Review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Milton Keynes Theatre, 15th March 2012

Long Day's Journey Into NightYou can’t keep a good writer down, and I’m delighted to see this revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night doing a brief tour before taking up residence at the Apollo in the West End. I’ve always been a big fan of Eugene O’Neill, ever since I saw the TV adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the 1970s with Laurence Olivier. (Olivier played Tyrone – he wasn’t sitting next to me in the living room.) Inspired by this play, at the age of 16 I read every single one of O’Neill’s works I could lay my hands on. Centuries later, I have achieved this ambition to see LDJIN live on stage. Any producers reading, by the way, please, I’d also like to see a production of Mourning Becomes Electra. I’m telling you all this because I want to emphasise that I had really high hopes of this production; maybe too high.

The set looks fantastic. In fact, Mrs Chrisparkle was verbalising her astonishment at it before she’d even spotted which row we were sitting in. Wonderful off stage glimpses of further rooms are offered, like the dining room and the hall. Classy wooden panelling abounds. However, given that the script is full of criticisms of the house – Mary says it was never a home, and Tyrone is constantly criticised for his stinginess, I felt in retrospect that maybe it ought to have looked a little shabbier.

The play has many autobiographical elements and was clearly inspired by O’Neill’s relationship with his father. It’s stamped with O’Neill hallmarks all over it – observing the Greek unities of time, place and theme thereby lending it an air of Greek tragedy; featuring a character whose life is changed by time spent at sea; and dwelling on ill-health and reliance on drink and drugs.

Laurie MetcalfWithout question the evening belongs to Laurie Metcalf as Mary. If the day is a journey – and the title of the play suggests it is – then hers is the longest. From the moment she walks on the stage you know this is a woman who is trying hard, but not coping. The language of the play pussyfoots around what might be wrong, but it’s a good guessing-game for half an hour or more. Laurie Metcalf is spellbinding with her flashes of nonsensical illogical reactions, which you put down to her being a worrying mother – which she is (as well), all papered over with a respectable air of Connecticut failure. O’Neill gives the character of Mary wonderfully self-contradicting things to say which Miss Metcalf carries off so believably. It’s an amazing performance. Occasionally she talks over other members of the family in a way that only a mother would, trying to hang on to a maternal role with which she is comfortable, still opening huge gashes of vulnerability as she journeys through this dreadful day. She is astoundingly good.

David SuchetHer Tyrone is played by David Suchet. I have vague recollections of Olivier’s Tyrone – my memory is that he played it almost schizophrenically, as a man who could be both a source of pure childish joy and a total monster. Mr Suchet plays Tyrone as a less extreme man, and I think that is truer to O’Neill’s vision. You get the sense that his kindness, when he shows it, is slightly reserved, and that his fury, when aroused, could have even more bite than it does. Two aspects of O’Neill’s description of Tyrone that I don’t think Mr Suchet quite achieves are the fact that he is meant to be unmistakably an actor, by word, tone and bearing; personally I thought he could have been retired from any number of jobs. He should also have an underlying sense of stolid Irish peasant. I sensed more refinement than peasant. Nevertheless, it’s a very good performance and his emotional pendulum for all his family members swings back and forth very credibly.

Trevor WhiteThe two sons are played extremely well. Jamie is played by Trevor White, very accurately portraying the underachieving disappointments of life, declining into an alcoholic stupor as the night wears on, showing a surprising delicacy of feeling for a whore named Fat Violet, whilst willing his own brother to fail. Mr White should take it as a compliment that he captured just the right level of degeneracy for this part.

Kyle SollerEdmund, the O’Neill character, is played by Kyle Soller. I have to admit that we weren’t really fans when we saw him in The Talented Mr Ripley or The Government Inspector, but I think he is much more suited to roles where he isn’t required to show off. This time he nails the role perfectly. His anxieties, administered with alcohol, are very convincing and realistic – neither manic, nor blasé; and his willingness to fit in with what his big brother wants, combined with his stomping off upstairs like a teenager were all very accurate. The two occasions he is called upon to punch Jamie are very deftly done too. The cast is completed by Rosie Sansom as Cathleen, the “second girl”, who turns in a nice study of a respectable girl who looks after herself pretty well – a touch of the blarney without going over the top.

