Tag Archives: Howard Davies

“The Plough And The Stars” at the National Theatre

There are no surprises here. Howard Davies’ new production, co-directed with Jeremy Herrin, is the quality affair you would expect from the veteran director. Utilising the National Theatre’s expert stage management, and with a typical respect for a classic text, this show drips class.

It’s a forgivable irony that Sean O’Casey’s play about the Irish Easter rising of 1916, which focuses so much on the lives of the poor, should receive such a luxurious treatment. Vicki Mortimer’s set appears impressively expensive – it takes a lot of money to look that cheap – while detail and care run through the whole show.

Stephen Kennedy
Stephen Kennedy

With a steely confidence, Davies and Herrin take us deep into the lives of those living in a Dublin tenement house. Flynn and Covey (Lloyd Hutchinson and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) argue over politics while an agnostic drunk, made loveable by Stephen Kennedy, looks on. A good deal of humour is injected (I’m not quite sure O’Casey expected so many laughs at socialism) with the drama coming from the more serious Jack Clitheroe, portrayed convincingly by Fionn Walton, the one man willing to fight, despite his wife’s protestations.

Justine Mitchell and Josie Walker
Justine Mitchell and Josie Walker

The action doesn’t get going until the second half but when fighting starts the trauma of the battle is intense. Suffering focuses on the women and it’s the actresses who steal this show. Two great renditions of battle-axe neighbours come from Justine Mitchell and Josie Walker. On opposing sides of the struggle, their sniping is full of wit, but when care for one another creeps out it’s genuine and moving. As Clitheroe’s pregnant wife, Nora, Judith Roddy has a traumatic role; driven “mad with terror”, her whole body becomes rigid in the play’s relentless finale.

Added to these fine performances is a double achievement on the part of this production. The history and its frustrating complexity are clear; O’Casey presents many arguing sides and the directors do this justice. Also understood is the aim of showing the effects of violence on the most vulnerable, making the piece strikingly relevant. With no sense of the contrived – just theatrical power – this is a grade-A show.

Until 22 October 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

 

“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

“The Silver Tassie” at the National Theatre

You are warned before entering the National Theatre’s new show, The Silver Tassie, “contains loud explosions, pyrotechnic effects and gunshots”. They aren’t kidding. Howard Davies’ production really is explosive – all credit to the technical crew and a team of designers – but all the whizz-bang effects can’t distract from the conclusion that it’s a tricky evening out.

Sean O’Casey’s play about World War I is famously difficult to stage. Though the story of sporting hero and winner of the eponymous trophy Harry Heegan is simple enough – showing his experience of war and then life as a cripple afterwards – the undoubtedly powerful language is complex and the influence Expressionist. I suspect it reads better on the page than it could possibly be delivered on stage.

And the hugely experienced director Davies, who I normally admire so much, does little to aid the delivery of O’Casey’s poetry. The cast seems lost on stage, struggling to fill the space no matter how dynamic the language. There seems little chance to form a connection with the characters. And as for the second act…

On the battlefield Davies uses noise, lights and explosions in an attempt to create a frightening, surreal world. It’s an honest attempt to deal with O’Casey’s experimentation. Unfortunately the action is incomprehensible and alienating. Theatregoers know war and song can go hand and hand (the recent revival of Oh! What a Lovely War makes an uncomfortable contrast with this show) but here, despite Stephen Warbeck being on board for the music, the results seem pretentious and almost farcical. Placing an emphasis on singing, surely it would have been wise to cast some strong vocalists?

THE SILVER TASSIE national theatre
Ronan Raftery

Should you decided to return after the interval, and I am sure many will not, you will be rewarded as the play returns to realism. There’s a fine performance from in the lead role. Now in a wheelchair and full of fury, Ronan Raftery is commanding and dedicated. There’s also strong acting from Harry’s former fiancée, played by Deirdre Mullins, and a fine double act from comedy commentators Sylvester and Simon (Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy). But the script deliberately lacks coherence and Davies embraces this flaw. Without those explosions to keep you awake this is just a confusing bore.

Until 3 July 2014

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 24 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“Children of the Sun” at the National Theatre

One of the many creative teams who have contributed to recent successes at the National Theatre, director Howard Davies and writer Andrew Upton – whose reputation rests on a series of adaptations of Russian classics – are back with Children of the Sun. Maxim Gorky’s play, adapted and directed with justified confidence, is fresh and vital. Also re-collaborating, designer Bunny Christie has created a stunning set that makes the most of the National’s Lyttelton stage.

