Tag Archives: Imelda Staunton

“Follies” at the National Theatre

This lavish production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical is a triumph for director Dominic Cooke. This is a piece that divides opinion. While its songs have gained fame, the rambling story of past lives, set around a reunion of former Broadway performers, has too slender a book by James Goldman. But in Cooke’s hands this feast of melancholic nostalgia is coherent and compelling. With no small help from the Olivier’s revolve, a static story is made to at least feel dynamic. The tone is serious, suitably so, with any camp fiercely controlled. The cast is huge, the orchestra lush and Vicki Mortimer’s design will surely garner her an award for the costumes alone. The ‘ghosts’ of lives past appear with a gorgeous array of headgear, while the late 1960s costumes of those meeting one last time before a theatre is demolished are just as meticulous and impressive.

Imelda Staunton as playing Sally and Janie Dee as Phyllis

Follies provides the irony of performers at the top of their game pretending that their careers are over. Imelda Staunton continues her reign as Queen of Musicals by playing Sally and is matched by Janie Dee as Phyllis. The women performed and dated together but have ended up in sad marriages with the wrong men. Sharing their unhappiness are the husbands, Ben and Buddy, brilliantly performed by Philip Quast and Peter Forbes respectively. The women have the stronger numbers. Staunton delivers the hit Losing My Mind impeccably and her hysterical devotion to the man who got away manages against all odds to be convincing. Dee is the wicked witch of the piece, getting the laughs and showing the emptiness of her character’s successful life with pathos. But of all the mid-to-late-life crisis on offer here (and there’s plenty of it) Phyllis is the only one that entertains. There’s young talent in the show, too: Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig both do well as the immature versions of the men but, while Zizi Strallen and Alex Young ably perform their roles as the younger women, the parts themselves are frustratingly thinly written.

Zizi Strallen as Young Phyllis, Alex Young as Young Sally, Fred Haig as Young Buddy and Adam Rhys-Charles as Young Ben

Given its size, Follies is a major investment to stage – a concert production was my only experience so expectations were high. To say this isn’t Sondheim’s best work still makes it head and shoulders above most musicals. But some of the lyrics are strangely flat and a couple of numbers, which take us back the early days of Broadway, of primarily academic interest. It’s the book that causes most problems – much of the show is a series of introductions – that fail to excite – about characters not met again. It’s a poor build up to a prolonged conclusion – the central quartet’s individual “follies” numbers that feel like ground already trodden. The stakes simply aren’t high enough to truly engage and the characters’ angst start to look like whinging. Musicals can cover serious topics – nobody proves that better than Sondheim – but here we just have a collection of personal crises that ends up dispiriting.

Until 3 January 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“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

“Gypsy” at the Savoy Theatre

Believe the hype. Jonathan Kent’s triumphant revival of Gypsy, coming from the Chichester Festival Theatre, deserves every one of the many stars critics have lavished upon it. And, as for stars, Imelda Staunton’s much lauded performance in the lead really is a triumph, attracting every superlative imaginable.

Of course, it helps that the musical itself is wonderful. Jule Styne’s score has hits and a satisfying coherence that builds power in a symphonic fashion. Arthur Laurents’ book is perfection: powerful family relationships and fundamental emotions elaborated through the story of a pushy showbiz mother, touring America’s dying Vaudeville circuit, and the bitter success of her daughter becoming the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are justly legendary, from ‘Have an Egg Roll Mr Goldstone’ to the phenomenal ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’.

This production of Gypsy has the highest standards. It feels like a bit of Broadway in the West End. Kent’s handling is loving – he knows he’s crafting a gem and creates a tremendous energy. The show sounds gloriously brassy, which is just right, while the detailed, mobile sets from Anthony Ward embody a ‘Hi, ho the glamorous life’ of travelling performers. There are strong performances from Gemma Sutton and Lara Pulver as Momma Rose’s long-suffering daughters, especially Pulver and she blossoms into the striptease sensation that is Gypsy.

