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Posts Tagged ‘Sian Thomas’

This is one of those occasions where writing, design, performances and staging all come together to create something special. Laura Wade’s play may prove to be the year’s best new play. Whilst I find the superlatives thesaurus, you may wish to stop here if you haven’t read any other reviews and you’ve booked to see it; what follows won’t spoil it, but might just take the edge off it.

Judy and Johnny are obsessed with the 50’s, their friends Fran and Marcus share their interest, but less obsessively. All we know about Johnny is that he’s an estate agent who didn’t go to university. Judy was brought up by her feminist mother in a Sussex commune, went to university and became an accountant. Voluntary redundancy gives her the opportunity to give up work and plunge them fully into a 50’s lifestyle, becoming a housewife, aspiring domestic goddess.

Their reserves are disappearing as Johnny’s commission is declining. One less income, and all that retro furniture and clothes which don’t come cheap. Still, they seem completely wrapped up in their fantasy, until Johnny’s failure to get a promotion triggers a series of events involving his new very driven boss Alex, who’s bemused by their lifestyle, and Judy’s mum Sylvia, who disapproves of the patriarchal accoutrements it brings with it. There’s a clever sub-plot involving problems Marcus is having at work.

What I like about Wade’s play is the many layers she achieves, exploring attitudes and behaviour then and now, as Judy and Johnny change as their fantasy progresses, and how that is seen by those left in the here and now. Things are not always what they appear to be, so it often surprises you. We’ve travelled a long way from the 50’s but in many ways not far enough, as juxtaposing the two periods, even one as a fantasy, proves. It’s like a conversation between then and now. Director Tamara Harvey’s production draws you in; even the activity of the scene changes prove captivating.

Anna Fleischle’s extraordinarily detailed design is stunning, as obsessive as the obsession that drives Judy & Johnny. The period music makes for a superb soundtrack. Katherine Parkinson is terrific as Judy, never leaving the home, so on stage the whole time. Richard Harrington gives a nuanced portrayal as Johnny, revealing insecurities and doubts as well as his devotion to Judy. Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay are excellent as Fran and Marcus, sometimes contributing nifty period dance routines between scenes. Sian Thomas shines as the mum whose values Judy seems to be rebelling against, as does Sara Gregory as Johnny’s boss, oblivious to his attraction to her.

An unmissable night in the theatre that reminds you why you go.

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Jean Anouilh must be one of the world’s most prolific playwrights, writing over 60 plays in a 40 year writing career, but we see few of them (his adaptation of Sophocles Antigone most often). This adaptation of his first big hit, Le Voyageur sans bagage, relocates it from late 30’s France to late 50’s USA, to the Long Island of the American upper middle class in fact (think Philadelphia Story), though the French songs between scenes are a delightful nod to its origin.

A soldier returns to the US 14 years after the end of the second world war with amnesia ,and is placed in a sanatorium. Nouveau riche Marcee Dupont-Dufort moves on from rescuing dogs to finding his family, much to the chagrin of her husband De Wit Dupont-Dufort. With the help of a gossip columnist she selects the most likely family from the 22 possibles and visits them. They take him in but he soon decides he doesn’t much like them or his past self. When the gossip columnist names them, the other 21 turn up, which proves chaotic but also an opportunity.

Blanche McIntyre’s production sparkles in every sense, from Anthony Weight’s crackling adaptation to Mark Thompson’s bright design and her own impeccable staging, but mostly because of the terrific casting. Katherine Kingsley is a joy to behold as Marcee Dupont-Dufort, a trophy wife with a touch of Mrs Malaprop about her. Danny Webb is gloriously unrecognisable, stooped and moustachioed, cigar permanently in mouth, channelling Groucho Marks, as her straight-talking husband. Sian Thomas is a treat as the snobby mother and Fenella Woolgar a delight as her brittle daughter-in-law. Oh, all ten are terrific!

This was such a fun night in the theatre, which made me wonder how many more gems are hidden in Anouilh’s back catalogue. Proper entertainment.

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Though it wasn’t published until 1925, after his death, Kafka wrote his novel exactly 100 years ago. It has been named second and third in lists of the best novels of the 20th century (in France & Germany!) and has that dark, bleak quality that German works often do. It’s no less dark and bleak in Nick Gill’s new stage adaptation, but the production and performances give it new life, if not meaning, for a 21st century non-German audience, starting with a dis-orientating walk to your jury seat in front of an orange platform with a giant keyhole cut-out, which soon rises to reveal the playing space.

Joseph K is arrested on his 30th birthday and what follows is a personal nightmare, as he struggles to understand why, and how to navigate the faceless system that has chosen to torment him. The authorities never specify an offence. He could be in a totalitarian state, a giant bureaucracy, an impersonal corporation, indeed anywhere where it’s possible to get lost in the confusing world around you. In two unbroken hours we move speedily through this nightmare, confronting figures representing various authorities and the legal system. We also meet his neighbours, his work colleagues, his Uncle Albert and others along the way.

Director Richard Jones and designer Miriam Buether always have big ideas and this time it’s to stage the play on a conveyor belt in a traverse setting (think Generation Game – if you’re old enough!). The sparse sets and characters enter, ride along and stop to play their scene before it quickly moves us to the next. Playwright Nick Gill’s big idea is for Joseph K to have an inner language, a sort or pidgin English / shorthand, when he’s alone. This cleverly emphasises his personal nightmare. The closing scene is a particularly modern take on Joseph’s end which I won’t give away.

Rory Kinnear lives this life (and the entire play!) on this conveyor and it’s a real tour de force performance, laying bare his psychological torture and helplessness throughout a challenging physical journey. Kate O’Flynn has to transform into six different characters, and she does so remarkably. I liked Sian Thomas’ characterisations of both lawyer and doctor and though I struggled to shake off Hugh Skinner’s last characterisation as Will in W1A (cool, yeh, no worries), his two roles were very well played. This is a real ensemble piece with only 11 actors (it seemed like a lot more) playing 29 roles.

It’s not the easiest of rides, it pushes it’s luck a bit at 120 minutes and its not what you’d choose for a ‘good night out’, but it somehow resonates a century on as a picture of how we can so easily be lost in the system – whatever system it is. I suspect it will mean different things to different people, like a mirror to their own experiences and phobias. A challenging evening for people who like to be challenged.

 

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Contemporary Music

A friend suggested going to see Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese cora player Seckou Keita at Union Chapel and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Their instruments blend beautifully and create an uplifting sound. It was the perfect venue, with a quiet respectful audience. Gorgeous.

I really don’t know what to make of Elvis Costello‘s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Part of BluesFest (what?!). He brings Steve Nieve & they play 8 songs together, some in radical new arrangements. His song selections are eclectic and perhaps a bit quirky. He’s often uncharacteristically flat or off key. He talks a lot. It contained sublime moments, but not enough of them. It was certainly no crowd-pleaser and the audience reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, supporting, were great (though he talked a lot too). They played two songs together, one in each others’ set. I’ve seen almost every EC London outing in 30+ years and this was probably the least satisfying. Most odd.

Opera

The autumn Rossini pairing at WNO was amongst their best ever. Neither William Tell nor Moses in Egypt are typical Rossini (which may be why I liked them so much!); the latter more identifiably Rossini. Tell was the more satisfying all round – Moses was also a musical feast but the production wasn’t so good. Former MD Carlo Rizzi brought the best out of the orchestra and chorus (yet again) and there was no weakness in the soloists – just various levels of good to great.

The English Concert’s performance of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Barbican was a huge treat. A faultless cast was led by Joyce DiDonato & Alice Coote and the orchestra made a beautiful sound. I’d thought it might be a star vehicle for Joyce, but she was superbly matched by the rest and the audience showed their appreciation for them all.

I’ve seen a handful of Philip Glass operas, but until The Trial they’ve all been on a huge scale. What this chamber piece proves is how much more suited his music is to this smaller scale. It’s an absurdist, impenetrable story but it was superbly staged and performed by Music Theatre Wales in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.

Dance

Lord of the Flies is a big departure for New Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. With two-thirds of the large cast amateurs selected from workshops and open additions, there’s a freshness and energy thoroughly in keeping with William Golding’s story and contemporary dance is a suitable form to tell the tale. It was dark, but I loved it.

