Review – Bitter Wheat, Garrick Theatre, 18th July 2019

Bitter WheatMrs Chrisparkle isn’t the greatest fan of David Mamet but the Squire of Sidcup and I really enjoyed Glenglarry Glen Ross a while back so we decided to book to see Bitter Wheat on the strength of its writer and because neither of us had seen John Malkovich in the flesh before. Then came the reviews: one star, two stars, one star, one star…. offensive play, bad acting, underwritten characters, lazy direction… it doesn’t give you much confidence in what you’re going to see.

FeinThe concept of the offensive play is a fascinating one. The first audiences of Edward Bond’s Saved were offended by the play because of its infamous baby-stoning scene. Mary Whitehouse was offended by The Romans in Britain (even though she’d never seen it) because Roman soldiers rape native Celts in a rather heavy-handed metaphor for invasion. I don’t believe either of those plays particularly set out to offend; they just contained scenes which, for whatever reason, shocked some members of the audience into recognising unpleasant truths. On the other hand, a light-hearted entertainment like Oh Calcutta, which had no serious axe to grind, was probably more likely have been assembled with the intention of offending some people; and Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, with its cast directly criticising, ridiculing and abusing the audience, does exactly what it says on the tin. Is Bitter Wheat to be added to the list of offensive plays?

Yung Kim Li and FeinMamet’s new and very black comedy satirises the Harvey Weinsteins of this world. His character Barney Fein is a belligerent and manipulative movie mogul who schedules, into his daily routine, ways of taking advantage of young actresses, cheating writers out of their fees, blackmailing his staff and acquaintances, and ignoring the needs of his only relative, his mother. Not a nice man. When the young starlet of new film Dark Water, exhausted and starving after a 27 hour flight from Seoul to Hollywood, arrives for a business meeting, he has no intention of giving her film the backing she and it needs unless she performs some kind of sexual favour first. Shocked, scared and disgusted, her natural reaction is to somehow get out of harm’s way; however, her career depends on this deal, so she’s resigned to, as the old phrase might go, Shut Your Eyes and Think of Korea. How far can he push her? Will she give in? And will there be consequences? I must keep some of the plot back so that you have to come to see the play to find out!

Doctor and FeinLet’s be frank here; there’s been a casting couch for as long as there’s been casting. It wasn’t that long ago that the tongue-in-cheek joke used to go something like: “Who do I have to sleep with to get a job here?” with its subsequent variant, “who do I have to sleep with not to get a job here?” Revolting and despicable though they may be, there’s nothing new about a Weinstein or a Fein. What is new, is the Internet, and its free flow of information and opinion, and individuals’ first-hand accounts, closely allow us to be involved with – almost complicit in – the activities of such monsters.

Sondra and FeinAnd I think it is the complicity that is the most powerful undercurrent in this play. Splendid actors like Doon Mackichan as Fein’s PA Sondra, or Teddy Kempner as his Viagra-providing doctor, actors whom audiences automatically love and identify with, play characters who know full well what Fein gets up to inter alia, and figuratively hold their noses whilst they enable him to – literally – rape and pillage. As witnesses, we the audience are also asked to dip our hands in the blood and be complicit in his actions. Sondra, the doc, and assistant Roberto allow themselves to be offended and allow others to be abused in order to keep their good jobs, high status and nice incomes. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not offensive (in dramatic terms), that’s challenging, which is what I seek from theatre.

Casting CouchI must add: I’m not in any way casting any doubt on the legitimacy of #metoo accounts, or downplaying the sheer horror of their consequences. What men like Fein do is simply unacceptable and criminal. But to find this play offensive just because it portrays Fein’s modus operandi through the medium of black comedy rather than through serious drama is to miss the point. Even a wretch like Fein can make himself likeable when it comes to the crunch; indeed, he has to, to get away with it. When society doesn’t act to block his ruthless and selfish pursuit of women, we, as a society, are partly culpable for his actions too.

