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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Spruell’

Lured by rave reviews (again), I went to a lot of trouble to see this play. I created a West Sussex weekend around its last scheduled performance, but it became a Covid casualty a couple of days before. I went ahead with the weekend anyway. It was rescheduled, so I succumbed to a second attempt, this time a day trip where the return journey was four times the length of the play.

John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play has been much produced around the world since it’s original Broadway success, also made into a successful film in 2008. I think the only London run was a couple of months at the then Tricycle Theatre in 2007. I have to confess I struggle to understand why it’s been so successful. I didn’t dislike it, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by it. With little by way of set and just four characters, it seemed static and more than a bit lost in such a big theatre. It might have fared better at the Minerva next door. I would certainly have preferred a more intimate venue.

It’s set in a New York catholic school in 1964, long before the high profile exposure of paedophilia in the church. At the core of the piece is a clash between progressive priest Father Flynn and a conservative nun, school principal Sister Aloysius. She interprets and infers sexual misconduct from a one-to-one meeting between the priest and the school’s first African American student. The boy’s mother does not support her witch-hunt, but she tricks the priest by claiming to have obtained evidence from his past. He seeks and obtains a transfer, somewhat ironically a promotion. The audience are left in doubt, which is the show’s point. We have to live with uncertainty, but our judgemental world today doesn’t seem to leave much room for that.

The performances are outstanding, with Monica Dolan and Sam Spruell a brilliant match for the conflict they have to present, and there’s fine support from newcomer Jessica Rhodes as naive young Sister James and Rebecca Scroggs as the mother drawn into the conflict, who had hitherto been happy her son had found a welcoming school at last.

I’d have been satisfied by this in an intimate London venue, but I can’t ignore the fact it was £60 (inc. travel) and a six hour round-trip, which weren’t really repaid, but that was my choice, my decision.

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This is the fourth and last of my late February Shakespeare binge, in the lovely candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag.

It started well with full candlelight, period settings, in period dress (though with what seemed like joke ruffs and codpieces). My heart sank when all of the candles were extinguished for the first scene, each character illuminating himself with a single candle lamp. For the rest of the evening the candlepower changed frequently and I have to admit rather effectively. 

Ellen McDougal’s Big Idea (every director has to have one, it seems) is to change Cassio into a woman, Michelle Cassio to be precise. This made for some interesting sexual connotations. Having Othello & Desdemona’s bed on stage throughout was a bit distracting and took something away from the scenes elsewhere. I liked the music until it turned a bit too contemporary lyrically. The post-death ending was gimmicky and crass.

I admired Kurt Egyiawan’s Othello, though he didn’t die too well, and Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona too, but I thought Sam Spruell too flippant and nowhere near malevolent and machiavellian enough for Iago.

There was much to enjoy, but enough to irritate too, and it left me feeling it could have been a lot better.

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It took me a while to get into this intriguing and clever play, but by the end I felt deeply satisfied by a very funny yet unsettling drama. In many ways, my reaction was similar to the same venue’s Posh – the reviews led me to expect a more straightforward satirical comedy, but it had so much more depth than that.

There are many layers to this play, the first act of which is set in 1959 as a couple prepare to move home and the second act in the same house 50 years later as another couple are seeking to demolish it and rebuilt on the land. The attention to detail is extraordinary – from Robert Innes-Hopkins brilliant sets to the nuances of the acting. I was captivated throughout and there was a roundedness to the structure which I just loved.

It’s rare you get a set of seven impeccable performances, but here you get that and more as each actor has two very different roles. They’re all terrific – Steffan Rhodri morphs from bereaved dad to straightforward workman, Sophie Thompson from highly strung unfulfilled housewife to icy cold lawyer, Lorna Brown for servile to assertive, Sam Spreull from passive priest to gay lawyer, Lucien Msamati from quiet disbelief to assured confidence , Martin Freeman from 50’s racist neighbour to fashionably liberal and Sarah Goldberg goes from deaf & dependent  to politically correct & defiant. Under Dominic Cooke’s direction, these characters come alive and Bruce Norris’ dialogue sparkles.

The play’s devastating message is that in 50 years everything’s changed but nothing has changed. Clybourne Park is this year’s Jerusalem and I suspect we won’t see a better new play for some time. Go! Go! Go!

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