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 – Pinter Six, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Party Time and Celebration, Harold Pinter Theatre, 12th January 2019

Pinter SixSo after a healthy visit to Wagamama, (ok, don’t mention the Sauvignon Blanc… or the White Chocolate and Ginger Cheesecake), it was back to the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for another pre-show Champagne Package experience and then into the delights of Pinter Six, two one-act plays utilising the same cast, both (on the face of it) celebratory in nature, both highlighting social injustice and the politics of class.

party time castParty Time was written and produced in 1991 and presents a party (no surprises there) where people share suggestions, concerns, prejudices, memories; much like any other party really, but there’s an ever-increasing threat outside which we never fully comprehend, but which bursts on stage and disrupts the charming scene right at the end. Jamie Lloyd has created a very stylised production, where all the partygoers are sitting bolt upright, facing us, in semi-darkness, and they step forward and perform in a small space at the front of the stage john simm in party timewhenever we’re overhearing their part of the ongoing conversation. This creates a much less cosy party environment, and a sense that these characters are on display, being judged. It accentuates their individual isolation, as they remain motionlessly unconnected with those speaking unless they’re part of the same conversation; and Mr Lloyd hasn’t positioned couples together, which makes it even more disconcerting.

eleanor matsuura in party timeIt’s a fantastic mixture of the hilarious and the appalling. John Simm’s Terry is rich but lacking in class; trying to impress Phil Davis’ host Gavin with details of the club, and eventually bestowing honorary membership on him, which you just know he’s going to ignore. Gavin golfs, and sails, and hosts parties. Terry dismisses his wife Dusty’s worries about her brother Jimmy, who is part of the outside problem, whatever that is; so whenever she raises concerns about him she makes Terry appear less attractive a prospect for social climbing. party time laughterMeanwhile Fred and Douglas are discussing the use of power to enforce peace, whilst Liz and Charlotte bicker about tarts (not the custard type), and relationships; and Lady Melissa reflects on how life was better in the good old days. Only the sudden arrival of Jimmy at the end, having emerged from the terrible outdoors, breaks the social chit-chat, his body beaten and bloodied, his mental capacity in delusions and darkness. The party’s over.

gary kemp in party timeIt’s a fantastic ensemble performance, from a cast of experienced Pinter practitioners, all immersed in Pinter lore right up to their elbows. We’d seen John Simm in Pinter’s Betrayal in Sheffield some years back; and he, Ron Cook and Gary Kemp all shone in Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming four years ago; how wise to reunite such a winning team. Mr Simm balances his character’s agreeable façade with his brutal inner emotions on a knife edge, in a gripping and deeply unpleasant portrayal of a worm done good. Mr Davis matches him with a faux-avuncularity that is only wafer-thin; you sense he could snap a body in two with a nod (actually, he wouldn’t do it himself, he’d have trained staff to do it for him). katharine kingsley gary kemp and celia imrie in party timeKatherine Kingsley and Ron Cook make a humorously unlikely couple; and it is left only to Eleanor Matsuura’s Dusty and Celia Imrie’s Melissa to show any element of humanity in this otherwise fake and bitter environment. Party Time may only be 35 minutes long, but its mixture of intimidation and comedy of manners means you’re certainly ready for your interval Chardonnay.

celia imrie in party timeThe second half of this brilliant double-bill is Celebration, first performed in 2000 and the last original play that Pinter wrote. This time we’re in an extremely expensive restaurant where Lambert and Julie are celebrating their wedding anniversary in the company of Matt and Prue (who happen to be Lambert’s brother and Julie’s sister). Financially, they’ve obviously done very well for themselves – well enough for their loud and uncouth behaviour not to cause a problem with the Maitre D’ or the restaurant owner. Russell and Suki are also dining; she once had a fling with Lambert, and when he notices her in the restaurant they all decide to sit together. However, for the purposes of this production, ron cook and celia imrie in celebrationrather like Party Time, they’re already sitting together on one long table and it’s only the lighting flashing on and off over different heads that tells you whose table we’re eavesdropping on. As before, this increases a sense of style and artifice; but unlike Party Time, where you had a feeling of isolation, here you feel that people have been forced together – perhaps under duress. Will sparks fly? Or will everything be nicely controlled by the restaurant staff?

tracy-ann oberman in celebrationAgain, there’s an amazing feel for ensemble work, with split-second accuracy of timing between the two “tables” being a vital component of keeping the play moving. Ron Cook, Phil Davis, Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman are all delightfully squiffy and embody various shades of grotesque as they gracelessly trample over everything in life from the comfort of their well-stocked dinner table. phil davis in celebrationKatherine Kingsley’s Suki is another of Pinter’s innocents abroad, with a kindly open heart and a thirst for knowledge, but saddled with John Simm’s self-confessed psychopath of a husband Russell, whom she tries to both impress and subjugate herself. They make for a very entertaining couple.

