Tag Archives: Wyndham’s Theatre

“Labour of Love” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Thirty years of a political party’s history doesn’t sound like a West End hit. But, as this new play by James Graham joins the transfer of his Ink just down the road, you can’t question the young playwright’s commercial acumen. I am sure someone has worked out the last time a living writer had two new plays performing at the same time – it doesn’t happen often and is to be celebrated. Graham’s talent is obvious – the strength of his writing lies in his humour, and Labour of Love is funny from start to finish.

There’s a conventional love story here, which develops a little too late, between the MP whose career we follow and his constituency secretary, Jean. Their fumbling romance is sweet and gets laughs. There’s love of a place, too: a concerted effort to depict the constituency as a character, detailing the destruction of a community. It’s a shame that the Nottingham location is depicted as The North – it isn’t, it’s The Midlands. Pushing accents geographically up the country must have been a conscious decision, but seems odd given how thorough Graham’s research is. But it’s really the love of the Labour Party that is interesting. The history is entertaining, the observations acute, the use of hindsight effective and all of it is, yes, funny. Graham has written a lot about politics and his satire is distinctive. He seldom doubts the good intentions of our rulers and portrays them as human. While many would succumb to cynicism, Graham resists, which makes his work level headed and quietly inspirational.

Taking the leads are Martin Freeman as the amiable MP and Tamsin Greig as Jean. The comic timing of both is immaculate. Freeman is given more to work with when developing his character, and he suggests the passage of time in the play effectively. However, the play belongs to Jean. A card-carrying member of the party since she was 12 (she lied about her age), with a sincerity and passion that is palpable, her plain speaking and fruity swearing make her irresistible.

Jeremy Herrin’s direction is clear and thorough – the competency of the cast and strength of the script mean fancy touches aren’t necessary. Going backwards then forwards in time means it helps to know the history a little, as the archive footage offered isn’t quite enough. I feared for an American contingent of Freeman fanatics, but they seemed to enjoy themselves enormously. Graham isn’t shy of a bad pun or lame joke – he provides both with remarkable rapidity. Freeman and Greig tackle the speed of the gags with ease, making each and every one a winner.

Until 2 December 2017

www.labouroflovetheplay.co.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Werner Heisenberg’s scientific theories provide the intellectual scaffolding of Simon Stephens’ new play. The principle – that measuring objects reveals an underlying uncertainty in physics – supplies a riff on the unexpected that’s lightly played alongside an unconventional romance. There’s little to boggle the mind here. Instead, this is a play full of laughs, affection… and a good deal of wisdom.

The relationship between Georgie and Alex is taboo-breaking because of their 33-year age gap. And both characters are pretty eccentric overall. The plot thickens (there’s a son to search for), but all the unusual behaviour is really about destabilising our expectations. It’s just two people getting to know one another – but, my, how this twists.

The couple meet by accident, of course, but each encounter contains the unexpected. It’s the distance between the characters that Stephens explores, akin to a comment Alex makes about music happening “between the notes”. Their age is one way they have different perspectives on their “shared experience”, and seeing both views makes this a two-hander of considerable depth and intimacy.

The play requires subtlety to work. Stephens’ frequent collaborator Marianne Elliott directs with an appropriately quiet confidence. The set by Bunny Christie is a stylish sliding affair with complementary mood lighting (from Paule Constable). But nothing distracts us from the quiet story of intricate observations. The performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham are superb. Both embrace their characters’ quirks to make the play entertaining. Cranham’s “wily old fox” is full of charm and intelligence, while Duff embodies Grace’s vulnerability and her quality of being “exhausting but captivating”. Uncertainty, as a principle to live by, is a peculiarly powerful idea. Few of us may be convinced by it, but this play presents the unpredictable in a charmingly determined fashion.

Until 6 January 2018

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

“No Man’s Land” at Wyndham’s Theatre

The star billing of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is undoubtedly the draw for this revival of Harold Pinter’s 1974 play. Masterclass is the term the critics use, quite rightly, and fans of these greats won’t be disappointed. It’s encouraging to see followers of Star Trek and Tolkien take a trip to the theatre, and the crowd during my visit showed a degree of respect welcome in any audience. This is a strong production, and yet, while the devotees clearly had a good time seeing their idols, fans of Pinter may be less satisfied.

