Review – The Welkin, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 25th January 2020

83684971_178834396801201_5813152937085501440_n“She must look to the Welkin, there is no earthly help for her now”, says the apparently well-to-do Mrs Cary about the wretched child murderer Sally Poppy in Lucy Kirkwood’s gripping and surprisingly humorous new play. The Welkin of the title was the word used to describe the firmament at the time (we’re talking Norfolk/Suffolk border in 1759). Halley’s Comet has just been discovered and is playing havoc with the plethora of folk superstitions and old wives’ tales. Whilst scientists and astronomers are making great steps forward, the women of this parish are fully occupied with their housework, as we see in the stark opening tableau that opens this play. Each of the women inhabits a small lightbox on the stage and is totally consumed by any one of a variety of domestic tasks – and it makes for an arresting start.

ElizabethBut into this – perhaps dull – routine comes the occasional call to become a Matron of a Jury. For some of the women, it’s a welcome relief, a chance for some gossip with the others, or some oneupwomanship in what is clearly a very class-ridden society. For others, it’s a disaster; for example, when is Mary Middleton going to get the chance to pull up her field of leeks before they spoil? And it’s Mrs Luke’s Grand Wash Day, godammit! But for midwife Elizabeth Luke it’s a duty that deep down she knows she must perform, even if she is more personally involved in the case than she’d like to admit. This jury has one, relatively simple, task. There’s no doubt that Sally Poppy killed young Alice Wax – or is there? But is she pregnant, as she contests? If she is, she cannot be hanged because that would mean also taking an innocent life. If she isn’t, then to the gallows with her. It takes twelve good women and true to interrogate her, examine her, and test her, to come up with a believable conclusion. However, finding twelve Matrons without an axe to grind, might be quite a task….

At home with the PoppiesIn one respect, The Welkin provides a fresh approach to that well-known genre, the Courtroom Drama. Fresh because we’re in the jury room, and don’t see the court at all; instead we witness all the deliberations of the jurors and their interaction with the accused. And it all leads up to the inevitable excitement, not of is she guilty but of is she pregnant? In addition to this, the play asks many fascinating and difficult questions about the role of women in society – both in 1759, and by association, today – including whether a woman can ever be trusted as an expert if there is a man around who has the same expertise too. The play also provides a new angle about whether women are ever fully in control of their bodies, or if they require the consent of men, particularly in relation to childbirth. If you come to see the play, I recommend buying the programme as there are a few insightful and informative articles in there which really enhance your appreciation and understanding.

The CastSet and costume designer Bunny Christie together with Lighting Designer Lee Curran have created a grey, colourless, featureless world, a sterile environment of plain sheets and workaday uniforms, bare walls and comfortless surroundings. The harsh lighting that encloses the boxed staging is stark and relentless, and creates something of a deliberate barrier between the characters and the audience. There’s a scene – in fact, a very funny one – where a disembodied voice from the back of the theatre invites all the Matrons to present themselves into the light, kiss the Bible and tell us a bit about themselves; this helps us enormously to understand who we’re dealing with. It’s almost as though our 18th century jurors meet A Chorus Line’s Zach for an audition. But Lucy Kirkwood likes to play with our imagination, and create modern links to the Georgian setting, most noticeably when the women all join together to sing, very hauntingly, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. Normally, such an obvious anachronism would have me snorting with derision, but somehow, strangely, it works.

Telling Coombes what forIt’s a cracking ensemble piece with all the actors delivering some great performances that really get under your skin. Maxine Peake is hugely watchable as the openminded Elizabeth Luke, the only juror who seems willing to give the accused a fair hearing, much to the ridicule of some of the other Matrons. Ria Zmitrowicz’s cheeky but vicious Sally is a tremendous creation, denying the Matrons any sense of gratitude for having her life saved, confronting both weak and strong with her aggressive resentment and challenging behaviour. The always reliable Haydn Gwynne is excellent as the haughty Charlotte Cary, her frosty disdain of the scum Sally exuding from her fingertips – at least until her own secrets are revealed.

Emma and CharlotteI also appreciated the performances of Jenny Galloway and June Watson as the two older ladies, Judith Brewer and Sarah Smith. There’s a nicely underplayed running joke about Judith always feeling hot and wanting the windows open without ever having to say the word menopause, and there’s a delightfully ridiculous scene where they let blood from her toe to relieve her symptoms. At our performance, the role of Emma was played by Daneka Etchells and she encapsulated the character’s snide social climbing aspect beautifully. But the whole cast pull out all the stops to create a superb ensemble performance, and it’s great to see a play that’s so packed with strong female characters for a change.

Is she pregnantIn the end, revenge is a dish best served by proxy, and the Welkin doesn’t come to Sally’s aid – in fact, quite the reverse. But there is a form of natural justice in the end – albeit rough. At just under three hours the play is probably just a tad too long – I felt the last twenty minutes or so, even though they’re full of content, could have been a little snappier. Nevertheless, the play holds your concentration throughout and offers the potential for a massive amount of post-show discussion on the way home. We were both pretty impressed. It’s currently on at the National until 23rd May, and I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Production photos by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Four they’re jolly good fellows!

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 – Coriolanus, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 21st September 2017

CoriolanusBig plays and small plays, Shakespeare wrote them all. Even though it’s big in stature, Macbeth, for example, is small in size, at only 2,086 lines – little Comedy of Errors only has 1,754. At the other extreme, Hamlet has a whopping 3,798 lines – no wonder that uncut version with Albert Finney at the National back in 1976 took four full hours to endure. Coming in at fourth longest is Coriolanus (3,320 lines), and I reckon a good many of them are spent covering the hard battle for the city of Corioli, city seat of the Volscians. Allow me to give you a potted outline of what takes place: Caius Martius forces open the gates of the city and joins the leader of the Roman army, Cominius, to defeat Tullus Aufidius, commander of the Volscian army. In recognition of his valour, Caius Martius is renamed “Coriolanus”.

Coriolanus Tullus Aufidius and CoriolanusWith an eye on future greatness, his bossy mother Volumnia wants him to stand as consul, but he’s most definitely not a man of the people. He is a man of martial valour, not petty suburban squabbling; and he finds it impossible to conceal how he despises the common man. The crowd turn against him for his attitude, and he ends up seeking refuge with his old foe Tullus Aufidius, who was previously defeated, but not dead. Together they plan to attack Rome, but at the last minute Volumnia makes Coriolanus repent his double-dealing, and a peace treaty is quickly hatched between Rome and the Volscians. As a thank you for his treachery, Tullus Aufidius kills Coriolanus. Oh, those Volscians.

Coriolanus CoriolanusI’d only seen Coriolanus performed once before – also courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, back in 1978 with the tremendous Alan Howard in the title role. In that production, his name was pompously pronounced “Cor-eye-o-larnus”; thank heavens for the return to the present day sanity of “Cor-ee-o-laynus”. My main memory of the late Mr Howard is that he emerged from the battle covered head to toe in blood; it was Visceral Central. Fast forward almost forty years and Angus Jackson’s gritty new production has our new Coriolanus, Sope Dirisu, also covered head to toe in blood. Plus ça change… In fact, when Mr Dirisu appeared out of the darkness with his black leather armour soaked in gloopy red stuff, I swear the lady next to me almost fainted. It does provoke a strong response from the audience’s collective gut – and it’s not entirely comfortable. Plaudits to Terry King, the fight director, who must have been working overtime to get so many soldiers to clash so closely in hand to hand combat; never has the clinking of axes and the wielding of knives sounded so perilous.

Coriolanus Coriolanus and VirgiliaThis production is the final in a series of Shakespeare’s Roman plays that previously featured Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus. I didn’t see those productions – although they are all returning to the stage at the Barbican later this year – so I can’t make any observations about how it fits in with the directorial vision of those other plays. What I particularly took from this production is how it highlights both the harshness of the reality of day-to-day life, and also how it exposes opposites within life; like the tough life of the working citizens and the easy life of the patricians.

Coriolanus TribunesThe play opens with a fork lift truck driver removing some pallets from the centre stage to the back of the set. It’s a slow, deliberate, unemotional procedure; it has absolutely no bearing on the story or the first scene at all other than to show you the world from the point of view of the working man; in other words, the opposite of Coriolanus. Stark grey metallic grille shutters descend and ascend throughout the whole play, imposing their unsentimental clattering on whatever scene is taking place. They disturb the peace, they suggest a life of hard, manual work; the opposite of Coriolanus. The noble warrior in question, having previously gloried in the full gore of war, must present himself to the people, in an opposite light; as the wannabe consul who has to wear the cloak of humility (literally) in the marketplace to win the peoples’ support. He’s as uncomfortable as a pre-op patient in a theatre gown, carefully straddling the podium to retain as much dignity as possible (and not to let the citizens catch a glimpse up his legs.)

Coriolanus VolumniaThen there are the two opposing women in his life; his mother Volumnia, the power behind the throne, is as tough as nails and manipulative as can be in her constant quest to mould him into the vanquishing warrior she desperately wants. His wife Virgilia, by contrast, barely dares make a sound as she hopes her husband will survive the battle with “no blood”; clearly the make-up department didn’t listen to her plea. There’s also a stark contrast between the bloody mess that Coriolanus made of Tullus Aufidius, and his later appearance as a society chappie hosting extravagant dinner parties at his pad in Antium. Angus Jackson makes the most of Aufidius’ words of affection for Coriolanus by amusingly tempting the Volscian chief right out of the closet. You’d imagine this Aufidius has shirtless pictures of Coriolanus littering up his browsing history. It’s definitely a production of contrasts.

Coriolanus Final sceneTechnically it’s a tremendous production – Richard Howell’s lighting is evocative, moody, and indeed sometimes quite terrifying. It reveals the harshness of life and the dark uncertainty of the battlefield; and the final tableau is a magnificent capture showing the dead hero being carried into an all-devouring but inexplicable light. As you would expect, the modern-day costumes do a grand job to reflect either the battle scenes, the comfort of the patricians, or the everyday clothing of the working citizens. The only downside to the play is that it’s just unfortunate that so much of the first act is either over-wordy or straightforward battlefield fodder, extremely well performed though it may be. The battle scenes occur too early for the audience to have a real sense of the characters involved, and they end up being somewhat confusing. Who’s fighting who over what? It isn’t always obvious. Added to this, you realise that Shakespeare reserves all his best scenes for the second half of the play; you may feel you have to wait a long time for the whole thing to really get going. It’s a potential problem for any production.

Coriolanus MeneniusSope Dirisu cuts an enormously grand figure as Coriolanus; a natural hero of the battlefield but a fake friend to the hoi polloi in the marketplace. Nowhere is his true character shown more vibrantly than when he rounds on the citizens as “you common cry of curs” – Mr Dirisu is just brilliant in this scene. He really makes you feel how wonderful it would be, if you’d had a bad day at the office, just to be able to turn on everyone and say, to hell with the lot of you. He has a fantastic stage presence and you have no doubt that he would win the day at any battle. Paul Jesson is superb as the over-comfortable, benignly complacent Menenius, apparently wandering from social engagement to social engagement with absolutely no clue that there’s unrest below the surface. In modern Britain he would be the archetypal so-called Metropolitan Elite Remain voter who was gobsmacked to discover the majority voted Leave.

Coriolanus CominiusHaydn Gwynne brings all of Volumnia’s strength and determination to the fore in a performance that leaves you in no doubt that she would dominate any family gathering. James Corrigan is particularly good as the socialite Aufidius, and his fury when he finally kills Coriolanus is truly shocking. There’s a wonderful performance by Charles Aitken (superb as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years ago) as Cominius, liable to get hilariously over-emotional at times. The extended ensemble of actors give a great impression of the citizenry at large, in all its unhappy forms. I really enjoyed the scene where they all refused to take the blame for Coriolanus’ exile and his resultant joining forces with the enemy – so typical of how no one takes any kind of responsibility! Finally, a special mention to Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird as the two tribunes; delightfully stirring up trouble and doing their best to manipulate the populace – politics hasn’t changed, has it?

Coriolanus Tullus AufidiusThis excellent production emphasises the relevance of the story today and shows you how no single man can be all things to all people. Encouraged too far out of their comfort zone, who knows what calamity might ensue. Don’t push too far, your dreams are china in your hand, as the poet once said. Recommended!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse Theatre, 27th December 2014

Women on the vergeTo help celebrate the festive season, Mrs Chrisparkle and I often like to go to London to see a show or two – well, it makes a change to get out occasionally. This time we decided to go the whole hog and stayed over for three nights, seeing two shows on the Saturday and two shows on the Monday. On the Sabbath Day, we rested. When I was planning which shows we should book, I noticed that Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown would be previewing during our stay. I don’t normally do previews, as I like to be sure I’m seeing the final version. Still, the potential for phrases like “hot ticket” and “smash hit” kept tickling my brain, as well as the very attractive sounding “Tamsin Greig” – Mrs C and I love her in the TV series Episodes – so the decision was made; that would be our Saturday matinee choice.

Tamsin GreigPepa is a voice-dubbing actress of reasonable success who has been having an affair with Ivan for some time, only to be dumped by him at the start of the show. As she tries to put back together the shattered pieces of her life, she has to cope with demands of her career, her friends, and selling her flat; which includes an attempted suicide, a Shiite terrorist, a court case and the discovery that she’s pregnant. Just any old 48 hours really. And that, in a nutshell, is the show.

Jerome Pradon and Haydn GwynneIt is of course an adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s film of the same name. He is a Big Name in cinema. If you are a regular to my blog – for which thanks, and Happy New Year, gentle reader – you’ve probably guessed that neither of us have seen any of his films. I appreciate that it’s the sin of omission; occasionally we can be quite a sinful couple. But I know of many people who think his work is outstanding, so I was looking forward to a musical representation of some feisty Spanish women chucking their weight around in 1980s Madrid.

Anna Skellern and Nuno QueimadoI’m not sure that’s what I got. Maybe in the minor roles; I enjoyed the smug bitchiness of Rebecca McKinnis’ Christina, and Holly James’ Matador is certainly feisty – albeit completely surreal and strangely detached from the rest of the action. One of the best performances is from Seline Hizli as Marisa, the virgin enamorata of Pepa’s lover’s son Carlos, largely because the character is quite well fleshed out, and you kind of get a sense of what makes her tick. I wouldn’t describe her as feisty – particularly as she has to spend a lot of the show fast asleep after an accidental Valium overdose – but she’s quite wise and clear thinking.

Seline Hizli and Haydn OakleyHowever, you can’t describe the other characters that way. Tamsin Greig does a good line in portraying Pepa’s brave “chin-up” attitude, and frequently blesses us with that perplexed/stunned/slightly vacant look that she does so well on TV; but for the most part the character is in the eye of the storm and just reacts to what goes on around her. Haydn Gwynne’s Lucia – Pepa’s lover’s ex-lover, suing him for abandoning her – is a rather miserable character, excruciatingly dominant over her son and his girlfriend, painfully unable to handle the mental stresses of her existence and wallowing in self-pity at every opportunity. Even more unattractive a character is Anna Skellern’s Candela – Pepa’s model friend – an egocentric spoilt show-off brat who cares not one jot for the plights of anyone else but herself, and, rather than her being funny, to me the character just came over as immensely tedious.

Ricardo AfonsoIn fact, nearly all the characters come across as either unpleasant or very flimsily written which is, I think, why the show as a whole said absolutely nothing to me. We didn’t actively hate it, that would have implied a strong enough reaction; we just didn’t actively enjoy it, or even participate in it. It committed the sin of being boring – really, very boring. I desperately wanted to enjoy it, but there was nothing to grab hold of in the story or the presentation to concentrate on and cherish. The whole thing looks delightfully stylised, with its bold coloured lighting, but that masks both a clinically plain set and a remarkably empty sense of drama. You can’t call it a triumph of style over substance, because that would require some sense of triumph.

Holly JamesThere were a few good lines, and occasional comic moments, but there were even more sequences where you just thought, what the hell is going on, this is just ridiculous. If it was trying to be quirky and clever, it failed. Musically, it has a few curiously entertaining – if downbeat and introspective – tunes, but for the most part the songs merely punctuate the show rather than move the plot forward. To be fair, it all brightens up enormously just after the interval, with the first three songs and scenes seemingly written by a completely different person, and you cross fingers that they just might turn it around and rescue it; but then you get the horrendously boring scene and song where Lucia is pleading to the court, at which point I switched off and couldn’t care less anymore. Haydn OakleyThis had the effect of making the “climax” (I use the word ill-advisedly) a long, drawn-out, bizarre sequence of non-events that somehow peter out into a conclusion. I don’t know if the terrorist sub-plot is meant to have a sense of danger or excitement, or surreal ludicrousness even; but to me it came over as pathetically lame. There’s also the scene where Marisa appears to say she’s no longer a virgin. We couldn’t work out if she’d had some extraordinary mental vision or if she’d been light-heartedly raped. Either way, we didn’t think it was either believable or palatable.

Rebecca McKinnisThe performances range from the good to the adequate; despite really disliking the character of Candela, Anna Skellern performed the patter song “Model Behaviour” with technical expertise, and I really enjoyed Jérôme Pradon’s singing of “Yesterday Today and Tomorrow”, the moment when Ivan cunningly moves on to his next woman. Tamsin Greig’s singing voice has an attractive fragility that conveys the emotion and dramatic reflection of songs such as “Island”, but I always felt she was just millimetres away from hitting the wrong note, and sadly I just didn’t have confidence in her overall performance. Ricardo Afonso gave an entertaining performance as the Taxi Driver, although I felt his singing lacked a sense of occasion or urgency – too laid back to fill the role of commentator. The excellent Dale Rapley – a wonderful Horace Vandergelder to Janie Dee’s Hello Dolly in Leicester a couple of years ago – is strangely caught up taking a few of the minor roles.

Dale RapleyThe book, music and lyrics are David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane, responsible for the sublime Dirty Rotten Scoundrels a few yards away up the Strand. It’s fascinating to consider that the same team can create one such good work and one such bland one. The couple to Mrs Chrisparkle’s left absolutely hated it; the American tourist to my right who was “up for it” before it started just slept all the way through. I don’t suppose I was the only person who muttered the phrase “audience on the verge of a nervous breakdown” on the way out. Online research tells me that they have actually cut a couple of the songs from the original 2010 Broadway production. For this relief much thanks. Not good enough to survive, not bad enough to become a cult hit.