Tag Archives: Garrick Theatre

“This House” at the Garrick Theatre

James Graham’s play isn’t your regular political drama. Based on the flailing minority Labour government of the late 1970s, it looks at the mechanics of Parliament – the back-room antics of the whips, who make sure MPs vote. There are few names or issues that people will remember. And, instead of Machiavellian power brokers, the characters are misfit eccentrics, working hard in grubby anterooms. So the play’s transfer from the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, to the larger Olivier, and now, after a long wait, the West End, is a triumph for the young playwright, and his intelligent funny writing, which has warmed the critics’ hearts.

Honours are shared with director Jeremy Herrin, who handles the large cast impeccably. Nearly all the actors play more than one MP, each larger than life, and the sense of a building at work is conveyed with infectious energy. Counting the ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ becomes nail-biting, while efforts to bribe or cajole coalitions are gripping. Add Rae Smith’s replica House of Commons set, with its onstage seating and bar, and you have a sense of fun that complements Graham’s great jokes.

Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker
Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker

This House is a brilliantly ambitious ensemble piece. Phil Daniels and Malcolm Sinclair are the chief whips, giving blissfully effortless performances. I probably don’t need to tell you they represent the Labour and Conservative parties, respectively. Praise, too, for Nathaniel Parker and Steffan Rhodri, playing their deputies, each with their own agenda and sombre moments that add humanity to the comedy. Much is made of the differences between the parties, with Labour louts calling their opponents the “aristotwats’, which seems to have struck Graham as particularly fascinating. If some jokes land heavily, relying on hindsight, they are still funny.

The research undertaken for the play is impressive, informative and conveys Parliament’s peculiar charm. Even better, Graham has a good stab at being impartial. How far he succeeds possibly depends on your own voting habits – but the stance of making a play about politics apolitical is dealt with well. That those in charge act like children is a point itself, although Graham is too good to fall for simplicity, showing passion and conviction from MPs of both parties. But the propensity to treat government like a game is clear and used to make brilliant drama.

Until 25 February 2017

www.thishouseplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Entertainer” at the Garrick Theatre

Once more stepping into the shoes of Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh is Archie Rice in this final production of his tenure at the Garrick Theatre. Branagh is more than up to the role of Rice – a brilliant fictional creation who somewhat overwhelms John Osborne’s end-of-empire themes – and gives a sterling star turn that provides value for money.

Archie is a “tatty old musical hall actor” on the wrong side of the law. He says he’s never done anything “really dishonest” but, apart from having good taste in beer, he is fairly unsavoury. Branagh doesn’t shy away from the tawdry life of a travelling player plying a dying trade, or the awful way this ageing philanderer treats his wife and neglects his children. Yet he still manages to bring out Rice’s charisma and admirable self-knowledge.

Greta Scacchi
Greta Scacchi

Joining Branagh in the limelight is Greta Scacchi as the long-suffering wife. This is a revelatory role for the actress. Leaving glamour aside, she utterly convinces as the dowdy, down-at-heel shop assistant with a drink problem in a superb performance that combines humour and depth. Then comes Archie’s father, Billy, a more successful performer in his day – a role into which Gawn Grainger injects possibly too much humour. Overall, Rob Ashford’s direction of this family drama is masterfully done.

Tightly focused scenes of tension aren’t Ashford’s only trick. Christopher Oram’s grand set (praise, too, for lighting designer Neil Austin) is all about the theatre. The drawing-room action happens as if in the green room: an effective device to show how Archie is always performing. It’s a brave move by Osborne to insert Archie’s comedy routine into family arguments (these jokes were bad even in 1957) and underscores the unfulfilled existence of ‘the entertainer’ both on and off stage.

Sophie McShera and Kenneth Branagh
Sophie McShera and Kenneth Branagh

Maybe it’s his elders being so apolitical that annoyed Osborne. Archie’s sons provide the contrast, with a tragic tale and a strong performance from Jonah Hauer-King as the next generation, who enjoy a better education but face just as precarious a future. It’s really an angry young woman, Archie’s daughter, played by Sophie McShera, who is supposed to be the key. If her anger at the Suez Crisis hasn’t stood the test of time, it reminds us that we all have political responsibilities. There may not be quite the firebrand spirit nowadays to make this play incendiary, but this fine production is still well worth seeing.

Until 12 November 2016

www.branaghtheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Scottsboro Boys” at the Garrick Theatre

A sell-out last year at the Young Vic, with rave reviews, The Scottsboro Boys has now transferred into the West End. Kander and Ebb’s last musical, the story of an infamous miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama, is a harsh, uncompromising look at racism that makes for powerful musical theatre.

The performances are great, with key cast members visiting from Broadway: Brandon Victor Dixon, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon all take on demanding lead roles with inspiring confidence. The whole ensemble is tight and standards of acting high. The staging is sparse – director and choreographer Susan Stroman uses chairs to create the sets – it’s inventive but feels a little lost in a big space.

Kander and Ebb never shied away from ‘difficult’ subject matter. Don’t forget, Cabaret and Chicago are about Nazis and gangsters. Their final work together was just as brave: accused of raping two white girls, nine blatantly innocent black men spent years in prison and fought trial after trial, becoming a focal point for the civil rights movement.

The music will sound familiar to fans, but the approach here is as bold as the subject matter. Taking on the format of a minstrel show (akin to appropriating cabaret and vaudeville for their previous hits) the black actors perform white roles, serving as a commentary on racial stereotypes that is provocative and tense. It’s a reflection on the entertainment industry as well, with the stock characters of Mr Tambo and Mr Bones creating an uncomfortable undertone.

There were small protests at the use of a minstrel show on Broadway. I can’t see the reason myself – the criticism of the genre is so implicit and the final rejection of the format by the performers, who refuse to do the Cake Walk, is rousing. But the humour here is harsh and bleak making The Scottsboro Boys unusually devoid of laughs. This show is a huge achievement, but not an easy night out.

Until 21 February 2015

 www.scottsboromusicallondon.com 

Photo by Johan Persson

“Loserville” at the Garrick Theatre

A new musical is an exciting prospect for the critics: the thrill of the potential next hit or the perverse pleasure of a failure. Most shows, and Loserville, the newest to open in the West End only last night, fall firmly between the two extremes. The question is whether or not you should bother to see it – and my answer is yes, especially if you have someone young to take along.

Loserville is a coming-of-age story and, like many in the genre, is probably best embraced by those still young. It is set around the idea of the first ever email and presented to the audience as if they can’t really imagine there was ever a world without the web. The ‘geeks in their garage’ characters have the laudable aim of helping the world to communicate, and the mildest of reservations about corporate capitalism. It’s all very wholesome fun.

A joint effort from Elliot Davis and James Bourne, the later formerly of Busted fame, it’s spot on when it comes to a familiar kind of teenage angst. The insecurity, frustration, even anger of young people, along with their sense of fun and excitement, is palpable. All expressed in perky guitar pop, highly catchy and impressively effective as storytelling, it should be a hit.

The kids coming of age in Loserville do so in America in 1971. This poses some problems – the cast struggle with their accents, especially when it comes to singing them. There’s little sense of period, only the briefest musical reference, and any sense of nostalgia fails to convince. The dialogue lacks snap and the jokes aren’t funny enough: it’s passable to rhyme Uhura with cooler in song, but the sci-fi gags are overplayed in the script. However, the production itself is well done, directed with clarity and conviction by Steven Dexter, and aided by Francis O’Connor’s charming low-fi set.

And none of these criticisms are going to stop you having fun. The story of Michael Dork and his friends’ trials and passions goes at such a pace, any subtlety would probably be steamrollered anyway. The large cast, mostly making their West End debuts, are so full of energy, you can’t help but admire them. Highlights include Aaron Sidwell in the lead role and Richard Lowe as his sidekick Lucas Lloyd.

Alongside their enthusiasm, that sense of teenage intensity means the cast occasionally perform with almost embarrassing sincerity – once again your reaction probably depends upon your age. Bourne knows what he’s doing, he’s sold enough records to teenagers already, but shame on my cynicism – like Google, Loserville doesn’t have an evil bone in its body, and is sure to be a winner with plenty.

Until 2 March 2013

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 18 October 2012 for The London Magazine

“The Little Dog Laughed” at The Garrick Theatre

It is always satisfying to have a play’s title explained to you.  The Little Dog Laughed is set within the world of Hollywood so quoting a nursery rhyme to point out the nonsense that goes on in tinsel town makes a lot of sense.

The plot is simple.  A successful actor’s agent has to deal with her client’s ‘recurring case of homosexuality’ which threatens to come to light when he becomes involved with a prostitute, who in turn discovers he is about to be a father.

To complicate matters, the actor is about to start a new project in which he plays a gay character.  His agent insists this will only work, and acclaim only be awarded, if he is known to the world as heterosexual.

The potential for farce is plentiful and the play has lots of laughs.  Rupert Friend plays Mitchell the actor, Harry Lloyd the rent boy Alex, and Gemma Atherton his girlfriend Ellen.  All three manage to convey endearing characters we can warm to despite their faults.

It is a shame that with an English cast, the east coast/west coast division that the play contains isn’t fully conveyed.  Yet this hardly matters when the laughs are arriving so regularly.  Friend’s charming naivety compares wonderfully with Lloyds well-pitched sarcasm.  Atherton’s character has satisfying layers.

It is Michell’s agent Diane who really allows the piece to take off though.  Tamsin Greig plays the role of Diane masterfully – this is a great character and Greig knows it. Rapacious, ambitious or just a realist?  Diane has jokes about being all three, but it is not just a case of the devil getting all the good lines.  The scripts clever observations about theatre and how it differs from film are embodied in some delightful improvisation from Greig.  Her raised eyebrows deserve an award.

Just in case all this doesn’t sound fun enough and perhaps celebrity doesn’t attract you, Douglas Carter Beane’s award winning play concerns itself with much more – primarily that characteristic American theme – the pursuit of happiness.

For some characters this lies in a search for innocence.  In a touching speech about childhood recollections, Ellen’s captivation with the image of the good life will come to explain her strange decision-making.  Alex values freedom more and, while pragmatic, ends up as the one who makes the fewest compromises.

It is the omniscient Diane who presents to us what the pursuit of happiness is often substituted with – stories and the telling of them.  As author to several other people’s fate she is a delightfully sinister figure, all the more so since she insists on making sure everyone is happy. And the audience surely is.  The fast paced direction from Jamie Lloyd perfectly compliments the writing.  A minimalist design from Soutra Gilmour is both stylish and appropriate to the theatricality of the piece.  After all, you don’t need many props for a fantasy.  Carter Beane’s play has a British debut it deserves.  The quality of the writing makes it a play not to be missed.

Until 10 April 2010

www.nimaxtheatres.com 

Photo by Alastair Muir

Written 21 January 2010 for The London Magazine