Tag Archives: Vicki Mortimer

“Follies” at the National Theatre

This lavish production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical is a triumph for director Dominic Cooke. This is a piece that divides opinion. While its songs have gained fame, the rambling story of past lives, set around a reunion of former Broadway performers, has too slender a book by James Goldman. But in Cooke’s hands this feast of melancholic nostalgia is coherent and compelling. With no small help from the Olivier’s revolve, a static story is made to at least feel dynamic. The tone is serious, suitably so, with any camp fiercely controlled. The cast is huge, the orchestra lush and Vicki Mortimer’s design will surely garner her an award for the costumes alone. The ‘ghosts’ of lives past appear with a gorgeous array of headgear, while the late 1960s costumes of those meeting one last time before a theatre is demolished are just as meticulous and impressive.

Imelda Staunton as playing Sally and Janie Dee as Phyllis

Follies provides the irony of performers at the top of their game pretending that their careers are over. Imelda Staunton continues her reign as Queen of Musicals by playing Sally and is matched by Janie Dee as Phyllis. The women performed and dated together but have ended up in sad marriages with the wrong men. Sharing their unhappiness are the husbands, Ben and Buddy, brilliantly performed by Philip Quast and Peter Forbes respectively. The women have the stronger numbers. Staunton delivers the hit Losing My Mind impeccably and her hysterical devotion to the man who got away manages against all odds to be convincing. Dee is the wicked witch of the piece, getting the laughs and showing the emptiness of her character’s successful life with pathos. But of all the mid-to-late-life crisis on offer here (and there’s plenty of it) Phyllis is the only one that entertains. There’s young talent in the show, too: Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig both do well as the immature versions of the men but, while Zizi Strallen and Alex Young ably perform their roles as the younger women, the parts themselves are frustratingly thinly written.

Zizi Strallen as Young Phyllis, Alex Young as Young Sally, Fred Haig as Young Buddy and Adam Rhys-Charles as Young Ben

Given its size, Follies is a major investment to stage – a concert production was my only experience so expectations were high. To say this isn’t Sondheim’s best work still makes it head and shoulders above most musicals. But some of the lyrics are strangely flat and a couple of numbers, which take us back the early days of Broadway, of primarily academic interest. It’s the book that causes most problems – much of the show is a series of introductions – that fail to excite – about characters not met again. It’s a poor build up to a prolonged conclusion – the central quartet’s individual “follies” numbers that feel like ground already trodden. The stakes simply aren’t high enough to truly engage and the characters’ angst start to look like whinging. Musicals can cover serious topics – nobody proves that better than Sondheim – but here we just have a collection of personal crises that ends up dispiriting.

Until 3 January 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Oil” at the Almeida Theatre

Ella Hickson’s time-travelling play overflows with contemporary concerns. Scene one shows the not-so-good life of Cornish farmers in 1889. It’s followed by a trip to Tehran in 1908, Hampstead in 1970 and a couple of forays into the future. All show the consequences of oil, or the lack of, in society. Each scene is played around the dynamic of a mother called May (Anne-Marie Duff), Orlando-like over the centuries, with her daughter, Amy, who appears just conceived, aged eight, as a teen and as a middle-aged woman. You can’t doubt the play’s ambition.

The danger here is in overwhelming your audience. Hickson manages to stop her play feeling like an online search for conspiracies with the help of director Carrie Cracknell’s inventive staging and some deliciously mischievous humour. It’s a self-consciously crazy affair, with an experimental feel that has a certain charm. But there are moments of confusion. The box-of-tricks set by Vicki Mortimer has distracting elements, while repeated motifs that steer the audience are effortful. And there’s also a pop song (by Justin Bieber) – an overused trend I wish would stop.

Sam Swann and Yolanda Kettle
Sam Swann and Yolanda Kettle

The combination of global politics and gender studies is original and startling. Matching empire and parenthood produces some charge, not least an excoriating invective when Amy’s boyfriend (Sam Swann) is dispatched by May – the play’s best scene. But depressingly, the insights here aren’t revelatory, even if they are well delivered. Scenes set in the past don’t privilege historical accuracy, those looking to the future have silly touches; both are a little too obvious about how we live now, giving rise to a sense of naïvety. This is a young writer who sees the world getting worse and is angry about it. Fair enough. An impressive, almost intimidating energy drives the play, but it lacks control.

Oil is grim stuff. Hickson is harsh on all, not just those from the past, and the play’s themes of loneliness and narcissism, allied to the selfishness of Empire, create affecting moments. Trying to help is a confusing thing and the future will be lonely and (literally) cold. Unfortunately, cynicism overwhelms the text. It’s hard to knock a play with so many ideas, a good deal of them well executed. But it’s only Duff, seconded by Yolanda Kettle who plays her daughter over the centuries, who manages to inject some real feeling and provide a reason to see the play.

Until 26 November 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Richard H Smith

“The Plough And The Stars” at the National Theatre

There are no surprises here. Howard Davies’ new production, co-directed with Jeremy Herrin, is the quality affair you would expect from the veteran director. Utilising the National Theatre’s expert stage management, and with a typical respect for a classic text, this show drips class.

It’s a forgivable irony that Sean O’Casey’s play about the Irish Easter rising of 1916, which focuses so much on the lives of the poor, should receive such a luxurious treatment. Vicki Mortimer’s set appears impressively expensive – it takes a lot of money to look that cheap – while detail and care run through the whole show.

