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Posts Tagged ‘Zoe Wanamaker’

The two ladies in question are the First Lady’s of France and the USA, thinly disguised from the present ones by changing their nationalities and a few other things. Nancy Harris’ new play is an interesting examination of the roles of First Ladies, supplemented by some insightful quotes from, and commentary on, nineteen real First Ladies from seven countries spanning seventy years in the accompanying programme.

Their husbands / the Presidents are at an emergency summit on the Cote d’Azur following recent terrorist outrages, trying to agree on an appropriate response. The two ladies have been taken to a side room following an incident when a protester threw something at one of them. Whilst the clean-up takes place, and their assistants discuss and reschedule their day, they share their respective husband’s positions, one seemingly in agreement with hers, the other more radical than her husband.

They also share information about their respective lives and feelings, sometimes willingly, sometimes coerced. It takes some interesting turns, some a touch implausible perhaps, but it does make you think about their roles and potential to influence their husbands and thereby world events. As Ladybird Johnson put it, they are ‘an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband’. It holds you in its grip for 100 minutes.

It’s somewhat limited dramatically by its confinement to one room, with views outside to the corniche from one side and to the corridor from the other. Zoe Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitesic play their respective roles well and are very good together, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord. They are occasionally joined by their assistants, Yoli Fuller as diplomatic Georges and Lorna Brown as assertive Sandy, both well played, plus Fatima the maid, Raghad Chaar, whose role goes way beyond serving drinks.

Hopefully neither president will sue!

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I keep breaking my ‘no more Pinter revivals’ rule, lured by the cast and / or creatives, in this case both, though maybe it’s a subconscious desire to one day understand his plays. This team certainly don’t disappoint, but I’m no further forward on the understanding front.

It’s the play’s 60th anniversary. If you’d told those that attended the eight performances of its premiere production that it would be selling out in the West end today, they’d probably laugh. The audience was in single numbers when it was pulled prematurely. Pinter’s comedy with menace / theatre of the absurd must have baffled then as it still does, with its cocktail of ambiguity, confusion, contradictions and political symbolism. I’m still not convinced even Pinter knew what it was about, or whether it being about anything is the point. Despite the bafflement, it’s still compelling.

Ian Rickson’s staging and the Quay Brothers design are as good as any. Zoe Wanamaker and Peter Wight are perfect as the couple running the seaside boarding house, her rather batty and him a beacon of ordinariness. The part of Stanley, the prime victim, really suits Toby Jones. Goldberg is unlike any other role I’ve seen Stephen Mangham play, so he was a bit of a revelation, doing menacing very well indeed, as does his sidekick Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as McCann. Lulu is a small part but Pearl Mackie acquits herself well.

My plea to producers would be to use creatives and actors I don’t like so that I don’t feel compelled to break my own rules, though rule-breaking can sometimes be rewarding…..

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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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Apart from his big hit Constellations, I’ve been less enamoured than most with playwright Nick Payne’s work, and I’ve seen a handful of his plays now. They often seem like snacks rather than a full meal, leaving me feeling hungry on the journey home, as this did. It’s a slight, somewhat insubstantial seventy minutes.

He seems to have a bit of an obsession with the brain. This, like Incognito two years ago, takes it as its theme. This time it’s about Lorna and her brain surgery. Starting and ending after the operation, it explores the impact of her surgery on memory. She’s lost all of the memories of her life with wife Carrie, who is of course devastated by this. The surgeon Miriam warns of the consequences in advance, trying, but not entirely succeeding, to explain the science. That’s about it really.

There’s nothing wrong with Josie Rourke’s staging. Tom Scutt’s setting is elegant and atmospheric. The three fine actresses – Zoe Wanamaker, Barbara Flynn and Nina Sosyana – are all excellent. Sadly, that wasn’t enough for an evening of theatre. I had to eat again when I got home.

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Well, the panto season has started early, and what a stellar cast this one has. Terence Rattigan’s 1948 one-act comedy, usually paired with the more serious and earnest The Browning Version, is a clever curtain raiser for Kenneth Branagh’s Garrick Theatre season and has a curtain raiser of its own with the very odd monologue All On Her Own. Though I enjoyed the evening, it doesn’t really add up to enough to launch this venture, particularly at West End prices, though it does, somewhat appropriately, have a real theatre company feel.

Rattigan’s play features a company rehearsing Romeo & Juliet for a tour for the newly formed CEMA (which evolved into the Arts Council). Archetypal actor-manager Gosport is playing Romeo way over his age against his wife Edna’s Juliet. The rest of his cast are a combination of old pros and newbies keen to make their mark. Whilst in the first venue, Gosport is visited by someone who’s a product of his last visit some twenty years before and this forms the basis of the farce amongst theatre folk.

Rattigan had a small part in a university production of Romeo & Juliet directed by John Gielgud and his character is featured here having the same problems with his one line that Rattigan had. Branagh’s new venture is an actor-manger led company like the play’s so it’s a good show to launch such a venture. Rattigan’s views on arts funding, and in particular taking culture ‘to the people’, still resonate today. Despite these pleasing convergences, it still isn’t quite enough to carry the evening, though it does whet your appetite for the season.

The quirky 20-minute monologue which precedes it was written as a BBC TV commission. It features a widow returning from a party where she has met a woman who talks to her dead husband at the same time he died every evening. She proceeds to do the same as she drinks heavily, imitating or perhaps channeling him. Zoe Wanamaker performs it well, but it’s a slight and odd piece nonetheless.

Branagh has put together a fine company. In Harlequinade, Wanamaker shines as a theatrical Dame. Branagh himself reminds us what a good comic actor he can be. Miranda Raison is great pairing as Edna and Tom Bateman is excellent as company manger Jack Wakefield. There are so many good supporting performances, but it’s worth singling out John Shrapnel’s fine turn as George Chudleigh.

 

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It’s 35 years since I first saw this rarely revived Hugh Whitemore play about the poet Stevie Smith and I recall being rather captivated by it, perhaps as much by the performance of Bristol Old Vic regular June Barrie as much as anything else. Unlike most recent revivals, I’m afraid this hasn’t stood the test of time, though again I was captivated by Zoe Wanamaker in the title role.

Today, it seems odd to write a major play about a minor poet; perhaps that’s the crux of it – the play has faded as the poets legacy has? What seemed a beautifully written biographical piece now seems a bit ordinary. It’s largely a monologue, Stevie telling us her life story interspersed with her poems and interrupted occasionally by her beloved aunt and some of the men in her life. The later life in the second half is more interesting than the early life in the first, perhaps because the actual life was too. However, I was left thinking why would you write a play about her?

What is not in question is Zoe Wanamaker’s performance as Stevie, transformed by frumpy frocks and schoolgirl hair. She often seems to be talking to you personally as she scans the audience, making eye contact and drawing you in to her story. There’s excellent support from Lynda Baron as the aunt who shares her life and Chris Larkin as all of the men who are ‘extras’ in her life story, and at times as narrator. Simon Higlett’s huge period Palmers Green living room is finely detailed, becoming expressionistic as the top left seems to morph into the trees outside, but it seemed like a lot of trouble and expense to go to for a pay that is so static, hardly using such a superb creation.

I’d like to see more Whitmore revivals (Breaking the Code anyone? More timely!) but on this form I wonder if his style has indeed had its day. The school-kids in the front row of an extended arc configuration seemed to be totally unengaged (which must have been as distracting for Zoe Wanamaker as it was for me). Worth seeing for the fine performance, though and for once a play that is as conservative as the Hampstead Theatre audience!

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With Privates on Parade a recent big success as the opening production of the Michael Grandage Company, an acclaimed A Day in the Death of Joe Egg en route from Liverpool to Kingston and this one on its way into the West End, it looks like we’re in for a long-awaited Peter Nichols revival. I’m sure he’d rather see some of his later plays produced (so would I), but I suppose we have to be thankful for small mercies. Nichols was one of the best and certainly most original British playwrights of the 20th century and he has, up to now, been sadly neglected in this century.

Passion Play is about adultery. The children of music teacher Eleanor & art restorer James have now left home. Friend Albert traded in his wife Agnes for younger model Kate before he died. Kate, with a penchant for older men, now has her sights on James. Nichols big idea is to place Nell & Jim on stage too – Eleanor & James’ alter ego’s who comment, invisible to other characters, giving us the thoughts to accompany the behaviours. Agnes turns up occasionally to present Eleanor with some home truths that drive the story forward.

For a 32-year old play, this still seems innovative and ever so contemporary. David Levaux’s production sparkles. He’s lucky enough to have a premiere league cast with Zoe Wanamaker and Samantha Bond both superb as Eleanor & Nell. Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton are less alike as James & Jim, but succeed in presenting the outer and inner man. Annabel Scholey is an ice cool sexy vamp as Kate and Sian Thomas is luxury casting as Agnes. This was only the second performance of it’s pre-West End run in Richmond, but it’s in remarkably good shape already.

The play has less heart than other Nichols’ plays and one of my companions found it too cynical. Personally, I think it’s revival is perfectly timed and will hopefully propel the renewed interest in this underrated playwright. Now what we really need is to see Poppy again – a musical about the relationship between China and the west during the opium wars times in the favourite theatrical form of those times – the pantomime. A masterpiece!

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