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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Brimson-Lewis’

When I first saw this play I was about the same age as Willy Loman’s youngest son Happy. Now I’m the same age as Willy Loman. Oh dear. In between I reckon there have only been two major London revivals, which given that it’s one of the ‘big five’ by one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights, and given the number of Becket, Pinter and Chekov revivals of inferior plays in the same period, seems bizarre. So it’s a big welcome to the transfer of the RSC’s production in Miller’s centenary year.

This play has so much to say about father – son relationships, the compulsion to succeed (and the lengths people go to for success) and of course the American dream. Willy’s success as a salesman isn’t anywhere near as real as he believes, but he bigs himself up for his sons and in turn bigs them up to everyone else. When elder son Biff fails, it breaks his heart, but he’s oblivious to any role he might have played in this. When Biff returns years later, he’s at it again trying to make him what he isn’t. This time it coincides with his own downfall and it all comes home to roost. Wife & mom Linda and younger son Happy are caught up in all of this.

I have to confess I was disappointed at the interval. It hadn’t really got into its stride. An early mobile ringing had visibly unsettled Anthony Sher and from there things seemed somewhat perfunctory. His performance felt like a one-note grumpy old man. I also didn’t feel Greg Doran’s production was delineating the current and flashback scenes well enough (there were a lot of puzzled faces around me). It was all a bit flat. Things looked up significantly in the second half, with the restaurant scene and the following scene back in the Loman home brilliantly staged and performed, but I still felt I was watching acting, I hadn’t lost myself in the play and the characters, and it didn’t engage me emotionally in the way it should.

There was more chemistry between Sher’s Loman and Biff and Happy than there was between Sher and Harriet Walter’s Linda, who seemed too restrained to me; I thought Alex Hassell and Sam Marks were outstanding as the sons. It’s a high quality supporting cast and its good to have live music, in this case a fine jazz quintet playing Paul Englishby’s original score. I wasn’t convinced by Stephen Brimson Lewis’ huge set though – it seemed to rob the play of much intimacy when it needed it.

Maybe my expectations were too high or maybe it was just an off night, but I’m afraid it wasn’t the evening I was expecting or hoping for. A good rather than great Salesman.

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I’ve always thought Britain didn’t produce 20th century dramatists to equal the three great Americans – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neil. After The Dance at the NT last year was a nudge in the ribs, but here’s a poke in the stomach; by the end of this centenary year, I may have to bury such thoughts for good.

In Flare Path, we’re at a hotel next to an airbase at wartime where aircrew are staying – Teddy, a seemingly gung-ho Flight Lieutenant whose inner insecurities are revealed as the play progresses, down-to-earth bomber Dusty doing his bit and trying to stay alive and a Polish Count set on revenge and a heroic death. Teddy’s married to a glamorous actress and can’t quite believe his luck, Dusty’s equally down-to-earth wife is a bit of a nag but clearly worships him and the Count has swept a barmaid off her feet despite their inability to communicate in English. We stay with the wives waiting for the return of their men from bombing raids and live the tension, relief and celebrations before, during and after the missions. The arrival of Teddy’s wife’s old flame – a Hollywood matinée idol – provides an additional tension to be resolved.

You can tell that Rattigan, a Second World War airman himself, knew exactly what these people were going through and it results in a set of characterisations of great depth. In any other play / production, Sheridan Smith – fresh from her wonderful Olivier Award winning musical comedy turn in Legally Blonde – would steal the show. She moves from chirpy ex-barmaid and social catalyst to tragic wife on the turn of her face and her real tears triggered real tears in the audience. The day after bagging the Olivier for a musical, she must already be on the list for another in a play……but there are nine other exceptional performances – yes, nine! – so casting Director Maggie Lunn must get a mention.

It must be much harder to play an unsympathetic character than a sympathetic one (or a downright baddie) but James Purefoy manages it superbly – every inch the Hollywood heart-throb who eventually exposes his inner emotional core. Harry Hadden-Paton and Sienna Miller grow into the roles of Teddy and his wife as the play progresses and the depths of their characters are revealed, but for some reason Miller’s appearance is the only one that doesn’t quite seem 1940’s. We empathise easily with Mark Dexter’s tongue-tied defiant Polish Count, as we do with Joe Armstrong as wartime everyman Dusty and Emma Handy as his wife visiting for just one night. There are lovely cameos from Sarah Crowden as the battle-axe hotelier, Matthew Tennyson (still at drama school!) as her barman son and Clive Wood’s archetypal Squadron Leader, determined to keep up the spirit and morale of the boys.

Trevor Nunn’s detailed and subtle production grips you for every minute of its 150 minute running time. Stephen Brimson Lewis has created another of those period sets that simply take you to the location and the period, and the projections and sound used to convey the take-offs are excellent.

If this were the only revival for the Rattigan centenary, it would do him proud; but there’s a lot more to come yet. My withdrawal symptoms following After the Dance have been temporarily sated, but I’m now even more excited about what’s to come, but if I have a more satisfying evening in the theatre this year, I shall be a very lucky boy indeed. By now, you should be on the web or the phone because you just cannot give this a miss.

 

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When I first saw this play, in a production by Peter Hall c.15 years ago, it fizzed; so much so that I went back to see it again when it returned to London after an extensive tour. It seemed to me to be so much better than the play most consider his best – The Importance of Being Ernest. For reasons I cannot fathom, in Lindsay Posner’s production the first half is ponderously slow – one of the longest ‘set up’s’ I can remember – whilst the second half zips along.

Oscar Wilde’s play may be 115 years old but if you ignore the settings and costumes, its thoroughly modern – unlike contemporaries like Chekhov or Ibsen, it has hardly aged. The story is rather timely – a corrupt act in the past comes back to haunt a rising star politician. The morals of the case are explored as the events unfold, but with Wilde’s usual sharp wit, satirising the upper classes along the way.

Stephen Brimson-Lewis’ opulent gold set becomes three different rooms in the same house and with the insertion of a simple green wall transforms into a room in another house. With superb period costumes, it looks gorgeous and seems to me to capture the time and the society of the protagonists perfectly.

What makes this revival is brilliant casting. Samantha Bond is a suitably icy Mrs Cheveley, Rachel Sterling (looking mote like her mother than she ever has before) a moralistic Lady Chiltern and Alexander Hanson a somewhat ernest archetypal politician with an ability to change his stance and rationalise it seamlessly.  The star of the show though is Elliott Cowan’s Viscount Goring, a brilliant and witty creation in full flight, and there are lovely cameos from Charles Kay, Caroline Blakiston and Fiona Button.

Such a shame the first two acts didn’t have the pace of the second two, but worth a look nonetheless.

 

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