“Tryst” at the Tabard Theatre

Karoline Leach’s 1997 play is an intelligent historical thriller, driven by detailed character studies, that manipulates an audience marvellously.

Fred Perry is George, a conman who marries for money and leaves his wives the morning after the ceremony. George has a pretty foul line in objectification, and the cruel humour in the play is deliberately uncomfortable – offset slightly by the extravagance of his lies – but Perry still makes the character charismatic. As his latest affair develops, from his exploitative calculations to an emotional involvement, Leach thoroughly plays with the question of how disturbed his character really is.

Natasha J Barnes is equally good as his newest victim, Adelaide. A not-so-simple shop girl, with a small inheritance that makes her George’s target, she turns into “quite a surprise” for him. Barnes wins hearts – showing Adelaide to have a dignity to match her folly. As the newlyweds’ back stories develop in a journey that’s full of tension, we see her power grow. George gives her confidence and she offers him the chance of a better life. Is there a chance this odd relationship might work?

It’s important not to give away whether this rendezvous ends happily – the play’s twist is a good one. Phoebe Barran’s direction takes cares to keep up the tension, following the text’s nuances with precision, from initial humour, to touches of romance, to realism. Tryst is a play full of positives and negatives. And the best bit is not knowing what it will all add up to in the end.

Until 5 November 2017

tabardtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Alastair Hilton

“A Woman of No Importance” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Dominic Dromgoole’s latest project, with his new company, Classic Spring, is a year of Oscar Wilde plays. It’s off to a fantastic start with this story of adultery and sexual inequality. Wilde, the Victorian radical, has a sharp eye on masculine privilege that feels depressingly topical.

Providing effective pathos is Eve Best as the wronged woman, Mrs Arbuthnot. It’s hard for modern ears to hear her self-excoriation. But Best sets up an underlying anger towards her reencountered seducer (impressively performed by Dominic Rowan) that thrills. Best and the whole company’s handling of the play’s plentiful melodrama is masterful – a few well-placed laughs help us over some crippling sincerity.

This play is serious. But this is Wilde, so the comedy is as good as any you could find – in his day or now. Leading the epigrams alongside Rowan is Emma Fielding as the archly aesthetic Mrs Allonby. And there’s a great little performance from Phoebe Fildes as a sophisticate in training. Leading the way are Eleanor Bron and Anne Reid as two aristocratic dowagers giving top-class performances. It takes a lot not to be controlled by Wilde’s comedy; both make the lines natural, while Reid’s suggestion of a little too much digestif in the third act is a cheeky move that gets a laugh with every line.

So far, this is strong actors making the most of a genius. More than enough reason to see the show. But Dromgoole has a programme of ideas driving his production that elevates this to one of the finest of revivals.

First is the idea of exploring the proscenium theatre that Wilde’s plays were written for and that the Vaudeville is such a gorgeous example of. Let’s celebrate this wonderful format. It leads to fantastic sets and costumes from Jonathan Fensom and sensitive lighting from Ben Ormerod. Scene changes include some songs and period numbers arranged by Jason Carr – now that’s entertainment. After years at Shakespeare’s Globe, Dromgoole is an expert at the potential of a period.

Dromgoole also knows how to make sure a play doesn’t get stuck in the past. In a revelatory move, he’s utilised a study of the play’s previous drafts. The assumption that Wilde would have been bolder had the theatre of his day allowed it is a point for discussion. But it’s a fun debate, and all-too- suitable for a figure whose legacy has been so often used (and abused). You have to know the text well to work out what’s gone on, and plenty of lines still feel old-fashioned, but the idea is brave and effective. Classic Spring has a winning formula set up for an exciting year. Get booking.

Until 30 December 2017

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

 

 

“The Seagull” at the Lyric Hammersmith

Simon Stephens is a busy man. This week his play Heisenberg received its UK premiere and his new version of Anton Chekhov’s classic has opened. Dauntlessly tackling the 1895 piece, full of unrequited love triangles, the passion and depression in the original comes into focus. There’s no period frippery – not a samovar in sight – no agendas and the sometimes ponderous discussions of Art (capital A) feel unforced. The language is efficiently modern and startlingly down to earth: “get a grip,” says one character. Stephens has grabbed Chekhov ferociously.

There’s plenty of fresh insight and energy all around, abetted by Sean Holmes’ direction and a strong cast. The production is marked by direct addresses, admittedly not all successful, that illustrate a determination to engage the audience. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin has an indie rock star vibe (despite the classical mix in the show’s excellent soundtrack) that makes him feel modern. His unrequited love, Nina, gains a similarly contemporary touch from Adelayo Adedayo’s performance. The character is desperate for fame, fame, fatal fame. But when that dead seagull is presented by Konstantin in a plastic bag she wallops him with it: good girl! Getting in the way of their love, Nicholas Gleaves plays the writer Trigorin with a dash of aloof celebrity that aids the coherence and relevance of Stephens’ approach.

Cherrelle Skeete as Marcia
Cherrelle Skeete as Marcia

The real star of The Seagull is the actress Irina, and Lesley Sharp grasps this part magnificently. While her desperate love for Trigorin is clear, and explicitly depicted, the production calls for her comic skills and Sharp delivers. This snobby Sloane gets laughs for every “darhling” she utters. There are a lot of laughs all around in this production, with the play’s many characters each getting a turn, as desires battle with a cynical cruelty that’s surprisingly funny. Stephens has a great eye for eccentricity and the crazy things this boho crowd gets up to. As the depressed Masha, renamed Marcia with an impressive performance from Cherrelle Skeete, observes: “People are just odd.”

Humour is maintained for a long time. I suspect it might annoy some people. But we know The Seagull is a tragedy and changing key is Holmes’ biggest achievement. For the final scene, mental health issues come to the fore. We see how obsessive, in their own ways, all these characters are. A lot of anger is revealed and not just in the case of our young lovers. The delusions and detachments we’ve been laughing at become dangerous amongst such fragility and an acute sense of the toll time has taken on all. Stephens appreciates the complexity of Chekhov’s vision and has orchestrated it in a new and exciting manner.

Until 4 November 2017

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Werner Heisenberg’s scientific theories provide the intellectual scaffolding of Simon Stephens’ new play. The principle – that measuring objects reveals an underlying uncertainty in physics – supplies a riff on the unexpected that’s lightly played alongside an unconventional romance. There’s little to boggle the mind here. Instead, this is a play full of laughs, affection… and a good deal of wisdom.

The relationship between Georgie and Alex is taboo-breaking because of their 33-year age gap. And both characters are pretty eccentric overall. The plot thickens (there’s a son to search for), but all the unusual behaviour is really about destabilising our expectations. It’s just two people getting to know one another – but, my, how this twists.

The couple meet by accident, of course, but each encounter contains the unexpected. It’s the distance between the characters that Stephens explores, akin to a comment Alex makes about music happening “between the notes”. Their age is one way they have different perspectives on their “shared experience”, and seeing both views makes this a two-hander of considerable depth and intimacy.

The play requires subtlety to work. Stephens’ frequent collaborator Marianne Elliott directs with an appropriately quiet confidence. The set by Bunny Christie is a stylish sliding affair with complementary mood lighting (from Paule Constable). But nothing distracts us from the quiet story of intricate observations. The performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham are superb. Both embrace their characters’ quirks to make the play entertaining. Cranham’s “wily old fox” is full of charm and intelligence, while Duff embodies Grace’s vulnerability and her quality of being “exhausting but captivating”. Uncertainty, as a principle to live by, is a peculiarly powerful idea. Few of us may be convinced by it, but this play presents the unpredictable in a charmingly determined fashion.

Until 6 January 2018

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

“B” at the Royal Court

In Guillermo Calderón’s new play, three terrorists debate their plans to use a bomb. To make the show theatrically explosive, the depressingly topical subject matter is delivered with risqué comedy. B needs handling with caution; the piece gives extra meaning to the term trigger warning.

The plotters are pretty hopeless, which provides plenty of twists. Danusia Samal plays Alejandra, who hopes her bombs don’t hurt and views her protest as a kind of art work. Samal achieves the near impossible in making such a character credible. Aimée-Ffion Edwards plays Marcela, whose slowly revealed death wish provides much needed pathos. Their bomb is obtained from an older agitator, a role Peter Kaye is refreshingly restrained in. The different views and generational divide amongst the trio provide the play’s weightier moments.

Trouble is, there doesn’t feel like a lot of insight here: terrorists are troubled people. Well, yes… The play’s Chilean origin could have provided new information for a UK audience but isn’t investigated explicitly. We are left with slim, rehearsed arguments for the indefensible – and these are neither stimulating nor challenging.