Fein and TaitteThe play is dominated by Fein, so, unsurprisingly, the production is dominated by John Malkovich. Never off stage, he cuts the most grotesque figure. Cantankerous, belittling, and totally self-obsessed, he never listens to what people say to him because his own voice is his only music. Mr Malkovich inhabits Fein’s body with repugnant accuracy; small details, like his need to rock back and forwards a couple of times in order to get the physical impetus to stand up, work perfectly. When the world closes in on him, his self-pity comes to the fore, choosing to blame all his problems on being fat, instantly taking to the window ledge in a hollow, but ostentatious nod towards a suicide attempt – and you can tell from Ms Mackichan’s unimpressed reaction that he’s done that several times before. Mr Malkovich spits out Fein’s sarcasms and foul-mouthed tirades with dismissive disdain, only revelling in the words when he’s using them to either a) get the girl or b) blackmail the opponent. It’s a brilliant performance, playing with the grotesque from all angles, making us laugh at his repulsiveness.

Fein and the WriterDoon Mackichan is excellent as Sondra, a role that’s not underwritten as some critics have said, rather the character understands that she must choose her words very carefully to avoid falling into all the traps that her vile boss lays with every sentence. She tries her best to do a proper PA job and knows she has to go along with his devious plans in order to remain employed; Ms Mackichan very shrewdly portrays that fine line between disgust at him and disgust at herself. There’s also a very strong West End debut from Ioanna Kimbook as Yung Kim Li, the respectable and vulnerable young woman who slowly realises how she is being trapped and manipulated, conveying beautifully not only her horror and disgust at Fein’s intentions but also her disappointment at the realisation that someone she regarded as a hero is in fact a zero.

Roberto and FeinIf you decided to skip this show on the strength of the reviews, think again. Sure, it presents us with a pretty seedy side of life, but you’re a mug if you think stuff like this doesn’t happen. Unchecked, men like Fein carry on; Mamet shows how he can even find a way of extricating himself from the narrowest of squeaks at the end of the play. Recommended!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Last Tango, Derngate, Northampton, 21st March 2016

The Last TangoThe last time we saw Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace, in Midnight Tango, the show reminded us so strongly of our (then) recent visit to Argentina, as it was full of drama and excitement, edgy sensuality, dynamic rhythms, and powerful storylines told through the medium of dance. When you walk the streets of Buenos Aires, Tango can just emerge on a street-corner; a young couple will commandeer an area of pavement, place a ghetto blaster on the floor, turn it on and suddenly busk the most extraordinarily passionate dancing for the hope of earning some passing pesos. How much more thrilling than in the UK where it’s probably an old bloke with a penny whistle and a cap. Mrs Chrisparkle and I adored Midnight Tango; in its own way it was as exciting as the best contemporary dance or classical ballet.

Vincent and FlaviaWe missed Vincent and Flavia’s next show, Dance ‘til Dawn, but thought we should catch The Last Tango as, indeed, it is meant to be their Last Tango. After this show they have resolved to hang up their stage dance shoes for ever – maybe to move into the world of film, as Vincent suggests in the programme. In their programme interview, they point out that they have always wanted to give each of their shows a very different theme and atmosphere. They didn’t want to bore their audiences by churning out the same old thing every time. A laudable aim. The very romantic story thread for this show is an older guy sitting in his attic, sorting through old stuff, some of which he can keep, some of which he can’t. As he finds old items, toys, clothes, papers, they remind him of his younger days, and as he daydreams, the cast dance out his memories. Vincent plays the man in his younger days – a very knowing greeting to each other through a full length mirror makes that clear – and Flavia his lady; and you can tell from the very start that the absence of an older lady also rummaging through the attic means this isn’t going to end happily for her.

Last Tango in NorthamptonThe dance sequences take you through the life of the younger couple – from meeting, and early dates, through marriage and his being called up in the army (for World War II you sense, although the time sequence is muddy, more of which later); his return, their settling down in a house and having a family, a 40th birthday party and so on. And if you’re waiting for this last tango; it comes right at the end after the initial curtain call.