Stephen Kennedy
Stephen Kennedy

With a steely confidence, Davies and Herrin take us deep into the lives of those living in a Dublin tenement house. Flynn and Covey (Lloyd Hutchinson and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) argue over politics while an agnostic drunk, made loveable by Stephen Kennedy, looks on. A good deal of humour is injected (I’m not quite sure O’Casey expected so many laughs at socialism) with the drama coming from the more serious Jack Clitheroe, portrayed convincingly by Fionn Walton, the one man willing to fight, despite his wife’s protestations.

Justine Mitchell and Josie Walker
Justine Mitchell and Josie Walker

The action doesn’t get going until the second half but when fighting starts the trauma of the battle is intense. Suffering focuses on the women and it’s the actresses who steal this show. Two great renditions of battle-axe neighbours come from Justine Mitchell and Josie Walker. On opposing sides of the struggle, their sniping is full of wit, but when care for one another creeps out it’s genuine and moving. As Clitheroe’s pregnant wife, Nora, Judith Roddy has a traumatic role; driven “mad with terror”, her whole body becomes rigid in the play’s relentless finale.

Added to these fine performances is a double achievement on the part of this production. The history and its frustrating complexity are clear; O’Casey presents many arguing sides and the directors do this justice. Also understood is the aim of showing the effects of violence on the most vulnerable, making the piece strikingly relevant. With no sense of the contrived – just theatrical power – this is a grade-A show.

Until 22 October 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

 

“The Threepenny Opera” at the National Theatre

While the chance to see Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s famous work is welcome, regrettably, this production isn’t the finest hour of anyone involved. There’s nothing embarrassing – there are even good bits – but Simon Stephens’ new adaptation lacks charge, while Rufus Norris’ direction of his talented cast is low voltage.

Of course it’s fine to change the original setting (Brecht and Weill used John Gay’s earlier work themselves). Mack the Knife, aka Captain Macheath, the libidinous crook whose adventures we follow, is recast as an East End gangster. Neat enough. But not specifying a time period for this ‘updating’ diminishes its power. The dark reflections on human nature are robbed of satire, falling into a generic gloom that fails to challenge. Stephens’ lyrics are admirably clear, but they can’t shock – no matter how many expletives are crammed in – as it feels those involved would like them to.

The Brechtian staging of the work is tokenistic. There are knowing gags, including Keystone coppery and Buster Keaton, but the production feels lost or, more specifically, better suited to a smaller stage. Regular visitors to the National Theatre will know how powerful the Olivier can be – even empty – but here, Vicki Mortimer’s set of stairs and paper screens feels both slim and cumbersome. And there are a lot of signs to read – tricky from the circle. Impressive moments of staging have to be ascribed to Paule Constable’s lighting.

Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder
Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder

The biggest disappointment here is the cast. There are good performances when you’d expect great ones. Rory Kinnear takes the lead, his singing voice a pleasant surprise, but even his brilliant acting can’t hold things together. The excellent Rosalie Craig, as his young bride Polly, fails to bring her normal shine (maybe the interpretation of the role as an accountant hampers too much), while Sharon Small, as one of Mack’s many former lovers, sounds painful. The show belongs to the Peachums, Macheath’s enemies, played by Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne. With this malicious Mr and Mrs, exaggerations in the piece pay off. Elsewhere, this Threepenny Opera feels deflated.

Until 1 October 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

“A Woman Killed With Kindness” at the National Theatre

Thomas Heywood’s 1603 domestic drama, A Woman Killed With Kindness, has a fair claim to still being relevant; family fortunes and adultery are great topics for drama. Nowadays, not many would contemplate the solutions for debt or infidelity Heywood’s characters come up with but Katie Mitchell’s bold production at the National Theatre makes it a fascinating night.

This is a story of the gentry; Heywood’s subjects hadn’t been seen on stage before, they are neither the great and the good nor the lowest in society. But confusingly, designers Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer present two well-off households next door to one another – giving the impression this is a troubled terrace, a kind of grand Coronation Street, when these are really two country estates.

The staging means that Mitchell can draw parallels between the women in the two stories; characters echo each other’s actions, creating an intense stereoscopic experience that is surreal and unnerving. It is continually arresting but never fully believable.

Mitchell moves the action to 1919. The stiff upper lips adopted by the nobility fit oddly with the passion so obvious in Heywood’s text. Homespun honesty is provided by an ensemble of solicitous servants (Gawn Grainger’s laconic Nicholas stands out) but their relationships are surely more feudal than the upstairs-downstairs setting suggests.

Heywood’s naturalism is acknowledged with lots of action off-stage, yet for all Mitchell’s previous ‘collaborative’ work with actors, the cast struggle against a touch of Grand Guignol. There are great performances from leading ladies Liz White and Sandy McDade, who use the extra time on stage created for them by the design well, but even they sometimes appear like puppets directed from above.

Mitchell is a director with such a strong vision she seems in competition with the author. And yet maybe that’s what the play needs: A Woman Killed With Kindness can be objectionable and Heywood’s morality perverse. It’s thrilling to hear the heroine grab the last line – it really seems to belong to her, although Heywood’s text has her husband say it. Mitchell’s version is more chilling and complex, and at times almost manages to convince.

Until 12 September 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

Written 20 July 2011 for The London Magazine