Review – Lungs, The Old Vic, In Camera Performance, 26th June 2020

LungsA few weeks into the lockdown and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were wondering what theatres could do to raise some money whilst still providing an artistic reward for our cash. Donating to your favourite local theatre is obviously a good move if you can afford it, but times are hard and there’s only so much anyone can do. There have been dozens of streamed broadcasts of recordings of successful shows transmitted over the airways during the lockdown which are well worth watching and making a donation for the privilege of doing so. But what about live performance, with all its risks, electricity, surprises and energy? A recorded performance can be a great reminder of a memorable show but it’s not quite the same as The Real Thing.

A few weeks further into lockdown, and, lo and behold, the Old Vic had the brilliant idea of presenting a play on their iconic stage, live alive-o, for which theatregoers could buy tickets in the usual way and then watch the live performance at home via Zoom (who’d heard of zoom four months ago?) recreating the genuine theatre experience as closely as possible without actually having to endanger ourselves by breaking social distancing. I knew hardly anything about the show but decided that buying a ticket had to be worth a try.

106087044_1810229569119312_7234165074705332147_nAnd so it was that last night we watched Lungs, Duncan Macmillan’s two-hander that enjoyed a successful run at the Old Vic last year, with new life breathed into it in this socially-distanced version with no set, hardly any crew and just a couple of camera operators. But the questions to be faced were: a) how would this work, b) would the connection be reliable, and c) could this be the short-term future for live performance? Answers: a) like a dream, b) absolutely, and c) YES! The Old Vic are on to an absolute winner with this idea.

To be fair, we’d probably have enjoyed it more if I’d remembered that I’d booked for last night’s performance and not next Friday’s, as I had erroneously written in my diary. Too much lockdown can make the brain go flabby, obvs. Fortunately, the Old Vic sent an email alert reminding us that the show was starting soon, and Mrs C was able to delay our evening meal until after the show finished. Thus, we made it to the virtual theatre with ten minutes to spare. As I was underprepared I couldn’t work out how to turn off the subtitles, so we had to watch the play with them on, not that that was a particular problem – but I’ll know for next time.

106175335_2666682963545118_4185622019019841800_nLungs is a snappy, pacey series of dialogues between Matt Smith’s Him and Claire Foy’s Her. Starting with them bickering in the aisles of a virtual IKEA, you can tell their relationship is never going to be a calm affair. Young, idealistic types who self-congratulate that they give to charity and watch subtitled films, they fret about the repercussions of starting a family to the detriment of the planet, but decide to go for it anyway. However, the route towards having a baby is often fraught with difficulty and sadness, and the play beautifully – and sometimes agonisingly – takes us on their torturous journey to parenthood. But it’s not just about infertility problems – in fact, it isn’t about infertility at all – it takes a much broader look at all the little things that can influence a relationship. I’ll say no more, but it contains a number of what J B Priestley would have called Difficult Corners.

Technically, it’s deceptively simple. One camera on her, one on him, placed side by side on the screen, which gives a more dynamic and intimate presentation than just simply showing the whole stage all the time. The camera work was excellent, by the way, as was the sound, and everything was perfectly lit, so great work by all the tech people. Before it starts, the sounds of audience murmuring, five-minute bells, and backstage announcements put you in the mindset of this being a Proper Play in a Proper Theatre.

Lungs CastThe two performances are superb, interlocking and overtalking with passion, enthusiasm, anger and as many other emotions as you can imagine. Scenes merge into each other with scarcely a pause for breath (hence the need for the Lungs in the title) but it’s performed with immaculate clarity and the lack of set is a positive bonus in that there’s nothing to get in the way of the storytelling. Matthew Warchus’ direction is all about the verbal choreography between the two, almost balletic in its accuracy and balance. Mr Smith and Ms Foy work together incredibly well, each making the most of their roles’ inconsistencies and fallibilities to present two genuinely well-meaning people who hop from car-crash to success and then back again. In these times of heightened sensitivity, there are plenty of occasions when you might feel a little moisture in the eyes.

