Tag Archives: Edward Hall

“Cell Mates” at the Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall always puts on a classy show. His direction for this first revival of Simon Gray’s 1995 play is, typically, clear and careful. And Hall always gets great performances from a cast: here Geoffrey Streatfield plays the spy George Blake, alongside Emmet Byrne as Sean Bourke, who “sprung” him from prison, and both are superb. Joined by Philip Bird, Cara Horgan and Danny Lee Wynter, who play different characters aiding and abetting the criminals in the UK and then Russia, it’s as fine an ensemble as you could wish for. The production also boasts an impressive set from Michael Pavelka that feels ready and waiting for a West End transfer.

The only problem is that this is a disappointing play that Hall has an unjustified faith in.

While Cell Mates is based on a thrilling real-life story, complete with Blake’s extraordinary break-out from Wormwood Scrubs prison and subsequent life in Russia, the play steers away from a documentary feel or political commentary. Fair enough. But for a piece rammed with spies and the Cold War, it seems perverse to include so little tension. A scene in Blake’s safe house shows Gray’s strength for farce, expertly executed here, while making the KGB officers we meet funny is fine (Wynter is especially good at this), the play isn’t really a comedy either. The focus is Blake and Bourke’s relationship: why the latter helped the former, and why he was subsequently betrayed and imprisoned when visiting Blake in Moscow. Unfortunately, the duo’s friendship isn’t made interesting enough.

Blake and Bourke’s first meeting is gnomic, if intriguing. Scene II starts to reveal some idea of why Bourke might be around – he wants to be a writer and senses “a story to tell and a story to sell”. While this motif is taken up as both men work on books when in exile it does not settle the question of their bond or provide motivation for what they go through together. Talk of a “country of the future” and ideologies is given the briefest lip service. Streatfield and Byrne depict the stress of imprisonment in an accomplished way but the question of their attachment becomes an overwhelming puzzle. Their friendship may well be inexplicable, but Gray doesn’t speculate or explore it in depth and the void created makes the play a pointless struggle.

Until 20 January 2017

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Raving” at Hampstead Theatre

Three couples on a disastrous weekend away in Wales. This is the premise for Simon Paisley Day’s new play, Raving, which opened last night at the Hampstead Theatre. It’s a satisfyingly traditional set-up for a comedy of manners. Boasting superb performances as well as plenty of gags, it should prove another hit for a theatre that director Edward Hall is taking from strength to strength.

An actor himself, Day knows how to craft lines that will get a laugh, and the cast, all experienced comic actors, really capitalise on the script. Hall directs with just the bubbling suggestion of a farce, while keeping the pace appropriate to observational comedy. The couples are instantly recognisable ‘middle-aged parents with stressful lives’. You have a vivid impression of the homes and children they are taking a break from, and can easily imagine which part of London each lives in.

raving-18
Barnaby Kay and Tamzin Outwaite

The first arrivals are the neurotic Briony and her sex starved husband Keith. Barnaby Kay makes his character instantly appealing and Tamzin Outwaite is tremendous, turning on the tears and irrational fears at a speed that’s hilarious. As teachers, Briony and Keith see themselves as lower middle class (I am sure that wasn’t always the case) and don’t gel with the better-off Serena and Charles.

The toffs of the play are the tops. Nicholas Rowe’s ex SAS Charles is a scream, bettered only by Issy Van Randwyk whose filthy laugh as Serena I wanted to bottle and keep. They have “four or five” children and just “leave them to it”. No parenting books in their library and they spend too much time in the bedroom, with Charles all over Serena “like German measles”, to read a lot anyway.

In the middle of the pecking order come Ross and Rosy. The seemingly perfect couple who “don’t do late” but do yoga instead. They have problems with au pairs. Robert Webb and Sarah Hardland deal cleverly with their unappealing characters. When the predictable breakdown happens and the raving really starts, it still feels edgy.

The piece has its problems. The introduction of a younger woman, a Sloane with a drug and sex addiction, doesn’t convince, even though the talented Bel Powell does her best. Similarly, the character of the farmer the couples rent a cottage from, while ably performed by Ifan Huw Dafydd, introduces less tension than desired. There are longueurs during the finale, as the couples sexual kinks and dependencies are revealed with a too-obviously confessional tone, but the performances are strong enough to keep the laughs coming.

Until 23 November 2013

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Written 25 October 2013 for The London Magazine

“Race” at Hampstead Theatre

In Race, which opened last night at the Hampstead Theatre, playwright David Mamet uses the legal system as a prism through which to examine racism in America. Race centres on the case of a white man accused of raping a black woman. It’s a hard-hitting, foul-mouthed, hilarious affair with the most serious of themes.

This is a huge coup for Hampstead; artistic director Edward Hall is justifiably pleased to give the show its UK premiere. Any work by Mamet is an important event for contemporary theatre writing, and in the must-see category by virtue of his name alone.

And it’s also characteristic Mamet: brilliantly contentious, perversely confrontational, and deliberately provocative. The play is about the lies we tell each other and ourselves about race, set in a legal world whose dialectic consists solely of falsehoods.

