Tag Archives: Sam Yates

“Glengarry Glen Ross” at the Playhouse Theatre

The American playwright David Mamet has plenty of fans. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work from 1984, filmed in 1992, has lines so famous this revival’s smart advertising campaign quotes them. Until now, I’ve never been a huge admirer, finding Mamet’s themes blunt and his language, while powerful, too brutal. But here, Sam Yates’ direction exposes the author’s subtlety, making his production a terrific show for all.

Three intense duologues open the play, introducing us to Chicago real estate agents and their cut-throat world. The scenes are close studies on the part of Yates and his superb cast. Kris Marshall plays the office manager, who has power over the lists of leads he distributes, and he does well in distancing his character from the other workers. Due to the unfortunate indisposition of Robert Glenister, Mark Carlisle takes up the role of a particularly desperate salesman, and proves impressively up to speed, working well in his scene with Don Warrington. The plots hatched and bargains struck are funny in their transparency but there’s no doubt the stakes are high. It’s the brevity that impresses with this trio of sketches – so much atmosphere and characterisation so very quickly.

The star of the production is the fictional company’s top salesman, Ricky Roma, played by Christian Slater, who convinces as someone who could sell the proverbial brick to a drowning man. Slater’s charisma makes for perfect casting, and his mischievous, arch delivery brings out the play’s wicked humour. But there’s more: the real focus of the play is veteran salesman Shelley Levene, nicknamed “the machine”, and next to his old mentor Slater shows an impressive restraint.

Stanley Townsend gives a superb performance as Levene. Technically brilliant, his understanding of Mamet’s rhythm is marvellous, he gets great laughs but also makes the play moving. The brief mentions of his daughter, like all the women in the play never actually named, creates a powerful emotional undertow. This is “a world of men”, but look how troubled it is. Yates draws out the desperation and pressure underlying these workers’ lives, with a nod to the tradition of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. It’s intelligent insight, convincingly delivered, that makes this a revelatory production.

Until 3 February 2018

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Murder Ballad” at the Arts Theatre

This tale of adultery and death is deliberately downbeat. In the hands of director Sam Yates the realism aimed for casts a spell. With just four characters, who sing throughout, a strong cast creates a greater intimacy than the show really deserves. Distracting from Juliana Nash’s music – efficient with imaginative touches – are too many poor lyrics. Acknowledging truisms doesn’t make them clever. Making stereotypes a theme doesn’t make them interesting.

The cast is superb. Wicked star Kerry Ellis clearly wants to show a serious side and she succeeds, despite nonsensically singing that her character “shouts silently”. Ellis plays Sara, who is in a love triangle with Tom and Michael (Ramin Karimloo and Norman Bowman). The two men in her life sound great, establish their thin characters miraculously – and fans will be pleased that Karimloo takes his shirt off. The latter rises above the fact that he has to sing about the one that got away – literally – moving on to a better number where he gets to be creepy. Shame it occurs so late. Worse, it’s hard to get over Sara and Tom being described as “two cats in a fish bowl”. How big a bowl? How did they get in it? Why don’t they just climb out?

Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo
Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo

The show belongs to a fourth character, played by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, who acts as a narrator and brings a cooler edge, observing proceedings, with cynical sophistication. She also gets the best song, which compares the tawdry tragedy on stage to the glamour of the movies. Yates takes his cue from this cinematic reference, creating a noirish feel, with admirable use of projections that adds tension and style. It’s the atmosphere Yates crafts that allows us to examine the “roles assigned” – husband, mother, lover – with wit and intelligence. That’s how you work with clichés.

Until 3 December 2016

www.murderballadmusical.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The El. Train” at Hoxton Hall

Hoxton Hall has been transformed for a short run of three one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill. Billed as The El. Train, with the action set beneath the bustle of the New York Subway at the turn of the century, there are no long journeys to endure here as the short pieces run right on time. O’Neill’s bleak themes of desperation are easily recognisable, but this is an night of drama and action, backed by a superb jazz soundtrack, with original music from Alex Baranowski, that adds a satisfying unity to the evening.

The first two plays, Before Breakfast and The Web, are superbly directed by Sam Yates. Both star two-time Olivier Award winning Ruth Wilson who gives versatile performances as a downtrodden wife and an abused prostitute. Before Breakfast serves as a commanding monologue, produced with gripping precision from both director and actor. Special praise goes to the carefully delivered humour brought out in the production – a clear indication of the intelligence behind the whole evening. The Web is an even darker exploration of a criminal underworld. The unbelievable cruelty of a pimp, portrayed effectively by Zubin Varla, an heroic rescue, and a baby thrown in for extra emotion – there’s a little too much going on for its own good. But Yates does a superb job to embrace and pace the action. Wilson’s reappearance in this role, as a consumptive streetwalker, close to death, is tremendous.

