“Apologia” at the Trafalgar Studios

Here’s an example of a good play made great by a lead performance. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 1992 piece, about an older woman who is said to have chosen a career in academia over her family, is proficient: the dialogue is strong and debating points clear. But this traditional piece, with its dinner party scenario, influenced by Chekhov and Ibsen, really scores high because the legendary Stockard Channing takes the role of its heroine, Kristin Miller.

As Kristin’s family assemble for a birthday dinner – one it is all too obvious will be a disaster – a history of emotional hunger is combined with delicious humour. The lines are good… but Channing makes them land with magnificently understated sarcasm. She gets laughs from monosyllabic answers and even raised eyebrows. Director Jamie Lloyd injects his usual energy into proceedings and it’s all highly enjoyable.

It’s a shame nobody can compete with Kristin. Her elder son, played by Joseph Millson, seems resigned and then simply angry. One daughter-in-law, an actress who won’t admit she stars in a soap opera, comes across as simply tiresome and it’s an unforgiving role for Freema Agyeman. More interesting is the character of future in-law Trudi, played by Laura Carmichael, who is challenged with meeting Kristin for the first time. Trudi is perky, apolitical and a Christian – it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. If this play is a battle of the generations – and younger characters frequently question the idealism of their elders’ activism – the odds seem pretty stacked to me.

Channing gets even more impressive in the play’s second, much darker, act. A second son, again played by Millson, suffers from depression and makes for a heartfelt scene. But the accusations against Kristin are too long and too feeble. A well-written cruel streak adds dramatic tension but is in questionable taste. A fairer perspective comes from Trudi, a character cleverly developed, and the defence of a “witness” in the form of her old friend (a strong performance from Des Barrit). And so Kaye Campbell provides resolution. If you suspect it’s a little too pat, it’s delivered with such skill that all is forgiven.

Until 18 November 2017

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Mentor” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Best selling German author Daniel Kehlmann’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is urbane, witty and stylish. It works around the contrived scenario of an elderly playwright, paid by a philanthropic foundation, advising a younger writer, and is an effective conversation piece.

There are plenty of laughs around the arrogance and insecurity of the new wunderkind, Martin. You know he’s in trouble since a critic has called him the ‘‘voice of his generation’’. Daniel Weyman puts a lot of energy into the role, desperately so at times, but his mania is in keeping with the efficient direction from Laurence Boswell who employs a brisk pace that serves the comedy in the piece well.

When The Mentor takes a more serious tone, it is a hostage to fortune; as it’s observed about Martin’s play, Kehlmann’s also ends up containing neither delight nor despair. Battles about realism in the theatre are fun when smirking about shows with cement mixers in them – we’ve all been there – but when Kehlmann adds his own poetic touches they fall flat. Ideas about Art are barely established, let alone explored.

A subplot about the seduction of Martin’s wife, and the presence of the foundations administrator, are both too thin. The performances, from Naomi Frederick and Jonathan Cullen, are good. But the female character here is there only as a foil for the men; watch out for lines thrown in to bolster character. While the administrator’s decision to jack it all in and become a painter is left hanging, after initially treating his aspirations as a joke.

The evening really only works as a vehicle for Homeland and Amadeus star F Murray Abraham. As the eponymous tutor Benjamin Rubin, he gives a magnetic performance that carries the show. It’s not much of show, so maybe that’s not too hard, but it’s noticeable the energy lifts when he’s on stage. Kehlmann has written a great part here – it’s a shame the idea of Rubin’s senility isn’t explored further. But this old goat, arrogant as they come, makes good company. Although haunted by early success, Rubin has grown into taking art less seriously; a mature observation that’s the perfect lesson about this diverting, if slim, play.

Until 26 August 2017

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Simon Annand

“Committee…” at the Donmar Warehouse

Verbatim theatre, with the script transcribed from everyday speech, is relatively rare. As for a verbatim musical – I can only thing of Alecky Blythe’s hit London Road. So doubling the genre, with music by Tom Derring, this new show counts as a curiosity, while suggesting the novel treatment has potential.

