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Posts Tagged ‘Vicki Mortimer’

This is the second show in three days which I experienced through headphones – you should definitely try the other one! https://danteordie.com/user-not-found – but they couldn’t be further apart. This one is a cold war thriller created by playwright Ella Hickson and sound magicians Ben & Max Ringham, and the form is they key to its success.

We look through glass into Hans & Anna’s East German apartment. They are hosting a party to celebrate Hans’ promotion, which his co-workers are all attending. Through our headphones we hear Anna (a fine performance from Phoebe Fox) and anything in close proximity – someone else speaking, water running, a cigarette lighting. Everything else is seen but not necessarily heard. The story that unfolds in just 65 minutes has many twists and turns and no-one is who they seem.

The effect of the glass and headphones is to add a layer of intrigue and increase the intensity of concentration; I wasn’t distracted at all throughout it, and I’m very easily distracted! It’s impossible to say more without spoiling it. Vicki Mortimer’s design, with an extraordinary attention to detail, is evocative of the place and the period, with Jon Clark’s lighting playing an important part and Ben & Max Ringham’s sound design absolutely crucial to the piece.

It’s a short evening, but its an original and very clever one, well staged by Natalie Abrahami.

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Though I wasn’t a fan of Emma Rice as Globe Theatre Artistic Director, I am a big fan of Emma Rice, theatre-maker, and this is something like my eighteenth show. It’s her first production since leaving Shakespeare’s Globe and the first for her new company, named after Angela Carter’s 1991 novel, on which this show is based, somewhat ironically inspired by Carter’s admiration for Shakespeare.

The story concerns a theatrical dynasty. Our narrators, twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, look back to the generation which preceded them, and forward to the ones that followed. It starts on their 75th birthday, which is also their father Melchior’s 100th birthday. Flashing back, we meet him and his twin brother Peregrine, his various wives, daughters and son, the sisters half-brother and Grandma Chance. It’s a complex, and very adult, story involving ambiguous parenthood, incest, child abuse, suspected murder and more, interwoven with the everyday story of theatre folk, for which there is a troupe of singing actors.

You’d know it was an Emma Rice show within seconds. All of her customary ingredients are here – puppetry, music, dance, inventive staging, men playing women & vice versa and above all child-like playfulness – which was part of my problem with the show. It seemed to be recycling things she’s done before and therefore felt a bit stale. I also didn’t engage with the story and characters, which was the other problem. I’m afraid I felt I was at an Emma Rice show for people who’ve never seen an Emma Rice show and it wasn’t a patch on recent gems like Romantics Anonymous, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and the revival of Brief Encounter. I suppose this is a problem when you have such a distinctive house style. In all fairness, most of the audience seemed to love it.

There’s no disputing the talent on show, including many Kneehigh regulars. Vicki Mortimer’s excellent design feels at home on the Old Vic stage, and though it’s probably the biggest theatre I’ve ever seen one of her shows in, I didn’t feel that was a problem. Etta Murfitt (who also plays Nora – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her act before) has choreographed it very well. I wasn’t so sure about the cocktail of original music with standards and contemporary songs; they did signpost the periods, but seemed a bit of an inconsistent rag bag.

A bit of a misfire for me, but don’t let me put you off, particularly if you’re new to Rice and Kneehigh.

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When I paired this with Me & My Girl for a day trip to Chichester, with this following the musical, I hadn’t really thought about the effect of the contrast. We were still on a high when this much more restrained piece started, and though it did affect our response, Charlotte Jones’ play still proved to be very original and thought-provoking.

It’s set in a Sussex Quaker community at the beginning of the 19th century. Britain is at war, threatened by invasion on this coast, gung-ho patriotism rife. This pacifist community are best keeping themselves to themselves, but one of their number, Rachel, wanders towards and into the town, and on one trip comes across young military man Nathaniel, who shares a name with the three children she has lost and who are buried nearby. Her husband Adam desperately needs an apprentice, so she takes him home, disposing of his uniform as she does.

Nathanial poses as a Quaker to integrate into the community, but his arrival makes waves and challenges many of their values – peace, honesty, equality and non-aggression. Rachel’s deaf but highly intuitive mother Alice is the only one who seems to grasp the profound effect his arrival has had. When all is revealed, the community has to work hard to regroup and recover.

