Tag Archives: Dominic Cooke

“Follies” at the National Theatre

This lavish production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical is a triumph for director Dominic Cooke. This is a piece that divides opinion. While its songs have gained fame, the rambling story of past lives, set around a reunion of former Broadway performers, has too slender a book by James Goldman. But in Cooke’s hands this feast of melancholic nostalgia is coherent and compelling. With no small help from the Olivier’s revolve, a static story is made to at least feel dynamic. The tone is serious, suitably so, with any camp fiercely controlled. The cast is huge, the orchestra lush and Vicki Mortimer’s design will surely garner her an award for the costumes alone. The ‘ghosts’ of lives past appear with a gorgeous array of headgear, while the late 1960s costumes of those meeting one last time before a theatre is demolished are just as meticulous and impressive.

Imelda Staunton as playing Sally and Janie Dee as Phyllis

Follies provides the irony of performers at the top of their game pretending that their careers are over. Imelda Staunton continues her reign as Queen of Musicals by playing Sally and is matched by Janie Dee as Phyllis. The women performed and dated together but have ended up in sad marriages with the wrong men. Sharing their unhappiness are the husbands, Ben and Buddy, brilliantly performed by Philip Quast and Peter Forbes respectively. The women have the stronger numbers. Staunton delivers the hit Losing My Mind impeccably and her hysterical devotion to the man who got away manages against all odds to be convincing. Dee is the wicked witch of the piece, getting the laughs and showing the emptiness of her character’s successful life with pathos. But of all the mid-to-late-life crisis on offer here (and there’s plenty of it) Phyllis is the only one that entertains. There’s young talent in the show, too: Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig both do well as the immature versions of the men but, while Zizi Strallen and Alex Young ably perform their roles as the younger women, the parts themselves are frustratingly thinly written.

Zizi Strallen as Young Phyllis, Alex Young as Young Sally, Fred Haig as Young Buddy and Adam Rhys-Charles as Young Ben

Given its size, Follies is a major investment to stage – a concert production was my only experience so expectations were high. To say this isn’t Sondheim’s best work still makes it head and shoulders above most musicals. But some of the lyrics are strangely flat and a couple of numbers, which take us back the early days of Broadway, of primarily academic interest. It’s the book that causes most problems – much of the show is a series of introductions – that fail to excite – about characters not met again. It’s a poor build up to a prolonged conclusion – the central quartet’s individual “follies” numbers that feel like ground already trodden. The stakes simply aren’t high enough to truly engage and the characters’ angst start to look like whinging. Musicals can cover serious topics – nobody proves that better than Sondheim – but here we just have a collection of personal crises that ends up dispiriting.

Until 3 January 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the National Theatre

Part of August Wilson’s decathlon of plays about race relations in America, this 1982 work is set in a 1920s Chicago recording studio. While the titular diva, known as the mother of the blues, fights with her manager and producer over adapting her signature song into a modern jazz style, her backing band’s members reveal personal and political tensions of their own.

It could be heavy stuff. Yet, by setting up plenty of laughs and endearing characters, Wilson’s play is hugely entertaining. Most impressively, by showing how racism infuses – indeed poisons – lives, the politics here are as emotive as they are educational. The segregated society the play is based in takes some getting your head around – the gap between races so fundamental – but showing how the players take it for granted has a humbling effect.

If the play has a failing, it’s that you can’t – and don’t – get enough of Ma Rainey. A flaw compounded by the fact that the excellent Sharon D Clarke takes the role. Written relatively thinly, the motivation behind her often-amusing artistic temperament is portrayed confidently and certainly makes you think. But with a voice this strong, it seems downright foolish not to get more music out of Clarke.

Impeccably directed by Dominic Cooke, Ultz’s design creates a sound booth aloft and a basement room that the band rehearses in. The feeling is sparse, almost wasteful given the size of the Lyttleton stage, but the claustrophobia is fitting enough. In a narrow space a quartet of excellent performers carefully reveal frequently harrowing stories from the boys in the band.

O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati
O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati

Giles Terera and Clint Dyer make a great double act as long-standing friends who play together. O-T Fagbenle has the star part as Levee, a talented, troubled and ambitious youngster, who embodies the power of new music – jazz. A tough call, we have to take Levee seriously while laughing at him quite a bit and Fagbenle manages this balance well, skillfully revealing the character’s tragic background. Lucian Msamati’s philosophising Toledo wants to open the eyes of his illiterate colleagues. Exquisitely delivering the most didactic of lines, he deserves our applause – our affection for him paying off with the play’s startling, tragic, conclusion. The impact and legacy of racism is clear here, making the play still frighteningly apposite.

Until 18 May 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Teddy Ferrara” at the Donmar Warehouse

Contemporary American campus politics drive Christopher Shinn’s play, which sees the suicide of a gay student appropriated by college interest groups for their own ends. This university life is disorientating in its modernity and, for a serious, emotive topic, engenders a curiously cold work.

