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 – Peter Gynt, Olivier Theatre at the National, 21st September 2019

71596599_924542911248462_4164266991596601344_nI always thought it was a bit unfair that Willy Russell’s Rita was castigated for her “Do it on the radio” response to the essay about the problems with staging Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. For one thing – she’s reading English Literature, not training to be a director. And secondly, Ibsen was Norwegian the last time I looked, and Peer Gynt was written in Danish too. Personally, I think she nailed it. David Hare’s response to the same question is to bring the play bang up to date, set it in Dunoon (yes, Dunoon; I don’t know why either), and had the job over to the brilliantly inventive team of Jonathan Kent (Director) and Richard Hudson (Designer). Simples.

Gynt in the skyI’ve had a copy of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt languishing in my drama bookshelf since 1978 and never really had the motivation to open its pages – till now, that is. Whilst watching this new production I just got the sense that it was probably a pinpoint-accurate updating of the 150-year-old classic. So when I got home I speed-read the original, and, guess what – I was right. The structure of Ibsen’s original play firmly (but fairly) frames Hare’s new work. Ibsen’s five acts have become a more manageable three acts under Hare – Ibsen’s first three acts become Hare’s first act, then Act Four becomes Act Two and Act Five becomes Act Three, if you get my drift. Yes, there are two intervals. You’re in this for the long haul. The bar does very good business.

Wedding PartyBut it’s not just the structure that bridges the 150 year gap. Peer (now Peter) still makes up stories that make his mother Åse (now Agatha) fume. He still leaves his mother on the roof, he still storms Ingrid’s wedding, she still refuses to come out of the bedroom until he whisks her away, has his wicked way (we presume) and dumps her. He still perplexes Mads Moen (now Spudface) with stories of his Invisibility Cloak (hands up who assumed J K Rowling thought of that first?) He still encounters the Woman in Green, the Trolls, the Boyg; he still gets robbed in North Africa (although in a much more 21st century way); he still appears as a prophet to Anitra, he still gets swept up in Begriffenfeldt’s asylum, he is still stopped in his tracks by The Button Moulder; he still breaks Solveig’s (now Sabine’s) heart. It’s an extraordinary feat of transposing the same sequence of 19th century folkloric events into 21st century Scotland.

Dining with the TrollsGynt’s picaresque journey through life is a constant delight. No matter how much of a liar or a cad he is, you’re always on his side – although you’re also quite happy to see him deservedly suffer every so often. His constant search for pleasure – whether it be sexual, financial, influential, or whatever – gets him into endless scrapes which provide episodic entertainment that build up to create a full life but a meaningless one. But there’s always a final reckoning; and it’s in Sabine’s arms and heart that he realises where his place was all along. Sometimes a play ends on a note of uncertainty, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions. Not in this case. Ibsen/Hare make the purpose of Gynt’s journey perfectly clear.

Gynt as the ProphetIt’s worth pointing out, in case you were expecting something po-faced and worthy, that Hare has taken the lively and rather insolent nature of Ibsen’s original text and created a very funny play, choc-full of modern references and terrific characterisations. This is not the doom-laden Ibsen of Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, but a much younger man’s play; in fact, it reminded me of the unexpected comedy of the young Chekhov’s Platonov – although that might have been because I saw James McArdle in that role too – more of him later.

SabineThe vast Olivier stage is the perfect venue for this wide-ranging, high-level imagination play. At the beginning, blue sky and clouds are projected over a back wall of doors and one opens to reveal Peter Gynt, his head already in the clouds before he even starts speaking; a visual nod to the surrealism of Magritte, an unexpected flight of stairs bringing him down to the real world, as though the play was starting with a deus ex machina rather than ending with one. Stage right, a grassy bank with a few surprise traps where a head can bob up (or, indeed, an onion); stage left, a black void that can be usefully transformed into the Hall of the Mountain King, a desert oasis or a wedding party. For the fifth act, storm projections create a magnificent effect of a ship at sea. For three-and-a-quarter hours (maybe more) the show’s visuals create a highly dramatic impact on your brain, and in many cases it’s the visual tableaux that you remember most in the days that follow.

Old GyntThere were three reasons why I particularly wanted to see this production. 1) I’ve never actually seen Peer Gynt before (don’t judge me). 2) I’ve long been an admirer of David Hare and even on those rare occasions where he does put a foot wrong it’s always a brave and fascinating foot. 3) James McArdle. He’s one of our most arresting actors and I don’t know why he isn’t better known. He was a brilliant ingénu Alexey in A Month in the Country and a hilarious lead in Platonov. I understand he was amazing in Angels in America, but sadly we didn’t see that. He has, however, matured into a first-class leading actor and he’s barely off stage for the whole of the show, giving us a devastatingly brilliant performance of a lovable rogue, with all his sarcasms, flights of fancy, dejections and everything else that Ibsen and Hare throw at their hero. A truly outstanding performance.

Death of AgathaAnn Louise Ross does a great job of conveying Agatha’s fighting spirit and her love of her son with her complete fury at his lies and his folly. There are a few other featured roles, but the nature of the play is that the rest of the cast form an ensemble that populate Gynt’s life and times whether it be in Dunoon, North Africa or somewhere lurking in the Hall of the Mountain King. Tamsin Carroll is both bewitching and alarming as the Woman in Green and Anitra, Jonathan Coy gives great bluster as Bertram and alarming sincerity as Begriffenfeldt, Anya Chalotra plays Sabine with a terrific blend of feistiness and calm resignation, and Oliver Ford Davies is perfect casting as the authoritative but reasonable Button Moulder. Amongst the minor roles Lorne MacFadyen as Duncan, Ezra Faroque Khan as the Captain and Guy Henry as Ballon and the Weird Passenger give great support. But everyone throws their heart and soul into creating a very impressive theatrical experience.

It’s running at the National Theatre just until 8th October. Glad I caught it before it closed! You should too!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Absolute Hell, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 28th April 2018

Absolute HellRodney Ackland isn’t performed much anymore. The only other time I’ve seen one of his plays was the commercially quite successful Before The Party, revived in 1980 at the Apollo, directed by Tom Conti. But the story of how Absolute Hell came into being is one that intrigued me, so I decided it was one I had to see.

absolutehell_1You may know, gentle reader, that I am very interested in the history of theatre censorship – indeed, in this 50th anniversary year since the abolition of stage censorship, I’ll be writing some blog posts in recognition of this significant event later this summer. Ackland wrote the original play, The Pink Room, in 1952, at a time when the Lord Chamberlain’s control over what was presented on stage was in its hey-day. It’s set in a seedy nightclub in Soho just as the Second World War was ending in Europe, and he wanted to portray all the human life and spirit that six years of war had brought out of people; and now that war was over, the people needed to find a new vent and expression to reflect that freedom.

absolutehell_2Ackland wrote a play that he knew would get a licence – but by all accounts, it wasn’t the play he wanted to write. He wanted his characters people to use liberated, foul language. He wanted them to portray all the sexual freedom they wanted to enjoy, gay and straight, inside and outside relationships, legal and illegal. He wanted to show people getting drunk, not just gently tipsy for comedy purposes but rip-roaring, destructive drunk. You sense there was probably no physical boundaries that Ackland’s characters wouldn’t have breached.