Vicki Mortimer’s highly original, subdued design seems reflective of both the setting and the community – grey stones, light wood furniture and grey cream and brown costumes. A series of short scenes, perhaps too many and too short, propels us quickly through the story in director Natalie Abrahami’s sensitive staging. Lydia Leonard is superb as Rachel, with Gerald Kyd as Adam and Laurie Davidson as Nathaniel excellent as the two men in her life. Jean St Clair communicates brilliantly without speech. I very much liked Olivia Darnley’s characterisation of neighbour Biddy, a character low in emotional intelligence.

The juxtaposition with a feel-good musical probably meant we didn’t do it justice, but I’m glad I saw such a quality play and quality production nevertheless.

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There are actually four Hans Christian Andersen tales adapted here. The rather sad Little Matchgirl bookends three lighter tales – Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea – two of which take up much more of the evening, a contrasting if odd combination.

Our narrator is Ole Shuteye and the five performers are collectively called Shuteyes (and the band The Swan Vestas!). The adaptations, by Emma Rice (who also directs) and Joel Horwood, have contemporary references, in particular in The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the weavers have become modern fashionistas and we get living designers name-checked and some Spice Girls music. Not all of this contemporary stuff works; it sometimes gets in the way of the magic of the fairy-tales and turns the show into posh panto for Waitrose customers, with Trump, Brexit and even cheating cricketers thrown in for good measure. It does work for the title tale though, where the contemporary spin involves war and homelessness.

Vicki Mortimer’s costumes are excellent and the original music by Stephen Warbeck, played by an onstage trio and one of the performers, is delightful. Niall Ashdown makes a cheeky and charming narrator as well as the gullible Emperor. Katy Owen and Guy Hughes were huge fun as the fashionistas and the latter made an excellent prince. Edie Edmundson’s puppet matchgirl melts your heart. It really does fit the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse like a glove.

There’s much to enjoy, but I do wish they’d reigned in the pantoesque stuff and concentrated on the magic of the fairy-tales, something Emma Rice does so well.

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It’s thirty years since I saw a large-scale production of this show – it’s first, and only, West End outing – though there were three others in quick succession between 2002 and 2010 – a semi-staged version at the Royal Festival Hall, a delightful fringe production at the Landor and another in Walthamstow during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations. Along with A Little Night Music, it’s never been my favourite Sondheim show, though it contains some of his best songs, but just five days after a stunning revival of that other show in Newbury, here we are at the National being blown away by Dominic Cooke’s sensational production, taking us back to the original Broadway version without interval. Now, where did I put my superlatives thesaurus……

It’s a reunion at the New York theatre where the Weismann Follies were between the wars. It’s about to be demolished and the girls of the 30’s and 40’s have been invited back one last time. Nostalgia gives way to regret for lost love and lost opportunities, as the main characters Buddy & Sally and Ben & Phyllis reminisce. There have been follies in their lives as well as Follies in their careers, and we learn how their relationships were formed and how they progressed. All four have the ‘ghosts’ of their former selves onstage, as do ten of the other stars from the past. Interwoven with their story, and ‘character songs’ as Sondheim calls them, we have routines and turns reenacted and a pastiche called Loveland within which all four leads sing of their individual follies.

Imelda Staunton follows her Mrs Lovett, Rose and Martha with another stupendous performance as Sally. It’s wonderful to see Philip Quast again, on fine form too as Ben, and Janine Dee is a terrific acid-tonged Phyllis, a particularly fine dancer as it turns out. Peter Forbes is less of a musicals regular, but he makes a great Buddy. Another piece of surprising but inspired casting is Di Botcher as Hattie, delivering Broadway Baby as if she was. Tracie Bennett takes I’m Still Here hostage with a particularly ballsy rendition, and the duet between opera singers Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as older and younger Heidi is another stand-out moment in a show full of them. Dawn Hope’s Stella gamely leads the veterans in a thrilling tap dancing number with their former selves. The National is saved from prosecution by the musicals police by casting a Strallen, Zizzi, as Young Phyllis. This teally is a stunner of a cast.

Dominic Cooke isn’t known for musicals, but teamed with choreographer Bill Deamer, he’s done a great job, an elegant staging which is brash when it needs to be, at other times restrained and often very moving. Vicki Mortimer has created an atmospheric set and fantastic costumes. The unbroken 130 minutes was packed full of showstoppers and by the time we got to Loveland, I was overwhelmed and deeply moved. I think my previous, less enthusiastic reaction is down to timing. I was too young and too new to Sondheim and wasn’t really ready for this show – until now.

To the 37 performers and 21 musicians on stage, and the 200 production staff, and of course Messrs Sondheim & Goldman, it was worth every second of your time and effort. Unforgettable.

