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Posts Tagged ‘Stella Gonet’

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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I saw an amazing site-specific play called Roadkill by playwright Stef Smith in Edinburgh almost six years ago. Her Royal Court debut is sort of amazing, but in a different way.

Something odd is going on. Animals and birds are being culled and their habitats destroyed in the belief that they are carrying disease. Our six characters react differently – complying, exploiting, rebelling or just plain resignation. As the situation gets worse, their relationships are damaged and reactions more and more hysterical. Alex has returned from her travels to see her widowed mother Nancy and ends up chained to the railings of the park they are trying to burn. Her mother just tries to get on with life, uninvolved with the decline outside. Jamie and Lisa, deeply in love, fall apart as Lisa starts working for a man who’s benefitting from the disaster and Jamie rescues and hides animals and birds. John has a strong friendship with Nancy but is puzzled by the intentions and attention of Si, Lisa’s new boss. We get a glimpse of what’s happening in the outside world through a Perspex wall.

I’m afraid I felt very ‘so what’ about it. It seems to be showing us how society can react with hysteria and panic, happy to blame nature for anything and everything, but it didn’t really go anywhere. There are six fine performances – Natalie Dew, Ian Gelder, Stella Gonet, Lisa McGrills, Sargon Yelda & Ashley Zhangazha – luxury casting indeed, the design by Camilla Clarke keeps surprising you (and sometimes challenges your tolerance – I was too close to cockroaches for my liking!) and it’s well staged by Hamish Pirie. In the end though I thought the material wasn’t worthy of the creative and acting talent.

Disappointed at the Royal Court again.

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At last, a play for our time at the Royal Court. Jack Thorne has produced a thoughtful and objective piece about ‘the cuts’ which blends the political with the personal.

Mark is the Deputy Leader of a Labour council faced with slashing services following a huge cut in its government grant which, like all councils, represents most of its funding. The Leader Hilary is more resigned to the task, but he’s torn. Despite this they start the process and come face to face with the realities of closing Day Care centres and reduced street lighting in high risk areas. Influenced by his colleague and girlfriend, who herself is influenced by her Old Labour father, Mark eventually turns and leads their refusal to set a budget. Predictably, the government takes over the process and they are faced with implementing what others have decided for them. This is interwoven with Mark’s personal story, with visits from his precocious, highly intelligent son Jake and the development of his relationship with Julie.

At first I found it lacked anger and bite, but as it progressed I realised that wasn’t the point. It presents us with a difficult, indeed impossible situation – cut, or we’ll do it for you. To comply you have to abandon your principles, but to rebel could be worse. Though they seem to have cut 15 mins in preview, I did find the first half too slow and the second half much better paced. I wondered whether a combination of judicious cuts, faster pacing and no interval might not make it a better play. It starts and ends on, and in front of, the town hall stage, which recedes to reveal a huge hall in which all of the scenes are played out. Tom Scutt’s design works less well in the more intimate ones, but does bring a realism to the piece. Director John Tiffany includes some of his trademark quirky movement, which seems a bit incongruous on this occasion.

There’s a terrific performance from Tommy Knight as Jake and the final scene between him and Tom Georgeson’s old Labour George is one of the play’s best. When we hear from a client of the Day Centre facing closure, its heart-breaking. Stella Gonet as Hilary seemed at times as if she was still in Handbagged playing Thatcher; this characterisation of a Labour council leader didn’t feel right to me. It was good to see Sharon Duncan-Brewster again and she handles the combination of public servant, daughter and lover very effectively.

In its present state, its a good play that could be a great one, like Thorne’s earlier piece 2nd May 1997, the birth of the New Labour government, but its good to be leaving the Royal Court happier than I have of late.

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Lest you think this play about Margaret Thatcher and The Queen and their ‘audiences’ owes anything to Peter Morgan’s The Audience, perhaps I should begin by telling you that it started life as one of the nine plays in Women Power & Politics more than three years ago here at the Tricycle Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/women-power-politics). It was one of the highlights of that and now it’s a full length premiere league treat.

It covers Thatcher’s whole period in office and there are two Queen’s and two Thatcher’s – ‘younger’, who are mostly ‘in audience’ and ‘older’, who are mostly looking back, commenting and correcting –  with two men playing all of the male roles (plus Nancy Reagan!), fighting over who plays Neil Kinnock. That’s a lot of events and a lot of audiences. It’s a whistle-stop history of the 80’s told through these weekly meetings and it’s hugely entertaining in Indhu Rubasingham’s excellent fast-paced production. It is, of course, largely speculative, yet it comes to the same conclusions as Morgan did – but by focusing on the Queen’s relationship with this one Prime Minister, it’s able to go into much more depth.

The performances are all superb. Stella Gonet & Fenella Woolgar get the public and private Thatcher to a tee and Marion Bailey & Clare Holman do the same with Elizabeth II. The men – Jeff Rawle & Neet Mohan – play 17 roles between them, from footmen to protesters and Michael Hestletine to Kenneth Kaunda, and are allowed to step out of their characters from time to time, which makes for a lot of fun The existence of an audience is occasionally acknowledged as the fourth wall disappears and we’re addressed directly.

