All posts by Edward Lukes

“Glengarry Glen Ross” at the Playhouse Theatre

The American playwright David Mamet has plenty of fans. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work from 1984, filmed in 1992, has lines so famous this revival’s smart advertising campaign quotes them. Until now, I’ve never been a huge admirer, finding Mamet’s themes blunt and his language, while powerful, too brutal. But here, Sam Yates’ direction exposes the author’s subtlety, making his production a terrific show for all.

Three intense duologues open the play, introducing us to Chicago real estate agents and their cut-throat world. The scenes are close studies on the part of Yates and his superb cast. Kris Marshall plays the office manager, who has power over the lists of leads he distributes, and he does well in distancing his character from the other workers. Due to the unfortunate indisposition of Robert Glenister, Mark Carlisle takes up the role of a particularly desperate salesman, and proves impressively up to speed, working well in his scene with Don Warrington. The plots hatched and bargains struck are funny in their transparency but there’s no doubt the stakes are high. It’s the brevity that impresses with this trio of sketches – so much atmosphere and characterisation so very quickly.

The star of the production is the fictional company’s top salesman, Ricky Roma, played by Christian Slater, who convinces as someone who could sell the proverbial brick to a drowning man. Slater’s charisma makes for perfect casting, and his mischievous, arch delivery brings out the play’s wicked humour. But there’s more: the real focus of the play is veteran salesman Shelley Levene, nicknamed “the machine”, and next to his old mentor Slater shows an impressive restraint.

Stanley Townsend gives a superb performance as Levene. Technically brilliant, his understanding of Mamet’s rhythm is marvellous, he gets great laughs but also makes the play moving. The brief mentions of his daughter, like all the women in the play never actually named, creates a powerful emotional undertow. This is “a world of men”, but look how troubled it is. Yates draws out the desperation and pressure underlying these workers’ lives, with a nod to the tradition of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. It’s intelligent insight, convincingly delivered, that makes this a revelatory production.

Until 3 February 2018

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Busy World Is Hushed” at the Finborough Theatre

Neil McPherson’s programming consistently brings exciting plays to London, and his venue has another European premiere to boast about. Keith Bunin’s piece has the surprisingly contemporary scenario of a Church minister encouraging a gay relationship for her son. From this starting point, there is a sensitive and intelligent examination of relationships and religion that makes it easy to see why the play was acclaimed off-Broadway.

Kazia Pelka plays Hannah, a scholar and woman of the cloth, who is working on a book about a newly discovered gospel with the help of her assistant, Brandt. The potential for a new perspective on religion enthuses Hannah but is delivered by the play itself rather than any fictional manuscript. Bunin’s key achievement is to make the theological discussion fresh and interesting. The text is aided by Pelka’s calm delivery and the patience of director Paul Higgins – there’s a lot to think about here and we are given time to follow the arguments. It’s interesting and never heavy handed.

Michael James and Mateo Oxley
Michael James and Mateo Oxley

The illness of Brandt’s father provides an emotional backdrop for a practical discussion of faith that is impressively clear sighted, while allowing Mateo Oxley to shine with a heart-breaking performance. At the same time, his burgeoning relationship with Hannah’s son, Thomas, is depicted with an understated affection. Here, both Oxley and Michael James create a great sense of chemistry and inculcate our sincere hope that their romance will work out.

Bunin stumbles slightly with this final character of Thomas, whose mental instability proves a distraction. James’s considerable charisma keeps us watching this unappealing twentysomething, but such callow eccentricity is trying. The weaker characterisation is, arguably, a price worth paying for a twist here. It’s this doubting Thomas who turns out to be the intolerant one. Hannah isn’t a saint – their relationship, “twisted in knots”, is depicted with such meticulous detail it becomes painful to watch. But the inflexibility comes from the demands of youth, leading to a fraught denouement that makes the play one of those rare pieces that subtly challenges an audience to change its mind.

Until 25 November 2017

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Labour of Love” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Thirty years of a political party’s history doesn’t sound like a West End hit. But, as this new play by James Graham joins the transfer of his Ink just down the road, you can’t question the young playwright’s commercial acumen. I am sure someone has worked out the last time a living writer had two new plays performing at the same time – it doesn’t happen often and is to be celebrated. Graham’s talent is obvious – the strength of his writing lies in his humour, and Labour of Love is funny from start to finish.

There’s a conventional love story here, which develops a little too late, between the MP whose career we follow and his constituency secretary, Jean. Their fumbling romance is sweet and gets laughs. There’s love of a place, too: a concerted effort to depict the constituency as a character, detailing the destruction of a community. It’s a shame that the Nottingham location is depicted as The North – it isn’t, it’s The Midlands. Pushing accents geographically up the country must have been a conscious decision, but seems odd given how thorough Graham’s research is. But it’s really the love of the Labour Party that is interesting. The history is entertaining, the observations acute, the use of hindsight effective and all of it is, yes, funny. Graham has written a lot about politics and his satire is distinctive. He seldom doubts the good intentions of our rulers and portrays them as human. While many would succumb to cynicism, Graham resists, which makes his work level headed and quietly inspirational.

Taking the leads are Martin Freeman as the amiable MP and Tamsin Greig as Jean. The comic timing of both is immaculate. Freeman is given more to work with when developing his character, and he suggests the passage of time in the play effectively. However, the play belongs to Jean. A card-carrying member of the party since she was 12 (she lied about her age), with a sincerity and passion that is palpable, her plain speaking and fruity swearing make her irresistible.

Jeremy Herrin’s direction is clear and thorough – the competency of the cast and strength of the script mean fancy touches aren’t necessary. Going backwards then forwards in time means it helps to know the history a little, as the archive footage offered isn’t quite enough. I feared for an American contingent of Freeman fanatics, but they seemed to enjoy themselves enormously. Graham isn’t shy of a bad pun or lame joke – he provides both with remarkable rapidity. Freeman and Greig tackle the speed of the gags with ease, making each and every one a winner.

Until 2 December 2017

www.labouroflovetheplay.co.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Romantics Anonymous at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

With her last show in charge at Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice is going out in style with a musical romantic comedy that showcases her talents. This adaptation of the French film Les Émotifs Anonymes, is hilarious and heart-warming with a sense of wonder – at stories and making theatre – that is Rice’s trademark appeal.

The story of two chocolate makers falling in love sounds sickly sweet but a big dose of humour prevents any cloying aftertaste. Angélique and Jean-René are pathologically shy – émotif as the French say – and that’s the obstacle they have to overcome to find love. It’s great material for a musical: when the tongue-tied characters can’t speak, they can sing. And the scenario allows the lead performers, Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh, to win hearts, as we fear and hope alongside them.

You’d be cold indeed not to fall for this fumbling pair. But to cater for cynics, Rice’s book for the show has a cool edge. The therapies tried (including the film’s titular support group) are viciously funny. As is pointed out, the secret of chocolate is a touch of bitterness. So, alongside all the Gallic sensitivity, we have old-fashioned English wit. Even the self-help tape Jean-René listens to loses patience with him! Great jokes and a sense of playfulness mean laughs throughout.

While Bawden and Marsh are brilliant as our emotionally challenged couple, this is the kind of ensemble piece Rice excels with. The often Breton-topped troupe takes on a range of delightful roles. Take your pick: Joanna Riding as Angélique’s uncouth mother, or Gareth Snook as two chocolate shop owners, both male and female. When the cast assemble as the misfit support group, each and every characterisation gets a laugh.

Although the comedy numbers are superb from the start, Michael Kooman’s sophisticated score gets off to a slow start and the lyrics by Christopher Dimond seem serviceable rather than inspired. But, like another description of chocolate from Angélique and Jean-René, the music has a complexity and power that builds.

Despite its everyday story, and a score of satisfying references, Romantics Anonymous is an original. It’s the first new musical at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a start. It glorifies in lo-fi touches, often Rice’s forte, that show each moment approached with fresh intelligence. It revels in the mechanics of theatre, creating complicity with the audience, with a novel self-deprecation. But the underlying, unabashed aim here is to create theatrical magic. And Rice succeeds so well, you feel gratitude for experiencing this great show.

Until 6 January 2018

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Steve Tanner

“Young Marx” at the Bridge Theatre

There’s nothing more exciting than a new theatre. And, bearing in mind that Nicholas Hytner’s new venue is the biggest in London for a long time, its opening night is a major cultural event to really celebrate. In truth, it’s a bit of a box of place – in one of those luxury housing developments you wish you could afford but wouldn’t live in if you could – trying hard to be swish (expensive sarnies) and smelling a bit too new. But the play’s the thing and, to open his new home Hytner, has collaborated with regular favourites to deliver a real crowd pleaser.

The true history of Karl Marx’s early years living in London is fascinating, with a fact-stranger-than-fiction appeal – it seems that Marx was an expert in economics but couldn’t handle his own money. The lead role provides an enviable part for Rory Kinnear, who embraces this larger-than-life, Bohemian (yes, really) philosopher. With One Man Two Guvnors and Dead Ringers writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman at work, the play is, as you would expect, good, old-fashioned funny.

With the excellent Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels, the two revolutionaries make a comedy double act. They even have a piano, until the bailiffs call and, as invited, literally, take a chair. There’s more than a hint of the Marx Brothers here – there’s even a cigar or two. Add numerous emigrés with funny accents (Tony Jayawardena is a highlight as the impoverished family’s doctor) and you have more than enough comedy ingredients. Kinnear is even good for some slapstick. Hytner enjoys this stuff – as do audiences – and his direction is faultless.

