Review – Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 16th January 2014

IMG_4829Whilst Mrs Chrisparkle was jet-setting it across the States for a three hour meeting, I thought I’d take the opportunity to see Mojo at the Harold Pinter theatre (or, as I like to call it, the Comedy theatre). It was a play I quite fancied the look of but thought it would be something Mrs C wouldn’t really appreciate. With hindsight, I think I was probably right, I don’t think she would have liked it much; but then again, I don’t think I liked it much either. I should say right from the start there are a few spoilers in this blog post, so if you’re still to see the show, and don’t know what happens, please ignore paragraphs four, ten and eleven.

Rupert GrintIt’s set in a dingy Soho club in the 1950s where a rock’n’roll set from young and upcoming star Silver Johnny is guaranteed to pull in the crowds, so the club makes a lot of money. But arguments and power struggles between Mr Johnny’s manager Ezra and local gangster Sam Ross end up with one dead manager and one kidnapped star. The club is run and staffed by a bunch of London hoodlums, and basically the play is about how this “management team” copes with the aftermath.

Gentle reader, I’m a pretty seasoned theatregoer. In my lifetime I’ve seen well over a thousand plays and shows. However, in order to encapsulate the nub of the play in a brief paragraph like the one above, I had to check Wikipedia and other sites that provide a synopsis in order to get the basis of the plot. I found the writing to be so deliberately obfuscating that I spent most of the play trying to understand what was going on without ever really being sure.

Daniel MaysStructurally it’s quite old-fashioned; it preserves many of the unities of classical theatre. It all takes place on the same day, in the same location, and there’s more or less one theme – how the guys are going to cope with the situation. But as a result, particularly in the first act, so many of the important events that shape the story happen off stage, with the result that you spend all the time watching people talk about other people you don’t meet and events you don’t see. For it to work as a play, you really have to be captured by the characters on stage, what they say and how they say it, because there’s nothing dramatic to look at. It’s all very reported, very wordy – and I’m afraid I found the first act really quite boring. The second act is better, because – finally – things actually start happening on stage; and the climax is riveting, certainly helped by the technical expertise of the actors and the set, when Mr Johnny is brought on, trussed up like a chicken, suspended by his feet on an abbatoir-style pulley system; and when one of the characters gets shot, the use of stage blood is very atmospherically done.

Ben WhishawIt’s written by Jez Butterworth, an author of some distinction, and everyone raves about his play “Jerusalem”, which I haven’t seen, as I confess to being new to his work. Mojo was indeed his first play, originally produced at the Royal Court in 1995, and it feels to me very like a “first play” – the author has some interesting characters, an imagination of a couple of stunning visual set pieces, a lot of cockily bad language, and a story to tell. But I do think the story comes last here, and its sense of dramatic narrative, rather like Feargal Sharkey’s “Good Heart”, is hard to find. And when you come away and ask yourself, “what was all that about then”, sadly I don’t feel Mr Butterworth had anything particularly enlightening to say about the characters or the world they inhabited; I don’t think this play changes the world in any way. It comes; it tells its story; it goes away. It left me with no residual impact. It’s one of those occasions where it’s not the sum of its parts.

Which is of course a great shame, as those parts, that it’s not the sum of, are pretty tremendous. Ultz’s set is very evocative of a grim nightspot and its unglamorous backstage offices. Charles Balfour’s lighting is used to great effect to create differences between the general murkiness of the club’s day to day activities and the outside world. The use of music and sound similarly suggest the possibility of external activity that doesn’t permeate into the small underworld presented to us. And the all-star cast are extremely good in their roles.

Mays and Grint double actAt the heart (not that it really has one) of the play is a virtual double act between Sweets and Potts, played by Rupert Grint in his first stage role and Daniel Mays. If this really is his stage debut, all credit to Mr Grint, whose performance is a delight. Sweets is a hyper-anxious, sucking-up, wheedling little guy who you sense is only part of the gang because he provides the pills (presumably the sweets of the nickname). His funny mannerisms suggest someone who knows he is punching above his weight but has no choice but to keep punching, and his speech delivery mimics anyone who he’s trying to impress. Think a young Ian Beale from Eastenders but with amphetamines. It’s a very assured performance and, if a long-lasting glittering career wasn’t in the bag before, surely it is now.