Wedding danceThere’s a lot of good about this show but a few frustrations too. It looks great. It’s an intriguing and versatile set; Vicky Gill’s costumes are terrific (Flavia in particular looks absolutely stunning the whole night long), and Steve Geere’s orchestra, nestling in the pit in front of the stage in the most traditional manner, are on brilliant form, giving us fantastic renditions of thirty, mainly familiar, songs. Matthew Gent and Rebecca Lisewski sing with passion and style – I particularly liked the way Beyond The Sea segued into Moondance, very classy – and the ensemble work wonderfully well together, filling the stage with lively and entertaining dance sequences. You’ve also got the marvellous Mr Teddy Kempner. I always feel happy when I open a programme to discover Mr Kempner’s in the cast. I first saw him back in 1984 in Snoopy the Musical and I feel like he and I have grown up together through the years. He’s playing the older guy, pootling around his attic, making wry comments about jackets that don’t fit anymore and doing a great line in vocalising surprise discoveries.

Flavia and VincentWhich brings us to Mr Simone and Ms Cacace themselves, who, of course, are still sensational. They can turn their hand (feet?) to any style you choose, and in this show we get the full range of ballroom and Latin dances, not just the Tango/Argentine Tango. I found the scene just before the interval, where the young man receives his calling-up papers (I loved the idea of using the papers as an interface between foot and floor) very moving, not only because of the beautiful dance itself but also the expressions of the dancers: Vincent in abject dismay and Flavia in almost uncontrollable weeping. Mrs C was not so moved by this: “well you know he’s going to come back alright; you can see him up there in the attic”. True enough. Another really enjoyable routine was the jive to (not inappropriately) Jump Jive an’ Wail, which earned one of the best receptions of the night.

Last Tango the girlsIt was a shame that they didn’t sequence the dances more in keeping with the progress of the years, which would have been helpful for understanding the timeline of the story. When the couple take delivery of their incredibly old-fashioned sofa and chair, bedecked with ancient anti-Macassars, I recognised them from my Great Aunt’s home circa 1966 – and they were old then. A little Rock’n’Roll dancing, maybe, wouldn’t have gone amiss at that point to pin the era down. That said, I really did love the rumba that Vincent and Flavia danced near the end, as if she were beyond the grave, and that last, last tango was incredible. And on reflection, that was also part of the frustration. It was such a perfectly executed, intricate, stirring dance, the type that makes you gasp in awe and wonderment; and we couldn’t help but think it would have been great to have seen more of it earlier in the show. Yes, there were other Argentine Tango routines, but none of them half as exciting as that final dance. They certainly saved the best till last.

Last Tango boys and girlsIt’s a very attractive show, and there’s barely a moment without some enjoyable dancing to watch. But for us it lacked just a little of the bite – and certainly the humour – of Midnight Tango. Just a little more vanilla than we would have preferred. But it’s all a question of taste. The audience loved it, and why not? The tour continues through to July. This might be your last chance of seeing Vincent and Flavia live!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – High Society, Derngate, Northampton, 9th April 2013

High SocietyThere’s always room in the calendar for a swanky revival of a glitzy old musical, and Music & Lyrics’ co-production with Venue Cymru of Cole Porter’s High Society certainly does the trick. The original musical was based on the play of The Philadelphia Story, and then a revival in 1998 souped it up with some additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, ditched a few less well-known songs and replaced them some favourite numbers from other Porter musicals; which makes a bit of a hotch-potch if you’re a Porter purist, but a real crowd-pleaser if you’re not bothered.

Sophie BouldIt’s an amusing story of rich socialite Tracy Lord preparing for her umpteenth wedding to a dreary stick-in-the-mud and the attempts to undermine it by her still-in-love ex, Dexter Haven. Add to the mix a pair of journalists wanting to get a scoop on covering the wedding, a lascivious uncle, a precocious younger sister and a chorus of maids and footmen, and it’s a recipe for a lot of fun.

Michael PraedIt looks pretty ravishing; Francis O’Connor’s sets are classy, with just the right level of Art Deco to be convincing for the late 1930s; his costumes are smart and colourful; Andrew Wright’s choreography is snappy, funny and extremely well executed (we particularly liked the Stomp-inspired routine for “Well Did You Evah”); and the band under the direction of Michael Haslam create seriously fabulous music.

Daniel BoysIt’s a great, experienced cast and they all put in a lot of work to make the evening go with a swing. Tracy Lord is played by Sophie Bould, and she’s perfect for the part. She looks beautiful, she sings with great expression, she has excellent comic timing and she got a great round of applause. We saw her understudying Maria in the Palladium’s Sound of Music a few years ago and she was great in that too.

Alex YoungShe is matched by Michael Praed’s Dexter Haven, who looks as American Socialite Sophisticated as you could possibly imagine, and has an incredibly rich depth to his voice that carries off the romantic numbers perfectly. Daniel Boys, who wanted to be Joseph back in 2007, and who has enjoyed loads of theatre parts since, is brilliant as the frustrated writer Mike Connor, with another superb voice and great stage presence. Alex Young, who plays Liz, his colleague who is hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with Mike, gives a terrific all-round performance of musical comedy; and she’s rather cute too. It must be very difficult to take such a well-known song as “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and make it sound fresh and new, but Mr Boys and Miss Young did a brilliant job.

Teddy KempnerAlways delighted to see another of my favourite performers, the larger than life Teddy Kempner, this time embracing the role of Uncle Willie, chasing after Liz in a really funny but never grotesque way, and giving his all in “She’s Got That Thing” like a man half his age (and size). I’ve always enjoyed Mr Kempner’s performances ever since I saw him as Snoopy thirty years ago.

Keiron CrookI also very much liked Keiron Crook as Tracy’s appalling fiancé George Kittredge, all bluster and control freak, conveying a character with a complete lack of sense of humour to great comic effect. Marilyn Cutts and Craig Pinder, as Tracy’s parents, give great support and seventeen year old Katie Lee as Dinah, with a performance of considerable confidence and expertise, is obviously going to be a star of the future. The chorus of attendants, maids, waiters and so on were terrific, and gave a performance as good as any that you’d see in the West End.

Katie LeeThere were a few tiny problems with the set on its first night in Northampton – there was a too-long pause between the end of the final scene and the curtain call which I’m guessing was because they were struggling to fix the staircase in position; when the curtain finally opened a stagehand was still fiddling with it and rushed off in something of despair. As a result, the staircase wasn’t properly secured, and the final dance sequence that takes place on it caused it to sway perilously from side to side. We had our hands over our mouths fearing some health and safety catastrophe – which fortunately didn’t happen! Well done to the cast for keeping going. I also wondered if there should have been some other mechanism to prevent us seeing cast members walk off stage once they had left the main acting area; they leave the set through the back doors, but then you see them traipse off in either direction. It didn’t look right; but perhaps this isn’t an issue at other theatres.

But that’s not even a miniscule quibble. It’s a super production, very much appreciated by the full audience, ticking all the lively and colourful boxes, full of feelgoodness, and certainly recommended. It’s touring until July throughout the country – go and see it!

Review – The Invisible Man, Menier Chocolate Factory, December 5th

Invisible ManI’d seen and read a few reviews of this show in advance of seeing it, and they either loathed it or liked it begrudgingly, so I was a bit wary of the experience we were about to endure.

Let’s set the scene. Row A of the Menier. They couldn’t have positioned those seats lower to the floor. Really difficult to get in and out of the seats. You had to stretch your legs out to get any purchase. I was expecting a geisha to serve tea any minute. Also a bit on the side. Not too bad for our seats but the guys to our left must really have seen nothing more than a cardboard proscenium arch.

Gary Wilmot Anyway we are in a 1904 Music Hall and welcomed by the lively and opinionated MC; and because we remember Leonard Sachs so well, we knew how to react and join in with all the big words. The cast do an opening number (just as they do after the interval) and it’s all very jolly and “knowing winky”. Then we get into the main story, courtesy of an introduction from the Everyman character of Thomas Marvel (Gary Wilmot) and the show gets played out. I’m not sure the main story was really integrated with this Music Hall framework. It worked well enough, but almost by accident, I felt.

Maria Friedman Most of the first half felt frenetic, without any firm structure. The last scene in particular felt very long; there was a lot of physical business that they clearly wanted to get in, and it just felt a bit too…too. It was much improved after the interval when the freneticism somehow felt more engaging; and by the end I was well happy with the show.

