Tag Archives: Geoffrey Streatfield

“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

“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