Tag Archives: Marianne Elliott

“Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Werner Heisenberg’s scientific theories provide the intellectual scaffolding of Simon Stephens’ new play. The principle – that measuring objects reveals an underlying uncertainty in physics – supplies a riff on the unexpected that’s lightly played alongside an unconventional romance. There’s little to boggle the mind here. Instead, this is a play full of laughs, affection… and a good deal of wisdom.

The relationship between Georgie and Alex is taboo-breaking because of their 33-year age gap. And both characters are pretty eccentric overall. The plot thickens (there’s a son to search for), but all the unusual behaviour is really about destabilising our expectations. It’s just two people getting to know one another – but, my, how this twists.

The couple meet by accident, of course, but each encounter contains the unexpected. It’s the distance between the characters that Stephens explores, akin to a comment Alex makes about music happening “between the notes”. Their age is one way they have different perspectives on their “shared experience”, and seeing both views makes this a two-hander of considerable depth and intimacy.

The play requires subtlety to work. Stephens’ frequent collaborator Marianne Elliott directs with an appropriately quiet confidence. The set by Bunny Christie is a stylish sliding affair with complementary mood lighting (from Paule Constable). But nothing distracts us from the quiet story of intricate observations. The performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham are superb. Both embrace their characters’ quirks to make the play entertaining. Cranham’s “wily old fox” is full of charm and intelligence, while Duff embodies Grace’s vulnerability and her quality of being “exhausting but captivating”. Uncertainty, as a principle to live by, is a peculiarly powerful idea. Few of us may be convinced by it, but this play presents the unpredictable in a charmingly determined fashion.

Until 6 January 2018

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

“Rules For Living” at the National Theatre

Using, of all things, Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy as a very literal framework, Sam Holcroft’s new play for the National Theatre makes for a riotous evening. A family’s foibles are revealed to us in the form of their coping strategies, or ‘rules for living’, to use the therapists’ term, on a game show-style screen – all part of Chloe Lamford’s witty set. So we know, for example, that one character sits down when they lie and another stands up to tell a joke. Every move realises its comic potential.

Holcroft’s strategy is a neat gimmick that’s so effective that the actors have half the work done for them. Nonetheless the cast is superb. Stephen Mangan and Miles Jupp are brilliant as brothers who reveal their competitive streak and long-held grudges. Claudie Blakley and Maggie Service play their partners, full of repression and insecurities, revealed, respectively, by booze and bad jokes. Best of all is Deborah Findlay as the mother who ‘cleans to keep calm’ – a performance that magically transcends her deliberately recognisable character to become comedy gold.

Rules For Living might be a touch too long in places, and the final act adds disappointingly little, but Marianne Elliott’s direction is impeccable and the jokes have a high hit rate. And underneath the original twist is an old-fashioned dysfunctional family comedy – it’s even set at Christmas – that works superbly. The show gets better the sillier the events and the characters become. The culminating luxury food fight alone means you get your ticket money’s worth. It’s not a play if you hate to see food wasted, but the whole thing is a great deal of fun.

Until 8 July 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

“Port” at the National Theatre

Following the success of their production of The Curious Incident (which transfers to the Apollo Theatre in March) it feels as if the National Theatre is rewarding writer Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott with a revival of the 1992 play, Port, which they first worked on in Manchester. Set in Stockport, where they both grew up, it’s a piece close to their hearts – indeed the whole play is sincere to a fault.

Fulfilling plenty of prejudices Londoners might have about the north, Port is a grim affair that traces the life of Racheal from 11 to 23. The poor girl’s trauma starts early when her mother abandons her. And things don’t get much better as she moves into dismal jobs and abusive relationships. Everyday Stockport is dysfunctional and depressing, its inhabitants desperate and cruel as they stumble through life.

You can see why the play has its advocates. Stephens’ expletive-filled language has its own kind of beauty – full of skilled observations and rich imagery. And he has written wonderful roles: from Rachael’s mum, who only appears in the first scene and is performed skilfully by Liz White, to the lead, played from child to woman by Kate O’Flynn in a remarkable performance that can’t be praised enough. But the play is so bleak that it becomes monochrome and, under Elliott’s static direction, monotonous.

