot and is a bit of a bully. His wife became addicted to morphine during her recent illness. Youngest son Edmund is seriously ill. His elder brother has followed his father into acting, more by default than anything else. The only other character is Cathleen, the Irish maid, whose scenes bring some light relief to what is otherwise a rather depressing piece.

Rob Howell’s impressionistic design is beautiful, also lightening the gloom of the play. The performances were a touch tentative at first, but became more natural as the play unfolded. Jeremy Irons’ James is an appropriately charismatic presence as James. The wonderful Lesley Manville navigates Mary’s decline delicately, with carefully controlled emotionality. Rory Keenan plays a spiky James Jnr, under the influence of alcohol most of the time, and Matthew Beard a fragile Edmund, both excellent. I very much liked Jessica Regan’s cameo as Cathleen.

This is a high quality revival and its good to see another Bristol Old Vic production in the West End, but it didn’t engage me emotionally or maintain my attention as it should, probably more to do with me and the night I went. Don’t let me put you off.

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I’d got it into my head it was going to be just another A Christmas Carol, so the theatrical magic of the Old Vic’s production caught me by surprise. Matthew Warchus’ staging is very special indeed.

The theatre has been reconfigured again, this time ‘in-the-round’ with banks of seats onstage, the front stalls turned sideways, eight entrances to what is a surprisingly small playing area the length of the stalls, and lots of lamps hanging above. When you add terrific period costumes, Rob Howell’s design brilliantly evokes Victorian London. The addition of Christmas carols accompanied by folky instrumentation, with the inspired use of hand bells, completes the magic.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation is very bleak at first, with Rhys Ifans’ Scrooge as dark as the material. After the ghosts of Christmas’ past, present and future have had their say, his redemption is more joyful and uplifting as a result. It’s hard to imagine a better Scrooge than Ifans, his scenes with Tiny Tim as loving as his earlier treatment of family and friends had been vile. His transition from grumpy to warm is beautifully handled. He doesn’t even have to comb his hair! The morality of Charles Dickens’ story is stronger than its ever been, and in this version often very moving.

When Scrooge is organising Christmas dinner for the families of his nephew and former employee Bob Cratchit, the arrival of the food is a thing of great wonder, the snow inside the theatre is as heavy as it would be outside, and when Silent Night is played by hand bells the silence was extraordinary. As the snow melts, your heart melts, and you leave the theatre with a warm glow.

My Christmas started seven weeks earlier with the Hackney panto. This was its biggest treat. I now declare it officially over.

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When I heard they were going to adapt the film as a musical, I was baffled. How? As it turns out, it’s rather brilliant; bettering the film in so many ways. One of those rare occasions where book, music, lyrics, staging, choreography, design and performance come together to create something very special indeed.

In case you don’t know, it’s the story of sarcastic, arrogant TV weatherman Phil Connors, who visits Punxsutawney PA with novice producer Rita and cameraman Larry to film a live report on Groundhog Day, an annual event when his namesake Phil the groundhog emerges from his winter home. If he can see his shadow they’re in for six more weeks bad weather, if he can’t, its an early spring. What I hadn’t known is that Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney actually exist! They get stuck after a blizzard closes all roads, so Connors is forced to spend a second night in his B&B. When he wakes up next morning, it’s Groundhog Day again, and again, ad infinitum. At first he’s confused, then scared. A hedonistic period is followed by a period of depression and finally he realises he can actually use it to do good.

Daniel Rubin has adapted his own screenplay which, with Tim Minchin’s lyrics, becomes one of the funniest musical comedies I’ve ever seen. Minchin’s songs fit like a glove, whether rousing choruses or gentle ballads. Matthew Warchus’ staging is terrific, flowing along, as light as air, with a lot of help from Peter Darling’s choreography, which is more organic movement than dance numbers. Rob Howell’s design flows too, with technology taking second place to settings created by the performers. Everything just works so well together, with a palpable sense of real teamwork. 

Though it’s his UK stage debut, Andy Karl has bags of musical theatre experience, which shows in his command of both the stage and the material in a brilliant performance in absolutely every respect. Carlyss Peer is excellent as Rita in what appears to be her musical theatre debut! The second act bravely starts with a ballad, which Georgina Hagen as Nancy sings beautifully. You probably wouldn’t recognise many of the names or faces in the rest of this superb ensemble of twenty-one, but as the programme notes testify, it’s one of the most experienced and it shows.

It’s a ridiculously short two-month run (half of which was previews) and rumour has it it’s heading for Broadway before the West End, so it may be a while before you can see it (and for me to see it again).

A huge treat.

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Enticed to Pinter again by the cast and director, and leaving the theatre glad I was. Matthew Warchus has done what Jamie Lloyd did with The Hothouse and The Homecoming – less reverence leading to a fresh look at the play. I might actually be in danger of becoming a Pinter fan.

