Tag Archives: Harold Pinter Theatre

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Casting doesn’t get more exciting than this. For the first revival of Edward Albee’s masterpiece since his death last year, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill take on the iconic roles of George and Martha, the feuding couple whose frustrated lives on a New England college campus are full of twisted alcohol-fuelled fantasies. Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway, as the younger Honey and Nick, join them for a party – unfortunates drawn into troubled lives for a fight night they will never forget. The stage brims over with talent for this astounding play.

George and Martha’s “exercise” of combat is frightening. Their aim at one another is practised and potent, themed on his stagnant career and her drinking and adultery. Their “games” escalate ferociously – and they start out pretty vicious. Staunton and Hill convey the complicity between the couple perfectly, who display a mix of resignation and excitement over their perverse sport. The final scene, revealing who is really the most damaged, shows how carefully constructed both performances have been. Yet it is the younger cast who offer the most insight into the play. The 1966 film shows how easily these roles can be eclipsed, but Honey and Nick are more than sacrificial pawns. Potts and Treadaway work to create a convincing relationship, a foil to their elders. Potts does a great drunk (never to be underestimated) and Treadaway adds an edge to his “smug” character with cold ambition and repressed physicality.

Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots
Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots

Yet the production is not an unqualified success. It’s too funny. Yes, Albee’s text is full of wit but here the humour is blunted and misogyny unquestioned. Director James Macdonald hasn’t mistakenly stumbled into his approach and clearly gets what he wants – big belly laughs. But it is a disappointment. Take a moment of physical violence (noting how rare and strange it is) and Honey’s reaction to it: Potts gets a roar of laughter but this should be a moment of raw bestiality. Macdonald has stripped the play of surreal touches, such as George’s ironic obsession with order. Deliberate mistakes, over job titles, locations and dates, are treated glibly when they should be unsettling. Too much of the comedy is treated as sparkling and fresh – it should be fetid and uncomfortable. George and Martha’s “flagellation” is sordid stuff, but here it feels like a drawing room comedy.

Until 27 May 2017

www.whosafraidofvirginiawoolf.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“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

“Relative Values” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

A new production of Noël Coward’s Relative Values has arrived in London from the Theatre Royal Bath. It’s another sparkling comedy for the West End, boasting star performances from Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin, and with respectful direction from Trevor Nunn that is sure to please aficionados of the author.

This is the one where Lady Marshwood (Hodge) finds her son has gone and got himself engaged to a film star (the perfectly cast Leigh Zimmerman), who happens to be the estranged sister of her maid Moxie (Quentin). It’s simply not on. Hodge and Quentin are spot on, making the most of each acerbic line and convincing as two women who have grown close despite the class divide.

As one line in the play points out, this is a comedy idea not to be sniffed at – especially when Moxie, to avoid awkwardness, receives a promotion from maid to companion/secretary. Cue excruciating after dinner drinks and an explosive confrontation between Moxie and her sister that will have you in stitches. All this is aided by the butler, naturally a clever chap with a philosophical bent, performed by none other than Rory Bremner, who makes a great West End debut.

You certainly get your money’s worth. Relative Values is long and Nunn does little to speed it up. It’s a valid decision but I am not sure films introducing each act, providing historical background, are really needed. Some minor roles could be pepped up. But the whole thing, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set included, drips quality.

Never underestimate Coward. Producers don’t – look at Blythe Spirit  packing them in at the Gielgud. It now seems barely believable that he was once regarded as an unfashionable writer. His observations about class and the changing times of the early 50s, that Nunn takes Coward’s lead in emphasising, leave me cold but then I sometimes feel pretty lonely in these Downton Abbey obsessed times. Coward’s insights into human nature are still pointed and serve his comedy marvelously well. And at the heart of this play Quentin and Hodge make a great team: queens of comedy reigning gloriously.

