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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Higlett’

This is the second in what appears to be an informal Miller mini-festival. It started with Enemy of the People at the Union Theatre last month and continues with American Clock & All My Sons at the Old Vic and Death of a Salesman across the road at the Young Vic. This fiftieth anniversary production of his 1968 play comes to London from the Theatre Royal Bath. Though I liked the productions I saw 17 and 29 years ago, I’ve never considered it up there with the big four which, with Enemy in the middle, appeared between 1947 & 1955 – Sons, Salesman, The Crucible & A View from the Bridge. On this form, though, I’m beginning to think again.

Victor and his wife Esther are in the attic of Victor’s recently deceased father, waiting for Gregory Solomon, who’s going to value and hopefully make an offer for the contents. Victor has been trying, but has failed, to get hold of his estranged brother Walter, who really should be with him. Esther leaves soon after Solomon arrives and the rest of the first half is mostly a two-hander, an entertaining and often funny discussion which leaves you wondering where its going. When Esther returns and Walter arrives, Solomon takes a back seat while the family history is played out and you realise it’s more about the price we pay for decisions in our lives than it is about the price of the contents of the apartment.

Walter is a hot-shot surgeon and Victor an NYC cop, these destinies determined by their relative responses to their dad growing old. As often with Miller, dad was a victim of the depression. Victor stayed loyal, at the expense of his career, while Warren broke away for his, decisions with had profound effects on their lives. They haven’t seen much of each other since, and there’s a lot that’s unsaid. Walter now tries to reconcile and make amends, but it’s too late, and somewhat disingenuous. Esther is at first frustrated by her husband’s intransigence, but won’t see him lose his pride and dignity. This second act confrontation is the heart of the piece and it’s simply masterly.

Simon Higglett’s brilliant design of the ramshackle apartment piles layers upon layers of family history, but provides an intimate space for the brothers’ exorcism of the past. Brendan Coyle is terrific as Victor, at first accepting the cards he’s played, but eventually showing bitterness and regret at an unfulfilled life. David Suchet is excellent as the worldly wise Solomon, wickedly funny, determined to get a deal, interjecting into the family discussions now and again. Adrian Lukis plays the unsympathetic Walter, the chalk to Coyle’s cheese, though he’s paid his own price too. I loved Sara Stewart’s interpretation of Esther, often critical of her man but ultimately loyal and loving.

The Price came at the midpoint of Miller’s playwriting career, both in terms of years and plays. Whatever you think of it, Jonathan Church’s production provides an opportunity to see this more rarely produced play as well as you’re ever likely to see it staged, and for this Miller fan it made me realise how much I’d underrated it. Until now.

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I’ve always thought this was Oscar Wilde’s best play, largely because it has more bite than his other social satires and because the themes of corruption, honour and morals are with us forever. Peter Hall’s 1992 production proved its enduring appeal on tour in the UK, on Broadway and in and out of the West End several times. It’s the third of the four plays in Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring season, and it brings the season alive.

Mrs Cheveley, recently returned from Vienna, attempts to blackmail politician Sir Robert Chiltern, threatening to make public a letter proving he leaked information to enable someone to gain by the timely acquisition of shares, unless he speaks favourably in parliament about a project she and her friends have a vested interest in. She embroils his wife, a former school friend who takes a moral stance, and his friend Viscount Goring, a bit of a playboy with designs on Chiltern’s sister and ward, who tries to wrong-foot her. It’s very well plotted and littered with clever, witty lines from the second most quotable playwright, after Shakespeare.

I loved Frances Barber as the manipulative Mrs Cheveley, relishing her Machiavellian scheming, and I was very impressed by Freddie Fox as Viscount Goring, a role that fits him perfectly. Having his real dad Edward Fox play his stage dad gave the father and son sniping an added frisson. I haven’t seen Sally Bretton on stage and I wouldn’t have expected this to be her sort of role, but she plays Lady Chiltern really well. It’s a big supporting cast, most of whom we only see in the first act, within which it was lovely to see Susan Hampshire as Lady Markby. As with the previous two plays, there’s music between scenes, this time with Samuel Martin, Viscount Goring’s footman, playing Jason Carr’s music superbly on violin.

Simon Higlett’s versatile gold set is beautiful and his costumes gorgeous. Jonathan Church’s staging gave the play more edge and pungency than I remember. The whole production oozes quality and propels the season to another level altogether.