Elder brother Aston, with both a physical and mental handicap, befriends tramp Davies when he is threatened by someone and brings him back to his grubby attic room to stay. When younger brother Mick turns up in Aston’s absence, he intimidates Davies. Mick seems to be in charge of the house, delegating everything to his brother, who offers Davies a job as caretaker, as does Mick a while later. Davies begins to exploit and take advantage of their hospitality, which drives the brothers closer and Davies out. As with all Pinter plays, you’re left to decide what’s really going on here.

I think it’s his most Beckettian play and Warchus has mined it for the black comedy without losing much of the menace. He’s blessed with a stunningly ramshackle claustrophobic design by Rob Howell, with the set brought forward in front of the proscenium to increase the intimacy of this vast theatre, and a superb cast.

It’s wonderful to see Timothy Spall back on stage after all these years and he relishes the part, channelling Only Fools and Horses Uncle Albert in the meeker moments, morphing into a more aggressive, manipulative vagrant as the play progresses. Daniel Mays is cast against type as a restrained, passive Aston and he’s very good. George Maguire is very intimidating, with piercing eyes, strutting around the stage in his tight leather jacket looking superior; another fine performance.

Perhaps it’s Pinter’s death that has liberated or encouraged directors to make fresh interpretations, but I for one welcome them!

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Walking into the Donmar for this is another one of those WOW moments. Rob Howell’s extraordinary set of ‘distressed’ planks draws you in like never before into this already intimate space. It really is like peering into these people’s homes.

Though it’s the same play, it’s a very different experience to the Michael Rudman production I saw at the National 27 years ago. Then, a young Ralph Fiennes was Arkady and Robert Glenister was Bazarov, with Lesley Sharp as Fenichka. In addition to the smaller space, the success of this revival is due to masterly direction from Lyndsey Turner and one of the finest casts ever to grace this stage well used to fine casts.

Arkady returns from university in St. Petersburg a nihilist, with his friend and fellow nihilist Bazarov of whom he is in awe. Bazarov has great charisma and people can’t fail to be affected by him – Uncle Pavel and family retainer Prokofyich detest him, Dad Nikolai takes to him and maid Dunyasha swoons over him. When they move on to Bazarov’s home, his parents idolise him. Sadly, he’s unable to reciprocate any of these emotional responses. When he does let his guard down and profess his love for Anna, he is rebuffed and withdraws even further into himself. Though Arkady shares his philosophical beliefs, he’s nowhere near as cold and hard-hearted and the tragic conclusion leaves him devastated.

Playwright Brian Friel tells this story of familial love and friendship with a light touch and it’s lovely. It has great pace and there are no wasted moments. The ensemble is simply superb. I missed American Seth Numrich’s London debut last year, but I was hugely impressed by his performance here, with the earnestness, presence and passion required for Bazarov. It must be hard to play against this, but Joshua James does so with great emotionality and vulnerability. Anthony Calf is revelatory as the bumbling, hapless Nikolai and Tim McMullan is suitably pompous as Pavel. It’s hard to single out others, but it was great to see Karl Johnson and Susan Engel give such fine interpretations of Vassily and Princess Olga.

This is a brilliant and long overdue revival and another great night at the Donmar.

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Having failed to revitalise his flagging career with the Phantom sequel, Lloyd Webber returns to the docu-musical style of Evita, which was probably his best show. Sadly, Stephen Ward is nowhere near as interesting as Eva Peron and the music isn’t a patch on the earlier show. That notwithstanding, the creative team and performers do their best and there’s enough to enjoy to keep you interested for a couple of hours.

ALW’s premise is that Ward was the fall guy for those more powerful than him. The show takes a swipe at politicians, police, lawyers & the gutter press which is fine by me as they’re amongst my least favourite people. I don’t know how true it is, but it sounds plausible and is interesting but hardly fascinating or riveting.

I never thought I’d hear an ALW score containing a reggae song or a chorus number set in a sex party. It’s good that he’s moved on from the pompous pucciniesque pop opera mush (though he can’t resisit an overuse of ‘incidental’ music behind dialogue), but he’s replaced it with a score that’s a ragbag of musical styles. Wheras his music used to sound like other people’s (you know what I mean!), it now sounds like he’s re-cycling his own tunes. Christopher Hampton & Don Black have provided some witty lines and sharp lyrics, but they don’t rescue it.

A lot rests on Alexander Hanson’s performance as Ward, on stage virtually all of the time, and he is very good indeed. In an excellent supporting cast, Joanna Riding’s huge talent is underused in a small role as Profumo’s wife with just one song, though possibly the show’s best, and Ian Conningham is great as Yevgeny Ivanov, a journo and a copper.

I’m enjoying Richard Eyre’s late flowering as a director of musicals (Mary Poppins, Betty Blue Eyes & the Pajama Game) and he stages this very well, with choreography by Stephen Mear & excellent designs by Rob Howell featuring Jon Driscoll’s projections. The 24 scenes on 15 different locations are slickly handled.

