Tag Archives: Jermyn Street Theatre

“Woman Before a Glass” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

At the risk of damning with faint praise, Lanie Robertson’s play is more informative than it is profound. But art collector Peggy Guggenheim is a great subject to learn about. Following a story of modern art, alongside events in an extraordinary life, Robertson’s collation of anecdotes and vignettes is concise and entertaining.

Peggy was one of the ‘poor’ Guggenheims – her family were millionaires, not billionaires. With the realisation that it wasn’t healthy for artists to starve, her patronage, notably during World War II, built up a collection that spotted modern masters. Taking art seriously, while being flippant about sex, she slept with many of the artists along the way. Robertson sensitively balances the anti-Semitism of the age with dark moments in Guggenheim’s personal life, and, under the direction of Austin Pendleton, Judy Rosenblatt gives a convivial performance that shows Peggy as good company. The show is a 90-minute monologue – that’s a long time for one performer – but Rosenblatt makes it seem easy.

It’s a shame the opening conceit of the audience being guests at Peggy’s home isn’t retained; the “Mio palazzo, Sui palazzo” invitation is neat. Subsequent scenes talking to her daughter off stage, or conducting negotiations about her estate over the phone, seem clumsy in comparison. It’s with the more pedestrian moments that Rosenblatt carries the piece, juggling Peggy’s loneliness and uncompromising self-knowledge with a scandalous sense of humour and an attraction to men in “baggy trousers”. There are too few moments of reflection overall but a final pianissimo moment means we leave on a high, achieving insight into an exceptional woman.

Until 3 February 2018

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photo by Robert Workman

“Dry Land” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

A new company, Damsel Productions, gets off to a swimming start by bringing Ruby Rae Spiegel’s play across the pond from America. Set almost entirely in a high-school locker room, two girls on a swim team plunge into topics of teenage dreams and sexuality along with a brutal, but brilliant, examination of abortion, in this intelligent coming-of-age drama.

Hannah Hauer-King directs. The tension between the friends is terrifically handled and the harrowing scene of Amy’s internet-purchased abortion appropriately difficult to watch. There’s a suspicion the play itself is funnier than Hauer-King allows: two smaller roles, well performed by Charlotte Hamblin and Dan Cohen, perhaps suffer a little from this. A gallows humour pervades the text – depressing given the characters’ ages. And, to be fair, Spiegel’s craft lies in making the jokes painfully ambivalent – it somehow feels inappropriate to laugh at these girls. With such a sensitive subject matter, the naivety here may be just too dangerous to be a funny.

Marvellous performances deal well with the subtle script. The dynamics of an intense friendship fascinate, with Aisha Fabienne Ross’ sensitive Ester winning sympathy from the start while Milly Thomas’ “not nice” Amy has her troubled personality slowly revealed. Combining a cruel humour and dash of desperation on the girls’ part, the play sums up teenage angst for a new generation. Dry Land is a dive into young lives that may give some parents nightmares but should be seen by all.

Until 21 November 2015

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photo by Richard Davenport

“A Level Playing Field” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

If school is a long time ago for you, it can be a challenge to enthuse about a play with kids taking exams. It’s an important topic, yes, but it takes strong writing to grab you. Happily, Jonathan Lewis’s A Level Playing Field holds its own alongside the impressive group of plays set in schools (and whoever included a copy of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country as a prop gets extra marks). Plenty of such plays have aims, but this one really convinces that the pressure youngsters are under nowadays, within a pernicious school system concerned only with grades, is a serious problem.

Any play about education will touch on broader themes, but Lewis’ focus is concentrated and controlled. It helps that his group of pupils, held in isolation between exams, are a fairly obnoxious private school bunch, who are at times difficult to warm to. The observations feel spot on, with intimate insight that avoids the mistake of making anyone too articulate (sorry, but The History Boys were just too clever by half).

The large cast are well differentiated, although I’d suggest three parts could be subsumed. Best of all is the strong ear for group dialogue that Lewis has a talent for (he wrote the hugely successful Our Boys). The students make a convincing group of peers and the dynamics between them is a neat study with plenty of laughs. As they slowly start to reveal their fears and aspirations, monologues that relate to their university applications form pithy vignettes.

