Whenever I think of Miriam Margolyes, the first impression that comes to mind is of her triumphant performance as Lady Whiteadder in Blackadder II, the stentorian Puritan miseryguts who leads Lord Whiteadder a life of living hell and disapproves of any meal more extravagant than “God’s Good Turnip”; although if I remember rightly she ends up with her Puritan virtues largely around her ankles. We’ve never seen her live before, so I thought we should take the opportunity to see her one-woman show about Charles Dickens and the women in his life, both fictional and fact.
It’s a very entertaining way of spending an evening. Ms Margolyes strings together approximately 20 or so character vignettes, each infused with her own personal interpretation of the voice and bearing of the woman in question, but following an informative narrative of Dickens’ personal and career life. You come away at the end of the show feeling much more knowledgeable about the man – including some of his less respectable tendencies. It seems he always had an eye for 17 year old girls, especially in-laws. He treated his wife damn shoddily, and could fall in and out of love on a whim; but he also had a wicked sense of humour and his powers of observation were just as brilliant as you would imagine from his books.
I say it’s a “show”; it’s really more like a dramatically delivered lecture, but not in a pompous or stuffy way. It’s a well thought-out piece of classic Cambridge University author-centric literary criticism, which you could easily imagine being concocted over an afternoon sherry-cum-tutorial at Newnham (which just so happens to be Ms Margolyes’ Alma Mater). It’s rather polite and refined, erudite and improving; but still very funny and also very moving at times.
It’s definitely a pleasure to hear someone so in command of the English language, clarity and diction at the forefront – I’m talking about Ms Margolyes rather than Dickens. It’s also very enjoyable to watch her assume her characters – it takes her a good few seconds each time to get in the zone. Wearing an outfit best described as inspired by Indian Restaurant Flock, she’s a natural successor to Joyce Grenfell, with her ability to give precise and credible voice to both posh and common. For some of her older, more cantankerous characters she lolls her tongue around her mouth in a manner that brought to mind Margaret Rutherford. She started the second half with her portrayal of Mr Bumble and the Widow Corney from Oliver Twist and it was comic genius. I also really enjoyed her portrayals of Martin Chuzzlewit’s Mrs Gamp, Flora Finching from Little Dorrit, and Miss Flite from Bleak House. It’s not all comedy though. Some of it is highly tragic, but wrapped up with a lightness of touch so that the tragedy is just peeping up from underneath the surface. Dickens is the forerunner of Ayckbourn; discuss.
She’s accompanied on the piano by Benjamin Lee, whose sole purpose seems to be to add a little mood music here and there, but both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt he was rather superfluous. To be honest, he played so softly that you could barely hear him, and when he did chip in with the occasional piano version of “eye-tiddley-eye-tye” it seemed inappropriately flippant.
Miriam Margolyes is taking her Dickens’ Women on a long tour of the country followed by a North American tour, and you can find all the details here. Her two nights at the Oxford Playhouse were both sell-outs. Plenty of people decided to buy her book, which she was signing in the foyer afterwards. All in all, an aspirational crowd-pleaser for a well-read audience.
Still on our annual Chichester visit, we survived dinner and made our way back to the theatre with the amassing throngs of people wanting a good night out. Trevor Nunn directing a new version of Kiss Me Kate? Obviously a prospect just too delicious to resist, so it was with eager anticipation that we took our Saturday night seats at the packed Festival Theatre on what must have been the first beautiful summer’s evening we’ve had this year.
The set is satisfyingly designed by Robert Jones and features a nice proscenium arch stuck at a jaunty angle, cleverly suggestive of a traditional show portrayed in a wacky way. The backstage scenes look suitably unglamorous; and the scene changes that take place within the “Taming of the Shrew” show are realised by unfurling flimsy fabric backdrop sheets out of a travelling trunk, which is a clever and appropriate idea, and would indeed be very useful for the Venice, Verona, Cremona, Parma, Mantua, Padua tour; although in reality they do come across a little tawdry to look at.
Of all the old Hollywood versions of stage musicals Kiss Me Kate is one of my top favourites. In this Chichester production I found it very hard not to compare the performers with others we’ve seen in the roles before. Comparisons are odious, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t come up with a little odiousness in this review. The last time we saw Kiss Me Kate was at the Savoy Theatre in 1988 with Nichola McAuliffe playing Lilli/Katharine. It was a crowning glory of a performance and she has been a particular favourite of Mrs Chrisparkle ever since. Ms McAuliffe’s “I Hate Men” is as strong a reference point as Dame Edith Evans’ “A Handbag?” So any future Lilli/Katharine has a big task ahead of her in Mrs C’s eyes.
But we had high hopes for Hannah Waddingham, whom we last saw turn in a devastatingly brilliant performance in the Menier’s devastatingly brilliant A Little Night Music a few years ago. And I’m delighted to say Ms Waddingham is every bit as good in this show as you would expect her to be. She breathes charming life into that old plodder “Wunderbar”, is very tender with “So in Love”; and does all the comic business as a furious on-stage Lilli getting revenge on Fred in a genuinely funny way. For Mrs C and me, her “I Hate Men” was a little over-controlled. She really didn’t hate men as much as Nichola McAuliffe. But she makes a good shrew and is a great singer and I think definitely gave the best performance of the night.
Alex Bourne plays Fred/Petruchio, and he’s very good throughout. He portrayed the arrogance of both characters very well, and also his discomfort and wheedling around Lilli when he realises the flowers have gone to the wrong actress is very funny. However, being briefly odious, he’s no Howard Keel. He has some great numbers to deliver, and I was particularly looking forward to “Where is the life that late I led” with its mixture of humour and pathos; a song that must be a complete thrill for a confident performer to smash it (in the common parlance). He really played it for laughs – which he certainly got – but musically I felt it was a slight let down.
For me, the best two set pieces came as a surprise – the two TDH numbers. I was very impressed with the whole performance of Tom Dick or Harry, which got the absolute best out of Holly Dale Spencer as nightclub singer Lois, and supported by Adam Garcia as Bill/Lucentio, Kevin Brewis as Hortensio and Samuel Holmes as Gremio. It had great lightness of touch, entertaining choreography and was thoroughly spirit-lifting. The other officially fabulous number – even more so in fact – was the second act opener Too Darn Hot, fronted by Jason Pennycooke as Fred’s dresser Paul; a terrifically well danced routine, full of life and humour, cheekiness and joie de vivre. This is the second time we’ve seen Mr Pennycooke, and I can tell you he is one talented chap.
As Lois/Bianca, Holly Dale Spencer certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “wide-eyed”, with, for me, her portrayal occasionally teetering on the edge of credibility. There have been some criticisms of her performance of “Always True To You In My Fashion” – a wonderful song – and I have to say I too found it disappointing. Not because she performed it badly – not at all, in many ways it was a remarkably skilful performance; but one that completely misrepresented the essential meaning of the song and its insight into Lois’ character. IMHO, this funny song should make you think that she is indeed, primarily, always true to Bill; but she might be gently naughty with someone else if it will get her a Paris Hat. This sassy Lois cavorts with the raunchiest of moves to a sleazy arrangement so that you feel all she is lacking is the pole to dance around. I’m guessing this is Trevor Nunn and Stephen Mears’ interpretation of the role, and, personally, I thought it was wrong. And yes, with apologies for my odiousness, I did think fondly of Ann Miller.