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It’s 35 years since I first saw this rarely revived Hugh Whitemore play about the poet Stevie Smith and I recall being rather captivated by it, perhaps as much by the performance of Bristol Old Vic regular June Barrie as much as anything else. Unlike most recent revivals, I’m afraid this hasn’t stood the test of time, though again I was captivated by Zoe Wanamaker in the title role.

Today, it seems odd to write a major play about a minor poet; perhaps that’s the crux of it – the play has faded as the poets legacy has? What seemed a beautifully written biographical piece now seems a bit ordinary. It’s largely a monologue, Stevie telling us her life story interspersed with her poems and interrupted occasionally by her beloved aunt and some of the men in her life. The later life in the second half is more interesting than the early life in the first, perhaps because the actual life was too. However, I was left thinking why would you write a play about her?

What is not in question is Zoe Wanamaker’s performance as Stevie, transformed by frumpy frocks and schoolgirl hair. She often seems to be talking to you personally as she scans the audience, making eye contact and drawing you in to her story. There’s excellent support from Lynda Baron as the aunt who shares her life and Chris Larkin as all of the men who are ‘extras’ in her life story, and at times as narrator. Simon Higlett’s huge period Palmers Green living room is finely detailed, becoming expressionistic as the top left seems to morph into the trees outside, but it seemed like a lot of trouble and expense to go to for a pay that is so static, hardly using such a superb creation.

I’d like to see more Whitmore revivals (Breaking the Code anyone? More timely!) but on this form I wonder if his style has indeed had its day. The school-kids in the front row of an extended arc configuration seemed to be totally unengaged (which must have been as distracting for Zoe Wanamaker as it was for me). Worth seeing for the fine performance, though and for once a play that is as conservative as the Hampstead Theatre audience!

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I didn’t plan on seeing two 20th century German plays on consecutive nights, but the first was booked ages ago and this is about to close, so it had to be. My view of this (much better) play may be enhanced even more by the pairing.

Brecht’s parody of the rise of Hitler was written in 1941 but not seen until 1958, after his death, which is a bit of a puzzle. 50-70 years on, the satire seems a bit heavy-handed (I would have expected reviser Alistair Beaton to have done something about that) but its ‘we let this happen, don’t let it happen again’ point still packs a punch. Set in gangster-era Chicago, Arturo Ui develops his protection racket in the vegetable trade (!), becoming more and more brutal in his relentless rise to power. Individual scenes have parallels in pre-war Germany, though those are a bit lost on a modern audience, but by the end the message isn’t lost. In the long 95 min first half, the scenes are somewhat laboured and it could do with some cuts, but the second half has much better pacing. The end is chilling and the epilogue a thought-provoking wake-up call.

The Duchess is a small theatre for a big play with a cast of 18, but it benefits from the intimacy, with a new middle aisle used for entrances and exits and characters occasionally appearing in the auditorium. Director Jonathan Church’s staging, with great use of live music, draws you in to the gangster story then sharply reminds you of its metaphor. Designer Simon Higlett effectively creates warehouses and mansions in this small space and the arrival of a car is a coup d’theatre. Though I’ve seen a couple of good actors play the title role (Anthony Sher & Griff Rhys Jones!) Henry Goodman is the best match for it. He is particularly good at conveying Ui ‘s transition as the power drug makes him more and more manic. It’s an excellent supporting cast, with fine actors like Colin Stinton, William Gaunt and Michael Feast in relatively small roles.

Another successful transfer for the indispensable Chichester Festival Theatre.

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This was written for the screen in 1952 and didn’t get staged until 1983 – and in London (Tommy Steele & Roy Castle!), not Broadway. There was a terrific production by Jude Kelly at the NT (from West Yorkshire Playhouse) in 2000 and another at Sadler’s Wells (from Leicester), also with Adam Cooper, in 2004. This is the 2011 Chichester Festival Theatre production transferred to the Palace Theatre and I’m coming to it 7 months late!

Set at the outset of the talkies, it tells the story of silent screen couple Lockwood & Lamont. Lina Lamont is fine when she isn’t talking or singing; so for her the talkies will be a disaster (not that she sees it that way). She’s dubbed by Lockwood’s real love interest Kathy but is exposed when she becomes too big for her boots.

It takes a long while to take off, but when it does the set pieces (most in the second half) are glorious. In addition to the very wet tile number at the end of each half (we escaped, but only just, in the 7th row of the stalls) there’s the delightful trio Good Morning and the brilliant Broadway Ballet. Simon Higlett’s grey design is transformed as it gets splashed with colourful costumes and the neon of Broadway. Andrew Wright’s choreography is exceptional – fresh and sprightly. For a musicals novice, director Jonathan Church has done a good job!

It’s been great watching Adam Cooper’s transition from ballet to musical theatre and he’s really at home here, one-third of an outstanding trio of leads that also includes an impressive Daniel Crossley and the now mandatory Strallen – this time Scarlett. I’m afraid I thought Katherine Kinglsey pushed Lina’s whining and screeching way too far in a performance that wasn’t so much over the top as on the other side altogether. Robert Scott’s 13-piece band sounded a lot more than that and gave the score a real big band treatment.

This isn’t Broadway / Hollywood’s finest, but it’s a great production and a fun night out – definitely deserving of its transfer.

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Still unsure that this rare Bernstein revival will find its way into the West End, off I went to Woking to be sure not to miss it. Yet another very good decision!

I don’t think there’s been a production here since 1986, when Maureen took the role now taken by Connie Fisher. It does require a cast of 24 and a decent sized orchestra , but that isn’t a good enough reason for a 25-year hiatus. This touring version of Wonderful Town started out as a joint venture between two Manchester institutions, the Royal Exchange Theatre and the Halle Orchestra.

Bernstein had such range, writing symphonies, an operetta, chamber operas, ballets, film scores, choral works, song cycles, chamber pieces and a mass for 200 performers (getting a rare outing at the Proms this year) as well as his musicals, to which he brought a classical sensibility and blended it with jazz, swing, ragtime and ‘pop’. 

Wonderful Town (NYC, of course) tells a simple story of  Ohio sisters Ruth and Eileen coming to New York City – the former trying to make her name as a writer and the latter in showbiz – and their adventures as they meet exploitive landlord Mr Appopolous (before he became the owner of the Walford launderette, obviously), neighbour Helen & her giant baseball player boyfriend Wreck, nerdy Walgreen manager Frank, seedy newspaper owner Chick, sleazy club owner Speedy, editor and love interest Bob, Brazilian sailors and a lot of  policemen, all Irish! Having such a diverse range of characters facilitates a whole load of musical comedy set pieces on streets, at the port and in apartments, clubs and police stations. Comden & Green’s lyrics are witty and the score is even better than I remembered.

Simon Higlett’s simple uncluttered but colourful design enables this to flow seamlessly. Braham Murray, not particularly known for musicals, and choreographer Andrew Wright make a great job of the staging and dancing, which is fresh and uplifting. There are so many highlights, from the opening street scene (very Guys & Dolls) through a port-side conga, Irish dancing in the police station (with a nod to Riverdance) and a modern ballet to some excellent club numbers. We no longer have the Halle in the pit, but the 17-piece band is a cut above, somewhat refreshingly without a synthesiser in sight.

It would be hard to imagine a better cast show. Every single role is brilliantly played. I was one of those who thought Connie Fisher was a major new talent and its great to report that she’s put her vocal troubles behind her, dropped an octave or two, turned into a redhead and revealed a natural talent for comedy to add to her natural charm and vocal prowess. Lucy van Gasse is just as good as her more dipsy blonde sister and Michael Xavier again shows us how good he is at these romantic lead roles. There’s a handful of lovely performances in smaller roles – Tiffany Graves and Nic Greenshields are great as the neighbours and Sevan Stephan,  Joseph Alessi and Michael Matus are a fine comic trio as landlord / artist, newspaper baron and club owner respectively.

This really ought to come into town and if it does, I’ll be back. A real treat.

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Waiting for Godot meets Six Characters in Search of an Author, but not as satisfying as either.

Memory is a funny thing. I think I’ve seen this twice before and I think I liked it on both occasions. Last night it irritated the hell out of me…..Tom Stoppard at his best sparkles with wit and invention. This one’s smug, glib, pompous and too clever for its own good. It’s like an intellectual student showing off. Stephen Fry on stage.

The characters of the title are of course minor roles in Hamlet and Stoppard puts them centre stage and weaves them in and out of that play and the work of The Players of that play, but its all rather pointless. It does have some good lines and it is sometimes funny, but like an overlong joke, it just goes on and on for 2.5 hours.

I’d love to say that fine young actors Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker were good, but for some reason they overacted mercilessly; Barnett particularly camp in a way that seemed at odds with the role – whatever was director Trevor Nunn thinking of? The rest are mere bit players as they say, but they did their bit perfectly well. I liked Simon Higlett’s simple design with what seem like time tunnels through which the ensemble enter and leave.

I am a bit hot and cold when it comes to Stoppard, so I’m prepared to accept that it’s a matter of taste. For me, though, a profoundly annoying piece of theatre and a waste of a lot of talent.

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