Whilst we can’t have the real thing, this for sure is the best next option. Personally, I’d be really happy to pay the going rate to keep theatres supported if they could put COVID-compatible performances together like this. If you feel the same, visit the Old Vic website and book yourself tickets. Keep strong team, we can do this!

Review – Rough for Theatre II and Endgame, The Old Vic, 29th February 2020

88183326_133168874749334_6195709823078629376_nA double-bill of Beckett plays is always going to be a challenge, but hopefully a good one. The current Old Vic production directed by Richard Jones comes with a terrific pedigree, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming in one reasonably familiar play and another rarely performed piece. Does it measure up to those high expectations? Read on, gentle reader…

Clov and HammI admit, I’d never heard of Rough for Theatre, neither piece I or piece II – they were written in the late 1950s, in French, naturellement. Fragment deux, that opens this production, is a 25-minute snippet where two bureaucrats examine the life, worth, anxieties and achievements of a man, C, frozen in a window frame, ready to leap (presumably to his death). During the process we learn a little about this man, but we understand much more about the characters of the two office men. A (Daniel Radcliffe), clearly superior, with a natural, relaxed authority, simple clarity of thought and speech versus B (Alan Cumming), flustered, neurotic, insecure, longing to bask in the glory of being in the company of A.

Rough for Theatre IIMessrs Radcliffe and Cumming bring this two-hander to life as a sparklingly unsettling comedy, savage in its contempt for the fate of the man about to jump, but also revealing the strange professional relationship between the two observers. Much funnier than it had any right to be, this little play has the ability to make you laugh, cringe, and appreciate how much we clutch at straws to make life bearable. A terrific opener.

HammAfter the interval we returned for Beckett’s Endgame, or Fin-de-Partie in its original French, that stalemate end to a chess game where no one can make a meaningful move, and there’s certainly no chance of winning. Me to play, Hamm may gleefully announce, but then what? There he sits, blind, imperious, inconsequentially veering from the bland to the bullying, and all for nothing. He whistles for his servant, Clov, who attends in a flash, but is sarcastic, resentful and unhelpful, attempting to return some of the cruelty that had been handed out to him. Preserved but useless, Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, inhabit their dustbins in a corner of the stage, reminiscing about the good old days, with just an old dog biscuit to eat. You can take the chess analogy as far as you like; depending on your fondness for the game it might illuminate or obscure whatever meaning you feel Beckett has written into it.

ClovI’d never seen Endgame on stage before, but had only read it; and what feels like organised stasis on the page comes to vivid life in a way you couldn’t dream of in this stunning production. From the moment Daniel Radcliffe enters the stage and decides to open the curtains, it’s an amazing and spellbinding performance. He remembers he needs his ladder, hits himself for forgetting, then when he finally gets the ladder into place he climbs up it in a most extraordinary manner and, having opened the curtains, comes down in another, ridiculous and hilarious way; forgets the ladder, hits himself again, and so it goes on. It has the audience in hysterics. Throughout the play, Mr Radcliffe adopts a most uncomfortable, but riveting to watch, gait; bouncing, hobbling, sliding over every available surface. But much more than this, he invests Clov with a fascinating characterisation; sullen, bitter, frustrated, but alarmingly obedient and essentially impotent.

Nagg and NellAlan Cumming’s Hamm is a truly ghastly creation, sitting on his throne (a masterful piece of design work by Stewart Laing), his withered, dangly legs reflecting his loss of power. Marvellously smug, viciously cruel, he blathers on confidingly with observations of past life, confronting Clov with petty vindictiveness; in fact, it’s a superb portrayal of a grotesque man clinging on to the wreckage of life. His patronising treatment of his parents in the bin is riddled with sneering and malice, whilst they wait, innocently and pointlessly, for something to happen. The performances of Karl Johnson as Nagg and Jane Horrocks as Nell are a pure delight, as they blink their way out of the darkness in which they are kept, fondly holding onto distant memories of escapades on the tandem in the Ardennes, or rowing on Lake Como. It’s incredibly moving how they continue to look after each other even though their lives have now come to naught.

