“Rope” at the Almeida Theatre

It is great to see a thriller on the stage – there simply aren’t enough around.  And, despite its philosophical underpinnings, Patrick Hamilton’s Rope is just that – a great thriller.

Director Roger Mitchell maintains suspense by dropping the interval and gets things off to a great start by opening in darkness, the stage occupied by two young men illuminated only by their cigarettes. The murder they have just committed, we learn, is the result of their plan to stage the perfect crime and assert their Nietzschean superiority.

But something is clearly wrong.  Granilo, played by Alex Waldmann, cannot stand to have the lamp switched on.  Throughout the evening that ensues, he can only play at being calm.  His shrill panic breaks through to add to the tension.

The college friend with whom he has concocted the plot, Wyndham Brandon, played by Blake Ritson with sinister appeal, seems to be more in charge.  To add spice to the plan it is decided to hold a party with the corpse still in the room, concealed in a chest.

Invited to this party are the victim’s friends and relations. Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Phoebe Waller-Bridge play a young couple who serve as the antithesis of Granilo and Brandon. They manage their parts with a carefree humour that adds to the pathos of the evening. Michael Elwyn plays the victim’s father and is deeply touching when learns of his son’s disappearance.

Also in attendance is Rupert Cadell, played by Bertie Carvel, a slightly senior college friend known for his intelligence and suspected of sympathising with the murderers’ perverse ideology. And Cadell is going to ruin the evening. Instantly suspicious of the theatrical atmosphere, he sets out to solve the mystery and entrap the killers. Clearly his morals are far stronger than his friends might have supposed.

Carvel carries the psychological depth of the piece, portraying a damaged man who nonetheless contains enormous empathy – for the murder victim of course, but also for the lost souls whose minds entertained the idea of killing in the first place. He also succeeds in the task of putting passion into the play. Mitchell avoids homosexual connotations between the murdering couple, as seen in previous productions and also Tom Kalin’s 1992 film.  This brings his production closer to the famous Hitchcock’s version.  The killers’ motive seems entirely academic, and it is left to Carvel to urgently explain to them the horror of what they have done.

Rope is the first production at The Almeida to be staged in the round – an impressive technical achievement enabling designer Mark Thompson to place the chest containing the murder victim as centrally as possible. However, the chest is clearly not the cassone referred to in the text. This becomes more of a problem as characters speculate that it looks like the kind of chest you would place a body in – it simply doesn’t.

Until 6 February 2009

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by John Haynes

Written 21 December 2009 for The London Magazine

“Sweet Charity” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

With a terrific blast of brass, the Menier Chocolate Factory’s prodcution of Sweet Charity announces to the audience that it is in for a great evening out.

Tamsin Outwaite plays the eponymous lead.  She gives an endearing and spirited performance as the New York tango ‘hostess’ who wears her heart on her sleeve and manages to stay a romantic against all the odds. It is a demanding role, which she manages with great energy and a broad grin throughout.

Mark Umbers revels in playing the men in her life. A film idol, who sees in Charity a sweet innocence his sophisticated lifestyle now lacks, and the neurotic Oscar, her unlikely knight in shining armour.  He is a superb comedic foil and takes on the contrasting roles with equal skill.

If stars have to be singled out, though, Charity’s colleagues in the tango hall give amazing performances.  Tiffany Graves and Josefina Gabrielle both move far beyond their ‘tart with a heart’ roles to give their characters real depth.  They deserve the great laughs they get and, most importantly, they both sing and dance wonderfully.

But nobody really steals this show. This is one of the strongest ensemble casts I have ever seen – every member works as hard as they possibly can and great credit goes to casting such a talented group. ‘Rhythm of Life’ is probably the best example; Oscar and Charity’s first date is a visit to a drug-fuelled ‘church’ and the ensemble performance as the spaced-out congregation is comic genius.

Underpinning all this talent are some fresh ideas that really bring the show to life.  Director Matthew White has not felt burdened by the film version. The show has plenty of camp appeal but following Neil Simon’s book, a certain sharp, candid edge. ‘Big Spender’, which the whole audience is really waiting for, is an hilarious revelation.  It is performed with a mock sensuality by women who are tired and bored – of course they are, they’re at work.