I don’t normally like mixed ballet programmes but Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Shadows of War at Sadler’s Wells caught my imagination, largely because of the music. The first piece, to a Ravel piano concerto, was a bit frivolous for me, but the second was a fascinating re-staging of a Robert Helpmann work set in wartime Glasgow with music by Arthur Bliss and the third a lovely piece set to Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten – and all at a half to a third of prices at the other Royal Ballet.

Cassandra is a rare modern dance piece from the Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio. It was a nice combination of dance, music and film and it held me for 70 minutes, but in the end it was just OK. I think it was the lack of effective narrative drive / story that was its weakness.

Classical Music

I persuaded a friend who has recently taken up choral singing to go for one of those ‘scratch’ performances put together in one day. The choice of Elijah was ambitious, but they pulled it off. The soloists were terrific, particularly baritone Neal Davies, who gave it his all as if was at the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra of a handful of Philharmonia section principals with music students sounded great. It would have been good to see a much bigger audience – where were all the friends and families of the orchestra and chorus?

The third of the Composer Portrait series at St John’s Smith Square was the best so far. Reverie was about Debussy whose writings were spoken by Simon Russell Beale no less. Pianist Lucy Parham played his gorgeous music beautifully and it was a captivating couple of hours.

Film

As much as I loved Pride, the casting of so many English and Irish actors as Welsh characters did irritate me – though I suppose you need Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to sell films like this. I was surprised I never knew the true story behind it, but maybe it didn’t get much news coverage at the time. It’s certainly the most heart-warming, feel-good film for a long long time.

Dylan Thomas centenary

I found out about the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival very late on, by which time the diary was choc a block with other stuff, but I did manage to fit in some. A Warring Absence was readings of writings by him and his wife about one another by Daniel Evans & Sian Thomas with accompaniment by the Bernard Kane Players as a Platform performance in The Olivier Theatre and it was original and fascinating.  I’d never heard the Stan Tracy Jazz Under Milk Wood before – read excerpts accompanied by jazz which somehow works brilliantly; again original and fascinating. The final Gala Concert I had known about and this proved a real treat. An eclectic selection of Welsh music played by Camerata Wales (including world premieres) with readings of letters and poems by Sian Phillips, Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Lesley Manville, Jonathan Pryce and Owen Teale and songs from Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones and old folkie Ralph McTell. Two of the pieces combined Thomas’ works with music very successfully. For an Englishman, Tom Hollander’s reading of Fern Hill was almost as good as Dylan’s own!

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With Privates on Parade a recent big success as the opening production of the Michael Grandage Company, an acclaimed A Day in the Death of Joe Egg en route from Liverpool to Kingston and this one on its way into the West End, it looks like we’re in for a long-awaited Peter Nichols revival. I’m sure he’d rather see some of his later plays produced (so would I), but I suppose we have to be thankful for small mercies. Nichols was one of the best and certainly most original British playwrights of the 20th century and he has, up to now, been sadly neglected in this century.

Passion Play is about adultery. The children of music teacher Eleanor & art restorer James have now left home. Friend Albert traded in his wife Agnes for younger model Kate before he died. Kate, with a penchant for older men, now has her sights on James. Nichols big idea is to place Nell & Jim on stage too – Eleanor & James’ alter ego’s who comment, invisible to other characters, giving us the thoughts to accompany the behaviours. Agnes turns up occasionally to present Eleanor with some home truths that drive the story forward.

For a 32-year old play, this still seems innovative and ever so contemporary. David Levaux’s production sparkles. He’s lucky enough to have a premiere league cast with Zoe Wanamaker and Samantha Bond both superb as Eleanor & Nell. Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton are less alike as James & Jim, but succeed in presenting the outer and inner man. Annabel Scholey is an ice cool sexy vamp as Kate and Sian Thomas is luxury casting as Agnes. This was only the second performance of it’s pre-West End run in Richmond, but it’s in remarkably good shape already.

The play has less heart than other Nichols’ plays and one of my companions found it too cynical. Personally, I think it’s revival is perfectly timed and will hopefully propel the renewed interest in this underrated playwright. Now what we really need is to see Poppy again – a musical about the relationship between China and the west during the opium wars times in the favourite theatrical form of those times – the pantomime. A masterpiece!

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