Christopher Godwin Gary Wilmot is such a top performer, it was slightly odd to see him in a show where he had no song-and-dance to do. But he creates a super warm link with the audience in this intimate space and is a joy to watch. Underused too in that respect is Maria Friedman with only a little song-and-dance; bossing her way through the show as the dominating pub landlady and also being a joy. Underused in a different way is John Gordon Sinclair as Mr Invisible as he normally has marvellously expressive facial gestures which in this show you don’t get to see! Teddy Kempner Add to this great supportive performances from Christopher Godwin (Ayckbournian stalwart) and Teddy Kempner (I saw him as Snoopy about 100 years ago) which keep the show going at a great pace and I thought Natalie Casey as the moaning maid Millie was actually quite brilliant.

Natalie Casey Plus you also have a nice selection of magic tricks and effects. From our side Row A vantage point we could see how a few of them worked (for example pouring the wine into the glass in the air, and the floating handkerchief). Others were still totally baffling, and extremely effective.

So basically it’s an enjoyable romp. Nothing that’s grim, nothing that’s Greek. Pure entertainment. Occasionally you could let your mind wander and then return a minute or so later and it wouldn’t be a problem. A very nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Review – A Month in the Country, Chichester Festival Theatre, October 9th

A Month in the CountryEvery year we take an annual pilgrimage to Chichester to see a production at the Festival Theatre. This is our fifth year – and I reckon this is the second best production we’ve seen there. (The two part dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby is still tops.)

When you enter the theatre you’re in for a treat. The stage appears enormous! You see the back of the Islayev house, and the garden – and the trees! Trees shoot up from the back of the stage and their branches overhang the auditorium right up to the back row, welcoming you into this idyllic environment. You get to see inside the house, through windows, pathways round the back, and the details of the garden – real plants, a real water pump (with real water!) This is the kind of realistic staging you can imagine would have been the norm in the Victorian era. And it feels luscious.

Then you have what turns out to be a damn good story. I’ve not seen or read this play before, and I was very impressed. A bored lady of the house with a wandering eye is bewitched by the enthusiastic and unsophisticated charms of the young tutor brought in to teach her son. Unfortunately, so is her 17 year old ward, who age-wise is a much more suitable match. Problems ensue.

Janie DeeIt’s a marvellous production. Janie Dee plays Natalya, her soul aflame with love that she knows she really shouldn’t consider, with complete conviction. You get every nuance of her emotions from her expressive eyes, the twitches of her mouth, her languid/coy/come-on body postures. Wonderful. James McArdleJames McArdle, as the target of her affection Aleksey, does an excellent line in gauche enthusiasm, faltering delivery and youthful charm, a Turgenevian David Tennant. You can see how he has been completely overwhelmed by his surroundings and fallen in too deep, without being able to do anything about it. Michael FeastMichael Feast, as the family friend Michel, who has held a candle for Natalya for decades by the sound of it, is by turn impressively forlorn, confused, distressed and decisive. Kenneth CranhamKenneth Cranham, blustering about as the incompetent and corrupt Doctor Shpigelsky, and looking like Stinky Pete from Toy Story, also gives a first-rate performance. In fact there are no weak links in the cast at all.

I don’t know if it is the brilliance of Turgenev or Brian Friel who has adapted the work for this production, but I really enjoyed the use of soliloquies for Michel and Natalya, asking themselves about their inner feelings and reactions to a situation in a way that I know I do frequently. Very believable.

I also very much enjoyed the use of British regional accents to emphasise who’s “in” and who isn’t. Teddy KempnerThe well-to-do members of the household have splendid clipped southern English accents, whereas the servants are from Lancashire; and the incomer Aleksey is pure Glasgow. The other accent employed was over-the-top German by Teddy Kempner as Herr Schaaf, which was appropriate for a role whose main reason it seemed to me was to laugh at his misuse of language.

Another marvellous aspect of this production is the terrific lighting. The lighting plot takes us through all times of the day and night and plays an important part in the realism of the design. Especially Natalya and Aleksey in the moonlit garden – you could almost touch the moonlight halo that framed their bodies, incredibly effective. It’s officially fabulous.

It’s a super production that certainly deserves a life hereafter.