Tag Archives: Martin Freeman

“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

“Richard III” at the Trafalgar Studios

Jamie Lloyd has all the bases covered with his new production of Richard III. After an acclaimed first season at the ‘transformed’ Trafalgar Studios, theatregoers are excited and bringing another star to the stage attracts a new crowd. Taking on Richard is Martin Freeman, of Hobbit and Sherlock fame, giving an assured performance within a show full of eye-catching touches.

Lloyd would, I am sure, be proud to be called populist. This Richard III is remarkable for its clarity. Helpful gestures ensure those pesky family trees, important to claiming the disputed throne, are clear. Staged as a Cold War thriller, set among military coups in the 1970s, there’s a cinematic air that aids the plot and adds a contemporary feel.

Also, there’s plenty of action. It’s often commented that the killing in Richard III takes place off stage. Lloyd is having none of this: Richard brutally murders Anne before our eyes and the blood flows freely – if not quite enough to justify the pre-show hype around being splattered if you are in the front rows.

Angling the play as a spy story and all the gore make the show feel fresh and enable Lloyd’s interpretation. I wonder if anyone else feels they have seen too much filming and recording on stage by now? Nonetheless, a sense of paranoia is efficiently created. Seated in a war room, playing with toy soldiers, this is a modern military world familiar from recent Shakespearean productions. It’s a shame that Richard’s famous line about his horse is thrown away but, if not revelatory, Lloyd is on sound enough ground.

Freeman’s Richard is a serious fellow, as it’s the politics and the twisted practicalities of power that are emphasised. There are laughs, but quite a few are sacrificed to the speed of delivery and that bloodthirsty touch. The acting is consistent and intelligent, with touches of charisma and addresses to the audience that will please fans.

It is the thoroughness that makes you admire Lloyd. This is a strong supporting cast – especially of women. Maggie Steed gives a bold performance as an increasingly bizarre Queen Margaret, calmly sipping tea as prophecies of doom are fulfilled. Gina McKee, too talented an actress for the relatively small role of Queen Elizabeth, is outstanding – bringing home the emotional impact of Richard’s tyranny. Jo Stone-Fewings is also superb as Buckingham, Richard’s “other self”, presenting the crown as if won at a game show.

Final praise to Ben and Max Ringham for their sound and music. With a microphone frequently used to emphasise public announcements, sound indicating changes of scene and music that makes the atmosphere gripping, the Ringhams’ work is a good example of how detailed and committed this show is.

Until 27 September 2014

www.trafalgartransformed.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 11 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“Clybourne Park” at the Royal Court

Property is a London obsession, so American writer Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park – the story of a neighbourhood told through the development of one house – has the potential to strike a chord with the audience at the Royal Court.

The house in question is not, like so many in literature, a repository of values. Rather it is blank canvas that, in two different times, characters project their ideas onto. Act one is set in the 1950s with the house about to be sold to the area’s first black residents – cue debate.

Unfortunately, Norris’ vision of the 50s doesn’t ring true. Director Dominic Cooke fails to reign in the sense of parody and the cast (with the exception of Lorna Brown and Lucian Msamati) lose themselves in it. There are some beautiful asides, often taking place just inside the front door, but the forced politeness we are supposed to laugh at is unconvincing.

Act two moves to safer ground, and better things, in the present day. The house is about to be pulled down and two yuppies plan to build a new home on the site. The same actors appear for a community meeting (a more satisfying scenario for discussion) concerning what is now considered the black heritage of the area. Norris’ observation and dialogue is sharp, dark and entertaining, his wit rapacious and cruel.

The performances take off with Martin Freeman justly confident in his comic ability, Sophie Thompson and Sarah Goldberg positively shinning, and Brown and Msamati again wonderful. There are some awkward moments as a series of tasteless old jokes are recited, less to entertain than to test reactions in a contrived manner, but generally this comedy of (bad) manners works superbly well.

A subplot concerning a tragedy in the house becomes lost, making the concerns of the present day characters seem trivial, and the danger is that we start to lose interest in them. The connections between eras, potentially so rich, are not given enough space. Norris’ play, which has been well received in America, needs further development. As it stands, Clydbourne Park should never have been given planning permission.

Until 2 October 2010

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Written 3 September 2010 for The London Magazine