Being in an audience of people old enough to have lived through this period made for a superb atmosphere at the performance I attended. This is an enormous pleasure and if it doesn’t get a West End transfer so that many more people can see it, I will be both surprised and disappointed.

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I’ve waited 18 years to see another Rodney Ackland play. During this time, we’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of Chekov’s, Pinter’s and Shaw’s, but nothing by this sadly neglected 20th Century British playwright. Why? He wrote c.25 plays, almost half of them adaptations, and to my knowledge only two of them have been produced in London in the last 30 years or so.

It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the play, largely because the characters are like living museum pieces. They don’t make them like this anymore! Or do they? The Skinner’s are an upper middle-class family of five with three staff (only one of whom we meet). We’re in the immediate post-war period, where rationing, and attempts to overcome it, is still a fact of life. Aubrey is a lawyer seeking the local Conservative nomination. His wife Blanche is a bit useless. Elder daughters Laura & Kathleen forever bicker; Laura has returned from the Gold Coast a widow but already has a new man in her life and spinster Kathleen is lonely & jealous. Younger daughter Susan can’t understand any of them.

Aubrey, Blanch & Kathleen are dreadful snobs, more than a bit racist, contemptuous of the staff and the lower classes and obsessed with how others see them. Social climbers, their over-riding need is to conform, so they are outraged that Laura would abandon her mourning clothing and contemplate re-marriage so soon. Things get worse as the truth of her husband’s death emerges, then turn again as her boyfriend David’s pedigree becomes known. The ending is very clever.

This must have been way ahead of its time with such sharp social satire. It’s bitingly funny and occasionally shocking and you love to hate these people, whist you recognise aspects of their attitudes and behaviours in yourself and others. We never see the party, but spend the whole play in Laura’s bedroom before and after it; projected animations of the exterior of the home and the journey back from the party provide a highly original way to link to it.

Director Matthew Dunster is lucky to have such a terrific cast. Michael Thomas & Stella Gonet bring alive the period values brilliantly. June Watson is a treat to watch as Nanny, seemingly loyal yet with an undercurrent of contempt. Michele Terry, playing perhaps the most conservative of them all, captures but contains the repressed feelings of Kathleen. Laura is a psychologically complex character and it must be hard to find the right balance, but Katherine Parkinson does this beautifully. I loved Anna Fleischle’s period perfect design which somehow brought the stage towards you so that felt very close to it all.

The extraordinary production of Absolute Hell at the NT in 1995 should have prompted lots more Ackland, but it didn’t. Lets hope this fine revival does better.

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OK, so nine short plays on the history of women in politics (and the ‘testimonies’ of five living politicians) isn’t everyone’s idea of fun on a hot, sunny Saturday in June! Well, helped by the Tricycle’s aircon, it proved to be a theatrical feast I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

The Tricycle is the only theatre with the bravery and balls (inappropriate terminology, I know) to stage this. It’s only a year since they did a thrilling whole day history of Afghanistan in the same way and I have to confess I never thought they’d match it – but they have.

The nine plays take us from Elizabeth I to all-women selection lists and the writing, by nine different women playwrights, was even more consistent than The Great Game, with an intriguing and unpredictable selection of subjects and innovative approaches to them. There really wasn’t a dud amongst them, though Sue Townsend’s albeit funny contribution steered furthest from the theme in the cause of her cartoon-like relentless and tired snipes at the New Labour project.

Marie Jones and Rebecca Lenkiewicz gave us fascinating new historical perspectives on the suffragettes and Liz I respectively. Moira Buffini’s take on Thatch & Liz II was clever and funny yet insightful. Lucy Kirkwood reminded us how we’ve virtually eliminated Greenham Common from history. Joy Wilkinson shows us that little has changed between the 1994 and 2010 Labour leadership contests. Zinnie Harris viciously but accurately shows us many men’s attitudes to all-women selection lists. Sam Holcroft stages a very intelligent debate about pornography through a conversation between a successful pornographer and a PM let down by her husband. Bola Agbaje is bang up-to-date with her study of the power of sex. Add to that verbatim contributions from Shirley Williams, Edwina Currie, Oona King,  Jacqui Smith & Anne Widdicombe, and a late addition (?) from Nick Clegg which proves to be the most chilling of all! Well if that doesn’t live up to my ‘theatrical feast’ epithet, I don’t know what does!  

Indira Rubasingham, assisted by Amy Hodge, has given each play a fresh directorial perspective with Handbagged, Bloody Wimmin and Acting Leader getting particularly inventive staging. She’s assembled an excellent ensemble of twelve actors who play up to six roles each, except Lara Rossi who gets to play Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, Clare Short and Margaret Beckett’s husband in the same play – a tremendous debut from someone still at LAMDA! It was particularly good to see Kika Markham, Tom Mannion and Stella Gonet again.

If you saw The Great Game, you shouldn’t miss this different but equally exhilarating experience. If you didn’t, suspend disbelief and go see this and you’ll be back for The Great Game when it’s revival follows it. Seeing them all together, it’s an intelligent, relevant and thought-provoking experience – and great entertainment too.  

Yet again, The Tricycle leads the way.

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