Rosie SansomBut it’s the structure of the evening that doesn’t work. O’Neill has structured this play perfectly; four acts at different stages of the day – breakfast, lunchtime, teatime and night-time. However, they have chosen to make the interval fall between acts three and four, which I think is a big mistake. Act Two is the natural breakpoint. It’s almost half-way through the play; it ends with the men going off on their various errands, including Edmund finding out whether he has tuberculosis or not, and with Mary’s brief soliloquy that makes you really worried as to how she is going to turn out later on. These are all good moments on which to hang the break. Act Three naturally resolves the plot cliff-hangers, so ideally would come afterwards, and is also the scene were Mary’s deterioration becomes more and more apparent. The mood of Act Four is very different because it doesn’t progress the plot as such in the same way; it’s all about character revelation instead. So, with the current structure, when you get back from your interval Pinot Grigio, it’s almost as though you’ve joined a different play. Added to which, Mary doesn’t reappear until the very end of the play; and you really miss her, as she is the best thing about the whole thing.

Been a long time since a book cost 95pSo nostalgia let me down slightly, as it sadly often does. I still think it’s a very strong play, superbly written – quite possibly one of the finest plays of the 20th century – and this production features some excellent acting and an award-winning performance from Ms Metcalf. But the final act doesn’t punch you in the guts in the way it ought. Somehow the accumulated tensions before the interval just sap away. Mrs C thought it was a good idea that they are doing the pre-West End tour so as to get it absolutely right. I asked her what they needed to concentrate on. “Maintaining accents” was her sharp rebuke – always a pet hate of hers. True, there was also a little bumping into furniture and knocking over water, and the sound effect of Mary walking around upstairs was frankly ludicrous. But these things can come right I’m sure. But if they continue to divide the play after Act Three, everyone’s going to have to up their game for that last scene. A final plea: it’s a three-hour Eugene O’Neill drama. Would it be too much to ask for a twenty minute interval, not just fifteen?

Review – The Government Inspector, Warwick Arts Centre, 28th May 2011

Warwick Arts CentreIt’s been a sin of omission on my part that I have never visited the Warwick Arts Centre before last Saturday. Its reputation as a home for challenging theatre was made early on in its life in the 1970s, so I’m delighted to have finally found it and will be checking religiously for new shows to see there. I recommend it – the sightlines are excellent, the sound is clear and the seats are comfortable. The ice-creams were tasty but I wasn’t that keen on the cafeteria aspect of the bar areas. It’s definitely more functional than sophisticated.

I also have a great fondness for the Young Vic, where I saw some pretty sensational stuff in the 1970s and early 80s, and so it was with eagerness that I booked for us to see “The Government Inspector”, being a Warwick Arts Centre – Young Vic co-production.

Government Inspector Gogol’s 1836 play is a satire on corruption and greed. It’s a terribly simple plot. An inspector is to arrive incognito in some backwater Russian town and the mayor and notables are terrified that their corrupt inefficiencies will get discovered. They assume a new man in town is the inspector and so, as they are used to receiving bribes, they give him bribes to smooth the waters. Of course, he isn’t the inspector but a waster with a gambling addict, so he is pleased to receive their money and take advantage of the townswomen to boot. At the end, he leaves scot-free with all the cash, and the locals, much poorer, still await the horror of the real government inspection.

I’ve not seen or read this play before, but I understand it that it is often presented with an eye to the surreal. That’s certainly the tack taken by director Richard Jones in what I felt was a pretty woeful production.

Let’s start with the set. Stage right you have the Mayor’s living room, taking up the majority of the usable area. Stage left you have another room, at times the mayor’s wife’s boudoir, their guest room, the room at the inn, or an interrogation room-cum-torture chamber. Fair enough. My opinon is, having established those boundaries, stick with it. But for the final scene the mayor’s front room just extends and takes over the other stage area, oblivious of its previous segregation and because of the other area’s different flooring and decoration, it just looks and feels wrong. On another occasion, when Khlestakov, the non-inspector, was sleeping on the floor in the guest room area, his feet distinctly broke through the imaginary wall and ended up in the mayor’s parlour area. Sloppy, I thought; no real respect given to the staging.

