Review – Middle, National Theatre, Dorfman Theatre, London, 28th May 2022

MiddleWe didn’t see David Eldridge’s Beginning, the first of his trilogy of love and relationships, that premiered at the National Theatre in 2017. Whether this put us at a disadvantage for seeing Middle, the second in the trilogy, I don’t know. Presumably there’ll be an End too, but that’s a post for a different day.

Rushbrook and RyanMiddle is a two-hander set in a modern luxury kitchen diner. Maggie and Gary have been together for sixteen years now; he works hard in a job he hates but has a great income, which allowed them to buy this six-bedroomed home. She also works hard at a job that is a disappointment to her. They have a daughter, Annabelle, whom he indulges and she disciplines, which is a cause of conflict. When he’s not at work, he’s having a few drinks at the pub, or watching West Ham. She’s very lonely, and he hasn’t got a clue. And the play starts with Maggie telling Gary that she doesn’t love him anymore.

Daniel Ryan and Claire RushbrookIt’s the middle of the night (middle again) and she can’t sleep. Apparently, she hasn’t slept properly in ages. She gets up to make a cup of warm milk. He, realising she’s up, gets up to nip to the loo and then comes downstairs to see if she’s ok. They’re very concerned not to disturb Annabelle. A hundred or so minutes later, their life together has been thoroughly explored, secrets revealed, and dreams shattered.

Ryan and RushbrookDespite some moments of humour – and some of them are shockingly funny – this comes across as an extremely sad play. Neither of them has the remotest wish to hurt the other, but they do. And there appears to be nothing that either of them can do to save the situation. It feels bleak and hopeless. And even though there is a resolution of sorts at the end – well, I didn’t believe anything was going to change. The writing, and Polly Findlay’s direction, are intense, moody and dark. The bitterness of their situation creates a stark contrast to the modern comfort that surrounds them. Annabelle’s playbox particularly stands out as a symbol of the brightness and happiness that should be present, but is only a façade.

Claire RushbrookClaire Rushbrook is excellent as Maggie, a brooding, discontented presence who’s more sad than angry, trying to explain her position to her husband who gave up listening long ago. She drifts uncertainly from room to room, unable to focus on the future or the present, and resentful of much of the past. Gary is normally played by Daniel Ryan, but for our performance his understudy Mark Middleton took the role; I don’t know how much notice he had, but it’s a huge part – Gary is never off stage – and he did a terrific job. He played Gary as a rather whiny chap of few needs and simple pleasures; taking his wife for granted but genuinely wanting to put things right when his failures have been exposed.

Daniel RyanMaggie maintains throughout that the first five years of their relationship was great; they had fun, they were successful, they did everything they wanted, and life was perfect together. Therefore I found it hard to believe that when she does her big confession to Gary about her disappointment in not getting her dream job, and her resentment against the friend who did, that she hadn’t told him that before. They had a great relationship. She would have told him. He would have empathised and supported her. This doesn’t feel believable to me.

Claire Rushbrook and Daniel RyanMrs Chrisparkle, on the other hand, didn’t believe that the character of Gary, with everything we know about him, could hold down for so many years the city job that brings in big bucks. She can’t see how he would have cut the mustard over that time. My other slight problem with the play is that I could never quite get a grasp of its purpose. It’s a slice of life, certainly, and depicts the kind of relationship problems that could beset anyone in the middle period of their lives together. But I’m not sure how it sheds light for others. I found it a very negative experience, very downbeat, and (dare I say it) self-indulgently sad. Happy to accept that I’m probably in the minority here. Middle continues at the Dorfman until 18th June.

Production photos by Johan Persson

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Glengarry Glen Ross, Playhouse Theatre, 16th November 2017

Glengarry Glen RossDavid Mamet’s written some cracking plays in the past. Do you remember Sexual Perversity in Chicago? American Buffalo? Duck Variations? (Just how many ways can you do it with a duck?) And then there’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It was only the second play I saw with the then Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle), back in April 1986. The first, the previous December, had been Wife Begins at Forty, a hilarious romp which we both loved. Was I onto a winning streak with the Mamet? With Tony Haygarth, Kevin McNally, and Derek Newark all in the cast, what could possibly go wrong? She hated it.

GGR Christian SlaterFast forward 31 years (yikes!) and this new production of GGR, the prospect of which didn’t titillate her at all. But my friend, the Squire of Sidcup, suggested that it might be fun to go to see it, and I agreed. And I’m very glad I did, because this production wiped the floor with the original one, and is full of meticulous detail, superb performances and a tangible feel for the cut-throat world of Real Estate.

GGR Don WarringtonStructurally, it’s a lopsided play. The first act contains just three short scenes, set in a Chinese Restaurant (absolutely beautifully designed by Chiara Stephenson – you can almost smell the chop suey), where the salesmen go to discuss their nefarious wheeler-dealer activities, concocting plans to outdo the others, agreeing percentage cuts of percentage cuts in return for blind-eyes or insider knowledge; or maybe even a plot to break into the office overnight and steal all the preciously hidden “leads” – which could make a top salesman hundreds of thousands of dollars. The third scene is between the most successful salesman, Ricky Roma, and a poor sap of a geezer who just happened to be sitting in the restaurant. Before he knows it, he is being tempted with property beyond the dreams of avarice.

GGR Kris MarshallThat all takes place in a space of half an hour, and then it’s time for the interval. Originally (I understand) the interval was half an hour long and there were criticisms that it obstructed the natural flow of the story. For Thursday’s matinee, the interval was just twenty minutes, which felt fine. The second act takes place back at the office; there’s been a break-in, the leads are gone, but who stole them? And how will that team of competitive salesmen ever work together again?

GGR Stanley TownsendThe transformation from restaurant to tatty office during the interval is a remarkable feat, as the floor is strewn with papers, loose files, cabinets are overflowing with disturbed documentation; a clock on the back wall keeps time, and twenty minutes in to the act someone says it’s 12:15 and you look at the clock and it precisely is! That’s what I call attention to detail.

GGR Christian Slater and Daniel RyanThe big attraction in this production is the presence of Christian Slater as Ricky Roma. I’m not overly familiar with his work but, boy, is he a classy actor. The confidence, the ease, the charisma that he exudes is so impressive that he’s just a delight to watch and to hear. Roma is a total sleazeball but Mr Slater still makes him incredibly likeable, and even when you know he’s weaving a web of deceit around his victim, strangely, you’re still on his side. That’s a great achievement. His victim is the excellent Daniel Ryan, as Lingk, whom Mrs C and I last saw in Chichester’s The House They Grew Up In; he really is the master in portraying a put-upon underdog. There are also strong performances by Kris Marshall as the angularly unpleasant boss John Williamson, arrogantly patronising all his staff; Oliver Ryan as the impatient, gun-wielding local cop brought in to sort out the mess; and super-sub Mark Carlisle, effortlessly stepping into the role of the snide, cantankerous Dave Moss whilst Robert Glenister is indisposed.

GGR Christian Slater and Kris MarshallI really loved the indomitable Don Warrington as the hapless George Aaronow, perpetually confused and startled by life, almost frozen into stasis by the perplexity of everything around him, seeing the last dregs of what was once a decent career slip through his fingers. The brief Act One scene between Mr Warrington and Mr Carlisle was sheer joy, as they volleyed lines and responses back and forth to each other like a verbal tennis match. But perhaps the big surprise of the show is the brilliant performance by Stanley Townsend as Shelly Levene, glorying in the minutiae of his fabulous sale, getting a truly mellifluous resonance around his words as he proudly revelled in his moment. It’ll be a long time before I forget his recollections of that crumbcake.

Playhouse TheatreIt takes a great production to bring this play to life; and this production is teeming with it. Shocking, surprising, gasp-inducing and littered with laugh out loud moments – a really impressive work. It’s running till 3rd February 2018 and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly!

Review – The House They Grew Up In, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

The House They Grew Up InHurrah for our second Chichester weekend of the year! This time Mrs Chrisparkle and I were accompanied by the sophisticated and intelligent Professor and Mrs Plum, who were desperate for some proper erudition and a slap-up fried breakfast in the morning. They weren’t disappointed on either count.

DanielDo you remember a TV programme from a few years ago, gentle reader, called Life Laundry? It was where people who weren’t coping with aspects of their life for whatever reason just started piling up junk inside their houses so that they could barely move? They needed the help of expert advisers to start understanding their problems and then give them advice as to how they could start reclaiming their home. It was fascinating and frequently very moving to watch.

PeppyWelcome to the home of the Angelis family: sister Peppy (short for Penelope), brother Daniel (short for Daniel). By the sound of it, it’s probably in quite a decent area; certainly their slimy neighbour Gareth is interested in expanding his ownership. But it is The House They Grew Up In, and never left; although Peppy went to Cambridge, apparently; to study art, I would imagine. Peppy’s now looking after Daniel as best she can, but he doesn’t help himself, just sitting there, with music constantly going through his headphones, hoping to be fed every now and then. She tells him things but he hardly takes them in because he’s never using his listening ears. He’s probably autistic. His only friend – not that he really thinks of him as a friend – is next door’s boy Ben. He’s only eight, but he takes an interest. Peppy’s not keen. She doesn’t like people coming to the house.

The Police arrive to see DanielAnd the Life Laundry connection? Their house is crammed, top to bottom, with junk. Trying to find anything is a nightmare. Trying to navigate around the living room is nigh on impossible. Designer Max Jones must have had a field day acquiring all the detritus that dominates the set. It really takes your breath away! Not only has the stuff accumulated over the years simply because Peppy and Daniel live such a private, reclusive life – Uncle Manny at Christmas seems to be their only other link to the outside world – but it also reflects the mess that their lives have gradually become; and the mess that gets steadily worse through the course of the play.

LaurenceAlthough it has the now standard format of one interval in the middle of the show, structurally it feels to me like an old-fashioned three act play. Act One is largely scene-setting, getting to know the characters and their way of life; Act Two is them struggling with the outside world imposing itself on them, in a very extreme and unpleasant way; Act Three is the resolution to the problem and the happy ending. Yes, gentle reader, it has a happy ending, and one that will quite possibly make you gasp with approval, as it did on last Saturday’s matinee. And it is a totally brilliant, satisfying, heartfelt, revealing play that will make you laugh and it will make you cry. At times you may wonder if it is ever going to get “really funny”, and the answer is – no. But you do have that happy ending to look forward to. If you arrive wondering why the foyers of the Minerva are bedecked with bunting, you’ll know before you go home.

Peppy and JodyThis fantastic production sports some great performances but none as much as Samantha Spiro as Peppy. She must be exhausted by the end of the play. She’s constantly messing and fiddling and searching for things and begging Daniel to wear his listening ears. You can tell at once there’s something wrong with her but it takes a good while to draw your conclusions as to quite what. It’s an incredible performance because she’s both endearing and irritating at the same time, just as big sisters often are. She absolutely gets to the heart of this nervous, patronising, helpless, frantic, loving soul. You can see her trying to be open and communicative, and then when things get too invasive, or awkward, or deep, you can see her start to close down, and block out the outside world. Simply superb.

Peppy and DanielDaniel Ryan’s Daniel, on the other hand, is in many ways the complete opposite. He appears to be calm and content to be left alone, although he can fly into a flash fury when he can’t express his inner feelings. It’s another excellent performance, full of hidden anxieties and repressed emotions; and he beautifully shows how a person on the autistic spectrum can accidentally fall foul of society’s accepted norms of behaviour. He appears – as you would expect – appropriately devoid of empathy, but he has some great surprises up his sleeve. He also brings the house down with the occasional, simply delivered, hilarious rejoinder – watch out for the reason he no longer goes out gardening. A beautifully controlled, funny and sad performance.

Daniel and PeppyFor our matinee, we had Leonardo Dickens in the role of Ben and what a little star he is! Technically perfect throughout, not a fluffed line nor a missed cue, brilliant delivery of his comic lines, and totally at ease with a cast of adults. Even at this young age, he’s got to be One To Watch. I also really enjoyed the performances of Michelle Greenidge as the WPC who arrives at the house thinking it’s just another job and then slowly realises that she’s bitten off more than she can chew, Matt Sutton as the detective who has to question the unpredictable Ben, and Philip Wright as the flesh-crawling chancer of a neighbour, trying to browbeat Peppy into a rash decision.

Daniel and BenIt’s a fascinating play, totally engrossing, brilliantly performed, expertly brought to stage and we all absolutely loved it. This ought to have transfer written all over it. It’s only got a three week run, on until 5th August, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

P. S. Sir Derek Jacobi was in the house. He’s looking great. We were only talking about him in the Minerva Brasserie for lunch, and he was there all along. Spooky.

P. P. S. I usually take a photograph of my programme as the first illustration of a theatre review. However, torrential downpours of rain rendered it soggy and no longer fit for purpose. Fortunately I had the wit to take a picture of the poster outside the theatre. I’m sure you won’t mind.

Production photos by Johan Persson