Review – Young Marx, Bridge Theatre, 19th November 2017

Young MarxFirst of all, a great big stagey welcome to the Bridge Theatre, a new venture on the south side of the Thames, a few minutes from Tower Bridge, opposite the Tower of London, along from HMS Belfast. I don’t think there’s any other theatre with such a selection of iconic views from its front door. Inside, there’s a wide bar/reception area that leads to the circle and galleries, and stairs down to the stalls. Inside it’s very comfortable, with a great rake and terrific sightlines, as the rows are slightly staggered so that you don’t have someone else’s big head right in your line of vision. Our interval glass of Minervois was exceptionally tasty; my only criticism is that the box office was closed at the end of the show, even though it’s an extension of the bar area, where people were still working. There were at least four people, maybe more (including myself) who hung around waiting for someone to come so that we could buy a copy of the playscript (and after all, it’s not until after the show that you really know whether you want to buy a copy or not) – but alas no one appeared. That was at least £40 worth of sales they missed out on. Still, what a great theatre!

YM6Its inaugural production is Young Marx, from the pen of Richard Bean (who seems to be unstoppable with his writing at the moment) in collaboration with Clive Coleman. Yes, even that towering, intimidating, bewhiskered old commie Karl Marx was once a young roister-doister. Penniless and thoroughly amoral, he steals from his wife to get money from the pawnbrokers, sleeps with the maid and then passes her child off as someone else’s, hides from his creditors, and from the law; even causes a fight in the library. He’s an appalling procrastinator; his pal Engels begs him to knuckle down and write his Magnum Opus that will change the lives of working people for ever more; but he’d sooner go out and get drunk. The play lets us into his chaotic life; his relationship with his wife (not good); with Engels (very good); and with his children (extremely good). It emerges that there is a spy in the midst of their political gatherings, but who is it?

YM3To be honest, we don’t particularly care, as the play is much more character-driven than plot-driven, and all the better for it, I feel. Mark Thompson’s gloomy revolving set provides a strong evocation of the poverty-stricken streets of London, and the Marx’s spartan apartment; and contrasts with Grant Olding’s rock-style incidental music, which deliberately clashes anachronistically with the 19th century story, startling and unsettling the audience with its constant interruptions. Messrs Bean and Coleman provide Marx with a couple of farcical fight and flight scenes, just to create a larger than life sense and to distance the story from reality a little bit more – even though almost everything that takes place in the play did actually happen for real. It must be said, that first fight scene was clumsy and ineffective; Mrs Chrisparkle feared she was going to be in for a very tedious afternoon. But she needn’t have worried. Everything else afterwards worked well; and the second fight scene, in the library, is simply hilarious and superbly executed.

YM2Rory Kinnear is perfect casting as Marx. He has that knowing air; that look that weighs up the difference between the sensible and the mischievous but will always go for the mischievous, just because he can. Switching effortlessly between faux-sincerity and childish naughtiness, he manages to keep one step ahead of the law but not necessarily ahead of his wife. He has brilliant comic timing; his scenes with the excellent Laura Elphinstone as Nym, where he’s having to cover up his infidelities, are a joy. Oliver Chris’ Engels is another superb performance, bright, polite and cheery, full of decency to compare with his pal’s lack of it. Nancy Carroll, whom we last saw as the delightfully naughty Maggie in Woyzeck, gives a great portrayal of his long-suffering wife Jenny, dispensing kindness to all and sundry apart from her wretched husband. Tony Jayawardena, hilarious as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham, again shows his fantastic ability to get the best humour from throwaway lines as Doc Schmidt. If you think the receptionists at your GP can be occasionally indiscreet when blurting out your symptoms to a full waiting room, just be grateful you don’t have Schmidt treating your venereal disease.

YM4I also really enjoyed the performance of Eben Figueiredo as the servile and over-enthusiastic Konrad Schramm. Mr Figueiredo was one of the few good things about Chichester’s Pitcairn a few years ago, so it’s good to see him in a show worth his talent! And the always entertaining Miltos Yerolemou is on top form as the grumpy French revolutionary, Emmanuel Barthelemy, with his constant translation issues. In the performance we saw, Marx’s children, Qui Qui and Fawksey, were played by Matilda Shapland and Logan Clark and a jolly fine job they did of it too. But the entire cast works extremely well together as a very fluid and entertaining ensemble.

YM1The whole thing is played for laughs from the start to the finish. Serious students of political ideology need not apply. But if you like to see Marx hiding from his enemies in a cupboard or on the roof, or witness Marx and Engels nick a gate from a park and then pee up a wall together like naughty schoolboys, you’re on to a winner. It runs at the Bridge Theatre until 31st December. Good fun, highly entertaining – and a lovely new theatre to explore!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Imitation Game, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 11th December 2014

The Imitation GameThere are secrets and there are secrets; but one of the best kept secrets in the history of mankind must be that of the wartime activity that happened within that innocent looking compound at Bletchley Park – the home of the code-breakers, whose success is believed to have shortened the length of World War Two by two years, saving an inestimable number of lives. Personally, I feel a certain affinity with the place. As the infant Chrisparkle, I spent my first five years living in the nearby village of Newton Longville; the Dowager Mrs C had a cousin who worked as a typist at Bletchley Park during the war – but of course we never really knew what she did; the Soviet spy John Cairncross, who also worked there, was the brother of the Master of St Peter’s College Oxford, my alma mater. Forsooth, Enigma is the life blood coursing through my veins.

