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Posts Tagged ‘Toby Stephens’

French playwright Florian Zeller has had the most meteoric rise. This is his seventh play to be produced in London in eight years, and that includes almost two years where virtually nothing new was produced. They’ve had many awards and transfers and the first we saw, The Father, became on Oscar winning film. I loved this, plus The Mother, The Son (soon to be a film too) and The Truth. I was less enamoured with The Lie, which along with The Mother didn’t get a West End transfer, and Height of the Storm, which went straight to the West End, but you can’t expect the standard of his best work to be sustained forever.

I occasionally felt he was in danger of being too clever and glib, in a Stoppardian way, notably in The Lie. I now feel he’s following more of a Pinter / Churchill trajectory, writing for himself more than his audience, perhaps becoming obtuse to cover up his lack of fresh ideas. Anyway, I really took against this latest one. A lot of talent wasted on an eighty minute jigsaw puzzle you have little chance of completing, with an old fashioned feel to it, very much to the detriment of the female characters. Gina McKee had such a meaty leading role in The Mother, here she’s wasted on a totally underwritten role as The Wife.

Toby Stevens is Man 1, a successful surgeon. His wife is there to welcome him home and look after him. Their daughter has split up with her partner at a time when they were trying for a baby. Man 2, played by Paul McCann, is having an affair with a singer who wants to be more than just the mistress. We also meet a male friend and female friend, a couple, who don’t really serve much purpose. There’s a young man, who may be the daughter’s estranged partner, or maybe not. Then there’s a mysterious man with white make-up, the ‘Man in Black’, another character whose point or purpose were lost on me. The singer appears to die, scenes are repeated with changes, Man 1 and 2 may be the same character (they are both called Pierre). Even the title is a puzzle.

After seeing it, I heard a radio interview with Zeller where he repeated something he says in the programme about wanting the audience to piece it together. He went on to give us a spoiler, that it’s about a man wracked with guilt and mental health issues because of his fidelity. So much for unravelling it for yourself. For me, it was a huge disappointment from a playwright I had hitherto admired. I hope it doesn’t herald the beginning of Zeller’s decline, but my intuition tells me it probably is. He’s given us four gems, which is more than many playwrights, but one might have expected more from a prolific 42-year-old. C’est la vie.

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Peter Nichols, who sadly died last month, before this revival of his first major play opened, was for me one of the most underrated playwrights of the late 20th Century. His plays covered diverse subjects, his experiments with structure were highly original and he often added music to great effect. His relationships with producers were however problematic, though he did have three plays produced by the RSC and two by the NT, and this seems to have affected the fortunes of later plays and limited the number of revivals of earlier plays. This is only the second West End production of this play since its London premiere 52 years ago.

Nichols drew on his own experience of bringing up a disabled child. Bri and Sheila’s 15-year-old is severely handicapped, both physically and mentally. Bri uses humour to distract from and cope with his plight. Sheila is more matter-of-fact about it. On this particular day, shortly before Christmas, their ability to cope is pushed to, even beyond, the limit. When Bri returns from his day as a teacher, he is faced with caring for Josephine alone so that Sheila can have her break at the local AmDram, something Bri has encouraged. When Sheila returns she brings Freddie and Pam, fellow amateur thespians, who have yet to meet Joe. Bri’s mother also turns up, so we see three other reactions and perspectives on the situation.

In addition to performing in character, they all address the audience directly, and Bri and Sheila act out past visits to doctors. The play starts with the audience as Bri’s pupils, assembled at the end of the school day. It’s often uncomfortable, with black humour acting as a release for the audience, as it does for Bri as a character. It explores the complex web of emotions these parents have lived with for so long and discusses alternatives to their choice of a combination of Joe living at home with outside day care. These issues are covered objectively and non-judgementally, a vey rounded debate.

Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner are both outstanding as Bri and Sheila, with Storme Toolis, an actress of disability, bringing a deeply moving authenticity to the situation. There is fine support from Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton as Freddie and Pam and a delightful cameo from Patricia Hodge as Bri’s mum. Peter Mcintosh’s house sits on the floor of Trafalgar Studio One, with flashback scenes and direct to audience dialogue in front, revolving to take us into the family living room. Director Simon Evans’ direction is sympathetic to the material, bringing out the timeless quality in it.