For me, a great production of mediocre material. It has just extended by three months though on a Friday night with best seats discounted by over 40% (one of the reasons I went!) it was a far from full house, so it’s difficult to see why.

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I’ve always thought this early Brian Friel play was amongst his best and this terrific production by Lyndsey Turner at the Donmar Warehouse has added to this conviction. It’s all about the unsaid and the consequences of the unsaid and it’s both funny and desperately sad.

It takes a while to get into as Friel’s device of two actors playing the central character Gar develops its necessary rhythm, but it’s a brilliant idea. ‘Public Gar’ is the master of the unsaid and as a result he never gets the girl, never develops a relationship with his dad and escapes to the US. ‘Private Gar’ tells us what’s going on in his head and by seeing both we see the feelings hidden behind the facial expressions and body language.

Gar lives and works with his widowed dad and housekeeper Madge. His exchanges with the former are entirely without emotion and mostly about the stock in their hardware shop; the latter is a surrogate mum. His inability to say what he feels means he fails to press for the hand of girlfriend Kate. His friends are all bravado, boasting about what they are going to do but doing nothing. Going nowhere, he decides to emigrate and live with his childless aunt in Philadelphia and work in a big store. The play takes place the day before he departs, with the occasional flashback.

It’s surprising how much depth these characters have given we’re with them for less than two hours. Gar is beautifully played by Paul Reid and Rory Keenan, the latter with the challenge of a lot of speedy dialogue and movement. They are only identical in their clothing, but they really do feel like one character. Valerie Lilley captures Madge’s suppressed affection beautifully and James Holmes has to create dad with few words, but does so well.

Rob Howell’s set is a realistic shop and home, with a huge wall of shelves and lights to provide a more impressionistic setting for the more surreal other-worldliness of the play. Lyndsey Turner’s direction has a lightness and playfulness but it’s ultimately deeply moving. It’s hard not to shed a tear at the unfulfilled life that leads to Gar’s escape; I did so at the end.

This is a long overdue and beautifully executed revival and the first big hit in Josie Rourke’s reign at this lovely venue.

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Walking through the foyers to your seats at the Cambridge Theatre is great fun as they’ve covered the walls with mini blackboards, each with a different chalked comment. When we got to our seats, in pole position in the front row of the Dress Circle, our mouthes fell open – Rob Howell’s extraordinary design spilled out from the stage onto the auditorium walls and ceiling.

Sadly, when the show started the sound was so bad we were missing a good quarter of the dialogue and lyrics (the developing cacophony of crisp & sweet rusting and malteser rolling increased that to 33%). What followed was brilliantly performed and executed (well, apart from the 15 minute pause to solve a technical problem – and I’m not entirely convinced it re-started at the exact point it stopped), but I didn’t think the book, music or lyrics were really that good. Has everyone been seduced by the spectacle and the hugely talented kids? 

I don’t know which Matilda we had, but she was brilliant. Bertie Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull is a wonderful creation, and Paul Kaye and Josie Walker as the parents are excellent. Matthew Warchus’ staging and Peter Darling’s choreography are also superb….but at the end of the day, I really do think this is all papering over mediocre material. It’s not a ‘great British musical’ – it’s an up-market kids show and somehow I feel Roald Dahl’s story would be served better by a minimalist imaginative staging at the Young Vic or BAC where the kids could use their imagination rather than have it shoved in their faces like a video game.

Of course, it’s not for me. Maybe it’s great if you’ve got a few hundred quid and a couple of kids with ADHD to amuse for a few hours……

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Well, I saved this one for the weekend visit of a friend, as it’s based on one of her favourite films, hence the somewhat belated visit 5 months after opening. In fact, I might have been the only one in the audience who’s never seen the film – this is clearly chick-flick-on-stage a la Dirty Dancing. Fortunately it’s a whole lot better than Dirty Dancing in Matthew Warchus staging and Rob Howell’s design (with terrific projections from Jon Driscoll).

It’s a lot more than a love story and I was pleasantly surprised by its depth. Much of it takes place in the lovers apartment, but when it moves to the streets the staging becomes spectacular. Paul Kieve’s special effects are excellent, crucial to the story and slickly executed. In fact, its impossible to fault the production – this is premiere league stagecraft. On first hearing, I found Dave Stewart’s music a bit bland and formulaic, but I didn’t dislike it and I suspect it would benefit from more listening.

Both leads – Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy – are excellent, though on Saturday they were well and truly upstaged by understudy Lisa Davina Phillip as Oda Mae who was in great voice, exceptionally funny and moving when she needed to be. Another understudy, Paul Ayers as Carl, acquitted himself extremely well too.

The slickness is, to some extent, at the price of heart, because it didn’t move this old softie as much as it probably should, but for spectacular staging it’s hard to beat. A very pleasant surprise indeed.

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