Tag Archives: Hampstead Theatre

“iHo” at the Hampstead Theatre

To give Tony Kushner’s play its full title – The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures – is to sell it short. This is a history of left-wing politics and activism in the US that sweeps across the whole of the 20th century. And it’s also a family drama of parodic contemporary complexity that turns into a meditation on death. Thanks for the abbreviation, but it’s “iHo, iHo and off to work we go” with such a dauntingly demanding piece.

It can be hard to connect with characters taking abstract ideals so seriously, but Kushner makes Communist Party member Gus convincing, and asks us to question why the values he has lived by might feel alien. A kind of leftist Willy Loman, Gus is a superb role in which David Calder excels. The declaration that he is soon to take his own life sends his family into a spin and adds mounting emotion to the text. Dividing the house among his children, each of whom make King Lear’s kids look positively benign, brings secrets out of the woodwork, adding further tension.

Gus’s sons Pill (Richard Clothier) and Vito (Lex Shrapnel) are joined by Tamsin Greig, who plays his daughter. She’s the favoured child, heir to all that theory, and, as the play grows, her increasing concern with mortality sees her performance gain in strength. Along the way the sibling dynamics provide a lot of humour. I-Ho is very funny. The younger generation’s complex personal lives (let’s just mention Pill’s affair with a prostitute, confirming Kushner’s obsession with commodification) and their academic partners provide a lot of laughs, with outrageous narcissism and jargon-laden chat. I’ve a theory they’re all imprisoned by identity politics: a trend that’s ripe for exploration.

The part of Aunt Clio provides such a blast for Sara Kestelman that it’s a real highlight. Once a nun, then a Maoist and now moving on to Christian Science, she’s described as addicted to the “metaphysical crack pipe”. With characters like her it’s hard not to love the play. But a warning is needed: nothing about i-Ho is easy. More than one scene has the large cast talking over one another. It’s masterfully handled by director Michael Boyd but proved too much for some audience members. It feels as if Kushner is cramming more than one play into the night. Each of the three acts here would have been satisfying. Cumulatively, by the end of three hours, if you managed to keep up you definitely deserve a certificate.

Until 26 November 2016

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Rabbit Hole” at Hampstead Theatre

When it comes to sensitive subject matter, a family’s grief at the death of a child is a particularly brave topic to tackle. But the sensitivity and intelligence that playwright David Lindsay-Abaire brings to his play will make you glad to have seen a work that feels so truthful.

The marriage of Becca and Howie is placed under pressure after the accidental death of their son. Claire Skinner and Tom Goodman-Hill are tremendous as this unfortunate couple. Following their ups as well as downs, seeing the differences in how they manage their bereavement, their strengths and weaknesses are revealed. Skinner is especially strong in the single scene where she breaks down. Restraint is the key to her character and the whole play – emotions are palpable but skilfully held in check in a rich text full of suggestions and suspicions, which explores grief but never feels exploitative.

Georgina Rich and Penny Downie
Georgina Rich and Penny Downie

Such is Lindsay-Abaire’s skill that, remarkably, this is a play with plenty of laughs despite the subject. Much of the humour comes from clever observations of social class in America. This is a family split demographically, with Becca’s mother and sister having a little of the “Jerry Springer” about them. Impeccably performed by Georgina Rich and Penny Downie, both are fully realised, appealing, characters and could easily have a play of their own. The point is that neither the play, nor its characters are paralysed by grief. After all, in the real world, you can’t be.

Sean Delaney
Sean Delaney

Becca and Howie are the focus but they come to fear “the face” from others who can’t deal with their tragedy – in particular, Jason, the driver of the car involved in the accident, who looks to find his own closure. In three short scenes, Sean Delaney makes his mark in the role. Becca’s willingness and Howie’s reluctance to meet him provide the play’s most heartfelt moments. Fittingly, Jason provides hope in the play, providing a scientific theory of parallel universes that Becca can take solace from (she movingly speculates that her present shows only “the sad version of us”).

