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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Jones’

Well, it isn’t going to be a fun-filled theatrical week, that’s for sure. On Monday, it was a chemotherapy clinic, later today it’s the man who invented the bomb, tomorrow it’s Les Miserables (schools edition!), Saturday it’s Greek tragedy (in Dutch) and this one concerns the Nazi horrors of the 1930’s! Playwright Mark Hayhurst is not content with making both a TV drama and a TV documentary on the same subject, he wrote a play too, and a playwriting debut to boot, now transferred from Chichester to the West End. It’s the little known story of Hans Litten, a young lawyer who put Hitler in the dock in 1931 and cross-examined him and its rather good.

It’s told from the perspective of his mother, who talks direct to the audience as well as appearing in scenes with other characters, all male, and there’s nothing like a mother to tell her son’s story with passion. We follow Hans from arrest through three concentration camps to his death whilst his mother works tirelessly for better treatment or even release for her son, confronting Gestapo officers head on. Penelope Wilton combines steely determination with defiance and dignity in a superb performance as Irmgard Litten. The scenes of imprisonment and torture are harrowing, but the story could not be told properly if they weren’t. We only see the cross-examination which unleashes the Nazi wrath towards the end, in flashback.

In addition to Dame Penelope, there are fine, sensitive performances from Martin Hutson as Hans and Pip Donaghy and Mike Grady as fellow prisoners Erich Muhsam and Carl von Ossietzky (who won a Nobel Prize for peace whilst captivated), John Light as Nazi Dr Conrad and David Yelland as a British peer who seeks to help Irmgard. Robert Jones’ design has a suitably claustrophobic ‘corridor’ at the rear where prison scenes are enacted and the stage is thrust forward into the stalls, bringing a real engagement with Irmgard’s story. It’s beautifully staged by Jonathan Church. Not an easy ride, but one worth making.

 

 

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The cleverness of this show is matched by the stylishness of its production. Add in the intimacy of the venue, the faultless casting and a superb design and you have a real treat. Rather a triumph for director Josie Rourke’s first musical.

Stine is a Hollywood scriptwriter creating a Chandleresque piece for control freak producer Buddy Fiddler. His central character is private eye Stone, who gets the case of the missing Kingsley daughter. The show moves from the scriptwriting and production (in colour) to the story within (in B&W) with five of the actors doubling up, with a part in each. The late night jazz score suits this film noir story perfectly and there’s a ‘chorus’, in the Greek as well as the vocal sense, of four singers. It’s staged in front of Robert Jones’ two-tier wall of scripts linked by a spiral staircase with gorgeous period costumes for both sexes. It’s amongst the most stylish things I’ve ever seen.

The excellent book is by Larry Gelbart, creater of MASH and the very funny book for Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was the Broadway debut for lyricist David Zippel’s, who never produced anything to match these sharp witty lyrics. Cy Coleman’s score is unique in his catalogue that includes Barnum, Sweet Charity and the very underrated On the 20th Century. Though she doesn’t have any musical theatre experience, Josie Rourke is surrounded by seasoned professionals like choreographer Stephen Mear and MD Gareth Valentine.

Hadley Fraser and Tam Mutu are both excellent, and well matched, as Stine and Stone. Rebecca Trehearn and Rosalie Craig provide not one but two scene-stealing turns as PA’s Donna & Oolie and Gabby & Bobbi respectively. Katherine Kelly (Corrie’s Becky) continues to prove there’s life after soaps with lovely sexy characterisations as Carla and Alaura, like Marc Elliott (East Enders Syed) with two fine performances as Munoz & Pancho. Sometime Nancy Samantha Barks is great in her two roles as Avril and Mallory; then there’s Peter Polycarpou, giving yet another brilliant performance in a musical (his fifth in as many years) as producer Buddy. This is exceptional casting.

The only previous West End production of this show, its UK première 21 years ago with Roger Allam as Stone and Henry Goodman as Buddy, was a bit lost on the vast Prince of Wales stage. In the intimacy of the Donmar, with superb staging, production values and performances coming together like this, it proves to be a musical theatre gem.

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Closing shows quickly is common practice on Broadway but much rarer here, where producers usually hang on in there trying to build an audience. Pulling this terrific show so soon is shameful. Perhaps to prove them wrong, it’s been tough to get a decent ticket in this last week, there’s little discounting and even the midweek matinee, the only show I could make, was packed. It’s great to report though that the cast & crew, working their notice, were way more professional than the producers and put on a great show regardless and deserved their standing ovation.