absolutehell_16But it was a flop – produced by his friend Terence Rattigan, who never spoke to him again. Disheartened by the experience, Ackland hardly wrote another thing; but after stage censorship was abolished, he revised the play so that it would reflect more what he had originally intended. And when he was an old man, and down on his uppers, the play was rediscovered by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and finally became a success. A perfect example of a play written at the wrong time, you could say.

absolutehell_9The main problem with the play – and by the sound of it, it’s always been the case, right since 1952 – is that it is just too long. The original word from the National Theatre was to expect a three hour, forty minutes production, and, with the best will in the world, you can’t even concentrate on Hamlet for that long. Forty minutes have been shed between the early previews and opening night, which makes you a) feel extremely grateful and b) wonder what in the way of narrative has been left out; because the other downside to this play is that not a lot happens. That isn’t a strength, like in Beckett, where it would have been so disappointing for Godot to turn up and take everyone down the pub; in Absolute Hell you always feel like it’s going to break into a strong storyline, but it never ends up going down that path.

absolutehell_4Spoiler alert in this paragraph! Four scenes – the opening and closing times at La Vie en Rose club over a period of five weeks – show manageress Christine slowly losing her hold over the club, from an opening position of running a place that everyone loved but didn’t make much money, to a final scene with a structurally unsafe building that has to be closed down. As La Vie en Rose slowly disintegrates, the fortunes of the Labour Party offices over the road thrive – in what might be seen as some rather heavy-handed symbolism; even their constant typing (which of course in real life they wouldn’t have been able to hear) provides an interruption and irritation to the activities of the club – and, indeed, to the audience. Over those five weeks, the hopes and dreams of La Vie en Rosers are shattered. Writer Hugh Marriner’s last ditch attempt to make a movie gets nowhere. His agent Maurice is exposed as a sham. His boyfriend Nigel leaves him for a woman. His mother finds out he’s not as successful as he pretended. His friend Elizabeth discovers a dear friend has died in the Holocaust. And of course, Christine loses her business and the building becomes derelict.

absolutehell_11As a slice of life snapshot of the summer of 1945, it makes fascinating viewing – you really get a feel for that post-war energy and optimism, but only outside of the club. Inside the club, life is claustrophobic and going nowhere. There are black market etiquettes to observe, and self-important people to be pandered to. You sense that any fun they have on the inside is purely ephemeral. The future is on the outside.

absolutehell_12There’s no denying it – this is an unpleasant play. Binkie Beaumont described it as “a libel on the British people” and I see his point. There are few positive characters in it, vastly outweighed by a variety of self-obsessed, cruel, pig-headed people whom you would run a mile to avoid. But who are we to say how any of us would be if we’d lived through the Second World War like these people? An experience like that would take a massive toll on society, and that, I think, is the prime aim of the play – to show fairly desperate lives and without any real judgment against them.

absolutehell_14Unpleasant it may be, but there is a big upside; this is an extraordinarily good production, primarily because of several really superb performances that keep you hanging on to find out what happens to the characters. Charles Edwards inhabits the character of Hugh Marriner down to his tobacco-stained fingertips. The slight stoop he adopts, the rambling, wheedling manner of speech, the petulance, his general impotence and all his other characteristics are all perfectly captured as he wastes his way through life. It’s an incredible performance. Kate Fleetwood is also brilliant as Christine who manages the club, with a perpetual twinkle in her eye at the sight of any remotely desirable man; she has all the attributes of a tough businesswoman apart from the important one of keeping an eye on the till. Welcoming and indeed almost grovelling to those in influence, whilst dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit her own opinion of a good customer, this is another excellent performance.

absolutehell_15Jonathan Slinger gives a superb performance as the arrogant agent Maurice, steeped in his own self-esteem to the belittling of anyone who gets in his way; Joanne David is delightfully charming as the easily duped and surprisingly refined Mrs Marriner; Martins Imhangbe conveys Sam’s desire to learn and expand his horizons in a terrifically enthusiastic performance; Jenny Galloway invests the critic R B Monody with a wonderfully huffy self-importance; and John Sackville gives a tremendous performance of sheer stiff upper lip as Douglas Eden. But it’s a marvellous ensemble cast of thirty-plus who throw everything they have at making these characters come alive. If it hadn’t been so superbly performed, it would have felt like a much, much longer show. An interesting period piece; but, seen once, you’d never want to see it again.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Oslo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 27th December 2017

OsloHere’s another production that’s now closed, so there’s nothing I can say to influence your buying or not buying a ticket. Having booked for the obviously crowd-pleasing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for the Wednesday matinee, I faced a different challenge for the evening. “What are we going to see?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle. “A play called Oslo,” I replied. “And what’s it about?” “It’s about a treaty between Israel and the PLO”. Silence. “How long is it?” “Err…just under…three hours.” Another silence. “It’s a National Theatre production”, I added hopefully. A third silence. “It’s had good reviews” I added. A fourth silence, finally broken by the plaintive question, “are you sure about this?”

Oslo - complex phone callsThe fact is, I wasn’t sure at all. The prospect of three hours of negotiations between representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government hosted by Norwegian diplomats in a remote house outside Oslo bears all the signs of early grounds for divorce. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many laughs are there?

Oslo - a meeting of mindsBut that’s where you’re wrong, gentle reader, as indeed both of us were. There are loads of laughs. You wouldn’t describe it as a comedy, mind you; it’s a genuinely serious docudrama that takes us through the painstaking procedure of getting the two sides together under one roof to start talking about… well about anything really. That was the initial position that the diplomats took; if they could get individuals who take opposing views on matters of politics and nationalism just to talk about their families, or their fondness for waffles or a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, that’s got to be a start.

Oslo - Peter Polycarpou in an awkward moment of negotiationsAnd they were right. From such little acorns, as the saying goes… Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the social research Fafo Institute, and Mona Juul, official at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, go out on a limb and achieve the impossible. The audience follows, spellbound, as we see well-known political figures from both camps inexorably become involved with the talking; the arguments, the postulating, the climbdowns, the idiosyncrasies, the teasing, the jokes… Yes, jokes. Even with such high stakes, it’s fascinating to see how humour can diffuse an awkward situation, and reposition the brain into a more accepting and generous place. Get it wrong, however, and it can have the reverse effect; early in the negotiations Israeli historian and journalist Ron Pundak makes a joke at the expense of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie is infuriated. Fortunately for the peace process, Qurie is quite easily distracted by a raspberry waffle.

Oslo - Holst's not going to like itWriter J T Rogers stipulates in his text that the set design should be as uncluttered as possible and should work on our imaginations, so that the gaps between the scenes should be seamless. Designer Michael Yeargen took him at his word and created a very simple set, dominated by a grand pair of doors which can conceal – or reveal – negotiations on the other side. Endless wall panelling continued stage right to suggest the empty expanse of the outside world where various important figures might come and go, but we the audience never look in that direction, only focussing on the centre stage where all the important events occur. Characters also emerged from the auditorium, giving us a slightly unsettling impression of being at the heart of the negotiations. J T Rogers has his two Norwegian diplomats occasionally addressing the audience directly, emphasising that sense of us all being in it together.

