Tag Archives: Duke of York’s Theatre

“The Glass Menagerie” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

This is the best production of a Tennessee Williams play I’ve seen . Director John Tiffany brings out the text’s peculiar humour and pathos while exploring its status as the author’s first ‘memory play’. A superb cast responds with style to this trilogy of achievements.

The memory play was an idea Williams explored throughout his career. This original effort, with our hero Tom recalling his life with the mother and sister he abandoned, is raw with autobiographical guilt. It is also highly poetic. Respecting this lyricism is one of the production’s fortes, mostly secured by Michael Esper’s beautiful delivery, as well as suggestions of movement, mime and dance aided by a score from Nico Muhly.

Bob Crowley’s design also complements the elegiac air: an Escher-style fire escape and pools of water might sound artsy but are understated. The set is a dreamlike, darkened bubble without walls, yet the claustrophobia of the two-by-four flat closes in on you. But there’s something comforting in that darkness as well, with a hint of masochistic pleasure in the nostalgia can.

Michael Esper and Cherry Jones

The memories are those of Esper’s Tom. Fey, often funny, his guilt makes him a tragic figure, whose outbursts are tinged with a hysteria that Esper handles especially well, convincing us that he is living in a “nailed up coffin”. As a contrast, remembering how complex Williams’ heroines are, there is a magisterial performance from Cherry Jones as his dignified mother, Amanda, whose wit brings out the play’s lighter touches. After all, these lives have their high points – joy in reflecting on the past and fantasising about the future, with realistic fears adding a degree of tension. As “a woman of action as well as words”, this Amanda is someone to respect.

As for the production being emotionally potent, it is Briton Kate O’Flynn as fragile sister Laura and Brian J Smith with a tender portrayal of her gentleman caller who deliver the goods. Smith is heart breaking not just due to her innocence but because she has a wider awareness than her family credits her with

Tiffany’s credentials are currently high due his work on Harry Potter. Famously in The Glass Menagerie, Tom claims he is a magician, but it is the whole cast and their director who deserve that title here. Conjuring the best out of each element of this masterpiece, they make the production enchanting.

Until 29 April 2017

www.theglassmenagerie.co.uk/

Photos by Johan Persson

 

“Doctor Faustus” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Smartphone screens light up the auditorium before this show begins, indicating that the crowd drawn by Jamie Lloyd’s new production is young and, it’s safe to guess, here for leading man Kit Harington. Good on Lloyd for making an Elizabethan (see below) play trendy. With creepy touches, bold humour and brilliant theatricality it feels as if you’re in with the cool crowd.

Harington is, thankfully, highly credible as the scholar who sells his soul to the devil. He wears just pants for a lot of the play, and even shows his bum a couple of times, but he gives a focused performance that demands to be taken seriously. Harington works well with the ensemble, even joining the innovative dance sections. It isn’t just a physique that is eye-catching here – Polly Bennett’s movement direction adds a sense of adventure, while the lighting design from Jon Clark is stunning.

I might be one of a small number whose real draw to the show isn’t the Game of Thrones star but Jenna Russell, who plays Mephistopheles. Odd I know. Russell’s brilliant performance made my night, with an uncanny ability to be physically threatening, as well as showing the sorrowful side of this fallen angel, creating a moving, grieving quality. Lloyd even gets some songs out of a great vocalist – Kylie’s ‘Better The Devil You Know’ and Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’.

The eclectic mix of music filling the show brings us to its modern additions: Christopher Marlowe’s opening and concluding scenes bookend a new play by Colin Teevan. Things start well by enforcing Faustus’ desire for celebrity. Miming air guitar, the doctor is on the party scene – told to “Sin big. Sin famously” – he’s a magician, clever, with servant Wagner reimagined as a woman called Grace who he falls in love with. Teevan adds compassion as well as contemporary touches that a modern audience easily relates to.

Later satire with attempts at topicality fall flat: bankers, businessmen, Obama, Cameron, Pope Francis and a particularly nasty scene with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have parallels with Marlowe’s seven deadly sins. But the real-life characters are dealt with too crassly. Lloyd likes to shock, and this production will go too far for many, me included, but it is to his credit that he reminds us of theatre’s power to be subversive. Introducing a new audience to this force is something magical.

Until 25 June 2016

www.atgtickets.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Nether” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A welcome transfer from the Royal Court, Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether is a taut sci-fi thriller that dissects the power of the internet in the (near) future. In a parallel world of virtual reality ‘realms’, so intoxicating are the dark fantasies acted out that punters threaten to become ‘shadows’ – volunteering to give up their lives to live online instead.

One online realm, catering to paedophiles, is envisioned by Es Devlin’s remarkable design, supported by Luke Halls’ video work. Those tasked with policing the line between the sick fantasy world and reality become caught up in an uncomfortably exciting journey.

Skillfully directed by Jeremy Herrin, The Nether is well performed, with Amanda Hale as Detective Morris, joined by David Calder, Ivanno Jeremiah and Stanley Townsend as troubled participants of the online investigation.

The Nether is a play of big ideas and important questions. What effect do online personas have? And how can fantasies online, between consenting adults, become illegal? Suspicions about technology are defined forcefully by Morris. Yet alternative arguments are presented with a conviction that makes you queasy. There’s the fascinating potential for corporate corruption, as the programming that creates the super sensory realm could prove lucrative for those that host these worlds – is our detective interested in the crime or the code?

Haley takes sci-fi seriously and, as a result, so do we. The Nether is a convincing world with minimal jargon that serves as the perfect base for difficult themes. Even better, the play is a gripping drama: a strong detective story, structured around exciting interrogations, with twists and tensions that leave you unsettled.

Until 25 April 2015

www.royalcourttheatre.com

 

“Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense” at the Duke of York’s

P.G. Wodehouse’s legendary comic characters, the nice-but-dim Jeeves and his gentlemen’s gentlemen Wooster, have been brought to the stage in an adaptation from Robert and David Goodale. In Perfect Nonsense, the strategy of dealing with Wodehouse’s elaborate plots and precise humour is to present the evening as a show that Bertie, played by Stephen Mangan, is putting on.

Matthew Macfadyen’s Jeeves and Mark Hadfield, as his fellow butler Seppings, take on all the roles and provide the scenery. The impromptu staging, which aims to be another source of humour, makes this the lightest of comedies and the show becomes that prized thing – family-friendly fun.

Pretending to improvise as they go along is a neat enough move, and it gets laughs, although it has to be said that it’s been done better before. We see Mangan’s shocked face, as the scenery appears and moves around, far too often. But it’s a perfect gurn for the part and all the cast are undoubtedly strong. Both Mangan and Macfadyen have the stage presence to make the roles work, but Hadfield steals many a scene as both an “ancestor Aunt” and the sinister Roderick Spode, who threatens to turn Bertie into jelly. But the venture into amateur dramatics makes the unflappable Jeeves, well, flappable, and getting dragged up as Madeline Bassett is surely beneath him, no matter how well Macfadyen manages.

The physical comedy is good. And gags that come from Alice Power’s sets and costumes have their appeal. It’s a shame, though, that experienced director Sean Foley, who had such a hit with The Lady Killers, hasn’t put more speed into the show. There’s so much repetition the evening feels stretched rather than exhibiting the relaxed insouciance that might be more appropriate for its characters. Some of the pacing comes dangerously close to milking the jokes. And the lack of momentum means the show toys with silliness without ever really ascending into farce. But Wodehouse’s lines are, of course, seriously funny. His devoted followers will love hearing them; even if Perfect Nonsense doesn’t convert many new ones, this is a show fans should adore.

Until 8 March 2013

Written 13 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“A Doll’s House” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

The Young Vic’s widely acclaimed production of A Doll’s House opened its West End transfer this week at the Duke of York’s theatre. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, Ibsen’s classic story of Nora, a housewife and mother in 19th century Norway, and the breakdown of her seemingly perfect marriage, is tackled with great verve and features a superb spinning set by designer Ian Macneil. The show deserves all its many critics’ stars and is not to be missed – it only runs until 26 October.

The star draw is Hattie Morahan in the lead role. She picked up both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards last year, and it’s easy to see why. She plays Nora as naïve – but only because of the society she was born into. Morahan makes the limitations women experienced at the time seem normal, no matter how bitter. Nora’s flashes of brilliance, as she comes to understand and rebel against constraints, are believable and moving.

Morahan is joined by a cast that is close to faultless. Caroline Martin (pictured above with Morhan) gives depth to the role of her old school friend, whose marriage of convenience has been a more obvious failure, and Nick Fletcher gives a magnificently understated performance as the money lender who wreaks havoc on Nora’s ideal home. Hiding her debts from her bank manager husband is only one of the lies her marriage is based on. As her partner Torvald, Dominic Rowan has to tackle sexist remarks it’s to be hoped make most people blush. The commodification of his wife may seem incredible, but Rowan manages to bring Cracknell’s pointed production home – Torvald’s fantasies about his wife raise uncomfortable questions relevant to men and women today.