Hamm and ClovOne cavil – from Mrs Chrisparkle – Nell and Nagg’s dustbins could have done with being placed just a few inches higher on stage; someone’s big hair a few rows in front of her obscured her view of Ms Horrocks’ face throughout the play – which is a substantial and unfortunate element to miss in this production. However, with razor-sharp direction and pinpoint accurate performances, this double-bill converts two difficult-to-appreciate texts into two rivetingly funny and tragic pieces of theatrical magic. Two hours 15 minutes (minus the interval) of hanging on the edge of your seat for the next deliciously delivered line or piece of memorable comic business. We absolutely loved it.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five alive, let theatre thrive!

Review – Woyzeck, Old Vic, 10th June 2017

WoyzeckOf course I knew the play Woyzeck, doesn’t everybody? Famously a fragment left behind by George Büchner on his untimely death at the age of 23 in 1837. Adaptors over the years have made it their own by piecing the remaining bits together and adding an ending to suit their own tastes. The opera by Alban Berg. The film by Werner Herzog. And now Jack Thorne’s dramatic adaptation for the Old Vic… I’m not convincing you, am I? I confess that of course I’d heard of Woyzeck, but that was about the extent of it.

woyzeck and marieThis Woyzeck is a soldier in Berlin in the early 1980s, packed off after an inauspicious spell in Northern Ireland, taking with him his Irish girlfriend Marie and their baby, living in stinking rooms above a butcher’s shop rather in married quarters – they’re not married. His loyal colleague from Northern Ireland, Andrews, is still by his side, screwing everyone he comes into contact with so long as a) they’re female and b) they’re alive. Woyzeck is in desperate need for extra cash so acts as hairdresser/masseur (maybe more?) to Captain Thompson, and subjects himself to medical trials with the creepy Doctor Martens. Woyzeck has PTSD from his Northern Ireland stint but are the medical trials making him worse? And will his relationship with Marie survive his outbursts of fury and violence?

Woyzeck and CaptainTom Scutt’s design, which mainly consists of large walls descending from the flies, dominates the stage; and whilst these walls have considerable impact by their own appearance, they detract from the acting space. As a result, the Old Vic’s huge stage is only rarely called upon to contribute; the majority of the scenes take place, cramped, in between or in front of the walls. You may wish to attribute great symbolism to these walls – do they represent military barricades? Are they walls within Woyzeck’s mind? and so on. As Woyzeck begins to fall apart, so do these walls; gashes in their soft surfaces revealing bloody globules of angry brain. Or at least, that’s how I interpreted them.

Marie and WoyzeckIt is, I think it’s fair to say, a dark play. Apart from Andrews, there’s no one particularly happy with their lot. Woyzeck’s initial optimism falls away as the play develops; Marie’s confidence in Woyzeck steadily declines; Woyzeck fails to adhere to the strict rules of the medical trial, much to the doctor’s fury. Relationships are strained; security is threatened. There’s no obvious rescue position at the end of the play that looks to the future; no Fortinbras coming in to save us all. No matter how much you might enjoy the performances, at the end of the play you feel as though you’ve had a thoroughly hard time and you’ll need to rush outside and get some fresh air.

Andrews and MaggieJohn Boyega plays Woyzeck; you, gentle reader, of course know who he is, but I didn’t have a clue as I don’t watch Star Wars. He cuts an impressive figure and is very convincing as a tormented brain, which is largely what he has to portray after the interval. I liked his light-hearted but sexually charged banter with Marie, and his scenes with Andrews, although I found his interaction with the other characters slightly less convincing. Sarah Greene is superb as Marie, spirited in her dealings with Woyzeck, a little reserved and somewhat humiliated with other characters. However, the two of them together created an unlikely partnership for the times and in many ways, it wasn’t entirely believable. Ben Batt and Nancy Carroll steal the show; he as the irrepressible and ever perky Andrews, and she as the flirtatious and snobby Maggie, inquiring after the collection boxes she has entrusted to the embarrassed Marie whilst Andrews finishes off pounding her from behind. Marvellously confident performances both.

