Review – The Hook, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th June 2015

The HookEvery so often our wonderful local theatre makes the news. One such occasion was a couple of days ago, when I got an excited phone call from Mrs Chrisparkle on her morning drive to work (hands free, naturally – the phone that is, not the steering wheel) saying “Turn Radio 4 on!” And there was the redoubtable Jim Naughtie talking about the World Premiere of an Arthur Miller play in little old Northampton. Certainly a contender for the greatest American playwright of the 20th century (Arthur Miller that is, not Jim Naughtie) – maybe even in the world – this joint production between the Royal and Derngate and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse is a major theatrical event. Who even knew Miller had written something that hadn’t yet been performed?

Would you trust these menThe programme (which I really recommend) has two very helpful articles about how the production came into existence and about Miller’s background and association with the longshoremen of New York. Miller had originally written The Hook as a screenplay and offered it to Hollywood, but they wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial bargepole unless Miller rewrote the characters to make the union members into communists. Miller refused to back down; Hollywood refused to take it – On The Waterfront appeared instead; and thus it sat, mouldering in a drawer somewhere, unloved and unproduced. Director James Dacre and designer Patrick Connellan have done extensive research over a number of years, discovering all Miller’s drafts (I’m sure that’s a euphemism for drinking Canadian beer), collating as much raw material as possible for playwright Ron Hutchinson to come up with a theatre adaptation that’s intense, hard-hitting, with a few meaty roles, and that tells a story from the heart.

MartyThat story concerns one Marty Ferrara, a decent, honourable man who works as a longshoreman in New York and who fights against what he sees as the rotten, corrupt nature of the union and the employers, who turn a blind eye to the dangerous conditions in which the men have to work, pay lip service to their rights, and are happy to rip off the men at every opportunity. Marty’s wife Terry wants him to be happy and to be true to his own integrity, but at the same time she needs him to earn money as otherwise the whole family will be destitute. Marty’s angry struggle takes him through some very bad times, including attempts made on his life, and culminates in his standing for Union president in a rigged election of which Kim Jong-un would be proud.

Longshoremen lifeWhy The Hook? Well it takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn – where Miller was born, and each of the men working on the piers has his own hook tool which he uses to help lift and move the containers they are unloading. But other hooks are also at hand. Each man is hooked, so to speak, to the docks as his only means of income, and if anything threatens that dependency, like electing a new, agitating union leader, that hook just gets stronger. In the end, Marty is rewarded with a union post, thereby masking the corruption of the election, and getting the union leader off the hook. Am I taking this too far?

Opening the safeIn the course of the play Miller addresses themes of loyalty, corruption, reward and democracy, creates some memorable dramatic moments and a credible story line. However, if I’m honest, I don’t think the character of Marty is invested with anything like the tragic hero potential of Willy Loman, Eddie Carbone or John Proctor. For one thing, he lives! He survives the play and presumably goes on to have some kind of life in the future – what kind, is up to the audience to decide. For that reason I felt it had an upbeat (if extremely sudden and slightly unrewarding) ending. Mrs C took a different view – she thought that Marty’s future would be spent achieving nothing, and therefore found the end profoundly pessimistic. Maybe that’s an observation about our own differing levels of cynicism. Or maybe it’s a neat Miller trick to confound his audience at the end.

Amazing setThe production looks and sounds stunning. Patrick Connellan’s set is extraordinary and constantly reveals new capabilities through the course of the evening. It converts from office to pier to the Ferraras’ home with effortless ease. The sharp black pinstripes of the union leader and the businessman contrast perfectly with the thin and well-worn work clothes of the stevedores. The sound design by Tom Mills is amazing; tiny effects like placing a glass on a table or ominous footsteps reverberate and echo with portentous doom to create a really claustrophobic atmosphere. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s incidental music is disconcerting and brooding.

ComradesBut I have to confess to experiencing some confusion with the plot. Attuning to the accents meant that quite a lot of the early dialogue hit my ears but never quite reached my brain (not helped by two chatterbox young ladies to my right) and identifying and understanding some of the characters and story twists happened more in retrospect than at the time. Mrs C noted that at least two of the tables in the bar during the interval had people explaining to their friends who was who and what was happening. I think that was the trouble with the chatterboxes, as they were explaining to each other what was going on. Even today in discussion Mrs C and I realised that we still hadn’t quite worked out the relationship between some of the characters and what their actual jobs were. Some of the performances in the first act were also a little on the shouty side – one of Mrs C’s pet hates – although to be fair many of the characters had plenty to shout about.