Ben Whishaw in Silver Johnny's jacketThe other half of the double act, Daniel Mays’ Potts, is a more experienced, more wise-cracking version of Sweets, unpredictable as to whether he will fly in the face of authority or cower in its presence. With similar speech patterns to Sweets, Messrs Mays and Grint perform a veritable verbal ballet together, the two becoming interchangeable, which is at times very funny indeed. Another very assured performance, and the audience loved him, but I found the character of Potts really irritating. I didn’t really feel there was a genuine character in there, more a generic caricature of 50s London gangsterhood; think Boycie from Only Fools and Horses but without the wealth and standing.

Colin MorganAnother superb performance (you would expect nothing less) comes from Ben Whishaw (compellingly good in Peter and Alice) as Baby, a really nasty piece of work. You can’t quite put your finger on where the character’s sadism is psychotic and he can’t really do anything about it, and where it is deliberate. He has a perfectly pitched highly unnatural laugh that would really scare you if you knew someone like that in real life. Every move he makes, everything he says, could be a threat – either veiled or actively intimidating. Mr Whishaw also has this ability to make himself (and his character) blend into the background, patiently waiting to pounce; which gives Baby’s input, whenever it comes, a greater impact.

Brendan CoyleColin Morgan’s Skinny is the drudge of the gang, given the most menial tasks in the club, and is the victim of much of Baby’s more savage attention. I sensed this was the character that Jez Butterworth liked the most, as you got more of an insight into his character than anyone else – his sense of self-worth (that no one else sees), his ambition, his misplaced vanity. It’s a funny and sad performance, and his death scene is magnificent. Baby’s murder of him is essentially ludicrous anyway, and they all make the best of the comic potential of the scene – the best-written part of the play I think – but when he shakes and can’t finish his words because he’s suddenly cold and is about to die, it’s a combination of humorous and harrowing, and surprisingly moving.

Tom Rhys HarriesBrendan Coyle’s Mickey is the low-level gangster boss, with a deeply threatening authoritative nature and aspirations of grandeur. When he seethes with anger you really feel it in the auditorium. Mr Coyle is, of course, best known as that respectable valet Mr Bates in Downton Abbey, who has the seeming ability to eliminate his opponents with quiet deadliness. Mr Coyle’s Mickey is exactly how you would imagine the “Mr Hyde” aspect of Bates to be, albeit with F words. This is not a man to mess with. But his world suddenly falls apart at the end with both the destruction of his ambitious plans and the assassination of his mate, and his delicately controlled performance very effectively showed how his authority quickly ebbed away.

MojoThe final member of the cast is the underused Tom Rhys Harries (whose performances we have enjoyed twice recently, in Torch Song Trilogy and The History Boys) as Silver Johnny, preparing for his show and then returning as the suspended plaything of a deranged brain. It’s a remarkable feat of endurance for Mr Harries to spend so long upside down like that. I do hope he got medical clearance first. There’s no insight into his character offered as he’s just a commodity as far as the plot is concerned.

I feel like I have missed out on something by not enjoying this play more; it just didn’t say anything to me though, despite the best efforts of its remarkable cast. Ah well, as we were once told by a guide hoping for tips from a bus load of Australian tourists, not every day is a Sunday.

not looking happy togetherPS. A full house gave the show massive whoops and cheers at the end from what sounded like young adoring female fans. The play itself is not one of those feelgood experiences that make you naturally want to explode with vocal joy. I’m guess they were specifically aimed at Mr Grint; maybe a planned campaign of “Whoops for Rupert”. Would that be “Roops”?

PPS. Despite the audience’s ecstatic reception, it was a very downbeat curtain call from the cast. Only Messrs Whishaw and Mays seemed to make any real eye contact with the audience, Mr Grint looked uncomfortable being there, and Mr Coyle looked like he would have rather been anywhere else. I guess that final scene must have taken it out of him.

Review – The History Boys, Sheffield Crucible, 8th June 2013

The History BoysHere’s another play that most people know something about but which Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen; and the film passed us by as well. The National Theatre’s original production in 2004 had tremendous reviews and a rather brilliant cast, by the sound of it; but I’m delighted to say that the recent revival by Michael Longhurst at the Sheffield Crucible, the last night of which we saw on Saturday, also has a brilliant cast and was a very enjoyable, although not quite flawless, production.

Matthew KellyA simple set greets you on entering the auditorium – the floor of a school gym, that slightly uncared for parquet flooring that I remember all too clearly, and with sketchy well-worn sports court tramlines painted on top. That gym floor has the power to bring back all one’s own school memories in an instant. Scary! The school staffroom, and the movable glass encased pod that becomes the Headmaster’s Office, get wheeled on and off the stage along with school desks and chairs in a sometimes frenzied manner by the boys en masse, acting as scene setters whilst apparently doing sports training or performing one of the musical numbers that the eccentric teacher Hector has taught them. These scene changes work incredibly well; they help the show proceed with great pace and it maintains the humour even whilst we are waiting for the next bit to continue.

Edwin ThomasWhilst it is all very inventive and clever though, the staging is a problem from time to time. Sometimes the shape of the Crucible stage can really work against the audience. Much as when we saw Macbeth last year, depending on where you sit, some important scenes can get masked, and important character reactions can become invisible. From my seat (B16), whoever was sitting opposite the headmaster in his office was completely obstructed by the glass edged corner frame. Admittedly, the door was left open, and the reflection of the person could be seen in the door, but I didn’t feel that made up for the poor sight. The setting of the classroom scenes were rotated so that everyone got a different view in each scene, which sounds fair; but whenever a teacher had their back to you, it was a) hard to hear what they said, and b) impossible to see or hear the actor who was facing the teacher. I heard other people grumbling about that on the way out of the auditorium. That always makes me very frustrated – when you’re centre of Row B, you really ought to have a great view!

Nicholas DayWhilst I’m on the subject of frustration, I was also very disappointed to discover that they had run out of programmes for the final performance. To someone like me, who has kept all their programmes (and ticket stubs) going back to 1968, who likes to read the programme from cover to cover, including the bios of the cast and creative team, and who refers back to them on and off throughout the years to see the photos of the cast, and of the rehearsals (they’re often in programmes nowadays), I found the lack of a programme a slight mental barrier to bonding with the production. It also means I can’t illustrate this blog with photos from the programme – instead I have borrowed some photos from the Internet. I hope you don’t mind.

Julia St JohnI was, however, very impressed with the play itself. Funny, sad, taking very believable characters and making them just slightly larger than life; dealing with big questions about the nature of education and trust, and that sometimes perilous interaction between virtually adult pupils and teachers. It’s full of accurate, instantly recognisable characterisation: everyone knows a teacher like Hector, who believes in education for life rather than exams; everyone knew a boy like Dakin, more sexually precocious than is good for him; everyone knows an administrator like Headmaster Felix, keener on statistics than real life and only happy when he can label and categorise people and events.

Oliver CoopersmithMatthew Kelly gives a very entertaining performance as Hector, profoundly useless at preparing the boys for Oxbridge but creating a bond with them in an appreciation of everything that nourishes the heart, mind and spirit. Hector and the boys are a team; he’s the leader but he also allows himself to be dominated by the team dynamic if he sees fit. Hector comes across as both the stereotypical “tweedy jacket with elbow patch” teacher, and the surprisingly leather clad rebel on his motor bike, looking for a likely lad pillion rider for thrills and a grope on the way home. It’s a fascinating character because he’s human, he’s far from being 100% good; and you ask yourself the question, how much bad behaviour are you prepared to tolerate from one person for the greater good? The play’s answer is, quite a lot. If you’re familiar with your 1970s British drama, I’d say Hector makes a very interesting comparison with David Mercer’s unorthodox and unpredictable vicar, Ossian Flint. Anyway, Matthew Kelly gives a great performance of schoolmasterly bluster, kindly counsellor, personal rage and emotional outpourings.

