Tag Archives: Old Vic Theatre

“Woyzeck” at the Old Vic

John Boyega is the young actor who impressed everyone in the reboot of the Star Wars franchise. Bringing him a further credibility it’s questionable he needs, this stage foray is a serious affair, with lots of forehead slapping, that shows he can handle angst with ease. In the title role as a soldier suffering a nervous breakdown, Boyega establishes sympathy for his character commendably. As his health deteriorates, the magnetism increases – it’s tough stuff to watch but gripping, too.

Boyega is star material, but the revelation of the night is young director Joe Murphy. It’s top man Matthew Warchus’ idea to give him the title of Baylis Director, offering emerging talent ‘main stage’ shows. And it’s an opportunity Murphy has embraced. Woyzeck can work well in any space, but the cavernous stage of the Old Vic is used to emphasise a lost, lonely, quality. Tom Scutt’s brilliant design has panels that suggest both walls and beds – sliding in and out, up and down – brilliantly lit by Neil Austin.

Jack Thorne has updated George Büchner’s unfinished play from the German provinces of the 19th century to Berlin at the end of Cold War, with Woyzeck traumatised by action seen in Northern Ireland. The move makes the play approachable but better still are changes to Woyzeck’s unfortunate love, Marie, played by Sarah Greene. More than a foil to her troubled partner, Greene’s modern sensibility makes the play’s domestic violence potent. Along with the addition of a plot about a medical trial Woyzeck participates in to raise cash, the play’s first half feels like a thriller.

Unfortunately the tension falters. As the play becomes ‘madder’ it feels too drawn out. The staging remains impressive but secondary characters, seen through Woyzeck’s eyes and affected by his increasing paranoia, become tiresome rather than threatening. The roles of Woyzeck’s Captain and his comrade, Andrews, are well performed and funny – but thinly written. It’s a great show for Nancy Carrol, playing the Captain’s wife and transforming in flashbacks into Woyzeck’s mother, but her posh cow character shows the problem best – an interest in the army’s class structure feels forced. Woyzeck becomes a victim in search of an excuse. Exploited by all and trapped by his past, causes are crammed in rather than explored.

Until 24 June 2017

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“King Lear” at the Old Vic

Returning to the stage after working as an MP for 23 years, Glenda Jackson’s decision to take the title role in Shakespeare’s tragedy has made this show hotly anticipated. It’s something of a relief, then, to report that the Oscar-winning actress gives a commanding performance. Her Lear may not be the most emotional, but it is subtle and intelligent. No time is wasted debating the gender blind casting – she’s doing Lear, get over it – the delivery sounds fantastic while pathos and power build masterfully. As if confirmation were needed, it’s clear Jackson is not afraid to take risks, showing a surprising element of mischievousness during the most painful scenes.

A stellar line-up joins Jackson, but nobody challenges her eminence – which is not surprising, but perhaps a little disappointing? Too many cast members seem burdened by ideas from director Deborah Warner. There are great performances from Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks (Goneril and Regan). But overall there’s a tendency to try too hard to make a mark: case in points are Simon Manyonda’s yoga-posing Edmond, Morfydd Clark’s over-earnest Cordelia and a misguided choice of accent for Sargon Yelda’s Kent. Harry Melling holds his own as Edgar, despite a ridiculous bin-bag nappy. Rhys Ifans is less successful with his Superman costume for the Fool. There’s more to his role than being funny, of course, but some lines are supposed to tickle us – instead Ifans eats a raw egg to get attention.

With a set of projections and black rubber sheeting, designed by Warner with Jean Kalman, there are plenty of clever moves and gory touches (watch out for flying eyeballs) that provide excitement. But abandoned, surely deliberately, is a sense of a society – when and where all this is taking place. Warner wants to deal with abstracts, which is her prerogative, and some of the play’s themes do gain when treated in this way (the lust for power is seen more starkly without a context). But surely a trick is missed in making this King Lear feel outside politics? More concerning, drama is distinctly lacking as a sense of predestination comes to the fore. It’s admirable that no laurels were sat on, but attempts to make this more than Glenda Jackson’s show don’t quite work.

Until 3 December 2016

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“The Master Builder” at the Old Vic

Matthew Warchus’ finest work since taking charge at the Old Vic marks new ground for the director – his first Ibsen play. With a vivid new adaptation by David Hare and a lavish set – with a trick up its sleeve – from Rob Howell, this is a luxurious production with a superb cast. In this demanding play of ideas, there’s a marriage in turmoil, plenty of hypocrisy, painful psychological insight and a mid-life crisis that, at times, poses as philosophy. Miraculously, it’s all present and correct.

