Tag Archives: Malcolm Sinclair

“The Drag” at the National Theatre

A series of rehearsed readings over a long weekend, timed to coincide with London Pride, selected five gay-themed works, each a one-off event. I was lucky enough to catch the last: a play by Mae West that was once considered so controversial it landed its famous author in prison.

Horribly dated on one hand and then astonishingly fresh on the other, the play is an odd mix of drawing-room drama – with a doctor and a judge discussing the issue of homosexuality (little realising how it affects their own family) – and scenes within the gay community born from West’s own experience that are an absolute hoot. It seems incredible that West wrote the play and got it on stage, albeit briefly, in 1927.

In the present day, there’s plenty of praise for a talented cast who illustrate the power of West’s dialogue. It’s unfair under the conditions of just two afternoon rehearsals to judge performances here. Yet, Malcolm Sinclair’s skill was astounding, delivering lines hampered by West explaining the very idea of homosexuality to her audience with convincing compassion. Meanwhile the crew of drag queens (there’s fun to be had working out a collective noun here but I am not brave enough to make suggestions) easily showed how strong the comedy is.

An after-show discussion with the director, Polly Stenham, revealed her admiration for West as a feminist and campaigner as well as an artist. Stenham’s enthusiasm for the piece could dispel many a doubt about its traditional structure. I’d love to see what could be done with more time – maybe with the addition of her own writing skills – to a play that deserves to be known by many.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

“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

“Show Boat” at the New London Theatre

Daniel Evans, director of this latest revival, describes Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat as “the mother of all musicals”. It’s old – a first version dates from 1927 – so it’s safe to say that the songs have stood the test of time. Serious subject matter – a troubled love story with a backdrop of racism in the Deep South – carries a message of tolerance. And while the piece is not exactly timeless, this brilliant production makes it considerably more than a period curiosity.

Sandra Marvin (Queenie) and Emmanuel Kojo (Joe)
Sandra Marvin (Queenie) and Emmanuel Kojo (Joe)

Rave reviews from the production’s premiere in Sheffield, and the reason the show unquestionably deserves all those stars, come from high production values and the performances secured by Evans. Lez Brotherson’s design screams that it’s a big bucks show. The action is held together by Malcolm Sinclair, as the showboat captain, and there are stand out performances from Sandra Marvin as Queenie and Emmanuel Kojo, who sings that famous anthem to the Mississippi. As for the leads, the lovers Magnolia and Gaylord, Gina Beck and Chris Peluso are real stars at the top of their game.

Chris Peluso
Chris Peluso

But what to do with all the history? Despite noble intentions, it’s impossible not to see Show Boat as uncomfortably racist, not to mention sexist and snobbish. Black characters are the backdrop here, no matter how much Evans tries to refocus our attention. And all those gals who ‘Can’t Help Loving Dat Man’ need a talking to. Wisely, Evans accentuates the affirmative with a view of the family – extended by theatrical camaraderie – that gives pause for thought and makes this a feel-good evening.

Drama arrives unexpectedly on the river, the years pass glibly and resolution is minimal. Love at first sight and characters bursting into song, well, that’s what fools who dislike musicals complain of. And, let’s be honest, the characters here are wafer thin and everyone’s heart is permanently on their sleeve. But, with a somewhat luxurious pacing, Evans doesn’t bother with excuses or gimmicks that try to update the experience. This show has earned respect – let’s call it old fashioned and enjoy it.

Until 27 August 2016

www.showboatmusical.co.uk

Photographs by Johan Persson

“Temple” at the Donmar Warehouse

An exercise in erudition, Steve Water’s fictional account of 2011’s Occupy London movement is accomplished but unsatisfying. Remember how a cluster of tents formed outside St Paul’s? Water’s focus isn’t on those camping – you learn little of their political aims or ambitions – but on those running the cathedral and how they feel about their unwanted guests. It’s an angle that might strike one as oblique. And, while the central dilemma – hinging on a Dean asked to put his duty above what he may actually feel – is interesting enough, the play is stubbornly devoid of tension. Scenes of intelligent talking heads (I could have done with a dictionary) make Temple feel like a worthy radio play. The idea of the meeting chamber, where all the action takes place, as a “panic room” is almost laughable, given the lack of excitement.

The show is saved by the central performance of Simon Russell Beale as the Dean, convincing us of his turmoil as a good man blessed with a prodigious amount of self-knowledge. Unfortunately, the Bishop of London and his too obvious counterpart, a radical Canon, are sketchily drawn – one too comic, the other overly sincere – for Malcolm Sinclair and Paul Higgins to show us their talents. Likewise the role of a secretary on her first day in the job is a crude device that Rebecca Humphries struggles valiantly with. The central problem is the tenet of Church as ‘the establishment’. Although such presumed power is questioned, by the time a couple of choir boys come in to cheer the Dean up, it’s all too much like something from Anthony Trollope. Religion’s shaky relevance to lives today makes for a stumbling block that Waters doesn’t get over.

Until 25 July 2015

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Quartermaine’s Terms” at Wyndham’s Theatre

This revival of Simon Gray’s 1981 work, directed by Richard Eyre, marks a return to the stage by Rowan Atkinson. A story of schoolteachers, set in the early 1960s, it has plenty of laughs but is really quite a serious affair. A testing vehicle for its star attraction, it might leave some searching for more Mr Bean, but Atkinson rises well to the challenge.

As St John Quartermaine, long-standing staff member of the Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners, Atkinson plays a man blunted by life. The staff-room misfit and an appalling teacher, he’s a likeable nonentity (and, in Atkinson’s hands, sometimes a little too charming?). The problem for Atkinson is how to stop people laughing at him – the urge is almost impulsive – but Gray’s great creation is a strangely blank character that helps to put distance between the actor and his usual personas.

Most impressively, and appropriately, Atkinson appreciates that Quartermaine is a character around whom the action revolves rather than a star turn. His fellow cast members are, to use Quartermaine’s own catchphrase – “terrific”, and this is a strong ensemble piece. Malcolm Sinclair plays the school’s deputy head, a captain of education, with sardonic, steely beneficence. Felicity Montagu is superb as a study in repression and hysteria. And, as her old flame, Conleth Hill gives the real comic turn of the evening, with every gesture getting giggles, as the two flirt over the croquet sticks and lecture notes.

Increasingly “absent” as time goes on, Atkinson manages Quartermaine’s withdrawal with impressive control and intelligence; perfect for a play so concerned with the passage of time. Eyre’s direction has a thoughtful, elegiac quality, mostly arresting but sometimes robbing the play of zest. Yet as the family dramas that have occurred off-stage (they never involve the lonely Quartermaine) come to our attention, both Eyre and his star provide a melancholic sting that’s perfect for the piece.

Until 13 April 2013

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 30 January 2013 for The London Magazine