David Burt and Clive Rowe were an excellent couple of gangsters, ominously muscling in on Katharine on stage to prevent her from making a bolt for the wings, and did a great job of being over the top whilst strangely keeping it real too. The audience loved their Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which was simply staged and brought out Cole Porter’s wordplay with great clarity. I always forget that in the stage show the great “From This Moment On” is not sung by Lois and her suitors, but by Lilli and her General beau. Whilst Ms Waddingham and Mark Heenehan as the General gave a very good performance, I think the number is much better “Hollywooded” up as it is in the film. But then, the stage presentation of Too Darn Hot is probably better than the film. You pay your money, you etc, etc. The minor roles are all played with huge energy and pizzazz by a very likeable company.
The audience adored it. Many people were up on their feet at the end, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen before with the rather polite and – let’s be honest – elderly Chichester crowd. It is a very entertaining production and certainly worth seeing, with some brilliant moments and outstanding routines, which do well to make up for the lapses. I think it will enjoy a lot of success at the Old Vic.
P.S. After a comfortable night in the central, cheap but a bit Spartan Travelodge, we embarked on our usual quest to find a decent gluten-free breakfast that Mrs C would be able to enjoy. Fortunately for us, the Wetherspoons was so incredibly busy that we would have run out of car park time before we’d get served. Instead we found a little place called Spires on Crane Street. Essentially an old fashioned bakery and tea rooms, with tables outside in the welcoming sunshine. We plonked ourselves down and I went to order. A traditional English breakfast for me; then I explained to the nice lady behind the counter that one of the meals had to be gluten-free. She surprised me by suggesting gluten-free toast and gluten-free homemade bubble and squeak, along with the usual baked beans, tomato, bacon and egg. My breakfast was super; and Mrs C was in her element with a decent cooked breakfast that knocked her socks off. Well done Spires!
Time for our annual pilgrimage to Chichester, and this year, for the first time, we visited the Minerva Theatre as part of our weekend. Whereas I always find negotiating the foyers of the Festival Theatre a privileged joy, I didn’t get the same feeling at the Minerva. Once upstairs and in the circle area outside the auditorium entrance, I found the atmosphere stuffy and hot; and the bar area, which is the back side – if you’ll pardon the expression – of the bar in the Brasserie, was unattended – twenty minutes before curtain up at the matinee – not a good sign. We went into the Brasserie to get attention of the bar staff on that side, to be met with a bunch of guys who looked quizzically at our attempt to get a little glass of wine, as if it were a great inconvenience in their “clearing-up-after-lunch” routine. Come on Chichester, you can welcome your punters better than that!
Mrs Chrisparkle and I haven’t seen a lot of Brecht, but this is one play I have always wanted to experience in a theatre. I read it years ago, during the time when I basically read every play I could get my hands on. Written rapidly in 1941 whilst Brecht was in exile in Finland, and unperformed until 1958, the play portrays the rise of an infamous Chicago gangster from the kind of guy people used to laugh at when he came into the room to the kind of guy who could manipulate entire populations to his own wicked ends. It works well on two levels – as the story of the gangster taking over the vegetable trade in Chicago and Cicero; but of course chiefly as an allegory of the rise of Nazism under Hitler from 1929 to 1938. The original UK production didn’t take place until 1967 when Ui was played by Leonard Rossiter. I bet he was brilliant in the role.
The Minerva is a little like a miniature Festival theatre – Roman amphitheatre-shaped, and you have to walk down onto the stage area and around and back up again to find your seat. It’s rather cramped, and not terribly comfortable – at the interval plenty of people were apologising to the person in front for kneeing them in the back during the first act – but the sight lines are perfect. As you enter the auditorium, the stage is set up as a speak-easy, with a group of musicians giving it some 1930s style jazz round the piano; and the tables are beset with hoodlums, all sucking on stage cigarettes which, I have to say, smell repulsive when you’re that close – they’re like cannabis just with a shorter odour life. The play begins in Brecht’s finest tradition, with his breaking down the scene by having an MC address us directly and introduce the gangsters on stage individually, so you know precisely what to expect from them throughout the play.
In many respects it is an extraordinary work, in that it takes the dreadful events of 1930s Germany and re-presents them in a different country under a alternative scenario of lawlessness, but there is no mistaking whatsoever Brecht’s allegorical intentions. His original version of the play has each scene preceded or interrupted by a some written words which tell you precisely the events in history that the scene is meant to represent. In Jonathan Church’s production, he has tried to make it not quite so Brechtian by demoting these information pieces to a double-page spread in the programme. Mrs C and I didn’t discover this until the interval, which is a shame as it would have given the first half scenes an added dimension for us. The play is also written in verse, another distancing Brechtian device, making it on the one hand slightly less realistic but also giving it oddly more gravitas.
It’s also a very nasty play. In this cityscape, if you’re not a gangster, a murderer, a swindler or a thief, then you’re a victim of at least one of the above. There’s no scope for concealing the mental and physical violence; and it brilliantly shows you how a population can get caught up in thrall to an evil man through fear, intimidation, greed and cowardice. Brecht certainly did the world a service when he wrote this play, and if it alerts just one person to the possibility of a new Ui rising to the top of some dunghill who somehow acts to prevent it, then who knows how many lives it could save. The final scene of the play is horrifyingly well done and grimly looks to a vile future. The play ends with a brief epilogue as Ui slowly starts to come out of character and take the voice of the actor playing him, warning us not to be complacent as the bitch that bred this bastard is still breeding.
And that actor in question is Henry Goodman, whom I believe we haven’t seen before, but I have heard a lot of Good Things about him. His performance is nothing short of remarkable. Ui completely consumes him from head to toe, inside and out. He starts off as a wretched little man, the butt of jokes, sunken inside himself like a warped parody of Uriah Heep, but without the apparent humility. As his fortunes improve he visibly swells in height and breadth; his clothes become smarter and better fitting; his confidence grows; his enunciation clarifies and he just becomes a bigger entity until finally he is the full-grown monster. All along, of course, his appearance develops slightly more Hitleresque nuances scene by scene; with the addition of an insignia on his armband, his arms and feet movements as taught by the actor, his sleeked hair, his military clothing, his violent voice, his manic jackboots. It’s horrifying and fascinating, and really drives home the message that this is how evil can come to power. It’s an incredible performance. He also makes the best out of the stylised humour of the play, which personally I found hard to appreciate. The characters are so vile that to laugh with them is to demean oneself. Nevertheless, the majority of the audience found the humour in the role borderline hysterical. Maybe that in itself is evidence of how a charismatic approach can sweep people along in its path.
