Review – Bach and Sons, Bridge Theatre, London, 11th August 2021

Bach and SonsThere can be few more delightful places to experience a sunny matinee in London than the beautiful setting of the Bridge Theatre, with Tower Bridge majestically overlooking its front lawn, its wide public spaces inside and a degree (degree, mind) of social distancing in the auditorium. To be honest, I was expecting more, but it was one of those times when you must trust to double vaccinations and a good tight mask. Fortunately, all the other theatregoers abided by the mask instruction pretty much 100%, which was very reassuring.

Too much for young CarlBach and Sons is a new play by Nina Raine and takes that redoubtable composer Johann Sebastian Bach and examines his family relationships, primarily with his two oldest sons, Wilhelm and Carl, his wife Maria Barbara, her sister and housekeeper Katharina, and soprano Anna, who steps into the breach on more than one occasion and in more than one way. The play concentrates heavily on Bach Senior’s conservatism both musically and in faith, which shows itself in his obsession with musical counterpoint – even though, as the years pass, this style loses relevance and becomes outmoded. Remember how our parents hated whatever constituted the popular music of our youth? It was ever thus.

Bach and SonsThe play is at its best when it explores the dynamic between Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann. Bach clearly favours his older son, which confuses and upsets the younger Carl, and it’s a rift that increases throughout their lives. Wilhelm has more natural talent but lacks the discipline to make the most of it. Carl has a strong technical understanding of writing music but lacks the je ne sais quoi (or, I guess, in this case, Ich weiß nicht) to make his writing soar. But with application, he gains preferment from the rather sinister King Frederick the Great, whilst Wilhelm drinks himself into oblivion and Johann Sebastian slips down the greasy pole of recognition as he can’t stop being tetchy with important people. There is a reconciliation at the end though; and of course, today, the music of J S Bach is still everywhere in the classical music world, whereas you might have to look a bit harder to find the C P E Bach.

Bach prefers WilliHowever, it is a rather slow and stodgy play and at times I had to fight to keep those eyes open. The music metaphors become rather heavy and laden, and occasionally you wonder if the whole thing isn’t straying into Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner. From the moment you see all the characters together there’s never any doubt that Bach would go off with Anna sooner or later; and whilst that is a statement of historical fact, for the purposes of the play it might have been more effective if it came as a surprise. Overall, one gets the impression that the play is just rather light and on the shallow side. Deeper writing might have mined more drama out of the storyline; we need to feel more involved with the characters and not just bear witness to what goes on. The audience knows that time is passing throughout the course of the play, but it’s very hard to tell exactly how much, because for the first three-quarters of the play none of the characters ages at all; all we can do is find out how old brother Gottfried is, and then work it back. It’s only when you see Johann Sebastian shuffle on stage wearing an old cardie that you realise that he’s now officially old.

AnnaGrey piano keyboards are suspended over the stage like several swords of Damocles, and smaller stages roll in and out from the wings to suggest all the different locations of the story. I don’t know what was wrong with the moving platform that brought the Christmas Tree on stage; it sounded like it was being rolled over bubble wrap with all the popping noises it made; some WD40 needed there, I reckon. The “live” playing of the instruments works extremely well, with specially recorded sequences for the production. You’d never know that Bastian wasn’t actually playing that harpsichord or that C P E wasn’t wowing us with his Cello Concerto.

Anna and BastianThe cast is led by the safe pair of hands that is Simon Russell Beale as J S Bach, and he is perfectly cast for the role; he presents the composer as neither ogre nor caricature, but as a very believable portrayal of a sometime irascible and flawed man who sacrifices others’ happiness on the altar of his own favouritism. To be honest, this is easy pickings for Sir Simon; he could probably do this role with one hand tied behind his back (although perhaps not the harpsichord scenes). If the writing had been bolder, I’m sure he would have revealed more about the man. Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin are both excellent as brothers Carl and Wilhelm, realistically portraying both brotherly closeness and distant annoyance.

Frederick on the flutePravessh Rana gives an unsettling performance as Frederick the Great, creepily giving vent to the character’s latent and predatory homosexuality, with conversations full of veiled threats which reminded me of John Hurt’s batty but terrifying Caligula in TV’s I Claudius. It is perhaps surprising that Nina Raine hasn’t made more of the female characters in the play, but Pandora Colin, Racheal Ofori and Ruth Lass make the most of what limited dramatic intensity the writing provides them. I was, however, impressively disturbed by the scene where Ms Ofori’s Anna dwells on the children she has lost as she walks around J S’s piano, obsessively drumming its surface with her fingers.

C P E on the CelloThere are a few telling lines – I loved Bach’s description of one of his musicians as multi-talentless for example – and a few excellent scenes – Bach attending Frederick’s court and subjecting himself to the humiliation of the King’s mentally sadistic pleasure is one. I can’t help but feel though that this is not as good a play as it ought to be, but this is cunningly disguised by a highly competent and professional production. Excellent performances bring it to life to provide a very enjoyable two and a half hours!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – The Lehman Trilogy, Piccadilly Theatre, 25th May 2019

The Lehman TrilogyI wonder if I was the only person in the Piccadilly Theatre last Saturday afternoon who kept expecting a moment towards the end of The Lehman Trilogy when someone would announce that they’ve just hired an up-an-coming young executive by the name of Nick Leeson and a few years later, the bank would disintegrate. Ah, no, that was Barings Bank. Wrong bank, wrong collapse. Easy mistake.

with the numbers flyingLehman Bank, on the other hand, was a different story. In 1844, Hayum Lehman left Germany for the wilds of Alabama to make his fortune. They couldn’t understand his accent so Hayum became Henry, and he opened a general store. During the next six years, his brothers Emanuel and Mayer emigrated to join him. The general store became Lehman Brothers, trading in raw cotton as well as running the shop; and despite Henry’s early death in 1855, and against all the odds of fires, the American Civil War and financial crashes, the company thrived to become Lehman Bank. Their investments and trading spread wide, through the railways, the coffee exchange, and, come the 20th century, airlines, cinema and cigarettes. You’d have thought them unbreakable.

Simon Russell BealeBut, as they say, the only constant is change, and, amazingly, all it took was the subprime mortgage crisis to snuff them out, after 164 years of trading. There’s a photo in the programme just of the backs of the staff members at Lehman Brothers offices in Canary Wharf taken through the back window on 11th September 2008 – and that’s the tableau on which these three and a half hours of terrific drama finishes. To get to that climax, there’s a painstakingly riveting and inventively staged journey, starting with Henry’s first awestruck glimpses of America, through the brothers’ creative plans, their various wives and girlfriends, their talented progeny, and finally the latter days of the company where excess followed excess, whirling them into oblivion.

Cast 2Es Devlin’s stunning, revolving set provides us with a sophisticated modern office suite, with panoramic views of the surrounding cityscape – wherever that particular city happens to be. Evocative video projections recreate the cotton fields of Alabama, the skyscrapers of New York, or the hurly-burly of a stock exchange. Stacking office packing cases – the ones you use to archive old files, etc – are constantly and cleverly moved around the office by the cast to represent podiums, pianos, chairs, and so on, each time transporting us into a different scene. That contrast between the high-tech staging and the simplicity of the packing cases adds texture to the structure of the play. As does the live music – performed, from the auditorium, by pianist Candida Caldicot, in part suggesting the era of the silent movies, at other times simply providing mood music to accompany the drama. It’s been decades since I’ve seen a live pianist at a play, and the onstage action and the keyboard performance integrate beautifully.

Statue of LibertyIt’s called The Lehman Trilogy – so, as you might expect, it’s structured as a three-act play (or three one-act plays, take your choice). Just three actors portray the three brothers – and then they go on to play all the other characters too; coquettish girlfriends, grumpy fathers-in-law, spoilt brat children, as well as the three main latter-day Lehmans – Philip (son of Emanuel), Herbert (son of Mayer) and Bobbie (son of Philip). Once they’ve died out, it’s left to the non-family successors to take the company onwards, but not necessarily upwards. Although the actors never change costume – always looking like respectable 19th century American businessmen – their characterisations are so varied and entertaining that you’re never remotely confused as to who’s speaking.

Boxes for PodiumsThere aren’t many safer pairs of hands on the stage at the moment than Simon Russell Beale’s – and his performance is just fantastic. His wide-eyed faltering wonder as Henry first arrives on American shores; his eye-fluttery portrayal of the demure pianist Babette; his oft-divorced Ruth, gradually growing bored of her husband; his quietly arrogant smart-arse Philip, channelling a Jay Gatsby-type of personal programme of self-improvement, choosing a wife by scoring her on various qualities, much as one would choose one’s preferred Eurovision entry. His voices, his bearing, and his sheer bravado constitute the thread that joins the entire play together – he’s outstanding.

Adam Godley 1Adam Godley is also brilliant as Mayer Lehman, the smooth potato of the bunch (you have to see it to understand that reference) who acts as a conduit of compromise between his two fierier brothers. Among his other notable moments are his portrayals of Emanuel’s object of affections, Pauline Sondheim, the range of Philip’s possible love interests, and the showbizzy eclectic Bobbie, maniacally running to make as much money as possible. Ben Miles completes the triumvirate as the hot-headed Emanuel, the public-spirited Herbert and many others. All the performances are a complete tour-de-force throughout, both in their creativity and their technical mastery of their roles.

Ben MilesOn the face of it, you might think that 164 years of business could be a dry and dusty subject for such a long play – but not a bit of it. This is exciting, character-driven drama that leaves you fascinated by so much human achievement and in awe of the brilliance of the performers. Fully deserving its standing ovation, the short season has just been extended and it continues to play at the Piccadilly until the end of August. Highly recommended!

Production photos by Stephanie Berger

Review – Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre, 12th January 2013

Privates on ParadeThis is the first of the new Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (which I still subversively think of as the Albery, formerly the New – I hate these theatre name changes!) and we’ve booked for four of the five shows, as they looked so tempting. That obviously implies that one of them didn’t quite so tempting – I wonder which! It was with some trepidation that we took our seats – F15 and F16 in the stalls – as we’ve chosen the same ones for all the shows. So we were relieved to discover that the view to the stage is fine, so long as you don’t have a huge Man Mountain sitting in front of you, as Mrs Chrisparkle did. Gallantly, I offered to swap seats with her. Coquettishly she declined. Manfully I insisted. This could have gone on some time, but sense prevailed, we swapped, and it was me who ended up peering past the Man Mountain at odd angles, dodging and weaving like a boxer from side to side as the action moved around on the stage. To be honest, it was only the scene with Sylvia and Flowers in bed together that was really difficult to see. But if Mrs C had stayed in her seat, she would have attempted to see past him for a while but eventually would have given up and tuned out.

Privates on Parade 1977Anyway – I’d been looking forward to seeing this show for ages. Not only since it was announced as part of the Grandage season, but actually I’ve been waiting for a revival of this play for years. I missed the Roger Allam version about ten years ago, much to my annoyance. I’ve been a great fan of this play ever since I saw it in 1978, at the Piccadilly Theatre I believe, with Denis Quilley as Terri Dennis, Nigel Hawthorne as Major Flack and Joe Melia as Bonny – three great performances, and sadly, none of them with us any more. The original soundtrack LP was one of the most frequent visitors to my turntable, and I know Denis King’s songs back to front and inside out. They are such a clever parody of those 1940s wartime performers, played in this show superbly by Jae Alexander’s combats-clad band. It’s an enormously funny play, dotted with moments of real sadness too; Peter Nichols’ semi-autobiographical account of his Malayan army days was obviously a labour of love.

If you don’t know the story, I’ll try not to ruin it for you. Young, inexperienced Private Steven Flowers – the Peter Nichols character – turns up in Malaya to be attached (“heaven!”) to Acting Captain Terri Dennis, who is in charge of entertaining the troops. Flowers joins his motley crew and we see his character develop and mature as he learns about life and love – very quickly – against the backdrop of the army shows and the Malayan Emergency of 1948. However, the text of the play has obviously undergone some changes. In my 1977 Faber edition, without giving the story away, a third character joins Lee and Cheng, the two Chinese attendants, which gives an additional dimension to the story. By the time I saw it in 1978, that element of the storyline had been dropped, and for the better I am sure. Nevertheless I was very disappointed at a story change in this production, which comes in the final scene, and which questions the motives of one of the major characters. I won’t say more on the subject, but not having seen the play since 1978 I wonder when this rather unfortunate change was introduced. If you’ve got the tiniest clue as to what I’m on about, I’d be interested to know.

Carmen MirandaThe only other changes I noted were that a couple of the songs got shortened a little, which was probably a sensible decision. The reference to Room 504 in the Noel Coward song has been dropped – it’s an old Vera Lynn song apparently – and 35 years on no one would get it. I didn’t get it the first time round. This highlights a slight problem with the play today, in that few people really remember Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and Flanagan and Allen any more. Mrs C had no idea why Bonny and Bishop were dressed as they were for “Sunnyside Lane” – Bud Flanagan’s fur coat was a new concept to her. I also thought it was interesting that in Simon Russell Beale’s interpretation of Vera Lynn singing “The Little Things We Used To Do” he didn’t really attempt a vocal impersonation of the Force’s Sweetheart, unlike Denis Quilley’s original performace. Mr Quilley did hilarious vowel stranglings, “singing all those little things we uuuuuused to doooooooo”. Everyone in the 1978 audience recognised Miss Lynn’s vocal tic, but today they probably wouldn’t appreciate it. People still recognise a Noel Coward delivery of course, and Mr Beale’s performance of that was much closer to an impersonation. I also noted that a change in the song “Privates on Parade” removed Major Flack’s impression of the Chinese saying “velly solly, no fight now, all lellow men back to land of lising sun”; no doubt trying to reduce the play’s potential for accusations of racism.

Noel CowardAnyway that’s enough of what’s not in the show. It’s still a very funny, very moving, life-enhancing production, contrasting glamour and war, art and life, youth and age, and with a great insight into the nature of relationships. At its heart – with heart being the operative word – is Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a queen amongst men, extraordinarily decent and kind, a hugely talented artiste, but probably not much of a soldier. He’s played, out loud and proud, by the great Simon Russell Beale, an actor whom we associate with Shakespeare and Chekhov, the RSC and the National Theatre; so if you haven’t seen the camper side of him before, you’re in for a surprise. He takes to the role with supreme comfort and confidence; he’s a natural female impersonator, and he gives a performance brimming with entertainment. The audience loves him, and you feel like it’s a mutual arrangement. He’s very funny and very serious, giving off all the showbiz sparks yet revealing the unglamorous truths beneath. Fantastic.

Joseph TimmsPrivate Steven Flowers is played superbly well by Joseph Timms, including using a really good Swindon accent. He’s infectious with enthusiasm, mixing the bravado of youth with inexperienced vulnerability. He’s excellent in his awkward first scene with Sylvia, very credibly not quite knowing how to stand or where to look as she changes her costume. Through the show, as he learns how to be a man his confidence comes on in leaps and bounds, and you can see it in his bearing during the “Privates on Parade” Davina Pereraroutine where he’s revelling in his promotion. We both really enjoyed his performance; my only slight quibble is that he does have a slight tendency to talk whilst the audience is still laughing at the line before, so that you can’t actually hear what he says. His Sylvia is played by Davina Perera, a very elegant Ginger Rogers, and warmly endearing as the Welsh/Indian musical performer who’s had to endure being used and abused sexually to maintain security but who longs for love to take her back to the valleys. I also enjoyed very much her interplay with the wicked Reg; moving, resentful, defeated.

Harry HeppleThe other members of the troupe are all played really well, revealing the humour and tragedy in their characters. Harry Hepple, excellent in Pippin at the Menier last year, is a quietly tender Charles Bishop and gives a super rendition of Sunnyside Lane. Sam SwainsburySam Swainsbury hits just the right note of brash but believable as Kevin Cartwright; he does a great performance with Mr Timms of The Movie To End Them All, and his final scene where he’s desperately trying to hang on to all his youthful hope and exuberance against all odds veryJohn Marquez nearly brought a tear to my eye. John Marquez gives a great comic performance of Len Bonny’s foul-mouthed warm-hearted hapless Brummie and his “Charlie Farnes-Barnes” scene brought the house down. Brodie Ross’ Eric Young-Love, besotted with a sense of status, priggishly Brodie Rossover confident in love and vacuously prepared for fisticuffs to prove his heterosexuality, is another perfectly pitched performance. As a contrast to all these likeable characters, Mark Lewis JonesMark Lewis Jones gives a brilliant performance as the vicious Sergeant Major Reg Drummond; brutish with Sylvia, despising the bum boys (his phrase), yet you can understand why he would appear strangely charismatic to the suggestible Flowers over a few gin-and-tonics.

Angus WrightThe other main member of the cast is Angus Wright as Major Flack. A beautifully funny role, written so cleverly by Mr Nichols, the Major is an essentially decent fuddy-duddy whose devotion to God blinds him from seeing everything else that’s staring him in the face. Now, maybe it’s because I remember Nigel Hawthorne’s performance so fondly, and because Mr Hawthorne’s voice for this role was so hilariously reminiscent of Colonel Hathi from the Jungle Book, that I have to say that I thought Angus Wright underplayed the role of Major Flack too much. Many of Flack’s funny lines simply got lost in the delivery – not enough emphasis, not enough volume, a little too rushed. Maybe the idea was to make Flack less cartoony and more realistic, but I’m not sure it worked. One other criticism relates to the significant scene towards the end, when all the lights go off during the magic show. The subsequent dramatic chaos that follows, for me, lacked an impact; and the tragic conclusion of that scene suffered as a result, so that it wasn’t as alarming or as sad as I expected.

Nevertheless, I still think it’s a fantastic play and there are some really superb performances to enjoy. I was 17 when I first saw it, and it was one of those great occasions when I came out of a show a different person from the one that went in. I hope that today it can still have that impact on its audience.

I would like to add how sorry I was to hear that Sophiya Haque, who played Sylvia for the first couple of weeks of the run, lost her fight against cancer only a few days ago. My condolences go out to her family and friends. I can only guess at the sadness that must have caused the rest of the company, and they are dedicating the remaining performances to her memory.