“Holding The Man” at the Trafalgar Studios

On paper, Holding The Man is a potentially grim prospect – a gay coming-of-age story at the start of the AIDS era. The play might also risk seeming dated, as the confusion and fear surrounding the deadly disease has changed. The Australian Griffin Theatre Company’s triumphant arrival in London blows such qualms away in a startlingly effective production. Holding The Man is, quite simply, a beautiful love story.

Romance with a capital R exudes from playwright Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of the late Timothy Conigrave’s celebrated memoirs. Guy Edmonds, who plays Conigrave, and Matt Zeremes, his lover John Caleo, are utterly convincing as the two men in love. They show passion, tenderness, anxiety and pain in their rich performances

The lovers have their faults, but Conigrave’s is also his virtue – his honesty. Blunt to a fault, his writings reveal how hurtful he could be. Often painfully crude and cruel, his desire to be open about his sexuality and then to have an open relationship comes before others’ feelings. He isn’t always an attractive character, but his truth wins our admiration.

The truth has a power to make us laugh. Holding The Man reminds us that laughter goes on even when we are so ill that it hurts us to do so. From the touching naivety of the boys as they fall in love, through Conigrave’s time at college and even in sickness, there is fun to be had. Along the way we get a fantastic soundtrack and costumes so spot on that they deserve a stand up comedy show of their own.

However, director David Berthold and designer Brian Thomson have created more than a supremely funny period piece full of guilty pleasures for those who remember the 80s. Thomson’s beautifully poetic set of lights and mirrors reflects the magic of romance and theatre. Equally, Berthold creates a highly inventive production with a tight ensemble cast using the most of basic props and techniques powerfully.

The play has hundreds of characters. Amazingly, just four actors play all of the other roles with dazzling transformations of gender and age. Jane Turner is given star billing. She succeeds in differentiating her performance as both boys’ mothers from her famous role in cult TV show Kath & Kim. Along with great lines and an easy ability to make people laugh (every gesture gets a giggle), she can also be deeply moving. There is a danger she might steal the show.

Turner is disciplined enough to prevent this and she has some stiff competition anyway. Simon Burke is excellent in the diverse roles he has to perform and outstanding when it comes to portraying Caleo’s father. The British performers joining the cast are Oliver Farnworth and Anna Skellern. Their roles include Farnworth playing a school friend’s mother and Skellern a sexually charged teenage boy in a candid group masturbation scene.

For some this might sound a little unpalatable, but it is fitting that Conigrave’s frankness provokes. For others it will sound like a great deal of fun. Holding The Man is terrific and there is more joy than shame here. The sense of loss as its characters die tragically young turns into a celebration of their lives. The pain felt is embraced, as it must be, in any true romance.

Until 3 July 2010

Written 5 May 2010 for The London Magazine

“Women Beware Women” at the National Theatre

Harriet Walter is a woman to be scared of, at least, she is in the National Theatre’s current production of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. She plays Livia, gifted and cursed with a demonic persuasive power. Through deceit she organises an incestuous affair between her brother and her niece and engineers the rape of a newly married neighbour. Yet she does it all with a great deal of charm. She’ll manage to persuade you that she isn’t all that bad.

Her victims are Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) and Isabella (Vanessa Kirby). They transform from young, innocent women in love into killers bent on revenge. It’s a delicious change, and one the actresses clearly relish. Taking their lead from Walter, they adopt a cool, clever and cynical approach to marriage while passion boils inside them as they plot murder. As their metamorphosis occurs, Livia falls in love herself – she decides to take Bianca’s husband as a toy boy. Unfortunately for her, the transformation allows emotions to begin clouding her judgement.

And what of the men? They should have plenty of reason to beware these women, but their own arrogance and hypocrisy make them oblivious as to how they are manipulated. Richard Lintern is suitably villainous as the Duke who abducts Bianca, and Raymond Courtauld genuinely creepy as the uncle who loves Isabella. If Samuel Barnett seems slightly miscast as the man who manages to get Bianca to elope, he makes a good show of playing the doting husband and gets his fair share of laughs.

