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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Pemberton’

The 20(ish)-year revival rule applies again for this Terry Johnson play, which I first saw at Hampstead Theatre in 1994. Natural justice was served that night when David Haig was indisposed and the playwright had to step in to play a role he wrote for a middle-aged man with a paunch who has to get his kit off!

The play follows members of a society which celebrates the classic British comedy of the 1960’s to 1980’s. They meet to reminisce, recollect and relive classic characters and shows, in this case the recently departed Benny Hill and, as news of his death arrives during the play, Frankie Howard. Couple Nick & Lisa, singleton Brian and host Richard are all committed members, but Richard’s wife Ellie isn’t. During the play we learn that Richard & Ellie are having problems having sex (and a baby) and Nick hasn’t really taken to his new-born, for reasons that emerge.

It does start slowly, with few laughs at first, and this time around I felt there was an imbalance between the light comedy of the first act and the significantly darker and much better second half. It’s natural audience is British people of a certain age and there were a number in the audience (young or foreign!), who missed many of the references, including my Icelandic companion, even though he was of a certain age and brought up in a country and at a time when British TV was plentiful. This is a homage to the comedy families used to stay in and watch together on a Saturday night and that narrows its demographic significantly.

You can’t fault the performances or the staging by the playwright or the design of a 90’s suburban living room by Richard Kent. Katherine Parkinson is particularly good as Ellie, having to play against the flow, a role played by Zoe Wanamaker in the original production. I don’t really know the work of Rufus Jones, but he too was impressive as Richard, having to be believable as a surgeon who likes Benny Hill! Steve Pemberton handles the impressions best as Brian, perhaps because he started in TV comedy, as well as his touching revelation towards the end.

I was glad I revisited it, but it wasn’t the classic I thought it might be. I suspect this is partly due to the passage of time, partly due to its suitability for my companion (though he loved the second half) and partly due to the fact that James Graham’s recent Monster Raving Loony (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/monster-raving-loony) is a better and more comprehensive homage to the same British comedy, even though it’s actually a biography of a politician, albeit a comic one.

 

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I wasn’t very excited by Josie Rourke’s opening season at the Donmar, but I may have to eat a few words. Her opener is something the Donmar doesn’t normally do (restoration comedy) and it gets a handsome production with a full set of great performances.

The theatre has had its biggest makeover since the 25th Putman County Spelling Bee. It has been turned into an 18th century playhouse with the stalls back wall removed, the circle railing replaced with a wooden one, wooden floors and (false) wooden ceiling, a painted back screen with candle holders and real lit candles, more real lit candles around the auditorium and three chandeliers, also with real lit candles! Lucy Osbornes’ setting is warm, welcoming and gorgeous, as are the period costumes.

George Farquhar’s comedy takes place in Tewksbury where two army captains are recruiting using all means, fair and foul. Both  have designs on different local girls, Sylvia and Melinda – who also has the attentions of local businessman Worthy. The girls fall out and Sylvia returns disguised as a man, Wilful, who both captains seek to recruit. Captain Plumes’s Sargent Kite plumbs new depths of deception, there’s a lot of confusion but it all ends happily – except for the recruits. It’s a comedy but it does make a serious point about the treatment of recruits and ends with a powerful statement as they head for the war.

In addition to the lovely design, the use of music is terrific. The jigs and reels played brilliantly by five of the actors add much – including a delicious twist on the ‘turn off you mobiles’ advice now common at the start of plays. The performances too are terrific, with Nancy Carroll and Rachel Stirling as Sylvia and Melinda shining and Tobias Menzies commanding the stage with great authority as Captain Plume. Mark Gattis’ excellent comic turn as Captain Brazen suggests we need to see as much of him on stage as we already do his League of Gentlemen colleagues Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. The other two leads, Nicholas Burns as Worthy and Mackenzie Crook as Sargent Kite, complete an excellent set of leads and the supporting cast of eight are all excellent.

Somehow though it didn’t add up to the sum of the parts; the first half in particular was uneven and didn’t sweep you away anywhere near as much as the second half did. I don’t know whether this is the play or the production. It’s not the complete delight the NT’s She Stoops to Conquer is, but it’s still an impressive start to the Rourke reign. Don’t wear too many clothes though, as for some reason the Donmar is set at sauna level temperatures.

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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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I rather liked this quirky tongue-in-cheek celebration of a peculiarly American tradition, the high school spelling competition.

The composer William Finn has shown promise for a long time, but failed to fulfil it. I remember seeing the first outing of March of the Falsettos zonks ago and thinking ‘he’ll go far’ – but he hasn’t. In truth, the simplistic formulaic music here shows he hasn’t moved on much, which is perhaps the reason. The show’s success has more to do with a terrific idea, the right theatre with a brilliant design, funny lyrics, a production that fizzes and performances bursting with enthusiasm and energy.

Designer Christopher Oram has turned the Donmar into a school gym with a blue and yellow colour scheme that extends to the letters at the end of the rows of special blue seats and the ‘confetti’ which falls from the rafters. Jamie Lloyd’s staging and Ann Yee’s choreography are just as bright and they’ve teased lovely portraits of archetypal kids from Harry Hepple, Iris Roberts, Chris Carswell, David Fynn, Hayley Gallivan and Maria Lawson. Steve Pemberton and Katherine Kingsley are excellent as the adults as is Ako Mitchell as the helper on community service.

Adding four volunteers from the audience as ‘extras’ is an inspired idea and on the night we went, they were so good I wondered if some of them were actually plants. The way their characters are  ‘invented’ is clever and when one manages to spell a word that was clearly meant to be her exit, it brought the house down.

95 minutes of infectious fun – it won’t change your life, you might struggle to remember it in 10 years, but you probably won’t regret going – and it’s a whole lot better than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg!

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