The subject matter might make you question the sanity of the project. The piece’s full title is The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee takes oral evidence on Whitehall’s relationship with Kids Company. Yes, it’s a crazy idea. But it works well.

For further originality, the book and adaptation into lyrics, by Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke, use not the casual conversations admired in most verbatim works, but public testimony in the House of Commons – speech that contributors knew would be on record.

Topical, political, important – all fine qualities for good theatre. It’s clear that, despite the humour, including initial giggles at people bursting into song, this is serious stuff. The cast excels at depicting the MPs we came to know during the news story – Alexander Hanson and Liz Robertson are especially strong as Bernard Jenkin and Cheryl Gillan – but coming so close to impersonations can be distracting. Thankfully, the show isn’t flattering about anybody’s sense of importance – or their desire to capture the “8.10 slot” on the Today programme.

Being grilled are none other than Alan Yentob and Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the Kids Company charity’s trustee and CEO. The roles are taken by opera singer Oscar Ebrahim and, with a voice to match him, Sandra Marvin. Again, while their impersonations are eye catching, the real achievement is a vocal ability that aids in revealing the complexity of characters and the situation. They add weight to Deering’s compositions and, while the show is static, some clever touches from director Adam Penfold are well used.

While you might find yourself surprised at how entertaining the whole thing is, Committee’s biggest success is drier – it works as a peculiar pedagogy. The MPs sing that their aim is not a show trial but “to learn” what happened to the bankrupt charity. And from this condensed 80 minutes you discover the issues and questions far more efficiently that following the story in the media. The edit deserves credit, of course, but the ability of the music to focus the mind has a strange power I’d happily hear utilised more often.

Until 12 August 2017

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Coming Clean” at the King’s Head Theatre

Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s revival of Kevin Elyot’s first play offers a glimpse of a writer working up to big things. Written 12 years before the success of My Night With Reg, this 1982 piece has style behind a stumbling structure and a forthright voice that wins respect. It’s the story of an open relationship – between Tony and Greg – threatened by the latter’s affair with their young cleaner Robert, in which Elyot worked hard to present a view of gay life at a particular moment in time.

The play has enough explicit sexual reference to still shock. The pre-AIDS epidemic sexual escapades get the best of Elyot’s humour and sharp lines from erudite characters abound. The cast are good with Elyot’s jokes, especially Elliot Hadley, who plays the couple’s camp friend with the skill of a stand-up comedian. Tom Lambert’s Robert, who upsets Tony and Greg’s agreement to have only casual flings, is also strong, working his wide-eyed naivety and toying with a glint of mischief that it’s a shame Elyot didn’t explore further.

Elliot Hadley & Tom Lambert
Elliot Hadley & Tom Lambert

Coming Clean aims at big emotions with poetic yearnings. But both depend on the central couple, and Elyot doesn’t give enough to deliver this. Jason Nwoga plays Greg with a cool air that makes his character believable and rounded but it’s a thinly written role. Lee Knight’s Tony has a convincingly acidic quality that makes him too unappealing. As a result, Knight struggles in lighter scenes, making the humour overwrought. When real feelings are called for, a great performance is produced. The confession that the open relationship is never what Tony wanted isn’t much of a revelation, but Knight makes it moving.

Spreadbury-Maher shows an intelligent appreciation of Elyot’s writing throughout, he makes the most of what is really a minor work. Coming Clean takes too long to get to its simple points, dragging out a slim plot to arrive at an uninteresting conclusion. It is predictable and, while the repartee is bright, the characters are dull. Maybe My Night With Reg hangs over the play too heavily, leading to inevitable disappointment? The key might be to come clean to the play itself, in an effort to appreciate its qualities in the same spirit as this admirable cast and creative team.

Until 26 August 2017

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photo by Paul Nicholas Dyke

“Angels in America” at the National Theatre

Any production of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece is a cause for celebration. Presented in two parts, totalling nearly seven hours, and combining the AIDS crisis with speculation on America’s history and its future, epic is an apt word. Add the stellar cast and it’s hard to be inured to the hype surrounding this revival on the Southbank. The difficulty of getting tickets, plus ecstatic reviews and a sense of responsibility towards the play, whose premiere at the National Theatre in 1992 is fondly remembered, create palpable anticipation. And the production is superb – a theatrical event – even if it struggles under the weight of expectation.