Oslo - Mona and Terje together whilst Qurie looks onBecause this play very much relies on the power of the spoken word, it’s vital to have a strong, confident and eloquent cast – and this production had that completely nailed. Central to the action were Lydia Leonard as Mona and Toby Stephens as Larsen and they created a superb double act together. Mr Stephens adopted a convincing Scandinavian accent that didn’t sound too ridiculous and gave a brilliant portrayal of a man who’s comfortable with his own vanity but flexible enough to put things right when they go wrong, such as when the well-meaning housekeeper has prepared roast pork for dinner. Ms Leonard had a wonderful knowing look and a gently calculating air that suggested that she fully knew that deep down she was in charge. Two immaculate performances.

Oslo - Shimon PeresThere was also a very impressive performance by Howard Ward as Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, a man who’s not unfamiliar with the best cuts of meat served with the finest of wines, delightfully patronising and complacent until he discovers something he doesn’t like. That’s when he tends to release an uncontrollable string of four-letter words – actually the same four-letter word spoken several times, each time more frenzied than the last. Mr Ward managed to be both intimidatingly dramatic and absolutely hilarious at the same time.

Oslo - Savir has had a fewThe roles of the various negotiators were all immaculately performed and given full characterisation by a very talented team but there were two really stand-out performances. Philip Arditti, as Uri Savir, the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who is brought in to take the negotiations to a higher level, was both eerily scary and uproariously funny with his snappy delivery of Rogers’ elegant text. I’m still not quite sure how he, and/or the character, got away with that simple but effective impersonation of Arafat. Even more stunning was Peter Polycarpou’s performance as Ahmed Qurie; sinister, serious, intimidating, aggressive, yet a family man who lets down his guard and lets some light in where other angels fear to tread. And loves a waffle.

Oslo - Qurie and SavirEven though the play is set on a fixed date in the past – 1993 – the issues it raises are timeless and whilst there is tension in the Middle East, Oslo will always be relevant. Shortly before we saw the production, Donald Trump’s administration had declared it would regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. Without taking any sides in the matter, watching the play my toes curled at the insensitivity of this decision, as you witness how significant and how symbolic such actions can be. If ever you needed confirmation on how diplomacy needs a light touch, this play brings it into sharp focus.

Oslo - Hassan AsfourIf Oslo hadn’t really worked as a play, because it was too wordy, or too serious, or too undramatic, I’d have classified it as a brave failure, which is something I usually prize way higher than a lazy success anyway. But there’s absolutely no element of failure to it all. It’s ground-breaking in the way it takes what sounds like dull as ditchwater source material and creates such an exciting, suspenseful, revealing and funny play. Huge congratulations all round. You can’t go and see it in London at the moment, but I can’t imagine it will be long before this play finds another life somewhere else. Keep your eyes peeled!

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Review – Saint George and the Dragon, Olivier Theatre at the National, 2nd December 2017

Saint George and the DragonI saw this marketing poster for Saint George and the Dragon whilst I was idly looking at shows coming up in the next National Theatre season and it really tickled my fancy. The out of place, out of era, aforementioned Saint, glumly tucking into a full English at some greasy spoon. Hardly the stuff of legends, is it? But then as George says in the play, he genuinely is a legend.

SGATD1There are loads of excellent ideas in Rory Mullarkey’s play which has just ended its run at the Olivier, but, to be honest, I’d be surprised if it turned up anywhere else again in the future. In ancient days, when Chaucerian meter was all the rage, a Knyghte y-clept George found himself wandering through the green pastures of Merrie England (or was that a couple of hundred years later) and chanced upon an old man and his daughter, both verray parfit villagers forsooth. We meet the other villagers: Crier, Miller, Smith, Butcher, Healer, Driver, Brewer…. can you guess what services each provided the community? Of course, that’s where our surnames come from. So I have no idea why Mr Mullarkey has called the old man Charles and his daughter Elsa. Presumably his other kids Dave and Wayne were at some crusade or other.

SGATD2Elsa is about to be eaten alive by the local ruler, a Dragon (that’s King Dragon to you) so Charles pleads with George to challenge the Dragon to save his daughter’s life. Unfortunately, George hadn’t had much luck with Dragons recently and refused (most ungallantly) Charles’ beseeching to fight the Dragon to save his daughter. But then George looked in Elsa’s eyes and Bingo! It was love at first joust. George fights the Dragon, and, blow me down with a fire-throwing breath, he defeats him. But just as he’s about to enjoy his well deserved courtly nuptuals, he hears the call of the Brotherhood, and he’s off to fight another quest, leaving Elsa to darn her medieval mittens for centuries to come.

SGATD3I don’t think it matters that I’m telling you the plot, because of the reason I mention in the first sentence of my second paragraph. George comes back in Victorian times, and basically the same thing happens again; then he comes back in today’s era… and basically the same thing happens again. Repetitive? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There’s the nugget of a very clever play in here. The nation needs a knight in shining armour to come and rescue us from the mess we’ve got ourselves into; a character that represents true England – its nobility, its bravery, its courtliness, its generosity of spirit. Against him, the Dragon, who vows to continue his war against George in more subtle, subconscious ways in the future, affecting the minds of the people, encouraging evil and ignobility; selfishness and weakness. You might say the play sticks two fingers up at Brexiteers; I couldn’t possibly comment. At the end of the play George exhorts the townsfolk to join him returning back to the good old days, but, of course, no one wants to go back in time. This is modern England, a land of smartphones and skyscrapers, of Megabowls and watching England lose at football in the pub. You cannot go back.

SGATD4Nice idea. Unfortunately, it’s a very wordy, overlong, and lumpy play. It starts with George’s sub-Anglo-Saxon introduction and, I kid you not, Mrs Chrisparkle had nodded off for forty winks and woken up again before he had finished his opening monologue. There are some excellent moments of comedy, created by the incongruous juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern – rather like that marketing photo on the programme. There’s a very enjoyable scene in the second act where George, who has no clue what football is, finds himself getting absolutely plastered watching an International England match in the pub, and it’s genuinely very funny. George blames England’s poor performance on the fact that the supporters have lost sight of the fact that we are world beaters. Just have belief, and we will win the day. Good luck with that, George.

SGATD5There are some very splendid actors involved in this production who really did put in an awful lot of fine effort. John Heffernan brought great virtue to the role of George, with some lovely comic timing and excellent stage presence. I’d really like to see him in something good. Julian Bleach’s characterisation of the Dragon was very amusing, especially in the first scene as a slimy pantomime villain. Brilliant actors with CV’s as long as your arm, like Gawn Grainger and Jeff Rawle, breathe as much life into the play as possible. And there are some excellent special effects – I loved how the Dragon set fire to his servant Henry’s scroll of Terms and Conditions; although the setting up for the descent of the fiery Dragon’s heads onto the stage, using two wires that slowly came into view, was cumbersome and made the whole thing look very ham-fisted.