Focusing on the melodrama as a strategy for getting humour out of a revenge tragedy might seem like a risk. Making characters less rounded than they are written only works if you have a strong cast. Fortunately, director Marianne Elliott is working with fine actors and the payoff is a great deal of fun. Elliott has great skill as a storyteller and can cut through complicated plots to provide refreshing clarity. She is also visionary when it comes to staging and here the production takes off.

Designer Lez Brotherston’s set is magnificent. A decadent mixture of art deco glamour and baroque drama, it manages to reflect the grand and intimate, rich and poor, while evoking the games and perils of seduction. And it works in more than one way. Making the most of the Olivier’s revolving stage, the final scene of murderous mayhem is perfectly choreographed and truly thrilling.

Until July 4 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 29 April 2010 for The London Magazine

“Ruined” at the Almeida Theatre

Ruined began with a trip author Lynn Nottage took to East Africa in 2004. Wanting to write about war through the eyes of the women involved, she interviewed refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The stories she heard form the core of her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now given its European premiere at The Almeida Theatre.

The testimony Nottage took down is often so painful and extreme that you are powerfully shaken by its veracity – nobody could make this up. The victims of war she spoke to suffered many kinds of trauma, but Ruined focuses on the shocking practice of rape as a weapon of war.

The play takes place in Mama Nadi’s brothel. She employs those who cannot go home after their abduction and rape, since it is said they would bring shame upon their families. The women serve the various armies who battle over the country and the miners who are there to exploit the Congo’s rich natural resources. The prostitutes are not the worst off. Other women are left physically mutilated by their experience, in constant pain and unable to bear children. They are the ones who are said to be ruined.

Sophie (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is one such woman. Her uncle brings her to Mama Nadi and begs for her to be given a home. She comes with Salima (Michelle Asante) and meets Josephine (Kehinde Fadipe). These are three magnificent performances. Each woman carries a heavy emotional burden and as their stories unfold, we learn not only of their pain but also of their dreams. The fear they share is mixed with anger and also hope. These are performances crafted with great skill to give the characters the dignity they deserve.

Jenny Jules is just as wonderful as Mama Nadi. It really is one of those performances of a lifetime. Mama seems to care only for money, everyone is simply a customer, regardless of their politics, and her only concern is to put food on the table. Like Scarlett O’Hara or Mother Courage, she is called a ‘devilish optimist’ for making money out of the turmoil around her.

By feeding these women, she is also looking after them and the fine moral line she treads between fighting for them and bullying them in turn only becomes more complicated as we learn her story. It is a wonderfully nuanced role and performance. Her formidable approach does not just win respect – it gets laughs as well. The budding romance between her and Sophie’s uncle, played with charm by Lucian Msamati, moves from touching to heartbreaking as Mama Nadi’s secret is revealed and her hopes exposed.

Against the constantly threatening backdrop of war, violence pervades Ruined. The soldiers who patronise Mama Nadi’s are a convincingly frightening presence. It is not just gunfire and explosions that these women have to be afraid of but each client they prostitute themselves to. It makes for great tension and drama. But the noise isn’t all artillery – there is music as well – life goes on at Mama Nadi’s because these victims of war are also survivors. The story of this survival is one of those rare pieces of theatre that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

Until 5 June 2010

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 27 April 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Real Thing” at the Old Vic

The Real Thing is a relatively simple play for Tom Stoppard. There’s no time travel or astronauts and you don’t need to know about minor characters in other plays. It is the playwright’s meditation on love, a story about the ups and downs of relationships, the questioning of whether an emotion felt is genuine and what repercussions this may have.

Of course, there is more to it than that. The main character is Henry, a successful playwright, celebrated for his keen intellect. Ring any bells? As we follow his married life we are treated to amusing insights into the theatre that mirror the characters’ actions.

Still, this is Stoppard with slightly less philosophy. Henry ruminates on how our perspective alters a situation, but this is to investigate emotion rather than metaphysics. It’s a question of aesthetics. The search is for a subjective truth – the qualitative difference between Bach and Henry’s preferred Procol Harum are down to him, as are the judgements of his love life.

