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Posts Tagged ‘Thea Sharrock’

I’ve never seen the film, I’m not that fond of the music of Whitney Houston and I don’t know much about leading lady Beverley Knight. ‘So why did you go, and 14 months into the run too?’ I hear you ask. Well, it’s the ‘January sales’ (36% off best seats & no fees), it’s January (nothing much happens) and the Sharrock-Hatley creative team are favourites of mine. Enough of the excuses; it’s rather good.

Celebrity diva Rachel Marron is being stalked, so ‘her people’ hire a bodyguard but don’t tell her why. When he starts restricting her movements, she rebels, but she soon learns why she’s got a bodyguard and not only accepts this, but falls for him too. Rachel’s sister Nicki fancies him as well, but he’s just another one of the things Rachel gets that she doesn’t. Their brief dalliance is ended by the bodyguard as he realises he can’t be both boyfriend and bodyguard successfully. The stalking continues to its tragic conclusion.

It’s hardly ground-breaking stuff, but it gets a production way beyond the one it deserves. Thea Sharrock is an unlikely choice of director, but she does a terrific job, handling both the romance and the tension equally well. Tim Hatley’s design is superb, moving from LA mansion to back-of-beyond log cabin via clubs, theatres & concert venues ever so slickly. Mark Henderson’s lighting is simply brilliant.

You can tell Beverley Knight is a singer rather than an actor, but given the demands of these songs, that’s just as well; I thought she was excellent. Tristan Gemmill plays the non-singing role of the bodyguard as ice cool professional with great presence. I loved Carole Stennett as sister Nicki, and the boy who plays Rachel’s 10-year old son (one of four, so I know not who) does so with great confidence.

For a show that has been going this long, it’s remarkably fresh (though this cast is fairly new) and it’s way better than other film-to-stage shows like Dirty Dancing. A rather pleasant January surprise.

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This is a bit like going to two linked plays, such is the difference between the two halves.

The First Half

Tom Scutt’s extraordinary giant moving cube dominates the Olivier stage after a smaller cube has disappeared into the flys. A series of interlocking scenes are played out in and around this as it changes shape. There are protests and riots; an ‘osbornesque’ defence solicitor; an advisor to the American president, his wife and daughter and an atheist academic. We have a woman again as (Conservative) PM, her dead son’s friend has returned from his travels as some sort of Messiah (Welsh, obviously) and everyone appears to be having the same dream. Oh, and we’re about to declare war on Iran.

There’s no doubting the inventiveness and stagecraft of this first half – but it comes at the expense of clarity, coherence and obvious purpose. You’re left thinking ‘ well, that was clever, but what are you really getting at here?’.

The Second Half

That question is answered soon in the second half, which is a debate between the PM, the academic and the new messiah, who now seemingly controls a crowd of 500,000 in Trafalgar Square. New politics (the public rising up with the help of social media and the charismatic messiah John, who has now become an almost supernatural being) meets old politics in the form of a liberal Tory about to do what she thinks is right, encouraged by the islamophobic academic who is dying of cancer. We end with the cast stage front each with a monologue; the last of whom is a soldier in recently invaded Iran.

Simply staged, the second half allows the narrative to breath and the debate is rather compelling….but it does feel like another play involving some of the same characters, pulling in some of the narrative threads of the first. I’m not sure whether this is intentional or not, but for me it led to an ultimately unsatisfying experience and left me thinking it was more work in progress than finsihed article. There’s a great play there waiting to be let loose, hampered by a sometimes thrillingly theatrical but relentless & confusing first half and a more intimate second half that’s a bit lost in this giant space.

The three central performances – Geraldine James as a very believable PM, Danny Webb as the angry academic and Trystan Gravelle as a charismatic John are all excellent, and there’s fine support from a cast of 19, including Nick Sidi & Genevieve O’Reilly as the American diplomat and his wife and Adam James as the solicitor.

Playwright Mike Bartlett seems to be struggling as his work scales up from minimalist gems like Cock to epics like this. If director Thea Sharrock had created a cohesive whole from this material it could have been very special indeed, but it frustratingly falls short. Worth the ride, though.

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With The White Guard, The Habit of Art and this all running in rep. in the Lyttleton at the same time, you’d be forgiven for moving in. I will be showering this ‘lost’ Terence Rattigan play with even more superlatives than I did the other two; it will go down in the NT’s history as one of its great achievements.

Soon after it begins, you think you’re at a Noel Coward play; it doesn’t seem like Rattigan at all. It isn’t until the second act when the depth and complexity comes through. What at first seems to be a satire on the decadent lives of the pre-war upper middle classes soon becomes a fascinating study of relationships and love. Quite why it is rarely produced is beyond me; I love Rattigan’s plays and this is without doubt the best of the seven I’ve seen.

Thea Sharrock’s production is masterly; so subtle and nuanced, every word, expression and movement has meaning. Hildegard Bechtler’s Drawing Room set is so realistic it’s like time travelling back 70 years. It has one of the best acting company’s put together at the National; many of them new to the NT. Adrian Scarborough moves from court jester to knowing friend and confidante (just about the only emotionally intelligent character in the play) seamlessly. Nancy Carroll is so good as the superficial socialite when she break’s down its devastating. Benedict Cumberbatch’s repression is so real you jump when he explodes. In the supporting company, Pandora Colin is a superbly comic party animal and Jenny Galloway a wonderfully pessimistic secretary.

This is such a satisfying theatrical experience – great play, terrific performances, faultless direction & design – you’d be completely bonkers to miss it.

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