Choreography by Stephen Mear, who did fantastic work at Regent’s Park this summer, is similarly superb.  He has a great showcase in the ‘Rich Man’s Fugue’ number. The dance brings comedy to the fore and his movements show the strange position of the piece as a late 60s musical – falling between a big Broadway show and something rather more avant-garde. There are set pieces to be sure but Mear has looked as far and wide for inspiration, as the music and lyrics of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields did. The result might seem odd at times, a joyous musical that denies us a happy ending, but is always thrilling.

Until 7 March 2010

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 December 2009 for The London Magazine

“Nation” at the National Theatre

Terry Pratchett is one of the country’s most popular authors, with as good a claim as any to being a National Treasure.  A great story teller, full of engaging ideas, he is also very funny.  He is a writer often inspired by imagery, who creates bold, vivid pictures for his readers.  In short, a writer who offers great opportunities for a translation to the stage.

So it’s a baffling disappointment that Mark Ravenhill’s theatrical adaptation is so awful – it seems to perversely avoid all those factors which make Pratchett so successful. Ravenhill has reduced Pratchett’s ideas to the level of parody and made them so simplistic they seem pointless. He has taken away any sense of irony which leaves the work painfully unfunny.  Above all the adaptation is confusing.

Director Melly Still does little to clarify and has her cast running around and shouting quite indiscriminately, apparently just to make lots of noise. Caught in the middle of this adaptation and direction, the cast itself struggles to make any kind of mark.  Gary Carr plays Mau, the last of his people, and Emily Taaffe Daphne, a girl shipwrecked on his island.  Although both perform competently and the material is available for complex roles their journey of discovery fails to engage.

The rest of the large ensemble seldom manage to create distinct personas resulting in little dramatic impact. Given this lack of tension, it is no surprise that the production also has little emotional impact.  One scene, strongly reminiscent of Coram Boy, shows a newly born child in danger of starvation.  What could be poignant and challenging is too quickly resolved in a garbled manner involving the ridiculous milking of a wild boar. Both baby and boar are puppets and it is disappointing that after the success of the National Theatre’s War Horse these create such a poor effect.  With no emotional investment in these creations they are simply there for the spectacle.

Spectacle, the production does have in abundance.  Projection combines with ambitious sound and lighting to recreate, amongst other things, a tsunami.  However, simple mistakes have been made by Still, this time working alongside set designer Mark Friend.  Sightlines at the extreme left of the theatre are severely restricted – something very difficult to achieve in a space as well designed as the Olivier.

To save the worst until last, Adrian Sutton’s score is truly awful.  It seems to embody many of the production’s faults.  Adding nothing to the drama or pathos it is confusing and never rises above parody.  As the production draws to a close it slides into extreme sentimentality.

A defence for many of these decisions could be argued by claiming that this adaptation is essentially for children – but children’s theatre can and should challenge its audience.  It is a irony that nowhere knows this better than the National Theatre, given its superb record of previous productions. But like the rest of the audience, children here will learn little about the questions that surround the ideas in Nation.  With so many problems and mistakes, the dominant question becomes what on earth is going on at this Nation’s theatre.

Until 28 March 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 30 November 2009 for The London Magazine

“Mrs Klein” at the Almeida Theatre

Nicholas Wright’s play deals knowledgeably with the life of formidable psychoanalyst Melanie Klein and her prestigious contribution to her science.

The period atmosphere of 1930s intellectual émigrés is carefully evoked with touches of tender irony, alongside a playful knowledge of the layman’s prejudices used to great comic effect. There are many moments of laughter in a work that is often disturbingly dark – Klein’s personal tragedy is a heart-rending one.

The story opens with the death of her son, following which Klein presents herself as a capable woman still in control. Through the course of the play, through interaction with the only two other characters we meet, we see this denial deepen and have to encounter the horrid possibility that her son’s death was actually suicide.