Against this flawless backdrop, Staunton excels as Momma Rose. Surely there can be few roles more daunting – remember, the critic Frank Rich described the part as musical theatre’s unlikely answer to King Lear. And think of what big shoes there are to fill. Staunton’s comedy skills are the best around and, in Gypsy, her acting shines. When Staunton wants a laugh – she got it. But Momma Rose is grown with subtlety, her fragility well established before her final breakdown. This makes the famous scene of ‘Rose’s Turn’ startlingly brave and painfully real.

Curtain up until 28 November 2015

www.gypsythemusical.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“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.

HTgoodpeopleprod2013JP_00980
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

“Sweeney Todd” at the Adelphi Theatre

Arriving in London from rave reviews at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Kent’s production of Sweeney Todd is the must-see show of the summer. Arguably Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, certainly his most famous work, it’s a musical that’s as intellectually stimulating as it is approachable.

Kent and his team make the most of each show-stopping number: almost to the production’s detriment as the evening is in danger of turning into a collection of hits rather than flowing as the excellent book by Hugh Wheeler intends it to. To be fair this really isn’t Kent’s fault – the audience response is rapturous, the atmosphere fantastic.

There is plenty to applaud. Michael Ball is remarkable in the title role. His transformation into the demon barber of Fleet Street makes him unrecognisable. More to the point, he gets to show what a fine actor he can be and remind us what a great voice he has. He does justice to Sondheim’s challenging score and embraces Sweeney’s tragic predicament in a stark manner that avoids camp.

Sweeney’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, is a role to kill for and Imelda Staunton has a great deal of fun with it. Her comedy is spot on and her voice strong. In love with Sweeney, Lovett’s descent into crime is swift, inevitable and wickedly funny, giving the production great pace. Staunton’s is a cracking performance that never slows and continually impresses.

Several recent productions of Sweeney Todd have been performed by opera companies reverent towards the score and resourced in a manner you might miss here – the chorus seems small and at times unsatisfying. There’s also a suspicion that Anthony Ward’s set feels a little lost on the large Adelphi stage; Sweeney’s London hardly teems with people, even if Mark Henderson’s lighting design creates atmosphere in abundance. But such cavils certainly won’t stop you enjoying the evening. This isn’t the perfect production of Sweeney Todd but it’s within a whisker of it.

Until 22 September 2012

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 March 2012 for The London Magazine

“A Delicate Balance” at the Almeida Theatre

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is the story of an elderly couple whose twilight years are disturbed by an alcoholic sister-in-law, a daughter’s failed marriage, and their best friends’ nervous breakdowns. A thought-provoking meditation on the duties of family and friendship, as well as an examination of the American dream, this is a fantastic piece of writing that’s ambitiously broad, but so intelligent and challenging that it is always absorbing.

Albee’s observations are inspired. Often more startling than sure-footed, they can jolt an audience to attention. Agnes and Tobias, the elderly couple in whose house we, and all the characters in the play come to stay in, form the focus of observations on age and gender. Agnes fears that she will come “adrift” in senility and claims her husband’s life has been easier than hers – all men have to worry about is “making ends meet until they meet the end”.

Unfortunately, the writing here is far stronger than the production. Albee has created a stifling social world of guarded conversations, full of innuendo, but director James Macdonald does it little justice. Desperation is conveyed too quickly, with no sense of the slide into apathy.

This fault matters less with characters clearly on the edge. Harry and Edna are the best friends who seek refuge due to their inexplicable fear. Diana Hardcastle’s panic is conveyed superbly, likewise her battle to stay and claim the ‘rights’ of her friendship with Agnes. Imelda Staunton plays Clare, the alcoholic sister-in-law, with wit and perspicacity.

Tim Pigott-Smith (Tobias) in A Delicate Balance at the Almeida Theatre. Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Tim Pigott-Smith as Tobias

But the production falters with its central characters and the talented cast never satisfactorily deals with Albee’s articulacy. Penelope Wilton’s Agnes is too magisterial and Tim Pigott-Smith’s Tobias always so close to a breakdown it is hard to imagine him as the conventional man he has always seemed to be.

The skeletons in this family’s closet are so easily exposed you wonder if the wardrobe door was ever closed. Macdonald’s indelicate production destroys Albee’s cleverly constructed rhythm – too much weight is given to calls to activism and not enough to either the humour or humanity of the piece.

Until 2 July 2011

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 13 May 2011 for The London Magazine