All this is highly entertaining – it is bound to be with Stoppard’s witty script and Toby Stephens’ excellent delivery. He is convincingly aloof and skilled at slowly revealing the complexities of his character. Generally unlikeable for his smug condescension, when he does show emotion you realise how involved you have become. It is a masterfully seductive performance.

Despite his ability, Stephens doesn’t steal the show. It seems the only people more amusingly self-obsessed than writers are actresses. Henry enters into relationships with two. The always-excellent Fenella Woolgar delivers lines in deadpan fashion. She plays Henry’s first wife Charlotte who is replaced by Annie (Hattie Morahan). The latter provides dramatic edge when we encounter the new couple breaking up their marriages, passion during their ‘honeymoon’ period and real emotion when their relationship becomes troubled.

Both women contrast with Henry. After years of marriage Charlotte is more than aware of his failings, and Annie’s political convictions provide a foil (albeit an ironic one) to his nonchalance. Henry learns that his deep commitment and Romantic notions are perceived as carelessness and is accused of being too intellectual. Barnaby Kay touchingly defends the wife who is about to leave him by saying that Henry’s life and work fail to deal with the ‘messy’ stuff that really counts. Stoppard has his eye on this – there are dirty handkerchiefs and mucky innuendo here but it doesn’t quite convince. Henry’s well-drawn teenage daughter Debbie (Louise Calf) makes a great debut pointing out that all this angst and debate is all just for the ‘architect’ classes.

Stoppard is too clever not to know that he is falling into this trap. While Debbie’s free love solution to the problem is swiftly and suitably dismissed, there is too much reliance on the fact that love is universal to avoid the problem she highlights. It is difficult to see who would identify with these characters or find them aspirational. Even with all the skill and intelligence on display here we aren’t involved enough and fail to connect. Stoppard’s ‘less is more’ approach doesn’t quite deliver.

Until 5 June 2010

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 April for The London Magazine

“Posh” at the Royal Court

There’s seldom a shortage of political plays in London and, in an election year, writers are keener than ever to deal with meaty issues. Laura Wade’s Posh promises a novel take on current affairs by allowing us an insight into one of those Oxford dining clubs beloved of Messrs Cameron and Johnson. It’s a good starting position, but what makes the play really clever is that it deals with so much more.

Fascination with power is always a great ingredient for good drama – what forms and drives those in charge? Wade sets out to inform us. In this case, the elite Riot Club diners are born to rule and very much aware of this fact.

Great humour comes from the plentiful clichés about such characters as their revolting snobbery is combined with the arrogance and ignorance of youth. It’s entertaining stuff, but these guys are easy targets. Again Wade provides more. Like all children of the baby boomers these toffs could be the first generation in history to be worse off than their parents. Angrily interpreting the current state of the nation, they see that if they don’t change things, they might have to stop being posh.

The large cast does a great job of making each character distinct despite belonging to a limited social world. In a variety of ways, each exposes their weaknesses and is played with by the others. They are vicious to each other as only schoolboys can be while their amateur manoeuvrings have a pathetic touch. Joshua McGuire, who is still in his final year at RADA, stands out as Guy. More than most he is utterly clueless and desperate to gain approval. Leo Bill plays Alistair, notable for the frightening anger he conveys and his palpable confusion in the face of what he regards as the injustices of the world.

The play is bookended by meetings with Guy’s godfather Jeremy. Performed with sinister aplomb by Simon Shepherd, he is an MP on the look out for future talent. Shepherd is perfectly cast as the man these boys will grow up to be. If this sounds a little too conspiratorial, bear in mind that the idea of such dining clubs containing undergraduates plotting to control the country is well avoided here. Wade sets out empty, rambling arguments full of powerful emotion but safely removed from political reality.

It might seem odd but, for my money, the star roles are the smallest ones. Fiona Button plays the toffs’ waitress and Charlotte Lucas a prostitute hired by the club. The women carry themselves with a sense of dignity and purpose that the club-members lack. Their articulacy renders the men speechless – until they leave the room.