A trio of women make life, let’s say, complicated, for the eponymous subject of the play, Halvard Solness. Fearing for the future, Solness is paranoid that “the young will arrive”, while also guilty about his past – his career success making him the archetypal Man who had all the luck. There’s the overdevoted bookkeeper (Charlie Cameron) he uses despicably. There’s his dutiful wife, a role made weighty by an excellent performance from Linda Emond. Above all, there’s the enigmatic Hilde, who Solness once encountered as a child and creepily promised to make a princess. Now Hilde’s at the door, demanding her castle in the air and showing an unhealthy interest in steeples. This London debut from rising Australian star Sarah Snook is one people will be talking about for a long time – Snook brings a deep-voiced, earthy quality to this ethereal, childish and dangerous heroine.

Linda Emond (Aline Solness) and Sarah Snook (Hilde Wangel) in The Master Builder at The Old Vic. Photos by Manuel Harlan.
Linda Emond and Sarah Snook

In the title role, Ralph Fiennes gives one of the finest performances of his career. In his studio, his bullying lothario is convincingly charismatic and dry witted – Fiennes has always been good at lofty but here we’re allowed to laugh at the character as well, a clever layering that squeezes out the text’s suggestions and innuendo. Solness’ ego never takes a break. But there’s something wrong. His artistic output is linked to an argument with God and any mistakes or errors of judgment become a question of free will. Accounting for Hilde’s strange hold over him, there’s talk of trolls and devils, and a belief that he has some kind of supernatural help, making his wishes comes true “mercilessly”.

With Ibsen revealing cruel truths and Fiennes up to the job of depicting them, we come to see the “soft and gentle” side Solness’ wife claims exist. The pain at the loss of his children and disappointment that, while he builds homes, there is “nothing but despair” in his own, means the solipsism slips. And finally, there’s fear, expressed as crippling vertigo, through which we fully appreciate the deconstruction of the character Fiennes so carefully presents. It’s a masterfully built performance that should not be missed.

Until 19 March 2016

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Lorax” at the Old Vic

Legendary children’s author Dr Seuss’s environmental fable, of the titular forest creature who tries but fails to save trees from a fanatical businessman called The Once-ler, is a surprisingly joyous and thought-provoking piece. With inventive theatricality, director Max Webster’s production should please the widest of audiences with puppetry, songs and spectacle, all in rhyme, with both laughs and tears along with way.

If there’s a fault, you wouldn’t describe Charlie Fink’s effective and eclectic songs as quite top notch. But The Lorax isn’t quite a musical. And it would be hard not to focus on David Greig’s adaptation for the stage. The expanded script is in the Seuss spirit – you can feel the great man smiling down on Greig – with lovely modern twists. The inventive and intricate language keeps your attention, with smogulous smog-polluting factories replacing the truffula trees – felled to produce useless thneeds – this show is biggerer than Christmas.

Comfortably short of preachy, the important message is delivered intelligently. Greig’s masterstroke, aided by Simon Paisley Day’s energetic performance, is to show The Once-ler’s argument. Progress has a point and though The Once-ler brings disaster, his motivations aren’t all bad. We get to see how he is corrupted, and the show’s best number is with his lawyers, McCann, McGee and Von Goo. As for wider complicity, there’s the media and consumers who become distracted from The Lorax’s protest by a pop-fuelled fashion show.

Of course it’s The Lorax who is the star and guaranteed to win hearts. Performed by Laura Cubitt, Ben Thompson and Simon Lipkin, who also voices the character, this is a hero remarkable for his sensitivity and simplicity, as well as (hurrah), age and moustache. The puppetry in the show, masterminded by Finn Caldwell, is superb, perfectly matching Rob Howell’s clever design. The Lorax speaks loud and proud to all and it is to be hoped that many get to hear him.

Until 16 January 2016

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Future Conditional” at the Old Vic

Marking Matthew Warchus’ first production in charge at the Old Vic, Tamsin Oglesby’s new play is literally about education, education, education, with three views of schools crammed into one, like an overcrowded classroom. The evening is entertaining and feels fresh, and one or two parts might have passed on their own, but cumulatively the play doesn’t score highly.

Lucy Briggs-Owen (Hettie) and Natalie Klamar (Suzy) in Future Conditional. Photo credit Manuel Harlan
Lucy Briggs-Owen and Natalie Klamar

There are those pushy mums at the primary school gates, desperate for their kids to get on. OK, predictable, but the social observations are funny. There’s a strong turn from Lucy Briggs-Owen, as her character justifies going into the private system, and heartfelt angst from Natalie Klamar with a struggle to stay state. There’s a stilted amazement at class differences – are the school gates one of the few places people mix? I suppose I’m not qualified to say. The scenes are fun if slight.

