“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

“Moonfleece” at Rich Mix

When Polonius introduces the players to Hamlet, he describes their talents in a variety of genres – “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical” and so on. Similarly when Zak, the street artist storyteller in Philip Ridley’s new play Moonfleece, is introduced it is as someone who can convey “Fantasy. Thriller. Thriller-fantasy. Comedy-weepie-fantasy”.  Ridley knows all these ingredients should be present in a good story – and they certainly are in this one. It is almost as if he has taken inspiration from the venue that hosts this new premiere and created a Rich Mix indeed.

The setting is not Elisinore but East London. Not a castle but a derelict tower block. Again, Rich Mix, as Shoreditch’s new arts venue based in a converted leather factory, seems appropriate. Of course every Englishman’s home is his castle and Curtis, played by Sean Verey, has taken this truism to heart. Returning to his childhood flat, he is quick to point it out to the squatter that he finds there.

It seems this is to be a political play. Curtis is stepson to a potentially powerful right-wing politician. In attendance are his goons, Gavin and Tommy, Ashley George and Bradley Taylor respectively. All dressed in smart, slightly too tight suits, they are making an effort to look and behave respectably. Tommy has the frustrating job of keeping Gavin in line; motivated more by his friendship with Curtis his character has more depth, but both these thugs are distinctly unlikeable.  Their ignorance makes them an easy target for humour. Not that the threat of right-wing politics that Ridley observes isn’t real, while his characters are predictably moronic enough to be the butt of jokes, Ridley understands the power of such hateful politicians comes from the stories that they tell people.

It’s stories again. Curtis has come home because he is haunted by a story from his past. Into the action enters his former girlfriend Sarah. In this role Emily Plumtree shows a convincing repulsion for the fascist her old childhood sweetheart has become, but also sees past the politics to his pain.  For reinforcement she brings her friends. Alex, played with great energy by Krupa Pattani, and would-be journalist and activist Jez (David Ames), who could easily have walked off the Shoreditch streets with his perfectly pitched cool attitude. Central to the task at hand is Nina, a child librarian-come-psychic who is about to conduct a séance at Curtis’ request.

Sian Robins-Grace plays Nina with great charm and she skilfully holds this strange band of eccentrics together for the gripping events. During the séance, Sean Verey’s performance becomes increasingly impressive as tension mounts and then deeply moving as Robins-Grace coaxes Zak into telling the final part of the story.

A late arrival on the rather densely populated stage is Zak (Beru Tessema), who has a captivating energy. Constrained by a promise not reveal events, he constructs a story to explain what has happened. Given plenty of clues, the audience may guess the outcome but the journey itself is worthwhile. As one of the characters remarks, this isn’t the stuff of Disney, but for all the fantasy and bizarre, surreal content, this tale is a way to the truth. Painful for both his character and his audience Zak’s narrative seems to embody the role of the playwright. Like the rest of this play his speech is wonderfully written.  Moonfleece is a dark and disturbing, yet strangely magical fairytale for our times.

Until 13 March 2010

www.richmix.org.uk

Written 4 March 2010 for The London Magazine

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Rose Theatre Kingston

Peter Hall and Judi Dench first worked together on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1962. In 1969 they filmed another, different production. Now they are working together again at Kingston’s Rose Theatre. But is reunion the right word to describe this much anticipated theatrical event? It is more pleasing to think of these great artists as demonstrating one of the joys of theatre – its constant reinvention and development, the work they have accomplished over the years bringing us closer and deeper to a text they have engaged with so many times before.

Having played the same character for nearly 50 years, some kind of conceit might be thought necessary for Dench to revive the role of Titiana, especially given that in the past she has portrayed the role in a startlingly sensual manner. So, in a crowd-pleasing masterstroke, this Queen of the Fairies becomes Old Queen Bess herself. As she makes her entrance before a word of the play is spoken, we are reminded that the play was first performed before Elizabeth I. Dressed in sumptuous costumes by Elizabeth Bury, Dench looks just like everyone’s mental image from all those wonderful portraits – or at least her Oscar-winning film depiction. Costumed as the virgin Queen throughout, her Oberon, Charles Edwards, has matinee idol looks and reminds us of one of the younger courtiers Elizabeth flirted with, sometimes dangerously, in her later years.

Oberon and Titania’s relationship brings out some of the melancholy present in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – it is very much a play about the passing of time. For humour, the production is blessed with a wonderful performance from Oliver Chris. While it is difficult not to get some laughs from one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic roles, his Bottom (see how easy it can be) is really toned. He shows restraint in not prolonging the jokes, works very well with his Thisbe, and has a physicality that means he can even get the laughs when his impressive ass’s head is hiding his face.

Dench and Chris are not alone in making this production hugely entertaining. The pairs of lovers, Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius are all played well by Rachel Stirling, Annabel Scholey, Tam Williams and Ben Mansfield. An extremely good-looking bunch, each manages to differentiate their role clearly and speak wonderfully. It is difficult not to view these actors as somewhat in competition – maybe that gives the edge to the boys’ fantastic bravado in a great excuse for a fight scene. All four work hard, although Stirling takes the prize. Her distress at their behaviour seems delightfully genuine and the anger towards her one-time friend deliciously bitchy.

Peter Hall places the production entirely in its Elizabethan context. Bottom is an Elizabethan workman, in awe of his Queen but confident in his own opinions, the Lovers remind us of those Hilliard miniatures, caught in a summer of England’s Golden Age. This consistency is delightful and only let down by some small instances.  Playing Theseus as an English country duke, Julian Wadham possesses so little authority he seems simply dull and his Queen somewhat bored.  The local mechanicals are predictably cast (this group seems condemned to come from Birmingham in whatever production is staged).

These are small points given the quality of production that is presented here. Whether or not they are inspired by their leading lady, this cast excels at speaking Shakespeare in a clear and fresh manner. The direction has a warranted confidence that means you can just sit back and enjoy. The Rose has an undoubted and well deserved success on its hands that, with any luck, will turn around the fortunes of this wonderful new theatre.

Until 20 March 2010

www.rosetheatrekingston.org

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 19 February 2010 for The London Magazine

“Dunsinane” at the Hampstead Theatre

By the final scene of Macbeth, the tyrant is dead, justice is served and the witches’ prophecy fulfilled. So what happens next? Leaping at the topicality of an occupying English army, David Greig’s sequal, Dunisane, asks questions that seem relevant to our time.

There are some surprises, but the plot is deliberately familiar. The occupying force professes the noblest of intentions, to bring peace and stability to a fractured country, underneath the motive of security for their homeland. But the exit strategy goes wrong, the local culture is misunderstood and the battle for hearts and minds lost.

More specifically, as befits the interests of a playwright, this is a battle of language. The words politicians use conflict with the soldier’s vocabulary. The Scots struggle with the English tongue and use the English’s ignorance of Gaelic against them. The occupiers fail to see the poetry in the situation – the drama of revenge or the tragedy of loss, which Greig’s language artfully struggles to convey.

This is best seen in Sam Swann’s role of a boy soldier who recites the letters he writes home to his mother. Leaving aside the idea of an infantry man of the time writing at all, let alone with such a contemporary tone, the writing has an authenticity that works wonderfully in dramatic terms.

This boy soldier is also an essential foil for the more central characters. Greig has set himself the ambitious task of creating roles that would not seem out of place on a Shakespearean stage – the kind of roles that have a life of their own.  He is fortunate to have a cast that also embraces this challenge.

Jonny Phillips plays Siward, the English commander in charge of the occupation. His problem is that he is a good man and Phillips does a superb job in displaying this nobility alongside making his character a true man of action.  Holding true to his convictions to the point of mania, he is outwitted at most turns by the Scots.

Brian Ferguson’s Malcolm is the King established by the English. The consummate politician in many ways, although his deadpan admissions of selfishness raise a laugh, it is he who truly understands the workings of power.

Just as politic but with far more passion is Siobhan Redmond’s Gruach. She embodies this royal role with dignity but also an eye to the vulnerability of her position, playful in her sexuality and willing to manipulate her reputation. Redmond also adds a conviction about her character’s culture that the long removed Malcolm can only play at. She shares touching moments with Siwald as both characters have lost children. Gruach is reunited with the body of hers in one of those deeply moving yet grotesque moments that seems very Shakespearean and which Redmond manages to pull off.

The first of the RSC’s forays into the Hampstead Theatre, it is no surprise to see those trademark crowd scenes the RSC does so well. No surprise, but it’s no small achievement nonetheless. Roxanna Silbert directs her cast to make numbers appear huge and has clearly imbued a sense of camaraderie in this company appropriate to a military drama.  For while political commentary is present, above this, Dunisane is a good story, well produced. What happens after Macbeth? Plenty. It seems that his death is just the beginning.

Until 6 March 2010

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 18 February 2010 for The London Magazine

“Serenading Louie” at the Donmar Warehouse

Landford Wilson isn’t a well-known playwright in the UK but he is an extremely successful and noted figure in his native US.  He has received many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and his critical reputation lies in being one of the founding members of the Circle Repertory Company in New York.  The Donmar’s revival of Serenading Louie gives London audiences a chance of exposure to his work.

The play is the simple story of two, thirty something, couples and the problems in their marriages. Successful lawyer Alex is about to move into politics but is bored with his neurotic wife Gabrielle.  His old college friend and football superstar Carl has become a millionaire property developer who still adores his wife Mary yet becomes aware that she is having an affair.

If this sounds like a mildly interesting soap opera, be warned  – it isn’t.  It isn’t soap opera because its intentions are far too serious and its characters far too well developed. Unfortunately, it also isn’t very interesting.

In a quiet, subtle way this is very much a state of the nation address. Wilson wants us to examine the state of his country – the ambitions and aspirations of its citizens and the nature of their isolated claustrophobic lives.  Written in 1970, its characters have missed most of the sixties counter culture and feel baffled by those not much younger than themselves.  Their wealthy suburban lives are relatively untouched by the changes in America and Wilson successfully conveys a general anxiety about the unknown.  Having worked hard, this generation can’t even find solace in reminiscing about their youth – it is not just the present that disappoints them. Many of these observations are still valid and the play is interesting in terms of its historical content but it is difficult to get too passionate about events in Middle America forty years ago.

The strength of Wilson’s writing comes when he deals with character.  We get to know his quartet inside out in a rigorous psychological examination that is intense, beautifully written but also vaguely unpleasant. Charlotte Emmerson as Gabrielle is genuinely annoying in her opening scene and this is meant as a great compliment – her voice really is like finger nails on a blackboard.  Her husband’s complaints seem understandable until we get to know him better.  Alex, played by Jason Butler Harner, masks his lack of direction with a vague social conscience but he is lost man and breaks down as the play progresses.  Jason O’Mara plays his friend Carl.  Also on the edge, his character’s explosive emotions are the plays highlight and lead to its startling traumatic conclusion.  Geraldine Somerville is wonderful as his wife; sleek, sexy and icy cold, she has her husband and life in the palm of her hand but just doesn’t know what to do next.  These are the kind of roles that actors love but it seems that those playing them like them a great deal more than the audience.  All four are so self-obsessed and unlikeable that it is hard to be interested in what happens to them.

There is much about this play to commend it and plenty about this production that excels.  Peter McKintosh’s period set is great – the detail wonderful and the temptation to lapse into kitsch restrained.  Simon Curtis directs the piece with a similarly talented eye to period and manoeuvres his cast skilfully as the one set serves for both couples’ homes.  They come and go, leave their own homes and visit each other quite seamlessly until Wilson wants to shake us up and has characters talking to one another when they shouldn’t.  Similarly there are occasions when the cast address the audience.  Its clever stuff no doubt, but it isn’t entertaining.

Until 27 March 2010

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 17 February 2010 for The London Magazine

“Breathing Irregular” at the Gate Theatre

Medicine makes good drama – a glance at the television schedules makes that clear. Director Carrie Cracknell knows this too, and has used genuine emergency services transcripts to devise Breathing Irregular. The result is a powerful and deeply moving 40-minute show that offers a fresh take on what happens when we dial 999.

Choreographed by Jane Mason, the piece uses dance to interpret the actions and emotions of those in danger and those who discover them while waiting for help to arrive. The shock and tension, and the balance between fear and the desperate need to stay calm, are embodied in a sequence of falling and running movements along with fleeting moments of contact. Random stories interact with the dance and interweave with an evocative score from Tom Mills and singing from Mary Erskine.

Conversations from the emergency services are re-enacted by a versatile cast that takes turn to play those making and those answering these all-important calls. The stories we hear are heartbreaking but life affirming, and the humanity and professionalism of the operators shines through.

Eva Magyar movingly plays a woman guided via telephone to give birth alone. Brendan Hughes conveys the shock of finding a neighbour with his arm cut off. Temitope Ajose-Cutting, who possesses an extraordinary physicality, is convincing as someone who watches her father have a stroke and strives to keep herself and her family calm. A superb Bryony Hannah gets to play both a mother desperate to save her child from a burning building and a child confused by his mother’s collapse.

Joining the transcripts at random moments frustrates our desire for narrative and reinforces the randomness of the events. Holly Waddington’s design is superb: ropes attach the stage to the ceiling and so the tilting floor appears suspended, capable of moving at the slightest breath; oxygen masks double up as telephones, enforcing the connection between those who seek help and that reiterated question to those on the scene, ‘is their breathing irregular?’

Time seems to act strangely in such dramatic circumstances. In a most touching scene the entire cast stands in line and faces the audience while waiting for an ambulance – staring out, they depict a visceral tension as they wait in total silence for a breathtaking duration. It was a poignant reminder of courage in adversity and the fragility of life.

Until 27 February 2010

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 3 February 2010 for The London Magazine