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I’m not sure how Brecht & Weill even knew about John Gay’s 18th century original, The Beggar’s Opera, but it’s easy to see the attraction of 21st century theatre folk to this piece, which resonated more on Monday night than it ever has with me before – and not just because of Macheath’s comments about returning after the interval, choosing to remain and being united, and the extensive use of the flag of St. George as England was being humiliated elsewhere! This is a radical adaptation by Simon Stephens, edgier and ruder, which I rather liked.

It’s relocated in the East End of London, amongst the underclass and criminal lowlife. Peachum runs a professional begging gang made up of the homeless, veterans, lunatics, alcoholics and druggies. The corrupt police chief Brown was in the army in Afghanistan with Macheath, the rogue the ladies can’t resist, including the police chief’s own daughter Lucy, Peachum’s wife and daughter Polly and prostitute Jenny. A coronation parade is going to visit their ‘manor’ and Macheath has something on the king, whilst Peachum has something on the police chief and Mrs Peachum controls Jenny through drugs. The closing scene of Act I, where relationships and connections are revealed, is superbly staged, including a keystone cops parody, and the final scene of Act II brings out the Valkyrie helmets and the vocals turn more operatic to brilliantly underline the satire of John Gay’s and Brecht & Weill’s originals. It retains the sensibilities of 30’s Berlin through the music, which somehow fits perfectly with the new setting; it has an anarchic, manic quality and it’s superbly played and sung in this production under MD David Shrubsole.

Rory Kinnear has real menace and swagger as Macheath and a surprisingly good voice for someone without much experience in musical theatre. Nick Holder is more seeped in musical theatre and this is one of his best performances, combining just as much menace with a penchant for cross-dressing, in heels and red-streaked wig. Rosalie Craig excels too as a nerdy Polly with a ruthless streak. I loved Peter de Jersey’s very physical dictator-like police chief and Haydn Gwynne’s oily Mrs Peachum. It’s great to see the wonderful Debbie Kurup at the NT in a terrific turn as Lucy. It’s an excellent supporting cast with a stand-out performance from George Ikediashi as the Balladeer. I wasn’t sure about Vicki Mortimer’s rather ramshackle home made look design, though it did provide some great moments, and the costumes were excellent. Rufus Norris staging was outstanding.

Another evening at the NT which exceeded expectations; long may that continue.

 

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What an odd play. This 1928 Irish anti-war piece must have been very radical then. They declined to produce it in Ireland, so it was first seen London, though it was seen in Sean O’Casey’s home country seven years later. It seems to have divided people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

In the first of four acts, we’re in a Dublin home during the first world war, just before Harry is about to go to the front. Sylvester & Simon, whose relationship with each other and others was unclear to me, are engaging in japes and banter. The woman upstairs seems to be on the receiving end of some domestic abuse from husband Teddy, also about to head for the front. Susie is trying to convert everyone and Harry’s mum is anticipating and dreading his departure. Harry returns triumphant from the football match, holding the cup which gives the play it’s title, and the celebration begins.

We then have the most extraordinary transition to the war front as the set changes before your eyes, amidst explosions and gunfire that made me jump more than a few times, until we’re in a bombed out village in the field of battle. This second act is a completely different expressionistic picture of the horrors of war, told partly in song. The staging is brilliant, but it didn’t move me (well, apart from the jumps).

We start the second half in a hospital back home. Harry has returned injured and Teddy has returned blind. Somewhat inexplicably, Sylvester & Simon are also patients and now become a fully fledged comedy double-act. Nurse Susie is being pursued by the doctor, who flirts mercilessly and openly with her. We learn that Harry’s girlfriend is now being courted by his rescuer Barney, who has received the VC for doing so. In the final act, we’re back at another post-football celebration watching Harry as a broken man.

I think O’Casey was trying to contrast the lives of those who went to war and those who stayed behind, but this doesn’t seem to me a particularly effective way of conveying the tragedy of war. It fails to engage at all on an emotional level, which is its biggest failure. It’s just a puzzling curiosity which begs a lot of questions.

What you can’t fault though is Howard Davies stunning staging, Vicki Mortimer’s superb design and a fine cast who give it their all. Even though I didn’t ‘get it’, Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy make a great comic partnership. Judith Roddy is superb as the feisty religious zealot, Aidan Kelly terrifies as violent Teddy and Aoife McMahon is excellent as his put upon wife.

I saw the Almeida revival of this 19 years ago, and Mark Anthony Turnage’s opera four years later, but I don’t remember thinking either were as odd as this. It seems to me now that it’s a great production of a play that’s full of incongruity.

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