Review – A View from the Bridge, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th October 2019

72458640_558168685003851_1621455574212280320_nIf asked the perplexing question, What’s Your Favourite Arthur Miller?, I think most people go for The Crucible option, with perhaps a solid minority plumping for Death of a Salesman. However, way back in 1988 I took the young Miss Duncansby on a date night to see the National Theatre’s production of A View from the Bridge directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon as Eddie Carbone – and it remains one of our all-time most memorable theatrical experiences. The pre-wedding anxieties faced by the Carbone family resonated very strongly with our own familial disasters in the lead up to ours. I could fill you in on the details, but that’s probably best kept for another time.

Nicholas Karimi as EddieJuliet Forster’s storming production for the Royal and Derngate, together with York Theatre Royal, arrives with many plaudits from its Yorkshire run – and quite right too. Fantastic performances, clear, lucid storytelling, usefully flexible stage design, and a story just as strongly valid today as it was in 1955. The Bridge in question is Brooklyn Bridge, which spans from smart Manhattan to down-at-heel Red Hook in Brooklyn, where immigrant labourers offload the cargo from the ships. Eddie and Beatrice play host to her cousins Marco and Rodolpho who have arrived illegally from Italy where there is neither work nor money. It’s just one of many such arrangements throughout the whole of Red Hook, and there’s only one code of conduct: you don’t snitch to the authorities. But when Rodolpho and Beatrice’s daughter Catherine become romantically entwined, Eddie’s jealousies and prejudices come to the fore.

Eddie and CatherineIn today’s Brexity times, immigration is a very live issue, and anything that makes us think harder about the personal problems facing immigrants and society’s attitude towards them, must be a good thing. But I was very much struck in this production how Miller was exploring not only the general subject of immigration, with questions of loyalty and family relationships, but also those perhaps more modern topics of mental health and what it is to be a man. There are four principal male characters in this play – Eddie, the family provider; Alfieri, the authoritative high achiever lawyer; Marco, the workhorse; and Rodolpho, the creative artist. Whilst Eddie would, naturally, see himself as being the pinnacle of manhood, he respects the lawyer although is “man enough” to question his opinion, and he respects the head-down, hard worker for grafting all the hours God gives to send money home to look after his children.

Lili Miller as Catherine Nicholas Karimi as Eddie and Pedro Leandro as RodolphoBut he has no respect for the artist, whose strengths lie in other directions – in the arts, in entertainment, and in surreptitiously winning the hearts of all the ladies. To Eddie, Rodolpho simply ain’t right. But Miller shows us that all four of these people are “proper men” in their own ways and in their own right. The only one who fails to abide by the common code at the end of the day, is Eddie – and you sense his mental health is far from stable, with his wild and unpredictable behaviour. That’s why this play translates perfectly as a modern version of a classical tragedy, with Alfieri as the chorus and Eddie as the tragic hero. Whilst the more cerebral Alfieri and Rodolpho use their intelligence and know that conciliation is the successful way forward, it’s not the same for the more physical Eddie and Marco. When Eddie demands that Marco makes good the dishonour he cast on him, and Marco seeks vengeance for the betrayal, there’s only ever one outcome in this clash of the alpha males.

CastRhys Jarman’s set is stark and comfortless, with the Carbone’s furniture arriving out of a packing case that descends from the sky, just like the crates the longshoremen unload from the ships – an Ikea ex machina, if you like. But the simplicity of the set is its strength. Even Alfieri’s office is represented by sitting on an old tea crate; and worrying prominence is given to the pole-mounted telephone stage right, always visible, but only used once, for the ultimate act of betrayal. Sophie Cotton’s opening scene background music is intriguing and atmospheric, and I was sorry not to hear more of it.

Nicholas Karimi as Eddie and Lili Miller as CatherineAt the heart of this superb production is an immense performance by Nicholas Karimi as Eddie. At first, I thought he might be a trifle young for the role – Miller’s stage direction stipulates that he’s forty years old – but those thoughts quickly passed as I realised that his relative youth intensified the creepier aspect of Eddie’s love for Catherine. Dogmatic, unreasonable, and with a finely expressed sense of his own self-doubt, Mr Karimi is hugely watchable throughout the whole play and conveys all of Eddie’s wild emotions with a mixture of great control and maniacal turbulence.

Robert Pickavance as AlfieriAlso threading through the production is Robert Pickavance’s tremendous portrayal of Alfieri, which elevates what could otherwise be quite a humdrum role into a genuinely tragic framework. Mr Pickavance takes instant control of proceedings, with his thoughtful, considered delivery directly slowing down the pace of the busy first scene. He has a fantastic stage presence, and it’s a commanding performance. Laura Pyper plays Beatrice with loving concern for both her husband and her niece, providing a voice of moderation in a volatile household. In her professional stage debut, Lili Miller is excellent as Catherine as her character journeys from trusting innocence to the sad realisation that she is being controlled and, you may feel, emotionally abused.

MarcoAs the vulnerable outsiders offloaded like cargo into the Carbone house, Reuben Johnson and Pedro Leandro create a very effective couple as Marco and Rodolpho. Mr Johnson’s impassive expressions convey the worries and the silent heartache he has in leaving behind his wife and children; because he is the kind of man who cannot talk about his feelings, those emotions build up angrily inside. His final showdown is a great expression of aggression mixed with justice. Mr Leandro is terrific as Rodolpho; it’s tempting to make the character overly effeminate or camp but this Rodolpho is a beautifully precise portrayal of a man whose strengths and abilities take him outside the usual herd; strengths that make the longshoremen laugh, that attract Catherine, that repel Eddie and that make Marco protective of him.

Not gonna lie – on the performance we saw, the stage fight at the end was incredibly clumsy and unconvincing, but everyone can have an off night. That aside, it’s a riveting, thought-provoking drama that explores many of mankind’s worst aspects. Timely, slick and with tremendous performances, this production continues at the Royal and Derngate until October 26th, but really deserves a life hereafter.