A transformation marks the finest theatrical moment of the final piece as well, with Nicola Hughes metamorphosing into an elderly woman as she sings between the plays. In The Dreamy Kid, Hughes’ Mammy Saunders is on her deathbed, waiting to say goodbye to a beloved grandchild. He is being watched by the police and his visit will be a trap as his crime catches up with him. The play marks Ruth Wilson’s directorial debut, a cleverly modest one, which takes a lead from Yates’ work and maintains the high standards and exciting tension.

And to round off a fine evening, an accompanying bar benefits from the atmosphere the talented musicians on stage have established so well. The Hell Hole Saloon is a pop-up venue that ostensibly takes its inspiration from the Golden Swan saloon O’Neill frequented. It’s much nicer really, with themed cocktails, including a delicious hot buttered rum which is perfect for the season, and fantastic service under the supervision of award-winning bartender Joe Stokoe.

Until 30 December 2013

Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 14 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“Cornelius” at the Finborough Theatre

The latest “rediscovery” of a play from the Finborough Theatre is Cornelius by J.B.Priestley and it’s a real gem. A rich text, full of ideas, humour and drama, it is not to be missed. Not content with revealing this hidden treasure, last performed in London seventy years ago, director Sam Yates gives this superb play the excellent production it deserves.

Cornelius is at first a gentle, office-based comedy, with a cast of amusing characters sure to entertain. In a strong ensemble special note has to be made of Beverley Klein who takes on two roles with great skill. Yates handles the comedy superbly with a masterful nod at what a modern audience makes of the more dated moments. Similar intelligence is seen dealing with the social themes that so engaged Priestley: Cornelius runs a business in trouble, in dire economic times, with work interrupted by desperate salesmen and creditors. Cleverly, Yates handles any parallels to our current state with the lightest of touches.

What really interests is Cornelius himself; a fantastic creation, Yates and his lead actor Alan Cox understand him wonderfully. Bluff and blustering, appealing in his modesty and humour, Cox is perfect in bringing out nuance and adding the touch of poetry that makes his character fascinating.

There’s romance for Cornelius but his relationships with the devoted Miss Porrin and the down to earth Judy, finely performed by Annabel Topham and Emily Barber respectively, show two sides of unrequited love that makes the piece feel refreshingly real.

Cornelius contains a touch of mystery and tragedy as well, coming from his business partner, the intense Murrison remarkably portrayed by Jamie Newall, giving rise to dark observations, such as the “scheme and scratch” nature of office work, that are sure to ring true with many. But there is hope in Cornelius that the production embraces in proud style. Yates brings great focus to a tight script, making Cornelius a riveting work and this production is not just the finest on the fringe but one of the hottest tickets in town.

Until 8 September 2012

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Robert Workman

Written 17 August 2012 for The London Magazine

“Mixed Marriage” at the Finborough Theatre

Mixed Marriage at the Finborough Theatre is a centenary revival that makes sense. St John Ervine’s 1911 play about sectarian violence and industrial action in the north of Ireland strikes a chord in our troubled times, while a love story across the religious divide concerns the timeless conflict between the personal and the political.

Director Sam Yates observes the period of the play meticulously. More impressively, he opens up the drama wonderfully. Masterful pacing gives the audience time to draw parallels without forcing them. The “fighting and wrangling” for money, and the use of fear as a tool of division, are highlighted subtly and seamlessly.

A romance between a young Catholic girl and her Protestant neighbour is moving, but I suspect a sleight of hand here. Yates skilfully circumvents any melodrama in the text, making the dilemma the couple faces – the possibility that their union could literally cause a riot – heart-stoppingly tense. The final scene is as gripping as it is grim.

Yates’ cast responds superbly to his sure direction. Christopher Brandon and Nora-Jane Noone are fantastic as the young lovers. Joel Ormsby and Damien Hannaway play their siblings in fine style. The older members of the cast take the lead, though, with Daragh O’Malley and Fiona Victory as Mr and Mrs Rainey – a Protestant couple caught between her homely appeal to tolerance and his fiercely stubborn preference for political loyalties.

Mixed Marriage is at once remarkably concise – it’s a meaty 80 minutes with no interval – and admirably clear. Excellent direction and performances allow the ideals of St John Ervine to ring out – the inspiring notion that two people in love can be “bigger than the world” is cause for celebration.

Until 29 October 2011

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Written 7 October 2011 for The London Magazine