Tag Archives: Rae Smith

“Saint George and the Dragon” at the National Theatre

The always excellent John Heffernan takes the title role in Rory Mullarkey’s new play and gives a truly heroic performance. But can he save the day and the play? Almost… yet not quite, although it’s still a pleasure to see him on stage. Looking at our national legend at the nation’s theatre is a neat idea, as is writing the story as a contemporary allegory (in three chapters). Unfortunately, this brave effort delivers too little.

The opening act, set in a parodied mediaeval world, gets the show off to a great start. With Pythonesque touches, Heffernan makes the foppish George a figure to laugh at, while retaining just the right amount of dignity. His damsel in distress in updated effectively by Amaka Okafor, making their courtship a lark. As for the Dragon, Julian Bleach has a great deal of fun playing his earthly form, camping it up terrifically. It’s all staged slickly by director Lyndsey Turner, with Rae Smith’s design looking great. It’s silly but it’s funny, charming even, and very enjoyable.

After a year George returns to his island home, which has undergone an industrialisation that has enslaved its people. The Dragon isn’t a monster, but “every system needs a master” and, suited and booted, he is bureaucracy incarnate. It’s another great turn from Bleach and his now imprisoned former henchman, played by Richard Goulding, does well from the confines of a prison set. But this time the dénouement is thin and unconvincing; the Dragon too easily vanquished. It’s simplistic and too predictable.

To continue with a lack of surprises, after another year, George returns again – this time to a version of the present. Cue skyscrapers descending on to the stage in a This Is Spinal Tap moment that Smith has had enough experience to have avoided. And that’s the least of the problems with this unhappily ever after ending. The Dragon continues incorporeal – his evil inside us all – and there’s no place for saints, nowadays. Heffernan excels as a George out of time and perfectly reflects the play’s questioning of heroes and heroics. But this is slim stuff for a long play, as the repetition indicates, as well as being bleak and naive. Both Mullarkey and Turner lose control with an overblown finale that’s uncomfortably messy. And really just downright silly.

Until 2 December 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

 

 

“The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

This first London revival of Edward Albee’s 2002 play, with Ian Rickson directing a stellar cast, reveals a piece that is riveting and risqué. A superb companion to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, playing around the corner, it’s also a marital drama with high stakes. Our hero is having an affair… with a goat.

There’s a lot of shock value, cleverly handled. Albee plays with taboos in a fashion that would make younger writers from the ‘In Yer Face’ school proud. The nervous laughter of the audience would be gratifying to him. The language is colourful and its articulate characters – caught in a nightmarish situation – explore all manner of repercussions to the affair.

The cast are superb. Jason Hughes and Archie Madekwe stand as fully formed characters, best friend and son to Martin and Stevie Gray, the couple whose perfect lives didn’t contain a plan about what would happen in the face of zoophilia. It’s a bizarre twist – that’s the point – Albee even describes it as “ludicrous”.

Damian Lewis takes the part of Martin: great as the tortured victim of his obsession and even better when it comes to trying to defend his actions. Sophie Okonedo plays his unfortunate wife, giving a magnetic performance of subtle comic skill. Together they create a believably perfect marriage – think how difficult that is – that roots the show in a painful reality. And the life we see falling apart needs to be convincing: it is important Martin’s obsession is a bolt from the blue.

When the truth is revealed, the objets in the couple’s stylish apartment suffer during an amusingly respectful fighting match (credit to designer Rae Smith here, but also a busy stage management replacing all those broken pots). Martin the “semanticist” tries to pin down what’s going on – to describe facts and feelings. His odd forgetfulness and obsession with grammar are not just for laughs, and Lewis makes them edgy; showing the “pit” of chaos that’s arisen from a chance encounter in a farmyard! With admirable gusto, Rickson orchestrates a swirling mix of trauma, hilarity and shock – making this an awesome experience.

Until 24 June 2017

www.trh.co.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“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

“The Veil” at the National Theatre

As the nights draw in, what could be more apt than a ghost story? Conor McPherson’s new play, The Veil, aims to chill and thrill over the winter months at the National Theatre.

Set in early 19th-century Ireland, the local gentry, living in not so genteel poverty, and their staff are haunted by both the past and current events in their politically divided nation. Lady Lambroke looks to her daughter’s marriage as a way to escape debts and the country. Her brother, a clergyman defrocked for his interest in spiritualism, is to escort the girl to England for marriage, but his interest in his niece has more to do with her ‘gift’ for the supernatural.

Fenella Woolgar and Emily Taaffe make a convincing mother and daughter who, despite their snobbishness, gain our sympathy and admiration. Jim Norton plays the Reverend Berkeley (named for his interest in Idealism) in an appropriately intelligent style that’s passionate enough to convince us he believes his ideas, but leaves room for us to laugh as well.

The staff, including the redoubtable Mrs Goulding (the excellent Bríd Brennan), are a source of further drama. They come together on appropriate windy, candle-lit nights, as the ghost stories and séances get under way. McPherson directs these scenes wonderfully. Unfortunately, there isn’t much sense of time or place in The Veil and Rae Smith’s impressively designed set and costumes start to seem rather pointless – it all looks great but it isn’t put to enough use.

If McPherson wanted to achieve more than an entertaining evening of ghost stories it seems he has fallen short. Extra themes are hinted at yet never materialise. But The Veil is satisfying supernatural and is sure to appeal to his fans. The storytelling is as good as ever, his characters as likeable and well realised, and the language wonderfully lyrical.

Until 11 December 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org

Photo by Helen Warner

Written 5 October 2011 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