Added to all these great performances come some surprises. Surreal touches are added that make director Lyndsey Turner’s production speed along. A capella interludes where the club sing inappropriate versions of R’n’B numbers require that musical director James Fortune earns a special mention. The songs are great fun and serve as a wonderful reminder of how anachronistic the club is. A guest appearance by the club’s founder, Earl Riot, who possesses Toby (Jolyon Coy) in his drunken stupor, also changes the tempo of the piece.

All this combines to create a great evening at the theatre. Undoubtedly some will claim that the observations about class and politics are too broad but the insight into youth and group dynamics are spot on. Behind this, a great ear for dialogue and skill at creating dramatic situations should compel our politicians to watch this for tips on how to engage an audience, if nothing else.

Until 22 May 2010

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 19 April 2010 for The London Magazine

“Hair” at the Gielgud Theatre

Hair is an important show. It was the first rock musical, first production to feature nudity on a British stage and the first US show to give equal billing to black performers. A huge success, it came to symbolise the counter culture movement of the late 1960s. Yet while the cast sing about the dawn of the age of Aquarius many astrologer’s say it happened in 1997. Hair might be important, but is it worth reviving?

New York’s Public Theater, who have arrived in London en masse, obviously think so. The energy and conviction of this production is clear from the start and it never wavers. This in itself is intoxicating. Add all the wonderful songs, skilfully orchestrated by their composer Galt MacDermot, with strong singers and you are sure to have a great night out.

Hair isn’t going to shock anymore. Actors taking off their clothes and swearing won’t even raise eyebrows. But director Diane Paulus knows this. The nudity is handled in a tasteful, almost dismissive way. The sexual explicitness is cleverly played for laughs. What Paulus seems to have used this bawdy content for it to bring together the huge cast so that they convincingly play ‘the tribe’ that Hair is all about – there is a fantastic sense of this group as a community.

This exploration of a society is more important than the plot, which after all is thin. Claude, played by Gavin Creel, is about to be drafted. A modern day Hamlet, he finds his obligations pressing down on him as his youth comes to an end. Responsibilities weigh on him to the extent that he wants to become invisible – his particular articulation that his too solid flesh should melt. Creel is outstanding in portraying this angst and his character’s journey. That’s a big achievement given the similarly gifted performers who share the stage.

Will Swenson’s Berger has the crowd on side from the first with some inspired adlibbing. His physicality and almost animal presence make his role as the tribe’s resident stud entirely believable. (I always suspected some people did better out of free love than others and now I have proof). As a further qualification for the role he has magnificent hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming hair – which he puts to great use. It almost made me wish I still had long hair myself. And there would have been plenty of opportunities to join in. The cast are continually addressing and mingling with the audience. There is even the chance to go on stage at the end (albeit with health and safety restrictions dutiful observed). Although all this running around can seem slightly lost in the Edwardian grandeur of the Gielgud, it’s a great deal of fun and a real crowd pleaser.

What’s important about all this audience participation is that the emphasis is on sharing – the tribe want us to experience with them. This makes the evening joyous and also, as Claude’s story comes to its end, surprisingly poignant. Although contemporary events are never alluded to, the fashion in soldiers’ uniforms doesn’t change much and it must be in everyone’s mind that young Americans are still dying in battle today.

It’s easy to knock the hippies. If you aren’t a child of the baby boomers then those lauding the 60s can seem annoyingly insistent. Even if the spirit that Hair embodies so well can sometimes seem naïve, this revival serves to make us question any superiority we might slip into. Are we really more rebellious than those who broke down so much social conformism? The question becomes; how does the age of Aquarius that we live in compare to the one that was so compellingly sought.

Until 4 September 2010

Photo by Joan Marcus

Written 19 April 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Notebook of Trigorin” at the Finborough Theatre

A ‘free adaptation’ by Tennessee Williams of Chekhov might sound like a strange idea. The Russian playwright is, well, Russian, and his works are full of reserved Slav emotions and characters who repress themselves in a manner we don’t associate with Williams. Yet Chekhov’s writing about the ‘interior life’, which made his theatre revolutionary, engaged the American writer. The Finborough Theatre gives us the chance to see his exploration in The Notebook of Trigorin, his version of The Seagull.

You might want to brush up on the original version – it makes for an interesting game of compare and contrast – but it is by no means essential and you’ll probably be enjoying this production too much to bother. Williams tightens what is already a compelling plot, and director Phil Willmott gives the action a lively pace.

The play is set in the family home of Arkadina, the most famous actress in Russia, during her infrequent visits to see her son Constantine who is looked after by her elderly brother Sorin. Accompanied by her younger lover, the writer Trigorin, she walks in on several sets of unrequited love.  Constantine is loved by Masha but adores their neighbour Nina. Masha is followed around by Medvedenko but wants nothing to do with him. Her mother Polina is obsessed by the local doctor Dorn. Arkadina’s arrival doesn’t make the situation simpler – Nina falls in love with Trigorin. In an unnecessary addition from Williams, Trigorin falls for a stable boy who goes swimming a lot. Thankfully, for brevity’s sake, he stays in the lake.

As these situations play themselves out, the characters deal with their dreams and ambitions. Constantine, played with brooding adolescent intensity by Rob Heaps, wants to be a writer. Nina (Samara MacLaren) hopes to become an actress and develops from a shy girl into an impassioned woman. Andrea Hall is wonderful as Masha, who struggles to abandon her unrequited love and marry Medvedenko, played with great charm by Daniel Norford. In a beautifully pitched performance, Lachele Carl’s Polina rails against Morgan James’s Dorn. His Doctor is one to strike from the register, a louche seducer played with great sexual presence whose treatment of Richard Franklin’s movingly vulnerable Sorin is deeply cruel.

Williams’ adaptation of the play is most noticeable with Trigorin. Stephen Billington reads his notebooks as a voiceover. This may have a strange Chandleresque quality but allows a distance between his interior voice and a wonderful performance on stage where we are never quite sure how genuine this man is. Trigorin fits that particularly American role of the flawed narrator. He is an artist first and foremost; keen to scribble down a potential story, to exploit a situation for narrative and quick to judge others.

What Trigorin and Williams share is their interest in Arkadina. Always a great role for an actress, in this version, she is combined with Williams’ other indubitable heroines. Women in genteel poverty are a common trait in his work, as are those who live their lives performing a role. Carolyn Backhouse takes on all this with great aplomb. She performs with humour and power as a woman with a fragile grip on what is precious to her and a ferocious ability to defend it.  She is like Blanche DuBois on steroids, more condemned than she might deserve to be. In the final scene, Willmott exploits this tension especially well, leading towards a dramatic tableau that reaffirms the plays concerns with the necessity and danger of artificiality. The whole of this superb cast are used. Their combined efforts more than make this production worth seeing and the play itself offers fascinating insights into both Chekhov and Williams.

Until 24 April 2010

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Scott Rylander

Written 1 April 2010 for The London Magazine

The White Guard at the National Theatre

Designer Bunny Christie has done such an exemplary job on the sets for The White Guard –  Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece depicting the mayhem of the Russian Civil War, now showing at The National Theatre – that it makes sense to tell the story through her work.

Set first in the Turbin family household we’re drawn into the close, communal nature of their life. They are members of the Tsarist White Guard who protect a puppet politician installed by the Germans to control the Ukraine in the winter of 1918. The set gracefully retracts to the back of the Lyttelton stage, becoming distant and threatened as the story moves to the Hetman’s decrepit palace just as he is about to flee, with the vast, cold room depicting the corruption and chaos of the state. Next we’re plunged into to scenes of war; the barracks of the rebelling Nationalists, ready to fight both the Germans and the approaching Bolsheviks, and a school gymnasium commandeered by the White Guard who have come to appreciate that they have become an anachronism in a political vacuum.

This is a family drama set in turbulent times. Daniel Flynn plays elder brother Alexei Turbin with determination. He is a man of great courage but also a thinking soldier.  Flynn manages to show bravery but also fear about the future. Younger brother Nikolai is played by Richard Henders with great charm. In managing to convey ambiguity over whether Nikolai idolises his brother or the military more his fate becomes deeply moving. Justine Mitchell, cast as their sister Elena, is the only female role in the play. She manages this complex role superbly acting not just as sister but mother, friend and lover to her brother’s comrades visiting the home.

If this all sounds very worthy don’t be put off. True, The White Guard is a fascinating investigation into the impact of war and offers insight into politics. Yes, it shows the power of ideas and identity to sculpt our lives and behaviour, but Upton’s new version of the play deals lightly with all this and saves the work from any pomposity. Possibly because Bulgakov’s own adaption was so heavily censored, Upton has a sense of freedom. His writing is delightful, fast-paced, down to earth and comical with plenty of force when it comes to dramatic moments.

Best of all he has given a script that the cast can revel in and director Howard Davies uses his great experience to provide them with room and inspiration enough to result in performances that seem uniformly fresh and natural.

The visitors to the Turbin home all seem to fall in love with Elena. It isn’t just because she is the only woman around – Mitchell’s performance shows a vitally alive, captivating woman. Paul Higgins and Nick Fletcher as Captains in The Guard both convince as soldiers under pressure and men in love. Pip Carter who plays Larion, a visiting student who provides an alternative to the militarism around him, has some great comic moments. Kevin Doyle as Elena’s husband and deputy war minister serves as an effective foil to the many admirable men in her life with his amusing incompetence and self-obsession. Elena refers to them all as her boys – but the man of the piece is Conleth Hill.

Hill plays Lieutenant Shervinsky. We see him as the perfect charmer wooing Elena.  She and the audience can’t help but laugh with him. As aide-de-camp to the Hetman, he is superior towards the footman, a fantastic little role Barry McCarthy excels in, and deferential to his boss, played by Anthony Calf in great form. As the political turmoil increases we see his character adapt to survive, winning the love of Elena and revealing a deep sincere affection. His character is the man happiest to adapt to the future that the White Guard feared. His portrayal is so charismatic we are happy that he can do so. With him around the Russian Revolution becomes a lot more interesting.

Until July 7 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 26 March 2010 for The London Magazine

“Eigengrau” at the Bush Theatre

Penelope Skinner’s new play, Eigengrau, is set in a London with no sense of community. It’s a city we hope we don’t experience but we all know exists. A group of twenty year olds are all alone and searching for love and friendship. It could be depressing stuff but in this play it is very, very funny.

Feminist activist Cassie has a flat share that isn’t going well. She had to advertise on Gumtree and found Rose, a ditzy blonde who has never heard of sexual liberation. Rose’s ‘boyfriend’ Mark works in marketing and is instantly offensive to Cassie. His flatmate Tim has problems too – he is recently bereaved, overweight and works in a friend’s chicken store. (Writing for The London Magazine, I have to point out that what these people need is a reputable lettings agent.)

In the interaction between these characters Skinner deals with pretty much every taboo of polite conversation and gets great laughs out of them all. Never talk about religion? Rose is a believer and happy to proselytize. She has proof fairies exist, oh, and dwarves as well. Sex and death? The cynicism and romance of casual encounters and falling in love cross over hilariously. Meanwhile Tim mourning his grandmother becomes grotesquely hilarious as her ashes are used to great comic effect. There is politics as well: Mark is surprised to learn people still ‘do’ feminism, and of course there is talk of property, that very London obsession.

With this comic potential the show has plenty of laugh out loud moments but as you might predict with humour this dark, it sometimes crosses a line. Where this lies is personal and, partly, the point of such black comedy. A loose grip on reality is often endearing but as this becomes dangerous it is disturbing. The women in the play debasing and mutilating themselves are dealt with ironically, but also horrifically. A long scene of oral sex, where the lights are cleverly raised, makes watching fellow audience members frankly more entertaining than what is happening on stage.

Yet all the cast show great skill in treading the fine line between humour and bad taste. It is impossible to say who gets the most laughs – there are so many of them. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Mark is revolting – as smooth as they come and too clever for his own good. It takes real talent to turn an audience off a character that quickly! John Cummins’ Tim is utterly charming. He is a sensitive soul who is lost but still sees further than most. The women have slightly meatier roles, allowing Sinead Matthews and Alison O’Donnell to shine – their disappointments in love are moving as well as hilarious. The cast are clearly confident in the hands of director Polly Findlay. This is all heady, heavy stuff and the bold traverse design from Hannah Clark makes for an intimate, yet potentially intimidating space.

The journey our intrepid Londoners take is one worth making with them. Eigengrau is the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness, a kind of grey that the optic nerve generates. There is plenty of blindness in the play. As the characters grope around, it becomes clear they aren’t going to find happiness through money or causes but need to search within themselves. Politics or success won’t help them but maybe, through fantasy at least, they will be able to laugh along the way.

Until 10 April 2010

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 16 March 2010 for The London Magazine

“Love Never Dies” at the Adelphi Theatre

When a theatre’s bar staff wear waistcoats embroidered with the show’s name, it seems pretty clear that the producers are hoping for a limitless run. No question, then, that Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to the phenomenally successful Phantom of the Opera, represents a major investment. A lot rests on it and the critics know this. More vitally, so does the audience. Before curtain up, there is a palpable sense of expectation in the auditorium, and, perhaps unusually, a wish that all should go well. This is a crowd eager to enjoy itself and, I am pleased to report, it gets what it wants.

Love Never Dies takes place a decade after Phantom and has been 20 years in the making. Maybe the world is more complicated now, certainly this show is more nuanced than its predecessor. The book, by Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, does not simply replicate the story we already know, although many of the dramatic devices common to musicals are present: a theatrical setting (moved from the Paris Opera to a show on Coney Island), a battle for the love of a beautiful woman and even a prologue that sets the scene for tragedy. Lloyd Webber knows his trade, and these are all highly effective crowd pleasers.

The fairytale romance of Christine and Raoul has turned sour; indeed it was never as perfect as we were led to believe. No longer an isolated genius, the Phantom is now a successful impresario. He blindly relies on the devotion of his followers from Paris, Madame and Meg Giry. These roles demand a great deal from the cast – there are no pantomime villains here or Disney heroics.

The devotion of the Girys may seem inexplicable, but Liz Robertson and Summer Strallen convince. Raoul is now a drunken gambler but Joseph Millson manages to convey the charm his character once had.  Sierra Boggess’s Christine is torn between the commitment she has to her family and the passion for her art and former tutor. Here we have the biggest change. Ramin Karimloo’s portrayal of the lead may be thought too likeable – less phantom, more friendly ghost, but while some tension is sacrificed, it is more than compensated for with an emotional pay off. The Phantom is human and has dreams of being loved.

This is to leave the best until last – Lloyd Webber’s typically strong score. His characteristic eclecticism moves from vaudeville numbers to a haunting child role reminiscent of Britten. The predominant note is a Romantic one, with wonderful strings and bold orchestration. Music and production alike are confident and assured – this is a surprisingly intimate West End musical with a series of close-up scenes.

Cleverly, the anticipation surrounding Love Never Dies is put to good use. As Meg worries about her performance, her colleagues predict that her audience will applaud before her song is through – a prophecy happily fulfilled before Karimloo’s fantastic opening number is completed. The plot hinges on whether Christine, contracted to sing by the Phantom, will perform for him. The result is a grand theatrical moment reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma returning to a film set or Evita stepping out onto her balcony. As Boggess performs the title in impressive operatic style, the audience becomes part of the drama – participants in the play itself as her rapturous reception on Coney Island is replicated in London’s Adelphi.

Combine this score with such an accomplished cast and you have a winning formula. Add superb production values and you hit the jackpot.  Jon Driscoll’s video projections are breathtaking. Wonderful art nouveau sets and costumes by Bob Crowley are used with surprising restraint as director Jack O’Brien focuses attention on a story and emotions that are potent enough. This is a production all involved in should be proud of and attendance for Londoners should be compulsory. Let’s hope those waistcoats have plenty of wear in them…

www.loveneverdies.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 11 March 2010 for The London Magazine