“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

“The Best Man” at Richmond Theatre

As an admirer of Gore Vidal’s novels, the chance to see one of his plays in the UK is rare treat. This work from 1960, following two candidates for presidential nomination, has perennial appeal (the latest Broadway revival was in 2012). As one of the 20th century’s great men of letters, maybe it’s no big surprise that Vidal could write for theatre, but he makes it seem easy, with impeccable construction, well-rounded characters, sparkling dialogue and an awesome intellect when it comes to exploring and developing ideas.

This is a touring show that director Simon Evans has refined to perfection. The production is as slick as a politician might wish for – those involved with the recent Tory conference would be green with envy (there’s no coughing here). Jeff Fahey skilfully conveys a period feel as the outsider Cantwell, a dangerous figure with “naked ambition” and a sinister southern drawl. Martin Shaw is the lead, Russell, but takes the play’s title too literally. Russell is clearly the hero, but as Vidal’s alter ego he should come across less as ‘man of the people’. Shaw isn’t waspish or imperious enough and, as a result, a good deal of humour is lost.

Both leading men are commanding and the scene of their confrontation is electric. Yet the play excites as much with its trio of strong female roles. And getting three women in a play about politics ain’t bad going. Gemma Jones steals a scene as a matriarchal figure, while Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks are great as the candidates’ wives. Seeing the power behind the potential thrones embodies the insider feel that makes for delicious moments. But Vidal has also creates believably flawed relationships that both actresses can work with. Barber is particularly strong as Russell’s estranged partner. Putting on a public show, she dismisses the conference around her, saying, “I like circuses” – but hopes of renewing the marriage show her complex motivations.

When it comes to the latest addition to the conference scene, it’s Vidal himself who is the prankster here. Given his heritage and own foray into real-life campaigning it’s an exclusive view that makes the satire truly sparkle. And also… a little sad. The play can’t hide its disappointment at politics, a resignation that gives it heart. The depressing irony is that this cynical vision often feels old-fashioned. The talk of slurs taking a campaign “beyond truth” reveal Vidal as visionary, but also somehow quaint. The unsuitability of the candidates – due to mental instability or downright stupidity – shocked in the 1960s. Oh, for those good old days.

Touring until the 28 October 2018

www.kenwright.com

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Apollo Theatre

With director Benedict Andrews and a couple of star turns on board, this foray into the West End by the Young Vic has plenty of allure. The story of marital tension between Maggie and Brick against the background of his wealthy father’s illness is not Tennessee Williams’ finest work. Of course, it’s still better than most plays you can see. And this production’s efforts to inject an arty edge could go a long way to increase its reputation within the playwright’s canon.

For a play somewhat tiresomely obsessed with mendacity, it’s a nice touch on Andrews’ part to present such a stripped-back stage – there’s nowhere to hide here. The intense focus respects Williams’ writing and sets up the cast for their sterling performances, even if it all becomes a little exhausting.

Sienna Miller plays Maggie the Cat. She injects a strong element of realism; you can sense her desire for her husband, her desperation at the breakdown of her marriage. Escaping from the shadow of Elizabeth Taylor’s depiction in the film version is no mean feat – Miller’s hard work deserves praise. Colm Meaney takes the part of Big Daddy and benefits from Andrews’ correct decision to balance the play so that it is equally about this grand patriarch. Meaney makes this “selfish beast” of a man truly compelling to watch.

Between both frequently loud characters comes Brick, former high-school athlete and sports commentator suffering from depression. Jack O’Connell takes the role and makes the quiet work for him. There are flashes of dignity in the performance and a good deal of anger, if not quite as much depth as might be required. O’Connell is a good stage drunk, though, and sections of the play that deal with alcoholism are the strongest, which comes as little surprise, given Williams’ own relationship with booze.

As the candles burn down on Big Daddy’s birthday cake, things start to get messy. The cake for start – you know someone is going to get dirty with it. It’s distracting to guess who and a relief when sticky sponge predictably ends up all over the set. Unfortunately, the messiness in the production extends to its direction. There’s a general untidiness that means Williams’ already sprawling story starts to drag. A shame since Andrews does have a strong central idea – to turn the family into white trash, with none of the usual genteel poverty. Maggie was “born poor, raised poor”, and this is very much new money. The insight makes for startling touches but needs more focus. Despite solid work, the treatment is too slow.

Until 7 October 2017

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Johan Persson

 

“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

“Dolphins and Sharks” at the Finborough Theatre

The European premiere of James Anthony Tyler’s play presents a slice of working life in contemporary America, based in a printing and stationery shop in Harlem. Graduating from the Finborough’s 2016 Vibrant Festival, the care and attention invested result in a successful pay-off for director Lydia Parker.

When Xiomara takes her chance for promotion to management, the lives of her staff, both old friends and new starters, suffer – to the company’s benefit. This isn’t much of a dramatic revelation. The plot holds no surprises and the play little subtlety. Thankfully some strong performances are on hand and Tyler’s observational comedy is well served.

Tyler’s characterisation is efficient. Rachel Handshaw makes the struggling new leader complex and engaging, Ammar Duffus is appealing as a recent graduate desperate for cash, and Hermeilio Miquel Aquino does well as the store’s cleaner. The evening relies on Shyko Ammos and her role of recalcitrant veteran employee – and she is super. A natural comic, Ammos makes many lines shine with a character that’s larger than life yet believable. And, when her character’s troubles come into focus, Ammos delivers a controlled yet emotional performance.

The issue of race pervades the play, interwoven with the world of employment. Startlingly, to say the least, Tyler parallels the idea of a wage slave with chain gangs. Arguments around prejudice lead to funny, provocative dialogue. The conclusion is a crusading note, presented by a magisterial Miquel Brown who plays a regular customer and long-standing local resident. There’s a call to arms, with a no-nonsense tone and direct address to the audience that feels – refreshingly – old-fashioned. Tyler’s text has an appealing sense of sincerity appropriate to his serious concerns that Parker appreciates and skilfully conveys.

Until 30 September 2017

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by  Alexander Yip