Production photos by Ian Hodgson

Review – Nigel Slater’s Toast, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th October 2019

71742678_379481756289212_2561666422598008832_n“So… Nigel Slater. Have you heard of him?” I asked Mrs Chrisparkle, shortly before we set off to the theatre. “He’s a chef, isn’t he?” she replied. “Yes, indeed” I said, confident as I had only Googled him a couple of hours earlier. To be honest, I hadn’t a clue who Nigel Slater was. Obviously important enough to have a play written about his toast, at any rate. And when you enter the Royal auditorium, that’s the first thing you notice – the smell of deliciously crisp, tasty toast. Torture for the coeliac Mrs C, who hasn’t had decent toast since 2004.

The CastIt is a trifle odd to watch a play, adapted from the autobiography of someone you’ve never heard of, and for a while I kept on thinking that I was missing something, some kind of grand identity reveal that would give added purpose to this otherwise rather private play. But I never felt the benefit of that reward. Instead for me it was a kind of voyeuristic experience, observing the childhood and upbringing of a famous person without truly understanding why I was doing it.

Mum and NigelThat said, it’s a very enjoyable, totally charming and incredibly slick production that uses its kitchen set to remarkable ends – with a very creative use of those floating island units we all envy in kitchen showrooms, although if you saw how they presented Getting Married Today in the recent production of Company, it won’t come as that much of a surprise. We meet 8-year-old Nigel helping his mother in the kitchen, devouring the wise words of Marguerite Patten; it’s obvious from the very start that Nigel has a very serious interest in cookery, this is not merely food-play. We then follow him through life’s experiences, including his first sight of a naked man (at a surprisingly young age), the confusion over boy sweets and girl sweets, the loss of his mother, his father’s remarriage and his first steps towards adulthood, both at work and in discovering his sexuality.

Spaghetti BologneseHenry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation is beautifully written; a delicate soufflé of words and emotions that bind perfectly and rise just as they should. Throughout the play there are occasions when nothing is actually said, but the expressions and the actions of the performers give it greater eloquence than words ever could. And, having lost a parent myself at a young age, I found its whole portrayal and understanding of childhood bereavement completely believable – and young Nigel really reminded me of myself, which was quite a shock. Plus: real cooking! Whilst some of the earlier food preparations in the play are presented, by necessity, à la Blue Peter, whatever it is that Giles Cooper cooked in the final scene – definitely involving mushrooms – wafted gloriously into the auditorium. Sit in the front row and you might get some flapjacks; the rest of us take lucky dips out of several bags of sweeties. I plumped for a roll of Fizzers, which are alarmingly noisy to open in the theatre, particularly when one hand is holding a glass of Malbec. To be frank, Fizzers and Argentinian Red aren’t the best food/wine pairing.

Top of the FormCentral to the success of this production is a superb performance by Giles Cooper. His very clean-cut image is perfect for the young Nigel, and I remember that shorts and long socks look from my own childhood. Perfect clarity of diction, childlike (as opposed to childish) expressions and reactions, the disappointment when plans go wrong, routine behaviours, and much more – it’s a very full and credible performance of a child’s existence, and the growing awareness of life outside the kitchen as he gets older.

Auntie JoanBlair Plant is also excellent as Dad; very formal, sometimes finding it difficult to exercise his parental skills to the best of his ability, but also wheedling like a child when he wants everything his own way. The other members of the cast take several roles. Katy Federman gives a great performance as the kindly Mum, an almost idealistically perfect mother figure, balancing her love for her child and wanting the best for him, with her own failing health – she’s also great fun as Doreen, Nigel’s first employer. Samantha Hopkins is terrific as the loathsome Joan, with whom Dad falls in love (well, in lust, really), a lascivious chainsmoking strumpet with a need to compete for affection. And Stefan Edwards is great in all the other male roles – the surprisingly uninhibited gardener, Nigel’s goofy schoolmate, and Doreen’s ballet-dancing son.

ToastI wasn’t sure what to expect from the production, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It’s a lively, honest, creative play that shows the boy turn into the man. I’m sure if you’re already familiar with the man in question, you’d get even more out of it! Toast is touring into December, so if you’re near Richmond, Brighton, Salisbury, Manchester, York, Chesterfield or Crewe, you can see The Rise and Rise of Young Nigel for yourself – tickets available here. Very slick, very enjoyable – recommended!

Production photos by Piers Foley

Review – Calendar Girls The Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th October 2019

72330356_976166089402553_323391701446033408_nCalendar Girls is one of those stories that never seems to go away. First, there was the reality – the death in 1998 of John Clarke, which inspired his widow Angela to create the famous naked Women’s Institute Calendar for 2000; and again for 2004, 5, 7 and 8. Then came the 2003 film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters that won Best Film at the British Comedy Awards. 2008 saw the premiere of Tim Firth’s play at the Chichester Festival, with a feisty cast including Elaine C Smith, Sian Phillips, Lynda Bellingham and Patricia Hodge – we loved it. When we saw it a couple of years later at the Royal and Derngate, however, it had turned into a bit of a stinker; in those days I used to give a Chrisparkle Award to the Worst Play/Production of the Year (I’m not that childish or cruel nowadays), and I’m afraid it won first prize.

SARAH-JANE-BUCKLEYHowever, in 2015 Tim Firth joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That fame to pen Calendar Girls The Musical, which opened in Leeds that year, then received a West End transfer in 2017 and started touring in October 2018. A year later, it has finally arrived in Northampton, and we thought we’d give those daring ladies another try.

