Review – The Dance of Death, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd June 2022

Dance of DeathThe Dance of Death is known as one of those famously morose and miserable fin de siècle plays from the dour pen of August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright who’s often lumped together with Henrik Ibsen as being the pin-up boys of nineteenth century Scandinavian drama. I’ve seen it performed just once before, back in 2003 in a portent-filled production starring Ian McKellen and Frances de la Tour, who both drifted lugubriously around the stage of London’s Lyric Theatre in silent resentment of each other with amazing prop-handling but was as boring as hell.

Captain and AliceIn case you don’t know, Captain Edgar has been married to his ex-actress wife Alice for almost thirty unhappy years, living on a forlorn fortress island, surrounded by people they despise, and who ostracise them back in return. She abuses the servants, he denies his obvious ill-health, their children are grown-up and barely in contact; in short, they eke out an existence that can hardly be called life. Occasionally they think back to glamorous days in Copenhagen just as Chekhov’s Three Sisters reminisce about Moscow – both plays written in the same year, 1900, which is a curious coincidence.

Katrin and AliceInto this drab merry-go-round comes Alice’s cousin – normally Kurt, but in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ adaptation now Katrin – who has moved to the island to become the Matron of Quarantine. Sounds familiar? 122 years later and we’re still never too far from an intimidating and lethal new virus. Katrin doesn’t see her children anymore; there are differences of opinion as to why this is. There’s also a sexual domination frisson that occurs between Alice and Katrin which may – or may not – have contributed to both of their unhappinesses; you decide. At the end, Katrin washes her hands of both of them, leaving Edgar and Alice exactly where they were at the beginning of the play.

Captain and KatrinThis Made in Northampton co-production with the Arcola Theatre, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Bath, finally made its way to Northampton for just three days’ performances having received a variety of reviews from four stars to one star. The Guardian’s one-star review very nearly made me avoid this production, but the thought of Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae cantankerising the devil out of each other was too enticing to miss. And I’m very glad I didn’t.

Alice and CaptainWhy is this play considered so significant? Setting aside the modern corollary of Covid with the plague that beset the community at the time, you can see the roots of so many classic 20th century dramas emerging from the relationship between Edgar and Alice. I’m not sure we would have seen Waiting for Godot without this play – the Captain and his wife as a pair of co-dependent lost souls who end the play exactly as they started whilst life has progressed around them. Or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Edgar and Alice as George and Martha, deriving all their pleasure from random games of Get the Guests, but this time with Katrin and the servants. As in both of these plays, events that are presented as factual, such as Edgar’s announcement of divorce, Alice and Katrin’s sexual attraction, or even their telephone being bugged, are almost certainly not what they seem.

Katrin and CaptainTechnically, this is a very decent production. Grace Smart’s suitably lifeless set contains the trappings of a comfortable life, and I loved David Howe’s lighting design that creates a deliberately long shadow capturing the shape of a candelabra on the ceiling. The very quiet sounds of a distant party (to which they’re not invited) emphasise how remote their existence is, although the presence of the telegraph machine shows they can be in communication with the outside world. The women’s sombre clothes reflect their unfulfilled lives, with the only contrast being the red flashes on the Captain’s uniform that indicate that he does have some sort of presence outside these four walls. The timeless issues of the play – unhappy marriage, estrangement from children, and – if I can put it in the modern vernacular – serious FOMO, lend themselves well to a sparky new adaptation that revels in some very un-nineteenth century language.

AliceMehmet Ergen’s direction allows the dark comedy of the piece to bubble under the surface constantly; it never breaks through into full-scale hilarity but is always there providing an absurd sub-commentary on their appalling lives together. Suggestions of domestic violence between the two are helpfully minimised, which allows us to concentrate more on the text. Lindsay Duncan’s Alice wears her unhappiness as though it were a favourite dress, both showing it off with pride, and protecting herself like a suit of armour. She has a beautiful downbeat style with which she pings off Alice’s throwaway insults with subtle ease, and it’s a very convincing performance. Hilton McRae provides the Captain with a good deal of bluster and misplaced self-confidence, with occasional rays of warmth shining through the gloom of despair. We don’t feel sorry for him, and there’s no reason why we should, as he effortlessly conveys the sneaky manipulations behind his actions. Emily Bruni plays Katrin with straightforward, dispassionate clarity, which lurches unexpectedly into a thoroughly creepy emotional mess as she gets more and more involved.

Alice and KatrinIf ever there was a Marmite production, this is it; however, Mrs Chrisparkle and I sat captivated through the whole 80 minutes (no interval). It’s almost obscene to say we enjoyed watching these two people tear each other (and a third party) apart; but it is strangely very enjoyable! The production now goes on to the final leg of its UK tour at London’s Arcola Theatre from 28 June – 23 July.

Production photos by Alex Brenner

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Le Week-End, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 28th October 2013

Le Week-EndWell it was all rather a strange evening really. When we arrived at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse (still the best ever place you could possibly wish to see a film) the foyer was packed with noisy boozers. We couldn’t believe it – normally there’s a small queue of people wishing to take advantage of the innovative food and drink provision before taking it into the cinema, but this was like a party. When I eventually got to the counter to order our Argentinian Malbecs (delish as always) I asked the chap serving if the place had suddenly got extremely popular. Apparently it was a birthday party group who had seen the earlier film and had decided they didn’t want to leave! Anyway we got our drinks and fought our way into the auditorium.

Lindsay Duncan and Jim BroadbentThe announced time on the tickets is for when the film is due to start. 8.30pm. There’s always 15 minutes or so of adverts and trailers beforehand – you know the score. Anyway, 8.27, 8.28, 8.29 came round and the auditorium was in silence. No trailers, no nothing. We predicted a problem. Mrs Chrisparkle expected to finish her Malbec, reclining in her plush leather chair, and then go home. But no, at 8.32 a little voice popped in to say there were technical problems but it would be starting very shortly. And indeed, so it did – lots of adverts. By about 8.50 another usher emerged and said they would stop all the adverts now and go straight into the film.

No criticism of the cinema intended, but it was already turning into a Long Week-End. However, once the film had finished it felt like a very long Week-End indeed. Actually the film is relatively short but it felt like an eternity. Looking at the reviews, this is definitely a Marmite film; I read a five star review of it that absolutely loved all the aspects of it that we absolutely hated. It all goes to prove that reviews are simply personal reflections of the artistic experience, and we’re all different.

Jeff GoldblumThe problem with this film starts with the trailer. If ever a promotional item gave you the wrong idea about the content of the main product, this is the one. Is there an Advertising Standards Agency watchdog for film trailers? Ofmovie, perhaps? This would be an excellent topic for their scrutineers. You would think it was going to be a Rom Com for sixty-somethings; a couple going to Paris for the weekend to celebrate an anniversary and rekindle their flagging relationship. We’d seen the trailer a few weeks ago, where Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent traipse from restaurant to restaurant saying “no, too touristy”, “no, not enough people”, “no, too many people” etc, etc, and that’s precisely what we do in a foreign city. We knew instinctively that we would identify with these people, and get a feelgood throb from seeing them grow back together.

paris eiffelBut instincts can sometimes be wrong. For a Rom Com, there was precious little to laugh at, and when it ended, everyone left feeling as flat as a pancake. The cinema was full of middle-aged couples who obviously all expected to identify with the characters in the same way; and if you have the remotest amount of self-respect you couldn’t possibly. Actually, the film is about a couple who have been married for forty years and have become desperately cruel to each other, despite occasional highlights of mutual understanding. It’s not really a comedy because there’s not a lot funny in it; it’s hardly a tragedy (at least in the classical sense) because you have no sense of anyone being particularly heroic. I’m not really sure what it is. Not so much a Rom Com, more an Argu Tede.

On paper it looks like a winning combination. Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent are always brilliant in everything they do. They’re in Paris; that glorious city of dreams. A couple in a flagging relationship take a weekend away to regroup. It’s got to be a winner, no? What they don’t take into account is the fact that, for the most part, it’s quite boring – there’s an excellent climactic dinner party scene, but it’s incredibly slow to get there; it’s self-indulgent, self-pitying, feels totally inconsequential and above all, it’s thoroughly amoral. The only thing that seems to unite this couple is a desire to go to expensive restaurants and do a runner. They stay at a very posh hotel and ruin the walls. They run up bills they cannot pay. Basically this film celebrates illegality and irresponsibility, and the kind of behaviour most middle-class middle-aged people would despise in younger people.

paris sacre coeurThere were things I liked; I liked the structure of the film, in that it started with the beginning of the weekend, with them on the train to London, and ended with the end of the weekend, with them abnegating their responsibilities by dancing in a café when by rights they should be doing the washing up. There was no faffing around with unnecessary introduction. I liked Paris – it was certainly the most enjoyable thing on screen and makes a superb setting for any film. We thought Jim Broadbent gave a very good performance as the desperately sad Nick; however, Mrs C’s observation about Lindsay Duncan’s performance as Meg is that she has turned into a kind of female Bill Nighy, all throw-away lines, self-conscious posturing and “look at me” glances to camera. Jeff Goldblum was also very good as Nick’s old college friend, and I felt very sorry for him when Nick and Meg just walk out on his party without saying goodbye. But then, that’s just the kind of people they are.

paris tuileriesWhat progress is made in their relationship over the course of the weekend? All I could detect was that on the first evening Nick has a phone conversation with their son who is obviously having domestic difficulties, and Nick would like him and his family to return home whilst Meg is dead against it; by the end of the weekend, Nick too is putting him off from returning home – not in a decent way, mind; he said no and then whilst the son was remonstrating, he just pretended that the phone line had cut out. Coward. Apart from that, I didn’t get a sense of an increased understanding between the two characters; but then, so what, I really didn’t care either.

When we did finally emerge into the open air, Mrs C was amazed that it was only twenty past ten; that 93 minutes was amongst the longest we’ve endured. Our energy and enthusiasm had been completely sapped by the film and its unpleasant characters. We did briefly wonder on the way home how they will get themselves out of their unresolved pickle at the end of the film, but then came to our senses as we asked, “who cares?”

Review – About Time, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 25th September 2013

About Time Writers love to mess about with the concept of time, don’t they? J B Priestley was never happier than when he was plotting a Dangerous Corner or having a mystical Inspector Call; he even wrote a play called “I Have Been Here Before”. Ayckbourn is fascinated by time and has set different plays all performing at the same time in different parts of the same house; or with alternative endings depending on the toss of a coin; or indeed playing around with Communicating Doors, entering and exiting into time itself. And then there’s Doctor Who of course; and a whole raft of science fiction.

Rachel McAdams and Domhnall GleesonNow it’s Richard Curtis’ turn to dabble with this concept, in his latest rom com, About Time. It’s an elegantly written, mischievous tale about a family where the males have a secret gift – they can go back in time. All they have to do is go into a cupboard, clench their fists and whoosh, they return to a moment they had previously indexed to amend, rectify, and generally tinker with the past. Young Tim is of course highly suspicious of his newly discovered gift, and does what any young man would do under such circumstances – goes back and attempts to enhance his love life.

Bill NighyBut that’s not quite as easy as it sounds, as women have a mind of their own too. If the course of true love never did run smooth that’s even more the case when you have the ability to rewind and erase. Nevertheless, by a devious trick of time he snatches his newly found beloved away within seconds of her otherwise falling for a jerk at a party and they all live happily ever after.

Tom HollanderThat’s just a small part of the plot. Richard Curtis is unbeatable at creating hapless but kindly men who need a damn good love affair but who go about it in the most awkward way possible. Tim is a natural successor to Charles in Four Weddings and Will in Notting Hill, just more ginger. His characters give hope to hapless, hopeless men all over the world – on behalf of all such chaps, Mr Curtis has done us a great service – and, as always, the hopeless man succeeds (against all odds) with a beautiful woman. Tim is a very believable, likeable chap and you really want his blossoming romance to come to fruition. This element of the film is extremely heart-warming; and the comedy that ensues from it, as it does from the whole time travel story, is top notch. Indeed, some sequences in this film had me in complete stitches.

Margot RobbieThere is another side to it though – a rather sentimental side. Can you turn back time in order to avoid a horrific car crash, or a terminal disease? The former – not without other disastrous consequences; the latter – not at all. Does the sentimental side work? Well it certainly pings on your heartstrings and ends up boiling over with emotions, albeit in a terribly British, reserved sort of way. At least two ladies in the audience were moved to tears, and one actually had to leave the auditorium for a few minutes to compose herself. Whilst the plot never became unbelievable (apart from its central theme), I did feel that it dipped into mawkishness just a little to much. I won’t say anymore – I’ve probably already told you too much of the plot anyway. You’ll just have to go and see it to decide for yourself.

Joshua McGuireIt’s crammed full of excellent performances, both in the leads and in the smaller parts too. I’ve not seen Domhnall Gleeson before and he’s absolutely brilliant as Tim, his hopeless haplessness gently developing into confidence and maturity. Rachel McAdams (also new to us) is Mary, the object of Tim’s desire, and she’s superb at conveying the sexiness of the start of a new relationship. It’s a great comic performance throughout. It goes without saying that Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s parents, are completely fantastic and steal virtually every scene they are in. Lydia Wilson is both feral and innocent as Kit Kat, Tim’s sister, and there’s great support too from Tom Hollander as the self-obsessed playwright friend of Tim’s father, Vanessa Kirby as Mary’s unreliably wild friend Joanna, Margot Robbie as Kit Kat’s glamorous pal Charlotte and Joshua McGuire as Tim’s nice-but-thoroughly-useless colleague Rory. It’s a very enjoyable and engrossing story and well worth seeing – just remember to take tissues for when it overdoses in schmaltz!