Review – John Gabriel Borkman, Bridge Theatre, London, 2nd November 2022

John Gabriel BorkmanI’ve always been a sucker for a bit of Ibsen. Ever since we read Ghosts at school, I’ve always admired the grim grit of miserable 19th century Norwegian life that only Ibsen really seems to get. John Gabriel Borkman is one of his later plays, and was new to me, so I was curious to see if he’d cheered up at all in later life. Not a bit of it – I’m pleased to say. You don’t watch Ibsen for the lolz.

JGBNicholas Hytner brings us a brand new JGB, with a fresh translation by Charlotte Barslund then moulded into a new version by Lucinda Coxon. Comparing it with the original, there isn’t really a lot that’s changed. The role of Mrs Borkman’s maid has been dropped, which gives it a more contemporary feel; she has been replaced by Gunhild’s use of a mobile phone, poor thing, which I presume is the main reason why this new version is presented in the here and now, rather than 1896. Otherwise, I can’t see how presenting the play in a modern setting gives any other insights – more on some staging details later.

Gunhild and ErhartThere’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating story with two central, timeless, themes. First – the humiliation of the fallen hero. The John Gabriel Borkman of the title was once a “great” man; a banker, respected, wealthy, influential – but a fraud, who swindled people left right and centre, including his own friends. Unsurprisingly, he was sent to prison for five years, to return home to the hostile and unforgiving arms of his wife, Gunhild. As a result, he has spent the last three years pacing around the upstairs room of their house, doing hardly anything, seeing hardly anyone. An unmitigated failure.

EllaThis deadlock is broken by the arrival of Gunhild’s sister, Ella, who owns the property as all Borkman’s assets were seized. Gunhild and Ella haven’t seen each other in eight years; Gunhild’s animosity towards her sister is palpable. It emerges that young Erhart Borkman has been seeing an older woman in the town, Fanny Wilton; this introduces the second timeless theme – the desire of the older generation to control the lives of the younger generation. Gunhild is an overprotective mother and Ella a besotted aunt; and when JGB decides he also wants to take Erhart away and start a new life together, there’s only one possible outcome for all this delusion.

CastAnna Fleischle has designed a very classy set. Cool greys and blues straight out of the Dulux colour chart suggest an atmospheric Oslo winter but also create poverty out of what was once obviously opulence. Very nicely done indeed. James Farncombe’s inventive lighting enhances the set design and brings additional drama to the theatrical highlights. In the loft sits a grand piano, on which young Frida Foldal plays Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, the only remnant of artistry left in the building.

FridaBut there are a couple of odd staging choices. The sound effect representing JGB pacing upstairs at the beginning of the play doesn’t sound like footsteps at all – they are more like a muffled drum beat.  The programme tells us the setting is “outside Oslo”, so why does Gunhild drink Barr’s cola? Nothing against Barr’s cola, of course, but one would have thought that the factories of Forfar are a long way from Oslo. Does she swap to Irn-Bru at the weekends? And we’re clearly in the 21st century, with mobile phones, a flat-screen tv and so on –  so why is Ella dressed as an 1890s drudge?

ErhartThere’s also an accidentally amusing moment when Fanny announces that Frida is joining Erhart and herself on the journey to Rome, saying “Frida’s waiting in the car”; when she’s clearly still upstairs putting away her sheet music. Perhaps the production is peppered with these deliberately disconcerting aspects as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt; or maybe, as I suspect, I can’t help but think that a few things weren’t properly thought through. Another of my pet hates – Ibsen has left us a beautifully structured four act play but there’s still no interval – 1 hour 45 minutes all the way through. When you get to my age you really do value a break in between!

BorkmanThere’s no doubt that you witness an acting masterclass. Simon Russell Beale is superb as the disgraced Borkman. A complex, riveting performance, you can see the charisma in the character, his ability to fool both himself and others, his loss of focus and his absolute selfishness. Sir Simon uses every note of his terrific voice to try to galvanise others, to convince himself, and to show his total sense of failure. He’s brilliant. Clare Higgins is also superb as the strident Gunhild; a loud, complaining, stifling characterisation that works perfectly. Lia Williams is terrific as the quieter, more reasoning Ella, resolute against her ill-health and hoping against hope that Erhart might take pity on her – but also completely accepting and understanding the reality of his situation.