Rabbit Hole is the second play by Lindsay-Abaire to be performed at Hampstead. Previously, Good People was a theatrical highlight of 2013 and a West End transfer that it’s to be hoped sets a trend. It’s a fruitful association for the venue and director Ed Hall, who shows a through appreciation of the writing and an ability to empower the cast to face the comedy in the piece. I can’t wait to see more from the combination.

Until 5 March 2016

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Hapgood” at the Hampstead Theatre

Receiving a first London revival since a 1988 première, Tom Stoppard’s spy spoof has a reputation for being a difficult play. What’s new? An unashamedly intellectual writer, Stoppard here mixes espionage and particle physics with his usual panache. It’s a satisfyingly challenging piece that’s also hugely entertaining.

Fun is had with the spy genre itself. Stoppard plays with stock scenarios – the opening scene has not one but three suitcases being swapped around – and laughs at the often clichéd language used, including Alec Newman’s charming Russian quintuple agent whose cover has been “blowed”. The Cold War tension is deliberately deflated; the secrets at stake here aren’t worth much in the end.

Alec Newman and Tim McMullan

Newman also carries the weight of explaining a lot of the science (complete with a checklist of big names) that’s the real theme of the play, and does exceptionally well to inject passion into the parallels between plot and physics. Secret agents are just a “trick of the light” and how light behaves is influenced by the very act of observation. Hapgood is thought provoking and original.

It’s the central character of the titular spymaster that pleases most. In a brilliant performance, Lisa Dillon shows her understanding of Stoppard’s layered text. Dealings with the big boss Blair (Tim McMullan in a role he was born for) along with no nonsense about her high achievements are understated comic marvels. There are canny observations on class throughout the play.

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Lisa Dillon as Hapgood with her son (Adam Cansfield)

When it comes to carrying the tension, Dillon gets even better. Introducing twins, surely not too much of a giveaway, Stoppard further combines the science and spies. Hapgood’s role as “Mother” provides emotional weight when her son becomes embroiled in the spying game. Common to lots of high-quality genre fiction, the complexity of our hero is used to terrific effect.

The play benefits from director Howard Davies’ experienced hand – the pacing, when it comes to explaining the science, is perfect. And the plot is presented in a visually clear fashion thanks to Ashley Martin-Davis’ stylishly simple set and effective video backdrops from Ian William Galloway. Above all, the script should please any Stoppard fan and Hapgood deserves to be part of his canon.

Until 23 January 2016

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Alastair Muir

“Mr Foote’s Other Leg” at Hampstead Theatre

Biographer Ian Kelly has literally written the book on Samuel Foote, one of the 18th century’s most celebrated performers, and his expertise shines out in this new play. You’d be in real trouble if you couldn’t find the humour in a comic called Foote, but no fears here, as the jokes come alarmingly fast and varied: Shakespearian in-gags, bawdy banter and downright silliness. It’s an absolute treat for anyone with a love of the theatre.

Simon Russell Beale, Dervla Kirwan and Joseph Millson
Simon Russell Beale, Dervla Kirwan and Joseph Millson

Indeed, the theatre forms the backbone of the play – scenes are either front or back stage or in a medical lecture hall – all skilfully handled by director Richard Eyre, with Tim Hatley’s design cramming in the atmosphere. David Garrick and Peg Woffington, superbly rendered by Joseph Millson and Dervla Kirwan, are here, as is a long-suffering stage manager, Mrs Garner (a terrific role for Jenny Galloway). Comradeship and rivalry are exquisitely depicted, including in an unmawkish three-in-a-bed-death scene.

When it comes to biography, the play is as brilliant as its subject. Simon Russell Beale takes the lead, giving a dynamic performance that’s at first understated, comes alive whenever Foote is ‘on stage’, then becomes deeply moving when his sense of mischief grows dangerous as his mental health deteriorates.

 Forbes Masson as John Hunter at work with Colin Stinton as Benjamin Franklin taking notes
Forbes Masson as John Hunter at work on Mr Foote’s leg, with Colin Stinton as Benjamin Franklin taking notes

More than the history of an actor, or acting, this play is the portrait of an age. The distinguished surgeon John Hunter amputates Foote’s leg (ruined by a riding accident), while Benjamin Franklin lectures us on science. Prince George dabbles with performance and ascends to the throne (Kelly takes the role, reminding us his talents aren’t just literary). There’s American Independence and insanity as well – the madness of Mr Foote dominates the second act, ruining the pluckiest of comebacks.

