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Posts Tagged ‘Ruby Bentall’

This play is about the period during the first half of the Second World War when Benjamin Britten was in exile in New York City, staying with his friend W H Auden in a sort of up-market arty commune in a Brooklyn brownstone, with the literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar as their mentor.  Gypsy Rose Lee and novelist Carson McCullers also stayed there, and people like Picasso and Dali regularly dropped in. The parties were renowned and the lifestyle hedonistic. During their time there, Britten and Auden wrote the ground-breaking but poorly received American folk operetta Paul Bunyan. Playwright Zoe Lewis and director Oli Rose have turned this fascinating situation into a deeply dull play.

It starts with a flash forward to Britten’s tribunal (on his return) as a conscientious objector. Much is made, in flashbacks, of his mother’s recent death. A British Naval Officer comes to make the British exiles situation clear, though on what authority, in a foreign land, is unclear. Other than that, it’s mostly dull conversations, excessive drinking and the on-off lesbian relationship between Lee & McCullers. It doesn’t really go anywhere and the journey is very dull. 

Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to convey such an interesting situation with just four main characters. The absence of Britten’s partner Peter Pears in particular is mystifying; they were virtually inseparable. The characters are merely sketched and both the structure and dialogue are weak. Ryan Sampson and John Hollingsworth do the best they can with the material they’re given to create Britten and Auden respectively. Ruby Bentall tries too hard and seems uncomfortable conveying McCullers masculinity. Sadie Frost doesn’t really act, she poses.

A big disappointment.

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I’m one of the few people who took against John Logan’s last play, Red, about Mark Rothko. The first hour was a rant by the artist, by the end of which I had lost the will to live. This play is a whole lot better.

Peter was one of five Llewelyn Davies boys who were befriended by J M Barrie and the source of his famous character, Peter Pan. Rev. Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll wrote his first Alice story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for Alice Liddell, having first told her the story on an outing. This is the fame they live with and share. In the play they meet on the centenary of Dodgson’s birth when they are 35 and 80 respectively. Davies, now a publisher, uses the opportunity to encourage Liddell, now Hargreaves, to write her memoirs, which sends us on a journey to meet the respective writers and their characters.

It’s a multi-layered play which tells the stories of these real people, whose lives were both touched by the tragedy of loss – Alice of two sons and Peter of two brothers – but also of their relationships with both the writers and their characters and the impact of their somewhat unusual fame. This opens the play up as we flash back in time and meet Carroll & Barrie plus the fictitious Peter & Alice. The writing isn’t entirely even – it does lag at times, despite the short 90 minute length, and Alice has all the best lines – but it’s an inspired idea and unfolds intriguingly.

One of the chief pleasures of Michael Grandage’s production is seeing Judi Dench, as captivating as ever, and Ben Whishaw, who has grown into such a fine actor. The age difference between the actors is almost the same as their characters. There’s excellent support from Nicholas Farrell as Dodgson / Carroll and Derek Riddell as Barrie. Olly Alexander & Ruby Bentall bring the fictional characters alive impressively. Grandage’s regular designer Christopher Oram has created a superb transformative design.

Alice is a role worthy of Dench’s talent (her last West End outing was the dreadful Madame de Sade!) and Peter is a role worthy of Whishaw’s first proper West End showcase. It’s great to see a new play open in the West End, with the real buzz of full house signs and autograph hunters crowding the stage door; most start life in the subsidised sector these days. It’s also the only new play in Grandage’s five-play first season, so success might help get us more new work next time.

In a delicious twist, both works of fiction were staged in this very theatre. Another fact new to me was that Logan also wrote Skyfall, in which both Dench & Whishaw of course acted. Adele didn’t do the music, though!

If you can get in, you should.

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Seeing Saved two days before prepared me for a depressing experience. …….but Mike Leigh’s Grief isn’t depressing, it’s just sad.

We’re in 1957/58 and Dorothy still hasn’t come to terms with being a war widow. She struggles to maintain a functional relationship with her teenage daughter Victoria. Her brother Edwin lives with them but contributes nothing. Victoria does teenage rebellion. Edwin pours the sherry and occasionally breaks into song, with Dorothy joining in. Dorothy makes the tea. Their lives are dull, predictable and ever so sad. The performances of Lesley Manville, Sam Kelly and Ruby Bentall are however extraordinary.

Light relief is provided by occasional visits from Edwin’s friend Hugh (a lovely cameo from David Horovitch) and Dorothy’s friends Gertrude and Muriel, a terrific double-act from Marion Bailey and Wendy Nottingham. These three boast about their children’s achievements, their foreign holidays and their charitable acts. They also provide some well needed laughs to break up the sadness.

Alison Chitty’s design is pitch perfect late 50’s and I found myself spending much of the time soaking up the details of the brilliant set and costumes. This attention to detail is matched by the performances where every expression, glance and shrug seems to have meaning.

There are far too many short scenes, which creates an unsatisfying staccato feel and disrupts the flow of the piece. It’s a moving portrait of grief and sadness but it doesn’t really go anywhere and outstays it’s welcome by at least 30 minutes. Go for the performances and period picture, but don’t expect  much of a drama.

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