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Posts Tagged ‘Rory Keenan’

This is a 1955 work by African American playwright Alice Childress, written and first produced at the beginning of the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks challenged segregation the same year) which was staged off-Broadway but never got its planned Broadway run because of the playwright’s refusal to water down its satire on racism in the American theatre. Until 2021, that is, when it finally made it to the ironically named ‘Great White Way’ (actually named after the white lights on billboards and marquees).

The whole play is a rehearsal for a ‘coloured show’, where black actors play stereotypes like servants and ‘mammies’. It sends them up with exaggerated acting and mannerisms. Leading character Wiletta has a song and dance background but is desperate to become a proper actor, something reserved for white people at the time. Though relationships develop and individual character stories emerge, it’s essentially a one issue play. One reviewer of this production suggested each of the three acts are set in historically different periods, moving forward in time, but I have to confess I didn’t see that.

Though it’s important in highlighting unacceptable practices, I felt it was somewhat laboured, often lacked pace and despite the exceptional performances, 2.5 hours felt like a long time to make its point, perhaps less effectively because of the length. I’m not sure it has stood the test of time. Designer Rajha Shakiry has created a very realistic period backstage environment. Tanya Moodie leads an excellent cast that includes the great Cyril Nri, on fine form, a superb performance from Rory Keenan as the director of the play-within-a-play, a delightful cameo from Gary Lilburn as Henry the stage doorman and an outstanding professional debut from Daniel Adeosun as John Nevins, a newbie actor from the same town as Wiletta.

Though the black lives matter movement has made us realise this issue still exists, I’m not sure this play brings them to the fore in a way that would add to the debate and promote reform. I felt it was an interesting period piece rather than a contribution to the current discussion.

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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’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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