VilhelmThere’s excellent support from the rest of the cast, including the always entertaining Michael Simkins as JGB’s friend Vilhelm Foldal, putting up with being treated like dirt by everyone who knows him, but always with a little optimism held back for the future. Ony Uhiara’s Fanny Wilton is a woman who knows what she wants and is out to get it; I liked how her voice and costume set her apart from the traditional respectability of the other characters.

Enjoyable, and very well acted, but with some odd production decisions. Great to see that Ibsen isn’t going away any time soon!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Bach and Sons, Bridge Theatre, London, 11th August 2021

Bach and SonsThere can be few more delightful places to experience a sunny matinee in London than the beautiful setting of the Bridge Theatre, with Tower Bridge majestically overlooking its front lawn, its wide public spaces inside and a degree (degree, mind) of social distancing in the auditorium. To be honest, I was expecting more, but it was one of those times when you must trust to double vaccinations and a good tight mask. Fortunately, all the other theatregoers abided by the mask instruction pretty much 100%, which was very reassuring.

Too much for young CarlBach and Sons is a new play by Nina Raine and takes that redoubtable composer Johann Sebastian Bach and examines his family relationships, primarily with his two oldest sons, Wilhelm and Carl, his wife Maria Barbara, her sister and housekeeper Katharina, and soprano Anna, who steps into the breach on more than one occasion and in more than one way. The play concentrates heavily on Bach Senior’s conservatism both musically and in faith, which shows itself in his obsession with musical counterpoint – even though, as the years pass, this style loses relevance and becomes outmoded. Remember how our parents hated whatever constituted the popular music of our youth? It was ever thus.

Bach and SonsThe play is at its best when it explores the dynamic between Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann. Bach clearly favours his older son, which confuses and upsets the younger Carl, and it’s a rift that increases throughout their lives. Wilhelm has more natural talent but lacks the discipline to make the most of it. Carl has a strong technical understanding of writing music but lacks the je ne sais quoi (or, I guess, in this case, Ich weiß nicht) to make his writing soar. But with application, he gains preferment from the rather sinister King Frederick the Great, whilst Wilhelm drinks himself into oblivion and Johann Sebastian slips down the greasy pole of recognition as he can’t stop being tetchy with important people. There is a reconciliation at the end though; and of course, today, the music of J S Bach is still everywhere in the classical music world, whereas you might have to look a bit harder to find the C P E Bach.

Bach prefers WilliHowever, it is a rather slow and stodgy play and at times I had to fight to keep those eyes open. The music metaphors become rather heavy and laden, and occasionally you wonder if the whole thing isn’t straying into Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner. From the moment you see all the characters together there’s never any doubt that Bach would go off with Anna sooner or later; and whilst that is a statement of historical fact, for the purposes of the play it might have been more effective if it came as a surprise. Overall, one gets the impression that the play is just rather light and on the shallow side. Deeper writing might have mined more drama out of the storyline; we need to feel more involved with the characters and not just bear witness to what goes on. The audience knows that time is passing throughout the course of the play, but it’s very hard to tell exactly how much, because for the first three-quarters of the play none of the characters ages at all; all we can do is find out how old brother Gottfried is, and then work it back. It’s only when you see Johann Sebastian shuffle on stage wearing an old cardie that you realise that he’s now officially old.

AnnaGrey piano keyboards are suspended over the stage like several swords of Damocles, and smaller stages roll in and out from the wings to suggest all the different locations of the story. I don’t know what was wrong with the moving platform that brought the Christmas Tree on stage; it sounded like it was being rolled over bubble wrap with all the popping noises it made; some WD40 needed there, I reckon. The “live” playing of the instruments works extremely well, with specially recorded sequences for the production. You’d never know that Bastian wasn’t actually playing that harpsichord or that C P E wasn’t wowing us with his Cello Concerto.

Anna and BastianThe cast is led by the safe pair of hands that is Simon Russell Beale as J S Bach, and he is perfectly cast for the role; he presents the composer as neither ogre nor caricature, but as a very believable portrayal of a sometime irascible and flawed man who sacrifices others’ happiness on the altar of his own favouritism. To be honest, this is easy pickings for Sir Simon; he could probably do this role with one hand tied behind his back (although perhaps not the harpsichord scenes). If the writing had been bolder, I’m sure he would have revealed more about the man. Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin are both excellent as brothers Carl and Wilhelm, realistically portraying both brotherly closeness and distant annoyance.

Frederick on the flutePravessh Rana gives an unsettling performance as Frederick the Great, creepily giving vent to the character’s latent and predatory homosexuality, with conversations full of veiled threats which reminded me of John Hurt’s batty but terrifying Caligula in TV’s I Claudius. It is perhaps surprising that Nina Raine hasn’t made more of the female characters in the play, but Pandora Colin, Racheal Ofori and Ruth Lass make the most of what limited dramatic intensity the writing provides them. I was, however, impressively disturbed by the scene where Ms Ofori’s Anna dwells on the children she has lost as she walks around J S’s piano, obsessively drumming its surface with her fingers.

C P E on the CelloThere are a few telling lines – I loved Bach’s description of one of his musicians as multi-talentless for example – and a few excellent scenes – Bach attending Frederick’s court and subjecting himself to the humiliation of the King’s mentally sadistic pleasure is one. I can’t help but feel though that this is not as good a play as it ought to be, but this is cunningly disguised by a highly competent and professional production. Excellent performances bring it to life to provide a very enjoyable two and a half hours!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 13th July 2019

A Midsummer Night's DreamLast year the Bridge removed all its stalls seats for a gloriously exciting promenade production of Julius Caesar. This year, they’ve only gone and done it again – for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an old perennial favourite that can withstand the tests of time and whatever bright inventive ideas an innovative director can throw at it. Over the years, Dream has learned to stand on its own two feet; I’ve never yet seen a production that I didn’t like, because there’s always so much fun to be squeezed out from squabbling lovers, ruthless fairies and a starstruck weaver. It lends itself to updating too; I was just a bit too young to have seen the famous Peter Brook production, but that concept of aerial fairies has never quite gone away.

Gwendoline ChristieIt’s always a pleasure to write about a production that gives so much joy, happiness and sheer delight. Mr Hytner’s version is a dream of a Dream. Inventive, cheeky, bang up-to-date; playing with the storyline but still respectful of the original and its characters. Before the show started, I noted that the programme gave the factual, but enigmatic statement: “around 300 lines have been reassigned”. I hadn’t read any reviews in advance, so didn’t know what to expect; and if you’re in the same position, gentle reader, and don’t want a big surprise to be spoiled, I will completely understand if you now X me out at the corner of the page and read no more. Because the surprise is a thing of beauty.

David Moorst“I jest to Oberon”, Puck normally explains, in his introductory speech, to the unnamed fairy at the beginning of Act Two. Instead, “I serve Titania”, says this Puck, with an accent straight up from the Black Country, looking like a cross between the late lamented Rik from The Young Ones and Keith from The Prodigy. By serving Titania rather than Oberon, that means she’s going to play a trick on him, rather than the other way round. So it’s Oberon’s eyes who receive the Love-in-Idleness treatment, and who therefore becomes besotted with Bottom when he awakes. And how does that make Bottom feel? You’ll just have to see this production for yourself to find out.

Tessa Bonham Jones, Isis Hainsworth, Kit Young and Paul AdeyefaBunny Christie comes up trumps as usual with a superb set, full of trickery and surprises; a Perspex box for Hippolyta’s first appearance (she has been captured by Theseus at war, after all); an Athenian forest liberally sprinkled with brass bedsteads for the lovers’ sleep-out adventures; and a range of fabric trapezes for Puck and the fairies’ general use (see Para 1, Peter Brook reference.) Hermia and Helena appear in monastic grey, in contrast with their suitors’ sharp suits; but no one’s as splendidly clad as Theseus/Oberon, which strangely adds to his slight fragility and insecurity. Grant Olding’s original music is both haunting and happy; and if ever there was an award for the Best Ever Use of Johnny Nash in a West End Play – this is your winner.

Gwendoline Christie as TitaniaThere’s the always thorny decision to be taken when it’s a promenade production; do you stand or do you sit? At two hours forty minutes, plus the interval, depending on your level of fitness, it can take it out on both the feet and the back. And there will always be moments when you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you just won’t see what everyone else sees. I know that Hippolyta did a great visual reaction in the first scene from the guffaws from the audience; but another of the characters was right in my way so I’ve no idea what she actually did. But for every naff moment like that, there’s the chance of a golden moment; we were right there when Helena was spoiling for a fight against Hermia, and when Oberon was going to get it on with Bottom; and Snug and I exchanged thumbs ups when Pyramus and Thisbe was chosen as the entertainment for the Duke’s nuptials. The best seated position is almost certainly the front row of Gallery One; but, despite all its complications, you can’t beat the thrill of being up close and personal with the cast in the pit. And the party end to the show is by far best enjoyed by the promenaders. Those in the seats looked on like they’d been left out of the invitations, whilst we were chucking enormous moon balls at each other and boogying with Puck and Demetrius.

Hammed AnimashaunWhilst there are serious aspects to the play – Egeus, after all, is preparing to have his daughter killed if she does not bend to his will as to whom she should marry, and Theseus is on his side in this matter – this production concentrates unashamedly on the humour. Not only from the role-reversals of Oberon and Titania, but also with a beautiful mesh of modern-day asides alongside the Elizabethan text. Seeking a calendar, Bottom borrows a mobile phone off a member of the audience (and you can guess how well that can go down). Theseus and Hippolyta critique the mechanicals with a modern twist; the preferment of Pyramus and Thisbe is shown in X-Factor terms; oh, yes, and there’s that Johnny Nash moment, as well as Beyoncé and Dizzee Rascal. Not like the Athens I’ve visited at all.

Felicity Montagu and Hammed AnimashaunAlthough it is very much an ensemble piece there are a number of absolute stand-out performances. Oliver Chris is a very majestic Theseus who adores the sound of his own stentorian voice; the kind of authority figure who doesn’t walk, he sweeps; yet he retains a slight air of doubt, perfectly seen when Theseus talks to Bottom in Act Five and wonders if he remembered him from some vague encounter…? Gwendoline Christie is superb as the statuesque, no-nonsense Hippolyta and a most mischievous Titania. David Moorst is a fantastically agile and attitude-filled Puck; not one of the usual cutesy fairy characters, you could easily imagine this one beating you up behind the bikesheds if you got in his way. Perhaps funniest and most endearing of all, Hammed Animashaun is unbeatable as Bottom; a big kid who’ll sulk his way into the best parts, with a fantastic, larger-than-life chuckle and a huge heart to spread the positive energy of this play.

Kit Young and Isis HainsworthIsis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones are excellent as Hermia and Helena, Miss Jones taking every opportunity to mine the humour out of the character, and Miss Hainsworth feisty and fighty; as their suitors Paul Adeyefa and Kit Young make an enjoyable double act as the brash Demetrius and Lysander. In another sex change, Felicity Montagu turns in a brilliant comic performance as Mistress Quince, and all the other rude mechanicals make for a dream team of comedy; far and away the funniest portrayal of Pyramus and Thisbe (plus its rehearsals) that I’ve ever seen. And the supplementary fairies are all beautifully played with their face sparkles and acrobatic antics; butter wouldn’t melt when they’re in the sky, then they come down to earth and are – shall we say – delightfully human in their provision of comfort to Bottom the Ass.

Chipo KureyaPurists will be aghast. But the rest of us will absolutely love it. It’s playing at the Bridge right up until the end of August. That’s three shows this year that I’ve wanted to see again before we reached the interval; Company, Man of La Mancha, and now Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, how can I fit in another visit…?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, 28th July 2018

AllelujahI have to admit, it’s lovely to be back at the Bridge Theatre after the complete disaster of trying to get tickets to see their earlier show Nightfall. I booked for a Sunday matinee, only to be told a few weeks later that by then the run would have ended as they were squeezing another show into their timetable. So they transferred me to an earlier Sunday matinee, only to be told another few weeks later that the performance had been cancelled and could I manage a different date? No I could not! Whatever happened to the show must go on? As Oscar Wilde once (almost) said, “to cancel one performance may be classed a misfortune. To cancel two sounds like carelessness.” Clearly Sunday matinees at the Bridge Theatre are a thing of the past, which is a shame because Saturdays are always busy; for us, it will simply mean seeing fewer shows at this otherwise fantastic new theatre.

SalterAnyway…. Allelujah for the return of Alan Bennett to the London stage. He’s 84 now; and sometimes, when a much loved and respected playwright reaches their later years, you can tell it by an increasing laziness or tiredness in the writing. Not so with Mr Bennett. Allelujah! has a sprightly construction, killer punchlines, devastating observations about the NHS and Life in General (whatever that is), memorable characterisations and a neat eye for the surreal. It’s rare for a first Act to end on two bombshells, both within the last ten seconds; but you’ll be going into the interval not knowing whether to be horrified or laughing out loud – probably both. There are some very moving and accurate portrayals of characters with dementia; if occasionally they verge on the cruel, it’s only because dementia itself is cruel and there’s no point hiding it. This play isn’t always an easy watch; more power to its elbow for being that stark.

Dr Valentine on TVTo fill you in, the Bethlehem Hospital is in a parlous state because it no longer fits in with the modern NHS. It’s a local hospital, for local people; the kind of place where you go in with something wrong with you, they make you better, and you leave. No sexy surgical specialities; the books all add up and in fact the place is run so efficiently that it even makes something of a profit. But there’s a lot of bed-blocking, it doesn’t fit in with 21st century vision, and if they’re not careful, it’ll get closed down and all the patients (and some of the staff, perhaps) will get transferred to Tadcaster, Lord forbid. Save the Beth is the cry of the local protest movement, and TV cameras are out and about covering the hospital’s every move for the Local News. Salter, the Chairman of the Hospital Trust, is constantly fussing around trying to emphasise all its achievements, and brown-nosing anyone he suspects might be of influence; like in-patient Joe’s son Colin, who has cycled all the way from London to visit his dad, but who is known to work in Whitehall, if not actually as part of the Department of Health, but alongside the Department of Health. If anyone might be in a position to put in a good word for the future of the hospital, it’s Colin. But is he on their side? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Mrs Maudsley arrivesIt’s not the first time a hospital has been used as a metaphor for the state of British society. Allelujah reminded me strongly of Lindsay Anderson’s 1982 film Britannia Hospital, which did very much the same thing; it also featured a panicky and increasingly desperate Chief Administrator, and a TV documentary crew snooping round who (without giving the game away too much) observed some particularly nefarious and illegal goings on. What’s different about Allelujah is that, when everything else has dried up and failed, in the face of all adversity, indomitable human spirit carries on. And that’s shown in the singing.

Colin singsSinging? So is this a musical? No not at all. Nor is it particularly a play about singing, although singing plays a major role. If you’ve ever had an elderly relative spend a long time in a hospital ward, or a care home, you’ll know that musical entertainment in the form of getting everyone around to join in a sing-song, is a successful way to lift spirits. So on the one hand, it looks a little surreal when all the old patients start singing songs together, but on the other, nothing could be more natural. The music is significant in many ways: 1) on the most basic level, it’s a spirit-lifter for the patients; 2) it reveals the youthful nature of what’s inside us all, no matter how old and decrepit we are on the outside, inside we’re all still 21; 3) no matter what problems beset us, we shall overcome; and 4) as our inexorably failing NHS and society in general steadily decline, we can divert ourselves from this inevitable horror by singing; a little like throwing yourself into the last verses on the Titanic.

Sister Gilchrist dances with JoeI would, however, question the choice of songs. The average age of the people on the wards would, I would have thought, be something in the region of 80. So the songs that are really going to keep them buoyed up would be the songs they enjoyed during their 20s and 30s; so that would be songs of approximately 50 to 60 years ago; so roughly 1958 – 1968. The songs that feature in the show are actually more like those that Mr Bennett’s own parents would have enjoyed; so to me at least they felt strangely old-fashioned. I would have found it even more believable if they’d been singing some rock and roll and some Lennon & McCartney. Actually, the second Act opens with the patients performing a rousing version of Good Golly Miss Molly, just like they would have done in the Good Old Days, and it stood out like a beacon of sheer joy.

Dr Valentine and ColinBob Crowley’s design for the play is spot-on accurate in its representation of a busy hospital; all the signs, the notice boards, the reception areas, the magnolia walls, even the dado rails are absolutely perfect. We’ve all been to children’s wards where they’re given names like Disney Ward, Pooh Ward, Noddy Ward, and so on. Mr Bennett’s runs with this idea to create in Bethlehem Hospital, Dusty Springfield Ward, Shirley Bassey Ward, Len Hutton Ward, etc, which works perfectly.

Save the BethNicholas Hytner has brought together a comparatively huge cast of 25 to create a great ensemble atmosphere amongst the actors who play the patients; this creates something of an us and them feel in regard to their dealings with anyone outside their own group – so the medical staff, the visiting relatives, the documentary people definitely feel like outsiders. And it’s true, as this play deftly shows, some of those outsiders are not working in the patients’ best interests.

Sister Gilchrist chatted up by FletcherThere isn’t a one single star performance in this play because there isn’t one single star role that is that central to the story; but there are some terrific performances throughout the cast. Peter Forbes is delightfully smarmy and slippery as Chairman Salter, constantly on the lookout to emphasise the best and disguise the worst, careful never to be out of the camera’s eye for too long; and, when it looks as though the Beth won’t be saved, he’s the first one to ensure his future security in whatever way he can. He doesn’t know quite how to handle Samuel Barnett’s Colin, though; Mr Barnett plays this strategic adviser-but-also-relative with cool, detached cynicism and a quiet adherence to a more ruthless vision for the NHS. TAndy taunts Joehere’s a chillingly eerie performance by the brilliant Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist, making her rounds with silent determination, rarely betraying any emotion; as her complete opposite number, Sacha Dhawan is excellent as Dr Valentine, keen as mustard, trying to engage with the patients on an emotional level – and put through the humiliation of a citizenship test that is truly cringeworthy. There’s also brilliant support from David Moorst as the gormless work-experience lad Andy; negligently trying to get away with as little effort as possible, whist still sucking up to the bosses.

Dr Valentine and AmbroseAnd then there’s the fantastic cast of patients. Jacqueline Clarke shows she still has a great voice and charisma as the woeful Mrs Maudsley; Julia Foster is hilariously mischievous as Mary; Jeff Rawle as Joe shows not only great understanding of dementia but also brilliant comic timing and a genuinely horrified understanding of what his fate is to be. Gwen Taylor’s Lucille is still full of the vigour of a much younger and (what the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called) flightier woman; and Simon Williams’ Ambrose dishes out some fantastic cantankerous malevolence as his patience is tried too often.

Neville and CoraVery funny, but also more than a little sad, this beautifully written play gives us lots to think about our own long-term future and how vulnerable the elderly can be. Highly recommended!

Party for EverybodyP. S. For the attention of Alan Bennett: I have a bit of a gripe with the title, Mr Bennett. I was always taught that if it ends with a J and an H it starts with an H. If it ends with an I and an A, it starts with an A. Hallelujah or Alleluia; make your mind up!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan