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Posts Tagged ‘Roger Allam’

This 1912 play was last seen at the NT 25 years ago, in a production by Katie Mitchell (before she went on to deconstruct and destroy plays!). Since then, it’s been named one of the 100 most influential plays of the 20th Century, and its easy to see why. It must have been shocking to see a prominent industrialist portrayed as a bully on stage over 100 years ago.

John Rutherford owns a glassworks in the industrial North East. Though we’re not explicitly told, he appears to be a widower, living with and looked after by his sister Ann and his spinster daughter Janet. His children have been a big disappointment to him. Richard has become a curate and John Junior, who he hoped would take over the business, has married beneath him and shows no interest in the family firm, though he has returned home to try and sell his father an invention. John thinks he’s entitled to be given it after spending a small fortune on John Junior’s education at Harrow. As the play unfolds he belittles Richard, sends John Junior and Janet away and manipulates John Junior’s wife Mary into involving him in bringing up his grandson.

Sowerby was the daughter of a North East glass manufacturer, so this may be wholly or partly biographical. In any event, the play was brave. It was first attributed to a writer with initials, so the sex was ambiguous and widely assumed to be a man. After all, there weren’t any female playwrights. The first act is a bit slow, and I’m not sure if this is the writing or the production, but it gains pace after the interval. Polly Findlay’s production, with designs by Lizzie Clachan, has great authenticity, with atmosphere created by rain and the movement of the house in which they live, plus a group of female voices singing folk inspired songs a capella.

Roger Allam is brilliant as Rutherford, commanding the stage as well as his family. Sam Troughton, Justine Mitchell and Harry Hepple are excellent as the three siblings who have grown into such different people. Joe Armstrong is great as Rutherford’s right hand man and Barbara Marten is superb as the ice cold uber conventional sister Ann. Lovely performances all round.

Good to see it again, in as fine a production as you could wish for.

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As I get older I find myself seeing plays anchored in modern history that I’ve lived through, though with unreliable memories. This is another timely one, about the creation of the SDP as a reaction to a Labour lurch to the left on a tide of member activism with a policy of EU withdrawal and an unelectable leader. Who said history doesn’t repeat itself! To add an extra frisson, I saw it on the day Article 50 was invoked, something there will no doubt one day be a play about, but probably not in my lifetime.

It takes place the day after the Labour conference which cemented the lurch, in David Owen’s fashionable East End home (uber realistic design by Alex Eales). The gang of four, as they were known, are convened by Owen. His attempts to pick the others off one by one are rumbled and seen as manipulative and divisive. His American wife Debbie is key to toning down his excesses, which are clearly winding the others up. They struggle to make decisions under time pressures of their, well Owen’s, making, but they make it in the end, after the debate on alternative options leads them back to there being only one real option. Though the initiative failed in the end, it may in some way have paved the way for New Labour’s later successful bid for power from the same middle ground and the Lib Dems eventual entry into coalition. It lags a bit in the middle, with circular debates that go nowhere (which may be true, but don’t make good drama) and it doesn’t have the pace, energy or incisiveness of something like James Graham’s This House, but it’s a fascinating piece of history and way more timely that you could ever imagine.

Roger Allam is the only actor who doesn’t have the responsibility of playing a living figure. His Roy Jenkins, then President of the EU Commission, is uncanny. He’s very old school, a touch bumbling, with a penchant for expensive French wine. David Owen comes over as a somewhat unsympathetic character and Tom Goodman-Hill captures his ambition, passion and manoeuvring well. I loved Debra Gillett’s characterisation of Shirley Williams, the one everyone loves, and the less well-known Bill Rodgers is played by Paul Chahidi as a passive follower, very much in awe of Jenkins. If the play is to be believed, Debbie Owen had a considerable influence, both on her husband and the others, and Nathalie Armin conveys this very well.

I love seeing plays anchored in real events with real people and, like his previous play Temple about Occupy’ s effect on St. Pauls, Steve Waters particularly timely piece is very welcome indeed.

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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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