WoyzeckFor me this was a distinct curate’s egg of a production. Despite some good individual performances, some scenes did not gel and the descent into madness at the end wasn’t so much emotionally exhausting as straightforward tiring. There’s no doubt the play amply portrays the horror that can overtake a soldier; but I also felt a little injection of subtlety could have invested it with much more power, resulting in its offering much more entertainment. It’s on until 24th June.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Old Vic, 22nd April 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are DeadProposition: The works of Tom Stoppard become progressively more irritating the older you become – Discuss. And a syllogism: One) recently I’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties and Arcadia and they were all heavy going. Two) those plays were written by Tom Stoppard in the 60s, 70s and 90s. Conclusion: Stoppard is all mouth and no trousers.

Old VicIt’s a shame, really it is. I remember how I loved this play with a passion when I was 15. I saw it at the Criterion on a school jaunt, with Christopher Timothy and Richard O’Callaghan as the cipher courtiers. I read it avidly. I marvelled at the wordplay. I was fascinated by Stoppard’s refreshingly innovative themes. I adored (still do) the originality of its structure. What never struck me was the possibility that it was all just too clever-clever and lacked heart. Watching it today, that’s almost the only thing that does strike me. I’m a huge drama fan and I’ve fallen out of love with Tom Stoppard. Woe is me, I am undone. Ecce homo, ergo elk.

Daniel RadcliffeLet’s just dwell on that structure again. Somewhere in space and time, the play of Hamlet is taking place. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet, although two of the most minor characters of the play, are offstage, because they haven’t had their first cue yet. They have no other purpose in life – not to the play, not to Hamlet (despite allegedly being “friends”), not to themselves. Basically, they just have to sit around, spinning coins, and waiting for something to happen. Eventually the play of Hamlet catches up with them, as Claudius and Gertrude welcome them to the court, with the whole Hamlet scene invading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s stage. They have their conversation about keeping an eye on how Hamlet’s behaving, and then the king and queen sweep off, signifying that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have left the action of Hamlet, and remain behind to inhabit their own lives for a little while until the next time their and Hamlet’s lives intersect.

Joshua McGuireMeanwhile the Player King, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and so on drift in and out of R & G’s world as Shakespeare’s plot develops, even though R & G’s involvement doesn’t. Eventually they get given a job to do – to accompany Hamlet to England (and to his intended death). Students of the Bard have argued for centuries whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knew that they were escorting Hamlet off this mortal coil, or whether they were also innocents abroad. Stoppard makes it crystal clear that R & G were the fall guys, as we see Hamlet return to Denmark, but they do not (dead, see.) It’s an incredibly clever piece of writing – the linguistic representation of some mathematic genius. And you do, indeed, feel sorry for our antiheroes, caught up in a web of international intrigue, when all they’re really any good for is spinning coins.

Player King and the TragediansFor the illusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to work, you have to believe absolutely in the concept of the two parallel plays taking place at the same time and how they interweave at those dangerous corners. Therefore, it’s vital that you believe unquestioningly in the stage dominance of Claudius and Gertrude. In Hamlet, they control proceedings alongside the eponymous hero. Sadly, in this production, I found that Wil Johnson’s Claudius, in particular, had an element of pantomime about him, and I couldn’t see him as this strong, villainous, murdering king. Diminish the power of the Hamlet element to this play and you diminish the play as a whole. Similarly, Luke Mullins’ Hamlet was for me a little too jocular, a little too stagey. I didn’t get the sense of his troubled soul; and without it, R & G are even more pointless than they are in the first place.