I couldn’t spot writer Simon Beaufoy’s changes to his 1997 film. Thankfully, the late 80’s setting is rightly kept, because the heart of the play is Thatcher’s Britain. When he sees how much money the Chippendales are making at the local Conservative Club, Gaz mobilises others at his Job Club to take up stripping for cash so that he can pay child maintenance and keep access to his son. You probably know the rest. Suffice to say it works better on stage as a live experience. It’s very funny and deeply moving and for a miners son brings out all sorts of emotions, but it is above all supremely entertaining.

Robert Jones has built an extraordinary abandoned steel works that takes your breath away when the corrugated iron screen rises. The crane moves and sparks fly and there are some seemingly dangerous moments as they manipulate a giant steel girder. Other locations are played out effectively stage front with speedy scene changes. I’ve seen Daniel Evans act a lot but this is the first thing I’ve seen that he’s directed and I think its masterly. He has a brilliant cast with not a weak link in it. I particularly liked Roger Morlidge’s Dave and Simon Rouse as Gerald, and there’s a truly stunning performance by one of the young actors who plays Gaz’s son Nathan.

If Sheffield Theatres had a more committed commercial partner (the actual one is surprisingly uncredited in the programme), I am convinced this could have a long run. The timing is perfect, the production couldn’t be better and, like Billy Elliot has proven, there’s an appetite for entertainment that’s also gritty social realism.

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Classical Music

Sir Colin Davies had pulled out of the LSO‘s concert performances of Turn of the Screw due to his deteriorating health, but in the end it turned out to be their first concert after his death. The orchestra’s Chairman & MD made lovely pre-concert tributes, but the greatest tribute of all was that they performed his choice for the Britten Centenary to perfection. Six superb well-matched soloists – Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the housekeeper, Sally Matthews as the governess, Katherine Broderick as Miss Jessel,  Andrew Kennedy as Quint,  Lucy Hall as Flora and an extraordinary performance from 11-year old Michael Clayton-Jolly – were complemented by beautiful playing from the small chamber orchestra under Richard Farnes. I’ve never heard it played & sung so well.

Opera

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter was a charming opera for young people staged in a very lo-tech minimalist style which suited the story-telling of Philip Pullman’s tale. David Bruce’s music, full of appropriately Eastern influences, was tuneful and, unusually for modern opera, accessible on first hearing. There wasn’t a fault in the casting and the small orchestra played beautifully. It was great to see so many (quiet!) kids as it’s a rare evening that is likely to turn them on rather than off opera!

I admired the originality of ENO’s ‘3D’ opera Sunken Garden at the Barbican Theatre and I liked Michel van der Aa’s music, but I didn’t engage with David (Cloud Atlas) Mitchell’s story at all. It didn’t sustain its length (2 hours without a break) and seemed achingly slow. Another one of those situations where the composer shouldn’t have directed? A worthy failure, I think

My third and last (this season) Met Live proved to be the best. David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare is one of the best productions of a Handel opera I’ve ever seen and this is one of Handel’s best operas. In truth, Natalie Dessay didn’t hit her stride as Cleopatra until the second act (and even then made a few nervous mistakes) and David Daniels didn’t really show us his best as Cesare, but they both had enough moments of greatness and the supporting cast was faultless. Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote stole the first act, there was a great Ptolemy from Christophe Dumaux and a delightful Nirenus from Rachid Ben Abdeslam. Robert Jones’ design and Brigitte Reiffenstuel ‘s costumes were a real treat.

Dance

I saw the first outing of Fabulous Beast’s The Rite of Spring at ENO paired with an opera. Now at Sadler’s Wells paired with Petrushka it seemed to make so much more sense. This time the Stravinsky scores were played in their four-handed piano versions and were simply brilliant. The ballets become dances, performed by people of all shapes sizes and colours, with none of the fusty ballet business. Rite is better than Petrushka, but I enjoyed the contrast most of all.