PHIL-CORBITTIt’s now a very different entity. From the very first moment when Phil Corbitt’s John walks through a country gate and starts singing wholesomely and romantically about Yorkshire, you’re caught up in a world of country goodness, Mother Nature, solid family/friendships, and a feeling that all’s right in the world. In fact, those opening moments reminded me strongly of the beginning to Oklahoma!, a lone rural soul extolling the virtues of his beloved homeland. Mr Corbitt’s voice is warm and reassuring; Mr Firth’s lyrics are heart-warming and emotional; Mr Barlow’s melodies are strong, evocative and rewarding. And that very much sets the tone for the entire show. The performances are all very strong – particularly musically; the adaptation of the original is inventive, funny and moving; and the tunes range from the enjoyable to the memorable. Mrs Chrisparkle felt she heard shades of Blood Brothers; I sensed elements of The Hired Man. If we’re both right, that has to be a winning combination.

REBECCA-STORMI must admit, I had low (maybe no) expectations of this show, but I was completely wrong. It’s a blast from start to finish, whether that’s through the upbeat characterisations of the Women’s Institute members, or through the strength of the relationships portrayed between all the characters, or through a variety of high comedy scenes. It also gets the emotional sadness of John’s declining health absolutely right, which prepares us for Annie’s brave bereavement and her subsequent way forward, largely due to support from her irrepressible bestie Chris.

LISA-MAXWELLWhereas the play seemed interminably slow to start, the musical just gets on with it, which is a virtue all of its own. It also, extremely successfully, brings out the characters of Danny (Chris’ son), Tommo (Cora’s son) and Jenny (Marie’s daughter), who are all at school together and clumsily formulating relationships of their own. Scenes with the younger actors balance nicely with the older cast to give a fuller picture of the village environment. If I remember rightly, the play rewards us with the always hilarious taking-the-photographs scene about halfway or two-thirds way through; whereas the musical uses this as its near climax, if you’ll pardon the expression. The musical version of the naked photoshoot remains hysterically funny with inspired use of buns and some members of the cast throwing care to the wind with what they might or might not reveal.

JULIA-HILLSThe performances are universally excellent throughout. Sarah Jane Buckley is brilliant as Annie; musically, her delivery of the song Scarborough, where she starts to show anxiety about how life can carry on with an incapacitated John, was the show’s highlight for me. Rebecca Storm’s Chris is a hearty, confident type, full of support for her friend; Julia Hills’ repressed Ruth is a brilliant portrayal of an older woman putting on a brave front – again, another musical highlight is her hilarious (yet sad) My Russian Friend and I where she shares the source of her consolation.

TYLER-DOBBSGreat to see Ruth Madoc on fine form as older headmistress Jessie, with just the right level of status-oriented pomposity but with warmth and humour shining through; Lisa Maxwell gives a great performance as bodily-enhanced Celia, and Sue Devaney is fantastic as always, as vicar’s daughter Cora, trying to encourage son Tommo to do as I say not as I do. On which subject, Tyler Dobbs is superb as Tommo in what I suspect is his first major professional role. Danny Howker is a nicely innocent Danny, and Isabel Caswell is a nicely knowing Jenny, which makes them a perfect pairing. But the entire cast do a great job in bringing this emotionally-charged but never maudlin – and frequently hilarious – musical to life.

SUE-DEVANEYHighly recommended; after Northampton, the tour continues to Blackpool, Chester, Bath and Chichester. Tickets – if there are any left – are available through the tour website here. It received a deserving standing ovation on its first night in Northampton – I can only suggest you book to discover for yourself why.

ISABEL-CASWELLP. S. I can’t work out why this show seems to appeal almost exclusively to women. On Tuesday night I doubt whether the packed house of 1200 theatregoers had more than 20 men. Maybe men are still too scared to witness emotion? Who knows? Have a word with yourselves, guys, you’re missing out on a lot of fun!

Review – The Woman in Black, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th September 2019

72325020_2554237014656850_852794451297304576_nIf you’ve not seen The Woman in Black before, then, unless you’re under, say, 21 years old, what have you been doing all your life? She’s been menacing the West End for thirty odd years, intimidating The Actor who has been hired to help bring Arthur Kipps’ (no, not that Arthur Kipps) tale up to scratch so that he can perform it to a few family and friends and exorcise his memories.

KippsOn an almost empty set, with just a wicker basket, a clothes rail and a rather ominous door, Kipps starts to tell us about his experience as a young solicitor, visiting Eel Marsh house in its lonely location at the end of a murky, mysterious causeway, to examine the papers of the late Mrs Drablow. He’s not very good as a performer, so The Actor whom he has engaged to direct him, brings him out of his shy nervous shell so that he starts to relive those days. As the story develops, the Actor plays Kipps, and Kipps plays everyone else. It’s a play that works almost totally on the imagination, and is so much the stronger for it. Indeed, there is a programme note by the director that reveals if they had more money to spend on the original budget, it could have been a much more lavish production, which would almost certainly have killed it dead.

The ActorThis is the fourth time I’ve seen this play, the last time being in the same venue seven years ago. It’s a play you can go back to, time and time again, because each time you see it, you get a little extra out of it. It might get scarier; it might get funnier; it might get more serious; it might get more flippant. The truth is, all these aspects are written into the late Stephen Mallatratt’s terrific adaptation of Susan Hill’s book. I’m wondering though, if there have been a couple of recent “updates” to the text – that leave something to be desired. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall Crythin Gifford being located in the county of “ahem-ahem-ahem-shire” (which sounds unnecessarily vague). And when The Actor repeats his claim that he’ll make an Olivier out of Kipps yet… well, a hundred years ago, which is when the production is meant to be set, Oliver would have been 12. Someone hasn’t thought that through properly.

