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Posts Tagged ‘Royal & Derngate Northampton’

I’m not sure we’ve seen this 7th play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle in the UK before; if so, it certainly passed me by. Each play represents the African American experience in one decade of the 20th Century, this one the sixties. They are all set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, from where Wilson himself hails, this play in Lee’s Restaurant, owned by a character called Memphis.

It’s 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement is very active, there are regular clashes as the police target the black community and Pittsburgh’s urban renewal is displacing black families. All this is happening outside Memphis’ establishment, which is itself threatened by compulsory purchase for development. Apart from Memphis and his assistant Risa, we meet two black businessmen, the very successful local undertaker and property owner West, and Holloway, whose business interests are less clear. Homeless man Hambone, hardy able to communicate, drifts in and out, as does Wolf, who runs an illegal betting business using the diner’s phone. Wheeler-dealer Sterling, recently out of prison, makes a play for Risa, befriends Hambone, does deals with Memphis and bets with Wolf. In many ways, he’s the heart if the play.

There’s less plot and character development than Wilson’s other plays. It’s more of a social history, though of a fascinating period close enough to resonate. It’s like seven lives converging inside the restaurant, with events outside a backdrop, and there’s a tragic but very satisfying and defiant conclusion. I struggled to engage with the first half’s overlong eighty minute scene setting, but the second half was much better, though I don’t think it’s amongst the best of the cycle, despite the ripeness of the period. I also struggled catching all of the dialogue, as the emphasis was on authenticity more than clarity. Frankie Bradshaw’s design is terrific, a realistic diner with an impressionistic city backdrop and a symbolic wrecking ball, and director Nancy Medina has repaid the trust of the judges of the RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award with a fine production. It would be invidious to single out any individual in this very fine cast; the seven performances are uniformly excellent.

I’m getting fond of these afternoon trips to Northampton,where so much quality drama now originates. Co-produced by ETT, this one also gets to be seen in six other towns and cities. Get to one of them!

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It’s ten years since American playwright Katori Hall wowed London with the world premiere of her debut play The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King. All we’ve had since then is her excellent book for the musical Tina, but now she’s back with the same director, James Dacre, at his Northampton base, for the UK premier of a play about visions of the Virgin Mary in Rwanda, which fully justified a day-trip from London, even for a non-believer like me.

It revolves around a convent school in Kibeho in 1981 where one girl has a vision. She is disbelieved and persecuted by the Deputy Head Sister Evangelique and most of her fellow pupils. The Head, Father Tuyishime, is more inclined to believe her, then two more girls make the same claim. Bishop Gahamanyi turns up smelling a commercial proposition. The Vatican send Father Flavia to obtain evidence for possible confirmation. Local people start to buy in and nickname the girls The Trinity, with local boy Emmanuel claiming visitations too.

The ghost of Belgian colonialism is ever present in this Roman Catholic community, and there is an undercurrent of hate between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The visions continue as Father Flavia continues to gather evidence and people’s positions change and evolve until a special visitation is announced by the girls and the local community comes in numbers to hear prophesies of doom, the conflict and genocide that actually followed. Father Flavia is convinced, the Bishop sees his hope of a pilgrimage site disappear and Father Tuyishime refuses to believe in fear the prophesies might be true.

The story is brilliantly told by a terrific cast of twelve, supplemented by a community ensemble of another eleven. Jonathan Fensom’s design, with video projections by Duncan McLean, beautifully lit by Charles Balfour, is truly evocative. Orlando Gough had added both incidental music and gorgeous acapella songs, with Claire Windsor’s soundscape, both adding so much to the atmosphere. Dacre’s staging is nothing short of masterly.

Quality oozes from every department in this outstanding production which will hopefully have a life beyond this three week run. So glad I went.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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I’ve been listening to Sting’s CD of music from this show for five years, waiting for a UK production. Mystifyingly, it premiered in the US in 2014, trying out in Chicago before opening on Broadway. It’s so quintessentially British, I just can’t imagine it on Broadway. This new production, with a new book, opened where it belongs in Newcastle and is now touring the UK. I caught it in Northampton and for me it’s up there with other great British musicals like The Hired Man and Billy Elliott, with a score that’s as good as the former and better than the latter.

Like Billy, it places a personal story alongside recent social history. Teenage Gideon goes off to sea, seeking a better life than the shipyards of Wallsend can provide, leaving more than his girlfriend Meg behind. He returns seventeen years later to sort out his late dad’s house and tries to reconnect with Meg, now a thirty-something business-woman and single mother. In the shipyard, the ship they’re about to finish hasn’t been sold and is instead to be dismantled, and the shipyard closed. This is Thatcher’s Britain. The workers are having none of it and led by foreman Jackie and Shop Steward Billy, with support from the townswomen, led by Jackie’s wife Peggy, they take risky and defiant action.

Sting’s score and lyrics are terrific, and the new book by director Lorne Campbell is excellent, not afraid to wear it’s heart on its sleeve and concluding with a rousing political rallying call. I loved Rob Mathes folky orchestrations which Richard John’s band played beautifully. The design by 59 Productions is stunning, with projections creating the ship and shipyard, terraced rows, street scenes and interiors of houses and the pub. The final scene takes your breathe away. Even the choreography of Lucy Hind has a foot-stomping folk aesthetic and an edginess about it. Campbell’s superb production has Geordie blood running all the way through it.

Richard Fleeshman is excellent as the returning older Gideon and Frances McNamee sensational as feisty older Meg. Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick make a lovely loving couple as Jackie and Peggy. Katie Moore is great too as Meg’s equally feisty teenage daughter Ellie and Joe Caffrey, not the only cast member to have done a turn in Billy Elliott, is a very passionate Billy. It’s clearly a very committed ensemble and I loved their banter with the audience before each act.

A great British musical which I hope I will see again in London, a transfer it so richly deserves, but you’d be wise to see it on tour, just in case!

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This is a real coup for director Sean Turner. We knew of the existence of this first Arthur Miller play, an entry for a university competition (he needed the money), because he mentioned it in his autobiography, though he never allowed it to be published. Even Miller’s agent and the Arthur Miller Trust had no idea if a script existed. It was eventually located in the archives of the University of Michigan. To their great credit, all three organisations have agreed to this world premiere in a room above a pub in Islington. 

The first thing to say is that if you didn’t know it was the first play by a 20-year-old student, you’d never know it. It’s better than many plays I’ve seen by mature playwrights. It’s uncanny how it contains themes Miller would return to in his greatest plays 10-20 years later. In a ‘blind tasting’ I’d know it was a Miller play within minutes. That all may be because it’s clearly autobiographical. The Simon family are in the rag trade but the business is struggling, partly down to their striking workers. Their son Arnold, a communist, is conflicted when he comes home from college, pressed to choose between his family and his politics.

It’s a beautiful production with designs by Max Dorey that make great use of the space. Populating some rails with coats takes you from home to business. The costumes perfectly anchor the piece in the period. There’s an outstanding atmospheric jazz soundtrack from Richard Melkonian. All of the creative contributions gel to produce a very cohesive whole.

I very much liked Adam Harley’s passionate Arnold, struggling to reconcile his idealism with his family loyalty. David Bromley captures the very archetypal Miller patriarch very well, trying to keep the family afloat, as does Nesba Krenshaw the matriarch, trying to keep the family together. There isn’t really a weak link in the rest of this cast, who can all claim to have originated a Miller role – not a lot of actors can say that!

On it’s own its a rewarding evening’s theatre, but when you add in the script hunt and the significance of the work in helping us understand the evolution of one of the world’s greatest playwrights, it’s a bit of a triumph. For me, along with Northampton Royal & Derngate’s The Hook (a staging of Miller’s unproduced film script) this is the highlight of the Miller Centenary.

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A thrilling production of a world première of a stage adaptation of a 1951 unproduced Arthur Miller screenplay at the lovely Royal Theatre in Northampton. Wow!