eleanor matsuura in celebrationAdd to the mix, Eleanor Matsuura’s alarmingly honest Maitre D’, Sonia, Gary Kemp’s painfully tolerant restaurateur Richard, and Abraham Popoola’s hilariously delusional waiter, whose gossipy tales of his close association with all the greats from T. S. Eliot to the Archduke Ferdinand you can almost believe, and you have a scintillating sequence of dramatic highlights that meant my smile never left my lips for the entire play. A fabulous, joyfully funny and satisfying piece that works as a perfect accompaniment to Party Time. abraham popoola in celebrationOf all the Pinter at the Pinters that I’ve seen so far, this is the one I most want to see again. It’s on in repertory with Pinter Five until 26th January, and I very warmly recommend it to you!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios, 28th December 2015

The Homecoming“Got anything planned for this afternoon?” asked the bright young podiatrist earlier, as she committed acts of creamy lubrication to my battered old tootsies. “I’m going to write about a play we saw over Christmas” I replied. “Which play?” “A 1965 play by Harold Pinter called The Homecoming.” “What’s it about?” “Well…” I paused. “It’s about a father, and his three sons, two of them live with him, and the third one, he comes back to see them – that’s the homecoming of the title – and he brings his new wife with him.” I paused again. “And then the whole family uses her. For, erm, sexual purposes.” I felt the podiatrist just lose a slight grip of my foot. “That’s… odd,” she said warily. “Yes,” I replied. “What’s odder is that the wife seems perfectly happy about the arrangement.” She put my foot down and looked me in the eye. “That is odd”. “I believe it’s meant to be symbolic of something,” I lamely added; “symbolic of what, though, I haven’t quite worked out yet.”

Ron CookThere’s no denying it, this is a very odd play. Back when I was fifteen I took it on myself to read all of Pinter’s plays that he had written to date – that took me up to No Man’s Land. I found his landscape of veiled threats, black comedy, wretched lives and hidden pasts weirdly stimulating and captivating. But none of his plays surprised or intrigued me more than The Homecoming. A man brings his wife back to meet his family and before long they’re planning how they’re going to make money out of her by setting her up in Greek Street, and how they’re going to pass her round the family as though she were a blow-up doll. Meanwhile she doesn’t move a muscle to dissuade them from this new arrangement, and her husband goes back to their sons by himself with little apparent sense of rejection – indeed, it’s he who suggests that she will have to “pull her weight financially” if she stays.

John SimmWhy? Why would this be a natural conclusion to the story for any of the characters involved? OK, it’s an all-male household, and no doubt since the wife/mother Jessie passed away there hadn’t been much of an outlet for some “male needs” to be attended to (although thinking in terms of mother/son relationships, that’s a bit yukky). You can try to attribute all sorts of motivations and meanings to the play; maybe Teddy is bringing back his wife as some fertility sacrifice for the Greater Good of the Family. Alternatively, maybe she’s just a slag. Mrs Chrisparkle thinks Ruth is mentally ill, which, if true, creates a whole new scenario of abusive relationships to consider. No matter which way you look at this play, its outcome inhabits a completely alien morality.

John Simm in redThe production – which works extremely well, I hasten to add – is full of portentous light and sound effects which really add to a sense of stylised drama and crisis. This encourages the audience, I think, to look for meaning and significance where, perhaps, there really is none. Pinter’s stage directions, whilst by no means sparse, don’t give any indication of symbolism or other meanings. Things simply are what they are. You may choose to invest this play with meanings; the missing back wall might represent the missing female influence; the “homecoming” might be Ruth’s “coming home to herself”. But I think this is a play you can overcomplicate. Maybe it is just a glimpse into the machinations of one slightly weird family. If you think that renders the play banal, perhaps its strength is actually its ability to recognise its own banality. Having said all that – see the postscript below for another possibility.

Ron Cook going upstairsA mark of a good Pinter production is how they handle the pauses. If the pauses feel unnatural, or as though someone’s forgotten their lines, they’re not doing it right. If the pauses feel natural, or even better, if you don’t notice them at all, then they’ve got it spot on. Interestingly, given that Jamie Lloyd has directed this production within a very stylised framework (lights, bangs, a vivid red frame surrounding the set) the conversations flow perfectly. Certainly the very naturalistic performances make an intriguing contrast with the otherwise artificial presentation, which leaves you, the audience member, feeling unnerved and ill at ease.

Gary KempMax, the patriarch of the family, is played by Ron Cook and it’s a role he was born to play. Max is the archetypal “nasty little man”, full of sarcasm, self-pity, and bullying aggression, and Mr Cook conveys those characteristics with deadly credibility. There are a couple of passages where the text suggests that Max might have been, shall we say, “over-friendly” with his sons on bath nights or when “tucking them up” in bed, and that lingering sense of misdemeanour hangs horribly successfully in the atmosphere. I loved – if that’s the right word – his changes of vocal tone from gruff antagonist to wheedling beggar. It’s a fantastic performance.

Gemma ChanAlso superb, and notable for his vocal performance, is John Simm as Lenny. We saw Mr Simm in another Pinter play, Betrayal, in Sheffield a few years ago and he is one actor who you feel really understands what the writer is getting at. Mr Simm plays Lenny as rather superior, rather cunning and definitely self-centred (a chip off the old block one might say) and gives him a slightly whiny, spivvy voice; he reminded me of a cat, playfully teasing his mouse, letting it get so far, whilst at any minute he might unleash a lethal swipe. He’s a control freak; and when he loses control – as in some of his dealings with Ruth – Mr Simm really makes you feel his discomfort.

Gemma Chan and Ron CookGary Kemp – whose programme biog completely omits any reference to Spandau Ballet, which is weird, I’d be very proud if I’d written those songs – feels nicely out of place as the returning son Teddy, reassuring himself with the surroundings of the family home, having (allegedly) gone to America some time ago to become a Professor of Philosophy. He’s a fish out of water both in terms of his old family and his wife, as there seems to be no closeness between them. He comes across as a man full of worries, which, given the circumstances, seems quite appropriate; and when he leaves at the end, it’s as though he knew this would be the outcome all along. In a role where the audience is looking for some kind of recognisable normality and comfort, he refuses to give it; which emphasises the overall sense of unease. Nice work.

John Simm and Gemma ChanFor the performance we saw, the role of Sam was taken by his understudy, Geoffrey Towers, and he was extremely good. Perhaps the one character in the play with any sense of decency, you could just feel that he hated every moment of living in that household, with his belligerent brother constantly impugning his masculinity. John Macmillan plays Joey, the youngest brother, the one for whom the family wit and intelligence ran out before he was born. Demolition by day, boxer by night, his punch-drunk accent strayed slightly into caricature I felt; but maybe that was the idea.

John MacmillanBut it’s Gemma Chan’s characterisation of Ruth that is the star of the show. Initially ill at ease, once she comes back from her “breath of air”, and she meets Lenny, she’s completely in command; gently manipulative, precise in her actions, clear in her language but oh so ambiguous in her meaning. After Lenny has challenged Teddy to explain what a table is, philosophically speaking, there’s a wonderful scene where Ruth intimates her own brand of personal philosophy. When she talks of moving her leg, it’s just a movement; but her underwear moves with it, so it might have greater significance. She moves her leg to demonstrate. It’s a simple action, but so sexually charged that you could hear the legendary pin drop. It’s a beautifully controlled, expressive and stunning performance.

An engrossing and enjoyable night at the theatre – but it’s still a very odd play.

P.S. Ruth’s leg movement might also be Pinter’s way of telling you that you can view this play simply on face value or with a greater significance – and both might be correct. Or not. What do you think?

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Betrayal, Sheffield Crucible, 19th May 2012

BetrayalIt’s been ages since I’ve seen some Pinter, and in fact this was Mrs Chrisparkle’s first exposure to the aforementioned late playwright. I warned her about the pauses. If they’re doing it really well, I suggested, then you won’t realise they’re pauses. If they aren’t, it’ll feel like they’ve forgotten their lines. I did once see an amateur production of The Room and The Dumb Waiter. On that occasion they really did forget their lines; and they also had no one in the prompt corner. I realised the pauses had gone on too long when one of the actors called out “Can we have a prompt please”, which was followed by a hurried scuttling of footsteps backstage, the sound of table and chair legs scraping on floors, and the flipping of paper pages before a lone voice gave them that oh so important line.

It will come as no surprise that Nick Bagnall’s new production of Betrayal is a bit more professional than that. When you enter the Crucible auditorium the deceptively simple set looks stunning. How can a pub table and a couple of chairs look so effective? By the addition of a brightly lit, glass topped floor, busily scattered underneath with compartments full of detritus, providing a visual metaphor of all sorts of goings-on beneath the surface. Simple basic scenery is used throughout the play, including a bed – possibly the best symbol imaginable for an adulterous affair – that first makes its portentous appearance slowly descending down from the flies like a veritable deus ex machina. Excellent use is made of the Crucible’s revolving stage; nothing is gimmicky, everything helps to tell the story.

The trick to the structure of this play is the fact that it is told in reverse. The first scene is the final scene chronologically speaking – 1977. The last scene is the first – 1968. So our first view of Emma and Jerry is their meeting in a pub long after their affair has fizzled out, realising something of what has gone on between them in the past, and the new revelation that she has told her husband, Robert – Jerry’s best friend – about what had happened between the two of them, much to Jerry’s horror. Jerry feels he has to see Robert to talk about it; and from there we go back in time. The structure works really well as there are so many betrayals going on, on so many levels, and between so many people. You, the audience, already know what the characters don’t yet know which gives a great sense of dramatic irony, that continues throughout the journey back in time to the final (first) scene – where Pinter has reserved a last twist evident in that final tableau.

John SimmJohn Simm plays Jerry and he is superb. Born to play Pinter as he uses those pauses so naturally! Even while he is silent you just have to look at his eyes to see all the realisations, troubles, misunderstandings, and general horrors of life that his brain is absorbing before he next engages to speak. As the play proceeds, his sad and troubled world regresses back to a time of comfort, physical pleasure and, originally, excitable hope that this wonderful woman whom he adores, might – just might – adore him too. You can see the strains and worries gradually lift from his expression as he gets more youthful and more optimistic. That 1968 Jerry feels like a completely different person from 1977. He just nails every nuance of the character.

Ruth GemmellRuth Gemmell’s Emma is a more reserved kind of person. In 1977 she too is deeply troubled, and extraordinarily outraged that her husband has been having an affair, which is a beautiful example of how the play ironically and creatively tackles its twisted moral questions of loyalty and betrayal. She lightens up a bit during the most passionate days of the affair, but starts the story again as rather a reserved person, shocked but secretly delighted at Jerry’s advances, which clearly appeal to her compulsive nature. You sense a little that hers is the character that advances the story, but that’s it’s the fall-out for the men that interests Pinter somewhat more. Nevertheless it’s a really good performance.

Colin TierneyAs Emma’s husband Robert, Colin Tierney starts the play troubled but balanced, resigned to his lot and seemingly remarkably forgiving. One of the best scenes of the play is where he finds out about his wife’s relationship and you almost physically see his heart break. It’s superbly well done. At the beginning of the story, his naturally rather dour character makes a great contrast with Jerry and it’s not terribly surprising that Emma finds Jerry the more attractive prospect.

Another great scene shows Jerry and Robert dining in a restaurant, chock-full of dramatic irony. Their table slowly revolves around the stage, enabling everyone to see all aspects of the scene. First, you may be in Robert’s place, looking at Jerry trying to hide the secret of the relationship. Then you are in Jerry’s place, looking at Robert drinking too much as a way of suppressing his personal sadness. Superbly directed, and revelatory whilst still maintaining the betrayals.

Thomas TinkerThere’s also an honourable mention to the fourth member of the cast, Thomas Tinker, who plays the Italian restaurant waiter just as those waiters always are – tediously nostalgic for the glories of Venice – but moreover who spends the rest of the production as scenery shifter which could end up very messy if he gets it wrong. His discreet efficiency gives you confidence though that it’s in safe hands.

The whole production is a thing of painful poignancy, clarity and precision, and with a bizarrely inexorable journey to the beginning. So many betrayals get hinted at – we never really get to the bottom of Casey, or why Judith was at Fortnums and Masons that day. Even if they are innocent, the play just makes you suspicious of everything. In the programme, Nick Bagnall says they have tried to make this production one where they ignore anything unless it’s on the page or revealed within a moment – and it really works. They let the text do the talking, and it’s remarkably eloquent.

We saw a preview performance on Saturday 19th May. I don’t normally choose to see previews because you never know if they might change things again before the proper first night. I can’t imagine why they might want to change anything though. Maybe just refresh everyone’s memory about turning off mobiles. The final scene was all but spoiled by a recurrent ringtone which stopped and started three times. It even made some sectors of the audience titter nervously. Top marks to Mr Simm for battling through it regardless. I wonder if that explained Miss Gemmell’s withholding of a curtain call smile. Previews are fantastic value at the Crucible. A packed house saw this riveting production for just a tenner each. No interval, just 95 minutes of unadulterated adulterous drama. An excellent production of a great play.