Managing to make this topic funny is so bold that dismissing the play altogether is impossible. There are some good giggles around using code words for the bomb and anarchist communities. And, translated by William Gregory, poetic streams of consciousness  and clever word association compensate for the play’s failings. Director Sam Pritchard is sympathetic to this strength and the cast deliver their lines well. Deserving special praise is Sarah Niles as a mysterious neighbour. This is the one character who gets more interesting as the play goes on. Niles’ off-beat delivery shows a committed appreciation of the text’s entertaining potential.

Calderón is keen on absurdities, his style of writing is exciting and this chance to see his work in London is welcome, but this subject matter deserves more substance than he delivers.

Until 21 October 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Helen Murray

“Our Great Tchaikovsky” at The Other Palace

Hershey Felder’s play with music takes us through the life of its eponymous composer in an informative fashion. Felder plays his subject, and his music, as well as narrator, taking us from the artist’s childhood to his legacy. You learn a lot.

Felder’s piano sounds great, his characterisation of the Great Man is conscientious and his Russian accent… let’s say he’s generous with it. The direction from Trevor Hay helps with the atmosphere and the projections used are impressive and accompany the music wonderfully.

My only reservation is that there’s something of the lecture about the whole event. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the one hour and 40 minutes fly by and Felder can hold a stage, while snippets of anecdote and scandal are grabbed at ferociously. But there’s an air of the classroom here, nonetheless.

A real life note raises the stakes. An invitation to perform the play in Russia is well positioned by Felder to add a contemporary commentary on gay rights in Tchaikovsky’s home country. Seeing how the composer lived in fear because of his sexuality, and was blackmailed by his estranged wife, it makes lessons in the show important ones to hear.

Until 22 October 2018

www.theotherpalace.co.uk

 

“Trouble in Mind” at the Print Room

The advice is always to write about what you know. So it would have made sense in 1955 for African-American actress Alice Childress to set her play around the staging of a play – and to make both of them about race relations. Turns out that Childress knew plenty: creating a well-crafted text that ensures this exceptional production from Bath feels fresh, with a role for a leading lady that’s a dream.

The rehearsal scenario, expertly handled, is a great device, from which director Laurence Boswell generates tension and humour. It makes the play accessible and feel startlingly modern. As the black cast members debate the depiction of sharecroppers in the South, racism, art and the connections between the two are brought into focus. The pivot for all is character actress Wiletta and a star performance from Tanya Moodie.

Wiletta acts all the time. As she explains to a young colleague (great work from Ncuti Gatwa), you have to perform for the white crew and cast members even behind the scenes. This divide with the WASPs who run things creates fine performances from Daisy Boulton, as an idealist ingénue, and Jonathan Slinger, who tackles the fraught role of a tyrannical self-righteous director with characteristic gusto.

Then there’s Wiletta’s real acting. First, that engendered from the poorly written roles she suffers from – providing the clichés that the (white) audience wants. After this come glimpses of how she would really articulate the role. And, of course, the struggle between the two. With fascinating but perilously difficult layer upon layer, Moodie never gets lost and takes the audience with her. It bears repeating that she is stunning.

The racism in the piece is painful to watch. It leads to a remarkable monologue for Ewart James Walters as the eldest member of the cast recalling a real-life lynching. Yet it’s Childress’s use of humour that impresses most – adding an uncomfortable edge through the theatrical buzzwords of “relating to” and “justifying” a character’s motivation. The dissonance created between the real issues and their depiction on stage allows Moodie to show a “fighting mad” spirit, making the play burst out of its theatrical world to engage with real issues in a “militant” fashion.

Until 14 October 2017

www.the-print-room.org

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

“Le Grand Mort” at the Trafalgar Studios

Playwright and lyricist Stephen Clark’s last work has received a posthumous premiere under the scrupulous guidance of his friend, director Christopher Renshaw. The play is a dark fantasia on sex and death that has two strangers playing with ideas of intimacy and oblivion over a nice dish of pasta.

The main attraction is the casting of Julian Clary as a host with homicidal tendencies. Clary is to be applauded for trying something so different – his character is a model of repression, maybe never quite scary enough, whose vulnerability develops in fits and starts, and he makes a good stab at depicting a brittle, intelligent and traumatised man. All while cooking on stage.

Yet Clary is a Comedy Great (capital letters, please) and everyone wants him to be funny. The humour in the opening monologue contains flashes of excitement. And yes, like Just A Minute, which Clary contributes to, there’s a passage without repetition, deviation or hesitation that would make Nicholas Parsons proud. Trouble is, the comedy overshadows the play’s serious intentions.

As for the play’s dinner guest, with desires and a history just as troubled as the chef’s, it’s a role James Nelson-Joyce excels in. Exuding confidence and complexes, he even makes his character’s bizarre chat-up lines convincing. The trouble is, both characters are too close to being simply vehicles for ideas.

Leaving aside the weaker scenes of the couple’s meeting –flashbacks both performers handle well – the challenge is Clark’s verbose articulacy. The style works for monologues: written in verse, the language is entertaining and its extravagance engaging. But when the men converse it starts to sound silly, laboured and insincere. Some outrageous comments – mostly focusing on necrophilia – are contrived and don’t fit with the play’s larger concerns. Several ideas, mixing pop culture with high-brow flights of fancy are far-fetched. It’s a shame to speculate that some excesses might have been avoided had the much-missed playwright been at rehearsals.

Until 28 October

www.atgtickets.com/venues/trafalgar-studios/

Photo by Scott Rylander

“Knives in Hens” at the Donmar Warehouse

This revival of David Harrower’s 1996 play is a trip to the Middle Ages that’s full of sex and ideas. There are just three characters – a ploughman, his wife and a miller – yet it goes beyond a dangerous love triangle to evoke an entire society beset by ignorance and misogyny. More impressive, still, is the precision and insight applied to the struggle to break away from the primitive and embrace investigation and individuality.

This is an impressive piece of writing, with the distinctive dialogue rooted in imagined lives very different from our own. Christian Cooke plays the labouring farmer with breath-taking virility – all that time in a field has clearly done him good – but he also succeeds in expressing an anxiety about his hold on power and his control over the woman selected as a wife. In this role, Judith Roddy gives a strong performance as a person full of contradictions, while appreciating Harrower’s articulation of an ‘internal’ life distinct from modern conceptions. Naming objects is an issue in this society, religion plays a distinct role, and all the while a new scientific view is blossoming. Embodying these conflicts is Matt Ryan’s miller, a character set aside from the village by his semi-technical work. His sense of isolation creates the emotional heart of the play.

Director Yaël Ferber presents the strange eroticism of the work well, showing a clear appreciation of the mediaeval milieu and adding some vivid imagery to match the poetry of the piece. There are some fussy touches (a little too much rolling around and playing with flour), but her skills are a good match for the text. Take the tension injected into a scene where our heroine shows a fear of the written word. Breaking with superstition is part of her attraction to the miller. There is a yearning for a new way of understanding the self and the substance of the world. Suggesting all this with an undertow of violence is a fine achievement on Roddy’s part, making this a miller’s mistress’s tale to be proud of.

Until 7 October 2017

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“As You Like It” at the Chelsea Physic Garden

The Handlebards, who tour their shows on their bikes, closed their 2017 tour with characteristic fun and bravado. The female troupe, who this year tackled As You Like It, share a sense of adventure with their male counterparts, who have been spinning out A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The performers create an informal atmosphere of chaos and adlibs that belies their skill and makes for great entertainment.

With only four in each cast – and recall that four couples get married at the end of the AYLI – the Handlebards have to handle the Bard fast and loose. In fact, that’s the strategy and their charm – leading to plenty of invention. Naturally, you’re waiting for them to shout out, “We need a wrestler”, as audience participation is a must. And when it’s this well-handled, even someone as averse to it as me can forgive it. Lots of accents make differentiating the characters jolly; from Lotte Tickner’s lisping Orlando to Jessica Hern’s prim and proper Celia. Lucy Green makes a super Rosalind – with comedy flirtation transformed into a believable teenage Ganymede. Eleanor Dillon-Reams embodies the whole approach. A natural comedian, she excels at a sense of complicity with the crowd.

What impressed most for the women’s final show was their work under difficult conditions. The Chelsea Physic Garden sounds like a great stand-in for the Forest of Arden – it’s certainly somewhere to “willingly waste” time in. But on a flightpath noisier than the Globe or Regent’s Park, it cannot be easy to perform in. Continual drizzle and a cold wind didn’t help, either. And then the fireworks started. Clearly experienced in the unexpected, the cast’s sense of fun an energy never flagged. Using any distractions, while creating their own havoc among the audience’s picnic hampers, is all part of the team’s attraction. Here’s looking forward to them getting back on their bikes in 2018.

www.handlebards.com

Photo by  Rah Petherbridge