This marital master and his slave are fantastic creations and with Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Ibsen’s text they breath anew. Injecting a strain of ‘Englishness’ into the play makes it recognisable, and there’s a cleverly suggested Pre-War feel to much of the language. Even better, ironic touches (again praise for Morahan here – her delivery is perfection) elaborate Ibsen’s dark humour and there’s even a sexiness here that has a disturbing edge. Stephens’ script is the key to this doll’s house being such a big success.

Until 26 October 2013

Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Written 16 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Backbeat” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Thinking of Backbeat as The Beatles musical is inevitable shorthand. But it is unfortunate and misleading. This is the story of the group at their formation, when the Fab Four numbered five and played cover versions in dingy Hamburg bars. The show contains only snatches of Lennon and McCartney and is unlikely the please those joining walking tours to Abbey Road. As long as you don’t go expecting to hear a string of Beatles hits, you’ll find plenty to engage you.

Backbeat isn’t really a musical at all. It’s a play with songs. And it’s the performance of the music – from faltering beginnings to growing confidence – rather than the music itself that forms part of the drama. It takes guts to show this on a West End stage and it adds enormously to the play, whose focus is Stuart Sutcliffe who, in his tragically short life, was co-opted into his friend John Lennon’s band and then left it to pursue his own path as a painter.

We aren’t just watching Sutcliffe or The Beatles grow artistically. At the heart of Backbeat is a love triangle between Sutcliffe and Lennon, to whom he acts as some kind of muse, and Sutcliffe’s new girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. All three performances are remarkably credible. Andrew Knott provides the perfect portrait of the genius in waiting as Lennon. Nick Blood is moving as the troubled Sutcliffe, and his relationship with Astrid, played by Ruta Gedmintas who radiates 60s cool, has fantastic on stage chemistry.

What director David Leveaux and his cast deliver is an explosion of young creativity that is inspiring. Rough and ready, impassioned and precocious, these characters have a sense of destiny that (forget hindsight) is the privilege of youth – what’s important is the electric atmosphere that bounces off them. Backbeat is a bold experiment that deserves success. If its components fail to wholly satisfy, bear in mind that it is more than the sum of its parts. Its energy is infectious and it will have your reaching for your Beatles back catalogue to continue the story as soon as you get home.

Until 24 March 2012

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 7 November 2011 for The London Magazine

“Arcadia” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

If there is one thing in the theatre world everyone can agree on, it is that Tom Stoppard is clever.

He knows a lot about a lot and is good at explaining complicated things that leave the rest of us baffled.

The subject matter of Arcadia is a case in point – a heady brew of landscape gardening, literary studies and physics, played out in one room with alternate acts set in the 18th century and modern times. A rich mix, indeed, and one that potentially overwhelms. The cleverest thing about Stoppard is that he manages to get the audience not just understanding these subjects but also caring and laughing about them.

Credit goes to the cast. Dan Stevens plays the charismatic tutor Septimus Hodge . His role is to explain 18th-century arts and science to both the audience and his prodigious pupil Thomasina Coverly . A painful desire for his mistress Lady Croom is complicated by a touching flirtation with his pupil, and he conveys not just a passion for his studies but also a great sexual presence. Both women, Jessica Cave and Nancy Carroll respectively, present their characters with fitting complexity and make the most of Stoppard’s wonderful ear for period language to great comic effect.

In the present day, the explaining is done by mathematics student Valentine (Ed Stoppard). His brooding presence is so intense as to be unlikeable, and his irritation over the supposed simplicity of iterated algorithms sounds false. This time, explication is for the benefit of the audience and Samantha Bond ’s historian, whose performance becomes inexplicably shrill.

The love triangle in modern times is completed by rival academic Bernard Nightingale , a morally distasteful character portrayed by Neil Pearson, who has surely paid far too much attention to one textual reference about his bouncing around.

Through science and art these two worlds come together. Thomasina’s brilliance foresees the great mathematical discoveries Valentine is working on. Both historians retrace events concerning the earlier set of characters.

But, despite its humour, Arcadia is a melancholy work with a gentle sense of tragedy. The mathematics aren’t understood in the 18th century – with disastrous consequences. Both historians are blinded by their ambition for either professional advancement or to prove an ideological point and make mistakes about what really happened in the past. Attempts to created a paradise garden on earth or to explain that earth with a grand Theory of Everything are inevitably doomed to failure .

Despite all the laughs, destruction seems to be the only outcome of our investigations. What hold us are those brief moments of joy along the way – the journey through Arcadia rather than the place itself.

Until 12 September 2009

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 8 June 2009 for The London Magazine