Then there’s an education committee, a talking shop that Oglesby gets more laughs from. Warchus comes into his own here with the direction far tighter than the writing. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel: the arguments are so simplistic and the many characters so transparent it’s almost insulting to an audience. Ironically, the chances of learning anything about education, or being challenged in your thinking, are far too slim.

Rob Brydon (Crane) in Future Conditional. Photo credit Manuel Harlan (2)

Future Conditional’s most moving narrative has an emotional topicality, with the story of a Malala-like refugee from the Taliban, played impressively by Nikki Patel. She is joined by a woefully underused Rob Brydon as her inspirational teacher, sadly reduced to a trite little speech about how teachers are societal scapegoats. Patel’s Alia is the only character to appreciate learning and her story is uplifting. That her destination is, you’ve guessed it, Oxford, points to the play’s flaw: Warchus and the young cast have plenty of energy and create an exciting feel, but Ogelsby tries to tackle so much that originality goes to the back of the class.

Until 3 October 2015

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“High Society” at the Old Vic

Here’s a bold claim: Maria Friedman’s production of High Society has more laughs than the much loved film it’s based on. More than an amusing trip down memory lane, the show is laugh out loud funny, making the most of Cole Porter’s hit-crammed score and the humour of Arthur Kopit’s book. Updating the original 1930s setting to match the movie’s 1956 date injects a rock and roll feel, making the piece energised and a whole lot sexier.

Admittedly there’s a somewhat slow start. The sound could be bolder and some characters take time to establish themselves. The initial preamble to the wedding of wealthy socialite Tracy Lord and her arriviste fiancé George Kittredge lacks tension, despite her ex-husband CK Dexter-Haven being around. It feels like we’re being served a good prosecco rather than the champagne that plays such a big part in the show.

But by the time I Love Paris is sung, by Tracy and her feisty young sister Dinah, to bemuse two gate-crashing journalists, we’re onto the real thing and laughing a lot. And after the interval the use of the Old Vic’s current in-the-round format is embraced. When the cast sing What A Swell Party, we really feel part of it – it’s a tremendous scene that makes you glad you’ve been invited. The finale also uses the space cleverly as Tracy announces that the wedding is off to the audience, who at this point double as the congregation.

Of course, we’re all happy Tracy ends up with the right man. Rupert Young makes a suitably charismatic CK, while it’s best not to think too much about the fate of the unfortunate George. Dinah and the rogue reporters, played superbly by Ellie Bamber, Jamie Parker and Annabel Scholey, are on our side to allay complicity in the snobbery.

Amongst such a talented cast it’s all the more remarkable that Kate Fleetwood’s Tracy stands out so much. Her sexy voice and stunning comic skills mean you daren’t take your eyes off her. And she looks fantastic in Tom Pye’s glamorous costume designs. I’m not classy enough myself to know the best brand of champagne, but whatever it is, it should serve as a metaphor for Fleetwood’s performance. And she deserves a jeroboam of the stuff.

Until 22 August 2015

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Electra” at the Old Vic

Frank McGuinness’ version of Electra is currently playing at the Old Vic. Directed by Ian Rickson, with satisfying confidence, this no-nonsense version of Sophocles’ tragedy, about a daughter’s revenge on her mariticidal mother, is direct and powerful.

This is a fine production with Kristin Scott Thomas in the title role. She’s the star attraction, but it should be stressed that the whole cast is strong. Diana Quick is suitably regal as the detested mother Clytemnestra and Jack Lowden gives a moving depth to Electra’s prodigal brother Orestes.

Hauteur has been a career specialty for Scott Thomas and, since Electra is a princess, it’s used to advantage here. But this is a remarkably earthy performance, free from vanity and physically charged. She is dynamic, pacing around as if caged. Even when on the ground, little of her body touches the earth. Convulsed with grief, every muscle is expressive. And animalistic: her centre of gravity is low and every sense heightened to suggest a hunted figure. This intimation of the feral doesn’t disappear with a cry of joy as Orestes reappears – Electra sniffs her brother as if to confirm that he is one of her brood.

As well as its easy appeal, McGuinness’ text gets to the heart of the tale with efficiency. Along with the horror of the story, dilemmas are presented cogently with an emphasis on religion that Rickson develops.

Quick and Lowden both represent the questions surrounding their bloody family legacy well. The urgency of Electra’s need for justice, which creates a manic “fire in her head”, is balanced with cogent arguments, delineated by Scott Thomas with eviscerating intelligence.

Until 20 December 2015

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 8 October 2014 for The London Magazine

“Other Desert Cities” at the Old Vic

Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz opens a new season at the Old Vic that sees the venue transformed into a theatre in the round. Love it though we must, the Old Vic is a barn of a place and the new intimacy created by the set up is much welcomed. The play is a strong piece that could surely hold its own in any venue, but this skillfully written family drama, full of political ambitions, benefits greatly from the reconfiguration.