Until 21 June 2014

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 15 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“Mojo” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Jez Butterworth’s play, Mojo, was a huge hit in 1995 for the Royal Court and its revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre is a welcome event. The première work from a playwright destined for huge success, it’s set in gangland Soho in the late 1950s, with the owner of a nightclub and would-be music promoter murdered. Menace is continually offset by ineffectual gangsters, and then reinjected by mental instability and manic tension. It’s a playwright’s script, full of inspiration from modern masters, with the language poetically reflecting the new craze for rock and roll. A fine plot, superb characters and serious comedy secure wide appeal. There’s high drama, breathtaking suspense and laughs out loud from a sense of humour that is darkly, madly, deeply funny.

Daniel Mays (Potts) and Rupert Grint (Sweets) in Mojo. Photo credit Simon Annand
Daniel Mays and Rupert Grint

For this revival, the focus is sure to be on a stellar cast. And they don’t disappoint. Brendan Coyle takes time off Downtown Abbey to play the man ready to step into his assassinated boss’s shoes, claiming possession of the club while trying, and failing, to control his staff. He has to deal with Sweets and Potts, a pill-popping double act played by Rupert Grint, of Harry Potter fame, who makes a fine West End debut and can’t be blamed for being upstaged by the excellent Daniel Mays, who has the audience in the palm of his hand. It’s just as hard to ignore rising star Colin Morgan who gives a superb performance as another employee. In common with his colleagues, Morgan shows the thin skin underneath the machismo and how these men see the club, with all its power politics, as a home and family as well as career.

But it is Ben Whishaw who is the real star of the night. In the role of Baby, abused son to the murdered owner, and a damaged character who bursts into song and runs around with a sword, he manages to make both activities just as frightening. It’s his finest performance since Hamlet back in 2004 and makes you ponder about connections between the two plays. Avoiding plot spoilers, it’s fair to say something is rotten with the state of the nightclub and, if this insane heir-apparent isn’t indecisive, the court politics and innocent victims ring bells. It’s a resonance that indicates how rich Butterworth’s play is – concerning men, their place in the world and with one another, that run deep. This Mojo is box-office magic that lives up to expectations and really is as good as it sounds.

Until 8 February 2014

Photos by Simon Annand

Written 16 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“Merrily We Roll Along” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Another transfer, another success for the Menier Chocolate Factory – Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along has just opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It is the show’s first presentation in the West End, which seems remarkable since it is one of the master-composer’s greatest musicals – a complex work with the potential to appeal to a wide audience. The Menier’s production deserves its new location, showcasing the piece to perfection.

Making her directorial debut, renowned singer and Sondheim soulmate Maria Friedman excels. Under her supervision, Merrily We Roll Along serves as a tremendous vehicle for its leading trio: Damian Humbley, Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers, who star as Charley, Mary and Frank. Just as excellent are Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle as the women in Frank’s life. The latter benefits from an additional number, requested from Sondheim by Friedman, that makes a rollicking opener to the second act. With the chorus the production’s modest origins reveal themselves – positively – this is a mature team that sounds fantastic.

The musical is played backwards: we meet our heroes at the height of their careers, but bitter and weary. And in the finale we see the college chums ready to take on the world. It’s a device used to great effect and adds layers of meaning to music that emblazons itself on the memory. The score becomes simpler as the evening progresses, but feels richer with each number – a magical trick to pull off.

Nothing is lost in this production. The performances make the most of the narrative device of hindsight, but keep it sincere and never gimmicky. Merrily We Roll Along is clever stuff but it’s intelligent not pompous. All in all, it’s a brilliant piece that mustn’t be missed.

Until 25 July 2013

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 2 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Old Times” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

The scenario is straightforward: a woman visits her old, now married, friend after many years. The exposition less so. As the three reminisce, memories become distorted and history manipulated, as they battle for supremacy in their accounts of the past. Old Times is a fascinating exploration of relationships and has a mysterious edge, it keeps the truth about this trio hidden, and as a result this play is as gripping as it is intelligent.