The acting throughout is of an extremely high quality. The performances of Ui’s three main henchmen are all first class. David Sturzaker as Givola in particular conveyed the “Best Supporting Evil” role, with his vicious ruthlessness cushioned in his otherwise soft and polite floristry trade. You can see how he is the essential nice guy turned bad, and boy is he bad. Michael Feast also gives a superb performance as Ui’s lieutenant, Roma, and his eventual come-uppance almost makes you feel sorry for him – but not quite. Joe McGann’s creepy Giri with the hat fetish is a chilling assassin. His doubling up as the decent investigator O’Casey gives him another meaty scene. The doubling up of William Gaunt as both the corrupt Dogsborough – as whom he is very convincing – and the judge didn’t quite work so well for me as it looked simply as though Dogsborough had landed the prime job of being the judge; particularly as the judge is clearly also corrupt and legitimises the trumped up case against the wretched defendant Fish. I didn’t get the sense of there being two different characters. Amongst the other supporting roles, I was really impressed with the performance of Rolf Saxon as Clark, devious leader of the Cauliflower Trust, another extremely good realisation of a character that on the face of it is laudable and trustworthy but underneath is a dissembling villain.
It is an excellent production of an unpleasant play. I can’t actually say I enjoyed it, but it probably should be compulsory viewing for all young people reaching voting age. Freedom is fragile, democracy easily manipulated. Brecht’s allegory is as relevant today as it ever has been.
P.S. As befits the first sunny weekend in what feels like a decade, Chichester was looking lovely. The matinee of Arturo Ui chucked out at 5.25pm and with a 7.30 start for Kiss Me Kate looming, we didn’t have much time to idle over choosing a dinner location. With the new Marcos having too-expensive-a-menu for simple people from Northampton to contemplate, and with the George and Dragon pub being fully booked, we decided to chance the first place that looked remotely suitable. This turned out to be Clinchs restaurant (there’s no apostrophe in their name, whether that’s right or wrong) and it turned out to be a fairly bizarre experience. After a friendly welcome we sat at comfortable seats on a nice big table and quickly received the menus. We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and it was very good, nicely chilled; and a recognisable label from supermarket shelves. Ordering took a while; but not as long as the meal did. In the meantime we were amused by the amateur service; a waitress, arms piled high with freshly prepared meals, standing in the middle of the restaurant shouting back to the kitchen “GINA! Where am I taking this lot?” Plates were getting taken to the wrong tables; people were waiting to be served whilst the waitresses were chin-wagging with friends in the garden. We were starting to get a little anxious but at 6.40 it arrived. The food was superb. We scoffed it and asked for the bill, and fifteen minutes later, with no bill presented, just went to the cash desk to pay. The area behind the till was awash with half open bottles of lemonade, wine, juice etc, all bearing Sainsbury’s labels and looking as scruffy as your own kitchen at 2.30am after a long hard party. This new restaurant has the makings of something good, but needs professionalising up a bit!
In those halcyon days of third year at university, my mate Mike and I had rooms in a house belonging to a divorced lady and her two children. The boy must have been about ten years old and one of my overriding memories of that year was his continously playing his, apparently only, two records. Loudly. Repetitively. Ad Nauseam in excelsis. One was Bucks Fizz “Making Your Mind Up” and how this didn’t put me off Eurovision for life is beyond me. The other was Adam Ant’s “Kings of the Wild Frontier” and that did indeed put me off Mr Ant and his silly bunch of supporting insects for a long time. “Prince Charming” and “Stand and Deliver” came and went and I found them tediously entertaining in a purely background sort of way. Then along came “Goody Two Shoes” and I loved it; I rediscovered and relished “Antmusic”, I was amused by the re-released “Young Parisians” and finally bopped till I dropped to “Apollo 9”. So there were the six songs I hoped Mr Ant would perform on this leg of what seems to me to be a pretty intensive summer tour.
Before the gig though, came the angst of worrying about being the middle-aged theatregoers slap bang in the middle of hundreds of scruffy unwashed yoof ravers. We’ve not been to the Roadmender before and thought it was high time we experienced for ourselves the insides of this rather ominous looking building. Promoted as the largest music venue between London and Birmingham, we wondered what would it be like. Would we be gawped at as the Oldies on the young peoples’ patch? Patronised by the door staff? Ignored at the bar? Sometimes when one has to attend a new venue one’s capacity for worrying in advance can be surprisingly fertile. But we needn’t have worried. The Roadmender is a friendly, clean, well run venue, with good air-conditioning, a reasonably priced bar (pint of lager and glass of wine £6.80), a decent little cloakroom, and clean toilets (according to Mrs Chrisparkle). My only slight reservation about the place is that the email I sent them through their website, four days before the gig, asking a couple of questions about the venue, remains unanswered.
We arrived as Mr Ant’s warm-up act was nearing the end of his set – the disarmingly named Mr Johnny Normal. I was sorry we missed the earlier part as he sounded pretty good. Mrs C and I were both impressed at the look of the stage and the general sound quality from the performance. Mr Normal hoped people would buy his CDs later on – I expect he did rather well.
Then there was a half hour break before the arrival of, to give them their full name, Adam Ant and the Good, the Bad and the Lovely Posse. Not sure who was the Bad; the guitarists were certainly good and the female drummer and the sexy dancer in the nurse’s outfit were quite lovely. Then nice and prompt at 8.30pm precisely on strode Mr Ant, thirty years on from how I remember him; still wearing his trademark black and gold jacket, dandy highwayman hat and – a new development – preppy glasses, which lightly added to the suggestion of his growing old disgracefully, an ambition to which I thoroughly subscribe.
In case you were in any doubt, I can safely say he’s still in excellent voice and is still very much the showman. He doesn’t have a lot to say to the audience – I think it was about five songs in before we got a “Good evening” and another three or four before a “Thank you”. But this didn’t come over as being rude – just that he was intent on performing and wanted to concentrate all his efforts on that. We were amused that, after he’d done about ten songs (I was struck how short most of his songs are) the biggest cheer of the night so far came when he did a provocative silent stare to the audience, totally unconnected with anything musical. I also realised that he has done a lot – and I mean a lot of tracks that I have never heard; and I was beginning to get desperate to hear my favourite six songs that he would probably play at the end, wouldn’t he. Surely.
About a third of the way through he struck up Antmusic, and it was great – and very popular in the hall. About two thirds of the way through he sang Stand and Deliver, which also worked well. Near the end they did Goody Two Shoes which got by far the most rousing reception of the evening; and at the end, before the “false ending”, we got Prince Charming, which for me was a bit over-amplified and came across rather muddy and distorted. And there was sadly no Diana Dors. His encore was made up of songs I’ve never heard, and crowd-pleasing cover versions. No room for Young Parisians or Apollo 9 then. Tsk. Sigh.
He did however give excellent value for money – almost a full two hours of performance, no shirking, great quality, and supported by a fine backing group. If you’re an Antfan, this tour will be heaven for you.
An undiscovered Noël Coward play? Sounds intriguing and delightful. Will it have the sparkling wit of Private Lives? The horseplay of Hay Fever? The high comedy of Blithe Spirit? Those plays were written when Coward was still a gay young thing, and when he could see every aspect of human life through bright and risqué eyes whilst still reflecting the truth about society. But Volcano – unperformed in Coward’s lifetime – was written in 1956 when the gay young thing had become a gay older thing and, perhaps with a nod to the tough lives being portrayed in the contemporary plays of Osborne and Wesker, this is a much more serious play.