Depressed New Yorker Brooke visits home in Palm Springs for the Christmas vacation. Gifting her right-wing parents Polly and Lyman with a tell-all memoir puts an end to any holiday spirit. Along with more than their fair share of family tragedy, domestic conflict comes from politics; the older Reaganesque Republicans (Sinéad Cusack and Peter Egan are utterly convincing) opposed by “hopelessly high brow” Brooke, performed superbly by Martha Plimpton. Adding to the agenda are alcoholic hippy Aunt Silda (Clare Higgins) and younger brother Trip (Daniel Lapaine) who provide some insight from the millennial generation.

Pulitzer-nominated Baitz has been a success on Broadway and is well known for his TV career (Brothers & Sisters, The West Wing). He joins hit American writers doing so well in the West End at the moment and seems very keen to have written a big American play. There are plenty of influences, Albee the most obvious, so it isn’t startlingly original.  Topicality and politics are the important things and, although it seems slightly heavy handed, at one point even melodramatic, the play’s ambition is impressive.

The characterisation is very good. And the cast lives up to the strong writing. In a moving performance, Egan helps reveal a deeper character than we suspected. Likewise, Lapaine makes his smaller part stand out, while Higgins comes close to stealing the show. Great subtlety is invested in the central female characters Polly and Brooke; the writing seesaws our sympathy between the cold yet loyal, domineering mother and the selfish suffering of her brilliant child. It’s clever and complex stuff.

Until 24 May 2014

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 26 March 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Duchess of Malfi” at The Old Vic

The stage is set for high drama at The Old Vic with Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Duchess of Malfi. Soutra Gilmour’s set excites at first, with accomplished lighting from James Farncombe, but it quickly tires. This gothic fantasia lacks subtlety and isn’t versatile enough – at one point it seems to snow inside a palace and, worse still, it has a cardboard cut-out feel that is unfortunately reflected in some of the performances.

Placing the focus on John Webster’s text, shouting the play’s complexity and trying to challenge our ideas about Jacobean revenge stories, Lloyd creates an exceptionally clear production. Clarity isn’t usually a fault but you can take anything to an extreme: much of the cast’s delivery becomes heavy and laboured. Lloyd is too good a director to make The Duchess of Malfi tedious but what should be a gut-wrenching ride of a play is too often halting.

There are important exceptions. Mark Bonnar plays the villainous Basola with great complexity. His treachery towards the Duchess and her steward (a fine performance from Tom Bateman), whom she has secretly married, is multilayered.

In the title role, Eve Best’s performance is never less than superb. It’s clear that for Lloyd her character is more than the victim of gruesome torture – she is a shinning light of humanity. Best is impressively natural, given the difficulty of the part. Believable as a real woman as well as a symbol of dignity, her performance saves the play.

Until 9 June 2012

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 29 March 2012 for The London Magazine

“The Sea Plays” at the Old Vic Tunnels

Filing through the Old Vic Tunnels to your seat for The Sea Plays you pass a tableau of a ship’s boiler room. The scene has an energy that continues into the first thing we see on stage – a storm at sea with the crew struggling against the elements. It’s an exciting piece of theatre that stirs the blood.

Unfortunately, matters go downhill as soon as The Sea Plays properly start. Eugene O’Neill’s three sketches show an injured crewman facing his death, a sailor subjected to the espionage-fuelled paranoia of his shipmates and finally a tavern scene with a criminal landlord exploiting those just off the boat. It’s honest of director Kenneth Hoyt not to make more of these pieces than they deserve; they are short and sharp but have little point. Critics often like brevity, but most audience members should beware if they are in search of a satisfyingly full night of theatre.

The cast sometimes struggle with roles only outlined and seldom developed. Matthew Trevannion gets the best bargain, in all three plays playing a character named Driscoll, a fiery Irishman he portrays with appropriate vigour. There are also good performances from Raymond M Sage and Amanda Boxer as a sailor with a dream and an elderly prostitute who helps swindle him. Van Santvoord’s set and Alex Baranowski’s music and sound design cleverly use the space of the tunnels, but creating these fascinating male-dominated environments is a tough ask and the swaggering machismo of the cast often falls short.

The Sea Plays are interesting for O’Neill fans but they are difficult to be passionate about. The scenarios are powerful enough and Hoyt’s direction taut and strong – he is clearly convinced of the trilogy’s power. But these vignettes are so short, and the writing often surprisingly melodramatic, despite O’Neill’s naturalist credentials, that the evening is more a matter of squalls than storms.

Until 18 February 2012

Written 27 January 2012 for The London Magazine