James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior)
James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior)

For unmitigated praise we can begin with the cast. Andrew Garfield plays Prior Walter, who reveals his HIV status at the start of the play to his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), who promptly deserts him. Both grippingly portray their relationship breakdown – McArdle does a great job creating sympathy for his unlikeable character. As Prior’s health deteriorates, Garfield takes the lead with a combination of dignity and no-nonsense that perfectly reflects the text. When it comes to Prior’s encounter with angels – and in this play they are real – the juggling of fear, amazement and humour is superb.

Denise Gough (Harper) and Russell Tovey (Joseph)
Denise Gough (Harper) and Russell Tovey (Joseph)

Another couple in trouble are the Pitts, two Mormons living in a sham marriage. Russell Tovey plays Joseph, tortured by his sexuality, with sensitivity. An affair with Louis comes as a revelation to him and fills the theatre with tenderness, while the betrayal of his wife, Harper, is moving and complex. It’s another triumph for Denise Gough, as the pill-popping spouse whose religious background and secretive husband are driving her insane. There’s that Kushner combination again – of humour and self-awareness – that Gough reveals expertly. Someone should save us all time and hand her another Olivier award now.

Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize)
Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize)

A final duo deserves a mention: Broadway legend Nathan Lane, who brings a startling humour to the role of closeted lawyer Roy Cohn, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as his nurse Belize. Their sparring matches, as Cohn lies dying of AIDS, are a highlight. Stewart-Jarrett impresses throughout, excelling as a foil to Prior and Louis, and deftly carrying the weight of Kushner’s concerns over racism.

Angels in America is hard work, especially if you are lucky enough to see both plays on the same day. It isn’t trying to be easy, of course: the emotional journey taken by its many characters is harrowing, but the scale and scope of ideas needs controlling and the fear is that director Marianne Elliot has herself become overawed. There’s not enough “mangled guts” here – the play’s visceral text, so full of struggle, is sanitised as a ‘classic’.

Connections between the characters, clear enough in the script, become laboured. There are few light touches, literally so when it comes to Paule Constable’s lighting design, which dominates Part One in particular. A claustrophobic feel, pinpointing scenes in spotlight, is presumably to create focus, but the result is soporific.

It’s not the play’s length that is the problem – the plotting is impeccable – but the pacing, which flags. The main culprit is a cumbersome set by Ian McNeil, with props moved around by a collection of ‘Angel Shadows’ who become distracting. This choreographed troupe does stronger work as skilled puppeteers with the arrival of The Angel (the always superb Amanda Lawrence). But even here their scenes feel protracted. Elliot’s reverential air brings us down to earth, even if most of her production is heavenly.

Until 19 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Helen Maybanks

“Road” at the Royal Court

Just before the interval during Jim Cartwright’s play, two young
unemployed characters, who have taken to their bed depressed, rage about their lives and imagine “the last job in the world”. It’s a startlingly contemporary moment, given speculation about the perilous future of employment, in a production too-happily rooted in the mid 80s of the play’s origin. The soundtrack, dialect, and accurate costumes in Chloe Lamford’s design, all serve to examine The North in Thatcher’s Britain, and they do so authentically. But, when combined with John Tiffany’s precise direction, a painful history is presented with a coldly anthropological air.

Mark Hadfield
Mark Hadfield

Life on an average road is presented in a series of short scenes, visiting different characters. There are frustrations with this snapshot treatment, but the standard of each scene is high and the anger from Cartwright and his characters stands in contrast to the clinical approach that prevails in this revival. Several monologues are highlights, in particular those with a nostalgic air performed superbly by June Watson and Mark Hadfield. The challenges of the text are meat and drink to the talented cast, who Tiffany has clearly worked closely with, nearly all of whom perform more than one role and differentiate characters superbly – none more so than Michelle Farley whose transformations astonish.

Michelle Farley with Mike Noble
Michelle Farley with Mike Noble

Our visit is guided by a narrator, played by Lemn Sissay. His
character’s focus is a good night out and jokes about the escapism of sex and alcohol threaten to take over, driven by Tiffany’s high energy approach. It’s left to Jonathan Watkins’ direction of movement to add gravitas and appreciate Cartwright’s poetry. That the show plays a little uncomfortably amongst the wealth of Sloane Square is testament to its confrontational approach. Cartwright appreciates the sharp wit of his protagonists – there are some very funny retorts here – but the laughs around the poor and uneducated come with a warning. Moods change within seconds,  on the whim of a fraught nerve, and darkness prevails despite the production’s over-enthusiastic moments.

Until 9 September 2017

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Twilight Song” at the Park Theatre

There’s a first-class cast in Anthony Banks’ premiere of Kevin Elyot’s last play. Flipping between the 1960s and the present day, Bryony Hannah plays Isabella. Pregnant in one scene then moments later an elderly woman, she can’t fail to impress. Paul Higgins and Adam Garcia double up roles, taking four parts in their stride. Higgins plays Isabella’s son and husband, differentiating his characters subtly, while Garcia performs as two strangers offering sex, adding chemistry to both of his scenes.

Adam Garcia and Paul Higgins
Adam Garcia and Paul Higgins

The actors, and Banks, have a thorough appreciation of Elyot’s theatrical world, where the middle classes mix with passion and occasional obscenity. There’s repression aplenty and touches of poetic romance tempered by prosaic lust. It’s all familiar territory from Elyot’s big hit, My Night With Reg, but sadly this play isn’t as good. The dialogue and jokes are flat, the characters underdeveloped. Banks handles every aspect of the play with more reverence than it deserves, drawing most of it out for longer than it can stand and making even the comedy hard work.

Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross
Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross

The differences with Elyot’s previous piece offer frustrating glances at potential unfulfilled. A central female character, which Hannah tackles well, feels tangibly imprisoned by history, but thinly drawn. An elderly gay couple, impeccably performed by Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross, deserve a play of their own. In the end, a tasteless plot twist takes over. Let’s slide over the idea of an estate agent being so hard up for cash that he takes to prostitution; Garcia plays this “surprisingly sensitive” realtor and then a gardener with a “poetic nature” – and he performs both well – but it’s all a leap too far. A nastily cheap conclusion, that’s grim for the sake of shocking, embodies the flimsy feel of the play.

Until 12 August 2017

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Robert Workman

“The Tempest” at the Barbican

If you ever needed a reason to forgive computer company Intel for its annoyingly catchy ad jingle then its collaboration with the RSC is it. A large team, working with designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, has added ground- breaking effects to Gregory Doran’s production of Shakespeare’s late romance, and the result is a big theatrical event.

It’s a good choice of play to unleash the clever technical trickery on. From the shipwreck that sends Prospero’s enemies into his territory, the island becomes awash with projections. And spirits really do melt into air in the case of Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, as a live motion capture suit is employed on stage for the first time. The resulting imagery is appropriate and surely becomes more and more impressive if you understand how difficult it all is. Even so, the designers might be a tad aggrieved to know that all eyes are really on the live actor. Quartley gives a sensitive performance of remarkable physicality that doesn’t really need assistance.

The tech goes to town with the masque that Prospero conjures, its design based on Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’ work, so that part of the play that can drag looks great. But again, beyond the spectacle, it’s the basics of the show that really work. A large cast of spirits add immeasurably and this is truly an island “full of noises” with a strong score composed by Paul Englishby that combines a variety of genres.

There’s a glitch in the application, too. The autochthonous Caliban could be the key to the island but he isn’t granted any modern magic. This rationale makes sense but it makes the character out of place, with no link to his inheritance – surely a missed opportunity? It’s a game performance from Joe Dixon, but the monster costume, the only foot Brimson Lewis puts wrong, suggests the aim is to get some laughs – what else can an actor do if he gets given a fish as a prop?

The key ingredient isn’t the intel inside but Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. Directed as a family drama, the relationship with Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda – an excellent performance – is deeply moving. Similarly, as his treacherous brother, Jonathan Broadbent makes a role often forgotten memorable. A complex relationship with Ariel, suggesting a substitute son, is also explored.

