Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michael Grandage Company, Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd November 2013

A Midsummer Night's DreamOur fourth visit to the Noel Coward theatre in the space of a year and the fourth different production of Midsummer Night’s Dream we’ve seen in the past few years. It’s another triumph as far as the Michael Grandage season is concerned, as it’s a dream of a “Dream”, played for merriment and pleasure to a packed house by a talented and committed cast who have a whale of a time doing it. The more I see this play, the more I enjoy it, especially its high jinks scenes of mistaken love between the four young lovers, but I also really enjoy the scene where Titania falls in love with Bottom, and the rehearsal scenes by Quince and his crew, culminating in their final performance of the notable tragi-comedy “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Gifted actors and directors can create splendid comedy out of these scenes and that’s certainly what Michael Grandage has achieved with this production.

 Padraic DelaneyBut I’m getting ahead of myself. You’d guess from the way that the Athenian Court is dressed in the opening scene that we’re somewhere in the early 20th century – smart, stylish but not overly vivacious in appearance. Fairyland, on the other hand, is like the set from “Hair”, with its inhabitants in a perpetual stage of inner peace and hallucination brought on by their wacky baccy. With this play, the more up-to-date the setting, the more you feel you can relate to the characters, which in turn sharpens the humour. However, none of this really matters, because the essence of the story is timeless; as Jenny Wren sings in “Barnum”, “love makes such fools of us all”.

Sheridan SmithPadraic Delaney and Sheridan Smith make a very mild mannered, democratic almost, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta. Mr Delaney (an excellent Babbybobby in The Cripple of Inishmaan, the previous Grandage play at this theatre) listens fairly and tries to be constructive in determining Egeus’ complaint about his daughter Hermia’s intransigency in whom she will agree to marry; Miss Smith meanwhile politely takes a backseat and won’t dream of interfering in matters of state; but both giggle like naughty young lovers when they think no one is watching. As Oberon, Mr Delaney is a very mischievous king of the fairies, not as angry as sometimes he is portrayed; and Miss Smith is an enchanting Titania, extremely laid back and content with the company of her pot-fuelled posse.Gavin Fowler There’s almost something of Edwin Drood’s Princess Puffer to her characterisation. It’s no secret; I am a little bit in love with Sheridan Smith (who isn’t?), and it only takes a certain smile to get your toes tingling. Gavin Fowler’s Puck is a cheeky chap – he and Oberon make a right pair of lads in their “love-in-idleness” “let’s anoint everyone’s eyes with love potion” games. He’s not really how I would imagine a merry wanderer of the night to look – he’s more the kind of guy you’d share a few pints down the pub with. But it works as a partnership. Leo Wringer brings just the right level of proper decency mixed with a touch of savage spite in his brief appearances as Egeus.

Leo WringerI always love the bickering and romantic and/or sexual confusion between Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, and this winsome foursome are no different. Susannah Fielding’s Hermia is rather precious and spoilt, and with a hilariously surprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight; Katherine Kingsley’s Helena is delightfully furious at how she is treated by the others whether they appear to be in love with her or not, and has an unsurprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight. There’s not a lot of character difference between Sam Swainsbury’s Lysander (a sensitive Cartwright in Privates on Parade, the first play in this season) and Stefano Braschi’s Demetrius (whose versatility brought alive several minor roles in Peter and Alice, the second) – they even wear the same Athenian standard issue underpants. Nevertheless, all four turn in exceptional comic performances, and their lengthy scenes in the forest are stuffed full of physical comedy that must be choreographed precisely within an inch of its life for it to look so slick.

Hermia and LysanderAnd then, of course, there are the rude mechanicals. Confession time: I am not a particular fan of David Walliams; that’s not to say I don’t like him but Mrs Chrisparkle and I have managed largely to avoid Little Britain and his other TV comedy roles. However, I have to say, his Bottom is officially fabulous. Very camp, he plays him as the forest’s biggest luvvie and it works a treat. The whole performance is crammed with comedy gesture that is never quite over-the-top and would be completely appropriate to an old acting ham like Bottom. Whether it’s constantly running his hand over Flute’s face, taking odd words and giving them a life of their own (“some man or other must present WALL!”), eyeing up his colleagues in a not entirely platonic manner whilst they’re not looking, or encouraging some enforced Helena and Demetrius(let’s not beat about the bush) fellatio in Pyramus’ elongated death scene, his performance is a total joy from start to finish. As Miss Smith is diminutive, Mr Walliams is tall and imposing – visually, they make a very nice comedy juxtaposition. Richard Dempsey has an effective line in intellectual geek in his portrayal of Peter Quince, and the other mechanicals all make the best of their traditional dimwit characters and acting performances. I make a very appreciative mention of Jack Brown, the understudy appearing in the role of Flute, who made an almost attractive Thisbe and brought the house down with the sheer stupidity of his final scene – great stuff.

David WalliamsAll the Grandage season plays have been absolutely top-notch so far and this is no exception. Unashamedly funny all the way through; I can’t recommend it too highly. We haven’t booked to see Jude Law in Henry V – but I do hope that Mr Grandage puts together another similar season in the near future.