Enthralled by the spirit of the times, Kelly isn’t shy of manipulating history for effect. Hence, he appropriates Dr Johnson’s servant, Frank Barber, to be Foote’s dresser, giving us a fine performance from Micah Balfour and a sub text that serves to illustrate Foote’s liberal iconoclasm. Like everything in the play, scenes with the two of them work astonishingly hard.

Care has to be taken when filling a play with such a quantity of ideas and events, yet here all is enrichment and nothing extraneous. Foote hates cant, declaring it the one word in English that is untranslatable. By avoiding cant, Kelly makes his play as fresh as it is erudite, a balance that makes this a triumph of and about the theatre.

Until 17 October 2015

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Nobby Clark

“Sunny Afternoon” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Another musical to plunder a band’s back catalogue, Sunny Afternoon uses the music of The Kinks to tell the story of this seminal Sixties band. The show is closer to its subjects than similar efforts, as the original story is by songwriter and star of the band, Ray Davies. Whether Davies’ proximity to the project is a good thing is an open question; the show has an authentic ring but leans towards bias. A big hit with Kinks fans at the Hampstead Theatre, where the production started life, the show’s move into West End will be a test of its wider appeal.

As the success of the band attests, this is an impressive list of hits to work with. Even those born the wrong side of the 60s will know many of the tunes. Adapting the songs for the stage is boldly done; an a cappella version of Days is particularly noteworthy. But pop songs and show tunes are different things and the switch to the stage isn’t entirely a success. Too many of the hits are nodded at and shoe horned in. Let’s just say I would rather buy a ‘best of’ album than a cast recording.

That said, I bet the cast recording is good, as the performances can’t be faulted – everyone involved seems to sing and play multiple instruments. The band is led by John Dagleish as Ray, who has an awful lot to do and creates an appealing central character somewhat against the odds. George Maguire is suitably energetic as his brother Dave, the world’s angriest guitar player. Ned Darrington and Adam Sopp, as band members Peter Quaife and Mick Avory, carve out roles for themselves well. There’s also a lovely part for Davies’ first wife, movingly drawn by writer Joe Penhall and performed with skill by Lillie Flynn. Director Ed Hall’s work is impeccable, creating time for exploring the whole band’s emotions, which makes the evening seem weightier than it really is.

Davies is a reluctant pop star and a miserable one too. It’s acknowledged that the woes of a celebrity puzzle most of us; they create little dramatic tension or sympathy. Amazingly, The Kinks were broke despite their success – yes, those pesky promoters and publishers are the villains. The talented Dominic Tighe and Tam Williams try hard as the toffs making money out of The Kinks but their characters aren’t three dimensional enough. More surprising is the poor depiction of Davies’ working-class father. Penhall’s book makes a stab at another story – Davies’ self-representation as a singer for the people, fighting for musical integrity. Though full of potential, claims made for the music depend on how much of a fan you are – which takes us back to square one.

Until October 2016

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Dominic Clemence

“Good People” at Hampstead Theatre

Another hit American play opened at the Hampstead Theatre last night. Following the run of Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn Ed Hall’s theatre brings an award-winning play across the pond again, with Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. Impeccably directed by Jonathan Kent, with a superb set from Hildegard Bechtler, the play is about a working-class woman in South Boston. A story of the recent financial recession, and good old-fashioned class strife, it’s full of intelligent belly laughs.

I can’t imagine Imelda Staunton took long to say yes to the role of Margaret, who is with us in every scene. A great actress at the top of her game, Staunton slips seamlessly into this is fascinating and fantastic character. Recently laid off work, with a disabled daughter to support, Margaret is sharp as a knife and deeply human, endearing us to her with her enduring hope and her disbelief about how the other half lives.