Secondly, the vision of the play is inconsistent regarding its era. Whilst the majority of the time it appears to be fully 1830s as far as costume, scenery and props are concerned, in the final scene, all the guests have helium balloons. Not sure that’s entirely right.

And then you have the stage effects. In order (presumably) to give an impression of the mayor’s tormented mind, they project the moving word “incognito” on to the walls in a spooky sort of way. And rats appear at the door and along the picture rail too. The trouble is the rats are laughable. They look for all the world like the ones that they didn’t make earlier on Blue Peter. Visually, it came across as very cheap and amateur. There’s one scene change moment when – for some reason – all the stagehands and actors who are moving scenery come on wearing bird masks and other surreal costumes. There was no artistry to those costumes; they look like they were just chucked on higgledy-piggledy. They were tawdry and it was embarrassing. Plus it was accompanied by a ridiculously loud, off-putting, indescribable and headache-inducing sound effect.

Oh my God those sound effects. I can only guess they were meant to enhance certain aspects of the play for the hard of understanding. When Khlestakov is sitting on one chair and the mayor’s daughter is on another, he draws the chair close to her as a visual sign of pursuing her. She pulls her chair away from him. He follows her again, she pulls away again, and so on. This takes place on carpet. Yet the scene is “improved” by having a chair scraping sound effect whenever the chairs move. It makes the whole thing so unsubtle. At other times, there is music in the background which ends with an old-fashioned “stylus being dragged across a record” sound effect. Not quite sure what it was meant to signify, but by the sixth or seventh time I’d heard it I wanted to smash the record over the director’s head. It was an overdose of inanity.

Julian BarrattOn the whole the performances themselves were not bad. Julian Barratt plays the Mayor, and as I have never seen The Mighty Boosh, I had no preconceived ideas about what he would be like. On the whole I enjoyed his performance; I liked his facial expressions, and I thought he conveyed the mayor’s tortured angst pretty well. My main concern was that he spoke in a monotone nearly all the time. I wouldn’t say he actually sounded monotonous, but he kept exactly the same vocal cadences for when he was talking to his family, buttering up the soi-disant inspector, dealing with the other worthies of the town or interrogating the dissident shopkeeper. It lacked variation.

Doon MacKichanDoon Mackichan, for whom I have a lot of time , played his wife. A naturally comic personality, she was great vamping up to the inspector and trying to out-sexy her daughter in his affections. For me the stage certainly brightened up whenever she appeared.Kyle Soller Kyle Soller was Khlestakov; we saw him as the eponymous Talented Mr Rigby last year, where I didn’t entirely believe his charisma, but this time I found him more convincing. Basically Khlestakov is a show-off fop, camping it up around the stage and taking advantage of everyone, and he did it fine.

I can’t help but think, though, that instead of this downright weird presentation, it would have been much more telling if it had been played more straight and serious. I would have thought you could really demonstrate the scale of the corruption and foolishness of the townspeople and make Khlestakov more of a threatening and manipulative presence if they’d taken away all the gimmicks and left the text. What are now mere cartoon characters could become real people instead. This would also have meant the impact of the final realisation by the townspeople that they had been fooled would have been more devastating. As it is, the ending has all the force of being kicked in the shins by a dormouse.

There was a theme of repetition too: characters repeating the same short speeches ad nauseam to very little dramatic effect. God it was tedious. No wonder it felt like the show runs for several hours. I think I should stop now before I think of other aspects of the show that irritated me.

It’s an excellent play, but it’s a production that tries too hard to be clever, relies too heavily on artificial effects and offers too much caricature instead of characterisation to warrant the ticket price, I’m sorry to say.

Review – The Talented Mr Ripley, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, October 6th

The Talented Mr RipleyI love going to the Royal and Derngate. Such variety. Such good value. A friendly, creative environment where anything can happen. That’s not particularly relevant to my thoughts about The Talented Mr Ripley, but I thought I’d state my case anyway.

It’s not often you get a story about someone who is completely without any redeeming features. Tom Ripley is first seen posing as a taxman, terrorising some poor pap who didn’t pay enough of his debt to the state. But it’s the power that enthrals him more than the financial gain, as he patterns delicate cigarette burn holes in the cheque he has fraudulently obtained rather than trying to bank it. If he goes on a journey – and I’m not sure he does really, he’s a bad bastard at the beginning and a bad bastard at the end – I guess he moves more towards the financial gain aspect of his machinations.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the story. Ripley establishes his badness credentials by hoodwinking an old/sick couple to send him to Italy in an attempt to track down their missing son Ricky so that he can return to the US before his mother dies. Ripley quickly tracks him down; falls in love with him (or not – you decide); manipulates him out of love with his girlfriend; ingratiates himself in his affections; then bumps him off in a boat and takes on his identity. Meanwhile another guy Ricky knows in Italy smells a rat, and in attempt to find out where Ricky has gone also gets himself bumped off by Ripley. The girlfriend retires hurt, like a gracious cricketer; Ricky’s parents decide to bestow all their worldly goods on Ripley instead of Ricky; and Ripley lives happily ever after.

Kyle Sommer It’s a thoroughly nasty story. Ripley is a thoroughly nasty person; but to get away with it the character must have a Charisma As Big As The Ritz. Although technically I thought Kyle Soller as Ripley gave a faultless performance of a very demanding role, I personally couldn’t see his charisma. He portrayed Ripley much more as the conniving weaselly little s**t that he really is. He was particularly sinister when laying out Ricky’s clothes and assuming his appearance. But if I were Ricky, I would never have trusted him.

Sam Heughan There were some excellent performances from other members of the cast – Sam Heughan as Ricky credibly showed all aspects of his personality – the all-American sports hero, the guy who likes to have a good time with his mates, the weak-willed potential rapist (a nasty scene if ever there was one), the guy who was under-prepared for surprise attacks by the person who he thought he could trust.

Michelle Ryan Michelle Ryan, too, very good as Marge, the wronged girlfriend – and possibly even better doubling up in the minor role of Sophia the prostitute who nearly gets raped. Chris Ravenscroft Nice to see Chris Ravenscroft again, once sidekick to TV’s Detective Inspector (“there bin a murder”) Wexford. Not overly convinced by his performance as Ricky’s father, but very effective as the Italian detective who’s just beginning to suss out Ripley’s guilt – a cross between Columbo, Morse and Topo Gigio.

But, you know, there are problems. Boy are there problems.

The end of act one has a most ingenious way of showing the boat on which Ripley and Ricky go further out to sea, and from whence only one of them would return. But – really – the “fight” between them was choreographed as balletically hokily as you could imagine and I found it laughable. It was the least convincing stage fight I have ever seen. I was waiting for the handbags to come out. And then there was a video projection which (I assume) was to convince the audience that two people were struggling underwater and one of them was drowning. Hmmm. Sometimes the imagination can work much better.

Another problem was the ending. If ever a play ended with a whimper and not a bang, this is it. Possibly because Ripley never gets a well-deserved come-uppance, one feels really deprived of a proper denouement. His aunt has come out to see him in Italy and is droning on about something boring – a hideously boring speech. Now – this is a long play. Too long. I don’t think I fell asleep. Very hard to do so from Row B of the stalls because you feel (normally) so involved in what’s going on. But maybe I did, as during the course of this speech my brain decided it had had enough and didn’t want to follow it any more. So I thought to myself I’d let this bit pass, and then catch up with the story in the next scene.

Only there was no next scene. The boring speech ends, and so does the play. Having tuned out, I was suddenly rather freaked by the fact that it had all finished and I hadn’t noticed it. And I don’t think I was alone in that thought in the audience. It took a long time for the applause to start up – I think there was a mutual feeling of “That can’t be the end, can it???” and then I have to say I thought the applause was tepid and short-lived at best. Shame because it was a hard working cast who deserved more.

The play would definitely be improved with a few cuts – probably a bit of a re-write really, to prune it back by about half an hour. A lot of the dialogue at the beginning of the play was very stilted and unnatural. It didn’t really pick up until Ripley arrived in Italy.

So – in brief – a lot of effort, a lot of effective sinisterness, some good staging ideas, but with a feeling of overall disappointment at the end. At times this could have been a four-star show; but on reflection it’s more of a plucky two-star than solid three-star. Pity.