R&G 2And then you have the Player King and his entourage: David Haig in full declamatory mode, puffing up the character’s already considerable sense of self-importance, mortally wounded to have lost their audience participation at their first encounter, idly taking mild sexual advantage of the young tragedian Alfred. It’s not an easy role to get the tone absolutely right; and I did find the character a little more monotonous than when I remembered it, or imagine it in my mind’s eye. It wasn’t helped by those travelling tragedians; although their performance was probably exactly how those roving casts used to appear, I still found the sight (and sound) of them rather wearing. I found it all rather laid on with a trowel and could have appreciated something a little subtler. As I said, I’ve fallen out of love with Stoppard.

Rosencrantz and GuildensternThat’s not to say there aren’t elements of the production that weren’t highly entertaining. The moment, for example, when our two courtiers attempt to force Hamlet to drag Polonius’ body into their “trap” is simple and extremely funny. Perhaps wisely, they don’t follow Stoppard’s original stage direction of having Rosencrantz’ trousers fall down whilst he’s removed his belt. The scene where it appears that Guildenstern has murdered the Player King is incredibly effective. But there aren’t many moments of physical humour to alleviate the burden of the cerebral nature of the nub of the play.

Player King and AlfredThat said, none of this prevents me from appreciating the two excellent performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. As Rosencrantz, Mr Radcliffe absolutely nails the introvert intensity of the character; slow to respond and react, keeping his own counsel, simply saying what he sees rather than what he thinks. As the complete opposite, Mr McGuire is perfect as Guildenstern’s extrovert loose cannon; flying off the handle, panicking loudly, trying to understand the whys and wherefores of the situation in which they find themselves. As the characters almost present themselves as two halves of one whole, the intricate dovetailing of their speeches and stage business is done with immaculate accuracy and a beautiful lightness of touch. This is the third time we’ve seen both actors on stage (Mr Radcliffe always as a troubled soul – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Mr McGuire always as a brash nincompoop – Amadeus, The Ruling Class) and they never fail to impress with their superb commitment and artistry. As an acting masterclass, they give a magnificent display.

R&G discover they're going to dieMrs Chrisparkle fell almost instantly asleep within the first few minutes of the play as she simply couldn’t keep up with Stoppard’s smartarseness. She awoke when the Player King and his entourage took control of the stage about an hour later. That was the point that I yielded to sleep because I found the characters so irritating. We both enjoyed the final act, after the interval, much more. But I think that all probably says much more about our own inability to put up with Stoppard than the production itself. So, if I return to my original proposition: yes he does. And my syllogism: well, it’s a syllogism, innit.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Jekyll and Hyde, The McOnie Company, Old Vic, 28th May 2016

Jekyll and HydeThe Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has come a long way since its first appearance as Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated novella back in 1886. Several films, a musical, a play, TV series, even video games have all taken their inspiration from that original story about the decent everyman character who cannot control his evil side. Even if you haven’t read it – and I expect precious few of us have, I certainly haven’t – everyone knows the premise and everyone will have, at some time or other, have had reason to refer to someone as “a bit Jekyll and Hyde”.

Old VicIt’s excellent news for dance lovers that the Old Vic have decided to bring dance back to their regular drama seasons in their beautiful traditional theatre. And I can think of no choreographer better than Drew McOnie to bring a big, punchy story-based dance to the London Stage. He’s the next generation’s Sir Matthew Bourne. One of the reasons why I wasn’t wowed on the recent touring production of Chicago was that it lacked Mr McOnie’s choreographic deftness that we had seen in hisDanny Collins and Rachel Muldoo Leicester version of the show. He can bring magic to an old favourite, such as Oklahoma, or create something completely original like Drunk. I’m still to see In The Heights, I expect that will be amazing too. So when I realised that he was creating a dance version of Jekyll and Hyde I knew it was a Must See.

Ebony Molina and Jason WinterAnd, boy, was I right. It’s an immense production. The set is extraordinary, the costumes are evocative, and the lighting is sensational, with some of the best use of strobe you’ll see in ages. There’s an intricate array of props that really provide detail to the scenes, like all the stock in Jekyll’s flower shop or all the potions and chemicals in his laboratory. Grant Olding’s soaring score is passionate and evocative, combining dozens of different rhythms and moods, perfect for accompanying the range of scenes from high comedy, through Hollywood glamour to Grand Guignol. The overall effect is an assault on the senses and the feeling that you are watching something on a huge scale. It was that marvellous sense of being delightfully overwhelmed.