SGATD6At 2 hours 50 minutes it has some very long longueurs. My solution – omit a lot of the opening exposition and completely cut out the whole Victorian era episode. It adds nothing to the story and Mr. Mullarkey would still make his patriotic point only far more succinctly. You could probably bring it in at about 2 hours then and it wouldn’t feel anything like as hard going. Overall, it wasn’t too bad; but it wasn’t good either. Faint praise indeed. Can’t win them all!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Hedda Gabler, National Theatre on Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2017

Beware – there are spoilers! But then the play has been around for 126 years now, so it’s hardly going to come as a surprise…

Hedda GablerImagine a hypothetical meeting of all the best directors and producers in the country, all getting together to decide which play they next want to work on. One says I know, let’s do Ibsen, and another says, yes, great idea, what about Hedda Gabler? And everyone goes hurrah! And thus another production of Hedda Gabler takes to the stage, ignoring so many other of Ibsen’s great works that – it seems to me – get staged comparatively rarely. I first encountered the terrifying Ms Gabler (or Mrs Tesman, as Ibsen avoided calling her) in 1977 with the thrilling Ms Janet Suzman in the part. In recent years there was the slightly less than extraordinary Theatre Royal Bath production with Rosamund Pike as Hedda, and also the Royal and Derngate’s very own ex-Artistic Director, Laurie Sansom’s production in 2012, with Emma Hamilton as the arch-manipulative, butter-wouldn’t-melt bitch.

HG1Hedda Gabler, by the way, is Laurie Sansom’s favourite play and he describes the character as a female Hamlet. That’s interesting, because the programme notes for this National Theatre production, directed by Ivo van Hove, include Ibsen’s own preliminary notes for the play – which make fascinating reading and definitely worth buying the programme for that one page alone. One of these notes reads: “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous – and that cannot be borne.” Not tragic? So much for the female equivalent of Hamlet, then.

HG8So, if you’re going to stage yet another production of Hedda Gabler, at least make it different. And, boy, have they done that! This version has been written by Patrick Marber, so you can guess it will be brought bang up to date, maybe with some sacrifices to the original text, of which purists are unlikely to approve. One look at the set alone tells you you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. If this is Kristiana in 1891, it’s not as we know it. Blank, colourless MDF panels surround the cavernous room; an electronic security system with camera buzzes visitors in and out; Hedda sits in a trendy 1960s style Scandinavian armchair; she uses an industrial stapler as part of her feng shui kit; Brack drinks from a ring-pull can (invented in 1959, according to Mr Wikipedia). Scenes are interrupted by music – uncredited in the programme but you’d swear some of it was Enya – creating a vivid, unsettling mix of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

HG7The lighting plays a significant role in creating tension. The set and lighting were both designed by Jan Versweyveld, obviously to complement each other and it really works. It’s the lighting that in many ways controls the play. A very sudden lighting change starts the performance; darkness ends it. After the interval, and when Hedda pulls back the blinds to let the daylight in, those blank colourless panels slowly take on colour. Pale at first, they grow richer through yellows and golds into redness as Hedda builds up to executing her catastrophic act at the fireplace. The final scene, where Ibsen directs that the room begins in darkness, opens with Brack and Tesman boarding up the window, drilling the boards into place, so the light is blocked out – and with it, all hope.

HG6Then there’s the casting, which in some cases distances itself as far as possible away from Ibsen’s original stage directions. Christine Kavanagh, for instance, who plays Tesman’s Aunt Juliana, looks at least twenty years younger than Ibsen’s suggestion of a 65-year-old woman. Abhin Galeya, as Tesman, doesn’t look a bit like Ibsen’s description of a stoutish man with a round face and fair hair and beard. This is a Hedda where they’ve cut away all the trappings of 19th century convention and performance style to bring it in to sharp modern focus. As an audience member, the juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional compels you to give it your full attention.

HG14It’s vital for a production of Hedda Gabler to have a strong central performance that really makes you understand the character’s motivation. Lizzy Watts’ Hedda is, without doubt, a smooth operator. Not merely the bored young housewife with nothing much to do and already fallen out of love with her husband; no, this Hedda is pathologically cruel, deliberately contrary, gleefully malicious. You can see her eyes widen and her smile break out when she thinks of a brand new way to cause pain and wreak havoc. It’s no coincidence that Hedda’s existence is contained within these four blank walls – you cannot imagine her existing outside them. How on earth would Tasman, or indeed Lovborg, ever imagined that she was a plum candidate for a relationship? Yes, she’s manipulative and no doubt presented well, but I don’t see how she could have held back from inflicting cruelty on even a first date. Fortunately, everything that’s gone before is in another time and place and we don’t have to consider it.

HG13It’s at the moments when Hedda is at her most destructive that Ms Watts shows us how much the character is pleasured by the sensation. Forcing Lovborg into drinking again is her first victory; getting him to take one of her father’s pistols so that he does the right thing is another. Burning his work gives her an inner contentment and satisfaction; hearing of his death damn nearly causes an orgasm. This is a study of someone sexually turned on by evil. When Brack confronts her with his knowledge of her involvement, and she realises that Lovborg’s death was not as poetic as she had hoped, he in turn drips, pours and spews his can of drink on to her (in her sensual, satin nightdress) which reveals itself as spatters of blood, the evidence of her guilt in an homage to Grand Guignol. It’s a gruesome, visceral sight that no one else seems to be aware of; is this Hedda’s brain telling her that she has, finally, gone too far? Or is Brack equally predisposed to making a grotesque gesture? However you interpret it, it’s a truly stunning image.

HG5Abhin Galeya’s Tesman comes across as far from being a dusty academic. He’s much more of a lad, skipping and jumping about in childish delight when he hears a bit of good news; an immature sop who’s no challenge to Hedda’s cunning. When he and Mrs Elvsted are seated, trying to piece together the original notes of Lovborg’s masterwork, it’s no surprise that they’re on the floor in the corner, like two kids playing a game. Adam Best’s Brack is a suitably nasty piece of work, affecting an air of respectability whilst concealing his own agenda; trapping Hedda against the wall, desperate to control the uncontrollable. Richard Pyros, Christine Kavanagh and Annabel Bates all give excellent support as a deeply pathetic Lovborg, a bright and kindly Juliana and a surprisingly feisty Mrs Elvsted. And Madlena Nedeva provides a slavishly dour presence as the maid, Berte; hanging on to her job for grim death by sitting permanently by the door like a grouchy Babooshka.

HG10This is a production that occasionally provokes nervous laughter from the audience at what you might feel are inappropriate times. No more so than the final scene, when Patrick Marber has Tesman slowly approach the lifeless Hedda with the flat response “oh, she’s dead”. Such a ridiculous thing for this great tragedy to end with – but wait, what was that Ibsen note? “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous”. So, that’s spot on for this approach to the play. It’s a very different interpretation from what the average Ibsen-goer will be used to. The sterile, stylised setting won’t work for everyone, and, if I’m honest, some of the intrusive music really got on my nerves. But, then again, I think it was meant to. Not for the purist, not for the complacent; but definitely for the theatre buff who likes to have their ideas shaken up and turned on their head. After Northampton, the tour continues again from January to March, visiting Glasgow, Wolverhampton, Woking, Nottingham, Newcastle, York, Milton Keynes and Dublin.

Review – Follies, National Theatre at the Olivier, 23rd September 2017

FolliesOriginally produced in 1971, and wisely with no attempt to update it in any way, Follies tells the story of a final reunion of the showgirls at New York’s Weismanns’ Follies, one of those Ziegfeld-type revue shows that hold a cult but unique place in the history of theatre. Ever since we all stopped watching the Tiller Girls on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, there’s been precious little remnant of this form of entertainment in the modern era. Even Burlesque has been handed down to us via a completely different route. We really are in another time and another place.

Follies OpeningSally and Phyllis were two friends who worked together in the Follies, and Buddy and Ben were the two boys who would wait for them to finish their show before taking them out for a night on the town. Ben was the prize guy – Buddy was just his mate; whichever of the girls (Phyllis) ended up with Ben will have “won”; the other (Sally) would make do with Buddy. But it was messy; with Ben having a fling with Sally whilst engaged to Phyllis, and their friendships all fell apart as a result. That was many years ago, and the reunion is an opportunity for Sally and Phyllis to heal old wounds. But, somehow, it doesn’t quite work that way. Meanwhile, the old hoofers and belters (aka the former Follies performers) relive their memories, recount how their lives have moved forward, renew old friendships and enmities, and are haunted by the ghosts of their former selves.

Follies Young charactersThis was the very first show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw together after we had tied the proverbial knot way back in 1988; a production at the Shaftesbury Theatre, which we loved. On reflection, it was an interesting choice to start off our married life, seeing as how Stephen Sondheim’s view of marriage, which peppers this show like a bazooka blaster, is so bleak. Those first few days may be full of “you’re going to love tomorrow”, but pretty soon it’s “could I leave you?” Despite that, the show’s overwhelming message is one of survival. At the end, Sally’s dreams of rekindling love with Ben are dashed but Buddy seems willing to try again; Phyllis and Ben stay together because the alternative is just too hard to contemplate. The old-age singers and dancers are still knocking out their powerful songs and kicking their heels to any old show tune. Good times and bum times, they’ve seen them all and my dear, they’re still here. And that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?

Follies Beautiful GirlsEarly on in the show, when the “beautiful girls”, each wearing their year sash, take to the very unglamorous fire-escape staircase for their grand entrance, you realise quite how anachronistic this whole piece is – on the surface. The girls are just being judged, or admired, at that stage for their visual heavenliness and how adroit they are at walking down stairs. The sash lends an element of Miss World to it, which, although it still happens every year, lost its place in the affections of the UK audience decades ago, as being very last century.

Follies CarlottaGoing back briefly to that 1988 production, it boasted a wondrous cast – Julia McKenzie as Sally, Diana Rigg as Phyllis (although we saw her understudy); David Healy as Buddy and Daniel Massey as Ben. Amongst the older, supporting cast, we had Leonard Sachs, Dolores Gray, Adele Leigh, and Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson. A substantial element of the impact of the show is that you must absolutely believe that the supporting cast of ex-Weismann Follies girls were once magnificently glamorous, superbly talented and just magic to watch. Thirty years ago at the Shaftesbury, the fact that they had really well-known performers on stage in these roles, totally emphasised this sense of enormous reputation. Today’s cast, at the Olivier, of old Follies girls, whilst still superbly skilful and a delight on stage, are not quite so famous, nor indeed as old, as in the earlier production. For instance, I know ladies never tell a lie about their age but from what I can gather online, Ms Janie Dee (Phyllis), Ms Tracie Bennett (Carlotta), Ms Di Botcher (Hattie) and Ms Dawn Hope (Stella) are all younger than me, goddammit. No wonder they’re all such great dancers.

Follies Sally and PhyllisIf the framework and structure of the show now seems a little dated, the passions beneath the surface are as resounding now as they ever were. Sondheim’s score for this musical is definitely amongst his best; maybe it is his best. Broadway Baby, Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You, Losing My Mind and the incomparable I’m Still Here are all held together with blood, sweat and tears. Ah, Paris!, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, and Buddy’s Blues make us laugh with a lump in our throats. The songs support James Goldman’s wistful book which builds up magnificent tension between the four main characters before they explode with emotional devastation. They will survive, against all the odds, because that’s the whole point of the show. But, boy, are they going to get raw first.

Follies PhyllisThis production has Phyllis singing The Story of Lucy and Jessie as her “Follies” number, which was a huge disappointment to us because we much prefer the alternative song Ah, but Underneath. Apparently that song is only used when the actress playing Phyllis isn’t a natural dancer. Ah but Underneath is richly self-deprecatory with astoundingly clever turns of phrases, whereas Lucy and Jessie is just a trite patter song in comparison – something Cole Porter would have written, then chucked away. An odd judgment, in my opinion, to choose a far lesser song over a great one.

Follies Sally seatedAs soon as it was announced that Imelda Staunton would be starring in the new production of Follies, I knew that I finally had a reason to join the National Theatre’s Advance Member scheme, in order to be within a whiff of a chance of getting a good seat. It worked. Ms Staunton, who it seems can currently do no wrong (Gypsy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) chalks up another personal success with this superb mix of heartbreak and old-fashioned stamina. With her brilliantly inelegant dress and tastelessly showy hairdo, you can instantly see that this Sally doesn’t have the personal style of the others, whether it be through lacking the trappings of wealth or simply some natural flair. She’s a most charming, good-natured, walking failure. Her every scene reveals Sally’s desperate lack of self-confidence, and her waspish antagonism towards her unfaithful husband is a painful delight. For such a great singer as Ms Staunton, it’s a shame that Sally only really takes part in two songs; but her Too Many Mornings duet and Losing My Mind solo reveal what an extraordinary re-interpreter of musical classics she is.

Follies Whos that WomanWe’d seen Janie Dee a few times before, most notably as Dolly Levi in Leicester’s Hello Dolly a few years ago, so I knew she was a fine exponent of the art of musical theatre. Here she invests Phyllis with a marvellously supercilious air and a wicked ability to go for the kill in any conversation; and her performance of Could I Leave You is riveting. Peter Forbes’ Buddy is a convincingly wretched piece of scum, as he tells Sally about his liaisons with the lovely Margie, guiltlessly matter-of-fact. The whole presentation of Buddy’s Blues is fantastic, with his Max Miller suit, strobe lighting comedy effect, and the revelation of just how lovely Margie really is. Philip Quast has the tough task of conveying the sullenness of the inward-looking Ben, but he does a good job with the ironic Live, Laugh, Love. And of course, there are the priceless moments of Di Botcher’s Broadway Baby, Dame Josephine Barstow’s One More Kiss and Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here. But the number that absolutely brought the house down? Dawn Hope leading all the girls with their taptastic performance of Who’s That Woman.