These two other players are Klein’s daughter Melitta and impoverished emigrée Paula, both also psychoanalysts. They have a frank and yet fraught relationship with one another but that seems simple in contrast to their relations with Klein.

Zoe Waites plays Melitta. Having been psychoanalysed by her mother (a shocking practice common in the early days of the discipline) a superficial competence only briefly hides her damaged self. Waites shows the character’s frustration with a mother she simply cannot compete against. The cruelty she plots fails to satisfy her, her attempts at sophistication seem pathetic, and she often gesticulates like a child.

Nicola Walker’s Paula is a more complex character whose story unfolds as the play progresses.  Initially a diffident presence, we discover her ambition is to become a patient of the great Mrs Klein. As intimacy deepens, it seems the plan is to take the place of daughter. The final scene shows their first consultation – planned to prevent reconciliation between mother and birth daughter. Keen to show her academic credentials, Paula has some of the clunkiest lines but delivers them with great expression.

Both actresses are shadowed by a wonderful performance from Claire Higgins as Mrs Klein. Her presence on stage is truly commanding, as she moves us from laughter to deep sympathy – an achievement all the greater since her character itself is portrayed as being far from endearing. At turns brittle and domineering, she can also be vulnerable and fragile. Her one violent outburst is electrifying, and her final breakdown likely to bring you to tears.

Higgins should surely be nominated for her fourth Olivier award for making a truly wonderful night at the theatre.

Until 5 December 2009

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by John Haynes

Written 3 November 2009 for The London Magazine

“If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” at the Bush Theatre

Under the directorship of Josie Rourke, The Bush Theatre continues its tradition of strong new writing with Nick Payne’s play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.

A young girl, neglected by her well-meaning, busy parents, is befriended by her prodigal uncle. In a carefully crafted arc, her adolescence is charted from being bullied at school, through the first pains of love, to her shocking desperation and finally some kind of hope for the future.

The teenager in question is played with spirit by Ailish O’Connor, who perfectly captures these troubled years, switching from frustration to confusion. Even more impressive is her ability to reflect the wild mood swings anyone who knows teenagers will recognise.

For O’Connor’s character has some serious problems. Overweight and bullied at school, she and her parents fail to connect. Finding solace in her uncle proves a mistake, given the baggage he carries himself, and the inevitable meltdown is powerful. While our own perspectives may make some problems seem trivial – the teenage date or over-protective parent, for example – so empathetic is the writing that we accept the intensity of the characters’ feelings.

Which is to ignore, so far, the strongest aspect of Payne’s writing. Not only is it intelligent and humane, it is very, very funny. There are some great one liners, but more amusing still are those toe-curling scenes, such as when father and daughter eat together in their local curry house and it is hard to work out which one is hating it more.

The rest of the cast also revel in the strong script. Pandora Colin plays a mother trying to do her best for her daughter and at the end of her patience with her husband. Michael Begley plays the latter, so consumed by his studies into environmental disaster that he ignores what is going on on his doorstep. Perhaps Begley’s performance is tainted too much by caricature, which gets plenty of laughs but does less justice to the underlying humour Payne excels in. Rafe Spall is the erstwhile uncle, offensive and tactless, but not unintelligent.

Payne benefits from tight direction by Rourke and an ambitious set from Lucy Osborne but it is the maturity of the writing that is most memorable. Here we have an intelligent and entertaining platform for exploring the serious issues of how we live now.

Until 21 November 2009

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Written 26 October 2009 for The London Magazine

“Annie Get Your Gun” at the Young Vic

Annie Get Your Gun ranks for many as their desert island musical.  A sweet, sharp plot, with memorable characters who have great lines, but above all it has an amazing number of show-stopping songs.  It also contains the essential element necessary to make a musical work – fantasy.  In this case a rags to riches romance that famously deals with the business of show business itself.

Richard Jones’s new production, starring Jane Horrocks and Julian Ovenden, is a delight because it embraces this fantasy.  He correctly understands that Annie Oakley’s journey from the Wild West to Buffalo Bill’s world of show business are only part of the story. More interesting is the way her gun slinging talents and the background of the Wild West are presented.

The locals, portrayed by a strong ensemble cast, are suspicious of the touring actors arriving in their town, and they know the reputation they have as country bumpkins.  At the same time the performers, headed by Chucky Venn playing a powerful Buffalo Bill, are anxious to uphold the flash image that preceds them.

The music has a reputation of its own and key to this production is Jason Carr’s re-scoring of the Irving Berlin masterpieces for a quartet of pianists who sit at the front of the stage.  Carr, who has produced such wonders at the Menier Chocolate Factory, restores the music’s clarity and freshness.  Some might miss the orchestration at times, but the approach has great charm.

Characters are portrayed with broad strokes and it is no small achievement that the cast manage this so well while maintaining the audiences attention and involvement.

Julian Ovenden seems born to the role of Butler.  His matinee idol good looks are combined with that very old fashioned quality – charm.  This likeable combination is backed up with a wonderfully strong voice that is more than a match for Jane Horrocks who excels as Annie.

Playing a hillbilly tom-girl Horrocks shows a touching confusion at the lessons to be learned about life and love.   With great comic ability she shows Annie is not simply  naïve but more importantly instinctive – her opening song ‘Doin’ What comes Natur’lly’, pefectly embodies this.  Horrocks gets great laughs but also presents a confidence that has to adapt during the story to include tact.

A fantastic design from Ultz makes the productions footlights, where the pianists sit, dominant and the pillbox shape of the stage gives a clever flavour of cinemascope.  This is, afterall, all about putting on a show. Props are minimal with amusing cardboard Americana setting the scene.  Annie’s amazing gun skills are presented only to our imaginations with a witty tongue in cheek light and sound display.

Influenced by her adventures in show business Annie concludes that she must present herself as a failure in order to get her man. Throughout the show of course we have seen that this is not the case – whatever the (much disputed) order of billing on the Buffalo Bill show banner – as their duets show, Oakley and Butler, as well as Ovenden and Horrocks, are a great team.

Annie’s compromise may rile contemporary audiences.  It may simply baffle.  Yet while the sexual politics are dated the pride Butler can never overcome surely remains a common vice.  If you want to be clever you can note this productions wry commentary on the American Myth and machismo.  Or you could just simply enjoy yourself.

Until 9 January 2009

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 25 October 2009 for The London Magazine

“The Fastest Clock in the Universe” at the Hampstead Theatre

Part of Hampstead Theatre’s 50-year celebration series, the revival of Philip Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe hopes to rekindle the play’s success from its original run in 1992. Given that Ridley is concerned with pretty much all the basic human vices, this disturbing work has retained its power to haunt.

The scenario is distasteful enough. Cougar Glass (Alec Newman) lives off an adoring older man called Captain Took. Easily debilitated by the very mention of his age, each year Cougar celebrates his “19th” birthday by seducing a young schoolboy.

Cougar’s every action is arrogant, his only occupation to preserve his appearance. Fittingly, he spends half of the play in his underwear. Finbar Lynch is terrifying as the clearly unbalanced Took, old before his time and crippled with insecurity about his own appearance. Took dotes on Cougar as mother and housewife, rewarded by a brief hug as long as he agrees to wear rubber gloves.

So far, so strange. Ridley’s master stroke in the telling of this repulsive story is to create a bizarre world that is removed enough from our own to allow us to watch, but which, while exaggerating human nature, makes us recognise characters motivations and faults with great clarity. While references and inspirations from other playwrights are numerous, the spirit is predominately Dickensian. All these strangely named characters inhabit a dilapidated and corrupt East London and display their all too obvious flaws.

A Gothic sense of impending doom comes from the cruel game Cougar plays with his potential victim; he tells the young boy, Foxtrot Darling, that they share a recent bereavement.  As the deception increases and even Captain Took remonstrates with Cougar, we are introduced to our final character – Foxtrot’s unexpected pregnant fiancée Sherbert Gravel has invited herself along to the party as well.

Sherbert, played wonderfully by Jaime Winstone, is the highlight of the play. She brings out the black comedy in the work, alongside the potential for violence that she is finally (and shockingly) a victim to. Yet her barbed asides to Cougar do little to hide her own motivation – her protection of Foxtrot is more about saving herself than the dreary boy whose life she is planning to dominate.

While Winstone’s movement about the stage alone is something to behold – teetering on high heels that might be the death of her or that she might come to use as a weapon – the object of everyone’s affection does little to hold the audience’s attention. Neet Mohan as Darling may have the looks for the part but his vulnerability seems unconvincing. He bounds around the stage and stands on furniture in a manner that doesn’t match Foxtrot’s situation.

And yet the quality of the writing saves the evening.  The dialogue is rich, complex and direct. It is not pleasant but it fascinates. Revelling in his perversity, Cougar describes his guests as fellow cannibals and welcomes us all to the abattoir.

Until 17 October 2009

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 27 September 2009 for The London Magazine

“Judgement Day” at the Almeida Theatre

Odon von Horvath is probably only a household name at Christopher Hampton’s residence. The renowned playwright and translator clearly thinks that this should change. Having translated Von Horvath in the past and made him a character in his own play, Tales from the Vienna Woods, the Almeida now performs Hampton’s translation of a late work entitled Judgement Day.

The work is, on the face of things, a simple morality tale.

An unhappy railway stationmaster, distracted for moment by a pretty girl, is the cause of a disastrous accident.  Perjuring himself in court to escape punishment, the stationmaster becomes a local celebrity while his jealous wife, who states the truth, is made a pariah.  Coming to terms with his deceit has further, deadly consequences.

With a large cast that includes a flirtatious girl, her dimwitted boyfriend, the dutiful stationmaster, the spurned wife and malicious old gossips, all living in a small village, we might feel we are approaching twee territory.  However, these people have real passion and are portrayed realistically, so much so that even a supernatural presence in the final scene demands credence.

The script is fast moving and thought provoking.  Miriam Buether’s clever revolving stage serves as both platform and railway line. Furthermore, the cast is uniformly superb.  Notable is Laura Donnelly as Anna, the young girl confident in, and confused by, her sexual allure.  Tom Georgeson is highly effective as her blustering and devoted father.

The moral dilemma in the play suffices, but those who wish to can get their teeth into the thornier issue of how the play fits into its historical context.  Von Horvath fled Germany late in the day. Although not popular with authorities, he was around to observe National Socialism up until 1937.  The station master’s obsession with following orders can easily be seen as a comment on a society the author saw as increasingly incapable of thinking for itself.

Until 17 October 2009

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Keith Patterson

Written 13 September 2009 for The London Magazine

“Huis Clos” at the Southwark Playhouse

Philosophy is not full of one-liners and few of those one-liners pass into general currency. Sartre’s idea that ‘hell is other people’ is now commonplace and sees dramatic exploration in Huis Clos (translated here as No Way Out). Whether you either heartily agree or dismiss Sartre’s pessimism, in either instance a night at the theatre will probably not change your mind.

Sartre presents us with three incarcerated characters who discover that their hell is to be imprisoned with one another. As the play progresses, we learn why they have been condemned. An audience will either sympathise with the characters presented or find them too contrived to be believable. Actors presenting such characters need to tread a fine line, and the cast of the Southwark Playhouse’s production manages this tension pretty well.

Although Miguel Oyarzun’s strong accent takes some getting used to, he plays Garcin, editor of a radical newspaper, with an appropriately brittle machismo. Alexis Terry’s Estelle’s desperate sexual needs are less convincing, but her confused remorse about the murder of her child is moving. The highlight is Elisa De Grey who plays lesbian Ines with great physicality. Her confusion is palpable and manic.

In all instances however, the actors are hindered by Sartre’s out-of-date sexual politics and by a directorial concept that burdens the production.

Director Luke Kernaghan attempts to broaden Sartre’s concerns by making the work more political than the author intended, and he picks up and runs with the theme of torture. From Sartre’s original idea of a bourgeois group torturing themselves in a well-appointed sitting room, we are transferred to a sterile office that surprises characters anticipating the fiery inferno. More dramatic perhaps, and certainly timely, but a great deal less subtle and pointlessly forced.

Making this concept even more contrived, Kernaghan selects the period of Argentina’s desaparecidos and adds tango to the action. Tango was banned in Argentina during the 1970s because of its potential for public gatherings, and it was also played deafeningly loudly by authorities to hide the screams of those tortured.

The surreal atmosphere and good choreography from Kele Baker means that characters bursting into dance do not provoke laughter – but they don’t add much either. A further attempt at contemporaneity also fails. With a nod to our surveillance society, video footage of the characters is played back to them. Not only does the television contradict character’s frustration that they cannot see themselves in hell, the set itself is too small for the audience to see either.

This final shortcoming is surprising when so much thought about the venue has obviously been given. The Southwark Playhouse’s relatively new home may not actually be underground but it feels subterranean. Pictures of ‘the disappeared’ line the entrance and even the bar is designed to take us back to the 1970s.

During the production, apparently random noises from the trains overhead, which could be frustrating, add to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the context that has been forced upon the play fails to hold the attention. Rather than questioning whether hell really is other people, the trains made me think about the hell of commuting.

Until 12 September 2009.

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Marc Antoni Cifre

Written 23 August 2009 for The London Magazine

“The Importance of Being Earnest” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Director Irina Brown has said that she hopes her production of The Importance of being Earnest at Regent’s Park takes a fresh look at Wilde’s masterpiece.

Considering how well loved the work is, she may be in danger of offending but this risk is necessary.  When almost every epigram in the play seems to have been quoted on gift cards and the whole audience sits mouthing lines and nudging one another at what they recognise, something needs to be done.

Brown’s most notable effort is to make the play more physical.  With language as wonderful as Wilde’s it is all too easy to make his play static.  Instead, we have a slapstick fight between Dominic Tighe’s Algernon and Ryan Kiggell’s Jack over a cigarette case, their verbal jousting is matched a great physicality as they chase each other around.

Jo Herbert’s Gwendolen seems metallic in a wonderful costume that looks deliberately difficult to move in. Lucy Briggs Owen conveys a naïve sexuality in Cecily and is happy to flounce down on the ground when commanded to sit or whenever it suits her.

Movement also comes from the servants in the piece. Not only do we have both a memorable Lane and Merriman but also a cast of silent servants.  Like the audience, they watch and listen and in doing so bring us closer to the action, eavesdropping and acting out their own dramas as they respond to events or during an artful scene change.

In Brown’s efforts to make the play entertaining to the eye as well as the ear, she is aided by wonderful design from Kevin Knight. The actors have a great space to (quite literally) play in.  They have pretend flowers to pick, a miniature bridge to run up and down and even a dolls’ house to hide in.  A magnificent ramp might be treacherous in bad weather but, reminiscent of the old penguin house at London Zoo, it is a great comic touch.

Yet this is not just a question of our viewing the cast as if they were animals in a zoo.  As the production opens, a huge mirrored surface reflects the audience also.  The ensemble’s first action is to view the crowd.  Using glasses, binoculars and telescopes for a brief moment and taking advantage of the light conditions in an open-air theatre – we are on display.

Throughout the first act pretty much everyone checks themselves in this mirror, even if only to confirm their superiority – that everything is as it should be – of course, we cannot be sure that they also aren’t looking at us as well. Brown opens up this possibility along with many others.  This production makes us think about the class system at work within the play raises those eternal issues between the sexes.

It is surely telling that Cecily hides in her dolls’ house when her future is being discussed.  Most importantly, in emphasising Wilde’s observation of society and human nature, the source of his comedy is retained and enhanced.

All the laughs are still there, we just get to hear the jokes afresh.

Until 3 July 2009

www.openairtheatre.com

Written 10 July 2009 for The London Magazine