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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Beresford’

As much as I’ve appreciated theatre’s making them available, I’ve been struggling to engage with streams of recorded shows in lockdown, perhaps because I’d already seen many of them in the theatre, so I was curious how I might get on with a live one. Playwright Stephen Beresford (an extraordinary playwriting debut at the NT with Last of the Haussmans, the excellent adaptation of Fanny & Alexander at the Old Vic and the screenplay for the brilliant film Pride) and actor Andrew Scott, whose streaming of Sea Wall was a notable exception, made this a real draw too.

Scott is relayed live from the Old Vic stage, the empty auditorium as his backdrop. He tells the story of his character’s estranged father and the few encounters he’s had with with him. We learn about his sister and later their brother by another wife and the multiple relationships and locations of his father. Its mostly direct to camera and Scott is mesmerising, but there’s also judicious but clever use of split screens and other features. I found it totally captivating, much more than my live open air promenade performance a few days previously. The addition of the sound of audience anticipation before the start and appreciation at the end helped create the almost live experience, with the added benefit of close-up dialogue and action.

A real success; now I can barely wait for Faith Healer, the next one, in a couple of weeks.

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This is the second time this week that I’ve seen a stage adaptation of a film I haven’t seen. This one is Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical three-hour film, which was also a five-hour TV series, adapted by Stephen Beresford, best known for The Last of the Hausmans at the NT and the screenplay for the film Pride. It’s an everyday tale of theatre folk in Sweden, well at least initially.

In the first act, we’re with the theatrical Ekdahl family, theatre owners and performers. Husband and wife Oscar and Emilie, Oscar’s mother Helena, brothers Carl and Gustav and their wives Alma and Lydia, Gustav & Lydia’s daughter Petra and Fanny and Alexander themselves, Oscar & Emilie’s children. We’re onstage, backstage and at home in what seems to be an idyllic world, until Oscar dies suddenly. There was plenty of character development, but not enough story in this first part and I went into the interval a touch underwhelmed.

The second act is very dark, as Emilie marries the widowed Bishop, a frightfully stern bully into whose austere and joyless home Emilie, Alexander and Fanny arrive. His sister Henrietta is unwelcoming, fearing her loss of power in charge of the home. Alexander is a bit of a fantasist and gets on the wrong side of the Bishop very quickly, resulting in brutal punishment. Emilie, by now pregnant, wants to leave, but the law and societal conventions prevent this.

In the third act, with the help of Oscar’s brothers and Helena’s friend Issak and his nephew Aaron, they plot to free them all from the Bishop’s tyranny. These latter two parts are much more satisfying and feel almost Dickensian, sweeping along at a fast pace, drawing you in to these characters lives. I haven’t seen much of director Max Webster’s work, but his staging here is impressive, helped by Tom Pye’s excellent set, Laura Hopkins’ lovely costumes and atmospheric music by Alex Baranowski, played live on piano and cello.

It’s a tribute to Kevin Doyle’s performance that there was palpable hatred in the audience for the evil Bishop. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as a seasoned thespian and the head of the Ekdahl family. I loved Catherine Walker, an actress who hasn’t been on my radar before, as Emilie and it was great to see Lolita Chakrabarti again in a pair of contrasting roles as Alma and Henrietta. Jonathan Slinger’s role was relatively small, but he almost stole the show when the Ekdahl brothers confront the Bishop in the third act – the whole audience were willing him on. The actors playing Fanny & Alexander were brilliant, in what are big roles for child actors, especially Alexander.

It was a slow burn at first but it won me over, oozing quality in every department.

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It’s not often you leave a new play feeling deeply satisfied. Of late, the Royal Court has had the monopoly of those occasions and there are echoes of two of them – Jerusalem and Love Love Love – here. This is good enough to be the pinnacle of a playwrights career, but it’s  playwright Stephen Beresford’s first! At last, we have a fine new play at the National.

We’re on the Devon coast in the home of Judy, an ageing hippie and rebel, with her daughter Libby, son Nick and grand-daughter Summer, exploring the legacy of the 60’s generation and the relationships of the three generations on the stage. Neighbour and GP Peter is a frequent visitor and seemingly benevolent presence, as is shy young Daniel who grows up before your very eyes. Judy’s still rebelling (now against her nimby neighbours), Libby and Nick are rebelling against their mother and each other and young Summer is a teenager (nuff said). Neither Peter nor Daniel are what they at first seem. The characterisations are very deep and the sweep of the play is somehow both epic and personal. The writing is outstanding and often very funny.

This may well be Helen McCrory’s finest moment; from her first unrecognisable appearance, she completely inhabits the role of daughter Libby. Rory Kinnear too is spectacularly good as her drug fueled brother Nick, with the most realistic drunk / stoned acting I’ve seen since Peter O’Toole (and I’m still not convinced he wasn’t – O’Toole, that is).

You can see why Julie Walters wanted to play Judy. It’s one of those larger-than-life characters she excels in, though she is now so familiar we do see Julie underneath Judy at times. There’s also a brilliant performance from Isabella Laughland as Summer and another from Taron Egerton as neighbour Daniel (a professional debut, no less).

Vicki Mortimer has created an art deco  home as wild as its inhabitants which looks just like the famous hotel at Bigbury-on-Sea just down the road, which opens up to reveal three downstairs rooms as well as the garden. The music seems to be from the soundtrack of my life! As always, Howard Davies gets the best out the material and his actors.

This was such a treat that I really didn’t want it to end; I was so enjoying these characters company and their stories – but maybe that’s because I’m a 60’s child too? It will be intersting to see the thoughts of younger theatre-goers. For me, though, not to be missed at any cost.

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