Kipps and ActorPutting that aside, it’s a gripping play, with constantly surprising staging and lighting effects that you will, have no doubt, find unsettling! It also benefits from two highly accomplished performances in this new touring production. Robert Goodale’s Kipps grows from a respectful but timid little man with no sense of occasion into a confident, virtuoso performer, presenting a full cast of characters with great versatility and creativity. I particularly enjoyed his sullen, world-weary Keckwick the pony-and-trap driver, and Jerome the pompous local representative. Daniel Easton plays The Actor with a decent blend of actorly arrogance and genuine self-discovery. Looking and sounding for all the world like a young Hugh Bonneville, Mr Easton completely makes you forget that he’s playing an Actor playing the role – very impressive.

Kipps in characterThe Woman in Black always attracts a large number of school crowds, and last Monday’s performance was no exception. However, I’m delighted to report, that these children were way better behaved than those we encountered in 2012. Screaming was kept to a minimum, and all the phones were put away. They’ve either got some really sadistic teachers or were simply much more involved in the play than in the evening out; either way, win-win.

It's not going wellThis production is touring to 22 more theatres up and down the country, continuing right through to May 2020. Check their website to find the venue closest to you. No excuse not to see it then!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

Not Quite a Review; or Half a Macbeth is better than None – Chichester Festival Theatre, 28th September 2019

71563150_757734678019221_7876332965544853504_nOne of the big attractions of this year’s Chichester Festival has been the prospect of John Simm as Macbeth. One of my favourite actors, he was brilliant in Sheffield’s Betrayal a few years ago and packed a whacker of a punch in one of the recent Pinter at the Pinter season productions. With Dervla Kirwan as his Lady M and Christopher Ravenscroft as Duncan, what could possibly go wrong? So it was with excited feet that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum, dodged the raindrops down to the Festival Theatre last Saturday night. We had already enjoyed the new production of Hedda Tesman in the afternoon, and were looking forward to a bit of Out Damned Spot and Infirm of Purpose over the course of the evening.

Duncan on that glass floorAmong the most notable aspects of this production is its glass stage. Set a little bit on high, it consists of several panels joined together which allows for an extravagant lighting plot to create multitudinous effects; and also you can see the rough earth beneath, perfect for opening up grave space with all those deaths. However, sadly, I can’t really review this production for you, gentle reader, because we only saw the first half. Macbeth’s hired murderers were just about to do Banquo in when one of them placed his foot at what must have been a million-to-one wrong angle and KERSHATTERCRASH! the glass panel beneath him cracked into a million tiny shards. At first we all thought it was a magical effect. Maybe each time Macbeth hath murdered sleep, a fairy dies on a glass panel. But no. Once Banquo had sunk into the ground and the Weird Sisters (I blame them) gave us a moody tableau, the lights went up for the interval and a host of backstage and front of house staff huddled around the offending glass panel looking severely worried.

Absolutely ShatteredUndeterred, we went out for our interval Tempranillo, where a slightly perplexed audience was mingling, half in hope and half in disappointment. We wondered how quickly they could get Autoglass to come out and repair…. probably not until Great Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane, which is Monday at the earliest. After a longer than usual interval we resumed our seats and awaited developments. The offending panel had by now become a star feature of many a theatregoer’s selfie; the usual warning against taking photos had gone right out of the window.

Lady MEventually someone, I believe the theatre’s deputy executive officer, who was obviously otherwise watching Strictly at home but was on emergency callout,  came on to the stage and apologised but the show just couldn’t go on – it simply wouldn’t have been safe for the cast and she wasn’t prepared to take that risk. We all applauded – it was clearly the right decision. Audience members would be welcome to transfer their tickets to another performance, or, (as in our case) receive a full refund – sadly Chichester is just too far for us to pop down midweek.

MurderersJudging from the first half, it wasn’t shaping up to be the best Macbeth I’ve seen, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. Mr Simm was a trifle light on the evil side but I think that was building up. Ms Kirwan was a little over-pretty in her characterisation and, generally throughout, there was a lot of declamation, a little like the respectful delivery you’d expect at a worthy middle-class school production. Christopher Ravenscroft is, however, a very dignified and beneficent Duncan, although I was surprised how huggy everyone was with him. Not so much Yes My Liege on bended knee, more like Come here me old mucker.

Macbeth and Lady MOn the good side, the staging for Duncan’s last-night dinner, behind the screen whilst the Macbeths were plotting his murder, was incredibly effective. However, the screen was, I fear, overused, and when some of Lady Macbeth’s words appeared written on it as she was speaking, I couldn’t contain myself from bursting out “Oh What???” in barely contained fury at the gimmickry of it. The best performances – as at half-time – were definitely from Stuart Laing’s loyal Banquo and Michael Balogun’s precise and upright Macduff. However, as I haven’t seen the rest of the play, please ignore all my comments as to the show itself!

Weird SistersA great shame. I trust the manufacturer of glass panels is insured against coughing up what I would imagine would be at least a £40,000 claim for refunded tickets. Once again, the Scottish Play turns out to conceal a nightmare up its sleeve. Nevertheless, there’s always a silver lining; now that the Minerva Grill has stopped doing their late-night sharing food platters (BOO!!!!) we had longer to linger over our late-night curry at the Marsala City – highly recommended!

Review – Hedda Tesman, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 28th September 2019

71483760_244922176426745_4329428812208013312_nHenrik Ibsen is one of those playwrighting gifts that never goes away. He’s currently enjoying a revival which, by my workings-out, has been going on for at least sixty years. The challenge to make him relevant to today, whatever that means, is there if you want to take up the reins, although plenty of excellent Ibsen revivals play them straight, plucked out of the 19th century in all their dark and dismal glory, and they work as well as they ever did. On the other hand, there’s a trend to produce updated versions of our dour Norwegian hero. Only last week Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the excellent revival of Peter Gynt by David Hare at the National, which set him in modern-day Scotland, in a very effective time and place transformation. A couple of years ago the National Theatre toured with a “modern” version of Hedda Gabler adapted by Patrick Marber, which made the purists wince and was, on reflection, probably too clever-clever by half.

HeddaAnd now Cordelia Lynn has also adapted Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s possibly most performed play, featuring his disturbed protagonist fighting for breath in a life where she feels stifled. Where the title of Ibsen’s original stressed her inability to escape from the manipulative hold on her exerted by her late father the General, Ms Lynn’s apparently more conventional title, regarding her as Hedda married to Tesman, emphasises the stress on her from her marriage.

 Hedda Julie and TesmanMany of the changes that have been made to the original work extremely well. This Hedda is a much older woman, one whom you sense is more regretful of the past rather than fearful of the future – more of this later. Thea is no longer her friend but her daughter, which reveals a relationship where Hedda has never truly supported her child. Thea’s infatuation with Elijah brings him more closely into the family circle; perhaps, as a result, the sideline attentions of Judge Brack feel less intimidating or significant in this telling of the story than I have seen in previous versions. Bertha the maid is now a cleaner, employed by an agency; a professional woman on her own right who one feels can dictate her own terms much more positively than a mere servant, which adds just a little extra zest to the household. It’s a very successful repositioning of the play into modern times and does, indeed, retain the relevance of today.

TesmanHowever, as with freedom of speech, with freedom to update comes responsibility. By making these changes, the audience has to suspend its disbelief because modern technology renders quite a number of Ibsen’s structural markers outdated. It’s impossible to imagine, for instance, that when Tesman spent his night on the tiles with Brack and Elijah, and they weren’t going to make it back home, that Tesman wouldn’t have texted either Hedda or Thea to explain. No need for his daughter to wait up all night unnecessarily. Similarly, when Hedda cruelly (there’s no other real justification for this act) destroys Elijah’s original document through fire, it’s ridiculous to expect that he hadn’t already downloaded it onto his laptop; after all, when Thea proposes that she and her father should try to recreate Elijah’s work, the laptop is their first port of call. For me, those two problems make it very hard to accept that the story could happen, in the way it is presented, today.

Thea and ElijahWhilst we’re on the subject of inconsistencies, a couple of things really annoyed me – I think I am definitely turning into a grumpy old man. Thea and Tesman are working hard in the back-room area of the stage with the laptop, trying to re-write Elijah’s words. Tesman enters the living area saying they can’t work out back there because it’s too uncomfortable, with all the boxes around. You look up at the area to see where they have been working; and there are no boxes. Sorry, what? Similarly, at the beginning of the play Bertha starts to vacuum clean the floor. At the end of the play, she takes a mop and bucket to the same floor. Really? Mop and bucket on the carpet?

BrackAs a linguistic aside, this production might be the final hammer blow that makes the C word virtually acceptable – or pointless, your choice. Hedda uses it twice in the same speech and it has the extraordinary effect of drastically reducing both its meaning and its impact. I don’t think that was the intention; I think the intention was to shock, and to show how vicious Hedda is towards her own daughter. But, strangely, Hedda’s sentiments would have had much greater impact without using that word.

Hedda Get Your GunThat said, Haydn Gwynne is superb as Hedda; a tired, defeated, misunderstood figure, suffocated by the good intentions of her husband, and jealous of the freedoms and achievements of the younger generation. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a Hedda whom I thought was less likely to take her own life. There’s no sense of mental instability; although she may be unhappy with life, she really looks like she has it under control, and, if anything, you’d simply expect her to self-medicate on gin. So when that final, lethal, moment comes, it’s quite a shock, as I had completely forgotten that’s what was going to happen!

JulieI particularly enjoyed Natalie Simpson’s performance as Thea, with her scarcely concealed mixture of contempt and dislike for her mother (learned behaviour, I’m sure) but her wide-eyed appreciation for every step Elijah takes. There’s excellent support from Anthony Calf and Jacqueline Clarke as Tesman and Aunt Julie, and (maybe) slightly underpowered performances from Jonathan Hyde as Brack – who seems to lack relevance in this production – and Irfan Shamji as Elijah. Rebecca Oldfield’s Bertha is a bright spark who cheers up the stage whenever she comes on, bringing her positive, get on with it mood into the oppressive household.

BerthaWe saw the last matinee of its run at Chichester – and I was surprised at how undersubscribed it was. As a co-production with Headlong and The Lowry, the production now moves on to a run at The Lowry from 3 – 19 October. Book now – the inventive changes that have brought it into the 21st century make it definitely worth seeing.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – King John, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 26th September 2019

70124559_742892629505514_6444148602838188032_nKing John is one of Shakespeare’s more rarely performed plays, and what a pity that is, because it’s full of fascinating characters, splendid speeches, dramatic gruesomeness and the odd bit of humour. So when the opportunity comes around to share it with a whole new audience, it shouldn’t be wasted. I’ve never sided with the purists when it comes to Shakespeare – he’s big and strong enough to look after himself, and if a production comes along that takes liberties – to the extent that it doesn’t work – then you can always console yourself with the fact that another production will come along soon enough.

Rosie SheehyI must confess though, Eleanor Rhode’s mid-20th century, gender-swapping, vital scene-removing, and altogether flippant production really tested my patience. If it hadn’t been for the excellence of the performances – which were almost universally perfect – and also for the superbly recreated costumes (take a bow Max Johns) – I would have been darn tempted to leave at halftime. To be fair, that would have been an error on my part, as the show considerably calms down after the interval, as the quest to get to the finishing line trims down most of the excesses.

Michael AbubakarThe mood is set with a 60s pop opening soundtrack, and the sight of King John’s very long breakfast table, equipped with two 60s telephones, a posh transistor radio, and a bit of toast. Enter King, in jim-jams and crown, gulping down a hangover cure after what was presumably a heavy night; not that there’s any reason to believe that John was a drinker – we don’t see him touch a drop for the rest of the play. I think it’s an attempt to show that he’s a bit of a lad. A quick moment of comic business follows, with an unanswered phone which – I presume – is to suggest that the King is always in demand. If that’s the case, why don’t phones reappear in the rest of the production? Actually they do; in one moment of appallingly anachronistic and hackneyed comedy, when the papal legate enters the stage and does the internationally recognised “call me” signal to a member of the audience, forgetting that in the sixties we didn’t have mobiles. It’s this kind of inconsistency that reveals how poorly thought through is the whole directorial vision of the production.