And, for me, that’s its problem from the start. I don’t think Coward does serious very well, unless it’s of the patriotic “In Which We Serve” or “This Happy Breed” kind. This is a play full of downbeat and dismal relationships. Adela was happily married but now widowed, and takes the view that happiness is past and can never return again. Guy is serially unfaithful to Melissa, whose coping strategy is to employ her natural snappy toxicity. Ellen and Keith are on the rocks and will probably only stay together for the child’s sake. The only characters who seem to make a plucky go of their relationship are Grizelda and Robin, but Coward has relegated them to the sidelines as far as the real meat of the story goes. Overall, it’s extremely pessimistic about love and relationships.
But these are real problems – and according to the programme, based on the experiences of real people that Coward knew at his Jamaican hideaway – Ian & Mrs Fleming no less. So this ought to form a gritty account of relationship problems that you can really get your teeth into. Centre stage, and acting as a metaphor for a seething cauldron of emotions, is the volcano up against which Adela’s house is perched. Unfortunately, despite the potential intensity and depth of the characters’ situations, the play just doesn’t take off and the volcano is reduced to something of a molehill. It felt to me as though the text were just a first draft of something that could have developed into a more satisfying final product. By the second draft the plot would have had more intrigue and by the third he would have scattered it with bons mots and enhanced linguistic dexterity; but as it stands, it’s a bit like Norfolk – largely rather flat. That’s not to say there aren’t some good scenes, there are; Ellen’s two second-act confrontations with Melissa and Keith are full of surprises and very well played; and Melissa’s conversations throughout are spiky and acerbic. But I also felt that many of the speeches were written more like erudite prose than believable conversation. If the author had been alive I am sure there would have been subtle rewrites during rehearsals that would have made the whole thing flow better; not an option forty-odd years after his death, I realise.
Director Roy Marsden and designer Simon Scullion have gone for a very naturalistic presentation of the house and volcano. This means the representation of the volcanic eruptions, with the sound and lighting effects and subsequent destruction of part of the set, have to be very naturalistic and believable too; and with the best will in the world, it’s a big ask. Some minor pyros and flickering lights that dislodge at an angle of 30 degrees doesn’t quite suggest terrifying semi-devastation to me. The next morning after the eruption, Adela goes around cleaning up the garden and washing all the black soot off the chairs and tables – she refers to the dirt and dust a few times in her speeches – but you can see that her cleaning cloth is as free from lava residue post-wash as it was before. That also contributed to the lack of credibility of that big central stage effect. To be honest I think the whole thing would have worked better in a smaller space – somewhere like the Menier or the Sheffield Crucible Studio – with much less in the way of intricate stage design and demanding greater reliance on the audience’s imagination. That intimacy might also have made the character interaction more telling.
Adela is played by Jenny Seagrove, who I haven’t seen before on stage. She gives a good impression of a strong-minded and intelligent woman reining in her emotions, but vocally I found her delivery rather samey throughout; the tone she used to address Ellen when they were remembering good times and her tone of disappointed anger with her in the second half were pretty much identical, for example. In fact the only time she actually sounded enthusiastic was at curtain call when she was encouraging us to donate change to her new animal welfare charity on our way out of the auditorium; a gentle form of chugging that felt strangely inappropriate given the time and place.
Jason Durr as the licentious Guy subtly underplayed the role I thought – he could have been more over-the-top with his protestations of love and general spoiltness, but instead made the character more credible and realistic. No doubt this was the role that Coward would have played himself. As Melissa, his justifiably bitchy wife, Dawn Steele probably has the best lines in the play and she too could have played it more savagely and ostentatiously at the expense of credibility, so that was a very thoughtful interpretation I felt. The other members of the cast all gave good solid performances.
But I’m afraid both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found the whole thing rather boring. In fact I had to look sternly at Mrs C when she lightly suggested skipping the second half. It wasn’t that bad. Apparently Coward wanted Katharine Hepburn to play Adela – she turned it down, and I can see why. Gertrude Lawrence had died four years earlier; if he’d written the role of Melissa for Miss Lawrence the character would probably have been both more adorable and spiteful which might have made the play punchier. Regrettably, as it stands it lacks dramatic intensity and drive. Fascinating to see it, of course, to complete one’s knowledge of Coward’s oeuvres; but essentially disappointing.
Whilst the Royal Albert Hall is enjoying the opening week of its Proms season, here in Northampton we’re ahead of the game, with Sunday’s Last Night of the Proms concert marking the end of the 2011-2012 Subscription Season. The Derngate was packed. Whilst I was ordering the drinkies, Mrs Chrisparkle had to text me from the far side of the foyer where she was attempting to purchase a programme to say it was so busy it would be some time before we would be reunited. When the theatre is this packed it’s good news for everyone!
The avuncular Owain Arwel Hughes was in command of a feisty Royal Philharmonic, and it was to be an evening of bite sized chunks of classical fireworks. We started off with O Fortuna from Carmina Burana – always a great wake-up call. The orchestra were clearly in fine form, and the Northampton Bach Choir gave it all they had. From our vantage point, Mrs Chrisparkle and I had an excellent clear view of the percussion section – on the far left side of the orchestra instead of their normal position at the back. It was fascinating to watch the skill and concentration required to manage the wide range of percussion instruments from the huge gong to the little triangle. It’s a full second between banging the gong and the rich sound emanating from it, something I certainly hadn’t realised before. Anyway O Fortuna was a cracking start, although inside I did feel a little sorry that they weren’t going to play the entire Carmina Burana. Maybe next season?
Next we had Va Pensiero from Verdi’s Nabucco, an opera, not a manufacturer of biscuits as I had once erroneously believed. Again a great rendition from the choir and a charming gentle contrast with the crisp oomph of the Orff. Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin followed, a great tune and the RPO gave it full colour and dynamism – a really enjoyable performance. It was at this point that I started to watch the interaction between an older violinist in the front row and the young pretender sitting next to him. The younger man was very courteous in his dealings with the older – it was as though by sharing the same music stand he was gaining wisdom and experience from the older man. It was quite intriguing and I feel it helped both of their performances. It was just one of a number of interactions we observed within members of the orchestra that evening.
Then we had Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a new piece for me. I loved the beauty of the cello playing, delightfully highlighted by Suzy Willison-Kawalec on the harp. But I did think the choir was a bit off on this one. It all started to sound a bit muddy somehow. By the time we had moved on to Vaughan Williams’ O Clap Your Hands, another première to my eardrums, I felt the choir had got distinctly ragged. T sounds ricocheted all over the place and there were enough loose sibilants to suggest the Reptile House at Regent’s Park. Maybe they needed an interval break.
Before the interval though, came the definite highlight of the night – Viv McLean as the soloist for a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra gave a great rendition of the seedier sounds of Manhattan that the piece is meant to represent – the introduction, for example, sent tingles up my spine. I loved the percussion giving it the Cuba rhythms, and the brass sounded tough and industrial. But Viv McLean’s performance was just superb. He really expressed what Gershwin described as the “Metropolitan Madness” of the piece, and you could hear the sound of carriages over steely train tracks that were Gershwin’s inspiration. A great performance that sent us in for our interval Chenin Blanc on a happy high. I did however observe another rather odd interaction, this time between the two cellists at the front. One was rolling her eyes in a “forchrissake” sort of way, and the other one was trying not to laugh at her. Not sure what it was that warranted this slightly unprofessional behaviour but it didn’t look terribly respectful.