Review – Peter and Alice, Noel Coward Theatre, 25th May 2013

Peter and AliceA bit late in the day to get round to seeing the second in the Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (I’m still calling it the Albery) Theatre, but travel, Eurovision and other commitments prevented our earlier attendance. Starring Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, both of whom were in Skyfall, and written by John Logan, who wrote the aforementioned film and is apparently writing the next two James Bond screenplays, one might expect an evening of espionage and gadgetry, femmes fatales and martinis. No. This is a very thoughtful and imaginative exploration of what it must be like to be the real person on whom a celebrated fictitious person is based.

Judi DenchDame Judi plays Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the 80 year old Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, as she meets Ben Whishaw’s 35 year old Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. This apparently really happened. Whilst both have had their fair share of hardships and bereavements, Alice is a relatively stable character who knows that the fictitious Alice has actually been quite useful in her life; whereas Peter is tormented by his alter ego’s continual childhood happiness against the backdrop of him and his brothers being handed over by his dying father to “Uncle Jim” and his rather unorthodox guardianship. Not so much in loco parentis, more in loco mentis tortoris.

Ben WhishawPeter and Alice meet in a wholly unglamorous functional backroom at the exhibition. But once they start challenging each other on their relationships with their famous writers, the backroom is replaced with colourful abstract scenery reflecting the (allegedly) carefree days of childhood. The kindly or otherwise figures of Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie emerge in the memories of the two main characters and we see them interact and watch how the writers play very formative influences in their childhoods. Once they have come to life, they are followed by the fictitious Alice and Peter Pan who also comment on the relationships, and make a stark contrast with their older real life versions.

Nicholas FarrellWhat works so well is the development from the play being about Mr Davies and Mrs Hargreaves, and their reflections on the writers and characters, to the emergence of Peter Pan and Alice, taking over the stage, criticising their real life counterparts, revealing the sad and bad aspects of their personalities – and finally having the last words on their subjects. The real people live and die; the literary creations endure forever. The play has some interesting observations about the nature of reality and fiction, family relationships, mental stability and the fine line between care and abuse by an older friend or relative. And it’s all really beautifully written.

Derek RiddellThere is a distinctly sinister undertone throughout the play regarding the attentions of the Rev Dodgson and Uncle Jim towards their younger charges; whilst nothing is ever overtly stated or portrayed, you sense at any time something dreadful might happen to the youngsters that would merit the accusation of paedophilia. Nothing does; but it hangs in the air like a veritable sword of Damocles.

Ruby BentallRegular readers might know that I’m not a fan of the “play without an interval”; unless it is combined with another one-act play, either side of an interval. However, this is one of the cases where I can see precisely why an interval would be undesirable; there’s no obvious cliff-hanger moment halfway through that would come at an appropriate time, and the gently unsettling atmosphere that gets built up during the course of the play could get lost. At about 85 minutes it’s not so long that you desperately need the loo before it’s finished; but I do always get concerned at the revenue loss sustained by the theatre when they don’t sell drinks and ice-cream during the interval. I know, that’s not really for me to worry about.

Olly AlexanderIt’s an eloquently written play and is performed with all the skill and honesty that you would expect. I reckon 85% of the full house were there just to see Dame Judi – judging by the speed and fervour of the standing ovation when she came on for her second curtain call. They won’t have been disappointed. From the moment she appears on stage, her attention to detail, her technical ability, and her complete immersion in the character are all immaculate and astounding. When she is reunited with the Rev Dodgson (a thoroughly believable, slightly Gladstonian Nicholas Farrell), she changes instantly from old woman to little girl, and it’s a delight. She was also excellent coping with her shame when fictitious Alice, a suitably attitudinal Ruby Bentall, starts delivering a few home truths.

Stefano BraschiBen Whishaw was also compelling as the anguished Peter, with nervous mannerisms and a kicked puppy look when manipulated and subjugated by the odiously pleasant J M Barrie, played with quiet ruthlessness by Derek Riddell. It was a really thoughtful and moving performance. Also excellent was Olly Alexander as Peter Pan, encompassing all the childhood heroism of his character, expressing great excitement in contemplating his adventures, but not holding back from turning on his real life counterpart when his defences are down. The final member of the cast is Stefano Braschi who brings Peter’s tragic brother Michael to life and also does a wickedly funny silly-arse routine as Alice’s suitor Reggie. It’s a splendid production, very moving, beautifully put together and superbly well acted. You do come away from it feeling rather sad; well, we did. If it wasn’t about to close in a few days time, I’d say you should book now!

Grumpy audience update: a while ago I remarked on how often members of the audience grump at you if you need to squeeze past them to get to your seat. There was a splendid example of this at the Saturday matinee we attended. There were a few people we had to inconvenience in order to find our seats but I really didn’t appreciate it when I got told to my face “NOT AGAIN!!” by a grumpy old woman. “Can you get past if I do that”, she moaned, repositioning her leg a tiny distance from where she had previously stretched it out. “I’ll try,” I responded, a little sourly, and then made as much effort to linger and balance precariously over her lap in the process. Some people! Honestly!