A perceptive psychological drama about the “fools and idiots” in and around one family, there are love affairs galore in Children of the Sun. Intense Russians might be a cliché in hands less skilled then Upton’s, but here the morbid emotions and high-flown ideals engage. The diverse characters are so well drawn and developed that the actors can truly embrace their roles. From the “great nanniness” still living with this distinctly infantile family, played by Maggie McCarthy, to the man ostensibly in charge as head of the family, Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), the cast is uniformly impressive.

More than a moving family drama, Children of the Sun abounds with issues as well: it questions the role of art and science and the nature of society. Gorky the commentator, very much of his time, seems relevant with Upton on board. Hindsight is used but, thankfully for the drama, it feels as if anything might happen. The privileged Protasov is a scientist so obsessed with work that his family and the whole village suffer. The intelligentsia, to which he belongs, feel they are battling superstition – but you can’t blame the locals when it turns out they are being poisoned by his experiments. The play’s bloody, depressing conclusion shocks and stirs. The characters’ fates and the broader questions Gorky raises make for an explosive mix.

Until 14 July 2013

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Rupert Hubert Smith

Written 20 April 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Last of the Haussmans” at the National Theatre

What a cast: making a return to the stage after over a decade, national treasure Julie Walters is joined at the National Theatre by the equally superb Helen McCrory and Rory Kinnear. You might think their presence in any play should be enough, but even these performers can’t hide the problems in new playwright Stephen Beresford’s debut, The Last of the Haussmans.

The story of an old hippy, Judy – played by Walters with great energy – and her discontented family, starts well: it’s a gentle comedy, with Chekhovian spirit and naughtiness on the right side of rude. Kinnear is captivating and McCrory wonderfully deadpan, while her long-suffering daughter, played by Isabella Laughland, does remarkably well to hold her own against the more experienced thespians.

But after the interval Beresford’s attempts to add a serious edge fall flat. It seems we have another play about the baby boomer generation, and the disgruntled offspring’s desperation for property, but this now familiar theme feels tacked on and unconvincing. There is little exploration of what Judy’s politics were – surely more than just something to laugh at – and the sheer self-centeredness of her children beggars belief.

Director Howard Davies and the cast’s comic skills fail to hide the one-dimensionality of Beresford’s characters. Following her script, Walter’s portrayal becomes slightly too broad and the fate of the children a touch sordid. Ultimately, the family’s demise fails to move or hold real interest. At the risk of sounding uncharitable, it’s probably no bad thing that they are, indeed, the last of the Haussmans.

Until 10 October 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 22 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“Hay Fever” at the Noël Coward Theatre

The winter is over and what better way to clear the head than a trip to see Noel Coward’s Hay Fever? Howard Davies’ fabulous new production is spring-like in its appeal; fresh and life affirming, it positively bounces along and is a sure hit.

Coward’s comedy about a bohemian family and their unfortunate weekend guests is one of his finest and liveliest works. The Bliss family are wonderful characters, dripping with 1920s glamour. In keeping with their ecstatic nomenclature, the Blisses are out of this world – inhabiting an altogether more theatrical sphere.

Lindsay Duncan is perfect as the matriarch Judith. Not that one would dare use that term in front of her. Sexily voiced and revelling in her “celebrated actress glamour,” she casts everyone in a play of her own making – whether they like it or not. Drama follows her like an expensive scent, with hilarious results. And not good drama either – it takes talent to act this badly. Duncan delights as she hams it up creating ‘scenes’ that include her baffled visitors.

L-R Olivia Colman (Myra Arundel) and Freddie Fox (Simon Bliss) in Hay Fever at the Noel Coward Theatre. Photo credit Catheri
Olivia Colman and Freddie Fox

Hay Fever has a strong supporting cast, including rising star Freddie Fox, whose cheek bones alone make him perfect for period drama, and Jeremy Northam, who gives a charmingly understated performance. Two more members of this talented ensemble must be highlighted. Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays Judith’s daughter, getting a laugh out of every line, and Olivia Coleman is Myra – the only guest to challenge the Bliss phenomenon. Far more at home in London, Myra cattily accuses Judith of “rusticating” in the country. It’s a glorious put-down, delivered sublimely in a play full of clever insults, which is sort of ironic, since nothing but praise should be written about this play or this production.

Until 2 June 2012

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 27 February 2012 for The London Magazine

“Juno and the Paycock” at the National Theatre

This new production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is the first collaboration between the National and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. It’s the quality affair you might expect – a classic play with an impressive cast that is scrupulously directed.

