Tag Archives: Jeremy Herrin

“Labour of Love” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Thirty years of a political party’s history doesn’t sound like a West End hit. But, as this new play by James Graham joins the transfer of his Ink just down the road, you can’t question the young playwright’s commercial acumen. I am sure someone has worked out the last time a living writer had two new plays performing at the same time – it doesn’t happen often and is to be celebrated. Graham’s talent is obvious – the strength of his writing lies in his humour, and Labour of Love is funny from start to finish.

There’s a conventional love story here, which develops a little too late, between the MP whose career we follow and his constituency secretary, Jean. Their fumbling romance is sweet and gets laughs. There’s love of a place, too: a concerted effort to depict the constituency as a character, detailing the destruction of a community. It’s a shame that the Nottingham location is depicted as The North – it isn’t, it’s The Midlands. Pushing accents geographically up the country must have been a conscious decision, but seems odd given how thorough Graham’s research is. But it’s really the love of the Labour Party that is interesting. The history is entertaining, the observations acute, the use of hindsight effective and all of it is, yes, funny. Graham has written a lot about politics and his satire is distinctive. He seldom doubts the good intentions of our rulers and portrays them as human. While many would succumb to cynicism, Graham resists, which makes his work level headed and quietly inspirational.

Taking the leads are Martin Freeman as the amiable MP and Tamsin Greig as Jean. The comic timing of both is immaculate. Freeman is given more to work with when developing his character, and he suggests the passage of time in the play effectively. However, the play belongs to Jean. A card-carrying member of the party since she was 12 (she lied about her age), with a sincerity and passion that is palpable, her plain speaking and fruity swearing make her irresistible.

Jeremy Herrin’s direction is clear and thorough – the competency of the cast and strength of the script mean fancy touches aren’t necessary. Going backwards then forwards in time means it helps to know the history a little, as the archive footage offered isn’t quite enough. I feared for an American contingent of Freeman fanatics, but they seemed to enjoy themselves enormously. Graham isn’t shy of a bad pun or lame joke – he provides both with remarkable rapidity. Freeman and Greig tackle the speed of the gags with ease, making each and every one a winner.

Until 2 December 2017

www.labouroflovetheplay.co.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Common” at the National Theatre

With big subjects, a huge cast, and the Olivier stage to play with, DC Moore’s new play aims at being epic – and, up to its interval, it feels as if it might be. The twisting plot, following the story of Mary, brilliantly portrayed by Anne-Marie Duff, is an interesting mix of melodrama and the supernatural. The language, combining old and new vocabulary, odd syntax and lots of swearing, makes the text original, satisfyingly dense and a great deal of fun.

Set in the early 18th century, the play’s first topic is the enclosure of common land and one community’s struggle to prevent this devastating policy. The dramatic potential and importance are clear – a description of enclosure as “a dry word with a sharp end” is great – but the play seems embarrassed by its subject matter. Painful metatheatricality is thrown in with an overt disavowal of “dry historical accuracy”. But facts are fine, really – a bit of history won’t hurt a play.

Common is more interested in the superstition that filled agricultural communities. Director Jeremy Herrin goes to town with some Wicker Man horror that makes one gory scene especially good. The costumes and lighting, by Richard Hudson and Paule Constable, fit well. But there’s little sense of anything else – despite a subplot about incest that… well, I guess must have some point to it. As the action boils over, interest cools: the plot is abbreviated and the sign off comes across as trite. There’s too little concern for anyone apart from Mary, who overpowers the play. Cush Jumbo as a former lover and Tim McMullan as the local landowner have a go, but Duff is left to propel all.

However uneven, Mary is a brilliant creation that Duff makes a joy to watch. A romantic rogue (her self-description is a good deal more colourful) returning to the country after a debauched life in London, Mary’s psychic abilities and supernatural invincibility batter credulity – even before a crow starts talking to her. But like all devils Mary gets great lines – Moore’s expletive-ridden insults are quite something. It’s a shame the “jigsaw” of Mary’s story isn’t solved satisfactorily. Too quickly moving from the people’s saviour into a “blight” ruining their lives, the role is overburdened – and since Mary is the only thing rooted in the play, the overall harvest is poor.

Until 5 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“This House” at the Garrick Theatre

James Graham’s play isn’t your regular political drama. Based on the flailing minority Labour government of the late 1970s, it looks at the mechanics of Parliament – the back-room antics of the whips, who make sure MPs vote. There are few names or issues that people will remember. And, instead of Machiavellian power brokers, the characters are misfit eccentrics, working hard in grubby anterooms. So the play’s transfer from the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, to the larger Olivier, and now, after a long wait, the West End, is a triumph for the young playwright, and his intelligent funny writing, which has warmed the critics’ hearts.