King at BreakfastUsually, gender-swapping roles has the benefit of seeing a well-known text through fresh eyes; but when the play is not so well-known, and when so many other liberties have been taken with the original, messing with the gender of the character can cause some confusion. Another confession; in this instance, I found the fact that a man was played by a woman jarred. If it had been a more serious, traditional production, it probably would have worked – but this is a production that errs on the side of the ludicrous. Don’t get me wrong; as King John, Rosie Sheehy is a fine actor with great presence, excellent clarity of diction, and a deft knack of conveying mood swings. But she’s definitely playing King John and not Queen Jean – he’s referred to as a man throughout the play – but Ms Sheehy wears women’s attire – including a stunning gold coronation dress (another bow for the designer). She’s not giving us a male impersonation performance; we’re not watching Vesta Tilley here.

Arthur and Tom McCallSo why a female performer in the role? If the answer is, she was the best person available for the job, then I can understand that. True, it does allow for a moment of dramatic irony where the king cuddles up to Hubert in a semi-sexual way, implying that if he kills Arthur, he/she will make it worth his while; you must decide if that liberty with the script is acceptable or not. Otherwise, it tends to distort the relationships between the characters. Queen Elinor and John, for example, have a power-bond which looks and feels very different between mother and son instead of mother and daughter. Don’t forget this is a tragedy – even though at times it felt more like a pantomime. King John as Principal Boy, Philip the Bastard as Simple Simon and Cardinal Pandulph as the Wicked Witch. For the most part, I couldn’t take it seriously.

The English Court arrivesTake, for instance, those group comedy dance entrances, when the English or the French court appear on stage to a groovy soundtrack and attitudinal dance moves – they reminded me of the finale sequence in that highly successful production of Boeing Boeing about ten years ago; or the boxing scene, which I believe was meant to represent the siege of Angiers, but was much more reminiscent of Monty Python than Shakespeare; I would not have been remotely surprised for the Dauphin to have threatened “I wave my private parts in your general direction”. The food fight at the wedding, though beautifully choreographed, was reminiscent not so much of a ghastly family get-together but more of a comedy routine with Charlie Cairoli and his clowns – 60s pantomime through and through. Best performance by a Pastry Item in a Shakespeare play goes to the bit of cake that ends up in the King of France’s crown.

Wedding DayBut even when they’d cleared away all the jokey excesses of the first two hours, in the height of battle between the English and French forces, they fought…on two revolving trestle tables. I was so distracted by watching the wheels go around, checking to see if they fell off the stage, that I completely forgot to pay attention to the actors. And then – of all scenes to cut – they remove the scene where Arthur dies and is discovered by Pembroke and Salisbury. Instead, the dead Arthur reappears all bloodied and zombie-like a couple of times, presumably as a ghost, and you’re left to your own devices as to how he came a-cropper.

King of FranceThe few moments when the production did soar for me were when the direction took a back seat and the text shone through. The pleading by Hubert (should be the First Citizen, but we’ll let that pass) that Blanche and the Dauphin should marry to end the warring between England and France, and the subsequent reactions by the two forcibly engaged young people was a breath of fresh air. The scene where Hubert is required to murder Arthur, but doesn’t, is electric with tension. But sadly these tremendous moments were few and far between.

Katherine PearceAlong with a great performance by Rosie Sheehy as King John, I was extremely impressed by Michael Abubakar as the cocksure Philip the Bastard, sweet-talking his way into the affections of the crown; Bridgitta Roy as the superior Queen Elinor and a beautifully pitched performance by Tom McCall as the torn Hubert, agonising over the balance of between serving the King and retaining his own humanity. Katherine Pearce went down a storm and was clearly the audience’s favourite as the papal legate Cardinal Pandulph, although whenever I watched her all I could see was Patricia Routledge playing Victoria Wood’s creation Kitty from about 1984.

BoxingI’m not a Shakespeare purist – but there are limits. You can see the threads of a few directorial ideas, but they’re not followed through, and, despite some panache-filled performances, by trying to create a comedy out of a tragedy, it succeeds at neither. This one wasn’t for me. This production continues in repertoire at the Swan Theatre until 21 March 2020 and will be broadcast in cinemas on 29th April 2020.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

Review – Peter Gynt, Olivier Theatre at the National, 21st September 2019

71596599_924542911248462_4164266991596601344_nI always thought it was a bit unfair that Willy Russell’s Rita was castigated for her “Do it on the radio” response to the essay about the problems with staging Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. For one thing – she’s reading English Literature, not training to be a director. And secondly, Ibsen was Norwegian the last time I looked, and Peer Gynt was written in Danish too. Personally, I think she nailed it. David Hare’s response to the same question is to bring the play bang up to date, set it in Dunoon (yes, Dunoon; I don’t know why either), and had the job over to the brilliantly inventive team of Jonathan Kent (Director) and Richard Hudson (Designer). Simples.

Gynt in the skyI’ve had a copy of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt languishing in my drama bookshelf since 1978 and never really had the motivation to open its pages – till now, that is. Whilst watching this new production I just got the sense that it was probably a pinpoint-accurate updating of the 150-year-old classic. So when I got home I speed-read the origina, and, guess what – I was right. The structure of Ibsen’s original play firmly (but fairly) frames Hare’s new work. Ibsen’s five acts have become a more manageable three acts under Hare – Ibsen’s first three acts become Hare’s first act, then Act Four becomes Act Two and Act Five becomes Act Three, if you get my drift. Yes, there are two intervals. You’re in this for the long haul. The bar does very good business.