Marty and TerryThe central character of Marty is given a forceful and characterful performance by Jamie Sives, promoting the workers’ causes, a natural leader, genuinely resistant to all the pressures of corruption that surround him. There’s a particularly moving scene when one of the men is writing in the dust on the floor, adding up a sum of how much money the union has cheated from them. Marty is so infuriated with it that he physically hurls himself into the dust to erase the offending calculation. It’s an extraordinary visual depiction of his deep need to eradicate the injustice against his fellow men, and to his willingness to degrade himself if necessary to achieve it.

I don't trust themAt the other end of the societal scale there’s a splendidly villainous turn from Joe Alessi as Louis, the self-aggrandising, pocket-lining, cigar-smoking, superiority-obsessed union leader whose choices in life depend entirely on to what extent they benefit himself. Today he would be in charge of FIFA. It’s an excellent portrayal of corrupted power. There’s an electric scene between him and Sean Murray as Rocky, where the two powerful men stalk each other mentally, looking for gaps in each other’s defence, like a boxing match disguised as a business meeting. Mr Murray nicely conveys an element of decency lacking in his opponent’s character elsewhere in the play – there’s a memorable scene at the beginning where Rocky’s henchman Farragut (a suitably weaselly performance by Jem Wall) dismissively tosses a spare coin to the floor so that the men who didn’t get work that day can scrabble undignified on the pavement for it – and Rocky cuts him down to size as a reward.

EnzoThere’s also a sterling performance from Susie Trayling as Marty’s wife Theresa, downtrodden yet supportive, a voice of domestic reason, but still too insignificant to him to influence his driven need to represent the working man. I also enjoyed Paul Rattray’s earnest and eloquent performance as Enzo, Marty’s most loyal comrade (not that they’re communists, see paragraph 2) and Ewart James Walters as Darkeyes, trying to make a measly living selling trinkets and taking bets; a modern Tiresias, the blind man who sees the truth. Miller loved a bit of Greek Tragedy in his plays, you know. The ensemble is augmented by members of the local community theatre who do a grand job of creating a sense of busy crowds and a wider society. I particularly liked the way a whole bunch of men suddenly appeared out of nowhere whenever the daily work was to be allocated by the bosses.

DarkeyesSo, all in all a significant new work given a very good production, although if you’re hoping to see A View From The Bridge Mark#2 you might be a little disappointed. In the year that celebrates Arthur Miller’s centenary, this is a very welcome addition to his repertoire. After it finishes its run in Northampton on 27th June, it visits the Liverpool Everyman until 25th July. If you’re interested in the works of Miller, this is a must-see.

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th April 2013

A Midsummer Night's DreamThe programme notes for this new production of Midsummer Night’s Dream include a quote from Samuel Pepys, who in 1662 described it as “the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life…nor shall ever again”. Well he didn’t know much about theatre, did he? Although I must confess I was a little disappointed when I first heard that this play would be in this year’s repertoire, only because we’ve already seen it twice very recently, and this would become the third time in three years – and indeed, we are also booked to see the Michael Grandage production in London in November. However, this new offering at the Royal and Derngate is such a funny, warm-hearted production, that within about four seconds of its starting I was hooked and after five minutes I remembered that you simply can’t have too much Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Colin RyanThis production is directed by Gary Sefton, who, along with the R&D’s ex-artistic director Laurie Sansom, has provided us with some of the most memorable plays in Northampton since we’ve been here. Travels with My Aunt, Diary of a Nobody and A Christmas Carol all had his hallmark combination of clear story telling and inventively comic staging, with an emphasis on revealing the characters’ own funny little ways. And now we can add his Dream to his Northampton canon; a tight, pacey, eight-strong production that takes a few liberties with Will’s script – and why not – which make the story easier to follow and play it for laughs.

Silas CarsonTi Green has designed what appears to be quite a stark set at first, but as the play progresses you realise it has a life of its own, and the cascading sheets of coloured material that fall from heaven make an excellent visual contrast with the barren darkness beneath. I love the way the set changes at Puck’s behest; walls move, windows descend to his whim, like some mystic orchestra conductor. Although Oberon is the boss I get the feeling that Puck is in charge of this particular Dream. Colin Ryan appears at first as a very Puck-like Philostrate, Master of the Revels, and with a sinister smile he assumes blue surgical gloves to start his “operations”. It was Mrs Chrisparkle who pointed out to me that the blue streaks that appear on the characters faces and bodies once they are out in the wilds of fairyland show that they are under his influence – basically, they’ve been Pucked; a round of applause to her for that insight. Jon Nicholls’s effective music is at times eerie, at times sweet and really enhances the sense of otherworldliness.

Amy RobbinsThe opening scene of this play can sometimes be a bit heavy handed with exposition, but here it’s as fresh as a daisy and crystal clear as to what’s going on. The characterisation is so instantly appealing that you can’t wait to see how these four (potential) lovers sort their relationships out. It’s also a delight to meet the rude mechanicals, the parts doubled up by the actors you’ve already met in the previous scene, with a female Quince, a scouse Flute, a falsetto Snout and an earnest and enthusiastic Bottom. A very regal Titania, a noble Oberon and real young fairies with genuine fairy-dust complete the cast. There were just two directorial decisions we didn’t quite agree with – Mrs C didn’t really like Bottom’s ass projectiling a dump; mainly because for the rest of the scene the actors ended up kicking it around the stage. And I wasn’t that keen on seeing Bottom’s bottom as he walked up the stairs and offstage – yes it’s a laugh, but quite a cheap one and doesn’t add to your understanding of the character or the play.

Naomi SheldonApart from that, everything works like a midsummer night’s dream. Silas Carson’s Theseus is authoritative but kind, dispensing his ducal wisdom and gently mocking the idiotic rural actors. His Oberon is more generally decent than others I have seen, and when he realises his joke on Titania has gone too far he really seems to have trickster’s remorse. And I loved his beginning of Act Two entrance. Amy Robbins as Hippolyta has a great line in charmingly elegant teasing and her reactions to the ghastly Pyramus and Thisbe really made us laugh. As Titania she is both temptress and harridan. When she was tearing strips off Oberon, I thought, you really wouldn’t want to get into an argument with her; but her erotic appreciation of Bottom’s ass was the most convincing and delightful I’ve seen.

Frances McNameeNaomi Sheldon gives a wonderful comic performance as Hermia, the nice little rich girl who has an eye for a bit of rough. There’s a fantastically funny fight scene where she accidentally gets involved, and her physical comedy that follows is just brilliant. She’s also very funny as Mistress Quince, the long-suffering director; traces of Wigan in her clipped accent I thought, and the very embodiment of Wall (isn’t that usually Snout’s gig?) Frances McNamee’s Helena is part sexy secretary, part oafish desperada throwing herself at the uninterested Demetrius and generally being run ragged round the forest; a terrific performance. Her Snug reminded me of a mid 1980s Victoria Wood creation, all introvert and tea and buns for one, until she lets rip as the lion. Well roared, lion.

Oliver GommOliver Gomm’s Lysander is a brilliant comic creation – shifty, snide, and totally lacking in the good grace that Egeus demands for his daughter. When he falls under Puck’s spell and turns his affections towards Helena, he does it with such sudden comic energy it takes your breath away. His Flute sounds like a rustic Steven Gerrard and does a memorable comic turn as Thisbe, with a ridiculous drawn-out death scene that warrants its own round of applause.Charlie Archer Charlie Archer as Demetrius represents all the dull respectability that Lysander isn’t, smug and toffee-nosed but never a caricature, and also bringing superb physical comedy to the role. Stripped to their Long Johns, Lysander and Demetrius have a brilliant boxing scene, and it’s comedy magic. As the high-pitched Snout, Mr Archer plays a hilariously simple soul who can just about portray moonshine, barely.

The role of Egeus is purely functional and doesn’t have much in it to make an actor shine, but as Bottom, Joe Alessi has enthusiastic attack, great comic timing and makes a superb, rather loveable ass.Joe Alessi And finally Colin Ryan’s Puck is slippery and ethereal, dispensing joy and mystery wherever he goes; he looks perfect for the part and gives an eloquent Irish lilt to Shakespeare’s poetry. What you take home with you after this show is a feeling of satisfaction, of intelligent physical comedy, and above all the memories of a lot of laughs, and you can’t say fairer than that.