Miller took the screenplay to Hollywood with his girlfriend Marilyn Monroe and friend / collaborator director Elia Kazan, who shortly after named him to McCarthy and lost his friendship for good (he also went on to make his own film about longshoremen – On the Waterfront). Miller was faced with demands for radical changes which would make the dockers less sympathetic and whitewash the employers and the union hierarchy, something he would not do. Even the FBI became involved because they thought it might lead to social unrest, and in one of those deeply ironic ‘life imitates art’ moments, the unions said that if it was made they would stop every projectionist in America from showing it!

We’re back in A View from the Bridge territory, with the longshoremen of Red Hook, New York (Miller’s birthplace) but a very different story, inspired by real life events. The dockers are mostly US born rather than illegal immigrants, but they’re still exploited. The corrupt union president is in cahoots with their employers and the Mafia, taking enough of a cut for unheard of 50’s luxuries like holidays in Florida. After the accidental death of colleague Barney under pressure to work faster, Marty Ferrera leads a revolt, only to be faced with an assassination attempt, rigged ballots and even the fears of reprisals felt by his colleagues and supporters. It’s a series of short, fast-moving scenes which makes it feel like a screenplay and it soon grabs you and has you on the edge of your seat. Playwright Ron Hutchison, now virtually lost to film & TV in the US, has created a gripping drama.

James Dacre’s production is stunning, with a brilliant set by Patrick Connellan, terrific video by Nina Dunn, atmospheric lighting from Charles Balfour and a superb soundtrack by Isobel Waller-Bridge that combine to create an evocative picture of both the location and period. Jamie Sives conveys the determination, commitment and passion of Marty wonderfully. Joseph Alessi is excellent as defiant union president Louis, determined not to lose his grip on power and to stay on his gravy train. Susie Trayling plays Marty’s wife, supportive but fearful, with great sensitivity and feeling. The other eight members of this great ensemble are supplemented by fifteen from the community who make the big scenes like dockside gatherings and union meetings tense and gripping.

This was such a treat for a Miller fan like me and it was great to see so many of the matinee audience give it a standing ovation (unheard of in my experience of regional theatre). If only Miller had lived to see his work come alive like this over sixty years on, in his centenary year, resonating still in a world of zero hour contracts and corporate corruption.

One more week, then Liverpool. Not to be missed.

 

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I don’t really understand why Shakespeare takes as fascinating a short slice of British history as any, but fails to make it as interesting as any of his other history plays. It’s rarely staged and though you can see why, this is a good production and rather timely given that I saw it on the eve of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which King John will forever me remembered for but which hardly gets a mention in Shakespeare’s play.

John’s secession is challenged by his father’s illegitimate son, who he buys off with a knighthood. That doesn’t stop the bloody French trying to replace him with his young nephew Arthur. The Pope interferes via his legate and the people of Angiers (in John’s realm) suggest he marry his niece to the French Dauphin to make peace with them. John captures Arthur and the consequences, and his fate, forms the core of the piece. The English nobles flip-flop their allegiance between John and the French (how dare they!). Somehow it doesn’t come together to create as compelling a story as we’re used to from Will, but it has its moments.

I’m not sure I fully understand why religion is so prominent in director James Dacre’s production. It’s set on a red cross which extends into the groundling space and sideways to steps leading to the exits and there are monks chanting all over the place. John is apparently poisoned by a monk, but I wasn’t clear why. It also places the interval very late which, given the uneven quality of the play, makes the first part a real challenge to the attention span. It finds some unexpected humour and The Bastard’s engagement with the audience is fun. Overall I liked the production.

Jo Stone-Fewings gives a very good performance as a troubled John, somewhat out of his depth and perhaps less interested in ruling than a king needs to be. I also liked Alex Waldmann as The Bastard and Laurence Belcher as both Arthur and John’s son and successor Henry. Tanya Moodie is terrific as Constance.

A good production and timely staging of one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays.

 

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