Tag Archives: Janie Dee

“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

“Hand to God” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Puppets, on stage and screen, often misbehave. The simple sock in Robert Askins’ play, created to perform Bible stories as part of a church project, is as foul-mouthed and frisky as any teenage boy. And that’s pretty much the drive and destination of this funny, crowd-pleasing Broadway hit. Said to demonically possess our hero Jason, the puppet, like the devil, has all the best lines, delivering outrage and a brief investigation of religion. Better still, there’s tension and tenderness as the puppet reflects his owner’s fears, a mother and son relationship and the pain of recent bereavement. Travelling with the show is director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, creating a polished, confident feel and benefitting from a heavenly cast for this devilish comedy.

Hand-To-God-Vaudeville-302

Jemima Rooper is particularly impressive as a well-meaning potential girlfriend for Jason. Also landing laughs are Kevin Mains and Neil Pearson as, respectively, a small-town bad boy and the local pastor, both shockingly in thrall to Jason’s mother. Here’s a brilliant role for Janie Dee who excels as Margery – it’s hard to pin down whether her husband’s death or his miserable life have done the most damage. It’s Margery’s son who is the focus, going off the rails in manic (and bloody) style: a star role for Harry Melling, and performed faultlessly. With precise comedy timing, superb puppetry and accomplished physicality, Melling brings an intensity to the role that carries the show – this is one actor who’s no puppet.

Until 11 June 2016

www.handtogod.co.uk

“The Seagull” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Given that The Seagull opens with its hero Konstantin putting on an outdoor performance, Regent’s Park feels a pretty good match for Chekhov’s play. The stunning venue is enhanced by Jon Bausor’s splendid design – a giant mirror hangs above the action, literally adding another dimension to reflect upon. Matthew Dunster’s production looks fantastic, but sadly there’s too much chasing after laughs so the play falls curiously flat.

The problem isn’t so much with Torben Betts’ new adaptation of the play – although the language is sometimes too direct, it can be good to shake up a classic. This version is easy to follow and feels modern. Rather, it’s Dunster’s emphasis on the comedy; he gets plenty of laughs but the humour doesn’t build and the play’s more poignant moments feel thrown away. Some characters suffer dreadfully: Medviedenko, the teacher, is reduced to a comedian with just one punch line, the ever-miserable Masha a wailing drunk and the young leads are simply too gauche. Matthew Tennyson and Sabrina Bartlett hold the stage as the aspiring artists Konstantin and Nina, and their naiveté gets laughs but both actors aren’t given a chance to delve deeper.

Other roles fare better. The writer Trigorin’s ego fascinates. Alex Robertson makes him funny and irritating – a petulant take on the character that’s interesting. And Janie Dee’s Arkadina manages to be at once jolly and roundly three-dimensional. Dunster is strongest with group scenes, highlighting uncomfortable dynamics as an “angel of the awkward silence” is said to descend. Also interesting are the two servants (Tom Greaves and Tara D’Arquian), who giggle at innuendo and silently respond to events.

The production also has the novel device of using a voiceover for character’s thoughts. It’s certainly startling but privileges certain players too much. Frustratingly, despite being inside their heads, we don’t feel any closer to them, and this internal dialogue is used indiscriminately and again mostly just for laughs. Nice try, but this showy device is symptomatic of a production that tries hard but doesn’t hit anything… apart from that poor seagull, of course.

Until 11 July 2015

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Ah Wilderness!” at the Young Vic

Small-town family life, along with youthful ideals and romance, are the subjects of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness! Infused with poetry and memory, Natalie Abrahami’s sensitive revival adds a melancholic edge to this surprisingly gentle coming-of-age story.

This is O’Neill in an uncharacteristically good mood as he dwells on domesticity, reminisces about youthful rebellion and speculates about parenthood. Tinged with nostalgia and filled with ardour the play has an almost whimsical feel that’s quite charming.

George_MacKay_in_Ah_Wilderness_at_the_Young_Vic._Photo_by_Johan_Persson
George MacKay

Ah Wilderness! is also a memory play and a work very much for fans of O’Neill, who feels like a huge presence in this production. Set directions can be heard in the background and O’Neill’s younger alter-ego, Richard, performed vibrantly by George Mackay, is followed around by David Annen, who slips into smaller roles while taking notes and observing the action – suggesting a ghost at the feast – with great economy.

 

There are also strong performances from Martin Marquez and Janie Dee as Richard’s parents, while Yasmin Paige tackles well the uncomfortably written role of a prostitute. But the star is Dick Bird’s eye-catching set: a mountain of sand, cascading from expressionist doorways, that contains hidden props. This serves to emphasise time and is a sardonic hint at an unhappy future.

This production has a lot going for it, but, sadly, its stories of lost love and innocence are not quite interesting enough. It’s a shame that, for all the care, attention and ideas, the play itself is a little dull. It may be a quality affair with no shortage of insight – and I doubt anyone will be disappointed by attending – but this doesn’t feel like essential viewing. Sorry.

Until 23 May 2015

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Johan Persson

“NSFW” at the Royal Court

The name of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play for the Royal Court stands for ‘Not Safe For Work’. Set in the bitchy world of London media, it comes as no surprise that there’s little that’s safe in these particular offices. This sharp satire invites the theatre audience into an industry where employees will agree all too quickly to be humiliated, or compromise their private lives, in order to get ahead or simply stay in the job. To those who’ve never worked in magazine journalism it’s a delicious parody full of laughs; for those who have, it’s painfully close to the bone.

Kirkwood’s play has the benefit of skilful direction from Simon Godwin and superb performances. The magazine editor characters have something of the stereotype about them, but this potential problem is dealt with nimbly, thanks to sharp dialogue that means the play never strays into lazy parody. Julian Barratt and Janie Dee both excel as the “troglodyte” editor of a men’s magazine and the self-confessed “Menopausal old hag” who works for an over-sharing womens title, respectively. The younger characters, desperate for work and predictably overqualified, are wonderfully drawn: Henry Lloyd-Hughes gives a great comic turn as the trustafarian drawn to journalism, Esther Smith expertly judges her role as a young feminist so ashamed of her job she tells people she’s an estate agent, and Sacha Dhawan gives a performance of great charm as an idealist who finds that, in this job, he can’t avoid getting his hands mucky.

Of course, nobody finds the media as interesting as the industry finds itself. Thankfully, Kirkwood’s play uses magazine culture to address broader social concerns. The presentation of women in the media, in particular, is handled in nuanced, thought-provoking style here. While the plight of the younger characters, with whom the play’s sympathies so firmly lie, gives a dark edge and subtlety and balances NSFW’s exquisite portrayal of the excesses of journalism.

Until 24 November 2012

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Written 1 November 2012 for The London Magazine