Director Sean Mathias has a keen eye for the entertainment value of this play – his strength is in his appreciation of Pinter’s humour. McKellen benefits most. As a down-at-heel, unsuccessful poet, yet “free man”, who unwittingly becomes the guest of a famous literary savant, he cuts a chipper figure and makes the dialogue light, with lots of laughs. Stewart’s role is more obviously subtle. Deadpan humour combines with poignancy in a character who lives in a privileged “world of silk” but is haunted by the past, losing his mind and waiting to die. Despite a few clichéd Pinter pauses, quiet, awkward moments are brief and it’s all surprisingly sprightly.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart joined by Damien Molony and Owen Teale
Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart joined by Damien Molony and Owen Teale

This is fast and funny Pinter and a pleasant take on the play. But a price has to be paid. As the encounter between these two men becomes more surreal, Stewart can convey tragedy but McKellen’s desperation isn’t convincing. Playing for laughs, the companions who look after Stewart’s character lack menace: Owen Teale and Damien Molony have presence but their roles become purposeless. Pinter’s sharp eye on class and its “quaint little perversions” become rather toothless and nostalgic. Matthias may intrigue newcomers to Pinter, and the performances make the production worth seeing, but this is a flat and disappointing version of a complex play.

Until 17 December 2016

www.nomanslandtheplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Truth” at Wyndham’s Theatre

French playwright Florian Zeller’s well-deserved success continues with this sparkling comedy of manners about adultery. As with his previous hit, The Father, Christopher Hampton adapts and the production comes from Bath, this time via the Menier Chocolate Factory. Twisting perspectives and playing with expectations, Zeller’s winning formula engages the audience in an enthralling fashion. This is edge-of-your seat comedy – as exciting as it is funny.

The staging is an austere affair – the flair comes with the writing and director Lindsay Posner keeps the action and performances taut. Four friends and their affairs, the deceit and double crossing, interrogations and revelations, are delicious. The thoughtful overtones of a play so self-consciously about lying are held in check to serve the high-quality humour.

Alexander Hanson, as Michel, gives a gleeful performance as an arch hypocrite who sees guilt as “useless” and lying as the sensitive thing to do. Hanson gets the lion’s share of the lines, followed by the mistress, a convincingly chic Frances O’Connor, her husband, who is his best friend, and the wife. The latter two, played by a wonderfully dry Robert Portal and Tanya Franks (brilliant in the final scene), may be on stage less but it’s testament to the script and cast that this play feels such a firm four-hander. The betrayed have secrets of their own (of course!), providing shocks and laughs.

The circle of lies Zeller constructs is viciously funny and satisfyingly clever. Silly slips and people trapped into telling the truth all happen in a wealthy milieu where discretion is the obsession. With lashes of Gallic sophistication only adding to the fun for a London audience, the wit and irony here is finessed to perfection.

Until 3 September 2016

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Father” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Florian Zeller’s prize-winning play from France is a superbly performed, structurally interesting piece that explores senile dementia in a manner that’s both smart and stimulating.

Setting much of the action from the perspective of the elderly Andre is a masterstroke and makes the most of theatre’s immediacy – this is a play that couldn’t work in any other medium. As characters and furniture come and go, we share Andre’s confusion and paranoia. Who owns this house and who are these people? Despite little plot, Zeller’s piece is as tense as a thriller.

Translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by James Macdonald with fitting precision, the script is admirably sparse and controlled. There’s no indulgence here and, although you’ll probably leave in tears, there’s laughter, too, along with a frightening assessment of how annoying ageing relatives can be.

Kenneth Cranham is magnetic in the lead role, charming, amusing and imposing, often angry and ultimately heart-wrenchingly frightened. But, like his daughter, struggling to care for him and lead her own life, played marvellously by Claire Skinner, Cranham makes the most of understatement. This isn’t King Lear. These are unquestionably real people dealing with an increasingly common situation. The Father derives considerable power from its topicality, along with its sincere emotional realism. It’s all brave medicine delivered in well-measured doses.

Until 21 November 2015

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photos by Simon Annand

“Hangmen” at the Royal Court

Taking capital punishment as a subject makes sense for a writer as darkly comic as Martin McDonagh. The story of the second-best hangman in England, set on the day the death penalty is abolished, makes a superb vehicle for David Morrissey in the lead. Having just confirmed its transfer into the West End, it’s already a hit.

There are a very respectable number of laughs, with lots of period detail. Hangman Harry, now a Northern publican, makes an effective mouthpiece for a variety of sexist and racist views. His objection to the guillotine? “It’s messy and French.” Morrissey is brilliant at bullish and brings a nasty, sharp edge to this unlikeable character. Harry’s customer-cum-cronies in his bar are good value as well and nicely performed. The only issue is that perhaps it isn’t very original.

Sally Rogers (Alice) and Bronwyn James (Shirley) in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh directed by Matthew Dunster Credit Simon Annand.jpg
Sally Rogers and Bronwyn James

The tension in Hangmen is more taut than the comedy. A mysterious stranger, played with offbeat menace by Johnny Flynn, brings suspense. And Reece Shearsmith, as Harry’s former colleague, gives a fine performance as an unwitting and inept conspirator. There are also fine turns from Harry’s wife and their “mopey” daughter, Sally Rogers and Bronwyn James, respectively. Their dialogue is impeccable and hugely impressive.