After the interval we were welcomed back with Rossini’s William Tell Overture and what was possibly the orchestra’s best performance of the night. The cellists were back on best behaviour and the sound they produced for the first part of the overture was pure and stunning. The whole orchestra brought out the tunefulness of the piece – particularly that first three quarters that you don’t always hear. And when it came to the famous Lone Ranger finale, they played with such gusto and verve that it was a sheer delight.
Next we had the third and last piece of music that was new to me, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. It was quietly elegant and charming but made such a huge contrast to the Rossini that I barely noticed it before it was over. Moving on to Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations; always a stirring theme and played beautifully. It’s just one of those pieces that you can never tire of hearing. Whilst I was beaming reflectively at the music, Mrs C had started to get irked by the apparent grumpiness of the lady violinist at the front. Mrs C had commented “Crack a smile, can’t you?” under her breath a couple of times when the orchestra members had stood to receive applause. After the Elgar, or maybe the Parry following it, this lady and the violinist next to her started having a very sulky looking chat about something that was obviously disturbing them both. “Why do they do it when it looks so awful?” asked Mrs C. Why indeed?
Anyway, the Parry; “I was Glad” was the piece, and it’s one I can never remember until I hear it and then I remember how much I like it. A complex work and the choir gave it a brave stab – and it did come over as a very joyous experience, so job done. More Elgar, with Pomp and Circumstance March No 4; very smartly done, and definitely getting the increasingly jingoistic Northampton audience to prepare for some interaction. Large flags were beginning to get unfurled over boxes. The rustle of mini flags being waved in time with the music was starting to get louder. Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs kicked in with a beautiful and emotional Tom Bowling, followed by the Hornpipe, which Mr Hughes encouraged us to clap along with – softly at first, then going the Full Monty. Rule Britannia had us all in patriotic voice, especially the second time when, again at Mr Hughes’ behest, we all stood up to let rip. Finally came Jerusalem, one of my favourite pieces of music of all time, and you will be pleased to know that, without needing to refer to the words, I gave a splendid performance. For an encore they performed the racy Can-Can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, adding a French and German touch to our otherwise very British finale.
So thanks to the RPO for another year’s superb concerts which we have really enjoyed – and it’s full steam ahead for some very juicy classical prospects in next year’s season, which will be starting in September with inter alia Jack Liebeck as soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Can’t wait!
When I discovered that the third play in the Festival of Chaos season was to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler I was slightly disappointed, as we had only recently seen another production at the Oxford Playhouse with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerny. Why couldn’t it be Ghosts? Or The Master Builder? Or Rosmersholm?
However, it’s an inspired choice. It dovetails perfectly with The Bacchae and Blood Wedding as a fine example of when someone goes against the grain and does something completely unsuited to their times, society and mores. Hedda has all the hallmarks of a Dionysian character, as director Laurie Sansom points out in his very useful programme notes. A bully as a child, Hedda as a young woman has undefined but we guess potentially impure liaisons with the writer Lovborg, which come to an end when he seeks the equivalent of 19th century Rehab. She is now stuck with her worthy but dull and completely incompatible new husband; but when Lovborg returns, Dionysus within her comes to the surface, not only in how she reacts with him, but in her feelings of jealousy and revenge with the feeble Mrs Elvsted, with whom Lovborg now seems romantically entwined, and also how she deals long term with her whole life situation. It is an exquisite play, and this production brings forward all the delicacies of the plot and brings to life real people with real emotions contrasting strongly with the reserved restrictions of the era.
The set is extremely well devised, with four distinct acting areas each going back further and smaller away from the stage, giving an additional visual suggestion of depth to Ibsen’s words and characters. There’s also the garden area outside the French Windows where characters go to smoke and their lurking outside enhances the feeling of claustrophobia. The lighting works really well, with the different times of day nicely suggested coming through the windows. I won’t spoil it for you, but the lighting in the final minute of the play focusing on the back door is stunningly effective.
Emma Hamilton plays Hedda Gabler with immense subtlety. Intensely manipulative, revengeful, cruel, deliberately hurtful; but with the ability to turn on the sweetest of smiles, you can absolutely understand why Tesman fell for her. Her words say one thing but her body says something else; you’ve never seen anyone throw away dying flowers with such purpose. Tesman’s possession of Lovborg’s manuscript opens up a range of possibilities for Hedda, and you know she’s going to do something wicked with it but you can’t quite tell what; and that’s partly down to Ibsen’s great writing but also Ms Hamilton’s superbly plotting facial expressions. Technically, she speaks with great clarity – always appreciated – and she brings forward all the light and shade of Hedda’s character. The last Hedda we saw, Rosamund Pike, started as a bitch, maintained bitchiness throughout and ended as a bitch. Emma Hamilton’s is a far more rounded and satisfying interpretation as she made Hedda’s motivations and emotions really clear – whilst still being a bitch.
The whole cast is excellent. Jack Hawkins as Tesman is completely convincing as the “good” man, but insensitive to the needs of others (especially his wife) and more engaged with his cerebrum than any other part of his body. His childish enthusiasm for all the things Hedda finds tedious is a brilliant portrayal of how different the two characters are. There’s a lovely scene where Hedda is taking Lovborg through the photograph album and calls on Tesman to explain the pictures. He takes her sarcasm as a compliment; it really sums up so much about both of them.
Jay Villiers is Judge Brack and superbly blends the sophisticated charm of his influential position with a steely determined sense of self-preservation. It’s an immaculate performance, both amusing and slightly threatening. I also liked Lex Shrapnel as Lovborg, all wild haired and distressed, feeling the pain and torture of every moment, strong against temptation at first, only to give into Dionysus and his alcohol to shattering effect later. He’s a fine actor, very much a chip off the old block as I remember really enjoying his father John’s expressive performance as Andrey in Jonathan Miller’s 1976 production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Matti Houghton is great as the earnest Mrs Elvsted, blindly optimistic about her relationship with Lovborg, thinking Hedda can be trusted with her private matters, seeing her dreams come to nothing, but desperate to be useful, as when she is helping to piece together the manuscript. She’s a rabbit caught in the headlights of Hedda’s manipulations, and she really conveys well the vulnerability of the character. There are also excellent performances from Sue Wallace as the very kindly and supportive Aunt Julle and Janice McKenzie as the put-upon and fearful maid Berte.
It’s an elegant production with great clarity of text – this is Andrew Upton’s adaptation, seen on Broadway in 2006 with Cate Blanchett as Hedda – and a satisfying concentration on the emotional motivations of the characters. Although I’ve seen or read Hedda Gabler four or five times before, I came away feeling that this is the first time that I really understood this play. Superb.
There aren’t many clues in the programme or in the rather forgettable title of this play to give you an idea about what it’s all about – in fact I found myself referring to it in advance as simply “the Julie Walters play”, so if you too feel a bit of a blur as to its contents, I’m pleased to inform you, it’s a very engaging tale about an ageing “free-thinking” mother of the hippy generation, her two rather wayward children, the people who love them, the people who abuse their relationships with them, and how one’s passion for one’s cause can both help and hinder the world about you.
This is Stephen Beresford’s first play and he is admirably skilful at creating characters and writing funny but telling scenes. Despite financial strictures Judy hangs on to her ramshackled house to the obvious disapproval of wealthy neighbours. It’s a terrific, detailed set cleverly suggestive of one of those extraordinarily expensive Dorset Sandbanks properties – though the local references are all Plymouth-based – all art deco, garden and outhouses; but shabbily and carelessly furnished and maintained, with plenty of Indian Bhagwan ephemera, hippy bunting and a bottomless supply of alcohol. Judy’s obviously been a trying, difficult, brave, offensive and wonderful person all her life. Inspirational and exasperating in equal measure she steadfastly refuses to dumb down her vision for the sake of practicality. Her children Libby and Nick bear the scars of wayward upbringing and she still dominates their existence, even though they are now well entrenched in adulthood themselves. As the family work out their frustrations with each other over the last months of Judy’s life, Nick comes to the conclusion that they all have to accept they are individually responsible for their own “f***-ups” (his words), and this seems to me to be the main message of this very black and very funny comedy. The excellent set is matched with a well chosen soundtrack – in fact I loved the use of music in this production. Tracks from Judy’s finest hours, you imagine, work with empathy and irony to the on-stage action, and it was great to hear Peter Green’s plaintive guitar chords of “Oh Well” again. I’d forgotten how comfortably you are seated and what good sight lines you get in the Lyttelton stalls, and this production fills the imposing stage admirably.
The Lyttelton was packed; primarily I sensed, to see Julie Walters in action – and why wouldn’t you, she’s still a complete star turn. I last saw her on stage apparently performing oral sex on Richard Beckinsale in a hospital bed in Funny Peculiar at the Garrick in 1976, and she’s done awfully well since. Her Judy is a highly intelligent, fearless, erratic and slightly posh version of her creation Bo Beaumont, allegedly the actress who plays Mrs Overall. Julie Walters’ comic timing is immaculate but the role calls for much more than just comedy. She makes you believe Judy’s self-delusions. You share her loathing of the fascists. You are horrified at her deterioration of health and reliance on morphine. You are full of joy at her love for life. It’s perfect casting for this extraordinary character.
I also very much enjoyed Rory Kinnear’s performance as her son Nick; near destroyed through drug and drink addiction, you can tell he’s been a coward and a reprobate but his characterisation is so real that you warm to him instantly. His hapless attempts at chatting up young Daniel, whom the family allow to practice swimming in their pool, are very funny and his comic business with the can of lager was predictable but very believable. He too has impeccable comic timing, as you might expect from his parentage; and like Ms Walters, his performance reveals both the comedy and the horror of the character’s life and experiences.
As Judy’s clearly less-favoured daughter Libby, Helen McCrory makes sure all grounds are covered in her performance from her strict unsentimental dealings with her daughter Summer, her vacillating fondness for the three-timing Dr Peter, and her gooey appreciation of Daniel’s attention, to her every-emotion-under-the-sun relationship with Judy. She’s very convincing, and delivers her hard stark lines with great comic attack. It’s a cleverly written role, as the character develops from the person you think probably has the best grasp on reality to the person who arguably loses grip – and the things she loves – the most. It’s a very effective and hard-hitting performance.
In the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise as the awkward loner Daniel who blooms under Judy’s watch and carves out a positive life for himself. His testament, that it was because of Judy’s encouragement and support that he can now meet life’s challenges, was really movingly written and honestly played. Matthew Marsh as Peter looked the part and was suitably creepy and sneaky with his amorous attentions to both Judy and Libby, and his turning away from the family’s needs at the end of the play was unpleasantly disturbing. Isabella Laughland as Libby’s wounded and wounding daughter Summer breathed strong life into the Catherine Tate-style “difficult child” character, and I didn’t foresee the twist as to how Summer would develop, but it was very nicely played. She has a tendency to talk over the laughs of the previous line, though, which is annoying, as I missed the beginning of quite a few of her important speeches. She just needs the confidence to slow the pace down and simply wait.
There were one or two aspects of the story that didn’t quite hang true for me; receiving the cremated ashes in an urn on the same day as a funeral is extraordinarily quick work; and why would you arrange for a funeral to take place on the same day you have to move house, that seems to create pointlessly additional stress. Nevertheless it’s still a rattling good story with some fine performances, good characterisation and plenty to watch and admire on stage. Running in repertory until October and definitely worth catching.
The prospect of a day’s wandering around Istanbul is something to set the heart racing. Approaching from the sea, your initial romantic vista of Islamic spires and domed promise gets grittier as you get closer; and that basically sums up Istanbul – gritty romanticism. Mrs Chrisparkle and I enjoyed a week’s holiday there in 1999 so it would be interesting to see to what extent, if at all, it had changed over the thirteen years. Well, some aspects had changed a lot, and others have stayed the same, and both are for the better. My memory from the 90s of the areas round the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya is one of rather murky seediness; and if you went to a restaurant in the tourist areas you would get 100% ripped off mercilessly. It would be done with charm and a smile, but boy would your pocket feel it.
I am happy to report that the Sultanahmet district where the major sights are located seems to be much better laid out, with more pedestrianised areas, it’s much cleaner and much smarter; and fearing a rip-off it was with great trepidation that we took lunch at an open air restaurant close to the Blue Mosque – regrettably I do not have its name – but it was a lovely civilised lunch with omelettes and tea and salads and chicken and all sorts of nice things – and it was incredibly cheap. I was amazed there was no attempt to sneakily extort some extra cash out of us. What hasn’t changed is the indomitable cheeky spirit of the Istanbul traders, who spin eloquent and complex stories to convince you they’re your best friend in order to get you into their shop or restaurant; it’s very good-hearted and sometimes extremely funny. So if you get approached in that way just smile and chat back and if you don’t want to do trade with them, simply refuse in your friendliest, most polite manner, whilst still enjoying the banter.
But I’m ahead of myself. Our ship docked north of the Golden Horn so we decided to take the tram at Tophane stop. The tram is a really easy, quick and safe way to get around town. You need to have two one lira coins to travel – you simply insert them into a turnstile machine and it lets you in. Then you can do whatever journey you like. We got off at Sultanahmet because it’s halfway between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya, two places we were determined to visit; and also close to the Basilica Cistern.
Smilingly refusing offers of guides, we approached the Blue Mosque. It’s a huge complex, built in 1616 to intimidate the Christian Aya Sofya church at the other end of the park. Outside it’s grand and imposing, if austere and grey. Once you go inside, the colours are magical. The ceiling domes are lively and covered with brilliant patterns, the carpets are a vivid red, and of course it boasts those beautiful blue Iznik tiles that give the mosque its commonly known name (really it’s the Sultan Ahmet Camii Mosque). You can wander fairly freely all over the place and visitors are welcomed. It’s one of the highlights of the Islamic Architectural World.
To break up seeing two big religious buildings consecutively we thought we’d next head for the Basilica Cistern. Originally a vast underground storage tank, it was built by Constantine in the 6th century. We remembered this very fondly from our 1999 visit. It can be very hard to locate because it’s completely anonymous and undistinguished from outside. In fact your best bet will be to find the bunch of tourists looking lost and confusedly holding maps upside down and it will be a small door nearby. Once you find it, you get plunged into darkness, down some narrow tricky steps, but eventually you get into the basement. There 336 individual pillars greet you, with lights at the bottom of each of which gently illuminate the whole pool and it’s an amazing sight. You can walk around, and see it from different angles, and simply allow it to take your breath away. The upside down Medusa heads are entertaining; that way round, according to legend, because the builder wasn’t paid and he took suitable revenge. Never swindle a tradesman. You can understand why they use the place as a film location – its atmosphere is a mixture of calm and spooky, and strangely joyous. There’s even a neon-lit café near the exit which looks completely incongruous.
Emerging slowly into the light we were a little peckish so we took our small picnic of stuff nicked from the ship’s buffet into the nearby park area and had a short rest. We gently ignored the chap who tried unsuccessfully to convince us he was a student at Cambridge University studying ceramics, who wanted us to visit his shop. I’m not sure Cambridge has a school of ceramics. Then it was time to join the crowds trying to get into the Aya Sofya. Unlike the Blue Mosque, where you can get in for free with no queueing, the Aya Sofya has an entrance fee and a long line. If you choose to engage the services of a guide you will avoid the queue – it’s up to you. We preferred to rely on our trusty guidebook and remain independent. Aya Sofya was inaugurated in 537 and was a major site of Christian worship until it became a mosque in 1453. It was deconsecrated in 1934 and has been a museum ever since. It’s a wonderful place, luscious on a grand scale with just as much to thrill you on the upper floor as on the ground floor. Blues and golds adorn the inside, with fantastic columns and domes, and the eye-catching Islamic calligraphic roundels that dominate the view. Not only do you have the traditional mosque features to enjoy like the mithrab and minbar, there are also the superb Orthodox mosaics. The dark, wide ramp which leads you upstairs also looks as though it has seen some history. You can spend an easy hour wandering round, and there are loads of photo opportunities. It’s got to be one of my favourite tourist sights anywhere in the world.
Outside, we had a brief chat with a nice chap who assured me was studying hard at Oxford University but just this week was temporarily assigned to directing tourists to his brother’s carpet shop. Because he made me laugh I will give his website a plug. Then it was time to take a look at the other open air sights of the area. Alongside the Blue Mosque is the At Meydani or Hippodrome, the original Byzantine chariot racetrack. There’s not much left to give you an impression of racing champs, but it still boasts the Egyptian Obelisk, transported from Luxor, the Serpentine Column from Delphi and the Column of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and they’re all worth a look. The four bronze horses that originally decorated the stadium now stand guard over St Mark’s in Venice.
A couple of stops on the tram take you to Beyazit, which is perfect for the Grand Bazaar. Even if you don’t want to do any shopping, you just have to go to the Grand Bazaar. It’s a vast complex of narrow alleys and streets, all undercover, and every trade you can imagine is represented there. Souvenirs of course are everywhere, but there are also high quality jewellery outlets, clothing stores, carpet warehouses and numerous other places. The cheeky cheerfulness of the traders is unmatchable, and you’ll engage in all sorts of bartering, fibbing, flirting, teasing and joking as you go around comparing prices and quality. Mrs C and Lady Duncansby bought a couple of colourful scarves with which they are very pleased – although Lady D was mortified at the ruthlessness of Mrs C’s bargaining skills – and we also got some Christmas tree decorations, as is our usual habit when travelling abroad. I think we wandered around for about an hour and it was a damn good laugh. It’s quite easy to get lost in there though – you need to keep your wits about you as to whereabouts you are, and you may not leave the bazaar the same place you went in, so be warned!
We did, however, escape via our original entrance, he says smugly, and it was conveniently close to Istanbul University’s main building area to get a feel of the student vibe. There’s a rather grand ornamental archway construction overlooking a park, but behind it are some narrow streets thronging with shops and businesses, populated by students piled high with text books and bearing earnest looks on their faces.
Time wasn’t on our side but I love going round mosques and I did want to have a look at the Suleymaniye Mosque. It’s another huge complex, built in the 1550s and, if anything, it’s a lighter and brighter than the Blue Mosque, although it lacks the latter’s predominance of tiles. It felt like a relaxed, friendly place; and some little kids were having a hoot playing outside where you’re meant to wash your feet. Inside its patterned archways are particularly appealing, and the grounds outside also beg for some gentle strolling if you have the time. Being located high on a hill it offers great views of the city; but that meant we needed to drop down to sea level so we could get a tram from Eminonu back to the ship. This took a little longer than we expected, and resulted in our pace and anxieties stepping up a level as we tried to beat the clock.
Nevertheless it was still interesting to pass by some more commercial districts – areas mainly of wholesale outlets and offices, but also some market stalls too. “Where are you from?” called out one man selling his nuts. “England”, I quickly replied, not having the time for too much badinage. “Ah, Leicester City” he romantically sighed as if referring to his own personal Shangri-la. The narrow streets were thronging with people; the wider streets with cars. Despite our proximity to Sultanahmet, I sensed we were in an area where tourists fear to tread; which made it all the more fascinating. Bright red Turkish flag design bunting hung from lamppost to lamppost. It created a colourful contrast with the grey squares and buildings around. If only we had longer time to linger – but the ship was not going to wait for us. Eventually we located our tram stop – we merely needed to cross about eight lanes of unpredictable heavy traffic to get there. Fortunately Hermes’ winged sandals appeared on our feet and the god of travel saw us safely across. A couple of tram stops and we were within sight of the ship. Our personal fitness regimes paid dividends as we strode briskly on and with minutes to spare we boarded the Magnifica. Dubrovnik was beckoning.
Some time around 1981 I decided that “The Great Gatsby” was my favourite novel of all time. I’d read it at school, studied it further for my American Literature paper at university, and basically allowed it to become a major part of me. Many waters have passed under the bridge since I last read it, so I was intrigued to hear of this eight hour experimental drama piece, where you basically witness someone reading the entire book out loud over the course of an afternoon and evening. How will that work, one wonders. How will I concentrate that long? Is it still my favourite book? Will there be enough time for dinner?
Of course it is a tall order to keep an entire theatre audience engaged for eight hours. However, time wise, it’s not that much different from going to see a matinee and then an evening performance on the same day – and it makes a very interesting comparison with, say, David Edgar’s dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby, where it takes about the same length of time to tell the full story in two self contained plays. Like Gatz, some of Nick Nick also involves the direct lifting of text from the novel to be recited on stage; but of course, 99% of Dickens’ book has been adapted and dramatised into a theatrical event. That is what makes Gatz different from any similar production – there is no adaptation. The entire text that you hear is exactly what was written by Scott Fitzgerald without any additions or subtractions.
It’s a risky strategy. I like theatrical risks though, and would much prefer to see something fail creatively than simply be a lazy success. If you can achieve it, even better is a creative success of course; but regrettably I’m not sure I can classify Gatz under that heading. There’s no doubt this is a Marmite production. The majority of the audience at the Noel Coward theatre last Saturday night gave it a standing ovation; at the same time at least six people from the row we were in and the one behind left, not to return, during the course of the performance. It’s never going to be one of those shows that pleases everyone.
This production is by New York’s Elevator Repair Service, and is being staged as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, within the framework of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The structure of the show is simple. We’re in a rather dilapidated looking office, circa 1993 from the look of the IT. Our hero Nick arrives for work, switches on his computer but it fails to start up. Whilst trying to reset it, he finds a copy of “The Great Gatsby” on the desk, opens it at page one and starts to read it aloud. Other members of staff arrive, and go about their business – in a rather non-productive dilatory sort of way – but slowly they too integrate themselves into the story of Gatsby. Nick, reading the book, assumes the role of Nick Carraway, the narrator; his boss becomes Jay Gatsby himself; others become Tom, Daisy, Myrtle, Jordan and so on. In that opening scene there’s a charmingly funny moment after they start joining in as Office Nick shows mild astonishment that they seem to know the text unfalteringly without actually having a copy of the book to hand. But he doesn’t question it, he goes with it, and the story proceeds with his colleagues chipping in as other characters in the story. Elements of the book get amusingly or ironically replicated on stage, but not in imitation; it’s as though they are two parallel universes. Clever and entertaining stuff, and subtly underplayed. As the story develops, one of the strengths of the production is that you lose sight of the office setting, and the characters simply start acting out the Gatsby story. In fact the office equipment undergoes a gentle bit-by-bit decommissioning, so that by the time we’re in the final “act” so to speak, there’s hardly any office equipment left, save for Nick’s keyboard which, bemused, he drops into a filing cabinet.
I thought that opening sequence – basically representing Chapter One – worked very well; slowly (perhaps too slowly) setting the scene for later on. On the other hand Mrs Chrisparkle found it extremely slow and fought, unsuccessfully, against sleep. With Chapter Two comes an increase in drama and tension, as Nick is introduced to Tom’s mistress Myrtle, in a scene of wild drunken abandon. Being both more visually and vocally stimulating, with many new characters appearing and talking, this provided a big step up in the interest stakes and Mrs C started to stay awake naturally, without my having to dig her in the ribs. But when we get to Chapter Three, which is basically the introduction of Gatsby, it goes more reflective and quiet again and the dramatic tension built up in the previous scene is frittered away. I feel this is the major problem of the show and its structure. It’s not an adaptation of a book but the book itself and in my opinion it doesn’t actually translate well to the stage. Fitzgerald wrote a finely crafted novel with highs and lows and changes of pace; but the stage is a different place from your imagination whilst reading, and the lows just didn’t work for me. Moments of high drama came to life really well throughout the whole performance; quiet moments of reflection and introversion came across to me as rather boring.
Given that the book is about Nick, and how he fits or doesn’t fit into the society in which he is a stranger, the book is full of self-enquiring, self-examining passages where he is learning about himself. Whereas they make a very satisfying read, I don’t think that simply reading out those passages works on stage. My memory from the book is that Nick actually turns into quite an unpleasant character; his dumping of Jordan is the cowardly action of a heel, if I remember. In Gatz this comes across as a minor event of little significance, whilst in the book it stands out; you judge him, harshly, and you wonder if he will ever love again (or indeed is capable of love). In Gatz I was not motivated to judge him.
There’s no doubt that it’s a complete tour de force by Scott Shepherd playing Nick; and when someone spends the best part of eight hours on stage speaking it seems churlish to criticise his performance. But I did sometimes find it difficult to distinguish Office Nick from Nick Carraway; to the extent that Character Nick occasionally got a bit lost. The two occasions when Nick appears to come out of character and directly addresses the audience with the information that “we’ll take a break for fifteen minutes” completely destroyed the illusion of just reading the book out loud in an office. Mrs C wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t said it. Would we have continued to sit in our seats for fifteen minutes while nothing happened, confused as to why the house lights were up? No. He doesn’t even say it to his fellow workers but to the audience. Considering the whole structure of the show is to be very careful that only words from the text are spoken audibly, I found it a very painful breach of fourth wall etiquette.
I really liked the performance of Susie Sokol as Jordan Baker, the golfer with whom Nick starts a relationship. She fell extremely well into character from the rather lazy magazine reading gopher that she is in the office. Her quirky cutesiness was very convincing, and you got the feeling that Office Nick quite fancied Office Jordan too, which was a nice touch. I also thought that Jim Fletcher’s Office Jim, who became Gatsby, was another very good performance. He absolutely looked the part, in his mismatching pink suit (an Oxford man would never mismatch) and his rather dour deliberate delivery gave a good impression of Gatsby’s unreality, setting him apart from the other characters. Gatsby is largely a figment of his own making, and you might expect him to be a glamorous character – think of Robert Redford in the 1970s film – but deep down inside he isn’t, and I think Jim Fletcher conveyed that very well.
Laurena Allan gave very entertaining performances both as Tom’s mistress Myrtle, all wannabe Isadora Duncan and spoilt plaything; and as Office Myrtle, simpering in a cack-handed sort of way and doing a masterstroke of comic business with the Oreos. When the brutal Tom, played by Gary Wilmes, punches her in the nose you feel the hurt almost as much as she does. I’m not sure he drew out Tom’s brutality quite as much as I would have expected – his big showdown with Gatsby was rather like two nice guys just getting a bit irked; it could have done with more grit, perhaps. Of the smaller supportive roles, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Kate Scelsa as Office Secretary Lucille, unmotivated and with highly judgmental eyes reacting with despair to whatever anyone more senior was doing in the office; and then throwing herself into the more drunken and degenerate roles of Gatsby partygoers and neighbours.
One very positive aspect to the production is that I am sure it will drive people to read or re-read the original book. We heard people in the audience vowing to revisit it, and Mrs C is now determined to catch up on some other Scott Fitzgerald that she hasn’t read yet. It was excellent to hear the story again and I was pleased that I could still actually remember a few passages. It really is a brilliant book and if you haven’t read it, you should; and you can easily read it in a day, as this show confirms.
But my overwhelming feeling about the production is that a novel is not a play. Whereas Nicholas Nickleby soared with comic and dramatic scenes tumbling into each other with perfect timing, Gatz feels very patchy and uneven; for me, nowhere was this more pointed than with the last hour of the show, after Gatsby has died (sorry if you didn’t realise that’s what happens to him). The book wraps up his life and his loose ends in a very poignant and tender way, but I felt that everything that happens on stage after he dies was really rather boring. It’s like the major plot occurrence has happened, and you’re spending the final hour twiddling your thumbs. I did like the way Scott Shepherd progressed from reading the book to reciting it without referring to the text; that was a nice touch, bringing Office Nick and Carraway closer together. But I just felt it lacked tension and drama. This time it was Mrs C’s turn to nudge me in the ribs to keep me awake during that final hour.
So a fine example of the “fail creatively” school of theatre, I’d say; it’s a very bold experiment, and technically it’s certainly fascinating to watch actors perform for such a long time. But I left feeling generally dissatisfied and, a couple of days on, the more I think about it, the more dissatisfied I become. I know I’m in the minority as it has generally received rave reviews; but I also think it is very easy to be swept away with enthusiasm simply because of the effort and commitment of the cast to work so hard for their curtain call. It’s on in London until 15th July – if you have the time, definitely go and see if you agree with me, or if I’m being an old curmudgeon.