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 – The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre, 3rd August 2013

The Cripple of InishmaanIt’s back to the Noel Coward Theatre for the third play in the Michael Grandage season, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. We’d not seen anything by Mr McDonagh before, and I think I was expecting something rather dour and dismal, a tale of Old Aran out of J M Synge; Riders to the Sea meets Brian Friel, that kind of thing. What I wasn’t expecting was to be in convulsions of laughter before the first minute was out.

Christopher Oram’s set is suitably sparse and gives a credible impression of the cold poverty and drabness of the Isles of Aran in 1934. The grocers shop that has everything you need provided it’s peas or unpopular sweets, the shore with the fishing boat, the featureless bedrooms and the makeshift cinema with a sheet for a screen are all quietly impressive, help the story move forward and provide a sense of intimacy.

Daniel RadcliffeThese Michael Grandage productions are promoted as star vehicles – Simon Russell Beale, Judi Dench, Sheridan Smith, Jude Law; and for this production, Daniel Radcliffe. There’s obviously a huge temptation for members of the audience to take sneaky pictures of the stars, which of course as we all know is Strictly Forbidden. To emphasise the fact, as the curtain was about to rise, two of the ushers stood at the front of the stage and held up little laminated sheets with a picture of a camera crossed out and the words “no photos”. They held them there, defiantly, in silence, for what seemed an age. In an act of civil disobedience, the lady behind me said to her companion, “go on, take a picture of them”. Spelling the message out in this rather laborious and atmosphere-killing way looked terribly out of place. Presumably it’s ok to take a picture with a phone, as mobiles weren’t crossed out on the laminate.

Ingrid Craigie & Gillian HannaOnto the production. I’m not going to outline the story, because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s a constantly surprising and delightfully honest development of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, I am new to the work of Martin McDonagh and it’s a thrill to find out that this play is so exquisitely written. It’s full of subject material that is really located where angels fear to tread but McDonagh’s lightness of touch and incredible ear for the Irish lilt of language makes humour possible in the darkest areas. It’s a gift not dissimilar to Ayckbourn’s, to make you laugh at something savage; the Aran Islands in 1934 were obviously not the most “politically correct” of places, and there is a lot of poking fun and discrimination against “Cripple Billy”. Mind you, all the characters seem to poke fun at and discriminate against everyone, so to an extent Billy is no different from anyone else.

Pat ShorttIt’s also a very exciting and entertaining story with at least two coups de theatre. Just when you think it might become mawkishly sentimental McDonagh surprises you with an amazingly powerful twist. Inishmaan is not a sentimental place. It’s home to serial bullying, disrespectful behaviour and physical violence, so it is. Life is tough, when the threat of TB or a liver eroded by drink is never far away, so it is no surprise that the glamour of Hollywood might become just too tempting a prospect.

Sarah GreeneAnd of course this production is full of great performances. We saw Daniel Radcliffe a few years ago when he was in Equus and there is no doubting his extraordinary stage presence. As Billy he gives a superb performance of a young man with cerebral palsy, but a huge determination to make the best of his life against the odds. Technically his performance is faultless – his acting of his disability is 100% convincing and you sense his understanding of his own character is immense. He’s one of those actors who’s just a joy to watch. Nevertheless, it’s also the terrific ensemble of Irish actors who make this production so successful.

Padraic DelaneyI particularly loved the performances of Ingrid Craigie as the slightly mentally fragile Kate and Gillian Hanna as the no-nonsense Eileen, Billy’s two aunts. They work together so well that you really would believe they are a pair of sisters who have lived together in the backwaters of Ireland all their lives. The lyrical nature of their speech patterns really adds to the humour when they are mocking each other, and to the pathos when they are up to their eyeballs in emotions. They’re both brilliant performances, masterclasses in running the gamut A to Z.

June WatsonThere’s also a superb performance by Pat Shortt as local gossip Johnnypateenmike, convincingly bringing out both the loveable rogue and cruel bully aspects of the character. Sarah Greene is a glamorously dangerous Helen, the prospective sexual light at the end of many a local young man’s tunnel; spitting out her insults with childish glee, she tramples over the feelings of everyone with whom she comes into contact. Even Billy hopes he might have a chance with her, despite her hoots of mocking derision.

Gary LilburnI very much liked Padraic Delaney as the seemingly laid back Babbybobby, owner of the little boateen (there seems to be an “een” on the end of half the words in this play) that can take islanders to the mainland – and beyond. And there’s a wonderful performance from June Watson as Johnnypateenmike’s Mammy; a drunken old sot who ought to be at death’s door with the alcohol she’s consumed but seems to thrive on it, much to her son’s disappointment. Indeed, the whole cast is excellent.

Conor MacNeilYou come away from the play with a sense of real humanity, despite all the dreadful things that get done and said, and a real appreciation for the author’s understanding of his characters and landscape. It got a massive cheer, and not just because Daniel Radcliffe has a sizeable fan base, but because it’s a simply brilliant production. I would definitely count it the most successful of the season so far. Highly recommended.

Review – Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre, 2nd January 2013

Uncle VanyaIt’s always a delight to get your teeth into a meaty chunk of Chekhov, and I wasn’t that certain if I’d ever seen a production of Uncle Vanya before. If I have, it was a jolly long time ago. Mrs Chrisparkle was pretty sure she had never seen it. So, with a rather exciting looking cast it was an obvious choice for one of our three nights in London at the beginning of January.

Ken StottWritten as the 1800s turned into the 1900s, the play is chock-full of the themes you would expect to find in your average Chekhov. Unrequited love, people growing old tragically alone, the pompous pretensions of the middle classes, selfish older people, too much vodka and forestry. Never forget the forestry. Remember the Cherry Orchard, which ends with the trees being chopped down, representing the end of the old order? In Uncle Vanya you have the woefully underachieved Doctor Astrov, Anna Carteretwho likes to spend his time tending the forests, which activity is obviously attractive to the downtrodden Sonya, who admires and values his hard work. Today you would guess they would both work for the Forestry Commission. The forests that surround the Serebryakov estate depict life – but still, dull, fruitless, dark, never changing life. The kind of life that bored, sad Yelena has married into; she who is a beacon of light for both the doctor and the useless eponymous uncle (actually brother-in-law as far as Yelena is concerned), but a light neither of them will ever get to see by.

Paul FreemanNo one gets a happy ending but nevertheless it’s not a depressing evening. It’s a fascinating play that gives you loads to think about on the way home, and its flashes of humour are very believable and provide dramatic highlights in this production. It’s thoughtfully and gently directed by Lindsay Posner with no wacky modern ideas of souping it up. Christopher Oram’s sets are very realistic and claustrophobic, but they take a helluva long time to shift from Acts 1 to 2 and 3 to 4, to the detriment of the dramatic tension on stage, which begins to ebb away as a slight impatience for the next scene arises. If the slow scene changes are a subtle way of telling us that life in 19th century Russia moves at a snail’s pace, it doesn’t work.

Samuel WestOne other aspect of the general design that I wasn’t entirely happy with, is that there are a number of moments when a character either observes something without other characters noticing, for example Vanya catching Astrov and Yelena in an embrace, or when someone talks about another character out of their earshot, as when Vanya criticises his brother. The Vaudeville stage isn’t that wide, and with the sets as detailed as they are, it is fairly impossible to provide enough visible space between the onlookers and the others to give a credible impression that one bunch of actors can’t see what’s going on at the other end of the stage. Yes I know this is one of those theatrical things where you have to suspend belief, but actually I found it quite hard to suspend it to that extent.

Anna FrielKen Stott is a brilliant Vanya. He’s gruff and blustery, passionate and outspoken, but it’s easy to see that’s mainly a front and that deep down he’s a pretty inadequate human being. He could have done something with his life – maybe – his criticising mother (a suitably stern and grumpy Anna Carteret) certainly thinks so; but then he’s 53 and she still doesn’t treat him as an adult, so I don’t suppose he cares what she thinks. He is equally critical of Serebryakov, who has enjoyed some distant success, and Ken Stott plays Vanya’s dismissiveness of his brother’s achievements with a very credible glee. The scene where Vanya shoots his brother is a delight; both Mr Stott and Paul Freeman as the hideously self-obsessed Serebryakov react hilariously to the outcome.

Laura CarmichaelTwo other scenes that worked really well – and brought out the humour in the sadness – were the encounter between Astrov (Samuel West giving a great performance of charming inanity) and Yelena (Anna Friel giving equal weight to the character’s mischievousness and sense of total defeat) when she feigns interest in the doctor’s map collection in order to get his attention, ostensibly to find out if he fancies Sonya. He goes all anorakky about it and she fails to convince any interest in the dull old maps whatsoever; June WatsonMrs C and I both recognised some of the worst defects in our own personalities there, just as I expect millions of people have done for the last 114 years. I also very much liked the scene in Act Four where Vanya and the Doctor are sitting side by side on Vanya’s bed and he can no longer control his great sadness at the way life has turned out. It was a very moving conversation, played to perfection by Messrs Stott and West.

Mark HadfieldLaura Carmichael plays the hopeless Sonya with quiet dignity and gives a very convincing performance of someone who clings on to the tiniest hope even though she knows it’s absolutely fatuous. June Watson’s Marina is a kindly and strong old Chekhovian retainer and the always reliable Mark Hadfield brings out both the humour and the weakness of the wretched old landowner Telyegin.

All in all it’s a very satisfying and straightforward presentation of a thought provoking and still relevant play. Definitely recommended.

Review – Calendar Girls, Derngate, Northampton, 17th November 2010

Calendar GirlsWell I must confess that I am behind with writing a few blog posts, for two reasons.

Firstly – I’ve not been well. No it’s true, and man that I am, it’s kind of taken its toll on me. Sniffles developed into a nasty cough, which became a chest infection, and I’m still on antibiotics. It’s been hard sleeping because of night-time coughing. But I am getting better honest. I’m not properly better yet, mind. But getting there.

The second reason is that we saw Calendar Girls on 17th November and frankly it didn’t inspire me to write anything.

We saw the original production in Chichester four or so years ago and absolutely loved it. I was convinced at the time that it made a much better play than film, and that it triumphantly called the shots dealing with emotion and humour. A star studded cast carried it off magnificently. We had Patricia Hodge, Lynda Bellingham, Sian Phillips, all fresh with the piece and giving it all it deserved.

Calendar Girls cast Four years on and I felt it was a very different offering. Most noticeable was how incredibly slow the whole thing is to start – frankly the first half hour or so is pretty boring. The scene where they have the photoshoot is still hilarious. And I did like the portrayal of John’s declining health. It was sensitively and elegantly done. But really – the majority of the rest of it was uninspiring. I fear Lynda Bellingham may be just too stale with the play now – we thought she was rather shouty. June Watson as the older lady Jessie had a confidence with the material that was rather winning. But on the whole it all lacked spark. Even the final scene where they walk through the field of sunflowers struck me a heavily laden rather than the charmingly moving scene I remember in Chichester. I should say that there were a few understudies performing the night we saw it, so maybe they were under-rehearsed or somehow the balances were upset, but to be honest I don’t think that would be the reason for my feeling of underwhelmingness.

It packs houses though – the week in Northampton was more or less a sellout. But I didn’t feel it got a sellout response from the audience. Politely appreciative maybe.

I don’t think I shall want to see it again.