The law often makes great theatre; here the legal team of Lawton and Brown, played expertly by Jasper Britton and Clarke Peters, are more than open to a connection with “pageantry”. Overblown certainly, you might pray they are a parody, but their bluntness – constantly mercenary and misanthropic – is a technique to tackle taboos and get howls of laughter.

The key to the play is a new addition to the law firm, Susan, an honours student whose agenda gives rise to the most testing moral questions. Nina Toussaint-White is superb in the role, revealing that in razor-sharp competitions with her elder colleagues her character isn’t at the same professional level. And Toussaint-White conveys a deep pain behind her character’s sleek façade, injecting much-needed humanity into the play.

Mamet’s cynicism is such it occasionally beggars belief. Plot points designed to make us question Susan’s character are clumsy. There’s also the issue for London audiences that, understandably, the focus is very specifically on American society. But these are caveats. Race is never less than thrilling and this production makes a trip to Hampstead essential.

Until 29 June 2013

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Alaistair Muir

Written 30 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Old Money” at the Hampstead Theatre

Old Money, a new play by Sarah Wooley, marks the end of a fantastic year for Hampstead Theatre. Taking on this young writer is to Artistic Director Edward Hall’s credit; he’s spotted a quirky talent and a play full of fun, with serious points, that maybe a little rough around the edges, but is well worth watching. And that’s not to mention its star attraction – Maureen Lipman in fine form and not to be missed.

The story of three generations of women, Pearl, Joyce and Fiona, is rife with humorous conflict and includes a slight touch of fantasy. An unhealthy family triangle is complicated when Joyce becomes a widow and embraces her new freedom by making friends with a stripper. There have been plenty of dramas about baby boomers lately, but Wooley seems more interested in simply telling a good story – this is a tale of the unexpected and hugely entertaining.

It is not without problems. Everyone touched by the old money Joyce married into seems pretty objectionable – their selfishness seems hard to believe. And surely even the suburbs of Surrey aren’t quite as sheltered as Wooley makes out? The matriarch Faith’s hold over her daughter is dubious, while Joyce’s own spendthrift child Fiona seems bitter because she lives in a maisonette in Colliers Wood – bad, but not unbearable. As for the men in the piece, you start to suspect Wooley has some axe to grind in making them all so useless and unpleasant. But the problems aren’t all from Wooley’s script; surprisingly, the experienced director Terry Johnson seems flat-footed and fails to keep up the pace the play deserves.

However, Wooley’s humour is spot on, with plenty of laughs and observations that ring true. Best of all, the performances in Old Money are superb. Helen Ryan is a crowd-pleasing termagant and Tracy-Ann Oberman is superb as a grasping 40-something. Of course, it’s Lipman’s show and her character’s journey to fulfil long-delayed dreams, battling against various roles she is forced into, is performed wonderfully. The perfect comic timing we expect is there accompanied by breathless pauses and hesitations that show Lipman is in total control. Joyce isn’t an inspiring figure, the play is too complex for that, but Lipman makes her, and the play, very much alive.

Until 12 January 2013

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 6 December 2012 for The London Magazine

“Chariots of Fire” at Hampstead Theatre

The Hampstead Theatre’s production of Chariots of Fire couldn’t be more timely. As Olympic fever approaches London, this crowd-pleasing show capitalises on the long treasured memory of the film and the Vangelis soundtrack, highlighting those abstract ideals sport inspires. More remarkably, even if you don’t like sport, and concur with one character that “running is for hamsters and children”, the play is broad enough to win you over as well.

Mike Bartlett’s respectful adaptation makes the translation from film to stage a comfortable one and faultlessly attends to the personal drama of the two main characters, Olympic runners and rivals Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. And Bartlett is also good on the bigger themes: the religious beliefs of Liddell, who famously refused to run on the Sabbath, and the anti-Semitism experienced by Abrahams. But when it comes to examining nationhood and what it means for these men to represent their country, the play becomes a little trapped in its period: it’s all too jolly, and Abrahams’ drive to be a new kind of professional athlete leaves less of an impression than the smoking amateurs that provide the laughs – the use of Gilbert and Sullivan is inspired, but singing Jerusalem goes a bit too far.

Sport and drama mix well. The sheer Olympian effort of the cast, who seem to run a marathon during the show, is awe-inspiring. The performances from the leads, Jack Lowden and James McArdle, are meticulous. Their teammate Tam Williams, who plays the swaggering Lord Lindsey, almost manages to steal the show by getting some hurdling in. Hampstead is an intimate venue that makes designer Miriam Buether’s set all the more spectacular – transforming the whole theatre into a stadium in convincing, rousing fashion – she clearly deserves a medal.

But it is director Edward Hall who gets the gold. You might think you can only run around a theatre so many times – but Hall’s theatrical invention makes each occasion interesting and he maximises the drama of every race. It’s his skill that makes Chariots of Fire run so well. Regardless of the performance of British athletes at the upcoming games, in 2012 British theatre certainly leads the field.

Until 16 June 2012

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Written 23 May 2012 for The London Magazine