EnsembleThe show has some really big dramatic moments and the combination of top choreography and exciting music means that they work incredibly well. The first time that Jekyll turns into Hyde really spooks you. Jekyll nips into the shower and you think this might become a slightly saucy comedy moment, but as his jaunty cheery music gets gradually taken over by Hyde’s serious heavy metal, you realise that the man also has been taken over, but by someone with evil on their mind. It’s a brilliant idea to have two dancers play the roles, rather than have one try to encapsulate both sides of the character; the visible difference between the two dancers makes the differences between the two characters much stronger. All the murders that Hyde commits are really powerful dance/drama moments; chillingly executed (literally) by both Hyde and the production. And there’s a very effective nod to the aforementioned Sir Matthew Bourne in the final scene, where all the characters crawl out of the woodwork at Jekyll’s lab (just like the swans do from the headboard in Swan Lake).

spookyBut the stand-out aspect of the piece for me was its extraordinarily clear storytelling. Dance can beguile you with its mystery, its deliberate ambiguity, and with just a suggestion of narrative leaving you to fill in the gaps. That’s fine – I really enjoy that challenge. But with Jekyll and Hyde Mr McOnie has made the narrative as clear as daylight. And by that, I don’t mean it’s one-dimensional or “easy”; I mean that it’s a strong story with rewarding plot development that unfolds naturally and for the benefit and entertainment of the audience. This also helps you to identify with the characters – to will them on, to empathise with them, to keep your fingers crossed that they will survive unscathed – even though you know this is a forlorn hope. You couldn’t fail to identify with the character of Jekyll, as his emotions are all laid bare by Mr McOnie’s dramatic choreography.

Tim HodgesBut that’s only part of Jekyll’s magic. I’d seen Danny Collins in Drunk, and Show Boat, and thought he was a great dancer. However, this role has taken him to a new level. Within literally seconds of the show starting I knew that he was going to make a truly stunning impact. I can’t dance but I would have thought it was an extraordinarily demanding role. His athleticism combined with his characterisation is superb. He dances in love, he dances in fear; he dances with cheeky humour, he dances facing intimidation and threat; he dances facing death and destruction. For me it was one of the finest dance performances I’ve ever seen.

Jekyll and DahliaTim Hodges is perfect for the other side of his character, the malevolent and selfish Mr Hyde. He really conveys the delight with which Hyde goes on his sprees, and whenever Mr Collins goes out and Mr Hodges reappears you get a real frisson of horror. The swap-round moments where Jekyll becomes Hyde are brilliantly realised all the way through; and I also really loved Mr Hodges’ interactions with Ebony Molina’s incredibly expressive Ivy, including his dramatic launch on the bed from way on high!

Ivy and CharlieI particularly enjoyed the performance of Alexzandra Sarmiento as Daisy, who has a fantastic I’m happy to be dancing in a flower shop solo, full of genuine joy and optimism, which makes the character’s ultimate demise even more affecting. After Hyde has run riot, Miss Sarmiento is extraordinarily good at playing dead! Anabel Kutay, as always, delivers both comic and serious with her inimitable sensual style, Rachel Muldoon conveyed all Dahlia’s growing affection for Jekyll with great sincerity and class, and Jason Winter was a terrifically bullying Charlie (whose come-uppance was fantastically dramatic). But the whole cast are amazing and give such strong, committed performances so that there’s never a down moment or a misplaced foot.

DancingI’ll be honest – I thought the constant scene changes, though accurately and seamlessly achieved, slightly got in the way of the dancing, sometimes creating an unwanted interruption to the action, rather than enhancing the performance. But this is a comparatively minor quibble. The show had such a brief run at the Old Vic for this superb production – surely it deserves a life somewhere after this? If you were lucky enough to see it, cherish those memories! If you didn’t see it – you definitely should be kicking yourselves!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan