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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Brown’

When I first saw these Tony Kushner plays 24-25 years ago, in the NT’s Cottesloe auditorium, there was a gap of more than a year between them; the second play, Perestroika, hadn’t been written when the first, Millennium Approaches, opened. I saw both parts of the only London revival, Headlong at the Lyric Hammersmith ten years ago, in one day, but then it seemed like recent history. I repeated that experience at the latest revival in the National’s Lyttelton theatre on Wednesday, but now ‘the AIDS plays’, as many called them, feel like much more than that, and in so many ways bang up-to-date.

Prior and Louis are a gay couple; the former hails from early English immigrants and the latter from more recent Jewish immigrants. Pryor has AIDS and his close gay African-American friend Belize is an AIDS nurse, who is reluctantly looking after a racist, homophobic, corrupt Jewish lawyer called Roy Cohn, who disguises his condition as liver cancer. Roy’s protege, object of his desires, and possible sexual partner, is a closeted Mormon called Joe, whose agoraphobic, depressive wife Harper and Mormon mom Hannah, who becomes Pryor’s unlikely friend, are also characters. Joe begins a relationship with Louis when the latter deserts his sick lover. Roy M Cohn was a real person, right-hand man to chief witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy, and sometime lawyer to Donald Trump, representing him in the now infamous racist rental case, who appears to have been a mentor, even role model, to the current president. Of course, it’s set in the reign of that other celebrity president Ronald Regan, but in lines written 26 years ago, we hear things we heard last year.

Marianne Elliott’s new staging starts intimately, with scenes stage front on small sets on three side-by-side revolves. This continues for two of the three parts of the first play and, though emotionally engaging, wasn’t as epic as I remembered, and for someone who needs visual as well as narrative stimulation, constituted a slowish start. From here, though, it opens out with small scenes in a giant space giving the epic feel I expected, with scenes in the second play changed by the Angel’s spider-like puppeteers crawling eerily. It fully sustained it’s 6.5 hour playing time, over a 10 hour period, to the point where the gaps felt like waiting time during which you became impatient to return. The inclusion of two intervals in each part was the right decision though.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast, packed full of favourite actors. I first saw a very promising Andrew Garfield eleven years ago in another theatre in the same building, but I had no idea he would grow into the extraordinary talent that plays Prior now. I’ve admired James McArdle’s stage work for years, most notably as King James, also next door, but his Louis is a new career high. Russell Tovey first wowed me at the opening night of The History Boys on the same stage and here he is owning it in a more difficult role as introspective Joe, whose eventual emotional explosions take your breath away. I’ve only seen (and loved) Nathan Lane in The Producers, so watching him create the monster that is Roy Cohn was a revelation. I’ve seen little of Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s work, but now can’t wait to see more; he brings Belize alive by wordless facial expressions, then adds a delicious bite with his dialogue. Denise Gough continues to impress in another tough role in the shadow of so many larger-than-life characters, her restraint amplifying the emotional outbursts. In addition to Hannah, who Susan Brown navigates from conservative Mormon to loving friend, she plays three men – a Rabbi, a doctor, and an old Bolshevik – plus the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, one of Roy Cohn’s victims, in a series of terrific performances. The ever wonderful Amanda Lawrence gives us our Angel, but also many others in another set of fine turns. What an ensemble.

When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, this will be another of those days that justify my obsession with the stage. No other art form could provide such a dramatic feast that leaves you exhausted and emotionally drained, but energised, thrilled and deeply satisfied at the same time. I woke up the following morning feeling completely blessed.

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One of the things I learnt when I was introduced to the work of Edward Bond by last year’s Cock Tavern Theatre season was that you don’t need the word ‘enjoy’ to describe his plays. You need ‘uncomfortable’, ‘challenging’, ‘bleak’, ‘intense’……but not ‘enjoy’. I don’t go to the theatre purely for enjoyment, which last night was just as well !

The relationship between Pam and Len, a one night stand who becomes a lodger, is at the heart of this play. He’s kind, tolerant and obsessed with her but she’s not interested. She has a baby by Fred, but he’s not interested in her (or the baby) either. Her parents ignore each other; in fact her father ignores everyone.

At the core of the play is the infamous scene of infanticide; a bunch of lads, including Fred, kill Pam’s neglected baby for no reason. Fred takes the rap and the play continues during and after his incarceration. He continues to treat Pam with disdain and Len continues to be besotted with her. There are other less cruel but equally tense moments in the play – a child allowed to cry and cry and a number of industrial scale arguments. The final scene is virtually wordless, yet it’s the scene which explains most. It was written to show us the post-war ‘broken Britain’ and is now being staged in the post-credit crunch ‘broken Britain’.

Though it’s occasionally funny, it’s mostly an uncomfortable ride, but to my surprise it kept my attention for over three hours; I was rarely distracted and never bored. This is largely because of the brilliant naturalistic dialogue, impeccable staging by Sean Holmes and superb performances. Lia Saville and Morgan Watkins are outstanding as Pam and Len, the crucial relationship at the centre of the play. Susan Brown and Michael Feast are also excellent as Pam’s dysfunctional mother and father. Callum Callaghan pulls off the difficult task of conveying Fred’s complexity.

Bond’s programme / play text essay makes it clear where he’s coming from. A lot of what he says makes sense, though in my view it’s a bit simplistic and one-sided. It’s too easy to blame the morally unacceptable on ‘society’; it’s people who commit such hideous acts and they can’t be let off the hook that easily. However, the play makes its point and hopefully will make people think, discuss and argue and theatre’s there for that as well as enjoyment. It was uncomfortable, challenging and bleak – but I’m glad I went.

A gold star to the Lyric Hammersmith for a timely staging.

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