It is the story of the Boyle family, poverty stricken, living in an Ireland divided by political turmoil. O’Casey’s husband and wife team, known by their mythically inspired nicknames, are such charismatic characters that their plight packs a real punch. Their children, Mary and Jerry, also have demons to battle with, fighting for independence in very different ways and subtly conveying problems O’Casey’s society faced. The family’s troubles seem about to be ended by an unexpected financial windfall – but circumstances and politics catch up with them.

The strongest aspect of the production is the performances on offer. Ciaran Hinds’ Jack Boyle really is the magnificent peacock-like character his appellation claims – strutting around the stage and fooling nobody except himself. Ronan Raftery’s excellent portrayal of his son, broken physically and emotionally, couldn’t be a stronger counterpoint. O’Casey’s female roles are cherished amongst actresses and both Sinéad Cusack and Clare Dunne are superb. Dunne plays the daughter, bringing out the beauty in O’Casey’s language. With Cusack, this poetry becomes a prayer as the family disintegrates around her.

Bob Crowley’s design reflects the squalor Dublin’s magnificent Georgian terraces were reduced to in the 1920s, but we have little sense of the overcrowding suffered from. The set seems overblown and the same could be said for the humour; there are moments in Juno and the Paycock where conditions don’t seem that bad – the camaraderie O’Casey hints at is occasionally overplayed. But, for the most part Howard Davies direction is assured – the plot speeds along, embracing the thrilling story line, and the tragedy of the play is deeply moving. If Davies’ impeccably careful work disappoints it is really because it contains no surprises. This is a conservative affair that is easy to respect but difficult to fall in love with.

Until 26 February 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

Written 18 November 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Cherry Orchard” at the National Theatre

Director Howard Davies is well known for his work on Russian classics. Last year, his production of The White Guard did phenomenally well at the Olivier Awards. His new production of The Cherry Orchard is a quality affair from a director who doesn’t rest on his laurels.

Davies is working again with designer Bunny Christie. Her set offers the first glimpse that this is something different: there’s no trace of quaint dacha here and not a samovar in sight (for that, you have to nip into the National’s bookshop for a particularly twee display), a set is a huge barn of a place, that really is dilapidated, whose owners are in dire financial straits.

Andrew Upton joins the team again with a text that is wilfully modern. Every effort has been made to make Chekhov’s story of the landowning Ranyevskaya seem contemporary. It will certainly jar on some ears. Maybe in our credit- crunched times her poverty rings a chord, but Ranyevskaya isn’t a member of the squeezed middle. She’s a frightful snob, yet her obstinate refusal to recognise the reality of her situation is conveyed with charm by Zoe Wanamaker.

There is little sense of Ranyevskaya’s journey in this production. Like her brother Gaev (James Laurenson) she seems little aware of the times she is living in. A sense of history that Chekov certainly saw as a theme of his work is diluted, the production seems more immediate and less didactic, but it’s a trade off that is debateable.

Wanamaker’s performance is generous, allowing the other characters to shine out: stories of lovers of different ages and status, all given equal weight, bring out the plays rich complexity. Kenneth Cranham is a truly revolting Firs, playing with Emily Taaffe’s Dunyasha with great cruelty. Mark Bonnar is convincing as Petya Tromfimov, one of those scholastic characters Russian dramatists love that are so difficult to perform; his impassioned relationship with Anya (Charity Wakefield) is a highlight of the evening.

Lopakhin, the merchant whose capitalism is so much at the core of The Cherry Orchard’s historic concerns, is played by Conleth Hill with passion. Hill is perfectly farouche and, if not quite believable as the businessman who could save the estate, his fragility makes his the most moving performance of the night.

All the casts’ performances are mobile, running around in a play that is usually static. The party scene is particularly raucous. These Russians know how to live it up but, of course, not how to live. The pain as they all try to find a place for themselves in their changing world easily transcends historical circumstance. Davies preserves the philosophical dilemma at the heart of The Cherry Orchard while presenting it with fresh eyes.

Until 13 August 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 18 May 2011 for The London Magazine

“All My Sons” at the Apollo Theatre

Now is a good time to revive Arthur Miller’s 1947 masterpiece All My Sons. The story of a war profiteer whose faulty goods killed U.S. airmen, is so full of moral dilemmas that it is always entertaining and powerful. But currently, as corporate responsibility is in the news and questions of social justice become vital in our increasingly divided society, All My Sons has become more important than ever.

This summer, at the Apollo Theatre, All My Sons gets the production it deserves. William Dudley’s beautiful set wins you over before the action even starts. It is the perfect stage for what at first seems to be a homely drama. In the skilful hands of director Howard Davies, this is developed into a perfect mix of touching domestic tension and complex politics expressed with intellectual vigour.

The dual concern for both family matters and society as a whole is also well expressed by the uniformly brilliant cast. Stephen Campbell Moore plays Chris Keller – having survived the war he is now in the position of taking over the family business. A devoted son and noble man, he wishes to marry his dead brother’s sweetheart – Jemima Rooper gives a superb performance in this role. Desperate for love and sharing high principles the couple are haunted by mistakes and lies that began long ago.

Chris’s parents, Kate and Joe, are presented first as a devoted older couple, so comfortable together that they share mannerisms and know each others thoughts. We come to see they are also linked by the lies they tell each other and the world. Zoë Wanamaker’s fragile Kate is hard as steel underneath. David Suchet as Joe, has the slightly harder job of showing the opposite – a genial father figure who is a mess of nerves deep down. Both actors are impeccable throughout.

Kate and Joe have a “talent for lying” and this is where the performances become truly remarkable. A frightening conviction is revealed when their backs are against the wall. Right up until the end both of them seek to control and manipulate. These are technically wonderful performances but there is even more to it than that. Wanamaker and Suchet’s skills have a purpose, their craft is well applied and functions to bring home Miller’s message. Together, they make this the play you simply must see this summer.

Until 2 October 2010

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 3 June 2010 for The London Magazine

The White Guard at the National Theatre

Designer Bunny Christie has done such an exemplary job on the sets for The White Guard –  Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece depicting the mayhem of the Russian Civil War, now showing at The National Theatre – that it makes sense to tell the story through her work.

Set first in the Turbin family household we’re drawn into the close, communal nature of their life. They are members of the Tsarist White Guard who protect a puppet politician installed by the Germans to control the Ukraine in the winter of 1918. The set gracefully retracts to the back of the Lyttelton stage, becoming distant and threatened as the story moves to the Hetman’s decrepit palace just as he is about to flee, with the vast, cold room depicting the corruption and chaos of the state. Next we’re plunged into to scenes of war; the barracks of the rebelling Nationalists, ready to fight both the Germans and the approaching Bolsheviks, and a school gymnasium commandeered by the White Guard who have come to appreciate that they have become an anachronism in a political vacuum.

This is a family drama set in turbulent times. Daniel Flynn plays elder brother Alexei Turbin with determination. He is a man of great courage but also a thinking soldier.  Flynn manages to show bravery but also fear about the future. Younger brother Nikolai is played by Richard Henders with great charm. In managing to convey ambiguity over whether Nikolai idolises his brother or the military more his fate becomes deeply moving. Justine Mitchell, cast as their sister Elena, is the only female role in the play. She manages this complex role superbly acting not just as sister but mother, friend and lover to her brother’s comrades visiting the home.

If this all sounds very worthy don’t be put off. True, The White Guard is a fascinating investigation into the impact of war and offers insight into politics. Yes, it shows the power of ideas and identity to sculpt our lives and behaviour, but Upton’s new version of the play deals lightly with all this and saves the work from any pomposity. Possibly because Bulgakov’s own adaption was so heavily censored, Upton has a sense of freedom. His writing is delightful, fast-paced, down to earth and comical with plenty of force when it comes to dramatic moments.

Best of all he has given a script that the cast can revel in and director Howard Davies uses his great experience to provide them with room and inspiration enough to result in performances that seem uniformly fresh and natural.

The visitors to the Turbin home all seem to fall in love with Elena. It isn’t just because she is the only woman around – Mitchell’s performance shows a vitally alive, captivating woman. Paul Higgins and Nick Fletcher as Captains in The Guard both convince as soldiers under pressure and men in love. Pip Carter who plays Larion, a visiting student who provides an alternative to the militarism around him, has some great comic moments. Kevin Doyle as Elena’s husband and deputy war minister serves as an effective foil to the many admirable men in her life with his amusing incompetence and self-obsession. Elena refers to them all as her boys – but the man of the piece is Conleth Hill.

Hill plays Lieutenant Shervinsky. We see him as the perfect charmer wooing Elena.  She and the audience can’t help but laugh with him. As aide-de-camp to the Hetman, he is superior towards the footman, a fantastic little role Barry McCarthy excels in, and deferential to his boss, played by Anthony Calf in great form. As the political turmoil increases we see his character adapt to survive, winning the love of Elena and revealing a deep sincere affection. His character is the man happiest to adapt to the future that the White Guard feared. His portrayal is so charismatic we are happy that he can do so. With him around the Russian Revolution becomes a lot more interesting.

Until July 7 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 26 March 2010 for The London Magazine