We’ve seen Privates on Parade, Passion Play and Lingua Franca relatively recently, but there are other Nichols’ plays desperately waiting for revival, with my top four being Poppy, The National Health, Forget-me-not Lane and Chez Nous. Lets hope this revival of his first spurs others on.

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After twenty-six days without theatre, I would probably have been satisfied with a light snack. I started the famine after a musical feast, Follies, and I end it with this dramatic banquet. This is a terrific play, superbly performed.

American playwright J T Rogers gift for taking historical events and turning them into brilliant entertainment was first seen here in Blood & Gifts (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/blood-gifts). Our own more prolific James Graham (two shows now in the West End!) has a similar gift, though with subjects closer to home. Rogers has chosen to dramatise the secret talks between Israel and the PLO which ran in parallel with the much bigger formal ones which excluded the PLO, before eclipsing them by securing the deal signed the following year at the White House with that iconic handshake between Rabin and Arafat, which resulted in their shared Nobel prize.

Terje is a Norwegian sociologist running a think-tank. He and his wife Mona, a Norwegian foreign office employee, had the idea and instigated the process in 1992, initially without Norwegian government approval, and managed the talks without actual involvement in the substance of them. By focusing on building relationships and trust, in an informal setting in a country house (with good homemade food and lots to drink!), in seven short rounds of talks they made extraordinary progress, taking it so far that Rabin and Arafat were able to conclude it by phone in seven hours. The first half starts when the Norwegian FO are informed and flashes back to the seed of the idea in Cairo, then back to where we started. The second half moves chronologically from here to the White House signing. It’s packed with humour, adding to rather than detracting from the seriousness of the subject and it grips throughout.

On a plain wall, projections are used very effectively to change location and show real time events happening elsewhere. It’s a superb ensemble led by Toby Stevens as Terje and Lydia Leonard as his wife Mona, onstage for almost all of the three hours. Peter Polycarpou continues to demonstrate his extraordinary range as the senior PLO negotiator. His more hardened and defiant colleague Hassan eventually softens, an excellent transition from Nabil Elouahabi. The Israeli’s initially field a pair of academics, beautifully played as a bumbling double-act by Paul Herzberg and Thomas Arnold, the former channelling Stan Laurel!, before Philip Arditti’s hard-line, abrasive Uri Savir upgrades their delegation and then the even tougher Israeli-American lawyer Joel Singer takes an  even more aggressive stance, a pitch perfect performance from Yair Jonah Lotan. There’s a delightful cameo from Geraldine Alexander as the housekeeper whose food is the one thing they can all agree on.

It steers an objective course, enabling you to see the reasons for the impasse and the deep emotional foundations of the conflict. Even though the peace never lasted, it was a partial success and the play is ultimately hopeful. A real theatrical feast which lives up to all the hype.

 

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Based on his plays that preceded this one, which I first saw 28 years ago, I always thought Tom Stoppard was too glib for his own good – he always seemed to be showing off, clever clever and knowing in a way that frankly irritated me. This was the first of his plays where he seemed to be portraying real people, relationships and indeed love! I don’t know whether it is, but it did seem to be autobiographical, then and now.

Playwright Henry leaves his wife for the wife of her colleague / their friend and later finds this new relationship strained by his new wife’s relationship with a younger colleague. It’s cleverly structured with terrific sharp and witty dialogue and the character development is excellent. You really feel you know Henry very well two hours later.

Anna Mackmin’s staging is slick and fast paced, aided by Les Brotherston’s set which moves between four flats with the rise / fall of panels. It’s very well cast, with Toby Stephens a particularly good Henry (I preferred him to Roger Rees in the original production and Stephen Dillane in the Donmar’s revival some time back).

This is the Stoppard play to see even if you don’t like Stoppard, because it’s the least Stoppardian(!) and you’d be hard pressed to find a better revival.

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