Follies Young characters arguingEach character has their own younger version, silently observing from close by. This is an intriguing theatrical device; it’s not always easy to tell if the older characters are being haunted by their younger selves or if the young ones are being shown up by the older ones. I think it’s fair to say that as we grow older we do think back to our younger days – after all, it’s quite easy; we remember them; we were there. When we’re young, we don’t so much think forward to our older days, because the future is a mystery; at best, all you can hope for is some comfort and satisfaction in a life well lived. I’m not sure to what extent the younger characters can say that of their older generation counterparts in this show. The delightful Alex Young and Zizi Strallen are almost criminally wasted as young Sally and Phyllis, with excellent support from Fred Haig and Adam Rhys-Charles as their young suitors; but it’s worth the wait for their brilliant rendition of You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through.

Follies HattieI’d read some rather disappointing reviews of this production; well, I don’t know what the hell those people were watching. This is as crisp, as telling, as emotional and as musically rewarding as you could possibly wish for. Irresistibly moving, it’s what musical theatre is all about. Go see it for yourself!

Follies Solange and Young SolangeP. S. The show comes in at around 2 hours 20 minutes with no interval. Apparently, this is in keeping with Sondheim’s original intent that there should be no break; that’s all very well for a youngish man of 41 (as Sondheim was at the time) but it’s tough on a packed matinee full of pensioners. Yes, I can see the artistic merit in taking it through without the distraction of a break, but if you spend the last half hour worrying whether your bladder is going to burst, you might as well have Her Majesty the Queen breakdancing naked on stage and you still won’t be able to concentrate on it. Say, Mr Producer, be kind to your audiences and preserve the very practical tradition of the interval!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Mosquitoes, National Theatre, Dorfman Theatre, 16th September 2017

MosquitoesWhat with the grand Lyttelton Theatre and the imposing Olivier Theatre, it’s very easy to forget there’s another space at the National. Round the back, behind the bikesheds, the Dorfman re-opened under that name in September 2014; before then it was the Cottesloe. I read that it underwent a transformation giving it greater sightlines (tick, our view was great) and more comfortable seating (really? It must have been agony before!) I had to check back to see the last time I’d been to the Cottesloe – it was for Dispatches, in July 1979. That’s a gap of 38 years. Blimey. Mind you, that’s not my longest gap between theatre visits to a particular London theatre; like many people, I suspect, I’ve not been to St. Martin’s Theatre since it became the home for The Mousetrap. Last time I was there was in September 1972 for Sleuth. Lord Lumme.

Mosquitoes-10But I digress. Our main motivation to book to see Mosquitoes was not simply to visit the Dorfman, but to see one of our current favourite actors perform in the flesh – the wonderful Olivia Colman. I know that’s a dangerous tactic – if Ms Colman was indisposed, would we have minded? Yes, probably. However, she was disposed to appear and jolly fine she was too – but more of the performances later.

Mosquitoes-1Mosquitoes is written by Lucy Kirkwood, whose NSFW we saw at the Edinburgh fringe in the summer and what a sparky little play that was; and so, unsurprisingly, is this. It’s the story of two sisters; one, cerebral, reserved, with apparently impeccable judgment; a scientist researching on the Higgs Boson project and a pillar of the Geneva Science community. The other is the opposite; corporeal, extremely outgoing and pragmatic, totally flawed and fallible and living in Luton. The scientist (Alice) has a troublesome teenage son (Luke); her sister (Jenny) lost her baby due to a stupid belief that the MMR vaccine is harmful. Making up the happy family is their mother, Karen; once a great scientist in her own right, now a querulous busybody who enjoys making outrageous demands and being shocking, as the early signs of dementia kick in. As the particle collider project comes to a head, Alice’s family make it more and more difficult for her to enjoy the fruits of her research. And when Luke goes missing, it’s the final straw… or is it…?!

Mosquitoes-5Ms Kirkwood’s writing style is a pure delight: feisty, modern, unpredictable and completely believable. Her characters are beautifully sculpted and you get tantalising glimpses into their back-stories and emotions, even if they don’t affect the tale she’s currently telling. The result is a satisfyingly full piece; there’s so much there to consider and to enjoy beyond the plot itself. At times, Rufus Norris’ production is visually vivid with the excitement of the collider project – news screens on the walls, colourful patterns and projections on the floor and instrumentation (in fact, it reminded me of the good old days of the London Planetarium); at others, it’s suitably sparse and pared back, allowing the emotions of the characters take control of the stage. Paul Arditti’s stunning sound effects stop you in your tracks or jolt you out of your seat, depending on how much of a surprise they are. As a fiesta of sight and sound it all has a tremendous impact.

Mosquitoes-7My only quibble with the play is what is surely a hugely unexpected and unlikely outcome regarding the plot development. Without giving too much away, someone does something in this play which you would expect would result in a considerable prison sentence. Someone else carries the can and deliberately takes the blame. However, that person appears to spend no more than a long weekend at Her Majesty’s pleasure (or the Swiss Chancellor’s pleasure I suppose). Given the characters involved, and the legal consequences of what happened, I found it all ridiculously hard to believe.

Mosquitoes-11Lucy Kirkwood’s writing and characters are brought to life by some top-quality performances. Olivia Colman is fantastic as Jenny; a portrayal of someone getting through life just the best she can, despite all the awful things that life throws at her. She’s warm and funny; she’s hostile and challenging; she’s daring and reprehensible; she’s brave and fearless. She gives every aspect of her fascinating character a truly honest airing and she’s just a joy to watch. Olivia Williams makes a fine opponent for her sororal swordplay; her Alice is a splendidly confident, assertive person but when she feels let down by her nearest and dearest she shows she has vulnerability too. Ms Williams treads a beautiful balance between strength and helplessness in a very fine performance.

Mosquitoes-8Joseph Quinn plays the horrendous Luke with just the right level of awkwardness and brattishness; another vulnerable character, Mr Quinn plays him so that he’s not particularly likeable – which is probably very accurate – even when Natalie (a strong confident performance from Sofia Barclay) treats him with cruelty. Their beautifully written “sex scene” – if you can call it that – is played with tremendous humour. Paul Hilton takes the intriguing but not entirely successful role of The Boson, masterminding, observing and expressing all the scientific processes like a slightly mad boffin. I will confess, he sometimes lost me in all that rigmarole. I was always useless at Physics.

Mosquitoes-12Yoli Fuller is a charismatic Henri, and the other minor roles are all played with great conviction. The other star of the show is a wonderfully funny and strangely moving performance by Amanda Boxer as Karen; resolute in her determination not to be put out to pasture either domestically by her daughters or professionally by younger scientists. She’s great at dishing out the haranguing, domineering, battleaxe material, and then retreats into that wheedling, self-obsessed, hard-done-by attitude only too familiar to those with, shall we say, tenacious mothers. Superb.

mosquitoes-4The fact that the 2 hours 40 minutes fly by without your checking your watch is a testament to what an enjoyable production it is. A funny and thought-provoking play, causing human emotions and the clinical world of science to collide like particles in a lab. Beautifully performed and highly recommended, despite the somewhat incredible plot resolution!

Mosquitoes-6P. S. I’m not going to leave it another 38 years before I come back to the Dorfman. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had a pre-theatre lunch at The Green Room directly next door to the National; plenty of gluten-free choices and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg and Alistair Muir

Review – National Theatre Connections, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th & 29th April 2016

ConnectionsThis is my first dip of the toe into the waters of the National Theatre Connections, but encouraged to take the plunge by my fellow partner in theatre-blogging crime Mr Smallmind, I thought I’d give it a go. If you don’t know what it’s all about, several local youth theatre groups participate in performing the same plays in many different parts of the country. I say “local” – some of these guys had come a very long way to perform for us, so thank you for that! It wasn’t possible for me to see all the plays on offer at the Royal and Derngate, but I saw five, which isn’t bad for a first attempt. It would have been six, except that Theatre Alba had to cancel their performance of Bassett, due to cast illness. Shame; get well soon!

Citizenship by Mark Ravenhill, performed by RAPA at the Royal Theatre, 28th April.

CitizenshipThis is the first time I’ve seen a play by the celebrated Mark Ravenhill, but knowing his fondness for the odd bit of bad language (after all he did write Shopping and F***ing), I was a little concerned for the good morals and purity of the young people involved. I needn’t have worried. What a terrific little play and what a first rate performance from the entire company.

RAPA – I’m guessing – is the Rushden Academy Performing Arts. Many things stood out for me. The sensitivity with which the subject matter was handled – a 15-year-old boy trying to understand his sexuality – and how it was portrayed by the actors playing Tom and Amy was really impressive. The sheer professionalism of the actors; the lead roles of Tom, Amy and Gary brought huge understanding and emotion to their characters, as well as getting just the right amount of humour out of the text. You would not have known these were not professional actors. There were also some superbly performed scenes showing how some girls are born to be great mothers and some just aren’t!

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the show was how well the company worked as an ensemble. The opening (silent) scene is a fantastic display of physical comedy between the cast, choreographically perfect to within an inch of each other; swift, precise, funny, story-telling, characterful, full of little victories and school bullying; a true delight. When anything went slightly wrong they coped with it brilliantly – one guy lost a shoe in one of the mock-fight scenes but he carried on as if nothing had happened and subtly put it back on at a good moment – that could have thrown a lesser actor. I was also very impressed with the confidence and adroitness with which the cast handled the boxes – that kind of prop/scenery handling isn’t as easy as it looks and they have it down to a fine art. Stunning work team, you did a fantastic job.

As an aside, in an audience made up of more than 95% sixth-formers, I was very surprised at the barely suppressed sounds of shock, horror and disgust that came from some of them at the sight of two guys kissing. I would have thought young adults today (particularly those interested in the theatre) would have been more grown-up about such things.

Take Away by Jackie Kay, performed by BEA Theatre Company, in the Underground, 28th April.

Take AwayTo this group of aspiring actors, I give you this constructive feedback. OK kids, here’s the deal: If you’re going to the effort to put on a play, and ask the general public to pay to come and see it, there are some rules you have to follow. 1) learn the lines; 2) know your positions; 3) when things go wrong, cover it up and move on; 4) if you’re occupying chairs by the side of the stage whilst you’re not “on stage”, maintain personal discipline by sitting still and silently; and 5) don’t give up after five minutes and giggle your way through the rest of the performance like you’re in the playground. Above all, don’t make your audience cringe with so much embarrassment that they want the earth to open up and swallow them. I understand that for reasons outside of the cast’s control there were some late-in-the-day changes which inevitably meant it was under-rehearsed. But even so, there’s no excuse for not taking it seriously in front of a paying audience.

Eclipse by Simon Armitage, performed by Northampton High School, at the Royal Theatre, 28th April.

EclipseSimon Armitage is the Oxford Professor of Poetry, so I went in to the show hoping for something rather classically erudite. The play was commissioned by the National Theatre for the Connections programme back in 1996, and was inspired by the real-life disappearance of a girl during the solar eclipse. Top marks here for the professionalism in preparing a programme (the only one of the five shows to do so) – makes the life of a reviewer so much easier!

I must confess I didn’t really like the play itself very much. As a modern verse drama, it felt a bit pretentious and rather stylised – just not my style I’m afraid. However, there were some very enjoyable performances. Georgina Balderstone in particular gave a very strong performance as Lucy Lime, the girl who disappears. Full of character, benefiting from her very clear and well projected speaking voice, and appearing naturally very comfortable on the stage – a fine stage presence. Amy Goldup was also very strong as Klondike, the natural leader of “the gang”, very accurate and natural with her speech patterns and conversational style. I also really enjoyed the performance of Shona Guha as Glue Boy, bringing out all the humour of the character’s drug-fuelled state. If I have a criticism, it would be that they weren’t sufficiently au fait with the prop handling and scenery layout, which caused a few minor crises and collisions along the way – including an unexpectedly hilarious moment when a member of the cast repositioned a table on which she was placing items, forgetting that, to us, that table was a huge boulder. But that’s just a matter of more rehearsal. Overall a very good performance of a not-very-easy play.

The Musicians by Patrick Marber, performed by St Swithun’s School, in the Underground, 28th April.

The MusiciansI’m glad to have finally got the chance to see The Musicians, because we were originally scheduled to see the R&D Youth Company perform it in February – but it clashed with the UK’s National Final at Eurovision. Sorry, Youth Company; I will see you again some time, promise. The Musicians was written in 1994 and is a charming little play about a British school orchestra performing at a culture festival in Moscow – only problem is, their instruments have been seized by Customs. Get out of that one if you can.

It was a very enjoyable production, high on humour if a little sparse on theatricality. Much of the drive comes from the antagonistic relationship but later respectful friendship between Roland, the conductor and Alex, the cleaner; and the two actors took on these roles with spirit. But I most enjoyed the performance of the character (didn’t catch the name I’m afraid) of the girl who idolises Roland and looks up to him at every opportunity. She gave a great comic performance, especially when she throws herself on the floor in self-disgust because it’s her fault the instruments have been impounded. From a story-telling perspective, it wasn’t entirely clear to me what happened in the concert. Did they just mime to a recording? Or did they mime silently? The character who says she made a mistake made a great job of that very funny line. I also didn’t entirely understand why Alex was lauded as a hero so much at the end. I was paying attention, honest. I’m unsure whether those little problems were caused by the direction, or the acting, or both. Oh, and kudos to the group for going for a sophisticated professional-style curtain call!

Gargantua by Carl Grose, performed by Foundations Youth Theatre, at the Royal Theatre, 29th April.

GargantuaFoundations Youth Theatre can’t half get a lot of people on stage at one time! When we entered the auditorium, there were already dozens of actors, sprawled out over the floor, their hands quivering to the beat of some portentous music. The Prime Minister was mistaking his cabinet member for “Doris”, they were trying to get him to remember the secret code to prevent a nuclear war, and there was a vast big baby balloon bobbing up and down in the background. Confused? Maybe, but thoroughly delighted too, as this huge surreal melting pot of nonsense had me giggling from the start.

I really loved the inventive use of balloons throughout the performance – someone with very adept fingers had made them into a film camera, a doctor’s stethoscope, military weapons; in fact, almost every prop was made from balloonery. Well done to everyone for keeping them under control, because balloons have a habit of slipping out of place, but the prop handling was perfect. Also, congratulations to the guys who, War Horse-like, discreetly and expertly puppeteered the big baby into position and operated its hands and legs so efficiently that you didn’t notice them pulling the strings. Nice work.

As well as all the great ensemble scenes, where everyone knew their places and dovetailed with each other perfectly, there were some super individual performances too. No programme, so I don’t know anyone’s names, so I’ll have to refer to them by their characters. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Regina, the hectoring building developer, all northern bluff and bully; she brought a terrific stage presence and characterisation to the show. Mr and Mrs Mungus provided a genuine touch of tenderness to the roles of new parents and finely played their parts as straight as possible so that the ironic humour shone out. Dr Lucky approached his role with relish – he had something of the James Acaster about him; politician Pippa also has a great physical presence, delivered her lines with an excellent variety of emphasis, and she also gave the Prime Minister the most convincing slap. The PM and his adviser cronies were very amusing, and I also enjoyed the pomposity of the TV reporter. Last, but not least, congratulations to the guys who sang the baby’s lullaby – very nicely done, with a good balance of absurd humour and musicality. But all the cast turned in a sterling performance, and you could feel, as a member of the audience, that everyone sitting around you really enjoyed it. Great stuff.

NT ConnectionsSo if this were a drama festival and I had to pick one “winner”, out of those five I would narrowly give it to RAPA for Citizenship but with Foundations Youth Theatre’s Gargantua a very creditable second. I really enjoyed my first Connections experience, and will certainly look out for it again next year. In the meantime, I would estimate that over the last two days I saw at least seven young actors who gave really impressive, sophisticated and virtually flawless performances and I look forward to seeing them again on fresh stages and in new roles in the future. Best of luck to everyone involved!

Review – Waste, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 30th December 2015

WasteThe final instalment of our post-Christmas London Theatre Splurge was to see Waste at the Lyttelton, written by Harley Granville Barker in 1907. It was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, was subsequently revised in 1927, and finally staged in a public theatre in 1936. It was high time I saw this play, having researched stage censorship in my early 20s. I still find anything to do with censorship (particularly on stage) totally fascinating, as you will realise from this review! In October 1907, 71 dramatists wrote to complain about the extent of censorship and Waste was a major catalyst for the revolt. Barker spent much of his post-Waste life campaigning for the withdrawal of stage censorship. There seemed to be a particular concern that when a serious play, which questions the establishment and makes you think, utilised subject matter which the censor would list under “dicey”, it was more likely to fall foul of the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen than, say, a drawing-room comedy with similar content. Brookfield, the individual Examiner of Plays to whom it fell to read and judge the play, loathed it so much that he dubbed it Sewage.

Charles EdwardsHenry Trebell is a very able MP, Independent and much admired; and the Tory government, under the leadership of Cyril Horsham, wants to encourage him to join the cabinet. Trebell is particularly interested in putting forward proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England – a thorny issue, but one that attracts support in certain influential areas. However, Trebell’s private life is a bit of a mess. He treats women with flirtatious contempt; as a result, most eligible women don’t touch him with the proverbial bargepole, but some women enjoy the danger of his attention. One such woman is Amy O’Connell, estranged from her once respectable husband (who’s now only gone and joined Sinn Fein, would you believe, Lord love a duck). Sometime between the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two, Trebell and Amy have had a relationship; they have parted; he has gone travelling, and returned; and she has tracked him down to his offices to announce that she is pregnant. Not the best situation for a prospective cabinet member. Worse, she insists on having an abortion. He doesn’t go along with this idea but is powerless to stop her. What happens next? I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t already know.

Olivia WilliamsIt was the whole business of abortion that was too much for the censor. The final scene of the play, which also contains rather iffy subject matter as far as the censor was concerned, was pretty much ignorable in comparison to the abortion. As long as this illegal operation (as they termed it) was being bandied about on stage, the play would remain unlicensed. Apparently particular offence was taken at the suggestion that a doctor (so revered in those days) would undertake such a procedure. Barker refused to yield to Brookfield’s pressure to “moderate” his plot and his terminology, and thus it went unperformed for almost 30 years, apart from a private performance under the aegis of the Stage Society (one of those “theatre club” ways you could use to get round the censor).

Michael ElwynEven today, abortion is a very hot topic and the subject of much debate. Disestablishment of the Church, too, is very relevant, especially with the current trend in developing faith schools, and continued uncertainty as to what part bishops should play in the House of Lords. And we still love to snigger over the sex lives of politicians, especially when it thwarts their political ambitions. There’s a lot of very meaty substance to this play and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both found it very engrossing, well-written, not without humour and extremely thought-provoking. So I was baffled when, en route to the bar for our half-time Shiraz, I overheard a guy saying to his friend: “it’s a good play but this is SO badly directed…..” and then he went out of earshot.

Paul HickeyTrue, it’s not staged like a typical Edwardian drama. There are no comfy leather armchairs, warm fires, leather-bound libraries, or French windows with glimpses of tennis courts in the distance. Instead, Hildegard Bechtler has designed a monochrome, featureless set, with huge walls that slide from side to side to compliment the Lyttelton’s own safety curtain which has always amused me with the way it goes up and down. Apart from some messy desks at Trebell’s house, props are kept to a minimum. It is rather a disquieting set-up, but I think it works, encouraging the audience to concentrate on the spoken word rather than peripherals, creating a stark and sterile environment where only black and white survives. When the walls move for scene changes, your sight is struck by the geometric shapes that are created, and with much of the stage out of sight there is a suggestion that you are literally only seeing part of the bigger picture. The design was all rather clever and eerie, and I rather enjoyed the tricks that the designer played on me, including that rather significant waste paper basket.

Charles Edwards and Olivia WilliamsThere are also some fine performances. Charles Edwards is perfect as Trebell, balancing public decency with private impropriety, married to his work, brashly defending his situation to the Tory VIPs, upset at Amy’s pregnancy but more for how it will inconvenience him than for what it does to her. Olivia Williams is also excellent as Amy, nicely spoilt and outspoken in the first scene so that you get a really good insight into her character, then rather coquettish in love in the second. Once she is pregnant she gives a great account of someone who is deeply upset and trying to hide it, knowing she will have to go into battle alone, with her reputation shattered. It’s a very moving performance.

Andrew Havill and Charles EdwardsSylvestra le Touzel gives great support as Trebell’s faithful sister Frances, trying to guide him in the right direction but in reality indulging him to make serious mistakes; it’s a very convincing portrayal of someone who has sacrificed themselves for another. There also a few terrific cameo performances – Paul Hickey as Justin O’Connell comes in unexpectedly as the soul of reasonableness, with a very fine dignified performance; Louis Hilyer is superb as the bluff and gruff self-made northerner Blackborough; and perhaps best of all Doreen Mantle as Lady Mortimer, politely observing everything that goes on but delivering some deadly lines with wicked timing; she can fill the Lyttelton with laughter with just one blink of an eye. But it’s a long and ambitious play, during which the entire cast regularly come in and out of the action, creating an excellent ensemble feel. We both particularly enjoyed the third act, where Trebell’s actions are dissected and discussed with no thought for anyone or anything but the Good of the Party. It reminded Mrs C of a Management Team meeting.

I highly recommend both the play and the production. Riveting stuff, and still very relevant today.

Production photos by Johan Persson