When a teacher finally arrives – Joe Layton as the production’s only professional actor – it brings even more drama. As the play darkens, the humour develops and there are some touches of farce – a good idea that doesn’t quite succeed. But A Level Playing Field continues to serve as a terrific vehicle for its young cast of 18- and 19-year-olds. It’s against the spirit of the piece to grade anyone, but India Opzoomer and Elsa Perryman Owens both seem to inhabit their characters the most fully, while AJ Lewis takes the lead as Zachir with gusto. Both Jack Bass and Jojo Macari impress with their comic skills.

Indeed, the whole cast, for who this marks a first engagement, show more than just promise in a production that deserves much success. And the timing couldn’t be better. A Level Playing Field is surely essential viewing for anyone sharing space with a hormonally charged Sixth Former about to embark on their A level exams.

Until 9 May 2015

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

“The Green Bay Tree” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Tim Luscombe’s revival of The Green Bay Tree at the Jermyn Street Theatre offers history buffs a rare chance to see this groundbreaking and controversial play. Written by Mordaunt Shairp (great name) in 1933, the play is reported to be the first contemporary drama about homosexuality.

A love triangle between the older confirmed bachelor Mr Dulcimer and his unofficially adopted son Julian, whom he has moulded to be like himself yet who wishes to marry, isn’t presented explicitly. Instead, it is phrased as a battle of “luxury” against virtue. It’s clear enough what’s going on. There’s even a reference to men with painted faces on Piccadilly, once a notorious location for male prostitutes – and close to Jermyn Street. But, perhaps needless to say, this isn’t a positive portrayal of homosexuality so, while the play is interesting given its place in theatre history, it makes for distasteful viewing.

Luscombe’s direction is impeccable and his adaptation commendably unfussy. The set is minimal, so you miss seeing the “exquisite” room that’s supposed to reflect and condemn Dulcimer’s character. The use of modern furniture and a remote control is annoyingly incongruous in such a period piece. The Green Bay Tree is rooted in its time and place: its protagonist presented as predatory to a queasy extent and the psychology of the characters twisted by repression and class consciousness.

Richard Stirling is careful not to present Dulcimer as a victim and he has a good turn in catty lines that get a few laughs. But Stirling comes too close to making Dulcimer sympathetic; bear in mind the character paid a destitute drunkard to take away an 11-year-old boy. Poppy Drayton and Christopher Leveaux play the young lovers, fleshing out their roles well, but both their characters are annoying – one too prim, the other too weak willed.

The dilemma in The Green Bay Tree seems alien: money motivates Dulcimer and Julian’s relationship, so be it, but both are mercenary enough to admit that and the tension dissipates as a result. The angst presented – and there’s plenty of it – is performed with sincerity but the characters’ trauma seems so odd at times that it’s incomprehensible. Ultimately, the connection between homosexuality, narcissism and incest is so nasty that it overwhelms.

Until 21 December 2014

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photo by Roy Tan

“The White Carnation” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

After a sell out run at the Finborough Theatre, The White Carnation finds a new home at the Jermyn Street Theatre and started a short run last night. R.C. Sherriff’s story of a successful stockbroker’s life, which takes a supernatural twist when he returns as a ghost seven years after the war, has waited sixty years for its first revival and this skilled production serves it well.

In the lead role of self-made man John Greenwood, Michael Praed is a touch too urbane, but he deals with the incredible situation stylishly and is full of charisma. Praed delivers the play’s thoughtful moments well, including a burgeoning romance with a librarian; it’s not his fault this aspect of the writing feels like an underdeveloped J.B. Priestly play. Greenwood seems oddly tranquil with his predicament. The reckoning this ghost needs to settle is with his wife, but Sherriff adds atonement – as a kind of fable – too late.

The majority of the play deals humorously with the implications of Greenwood’s spectral status. Firstly, with the town councillor, played by a delightfully outraged Robert Benfield, who hopes to solve housing problems by tearing down the property he now finds haunted (he deals with matters in a far more civilised fashion than I imagine Eric Pickles would). Then with a nice gentleman from the Home Office, managed in appropriate style by Philip York, hoping this inconvenient ectoplasm will emigrate. The local vicar, Benjamin Whitrow, truly stealing his scene, trumps both.

Ridicule of the establishment in The White Carnation is effective, but gentle. Surely it all seemed a touch tame back in 1953 as well? Even Blythe Spirit has more bite. Now the whole affair is gloriously steeped in nostalgia, a fact that director Knight Mantell and his cast seem cleverly aware of. This quality affair is too sweet for sure, but it’s also a treat.

Until 22 February 2014

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photo by Mitzi De Margary

Written 7 February 2014 for The London Magazine