Tom Rhys HarriesIt’s an excellent contrast with the cool and reserved performance of Edwin Thomas as Irwin, the graduate new recruit brought in to sharpen the boys’ brains for the rigours of applying for Oxford and Cambridge. As Irwin attempts to break into the Hector/Boys club, it becomes a very interesting study of what happens when an outsider interrupts a cosy set up. Loyalties are tested, judgements called into question. The play’s two acts both begin at a later moment in time, when Irwin, now a presenter of History TV programmes, is filming an episode which will be interrupted by one of the boys. Irwin’s perhaps unsurprising bitterness is clearly revealed in a very effective use of dramatic irony, and I thought Mr Thomas’ performance here became disquietingly sinister. Brilliantly done.

Joshua MilesI very much enjoyed Nicholas Day’s performance as the Headmaster, clearly intellectually outsmarted by his colleagues but secure in his power of status and seniority. Alan Bennett gives the character some of the best lines in the play and he makes the great use of them. Julia St John as Mrs Lintott, the third teacher, also gives an excellent performance, treading a sensible path between the extremes of the others and amusingly giving voice to Bennett’s subversion of the rules by virtually coming out of character to revel in the fact that she’s the only woman in the play. Great use of shock language! I was reminded of the character of Maria Feletti in “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” turning on the writer, Dario Fo, for his sexism in making her the only woman in his play. I also loved the scene where the three teachers coach each of the pupils on how to be interviewed for Oxbridge. It’s a hoot, and really heightens the differences between the characters.

Will FeatherstoneThere are superb individual performances too from the actors playing the boys. Both Mrs C and I agreed that Oliver Coopersmith as Posner was outstanding. In Posner’s own words, being small, Jewish, homosexual and from Sheffield notwithstanding, he gives a superbly subtle performance of being discriminated against and vulnerable but also incredibly defiant and unsentimental. His singing was immaculate, and his comic timing fantastic. I also really liked Tom Rhys Harries – who gave great support in the Menier’s Torch Song Trilogy last year – as Dakin, the good-looking popular boy on a mission to spread the boundaries of sex as much as he can dare; a really confident and insightful performance. Joshua Miles, brilliant in Bully Boy, here plays the outspoken Lockwood, again excellent, although I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see more of him as it isn’t really a major part. Will Featherstone’s Scripps was another no-nonsense portrayal of a character who knows he’s going to have to make lots of sacrifices in his life, a surprisingly moving and very believable performance. The rest of the cast give solid gold support and in particular the eight actors who play the boys put in an amazing overall ensemble performance – you can see that they’ve got a fantastic working relationship and it gives tremendous drive to the whole production. Thought provoking, funny, and very satisfying – this was an excellent revival and I’m glad we got the chance to see it.

Review – Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th June 2012

Torch Song TrilogyMrs Chrisparkle and I have very fond memories of seeing Torch Song Trilogy in the 1980s. We were fortunate to see it during a brief period after Anthony Sher left the cast when the writer Harvey Fierstein took over the role. It was one of those evenings of dramatic enlightenment that hits you right between the eyes, and you emerge from the theatre a different person from the one who went in. I wondered if this new production would have lost any of that impact, or if it would have become slightly dated over the years. I’m delighted to say that it remains a landmark in 20th century drama and this is a vivid and satisfying production at the Menier.

David BedellaThat it definitely still packs a punch is helped enormously by Douglas Hodge’s vision and staging. The intimate setting of the Menier is the perfect place to look David Bedella’s Arnold right in the eyes and experience at least some of what he is going through. For the first part of the trilogy, the acting space is confined to a narrowish strip at the front of the stage and that closeness gives it an added sharpness. Having the Torch Songs sung by individual members of the cast, rather than the dedicated “Lady Blues” singer in the original, also involves the rest of the “team” more and gives it a greater sense of unity. For the second part the back wall retreats to reveal a vast bed on which all four bedtime-clad characters spend the entire act. I loved the way the characters moved around the bed and established themselves in different areas of it, occupying corners, sleeping alongside each other, and doing forward rolls from one side to another, all to emphasise the ménage-à-quatre aspect of the story, and it works ingeniously well. The stylised sudden and surprise ending is also very effective, juxtaposed as it is with an ironically funny song. For the final act, the wall has gone back even further to reveal a large kitchen diner and living room area giving plenty of space for all the characters to grapple with the ogre that is The Mother. The clear, simple and effective staging works a treat.

Joe McFaddenAt the heart of the play is Arnold, and his journey through three stages of his life – meeting Ed; his relationship with Alan and how it intermingles with Ed and Laurel’s relationship; and his moving on later to foster and adopt David, tackling his relationship with his mother and with a possible hope of future happiness with Ed. The story is superbly crafted, the text snappy with New York Jewish humour, and David Bedella takes the part of Arnold as if born to it. From his first, larger-than-life appearance as the drag queen preparing to go on stage he is completely believable. His amazing full deep voice exudes natural confidence but is perfect for the pathos in scenes where he’s vulnerable and uncertain. I’ve yet to see Mr Bedella do anything less than a gutsy performance and he is, unsurprisingly, great.

Laura PyperIn fact all the cast are excellent. Joe McFadden as Ed does a good line in boyish enthusiasm and his full-on crying is uncomfortably realistic. He’s an excellent foil to Mr Bedella as he can be both scene-stealing and quietly discreet in the shadows while Arnold’s character takes centre stage – the mark of a generous and thoughtful performance. Laura Pyper’s Laurel is the perfect match for Mr McFadden – lively and loving whilst he’s more coldly happy reading the paper and her growing resistance and antagonism to Arnold on that fateful weekend is amusingly done.

Tom Rhys HarriesTom Rhys Harries as Alan pouts extremely well as he kneels disconsolately on the bed and succeeds in getting a lot of humour out of the role. Perry Millward, as flamboyant foster son David, is great as an over the top (but not too much) teenager and he clearly shows the boy’s propensity to potential wildness but also genuine affection and thankfulness for Arnold and the home he has safely provided. The character does get a little irritating – as any similar 16 year old boy would be. He captures the essence of David really well.

Perry MillwardThe role of Arnold’s mother, the sympathetically named “Mrs Beckoff”, is a delight for an actress gifted in the use of the Jewish Sharp Tongue, and Sara Kestelman revels in it. It’s not a grotesque performance, it’s extremely realistic and all the more effective as a result. Very cleverly, as she spouts her anti-gay venom, you realise you still have some sympathy with her. She really shouldn’t say the things she says but she absolutely makes you understand her position. A beautifully subtle reading of the role – and she also sings the Torch Songs with superb emotion.

Sara KestelmanGiven the production’s excellent attention to detail, two props irritated me because they were not in keeping with the time and the place. When Arnold and Laurel are doing the washing up you can clearly see that the plates have a “Churchill Made in England” stamp underneath – not impossible they would have Churchill plates, I grant you, but highly unlikely. Much worse was Arnold’s act one telephone – yes, it’s a nicely wall mounted round dial grey bakelite retro phone – but the number sticker on the dial is clearly British – with its reminder to dial 999 for Fire Police or Ambulance, and the visible phone number is a three-figure number on the Mostyn exchange, which I believe is in North Wales. You have to walk past the phone on the way in or out of the auditorium during the interval so it catches your eye and it really looks like a clumsy oversight in the Props department.

Nevertheless, this still very strong play is brilliantly realised with Douglas Hodge’s direction which, with some excellent performances makes this another winner for the Menier. Highly recommended.