Just to make sure all bases are covered, we get some light extrapolation of Marxist ideas to give us something to think about, and it’s pretty evenly handled, with nice touches of hindsight. And there’s pathos: the death of a Marx child is movingly portrayed. The treatment of Marx’s wife and mistress short-changes two excellent actors – Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone – and it becomes hard to believe these women stuck around. And there is angst: that Marx fears unleashing the “virus of hope” with his writing is an interesting idea, but we need to see more of Marx’s power, rather than just being told about it. Maybe that would have made things too serious?

Young Marx tries hard to be a hit – and it deserves to be one. Even with the best reputation and address book in the business, starting a new commercial theatre is a brave move by Hytner and his producer Nick Starr. As new plays go, this is a pretty safe bet. But Hytner understandably has a cautious eye on commercial success. A big show to get people talking is exactly what is needed and my fingers are crossed for just that.

Until 31 December 2017

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Dracula” at Sutton House

Tea Break Theatre’s time travelling version of Bram Stoker’s classic starts with a touch of tour guiding that suits its setting in Hackney’s most historic house. As we’re ushered into the gorgeous Great Chamber, it soon becomes clear that our room steward is batty (sorry) and that this National Trust property has a problem with vampires.

A tiny plot spoiler – the cast is among us from the start and the immersive action begins in the present day. Going back in time, as the evening unfolds, is a good idea but these modern mirrors of Stoker’s characters ring hollow and the performers get off to a shaky start. Jon-Paul Rowden’s Van Helsing suffers most, as his role is reduced in dignity and never recovers. Some of the cast grow into their parts nicely: Jennifer Tyler is great when she gets her fangs and Louise Wilcox gives a committed performance as Elizabeth Renfield. The satisfying exception is Angela Nesi, playing Dr Jane Seward, who is terrific from start to finish.

Director Katharine Armitage is excited by the idea of circularity and uses it to take us through the story. The strongest moment manoeuvres the audience into a circle, surrounded by the chanting undead, and another sketch of a scene has us join hands in a séance. But the majority of the evening needs more crowd control. Even for a small group following an abridged story, focus is lost on both plot and emotional involvement – it’s too tempting to see who is creeping around and slamming the doors.

Turning out the lights never fails to give a thrill, so you can’t blame Armitage for using the trick often. And the chance to be face to face with a vampire (a strong scene for Tyler) is a good idea for an immersive show. Yet if you are a big fan of horror, or a die-hard devotee of this theatrical style, I doubt the efforts here will amaze: the production just isn’t scary or interactive enough. But this Dracula is a fun night with some good ideas behind it, and it ends in a suitably bloody tableau, with a thoughtful twist that illustrates the show’s intelligence.

Until 4 November 2017

www.teabreaktheatre.com

Photo by John Wilson

“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

 

 

“Saint George and the Dragon” at the National Theatre

The always excellent John Heffernan takes the title role in Rory Mullarkey’s new play and gives a truly heroic performance. But can he save the day and the play? Almost… yet not quite, although it’s still a pleasure to see him on stage. Looking at our national legend at the nation’s theatre is a neat idea, as is writing the story as a contemporary allegory (in three chapters). Unfortunately, this brave effort delivers too little.

The opening act, set in a parodied mediaeval world, gets the show off to a great start. With Pythonesque touches, Heffernan makes the foppish George a figure to laugh at, while retaining just the right amount of dignity. His damsel in distress in updated effectively by Amaka Okafor, making their courtship a lark. As for the Dragon, Julian Bleach has a great deal of fun playing his earthly form, camping it up terrifically. It’s all staged slickly by director Lyndsey Turner, with Rae Smith’s design looking great. It’s silly but it’s funny, charming even, and very enjoyable.

After a year George returns to his island home, which has undergone an industrialisation that has enslaved its people. The Dragon isn’t a monster, but “every system needs a master” and, suited and booted, he is bureaucracy incarnate. It’s another great turn from Bleach and his now imprisoned former henchman, played by Richard Goulding, does well from the confines of a prison set. But this time the dénouement is thin and unconvincing; the Dragon too easily vanquished. It’s simplistic and too predictable.

To continue with a lack of surprises, after another year, George returns again – this time to a version of the present. Cue skyscrapers descending on to the stage in a This Is Spinal Tap moment that Smith has had enough experience to have avoided. And that’s the least of the problems with this unhappily ever after ending. The Dragon continues incorporeal – his evil inside us all – and there’s no place for saints, nowadays. Heffernan excels as a George out of time and perfectly reflects the play’s questioning of heroes and heroics. But this is slim stuff for a long play, as the repetition indicates, as well as being bleak and naive. Both Mullarkey and Turner lose control with an overblown finale that’s uncomfortably messy. And really just downright silly.

Until 2 December 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

 

 

“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