Review – Amadeus, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 2nd August 2014

Amadeus - 2014After a much needed nap – I think the matinee of Miss Julie (and the Chablis) really took it out of us – we wandered back to the newly refurbished Chichester Festival Theatre to see the final performance of Jonathan Church’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. The theatre foyer has had a very effective makeover, giving an impression of much more space for the punters to mill around (and on a busy night, there are a lot of those), many more bars and café areas and, as it felt to me, great improvement on customer service. I really liked the way there was someone to help you find your interval drinks – reassuring in what can sometimes be a scrum.

Amadeus - 1980I clearly remember seeing the original production of Amadeus at the Olivier Theatre. It was 14th July 1980, seat G59 in the stalls. The ticket cost £5.30. (I don’t have a photographic memory by the way, I simply found my ticket stub.) A dream team of performers headed by Paul Scofield, Simon Callow and Felicity Kendal. I can remember being completely overwhelmed at the brilliance of Paul Scofield. It was a mesmerising performance, Paul Scofieldquite possibly the best individual performance I’d seen by that time, and I can’t think that I’ve seen that many better since. I remember being perplexed at the pronunciation, though. “Amádeus”, whispered the citizens of Vienna, stressing the second syllable as if they were ordering that ubiquitous Portuguese rosé of the time. No such pompous nonsense in this new version, where it’s good old-fashioned “Amadéus”, as in Falco’s 1985 worldwide pop hit.

Rupert EverettCourt Composer Salieri is on his deathbed and relives his life and times in musical service to Emperor Joseph II – specifically in regard to the arrival of that impudent and irreverent musical genius, one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri was a humdrum composer, a safe pair of hands, writing uninspired fodder that did the musical job but nothing more. By contrast, Mozart could write a symphony in a day, could memorise anything he’d heard just the once and then extemporise and improve on it; and moreover he could sleep with any opera singer he wanted – especially the one that Salieri had had his eye on for ages. None of this was going to endear the young pretender to the established composer. From then on, Salieri’s continued status relied on his working hard to undermine all Mozart’s attempts at furthering his position, by being a false and duplicitous friend, tricking his wife into a position where she would compromise her virtue (such as it was), and, at the end of it all, poisoning him. Or did he?

Joshua McGuireBefore I’d seen the play the first time, I’d never given the first thought to what Mozart’s character might be like. I’ve no idea whether Peter Shaffer’s version of him is true, but it’s a great juxtaposition of ideas that the creator of such immortal and beautiful music should be a manure-mouthed little jerk, irresponsible, irritating and irredeemably immature. The court may well love what he produces, even if his works do contain “too many notes”, but there’s no reason to love him at all. The difference between Mozart’s behaviour and the dignity of the rest of the court is a great source of, at first, humour, and, later, tragedy, as Mozart falls further and further into decline.

Jessie BuckleyThis is a staggeringly good production. Simon Higlett has designed a beautiful backdrop that conjures up aristocracy, class and elegance, and which neatly provides extensive stage entrance and exit opportunities. Other than that, and some occasional furniture, the stage is bare to allow for the maximum freedom of movement for the large cast. Fotini Dimou’s costumes are immaculately in keeping with the time and the place. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design is superbly evocative; whether it be at the very beginning when all the candelabras light up and ascend into the heavens, or individual moments when Salieri is picked out by a ray of sharp light from above, it was all exquisite.

John StandingHardly off stage is Rupert Everett as Salieri, an immense tour de force that takes your breath away. He glides effortlessly from senile old man with fragile voice and stooping gait to feted courtier with grand gestures and magisterial tone. The role requires a lot of engagement with the audience as he comments on the characters and events that unfold, so Mr Everett’s fantastic stage presence works a treat as he gains our confidence and shared his secrets with us, so that we really feel we know the character intimately. I’ve only seen him on stage once before – in his early 1980s West End debut, in Another Country, in which he was brilliant. I feel like I’ve missed out a lot, not having seen him in the meantime.

Simon JonesJoshua McGuire is perfect for the role of Mozart. With his cheeky smile and bouncy personality, he gives the character a horrendously shrieky laugh that you instinctively know is just right. He really conveys the childish, impetuous, uninhibited aspects of a personality who would have been told he was brilliant when he was just six and has never let the world forget it. He is excellently matched by Jessie Buckley as Constanze, a little (but not much) more responsible than Mozart, as polite in court as she can be (with her usual “oh ta very much” response to compliments), superbly reflecting the youthful exuberance of being young and in love, her humiliation at being abused by Salieri, and her woe in the declining years at the loss of her old Wolfie. There’s also excellent support from such trusted old hands as John Standing as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Timothy Kightley as Count von Strack, and a delightfully under-enthusiastic but terribly polite Emperor Joseph played by Simon Jones – “there it is”. James Simmons and Derek Hutchinson make a great double act as the venticelli, the little winds that blow rumour into Salieri’s ears – a linguistic fugue if ever there was one. Jonathan Church’s revival played for a criminally short three-week run. This surely must be a worthy candidate for a London transfer. If you were lucky to see it, wasn’t it great? If you missed out – book earlier next time!

Timothy KightleyP. S. I rarely give standing ovations, even in a show I’ve really enjoyed. It has to be in the top 1 or 2% of all shows for me to give that accolade. As I’d put this show in, say, the top 5%, I didn’t join in the standing ovation that many of the other patrons gave it. However, when Rupert Everett announced during curtain call that, for that final performance of Amadeus, we had none other than Peter Shaffer in the audience – and I turned around and saw he was barely a few seats away – it was an honour for me to stand and applaud the writer of not only this but Equus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Black Comedy, White Liars, Five Finger Exercise, The Private Ear and the Public Eye, amongst many others. His has been an outstanding contribution to 20th century drama.

Review – Blithe Spirit, Gielgud Theatre, 19th April 2014

Blithe Spirit 1970I can still remember the excitement felt by the ten-year-old me going to see Blithe Spirit in the very self-same Shaftesbury Avenue theatre in 1970 (it were called the Globe when I were a lad). Patrick Cargill as Charles Condomine (I used to love “Father, Dear Father”), Ursula Howells as Ruth (she played Patrick Cargill’s ex-wife in that sitcom) and Beryl Reid, would you believe, as Madame Arcati. God I felt grown-up. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have a memory that we saw another production in the not too distant past, maybe at the Wycombe Swan, but I can’t find the programme, and all other details about the show escape me. I have a feeling it wasn’t that great.

Blithe Spirit 2014It is an extremely funny play though. I’m sure you know the premise – Charles and Ruth Condomine host a séance with their friends the Bradmans; and it’s all run by the medium Madame Arcati, going into hokey trances to connect with the “other side”. Unfortunately for Charles, she’s a bit too successful and brings back Charles’ first wife, the late Elvira, as a ghostly apparition that only he (and we) can see. Elvira’s quite a handful and Ruth doesn’t appreciate being sidelined, as Charles spends a bit too much time catching up with his dead missus. Things come to a head as Elvira gets more and more jealous, and mischievous, with rather bizarre consequences. In the end, Charles’ life comes crashing down upon him. Literally.

SeanceMichael Blakemore directs with a nice sense of fun and ease, getting the best out of his talented cast. Janie Dee (always a favourite) is a fantastic Ruth, elegant and charming at first, but also delightfully furious at Charles’ behaviour and then perplexed at trying to understand exactly what’s going on with her barmy husband and his pre-enamorata. Jemima Rooper is a very mischievous and cheeky Elvira, who successfully conveys the sense of a girlish, immature wife taken from her husband too soon – although I thought she could have been a bit more petulant at times. Charles Edwards plays Condomine as an avuncular fellow, who rather enjoys the continuation of his present and past relationships more than is good for him. I have a recollection that Patrick Cargill was a far more exasperated Condomine – by comparison, Mr Edwards is rather Zen in accepting his lot. There’s some excellent support from Serena Evans as the tactless Mrs Bradman, Simon Jones as her respectable Doctor husband, and Patsy Ferran as the breakneck-speed Edith, one of Noel Coward’s hallmark comedy maids.

Angela LansburyOf course in 1941, this was structured as a classic three act play, but nowadays we’re not allowed to linger in a theatre that long any more. So the sole interval comes after the original Act Two Scene One. On the plus side, I rather liked the stage projections that explained the time and place for each scene; however I did also feel that many of the scenes ended rather suddenly, without a real visual or verbal punchline. Whether the “curtain down” wasn’t snappy enough, or if Coward got it wrong, I’m not sure.

Madame Arcati mayhemBut, make no mistake, there’s only one reason why the best part of 1000 people have crammed into the Gielgud Theatre for eight performances a week – and that’s the appearance of Dame Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati. It’s been 40 years (apparently) since she was last on the London stage, so she’s definitely overdue a visit. Whether you think of her as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, as the over-the-top Mrs Otterbourne in the film of Death on the Nile, as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd or (like me) Miss Price singing Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she’s bound to have a place somewhere in your heart.

Janie DeeAt the age of 88 (according to Wikipedia) she is in incredible form. Her Madame Arcati is every bit as loopy as Coward intended, daftly bouncing around the stage as she communes with Daphne her control, crashing to the sofa in the warm up to her trances, jangling in her Boho beads and generally running highly eccentrically amok. She is the epitome of the stagey, ham character that makes the Condomines and the Bradmans mock her behind her back. She does a very nice line in withering looks, especially when Mrs Bradman is being particularly dim and inappropriate; and she also chews on her words in that thoughtful way that makes her face frown with concentration – an homage, maybe, to the original Madame Arcati, Margaret Rutherford, with whom I always associate that particular oral tic.

Dr and Mrs BradmanGiven the resounding round of applause on her first entry, and the appreciative rounds of applause when she leaves the stage, never has there been a less surprising standing ovation at curtain call than for Dame Angela. I reckon we’d have all stood up even if she’d been lousy – but the fact that she was excellent made it all the more rewarding.

Patsy FerranThe result is a very enjoyable theatrical experience where you can both enjoy a good production of a very funny old play, and also share in the magic of witnessing Dame Angela before your very eyes, still at it. I doubt if there are many tickets still available – but if you get to see this, you’re in for a treat.