Director Ian Rickson is experienced with Harold Pinter’s work, and it shows. The writer loved triangular relationships, he was a master with them, and this skill is matched in a careful, rich, production. The acting is intense, intentionally affected, with every word and gesture full of potential: the possibility of a laugh or a slap. The dialogue is a constant competition, and the heavyweight cast – Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell – all excel at it. Each manages to traverse the fine line between humour and suspense that is peculiar to Pinter. It’s a surprise to see how much fun they seem to have. Sewell brings an impishness to his role, at times camp, as well as the requisite menace as his character tries to dominate the group. His development into what Pinter described as “a man defeated by women” is a huge achievement. Scott Thomas and Williams bring real charge and their every physical interaction bristles with sexual tension.

A common theory about Old Times is that the two actresses play different sides of the same person, a concept given weight here by Scott Thomas and Williams alternating their roles. But some (or all?) of the characters might be dead, in some kind of Satre-esque Hell, or they might just be plain silly with some peculiar kinks going on. Whatever your idea Old Times is always captivating.

For my money this is a problem play that you aren’t supposed to solve. The wonder of it is in its construction, like the dynamics of the relationships that it explores – it’s enough to see these picked apart and rebuilt over and over. Pinter toys with the audience. The joy of Rickson’s production is to see that game played so well.

Until 6 April 2013

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 4 February 2013 for The London Magazine

“Death and the Maiden” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden, is a fantastic vehicle for a star actress. Making her West End debut in the role of Paulina, a former political prisoner still haunted by trauma years later, Thandie Newton instantly establishes a febrile fragility. When chance leads to her encountering the man who tortured and raped her, she unleashes a manic power to exact a stunning revenge.

Newton is an avenging fury, waving around a gun in a most unnerving manner, but she is always articulate – tragically aware of her “irreparable” condition and focusing intensely on the play’s questions about justice and tolerance. Any fears about Newton’s inexperience in the theatre are banished by Peter McKintosh’s design, forcing her to the front of the stage as a commanding presence. This is a bold performance bringing out the pathos as well as the grotesque anger of Paulina’s impossible situation.

Newton is aided by strong performances from her co-stars. Anthony Calf plays Dr Miranda, the man she accuses, captures and interrogates, in chilling style. Toying with the possibility of his innocence as he begs for his life, Calf shows us a real person – not just a monster. Paulina’s husband is “caught in the middle” of them both: in conflict because he loves his wife but doubts her sanity, because of his high ideals, and also because his recent appointment as a political crimes investigator means that his career is at stake. Tom Goodman-Hill gives an outstanding performance. Rational and passionate by turns, he is tremendous.

Dorfman’s text is constructed to transcend its vague setting in some South American state and focus on themes of retribution and resolution. Alongside this, Jeremy Herrin’s production enhances the play’s potential as a taut thriller, and his direction grips like a vice, making this one of the most exciting nights out in the West End as well as one of the most powerful.

Until 21 January 2012

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Written 20 October 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Children’s Hour” at the Comedy Theatre

At the interval of The Children’s Hour, I happened to overhear a young audience member’s confusion. “What is the scandal?” he asked. “Is it because they are lesbians?” It could be that accusing schoolteachers of being gay, the central plot of the play, is now so outmoded it doesn’t even make sense, or that the child is just expecting something more lurid. Either way the perplexity doesn’t bode well – and yet The Children’s Hour works and proves to be a terrific night out.

It is easy to guess why director Ian Rickson took the risk – The Children’s Hour  has great roles for women. And the stellar cast should all share top billing. Elisabeth Moss makes an assured West End debut playing one of the accused teachers, Martha, with convincing aggression. She looks only slightly less comfortable on stage than her colleague Karen, played by Keira Knightley. After her modest debut in last year’s The Misanthrope, Knightly is impressive, playing an ambitious woman whose life falls apart in the face of malicious gossip. At times, she is a commanding presence on the stage.

The legendary Ellen Burstyn gives a performance of quiet brilliance as the teacher’s self-righteous scourge; it’s her desperation to do ‘good’ that persuades her to believe her granddaughter Mary’s story, cribbed from a book the girls have been passing amongst themselves. Mary has overheard the women visiting each other’s rooms and seen things she can only whisper about, blackmailing others to follow her. It isn’t that the story is convincing – it’s the paranoia of the adults that gives it power. Bryony Hannah plays this “dark child” wonderfully. As an actress she has had plenty of practice playing adolescents, and it’s paid off with an uncannily convincing performance of thrilling intensity.

Hannah’s performance is very much in keeping with Rickson’s strategy for The Children’s Hour. His direction wrenches every bit of tension from the text and he is aided by Mark Thompson’s austere set design and music from Stephen Warbeck. Lancet, New England, is a frigid place – probably close to Salem I’d guess – and Hellman, like her close contemporary Arthur Miller, is very much concerned with witch hunts.

While The Children’s Hour is an unsettling portrayal of how a sexual minority was treated in 1930s America, gay rights are really just a foil for larger concerns about the dangers of righteousness. In opening up her play to this larger issue, Hellman guaranteed its relevance for the future. Rickson and his cast get the benefits of good old-fashioned writing along with a foresight that makes this play carry considerable weight today.

Until 7 May 2011

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 10 February 2011 for The London Magazine

“Birdsong” at the Comedy Theatre

Sebastian Faulks’ much-loved 1993 novel, Birdsong, was one of those books you saw everyone reading on the tube. A page-turner with depth, it seemed to cry out for an adaptation. Rachel Wagstaff’s version, now showing at the Comedy Theatre, is a dutiful effort that should please fans of the text.

The stage version certainly doesn’t plod. The first act deals with our hero Stephen Wraysford’s affair with Isabelle Azaire. They fall in love while he is staying with her and her husband in northern France, run off together and then separate, all in fifty minutes. Action then moves to the trenches of the First World War, where we see Stephen as a broken man. The Armistice heralds his final encounter with Isabelle, culminating in a tenuous yet beautiful sense of reconciliation.

Wagstaff packs too much of the novel into the evening and should have been more adventurous with her selection. Like John Napier’s clever design, which literally emphasises the book, the three-hour show seems intimidated by the novel’s success. You start to think a mini-series might have been a better idea: TV would have more time for the story and it would solve the problem of canned birdsong, which is never going to ring true in the theatre.

Trevor Nunn’s direction is fascinating. Nunn has learned lessons from his recent success at the Menier Chocolate Factory where the small size of the venue led to an intense production of A Little Night Music. Now, in Birdsong, he concentrates on the intimate scenes appropriate to a love story. The danger is that these occasionally look a little lost on a West End stage, but the strategy is sound – he is playing to the production’s strengths, namely, the cast.

Birdsong brims with quality performances. Nicholas Farrell plays Isabelle’s betrayed husband and then the Captain who tutors Stephen in the trenches, and handles both roles marvellously. Iain Mitchell has less to do, playing a local French dignitary and the regiment’s Colonel, but he provides some much needed light relief and should be satisfied that he gives the impression of being wasted in both roles.

It’s the leads that make the evening. Ben Barnes plays Wraysford and Genevieve O’Reilly Isabelle. Their chemistry is fantastic and free of period cliché. O’Reilly manages to show the stifling home life she escapes from without protesting too much and maintain sympathy when her actions seem brutal. Barnes is even better, playing a passionate man without giving any time to nonsense about stiff upper lips and coming across as a true individual we warm to. These fresh performances give the play its necessary emotional punch. They are so powerful that suddenly the birdsong sounds genuine after all.

Until 15 January 2011

www.ambassadortickets.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 1 October 2010 for The London Magazine