Honours are shared with director Jeremy Herrin, who handles the large cast impeccably. Nearly all the actors play more than one MP, each larger than life, and the sense of a building at work is conveyed with infectious energy. Counting the ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ becomes nail-biting, while efforts to bribe or cajole coalitions are gripping. Add Rae Smith’s replica House of Commons set, with its onstage seating and bar, and you have a sense of fun that complements Graham’s great jokes.

Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker
Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker

This House is a brilliantly ambitious ensemble piece. Phil Daniels and Malcolm Sinclair are the chief whips, giving blissfully effortless performances. I probably don’t need to tell you they represent the Labour and Conservative parties, respectively. Praise, too, for Nathaniel Parker and Steffan Rhodri, playing their deputies, each with their own agenda and sombre moments that add humanity to the comedy. Much is made of the differences between the parties, with Labour louts calling their opponents the “aristotwats’, which seems to have struck Graham as particularly fascinating. If some jokes land heavily, relying on hindsight, they are still funny.

The research undertaken for the play is impressive, informative and conveys Parliament’s peculiar charm. Even better, Graham has a good stab at being impartial. How far he succeeds possibly depends on your own voting habits – but the stance of making a play about politics apolitical is dealt with well. That those in charge act like children is a point itself, although Graham is too good to fall for simplicity, showing passion and conviction from MPs of both parties. But the propensity to treat government like a game is clear and used to make brilliant drama.

Until 25 February 2017

www.thishouseplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“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

 

“People, Places & Things” at the National Theatre

This play should come with a health warning: following the journey of a drink and drug addict is never going to be easy viewing. Headlong’s new co-production at the Dorfman Theatre is hard work, but it is testament to Duncan Macmillan’s script and an astonishing performance by Denise Gough that the play can be described as unmissable. Gough should clear the mantelpiece for awards – standing ovations are rare at the National Theatre and I can’t remember joining one at a matinee performance.

Jpeg 16Playing Emma is a punishing lead role and Gough delivers a raw performance that engenders anger, frustration and occasionally repulses. To add to the trauma, Emma is an actress and Macmillan uses performance, indeed the process of staging a play, as a parallel to her counselling sessions. As Emma joins a group, sitting in a circle, introductions are made, just like at the start of rehearsals, and then role-play undertaken. It feels dangerously close to the bone.

Particulars of the addicts’ stories are brief – Emma’s is obfuscated by compulsive lying – so we don’t get to the bottom of why they are in such trouble. It’s not misery that’s dissected here but recovery, with tension and a healthy amount of scepticism. No one has more reservations about her 12-step treatment than our articulate protagonist. But burning through an agenda of denial, which serves to intelligently explore AA, comes the simple desire to survive.

Carefully directed by Jeremy Herrin, the staging is particularly effective when it comes to Emma’s hallucinations, which are downright spooky. Overall, Bunny Christie’s set feels too flashy and polished – the play simply doesn’t need it. And though there are jokes and nervous laughter from the audience, I confess my sense of humour deserted me, as what was going on was overwhelmingly bleak and serious.

Macmillan doesn’t hold back; the selfishness of the addict is emphatically depicted. A final scene with Emma’s parents is particularly painful (Barbara Marten gets to play her third role of the show and is excellent in each) after observing what Emma has been through. Here’s the second side to that health warning: I don’t know if Macmillan had a didactic motivation, but I feel I learned a lot about what an addict must go through, and feel humbled as a result.

Until 4 November 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“The Nether” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A welcome transfer from the Royal Court, Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether is a taut sci-fi thriller that dissects the power of the internet in the (near) future. In a parallel world of virtual reality ‘realms’, so intoxicating are the dark fantasies acted out that punters threaten to become ‘shadows’ – volunteering to give up their lives to live online instead.

One online realm, catering to paedophiles, is envisioned by Es Devlin’s remarkable design, supported by Luke Halls’ video work. Those tasked with policing the line between the sick fantasy world and reality become caught up in an uncomfortably exciting journey.

Skillfully directed by Jeremy Herrin, The Nether is well performed, with Amanda Hale as Detective Morris, joined by David Calder, Ivanno Jeremiah and Stanley Townsend as troubled participants of the online investigation.

The Nether is a play of big ideas and important questions. What effect do online personas have? And how can fantasies online, between consenting adults, become illegal? Suspicions about technology are defined forcefully by Morris. Yet alternative arguments are presented with a conviction that makes you queasy. There’s the fascinating potential for corporate corruption, as the programming that creates the super sensory realm could prove lucrative for those that host these worlds – is our detective interested in the crime or the code?

Haley takes sci-fi seriously and, as a result, so do we. The Nether is a convincing world with minimal jargon that serves as the perfect base for difficult themes. Even better, the play is a gripping drama: a strong detective story, structured around exciting interrogations, with twists and tensions that leave you unsettled.

Until 25 April 2015

www.royalcourttheatre.com

 

“Another Country” at the Trafalgar Studios

The Theatre Royal Bath and Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country is now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. The 1981 play, which imagines the school days of a future spy, to all intents the real-life traitor Guy Burgess, is an accomplished text and this fluid production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, serves it well.

Set in a prestigious public school, the play begins with a pupil’s offstage suicide. This tragic death compels the lead character, Bennett, to confront his homosexuality and take comfort from his only friend, a schoolboy communist, Judd. It’s possible Herrin could have injected more tension by conveying just how much the political machination of the prefects matter to these youngsters. But Peter McKintosh’s set and, above all, the writing itself recreate the world of the school with conviction. Despite levels of repression that could strike you as clichéd, melodrama is avoided.

Rather than teenage angst we have an intelligent examination of class and community. Cold War politics seem a distant issue now, but there are plenty of arguments raised by these juvenile protagonists that make you stop and think. The youngsters here are far removed from those we know today, being by turn strangely naïve and remarkably articulate, but the deep passions that arise in youth and their impact later on in life remain compelling themes.

To consider another kind of legacy: the play has always been a springboard for acting talent. The cast is well drilled and highly professional. Rowan Polonski makes a superb Fowler, a youth brimming with religious fervour, and Mark Quartley convinces as the stressed head of house Barclay. As Bennett, Rob Callender is sure to be compared to Rupert Everett, who performed the role in the 1984 film. But what Callender lacks in terms of instant charisma he makes up for in terms of credibility as a gawky schoolboy – Everett never appeared this gauche – and his is a better interpretation of the role. As Bennett’s communist comrade Judd, acting scion Will Attenborough gives a tremendous performance, managing to inject passion into the polemic and demanding we sit up and listen to every word he says.

Until 21 June 2014

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 27 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Tempest” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Even if there’s still a chill in the air, for theatre-lovers the summer starts with a trip to Shakespeare’s Globe. The Theatre’s ‘Season of Plenty’ begins with The Tempest, a difficult play that director Jeremy Herrin, confident in the venue’s unusual power and his excellent cast, tackles with a light touch. It has been the fashion to subject the story of Prospero and his elaborate revenge on those who exiled him to a great deal of analysis. Herrin’s focus is on the theme of reconciliation and the magic in the play comes to the fore.

There is little threat on this island – the machinations that landed Prospero there aren’t given much attention. Instead, there’s a lot of laughs, led by the drunkards Stephano and Trunculo (played by exuberant double act Sam Cox and Trevor Fox) – and even Caliban gets to join in the singing. Indeed, the island seems too homely, almost drab – its attraction is the detailed depiction of the relationship between Prospero and his daughter Miranda. Jessie Buckley is a revelation in the role, captivating and able enough to bring on her suitor Ferdinand (Joshua James) to some charming scenes of romance.

crop-Tempest-550-captioned
Colin Morgan as Ariel

The pace of the production is skilfully developed, with Colin Morgan’s Ariel pivotal, injecting a spellbinding touch (in scenes of startlingly confident theatricality) and bringing home the play’s concerns with freedom. Morgan is athletic and otherworldly, mellow rather than mischievous and played with an intelligent depth that builds up the fascinating relationship with his master Prospero: it is here that the understated quality of Herrin’s production finds its power.

Only an actor as fine as Roger Allam, who takes on the central role, could make such a domesticated Prospero work. A model of clarity, Allam was born to play the Globe – he’s worth the price of the ticket and then some. His nuanced performance as a former Duke can be commanding and his dour touches delight, but it is as a father, the man behind the magic, that he becomes magnificent. He enjoys his power to enchant with such glee that abandoning it has added pathos, but renounce it he does – in order to become more human and experience the freedom that entails.

Until 18 August 2013

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

Written 3 May 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