A crew of bland and earnest characters talk at, rather than to, one another. Debate infiltrates their personal lives, fuelled by self-obsession. Although the performances, strictly controlled by director Dominic Cooke, are fine, the cast struggles to leave impressions: the jock and his girlfriend, the guy in the wheelchair, the radical black professor – we get the point that diversity brings challenges. Shinn pokes fun rather than saying anything new.

Ryan McParland (Teddy) in Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse - photo by Manuel Harlan
Ryan McParland

Luke Newbury, in the lead role of Gabe, who occasionally expresses contrary opinions, provides the most appealing character. And Ryan McParland is impressive as the awkward titular character, bullied and living out his fantasies online. But the only roles that really stimulate are the college president with bigger ambitions – a nice comic job for Matthew Marsh ­– and a “controlling” student journalist, played by Oliver Johnstone, who provides the majority of tension in the play.

While the plot of Teddy Ferrara is a touch predictable and the sexual politics presented too bluntly, the way people currently communicate is cleverly revealed: there’s a lot of broadcasting and not enough conversation. As Gabe says, “the texting never stops” and nor do political slogans or buzzwords – “micro-aggression” was a new one for me.

Oliver Johnstone (Drew) and Luke Newberry (Gabe) in Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse - photo by Manuel Harlan
Oliver Johnstone and Luke Newberry

The dialogue consists of an uncomfortable, often amusing, mix of cliché and jargon, teen vlog and academic journal. This is particularly noticeable in scenes of romance – for a play so much about sexuality, Teddy Ferrara takes pains to be unerotic. Everything the characters say sounds familiar, whether through social media or web cams, the committee room or a speech, self-help books or pornography.

Christopher Imbrosciano (Jay), Griffyn Gilligan (Jaq), Oliver Johnstone (Drew) and Matthew Marsh (President) in Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse - photo by Manuel Harlan

A memorial for Teddy, who none of the characters knew, leads to a clever conclusion. The remembrance silence, when everyone at last shuts up, makes for the most eloquent moment of the evening.

Until 5 December 2015

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Low Road” at the Royal Court

The Low Road, a new play by Bruce Norris, is Dominic Cooke’s final production as Artistic Director of The Royal Court. It follows a long tradition at the theatre, but particularly under Cooke, of challenging new writing. Masterfully directed, with a joyous rebelliousness, as exemplified by Tom Pye’s freewheeling set design, the focus is nevertheless on the writer, and his startling text.

Norris’ last play, also for the Royal Court, was the smash hit Clybourne Park, a satire on racism and property. For The Low Road he takes economics as his subject, and more specifically Adam Smith, of The Wealth of Nations fame. The play examines the 18th century philosopher’s ideas, recounted as a fable about one Jim Trumpett: “his education, his progress and his eventual undoing”.

Smith himself appears as our narrator, played by Bill Paterson. His performance is hilarious and he’s in total command of the stage, which is appropriate given the manner in which Smith propounds his philosophy. Trumpett (played by Johnny Flynn) is a character who is inspired by Smith’s ideals and takes them to their extremes. Flynn is impressive as a Hogarthian villain who treats all the other characters in the piece appallingly. And there are plenty of them. The Low Road features a huge cast, taking on numerous roles with magnificent speed. Elizabeth Berrington in particular, who plays several female leads, has superb comic skills.

The highlight of the show is a magnificent scene resembling the last supper, in which Trumpett turns on a hospitable religious group – challenging the charity he himself has benefited from, with breathtaking tastelessness. Trumpett’s morality of the markets, in which taxation is seen as the only evil, sees him clash with wealthy civil society too. And protestors, past and present also feature (a scene at an economic forum that rewards less than it should). It all culminates in an epilogue so startling, it’s a little alienating. There are also some knowing references to the fact that some might doubt the theatre is the best forum for a debate to resolve the nature of capitalism.

The play has a showy intelligence, and is technically brilliant, with olde English dialogue full of wit and profanities to get the giggles in. It has an embarrassment of rich ideas, and if at times it overreaches, it still cannot fail to impress. Norris’ exegesis of economics is tremendous, his presentation respects the audience’s intelligence, and the imagination applied to Smith’s metaphors is ingenious.

Until 11 May 2013

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 28 March 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Comedy of Errors” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s winter show is one of those twins-separated-at-birth affairs so adored by Elizabethan audiences. Staged by director Dominic Cooke as a light farce, this is a fast, funny and accessible production of The Comedy of Errors. It is Cooke’s first show at the National, and he may have taken tips from the previous comedy smash One Man, Two Guvnors: his staging is full of invention and wit, and packed with laughs, from the troubadour-style Chorus to Ayckbourn-like entrances and exits.

The big star is Lenny Henry. After his Olivier award-winning Shakespearean debut last year in Othello, this performance has been much anticipated and it’s a pleasure to praise it. Henry has great charm and, even more impressively, a stubborn will not to upstage the rest of the cast. One suspects he might do so easily, but the production benefits from his restraint. His Antipholus of Syracuse, played with an African lilt, has a touch of the naive as he encounters those living in the big city of Ephesus, his superstitions and bewilderment causing ever-increasing amusement.

Henry is joined by some strong comic talent that gets behind Cooke’s sense of fun for the show. The second set of twins, the servants Dromios, are marvellously played by Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser in matching Arsenal FC shirts. As well as a fine cameo from Amit Shah, the standout performances come from Claudie Blakely and Michelle Terry as TOWIE-inspired wife and sister, working quite ridiculous shoes, stupidly large hand bags and estuary accents to great effect.

The Comedy of Errors is a modern multi-cultural melange and I suspect we will see more like it throughout 2012. By the end of next year’s World Shakespeare Festival it will probably become rather tiring. But Cooke is way ahead of the game. This show also seems blissfully unaware of any recession, with Bunny Christie’s impressive set surely busting the budget – but isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Until 1 April 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 2 December 2011 for The London Magazine

“Chicken Soup with Barley” at the Royal Court Theatre

First performed at the Royal Court in 1958, Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley is the story of Sarah Kahn, a dedicated East End communist, and her struggle against capitalism. Director Dominic Cooke’s revival of this state-of-the-nation period piece does justice to Wesker’s ability to unite the political with the personal.

The play opens on the day of the Battle of Cable Street, on 4 October 1936, and the characters’ enthusiasm for rioting seems strangely quaint. When Sarah reaches for the rolling pin it gets a laugh and handing a Communist flag to her husband, telling him to “do something useful,” takes on a delicious irony.

Chicken Soup with Barley is a convincing family drama. Sarah’s husband Harry’s lack of political involvement is only the start of their marital problems. In these roles, Samantha Spiro and Danny Webb give tremendous performances. As the story spans three decades, the actors have plenty of opportunity to show off their technical prowess (Spiro has done this before – she seems capable of playing any age). But what really impresses is the close emotional bond one can sense, despite their cruelty to one another.

The arguments between the couple, including the fight for a socialist future, take their toll on their children. Here are two fine professional debuts, with Jenna Augen as Ada establishing her character’s complexity with impressive speed, and Tom Rosenthal as Ronnie providing a moving and astute performance.

Hindsight might make rebellion against their mother’s ideas seem predictable, but it is Cooke’s masterstroke to open up this division and make it so emotional. In a production that often feels rushed, time is taken to remind us of Ada’s absence, while Ronnie’s rejection of the ‘Party’ has apathy at its core. And that makes the themes in Chicken Soup with Barley seem relevant today. Londoners still protest, but our riots are reactionary not revolutionary. Fortunately for Cooke, the heart of Wesker’s political comment is engagement and a repeated desire to debate and act that becomes not just compelling drama but an important message that is clear and loud.

Until 16 July 2011

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by  Johan Persson

Written 13 June 2011 for The London Magazine

“Clybourne Park” at the Royal Court

Property is a London obsession, so American writer Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park – the story of a neighbourhood told through the development of one house – has the potential to strike a chord with the audience at the Royal Court.

The house in question is not, like so many in literature, a repository of values. Rather it is blank canvas that, in two different times, characters project their ideas onto. Act one is set in the 1950s with the house about to be sold to the area’s first black residents – cue debate.

Unfortunately, Norris’ vision of the 50s doesn’t ring true. Director Dominic Cooke fails to reign in the sense of parody and the cast (with the exception of Lorna Brown and Lucian Msamati) lose themselves in it. There are some beautiful asides, often taking place just inside the front door, but the forced politeness we are supposed to laugh at is unconvincing.

Act two moves to safer ground, and better things, in the present day. The house is about to be pulled down and two yuppies plan to build a new home on the site. The same actors appear for a community meeting (a more satisfying scenario for discussion) concerning what is now considered the black heritage of the area. Norris’ observation and dialogue is sharp, dark and entertaining, his wit rapacious and cruel.

The performances take off with Martin Freeman justly confident in his comic ability, Sophie Thompson and Sarah Goldberg positively shinning, and Brown and Msamati again wonderful. There are some awkward moments as a series of tasteless old jokes are recited, less to entertain than to test reactions in a contrived manner, but generally this comedy of (bad) manners works superbly well.

A subplot concerning a tragedy in the house becomes lost, making the concerns of the present day characters seem trivial, and the danger is that we start to lose interest in them. The connections between eras, potentially so rich, are not given enough space. Norris’ play, which has been well received in America, needs further development. As it stands, Clydbourne Park should never have been given planning permission.

Until 2 October 2010

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Written 3 September 2010 for The London Magazine