CodebreakersAlthough Bletchley Park is now open as a museum (and a jolly good place to visit too), many secrets from its past still remain; and that’s probably right and proper, both to protect the innocent and in the interests of national security. But it’s also important that we can consider it a national shrine to the memory of Alan Turing, code breaker extraordinaire, computer creator, and victim of anti-homosexual legislation which required him to be chemically castrated and led him on to suicide. From today’s perspective it seems at best bizarre, at worst immoral and criminal, that he should have been treated this way by the country that owed so much to him; but, as Chapman wrote in 1654, the law is an ass and will always remain so.

Keira passes the testThe screenplay for The Imitation Game is written by Graham Moore and is based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Wadham College Mathematics Fellow Andrew Hodges, so it’s got a reliable pedigree. The title comes from Turing’s own words, his description of an experiment to define a standard for a machine to be called “intelligent” – which later became known as the “Turing Test” and which, even today, is an essential concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence (according to Wikipedia anyway, so it must be true). Relaxing codebreakersInterweaving three timelines of Turing’s life – his schooldays at Sherborne, his working life at Bletchley Park and his final days at Manchester – the film tells his story clearly, compassionately and with a good deal of humour. In real life, Turing was doubtless something of a rum cove, too cerebral to waste time on friendships or personal relationships, and too literal to converse normally with his colleagues. This is amusingly portrayed in the scene where Turing is told by one of the chaps “we’re going for lunch” – with the unspoken implication “do you want to come too?” – but Turing only hears and deals with the fact that the others are going for lunch which is a mere statement that doesn’t affect him.

Alan Turing being restrainedNevertheless, Turing does have a close friendship with Newnham College alumnus Joan Clarke, a whizz at cryptanalysis, and to whom he was briefly engaged before admitting to her his homosexuality. Turing was definitely turned on by her intelligence – cue for another delicious scene where she is hilariously patronised when taking a test to see if she is brainy enough to work at Bletchley Park. One of the most intriguing things about the film is that it makes you want to find out more about some of the other people in Turing’s orbit at the time – like Joan Clarke, John Cairncross, Commander Alastair Denniston, and International Chess Master Hugh Alexander. Turing’s story has a very rich cast of supporting characters about whom one feels one ought to know something, and the film is definitely a good starting point to find out.

Charles DanceDespite the frequent flashes of humour, and the gathering momentum as the team get closer and closer to cracking the code, the main emotional sense from the film is one of sadness. For me, the two most poignant sequences showed the developing friendship between young Alan and his school friend Christopher Morcom, their messages passed to each other in code to help mask the necessary secrecy of the growing love between them – and how it ends; and the pathetic shell of a man that Turing becomes as a result of the enforced medication to reduce his libido, quaking with tears at the degradation he faces, an old man well before his time.

Alan and JoanThe film is beautifully acted throughout but boasts at its heart a real star turn from Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. He absolutely gets that sense of edgy, uncomfortable, reserved intelligence, together with a dedication to his task, a justifiably high opinion of himself and a superior hollowness where his emotion should be. It’s only at the end, when he completely breaks down, that you see the years of repression spilling out, and it’s extremely moving. He is matched by a superb performance from Keira Knightley as Joan, irrepressibly and irresistibly upbeat, and determined to be seen as an equal in the misogynistic world of code breaking. Matthew Goode is excellent as Alexander, his nose put out of joint by Turing’s rise to power, congratulating his achievements with still a hint of resentment; and there’s a brilliant performance by Charles Dance as the no-nonsense Commander Denniston, permanently irritated by Turing’s lack of respect for his position, and always looking for a revengeful way to regain supremacy.

Turing and NockI also very much enjoyed Mark Strong’s quietly assertive and wryly humorous performance as MI6 boss Stewart Menzies; and Allen Leech played John Cairncross almost precisely the same as he plays Branson in Downton Abbey, but seeing as how they’re both socialists in a world of nobility, I guess that makes sense. Topping and tailing the timelines of the story I was very impressed by Alex Lawther as the young Alan – repressed, tight-lipped, tentatively pushing at the open doorway of a burgeoning relationship – and Rory Kinnear is as eminently watchable as he always is as the apparently sensitive, but ultimately law-enforcing, Inspector Nock.

MenziesAn engrossing story of one of the most important aspects of the Second World War, lucidly told, and compellingly acted – we really enjoyed it. It also gives you a lot to think about secrecy, intelligence, loyalty and justice. This one’s going to be around for a long time – and it’s got to be in line for loads of awards!

Review – The Last of the Haussmans, Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London, 7th July 2012

The Last of the HaussmansThere aren’t many clues in the programme or in the rather forgettable title of this play to give you an idea about what it’s all about – in fact I found myself referring to it in advance as simply “the Julie Walters play”, so if you too feel a bit of a blur as to its contents, I’m pleased to inform you, it’s a very engaging tale about an ageing “free-thinking” mother of the hippy generation, her two rather wayward children, the people who love them, the people who abuse their relationships with them, and how one’s passion for one’s cause can both help and hinder the world about you.

Julie Walters This is Stephen Beresford’s first play and he is admirably skilful at creating characters and writing funny but telling scenes. Despite financial strictures Judy hangs on to her ramshackled house to the obvious disapproval of wealthy neighbours. It’s a terrific, detailed set cleverly suggestive of one of those extraordinarily expensive Dorset Sandbanks properties – though the local references are all Plymouth-based – all art deco, garden and outhouses; but shabbily and carelessly furnished and maintained, with plenty of Indian Bhagwan ephemera, hippy bunting and a bottomless supply of alcohol. Judy’s obviously been a trying, difficult, brave, offensive and wonderful person all her life. Inspirational and exasperating in equal measure she steadfastly refuses to dumb down her vision for the sake of practicality. Her children Libby and Nick bear the scars of wayward upbringing and she still dominates their existence, even though they are now well entrenched in adulthood themselves. As the family work out their frustrations with each other over the last months of Judy’s life, Nick comes to the conclusion that they all have to accept they are individually responsible for their own “f***-ups” (his words), and this seems to me to be the main message of this very black and very funny comedy. The excellent set is matched with a well chosen soundtrack – in fact I loved the use of music in this production. Tracks from Judy’s finest hours, you imagine, work with empathy and irony to the on-stage action, and it was great to hear Peter Green’s plaintive guitar chords of “Oh Well” again. I’d forgotten how comfortably you are seated and what good sight lines you get in the Lyttelton stalls, and this production fills the imposing stage admirably.

Rory KinnearThe Lyttelton was packed; primarily I sensed, to see Julie Walters in action – and why wouldn’t you, she’s still a complete star turn. I last saw her on stage apparently performing oral sex on Richard Beckinsale in a hospital bed in Funny Peculiar at the Garrick in 1976, and she’s done awfully well since. Her Judy is a highly intelligent, fearless, erratic and slightly posh version of her creation Bo Beaumont, allegedly the actress who plays Mrs Overall. Julie Walters’ comic timing is immaculate but the role calls for much more than just comedy. She makes you believe Judy’s self-delusions. You share her loathing of the fascists. You are horrified at her deterioration of health and reliance on morphine. You are full of joy at her love for life. It’s perfect casting for this extraordinary character.

Helen McCrory I also very much enjoyed Rory Kinnear’s performance as her son Nick; near destroyed through drug and drink addiction, you can tell he’s been a coward and a reprobate but his characterisation is so real that you warm to him instantly. His hapless attempts at chatting up young Daniel, whom the family allow to practice swimming in their pool, are very funny and his comic business with the can of lager was predictable but very believable. He too has impeccable comic timing, as you might expect from his parentage; and like Ms Walters, his performance reveals both the comedy and the horror of the character’s life and experiences.

Taron EgertonAs Judy’s clearly less-favoured daughter Libby, Helen McCrory makes sure all grounds are covered in her performance from her strict unsentimental dealings with her daughter Summer, her vacillating fondness for the three-timing Dr Peter, and her gooey appreciation of Daniel’s attention, to her every-emotion-under-the-sun relationship with Judy. She’s very convincing, and delivers her hard stark lines with great comic attack. It’s a cleverly written role, as the character develops from the person you think probably has the best grasp on reality to the person who arguably loses grip – and the things she loves – the most. It’s a very effective and hard-hitting performance.

Matthew Marsh In the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise as the awkward loner Daniel who blooms under Judy’s watch and carves out a positive life for himself. His testament, that it was because of Judy’s encouragement and support that he can now meet life’s challenges, was really movingly written and honestly played. Matthew Marsh as Peter looked the part and was suitably creepy and sneaky with his amorous attentions to both Judy and Libby, and his turning away from the family’s needs at the end of the play was unpleasantly disturbing. Isabella Laughland as Libby’s wounded and wounding daughter Summer breathed strong life into the Catherine Tate-style “difficult child” character, and I didn’t foresee the twist as to how Summer would develop, but it was very nicely played. She has a tendency to talk over the laughs of the previous line, though, which is annoying, as I missed the beginning of quite a few of her important speeches. She just needs the confidence to slow the pace down and simply wait.

Isabella Laughland There were one or two aspects of the story that didn’t quite hang true for me; receiving the cremated ashes in an urn on the same day as a funeral is extraordinarily quick work; and why would you arrange for a funeral to take place on the same day you have to move house, that seems to create pointlessly additional stress. Nevertheless it’s still a rattling good story with some fine performances, good characterisation and plenty to watch and admire on stage. Running in repertory until October and definitely worth catching.