Tag Archives: Bryony Hannah

“Twilight Song” at the Park Theatre

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

Adam Garcia and Paul Higgins
Adam Garcia and Paul Higgins

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

Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross
Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross

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

Until 12 August 2017

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by Robert Workman

“The Children’s Hour” at the Comedy Theatre

At the interval of The Children’s Hour, I happened to overhear a young audience member’s confusion. “What is the scandal?” he asked. “Is it because they are lesbians?” It could be that accusing schoolteachers of being gay, the central plot of the play, is now so outmoded it doesn’t even make sense, or that the child is just expecting something more lurid. Either way the perplexity doesn’t bode well – and yet The Children’s Hour works and proves to be a terrific night out.

It is easy to guess why director Ian Rickson took the risk – The Children’s Hour  has great roles for women. And the stellar cast should all share top billing. Elisabeth Moss makes an assured West End debut playing one of the accused teachers, Martha, with convincing aggression. She looks only slightly less comfortable on stage than her colleague Karen, played by Keira Knightley. After her modest debut in last year’s The Misanthrope, Knightly is impressive, playing an ambitious woman whose life falls apart in the face of malicious gossip. At times, she is a commanding presence on the stage.

The legendary Ellen Burstyn gives a performance of quiet brilliance as the teacher’s self-righteous scourge; it’s her desperation to do ‘good’ that persuades her to believe her granddaughter Mary’s story, cribbed from a book the girls have been passing amongst themselves. Mary has overheard the women visiting each other’s rooms and seen things she can only whisper about, blackmailing others to follow her. It isn’t that the story is convincing – it’s the paranoia of the adults that gives it power. Bryony Hannah plays this “dark child” wonderfully. As an actress she has had plenty of practice playing adolescents, and it’s paid off with an uncannily convincing performance of thrilling intensity.

Hannah’s performance is very much in keeping with Rickson’s strategy for The Children’s Hour. His direction wrenches every bit of tension from the text and he is aided by Mark Thompson’s austere set design and music from Stephen Warbeck. Lancet, New England, is a frigid place – probably close to Salem I’d guess – and Hellman, like her close contemporary Arthur Miller, is very much concerned with witch hunts.

While The Children’s Hour is an unsettling portrayal of how a sexual minority was treated in 1930s America, gay rights are really just a foil for larger concerns about the dangers of righteousness. In opening up her play to this larger issue, Hellman guaranteed its relevance for the future. Rickson and his cast get the benefits of good old-fashioned writing along with a foresight that makes this play carry considerable weight today.

Until 7 May 2011

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 10 February 2011 for The London Magazine

“Earthquakes in London” at the National Theatre

Of the several excellent productions this summer from the Headlong Theatre Company, none has created quite the buzz of Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium.

Headlong’s star director Rupert Goold takes charge. While Broadway gave his production of Enron a drubbing, London loves Goold – and rightly so. A director of great style, his bag of theatrical tricks belies a precise hand adept at delivering unforgettable shows. Goold brings all his invention and courage to Earthquakes in London. He has to – Mike Bartlett’s play could easily have seemed unstageable.

Creating a time-travelling story of environmental apocalypse, Bartlett flirts with the past and future, but his play is really about the present – a condemning vision of our apathy and arrogance. Unashamedly political, if occasionally obtuse, the passion displayed is admirable. Akin to the National’s production of Rattigan’s After the Dance, the question that frustrates and angers is how society can carry on the party in the face of catastrophe.

Bartlett’s uncanny gift for characterisation shows his skill as a writer. While the wry observations on modern life are sometimes predictable, they can seldom be argued with and if the scope of his ambition doesn’t always pay off, his emotional insight creates a recognisable world of believable people.

Lia Williams is brilliant as Sarah, a newly appointed Lib Dem minister struggling with the conflict between her ideals and power. Lia has brought up her sisters: Jasmine (Jessica Raine) has ended up as a “natural disaster”, angry as only a post baby boomer can be, while heavily pregnant Freya (Anna Madeley) is given a haunting depiction that matches this harrowing role.

A massive cast live their lives around these women. Even their husbands, both men in crisis and played wonderfully by Tom Goodman-Hill and Geoffrey Streatfield fail to connect with them. Their father Robert (Bill Patterson) is a prophet whose vision of the future removes him from his family and provides this bleak play’s most exigent moments. Always surprising, Earthquakes in London is an epic with the most unusual hero as Bryony Hannah excels in two roles that show her enviable versatility.

But the stars of the show are designer Miriam Buether and the technical team at the National Theatre. Transforming the Cottesloe to an unprecedented extent makes the night exciting from the start. Performing amongst the crowd and in two pillbox stages at either end allows the breakneck speed required. It provides memorable tableaux and builds up connections that add further to an already rich work. The evening is often overwhelming, but it is never confusing. This is compulsive viewing that will run amok in the mind for a long time to come.

Until 22 September 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 August 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