Wedding PartyBut it’s not just the structure that bridges the 150 year gap. Peer (now Peter) still makes up stories that make his mother Åse (now Agatha) fume. He still leaves his mother on the roof, he still storms Ingrid’s wedding, she still refuses to come out of the bedroom until he whisks her away, has his wicked way (we presume) and dumps her. He still perplexes Mads Moen (now Spudface) with stories of his Invisibility Cloak (hands up who assumed J K Rowling thought of that first?) He still encounters the Woman in Green, the Trolls, the Boyg; he still gets robbed in North Africa (although in a much more 21st century way); he still appears as a prophet to Anitra, he still gets swept up in Begriffenfeldt’s asylum, he is still stopped in his tracks by The Button Moulder; he still breaks Solveig’s (now Sabine’s) heart. It’s an extraordinary feat of transposing the same sequence of 19th century folkloric events into 21st century Scotland.

Dining with the TrollsGynt’s picaresque journey through life is a constant delight. No matter how much of a liar or a cad he is, you’re always on his side – although you’re also quite happy to see him deservedly suffer every so often. His constant search for pleasure – whether it be sexual, financial, influential, or whatever – gets him into endless scrapes which provide episodic entertainment that build up to create a full life but a meaningless one. But there’s always a final reckoning; and it’s in Sabine’s arms and heart that he realises where his place was all along. Sometimes a play ends on a note of uncertainty, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions. Not in this case. Ibsen/Hare make the purpose of Gynt’s journey perfectly clear.

Gynt as the ProphetIt’s worth pointing out, in case you were expecting something po-faced and worthy, that Hare has taken the lively and rather insolent nature of Ibsen’s original text and created a very funny play, choc-full of modern references and terrific characterisations. This is not the doom-laden Ibsen of Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, but a much younger man’s play; in fact, it reminded me of the unexpected comedy of the young Chekhov’s Platonov – although that might have been because I saw James McArdle in that role too – more of him later.

SabineThe vast Olivier stage is the perfect venue for this wide-ranging, high-level imagination play. At the beginning, blue sky and clouds are projected over a back wall of doors and one opens to reveal Peter Gynt, his head already in the clouds before he even starts speaking; a visual nod to the surrealism of Magritte, an unexpected flight of stairs bringing him down to the real world, as though the play was starting with a deus ex machina rather than ending with one. Stage right, a grassy bank with a few surprise traps where a head can bob up (or, indeed, an onion); stage left, a black void that can be usefully transformed into the Hall of the Mountain King, a desert oasis or a wedding party. For the fifth act, storm projections create a magnificent effect of a ship at sea. For three-and-a-quarter hours (maybe more) the show’s visuals create a highly dramatic impact on your brain, and in many cases it’s the visual tableaux that you remember most in the days that follow.

Old GyntThere were three reasons why I particularly wanted to see this production. 1) I’ve never actually seen Peer Gynt before (don’t judge me). 2) I’ve long been an admirer of David Hare and even on those rare occasions where he does put a foot wrong it’s always a brave and fascinating foot. 3) James McArdle. He’s one of our most arresting actors and I don’t know why he isn’t better known. He was a brilliant ingénu Alexey in A Month in the Country and a hilarious lead in Platonov. I understand he was amazing in Angels in America, but sadly we didn’t see that. He has, however, matured into a first-class leading actor and he’s barely off stage for the whole of the show, giving us a devastatingly brilliant performance of a lovable rogue, with all his sarcasms, flights of fancy, dejections and everything else that Ibsen and Hare throw at their hero. A truly outstanding performance.

Death of AgathaAnn Louise Ross does a great job of conveying Agatha’s fighting spirit and her love of her son with her complete fury at his lies and his folly. There are a few other featured roles, but the nature of the play is that the rest of the cast form an ensemble that populate Gynt’s life and times whether it be in Dunoon, North Africa or somewhere lurking in the Hall of the Mountain King. Tamsin Carroll is both bewitching and alarming as the Woman in Green and Anitra, Jonathan Coy gives great bluster as Bertram and alarming sincerity as Begriffenfeldt, Anya Chalotra plays Sabine with a terrific blend of feistiness and calm resignation, and Oliver Ford Davies is perfect casting as the authoritative but reasonable Button Moulder. Amongst the minor roles Lorne MacFadyen as Duncan, Ezra Faroque Khan as the Captain and Guy Henry as Ballon and the Weird Passenger give great support. But everyone throws their heart and soul into creating a very impressive theatrical experience.

It’s running at the National Theatre just until 8th October. Glad I caught it before it closed! You should too!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Beatles: Hornsey Road with Mark Lewisohn, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th September 2019

HR Hornsey and Abbey RoadIf any fact could be designed to make you feel really old, consider this: on 26th September 2019 it will be fifty years since The Beatles released the Abbey Road album. Fifty years! And here’s me thinking it’s still relatively new. And to celebrate, The Beatles: Hornsey Road with Mark Lewisohn seemed like the perfect event. And so did many other people, if last night’s packed rows on all three levels of the Royal Theatre have anything to go by.

 

HR Mark LewisohnHistorian, researcher and all-round Beatles aficionado Mark Lewisohn has put together this fascinating insight into Abbey Road (the album, not the zebra crossing, although that features heavily), relating it to the personalities of the individual Fab Four, their lives and wives, their writing output, their inspirations and the machinations that went into creating this landmark work. No stone is unturned in delving deeply into the creative process, which also includes a unique opportunity to hear the songs from the album as you’ve never heard them before – split into the various (eight) parts that were mixed on the studio’s state-of-the-art technical hardware, as well as highlighting the contributions of George Harrison’s all-important Moog Synthesizer.

 

HR Abbey RoadA major delight of this show – which you could consider to be a multimedia lecture – is the constant supply of quirky facts, irresistible photos, and background information; and if I tell you about them, it will spoil a heap of surprises for you. So I won’t. Suffice to say, amongst the entertaining and informative content, you’ll discover that the Daily Mail hasn’t changed its spots, how much George Martin was paid to orchestrate up some of the tracks, to what extent they enjoyed recording Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, what happened to John and Yoko in Scotland, learn the true identities of Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam, why the last note of Her Majesty is missing, the tantalising recently released news about why the group went Cold Turkey on the next album, and how Abbey Road was nearly called Hornsey Road.

 

HR Waiting for the Abbey Road photoMr Lewisohn delivers his extraordinary material with respect, authority and humility, leaving all the fireworks to John, Paul, George and Ringo. If you ever feel that you’ve wasted your life, it’s incredible to think how much they achieved at such a young age; take a second to think that by the time the group split, George, the youngest, was still only 26. The pressure to succeed, the overwhelming adoration, followed by, in the latter days, the media’s desire to knock them down (à la Tall Poppy syndrome) must have been unimaginable for four young men, and it’s no wonder that they occasionally fell foul of the law and got themselves into trouble.

 

HR Fab FourYou might think that this show is only for Beatles geeks. Not true. Such geeks (of whom I’m possibly one), will get a whole lot of satisfying information which will send them home with a full brain and a contented heart. But, provided you like the Beatles to at least some extent – and that’s surely 99.9% of the population? – you’ll be impressed by the research, the passion, the history and the human insights into what Mr Lewisohn considers (and I agree with him) the finest creative team of the 20th century.

 

HR Abbey Road fansThis was the first night of the tour, and between now and 4th December Mr Lewisohn will be sharing his discoveries in 23 more venues all over the country – and in Dublin. A memorable and highly rewarding show. You must go!

Review – Two Trains Running, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th September 2019

Two Trains RunningAugust Wilson’s 1990 play starts the new Made in Northampton season at the Royal and Derngate and is (I believe) its UK premiere. Set in Memphis Lee’s café in Pittsburgh in 1969, the urban environment all around is being demolished to make way for a regeneration programme, destroying the lives of its largely black inhabitants. The local authority want to seize and knock down the café too, but Lee isn’t going to accept less than $25,000 – having paid $5,500 for it originally.

LeeThis slice-of-life play contains a variety of themes and plots, weaving in and out of each other, over a few days. Lee worries about his failing business; his one and only chef/waitress, Risa, self-harms by cutting her legs in order (she says) to put off unwanted attention from men; wide boy Wolf uses the café phone as his personal office, taking illegal gambling bets; mentally unstable Hambone can’t get over being cheated over payment for a job; young chancer Sterling steals his way out of financial problems; and old guard Holloway dispenses his wisdom and undertaker West works hard, getting on with their lives as best they can.  Overriding all these is the all-pervasive atmosphere that black lives are inferior to white lives, with the growing Black Power movement and the destruction of black homes and businesses with the urban regeneration.

Round the counterIt’s a curious play. At three hours, it feels too long. All the points that the play makes could be made and still shave at least half-an-hour off. Dramatically, there aren’t many plot progression points. However, the characters are strangely spellbinding, and the play, despite its faults, oddly compelling. Admittedly, not a lot happens on a day to day basis; but isn’t that true of life? Take the title – Two Trains Running – it’s part of a throwaway speech by one of the characters, elevated to its titular significance although it’s just a phrase from everyday life. The play reminded me a little of Eugene O’Neill – a big helping of The Iceman Cometh with a tad of Desire Under the Elms and a sprinkling of All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Everyone has their own concerns, some of which they’re prepared to share, others they’d prefer to keep private. Most of the plot threads are tied up at the end – maybe too neatly. I’m still uncertain as to whether Lee’s good news at the end was genuine or pretence. But maybe that’s a strength in itself.

Sterling and WestFrankie Bradshaw has done a fantastic job in recreating the café in the midst of a building site. The furniture, the bar, the phone, the windows all exude an air of 1960s disappointment. The jukebox is perfect for the era, although I remain unconvinced by the more modern-looking coffee jug. Amy Mae’s lighting design is also superb, creating eerie, dreamlike effects juxtaposed with the harsh neon lights of real life. And Nancy Medina’s direction respects the text and allows the characters to develop without ever imposing an external slant.

SterlingThere are some stunning central performances. I found Andrew French mesmerising as Memphis Lee, bringing out all the character’s hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, truths and self-delusions. Michael Salami is also superb as Sterling, the kind of waster who nevertheless has a charisma that you find hard not to like, flipping easily from childish enthusiasm to incensed fury. And with a deceptively challenging role, Anita-Joy Uwajeh impresses with her constant reactions and attention to the events in the café – portraying that difficult balance between keeping the customer satisfied but existing one step aloof from the rest of them. Beautifully done.

WolfRay Emmet Brown gives an enjoyable performance as the flashy Wolf, full of confidence and brashness, humour and cynicism. Also – great shoes! Derek Ezenagu tackles the problem role of the vulnerable Hambone – who only says a couple of sentences, repeated time and time again – with great commitment and sincerity, creating an uncomfortable, but very realistic watch. And Geoff Aymer brings authority and dignity to the role of West, the undertaker/businessman who’s never short for work and provides the clearest insight into what the world outside the café doors looks like. For me, Leon Herbert didn’t convey Holloway’s self-assurance with what I felt was a faltering, uncertain performance – hopefully he will grow into the role as the run progresses.

RisaAfter its run at the Royal and Derngate, the production tours to Southampton, Oxford, Doncaster, Ipswich, Guildford and Derby, finishing at the end of October. A four-star production that provides three-star entertainment. Great characters with some great lines supported by a magnificent set; but, in the final analysis, also somewhat rambling and woolly. Like life, really.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan