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Posts Tagged ‘Sophie Thompson’

A lot of characters in plays have changed gender of late, in Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, the RSC’s current Taming of the Shrew and Sondheim’s Company, where it breathed new life into the show. Now the gender of two of Noel Coward’s characters have been changed to produce something extraordinarily fresh, which would never have seen the light of day when it was first staged during the Second World War, but in my view is the play Coward may well have written today.

Actor Garry Essendine is surrounded by his staff – secretary Monica, valet Fred and Swedish housekeeper Miss Erikson – and a coterie of producers – Morris, estranged wife Liz, Helen and her husband Joe – and then two ‘super-fans’, Daphne and Roland, crash into his life. He both loves the attention and adulation and feels suffocated by it. As he prepares to tour six plays to Africa, Monica and Liz try to keep him in control whilst Helen and Morris go against his wishes for his next project, Daphne and Roland’s obsession gets out of control and his promiscuity runs rampant. Coward’s dialogue crackles and sparkles right up to a surprisingly poignant ending. The issues around fame seem bang up-to-date.

Matthew Warchus’ production makes it feels like a newly minted piece, set in Rob Howell’s brilliantly designed art deco apartment that is thrust forward to bring more intimacy in this big theatre, with as fine a set of performances as you could wish for. Essendine is a larger-than-life character who gets a stunning larger-than-life, finely detailed characterisation from Andrew Scott, with a hitherto unseen (by me) flair for comedy. The role of Monica suits Sophie Thompson’s style of acting and here she milks it for every ounce of comedy. Indira Varma’s Liz is the perfect foil to Scott’s Essendine, with their final moments together movingly underlining the play’s original title Sweet Sorrow. Liza Sadovy does some nifty doubling-up as Miss Erikson and Daphne’s Great Aunt Lady Saltburn and Joshua Hill as Fred delivers some great lines so well he makes them even greater.

Above all, it’s very funny and hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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This final play in Classic Spring’s Oscar Wilde season seems to be dividing people on the basis of how broad the comedy is played, and the frisson between Algernon and Jack. I was happy with the former, but the latter did puzzle me, with the kissing seeming incongruous (especially with Lane, Algernon’s servant).

Wilde’s most famous and popular comedy was the fourth and last of his social satires, charting the relationships between Jack and Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen and Jack’s ward Cecily and Algernon, Gwendolen’s cousin, ending with the big reveal that Jack is more than Algernon’s friend and Gwendolen’s intended. Though these four are the main protagonists, when productions are announced, most are interested in who’s playing Lady Bracknell, in this case Sophie Thompson, who exceeded my expectations.

Designer Madeleine Girling’s palette of greens create a beautiful London flat and country house and garden, all adorned by hardly any furniture. Gabriella Slade’s period costumes are excellent. It builds in pace and interest to an excellent third act, though the story somehow felt even more contrived than usual. I assume director Michael Fentiman’s added frisson and kisses are meant to reference Wilde’s sexuality, but within the otherwise period comedy, they just jarred.

I thought relative newcomers Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd had great chemistry and brought a youthful playfulness to Algernon and Jack respectively, and Pippa Nixon and Fiona Button both sparkled and shone as Gwendolen and Cecily. Sophie Thompson resisted her normal urge to overact and her Lady Bracknell was all the better for it, and Stella Gonet gave a fine performance as Miss Prism, particularly when her past emerges. Good casting has been a feature and a strength of this Wilde season.

I’ve enjoyed seeing all four over a relatively short period, in four very different productions. The plotting creaks a bit these days, but the dialogue still crackles.

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This show features in many lists of all-time Best Musicals; it’s certainly in my top 10, maybe my top 5. Yet there have only been two major London productions in the 33 years I’ve lived here, though the NT one had three incarnations (including a 1990 one day only tribute to their original Sky, Ian Charleson; for me, a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going) and between the two they ran for six years at the NT or in the West End. To stave off withdrawal symptoms, we got a very impressive fringe production Upstairs at the Gatehouse a couple of years ago and a LAMDA one a couple of years before that. So there was no hesitation on my part in making the trip to Chichester!

Damon Runyon’s story of loveable rogues, gullible girls and evangelical (homeland) missionaries is timeless. The characters are beautifully drawn and the situations ripe for both comedy and romance. Good and bad are pitted against one another only to become mutually dependent and mutually beneficial. The bad guy gets his good doll, the good doll gets her bad guy and we send them off on a wave of warmth and goodwill. From the Runyonland overture to the wedding finale, it captivates you. It’s the epitome of the feel-good show.

Peter McKintosh’s brilliant set has an arc of hoarding fragments surrounded by lightbulbs reflected in the shiny black stage. When only the lightbulbs are lit, it’s the New York skyline, when the signs are lit you’re on the street. I’m not sure why they needed to import an American director, but his staging is very good. I’m also not sure why they need ballet star Carlos Acosta as choreographer as ‘co-choreographer’ Andrew Wright is perfectly capable on his own – given that they ‘have form’ with Adam Cooper, perhaps it’s all part of a ballet dancer Career Management ‘transitions’ programme. Anyway, it’s great choreography, particularly in showstoppers Luck Be A Lady & Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.

At first I thought Sophie Thompson was over-cooking Miss Adelaide, as she has a tendency to do, but she won me over, providing many of the shows laughs but still breaking our hearts in her Second Lament. Peter Polycarpou was simply perfect as Nathan, the most loveable of all the rogues; a lighter touch than previous interpretations. Less experienced in musicals, Jamie Parker was a revelation as Sky, light on his feet and vocally assured. Clare Foster also took a while to convince as Sarah, but when the actress let go as the character let go, she too won me over.  Harry Morrison follows two illustrious Nicely-Nicely’s (David Healy and Clive Rowe) but I liked his sweeter characterisation and he brought the house down rockin’ the boat. The rest of the cast rises to the occasion, busting with energy and enthusiasm.

I’m always nervous seeing a show when you think you’ve seen the definitive production, in this case Richard Eyre for the NT, but yet again it entertains and thrills. It’s like seeing your best friend again after many years apart; hopefully (inevitably?!) this particular best friend will pay a visit to London in the not-too-distant future so that we can get together one more time.

 

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Sometimes plays take so long to get to the point that they lose you along the way; you either walk physically or wander mentally. For me, with this play, it was the latter.

This early 60’s German piece tackles the ethics of science and in particular how scientific discoveries, like ‘the bomb’,  are often hijacked and misused when they leave the ‘laboratory’ and enter ‘society’. The trouble is, it’s well into the second half before this very interesting debate unfolds.

Until then, we are in an asylum with Mobius (who thinks King Solomon talks to him), Beulter (who thinks he’s Newton) and Ernesti (who thinks he’s Einstein). All three murder a nurse but instead of being charged, they continue their incarceration, with two former boxers as their new ‘nurses’.

We eventually learn that Mobius is ‘hiding’ himself and his discoveries, that ‘Newton’ and ‘Einstein’ are spies trying to get hold of them and that their psychiatrist Dr Mathilde von Zahnd is really an industrialist who know’s the truth and has stolen Mobius’ work – but all of that is crammed into the last quarter of the play.

What isn’t in doubt is the quality of the production, with a brilliant design by Robert Jones which itself provides a superb climax, and a set of terrific performances from John Heffernan, Justin Salinger and Paul Bhattacharjee as the ‘physicists’ and Sophie Thompson, unrecognisable and brilliant as their doctor.

Sadly though, it’s a fatally flawed play which lost me before it got round to engaging me.

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I loved everything about this production – a thing of great joy and a triumphant NT debut for director Jamie Lloyd. It’s the equal of the recent London Assurance on the same stage and for a play that’s almost 250 years old, it’s as fresh as they come.

Oliver Goldsmith’s restoration comedy has always seemed less dated and funnier than its contemporaries, but this is unquestionably the best production I’ve seen. Mark Thompson’s design somehow makes the Olivier more intimate. Most of the time, we’re in the Hardcastle’s living room in front of a huge hearth with a welcoming fire. The scene changes are accompanied by delightful jolly choruses and dances and the one from living room to woods and back is a marvel that takes your breath away. The only thing that isn’t in period is modern gestures, but rather than being incongruous they somehow add to the freshness.

City boy Marlow, accompanied by his friend Hastings, is off to the country to meet his intended Kate Hardcastle. Kate’s step-brother Tony Lumpkin convinces them the Hardcastle home is an inn – cue inappropriate behaviour and an outraged Mr Hardcastle. The tongue-tied Marlow has a stumbling meeting with confident Kate where he can’t even look at her, thus enabling Kate to subsequently pose as a barmaid (she stoops to conquer) and see a very different Marlow.

Running in parallel we have the story of Mrs Hardcastle’s niece and her love of Hastings but betrothal to Lumpkin (Mrs Hardcastle’s son by her first marriage, who doesn’t really want marriage), complete with a mix up over a box of jewels. It’s a riot of confusion with city meets country and rich meet poor providing ample opportunity for satire. The humour is broad so the playing is broad, but it manages to stay the right side of OTT. Of course, it all ends happily with both couples united and parents content.

Harry Hadden-Paton is proving equally adept at drama and comedy and here he’s terrific as Marlow. This may be a career high for John Heffernan, equally terrific as Hastings. It’s hard for Katherine Kelly and Cush Jumbo to play against these comic master classes but they do so very well. I assume there is some sort of exchange programme that resulted in Ian McKellern in Coronation Street in exchange for Kelly in this?! Well, she’s been the best thing about Corrie for years (yes, I’m a fan!) and though it was sad to see her go it’s great to see her cutting it in restoration comedy one week later – and there’s something delicious about the former barmaid at the Rovers Return stooping to conquer as a barmaid! Steve Pemberton and Sophie Thompson are great as the Hardcastles, with the latter giving us another of her over-the-top-and-higher-still performances. I was also hugely impressed by David Fynn as Lumpkin.  The ensemble is faultlessly cast and impeccably drilled.

A delightful evening from beginning to end. Miss at your peril.

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In addition to a staged production of Passion and a couple of talks and discussions, the Donmar Warehouse Sondheim at 80 celebrations includes a couple of concert performances of former productions. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too!

The first concert was Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 London premiere cast. This is the show which runs backwards to the time its protagonists first meet. I have very fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of Sondheim’s most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved.

I turned up at the second one – Company – thinking ‘they can’t match that’ and it wasn’t long before my inner voice was saying ‘they will!’ This one was staged at the Donmar in 1995 and they managed to get nine of the original 14 back. In the first half, Anna Francolini brought the house down with Another Hundred People (she’s doing eight performances a week as Maria Callas in Onassis and came here on two of her Sundays off!), as did Sophie Thompson with the incredibly difficult Getting Married Today . In the second half, Haydn Gwynne inhabited rather than just singing Ladies Who Lunch, taking the role originally played by the now sadly departed Sheila Gish, then leading man Adrian Lester put so much emotion and passion into Being Alive that his voice began to break and tears began to flow in the audience; how could this come alive like this in concert?! The band continued after the encore so the audience sang Side By Side again without the cast. Another standing ovation, another unforgettable night.

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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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