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Angel Coulby

The return to Boston of an ex-boyfriend – who is quite literally the one that got away – gives rise to two fantastic scenes of comedy and confrontation. As a ‘Southie’ from the same depressed background as Margaret, now made good as a doctor, Lloyd Owen provides a suitable spar to Staunton’s talents as the now successful man taunted for being “lace-curtain Irish”. And there’s a lovely performance from Angel Coulby as his wife. The tension and the comedy mount wonderfully as Lindsay-Abaire throws race, gender and questions of inequality into the mix.

The play is too fleeting, indeed fast-paced, to give any big theme its real dues; but if it’s thoughts you want provoking this is dynamite stuff for debate. The banter is brave and biting, while Margaret’s true desperation and the fact we continue to hope she really is one of those ‘good people’ give it heart as well as humour. The story is resolved in a courageously short epilogue held in a bingo hall, which shows what a fine plotter Lindsay-Abaire is. The play certainly deserves a full house.

Until 5 April 2014

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 6 March 2014 for The London Magazine

“Rapture, Blister, Burn” at Hampstead Theatre

Exciting American talent comes to the Hampstead Theatre with Gina Gionfriddo’s play Rapture, Blister, Burn, a clever take on the state of feminism that’s filled with insight and fun.

It’s based around middle-aged, successful “sexy scholar” Catherine, a demanding role for the spirited Emilia Fox, who returns to her home town to look after her mother. Catherine reconnects with old friends from Grad School, Gwen and Don, who married and settled down when she left town, and their narrow academic social world serves well to raise bigger questions. Adding Catherine’s mother (Polly Adam) and a young student, Avery, provides plenty of satisfying intergenerational content.

To be sure, it’s all highly contrived. Gionfriddo is unabashed by this. Catherine teaches a class to just Avery and Gwen, which becomes more like a confessional. As lectures about feminism go, I can’t imagine them getting much sprightlier, with plenty of humour provided by the arrogance of youth, the dissatisfaction of middle age and excellent one-liners. Emma Fielding handles the role of Gwen well, but Shannon Tarbet as Avery has the funnier lines.

Gionfriddo’s frequent collaborator Peter Dubois directs, and picks up the pace in the second half for the better. The characters don’t always convince, although Don, the flawed male of the piece (performed with style by Adam James), is carefully drawn and perhaps the most thought provoking.

It’s predictable that Catherine starts an affair, but this is the point at which Gionfriddo really gets to work. The twists and turns of a marital breakdown, observed again by both the elderly and the young, is dealt with bluntly and irreverently. The sense of humour is wicked and overpowers much studied thinking, but this stylish piece is sure to provoke debate.

Until 22 February 2014

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Written 23 January 2014 for The London Magazine

“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.

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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

“Hysteria” at Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatre’s new production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria is a significant revival, not least because the writer himself directs it. One of the most successful plays to mine the rich seam of psychoanalysis, it imagines Freud on the couch. Like the man himself, it explores trauma and humour in inspired fashion. This is a work of big ideas that boggles the mind and attempts to explain deep truths.

The action is set down the road from the theatre in Maresfield Gardens, during Freud’s exile in London just before the Second World War. The father of the unconscious approaches his death with plenty of humour. Antony Sher is magnificent in the lead; Freud joins Stanley Spencer and Primo Levi as famous figures Sher has embodied so well. Elements of farce abound as he hides a naked woman in his closet from his Doctor (David Horovitch – excellent) and a visitor paying homage, none other than Salvador Dali.

The scenes of farce are a delight. Adrian Schiller’s “doolally” Dali is superb and his accent a triumph. But the play soon develops into a tense exploration of Freud’s methods and the foundation of his movement. In an emotional performance as the unwanted guest in his bathroom, Lydia Wilson highlights one of Freud’s failures, a case study he presumptuously reported as a success, and a change in his theories that she questions. Her interrogation of him reveals his doubts and the trauma in his own life.

Johnson’s play is full of clever touches and is a close study of his subject. It can’t have hurt the farce that Freud’s study was full of erotic sculptures but picking out the Surrealist painter’s visit is inspired. The final tableau, depicting Freud’s dream, realised by Lez Brotherson’s superbly ambitious set, rises to the challenge of a problem Johnson highlights – that depicting the unconscious diminishes it – but can still create fine theatre.

Until 12 October 2013

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Alaistair Muir

Written 13 September 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