The first time I saw Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo & Juliet, I was astonished that it could tell the story as dramatically as either the play or the two operas made from it. I haven’t seen it for a while, and that Kenneth McMillan production is the only one I have seen, albeit a few times, so it was good to see a different production (and at half the Covent Garden price) by the National Ballet of Canada at Sadler’s Wells. It’s quirkier and brasher, but I liked it. The corps de ballet pieces are bright, with fights handled well and humour unearthed, yet the tragedy is still tragic. It isn’t a match for the McMillan because  it doesn’t move you in the same way, but it’s fresh and less conservative – and the score , the greatest of all ballet scores, was played beautifully.

Contemporary Music

Counting Crows’ concert at Hammersmith Apollo was a huge disappointment; largely because of the sound, which was simply appalling. It turned everything into bland mush with few audible words. Support Lucy Rose (who I’d seen solo with John Cale as a result of which I bought her album) was a whole lot better. Nothing more to say really.

Art

It’s a lot easier to get into the Barbican’s Curve Gallery than it was for Rain Room and it’s well worth doing so. Geoffrey Farmer’s installation fills the space with hundreds of puppets made from paper cut-outs and fabric and places them on tables and podia with a soundtrack throughout and a slideshow at the end. A silent, still, spooky army.

The Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum is extraordinarily eclectic, covering architecture, ‘products’, graphics etc., and a fascinating look at design’s ongoing impact on our lives. Visiting it was also an opportunity to see the newly changed permanent exhibition, which added some retro charm and nostalgia to the visit.

I wasn’t expecting David Bowie is at the V&A to be so big, so comprehensive and so captivating. The automated audio tour didn’t always work (very sensitive to your position and movement) but the combination of costumes, hand-written lyrics, stage sets, video and movie clips were enthralling, though almost impossible to take in on one visit. Beautifully curated, it’s provides conclusive proof of his genius.

A visit to RIBA was somewhat less satisfying as the exhibitions were clearly intended for professionals rather than laymen. Still, it was good to take a look at Dutch floating housing and different approaches to new towns over time and geography.

Film

I rather enjoyed Danny Boyle’s Trance, even though it’s hard to keep up with a real mindfuck of a plot. It twists and turns and keeps you guessing right until the end – well, assuming I got it right!

I enjoyed the Paul Raymond biopic The Look of Love too, though it’s a bit of a soulless piece. His was an interesting life and period Soho looks great, but there was something missing.

If I’d known it was about dysfunctional families, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Love Is All You Need – I’ve got one of my own! It is a rather lovely and original film though, touching but not sentimental, occasionally funny and sometimes surprising. The mix of Danish and English dialogue worked really well, and brought additional authenticity.

Comedy

Attending a recording of Mark Thomas’ Radio 4 show Manifesto at the BBC Radio Theatre is great value as it’s the full monty (2.5 hours) for free and the drink’s are cheap! The ideas put forward were largely funny, the discussion entertaining and Mark’s added stories a hoot. This will all be distilled down to 28 minutes of course and, like my visit to the News Quiz, you can tell what will be on the cutting room floor. This one took place on the evening of Thatcher’s funeral, so maybe more editing than usual!

I haven’t been to the Comedy Store for ages and I thoroughly enjoyed my latest visit to their improv. night. Perhaps we were lucky to have the combined experience of Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Lee Simpson, Neil Mullarkey, Andy Smart and Richard Vranch (no longer confined to the piano). The format doesn’t change much, but the inventiveness is what matters and it seemed as fresh as the first time.

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For a lover of musicals, ‘owing to the indisposition of Hannah Waddingham…….’. are amongst the most depressing words in the English language. I was very close to going home, but didn’t. All credit then to her understudy, Carolyn Maitland, for blowing away a lot of my disappointment with an outstanding stand in.

I last saw this show when the RSC brought it to the Old Vic in 1987 during my 15 minutes of fame (well, 12 months, actually) as a member of the Laurence Olivier Awards Panel. When it came to the voting, I was determined that BOTH John Barton and Emil Wolk would share the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award for the gangsters as it would be invidious to choose one. This required a lot of persuasion as it meant another statuette had to be made, but when you only have 15 minutes (12 months) of fame, you can be very persistent and insistent. It wasn’t until 2012 that they did it again, this time for Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller’s role sharing in Frankenstein.

Even though it didn’t seem that dated then, 40 years after it was written, it does now, another 25 years on, but perhaps that’s because Trevor Nunn’s production is a bit conservative and Robert Jones design a bit dated. The choreography of Stephen Mear is about the only thing that seemed fresh. It does fit the Old Vic better than it would probably fit any other theatre though.

Of course, it’s one of the few musicals adapted from Shakespeare . Taming of the Shrew – The Musical; though in all fairness, it weaves in the backstage story of a warring pair of ex’s and the world of American touring theatre in the 40’s.  It may be the only show with a showstopper to open each act – Another Opn’in, Another Show the first and Too Dam Hot the second. Then there’s a third showstopper in Brush Up Your Shakespeare, this time with David Burt and Clive Rowe as the gangsters (they don’t have a Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award any more, so that’ll save SOLT a few quid in these tough times).

It’s a fine cast, with Wendy Mae Brown and Jason Pennycooke giving excellent performances in their respective act openers and an excellent Fred / Petruchio from Alex Bourne; someone new to me. The dancing and Gareth Valentine’s great band are what make this production shine most; otherwise it seemed a bit slow (well, Trevor Nunn….) and occasionally flat.

Despite its scale, it’s surprising none of our fringe musical venues have revived it (well, they’ve done some pretty big shows). I think there has only been one (an import from Broadway) in the 25 years since it was last here at the Old Vic, so it is good to see it again (and I may have to return to see Ms Waddingham) but oh how I’d love to have seen it at the Open Air Theatre.

 

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Sometimes plays take so long to get to the point that they lose you along the way; you either walk physically or wander mentally. For me, with this play, it was the latter.

This early 60’s German piece tackles the ethics of science and in particular how scientific discoveries, like ‘the bomb’,  are often hijacked and misused when they leave the ‘laboratory’ and enter ‘society’. The trouble is, it’s well into the second half before this very interesting debate unfolds.

Until then, we are in an asylum with Mobius (who thinks King Solomon talks to him), Beulter (who thinks he’s Newton) and Ernesti (who thinks he’s Einstein). All three murder a nurse but instead of being charged, they continue their incarceration, with two former boxers as their new ‘nurses’.

We eventually learn that Mobius is ‘hiding’ himself and his discoveries, that ‘Newton’ and ‘Einstein’ are spies trying to get hold of them and that their psychiatrist Dr Mathilde von Zahnd is really an industrialist who know’s the truth and has stolen Mobius’ work – but all of that is crammed into the last quarter of the play.

What isn’t in doubt is the quality of the production, with a brilliant design by Robert Jones which itself provides a superb climax, and a set of terrific performances from John Heffernan, Justin Salinger and Paul Bhattacharjee as the ‘physicists’ and Sophie Thompson, unrecognisable and brilliant as their doctor.

Sadly though, it’s a fatally flawed play which lost me before it got round to engaging me.

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Well, I’ve got seriously behind with my blog, so instead of individual play reviews, I’m adding them to the customary monthly round-up, which given I only spent 12 days of April in the UK, wasn’t much to round-up!

The highlight was undoubtedly the ballet – Scottish Ballet’s new working of A Streetcar Named Desire at Sadler’s Wells. I felt just like I did the first time I really ‘got’ ballet as dance drama, when I saw Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet. This wordless form was more dramatic than any production of the play I’d seen – and both operas adapted from it. Starting with Blanche’s back story (way before her arrival in New Orleans when the play starts) was inspired. The drama unfolded chronologically from her childhood to her incarceration in an asylum by her sister Stella & husband Stanley. The fingerprints of director Nancy Meckler were all over it and the choreography of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa matched it seamlessly. Graeme Virtue’s jazz influenced score was hugely atmospheric, played beautifully by a small 13-piece orchestra. Niki Turner’s designs were elegant, evocative and simply beautiful. You got every bit of the play’s intensity, the longing, the sadness, the testosterone, the fragility….this is a masterpiece I can’t wait to see again.

The opera was ROH 2’s Opera Shots in the Linbury Studionew operas by those new to opera. Graham Fitkin’s Home wasn’t really an opera but a dance drama with music! Nice music though, and lovely flowing movement. What it was about is another matter; don’t ask me. Neil (the Divine Comedy) Hannon’s Sebastopol was more substantial, but still felt more like a staged song cycle than an opera. Again, nice music – though lots of missed words with opera singers singing the way they do i.e often unintelligibly!

I first saw Filumena in the West End in 1977 in a Zeffirelli production starring Joan Plowright – though I didn’t really know who Zeffirelli and Plowright were! Samantha Spiro at the Almeida makes a great Filumena and Clive Wood is an excellent Domenico. Robert Jones’ vast set is so realistic it looks fake (all those artificial plants!). Somehow though the play doesn’t seem that good now. There’s an implausibility to the story of a prostitute who ‘goes native’ but never manages to bag her man, even using the parentage of her sons as bait. A good production, but I’m not sure the play has stood the test of time.

I was recalling my first trip to NYC in my recent travel blog and in particular that one of the plays I saw in that 1980 visit was a preview of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (which closed soon after opening, but got an NT production some years later). The co-incidence was that I’d booked to see it at the Finborough two days after my return – and very glad I was that I had. Director Phil Wilmott’s idea of framing the play with scenes at a present day exhibition of great depression photos was inspired and heightened even further the parallels between 1929 and today. Given the number of scenes, the production has to be simple and it was, and the acting was the usual high standard we’ve got used to at the Finborough – but what grabs you is the uncanniness of the contemporary relevance of Miller writing 30 years ago about something that happened 80 years ago. Spooky!

Big & Small’s big draw is its movie star lead – Cate Blanchette – and she is an extraordinarily good stage actor. Sadly, her vehicle here is a load of pretentious bollocks about a woman searching for meaning in her life. I will allow the director’s quotes in the programme to sum it up as I can’t – ‘It alludes simultaneously to the spiritual and political dimensions of life; macro / micro, cosmos / cell, state / individual, history / present, eternity / now. The expansion and contraction of being…..the seemingly fragmented de-centred dramatrugy…..the slow-motion detonation of character and narrative…..the existential puzzle…..the play offers a radical perspective on society. Lotte’s odyssey confronts us with the limits of rational order. She is a stranger in her own culture. A fool and a saint dancing on the rim of the abyss. As I said, bollocks.

Making Noise Quietly gets a gentle loving production from Peter Gill and the three playlets are finely acted. Again the problem is the material, Robert Holman’s 27-year old piece, now apparently an ‘A’ level text! Loosely connected by the second world war and the Falklands war, I didn’t really find them satisfying, particularly the last (title) play which I found unbelievable; I just couldn’t buy in to the characters and situation. Not the Donmar at its best.

Babes in Arms wasn’t the Union at its best either. Hampered by a weak book, this musical just didn’t sparkle as it could and has. The musical standards weren’t up to the Union’s usual high, though the choreography of Lizzi Gee was outstanding so all was well in the dancing department. Overall, a disappointment though.

I’ve lost track of the number of Alan Ayckbourn shows I’ve seen – maybe half of his 75? – but of late the new ones have seemed dated and the old ones like veritable museum pieces. Neighbourhood Watch at the Tricycle (what’s it doing here?) was no different. The one location and setting was dull and restrictive and the whole thing was just a bit predictable and dull. The premise was fine and it was nicely acted, but it didn’t sustain its 130 minute length and left me thinking ‘so what?’

Not the greatest eight days in theatre, then…..

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This is a hugely important play, helping us to understand the ongoing conflict in Congo and those caught in the middle of it, particularly women. It has clearly moved beyond political power (was it ever?) and taken on a life of its own with many self-interested factions fighting over money (and access to it) as much as anything else and prepared to commit appalling crimes including rape and mutilation to achieve their ends.

You may think  ‘what has theatre got to do with this?’ – well, I happen to think it has a role to explain and illuminate what’s going on in our world and this play, by American writer Lynn Nottage, is therefore very welcome…..but seing it is often a disturbing and very harrowing experience.

The first act sets the scene, introduces the characters and puts their situation into context. Mama runs a bar for miners, soldiers and those passing through offering rather more than beer. Her girls are refugees, disowned by their families after having been raped and mutilated for no fault of their own. It is in the second act – a masterpiece of writing, direction and acting – where the full truth emerges as events turn violent. Salima’s story (based on a very real person’s experiences) breaks your heart and the situation seems completely hopeless. However, the play ends with a humanity which lifts you and provides a modicum of hope for you to take away from the theatre.

Indhu Rubasingham’s direction is impeccable. Robert Jones has created an extraordinarily believable bush hut which revolves to provide the bar, porch and bedroom. The ensemble is excellent and at its core there are two truly magnificent performances from Jenny Jules and Lucian Msamati. I’ve never seen a standing ovation in my many visits to the Almeida, and this completely impulsive one was richly deserved.

Not an easy evening, but an absolute must-see experience.

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