Giving away whether or not Rachael sets sail for brighter shores would be to ruin what little tension Port has and unfortunately the ending feels tacked on and unconvincing. Sadly, despite the commitment of the cast, it is unlikely that Port will win many hearts.

Until 24 March 2013

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Kevin Cummings

Written 1 February 2013 for The London Magazine

“Season’s Greetings” at the National Theatre

Season’s Greetings is the National Theatre’s festive offering to its audience. It has a cast of shiny stars (Mark Gatiss, Katherine Parkinson and Catherine Tate) and might be thought of as well wrapped – designer Rae Smith’s set is impressive. Unfortunately, Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy of Christmas misery isn’t really the kind of gift you want to unwrap.

As a dysfunctional family come together for the festive holiday you can prepare yourself for laughs of recognition. Marianne Elliott’s direction gets the most out of Ayckbourn’s multi-vocal dexterity, but it is a touch laboured. The finale of Scene 3 may be hilarious, but it just takes too long to get there. Ayckbourn’s eye for detail delights some, and this piece has an additional nostalgic charm, but there’s a danger of having too many trimmings – just think about your Christmas dinner.

The cast of nine all get their moments in the spotlight and these are justly deserved but, as each marginally indulgent performance unfolds, the cumulative effect is forced. Nicola Walker is great at crying, Jenna Russell makes a tremendous stage drunk and Oliver Chris is superbly natural as the guest who sets the pulses of the families’ frustrated women racing. It is only Tate’s comic timing that is really spot-on. While Gatiss has great control, his character is so endearing that when the humour gets darker you feel a little guilty about laughing at him.

And the humour does get dark. Ayckbourn plays with the despair of the middle classes in a manner that can’t be described as fun – farce is often close to tragedy and the dark undertones here can take the smile off your face pretty sharpish. You will probably laugh – but it isn’t guaranteed. Nor will it leave you satisfied. It’s a Christmas present you don’t know what to do with afterwards.

Until 13 March 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 13 December 2010 for The London Magazine

“Women Beware Women” at the National Theatre

Harriet Walter is a woman to be scared of, at least, she is in the National Theatre’s current production of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. She plays Livia, gifted and cursed with a demonic persuasive power. Through deceit she organises an incestuous affair between her brother and her niece and engineers the rape of a newly married neighbour. Yet she does it all with a great deal of charm. She’ll manage to persuade you that she isn’t all that bad.

Her victims are Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) and Isabella (Vanessa Kirby). They transform from young, innocent women in love into killers bent on revenge. It’s a delicious change, and one the actresses clearly relish. Taking their lead from Walter, they adopt a cool, clever and cynical approach to marriage while passion boils inside them as they plot murder. As their metamorphosis occurs, Livia falls in love herself – she decides to take Bianca’s husband as a toy boy. Unfortunately for her, the transformation allows emotions to begin clouding her judgement.

And what of the men? They should have plenty of reason to beware these women, but their own arrogance and hypocrisy make them oblivious as to how they are manipulated. Richard Lintern is suitably villainous as the Duke who abducts Bianca, and Raymond Courtauld genuinely creepy as the uncle who loves Isabella. If Samuel Barnett seems slightly miscast as the man who manages to get Bianca to elope, he makes a good show of playing the doting husband and gets his fair share of laughs.

Focusing on the melodrama as a strategy for getting humour out of a revenge tragedy might seem like a risk. Making characters less rounded than they are written only works if you have a strong cast. Fortunately, director Marianne Elliott is working with fine actors and the payoff is a great deal of fun. Elliott has great skill as a storyteller and can cut through complicated plots to provide refreshing clarity. She is also visionary when it comes to staging and here the production takes off.

Designer Lez Brotherston’s set is magnificent. A decadent mixture of art deco glamour and baroque drama, it manages to reflect the grand and intimate, rich and poor, while evoking the games and perils of seduction. And it works in more than one way. Making the most of the Olivier’s revolving stage, the final scene of murderous mayhem is perfectly choreographed and truly thrilling.

Until July 4 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 29 April 2010 for The London Magazine