Russell Beale can be magisterial with ease but focuses on Prospero’s neurotic moments. The all-powerful magus sees his plan on a knife-edge, adding excitement to the production. This Prospero has many a mini breakdown, as the tension of plotting gets the better of him – at one point he even screams, and the prospect of changing overwhelms him. Doran was clearly sensitive to the possible drawbacks of a high-tech collaboration. Never losing sight of the fine cast here, his supervision shows a calm hand at the helm.

Until 18 August 2017

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Topher McGrillis

“The Drag” at the National Theatre

A series of rehearsed readings over a long weekend, timed to coincide with London Pride, selected five gay-themed works, each a one-off event. I was lucky enough to catch the last: a play by Mae West that was once considered so controversial it landed its famous author in prison.

Horribly dated on one hand and then astonishingly fresh on the other, the play is an odd mix of drawing-room drama – with a doctor and a judge discussing the issue of homosexuality (little realising how it affects their own family) – and scenes within the gay community born from West’s own experience that are an absolute hoot. It seems incredible that West wrote the play and got it on stage, albeit briefly, in 1927.

In the present day, there’s plenty of praise for a talented cast who illustrate the power of West’s dialogue. It’s unfair under the conditions of just two afternoon rehearsals to judge performances here. Yet, Malcolm Sinclair’s skill was astounding, delivering lines hampered by West explaining the very idea of homosexuality to her audience with convincing compassion. Meanwhile the crew of drag queens (there’s fun to be had working out a collective noun here but I am not brave enough to make suggestions) easily showed how strong the comedy is.

An after-show discussion with the director, Polly Stenham, revealed her admiration for West as a feminist and campaigner as well as an artist. Stenham’s enthusiasm for the piece could dispel many a doubt about its traditional structure. I’d love to see what could be done with more time – maybe with the addition of her own writing skills – to a play that deserves to be known by many.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

“Ink” at the Almeida Theatre

James Graham has made a strong reputation for himself with plays about politics. While similarly concerned with power, his new work has a broader subject matter and relates the genesis and meteoric rise of The Sun newspaper.

Graham’s nose for a good story is as fine-tuned as any journalist’s. The purchase of an ailing broadsheet by Australian outsider Rupert Murdoch, and the hiring of neglected hack Larry Lamb to run it, take on a mythic quality. These are great roles for strong actors: Bertie Carvel is the ruthless, on-the-up tycoon, while Richard Coyle is the editor whose doubts and determination both mount as he chases sales figures.

The triangle between Murdoch, Lamb and the latter’s former mentor and now rival on The Daily Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp, might have been developed further. There’s an excellent performance from David Schofield as the crusading lefty whose paper aims to improve its readers. An idealistic fourth estate is where politics comes to the fore in Ink and, surprisingly, the play’s very few ponderous moments come from this elision.

Director Rupert Goold stages the recruitment of staff at the new paper with a cabaret feel: jolly, anti-establishment, with 1960s cool. And Goold handles the play’s darker territory just as well, with a kidnapping and the launch of The Sun’s infamous topless models: a scenario that leads to strong performances from Sophie Stanton as the paper’s women’s editor, and Pearl Chanda as Stephanie Rahn, the first ‘Page 3’ girl.

Newspapers mark a generational divide – the young really don’t read them. Graham’s skill and research bridge the age gap. I wondered if we needed a scene taking us through the printing process (akin to his excellent précis of parliamentary procedure in This House) but, yes, of course we do! With a touch of nostalgia, reflecting several characters’ romantic notions of Fleet Street, an arcane world of machismo and lots of cigarette smoke is opened. Hindsight raises smiles and big questions about media manipulation.

The result of Graham’s fun groundwork is a delicious surprise – a depiction of Murdoch that shows intelligence and courage. With a little retrofitting, Murdoch is cast as a business disruptor and credited with the idea of user-generated content. Neither role is that convincing but the ideas intrigue. Murdoch’s drive, so perfectly embodied in Carvel’s performance, comes from his wish to challenge and change – recasting an often-demonised figure as a rebel with a cause.

Until 5 August 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner