Tag Archives: Oliver Chris

“Young Marx” at the Bridge Theatre

There’s nothing more exciting than a new theatre. And, bearing in mind that Nicholas Hytner’s new venue is the biggest in London for a long time, its opening night is a major cultural event to really celebrate. In truth, it’s a bit of a box of place – in one of those luxury housing developments you wish you could afford but wouldn’t live in if you could – trying hard to be swish (expensive sarnies) and smelling a bit too new. But the play’s the thing and, to open his new home Hytner, has collaborated with regular favourites to deliver a real crowd pleaser.

The true history of Karl Marx’s early years living in London is fascinating, with a fact-stranger-than-fiction appeal – it seems that Marx was an expert in economics but couldn’t handle his own money. The lead role provides an enviable part for Rory Kinnear, who embraces this larger-than-life, Bohemian (yes, really) philosopher. With One Man Two Guvnors and Dead Ringers writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman at work, the play is, as you would expect, good, old-fashioned funny.

With the excellent Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels, the two revolutionaries make a comedy double act. They even have a piano, until the bailiffs call and, as invited, literally, take a chair. There’s more than a hint of the Marx Brothers here – there’s even a cigar or two. Add numerous emigrés with funny accents (Tony Jayawardena is a highlight as the impoverished family’s doctor) and you have more than enough comedy ingredients. Kinnear is even good for some slapstick. Hytner enjoys this stuff – as do audiences – and his direction is faultless.

Just to make sure all bases are covered, we get some light extrapolation of Marxist ideas to give us something to think about, and it’s pretty evenly handled, with nice touches of hindsight. And there’s pathos: the death of a Marx child is movingly portrayed. The treatment of Marx’s wife and mistress short-changes two excellent actors – Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone – and it becomes hard to believe these women stuck around. And there is angst: that Marx fears unleashing the “virus of hope” with his writing is an interesting idea, but we need to see more of Marx’s power, rather than just being told about it. Maybe that would have made things too serious?

Young Marx tries hard to be a hit – and it deserves to be one. Even with the best reputation and address book in the business, starting a new commercial theatre is a brave move by Hytner and his producer Nick Starr. As new plays go, this is a pretty safe bet. But Hytner understandably has a cautious eye on commercial success. A big show to get people talking is exactly what is needed and my fingers are crossed for just that.

Until 31 December 2017

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Charles III” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Mike Bartlett’s biggest hit to date, Charles III, has made a much-deserved transfer to the West End after rave reviews at the Almeida. Billed as a ‘future history play’, Bartlett imagines Prince Charles ascending to the throne and a constitutional crisis that arises when he refuses to sign a bill privileging privacy over the freedom of the press.

As well as being topical and very funny, the ideas are so outlandish – especially the presence of Princess Diana’s ghost – that it might all have turned out a bit silly. But it works. Royally. With a set of buzzing performances headed by a superb Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role, all the actors manage a fine balance between impersonation and a deeper intent. There are laughs at first, but these are well-developed roles and the serious subject matter is fascinating. Director Rupert Goold is uncharacteristically restrained; he knows the play speaks for itself.

Bartlett takes on the Shakespearean mantle with courage and panache. The play is written in verse, a demanding choice that adds humour and holds the attention. References to Shakespeare’s plays are light; it’s not so much the form and language that Bartlett borrows from the Bard as those ambitious themes of responsibility, family and identity – all of which are dealt with so intelligently that the royal soap opera is left far behind.

Not that the house of Windsor doesn’t make great raw material. The drama of youth vs experience, so ably depicted by Princes Harry and William (two sides of Shakespeare’s Hal?), is embraced by actors Richard Goulding and Oliver Chris. Imagining future events in such a fashion makes the heritage of Shakespeare’s history plays a kind of prism, creating layers of speculation. Bartlett handles the possibilities with wit, ensuring that Charles III  is both entertaining and unpredictable, while raising big questions and creating real pathos.

Until 31 January 2015

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 September 2014 for The London Magazine

“One Man, Two Guvnors” at the National Theatre

Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte play, One Man, Two Guvnors, is a story of lovers, disguise and an overworked servant, set in 1960s Brighton. The decade is a great excuse for a nostalgic design, rock ’n’ roll songs, and plenty of saucy jokes that some sensitive souls might frown at. And the seaside is an appropriate location for the silly stuff we see on stage – it’s picture postcard time at the National Theatre, with plenty of slap and tickle to enjoy.

The humour couldn’t be less sophisticated, and the gags as old as they come (“men will do anything to get you into bed. Lie, cheat, buy you a bed”). We are offered some theory as an excuse. Commedia dell’arte deals with stock characters and director Nicholas Hynter makes sure his cast delivers the broadest of performances. None of this stops the play from being funny – predictability is part of the joke, but it does make delivery the most important thing. Here, One Man, Two Guvnors does very well indeed.

The lovers we encounter include Pauline Clench (Claire Lams) and her RADA-trained fiancé Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby) whose postured emoting gets more laughs than his lines. Their marriage is endangered by Rachel Crabbe (the excellent Jemima Rooper) disguised as her brother, who has been killed by her lover Stanley Stubbers, played effortlessly by Oliver Chris, the nice-but-dim public school boy who, taking inspiration from the street, disguises himself as Dustin Pubsign. His is the star turn of the night.

Chris steals the show, which might surprise some, since One Man, Two Guvnors seems rather unashamedly designed as a vehicle for James Cordon. As the servant who takes on two jobs, he rarely leaves the stage and his energy is fantastic. The physical comedy poses no problems for Cordon and he deals playfully with his colleagues, especially his own love interest Dolly (sassily portrayed by Suzie Toase), but his character is supposed to be more hapless than devious and – whisper it – Cordon doesn’t possess quite enough charm to hold the role.

And yet Cordon’s star appeal overpowers any deficiencies in his performance. His confidence is enough to entertain and he’s undoubtedly a crowd pleaser. If audience participation strikes you as a little tawdry, then stay away. But, as they say on the X Factor, the audience is the judge, and the level of near hysteria following Cordon’s every move makes for an electric atmosphere.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 26 May 2011 for The London Magazine

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Rose Theatre Kingston

Peter Hall and Judi Dench first worked together on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1962. In 1969 they filmed another, different production. Now they are working together again at Kingston’s Rose Theatre. But is reunion the right word to describe this much anticipated theatrical event? It is more pleasing to think of these great artists as demonstrating one of the joys of theatre – its constant reinvention and development, the work they have accomplished over the years bringing us closer and deeper to a text they have engaged with so many times before.

Having played the same character for nearly 50 years, some kind of conceit might be thought necessary for Dench to revive the role of Titiana, especially given that in the past she has portrayed the role in a startlingly sensual manner. So, in a crowd-pleasing masterstroke, this Queen of the Fairies becomes Old Queen Bess herself. As she makes her entrance before a word of the play is spoken, we are reminded that the play was first performed before Elizabeth I. Dressed in sumptuous costumes by Elizabeth Bury, Dench looks just like everyone’s mental image from all those wonderful portraits – or at least her Oscar-winning film depiction. Costumed as the virgin Queen throughout, her Oberon, Charles Edwards, has matinee idol looks and reminds us of one of the younger courtiers Elizabeth flirted with, sometimes dangerously, in her later years.

Oberon and Titania’s relationship brings out some of the melancholy present in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – it is very much a play about the passing of time. For humour, the production is blessed with a wonderful performance from Oliver Chris. While it is difficult not to get some laughs from one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic roles, his Bottom (see how easy it can be) is really toned. He shows restraint in not prolonging the jokes, works very well with his Thisbe, and has a physicality that means he can even get the laughs when his impressive ass’s head is hiding his face.

Dench and Chris are not alone in making this production hugely entertaining. The pairs of lovers, Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius are all played well by Rachel Stirling, Annabel Scholey, Tam Williams and Ben Mansfield. An extremely good-looking bunch, each manages to differentiate their role clearly and speak wonderfully. It is difficult not to view these actors as somewhat in competition – maybe that gives the edge to the boys’ fantastic bravado in a great excuse for a fight scene. All four work hard, although Stirling takes the prize. Her distress at their behaviour seems delightfully genuine and the anger towards her one-time friend deliciously bitchy.

Peter Hall places the production entirely in its Elizabethan context. Bottom is an Elizabethan workman, in awe of his Queen but confident in his own opinions, the Lovers remind us of those Hilliard miniatures, caught in a summer of England’s Golden Age. This consistency is delightful and only let down by some small instances.  Playing Theseus as an English country duke, Julian Wadham possesses so little authority he seems simply dull and his Queen somewhat bored.  The local mechanicals are predictably cast (this group seems condemned to come from Birmingham in whatever production is staged).

These are small points given the quality of production that is presented here. Whether or not they are inspired by their leading lady, this cast excels at speaking Shakespeare in a clear and fresh manner. The direction has a warranted confidence that means you can just sit back and enjoy. The Rose has an undoubted and well deserved success on its hands that, with any luck, will turn around the fortunes of this wonderful new theatre.

Until 20 March 2010

www.rosetheatrekingston.org

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 19 February 2010 for The London Magazine