Towards the end, the show really takes off. The more dangerous things get, the funnier they become. Harry’s megalomania erupts in outlandish fashion and the plot twists in a pleasantly unpredictable manner. Briefly interrupted by the arrival of his nemesis, the more famous executioner Albert Pierrepoint, played expertly by John Hodgkinson, the scene is excruciating funny – this is the stuff. Maybe it’s greedy to expect it to be this good all the way through?

Until 10 October 2015 and then at Wyndham’s Theatre from the 1 December – 5 March 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Simon Annand

“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

“Relatively Speaking” at Wyndham’s Theatre

It’s always a pleasure to see one of our most loved actresses, Felicity Kendal, on stage. A superb comic performer, she really comes into her own in Lindsay Posner’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, which opened at Wyndham’s Theatre last night. The show confirms that when it comes to farce, Kendal is unmatched.

Relatively Speaking was Ayckbourn’s first West End hit, in 1967 – the summer of love – and it’s a comedy of mistaken identity surrounding adultery, with a battle of the sexes as a biting undercurrent. A young girl (Kara Tointon) about town travels from London to Buckinghamshire, pursued covertly by her boyfriend (Max Bennett), who aims to meet her parents, but instead encounters her lover and his suspicious wife. It’s a slim affair and all the more impressive for that: sleek and streamlined in construction, Posner puts his foot down and races through in under two hours.

Tointon and Bennett play the young sixties swingers convincingly, and are a pleasure to watch. Though Peter McKintosh’s designs are excellent, it’s a relief to report this production is nostalgia-free. Ayckbourn’s characters seem real and recognisable, regardless of the crazy situations they find themselves in. It’s a welcome take on this most mythic of decades, as well as being the key to great comedy.

The philandering Philip is played impeccably by Johnathon Coy. This golf-playing, sherry-spitting adulterer provides further insight into Ayckbourn’s changing times – and yet more laughs. There’s a joyousness in the writing that makes you feel Ayckbourn is having as much fun as the audience, with the hoops he jumps through to avoid resolution. The characters discover the truth while simultaneously pretending more and more.

No one plays this game more deliciously than Kendal. As the slightly dim, yet ‘perfect’ wife, she knows less than anyone, a position Kendal exploits to gain our sympathy. Kendal is a spry figure, full of energy, commanding attention with perfect timing. She could easily steal every scene, such is her charisma, but her disciplined performance is never overplayed. It’s only fitting that in the end Kendal gets the upper hand and the last of the evenings many laughs.

Until 31 August 2013

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Nobby Clarke

Written 21 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Doktor Glas” at Wyndham’s Theatre

It’s a rare, welcome, event to have a foreign language production in the West End. Doktor Glas, based on the novel by the Swedish master Hjalmar Söderberg, owes its place in town to the presence of Krister Henriksson, famous for his role in the TV show Wallander and riding high on the trend for all detectives Nordic.

In Sweden, Henriksson is a well-known actor on stage as well as screen and he’s clearly passionately committed to this one-man show; he also directed along it with Peder Bjurman. It’s the story of a doctor’s obsessive love for a patient, hatred of her abusive husband and ambivalence towards her lover. And what should the depressed doctor do with the cyanide tablet he just happens to have made in his spare time?

Glas has an almost clichéd abundance of existential angst about him. In his profession he is “able to help others but never himself”, while in his personal life, he fears that time is passing him by. His view that sex should be something like a “ceremony”, seems a little too Fin de siècle. But Glas is still a compelling, if rarefied, character, whose plight does move you.

Henriksson makes the most out of the plays epistolary form. His impersonations of other characters are superb, injecting humour, and the touches of neurosis he brings to the character make his hypersensitivity believable. Glas’s sometimes-breathless anxiety is wonderfully executed. Indeed, Henriksson is so engaging it is hard to share your attention between him and the surtitles provided.

Doktor Glas is hard work, and not just for Henriksson. Though the lighting is superb, the staging is monotonous and the plot so clearly a device for raising philosophical issues it seems superfluous. While Glas’s anguish is portrayed with an intelligence it’s a pleasure to watch on a stage, I can’t help feeling that his predicament should be more interesting than the show allows.

Until 11 May 2013

Photo by Mats Bäcker

Written 19 April 2013 for The London Magazine

“Quartermaine’s Terms” at Wyndham’s Theatre

This revival of Simon Gray’s 1981 work, directed by Richard Eyre, marks a return to the stage by Rowan Atkinson. A story of schoolteachers, set in the early 1960s, it has plenty of laughs but is really quite a serious affair. A testing vehicle for its star attraction, it might leave some searching for more Mr Bean, but Atkinson rises well to the challenge.

As St John Quartermaine, long-standing staff member of the Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners, Atkinson plays a man blunted by life. The staff-room misfit and an appalling teacher, he’s a likeable nonentity (and, in Atkinson’s hands, sometimes a little too charming?). The problem for Atkinson is how to stop people laughing at him – the urge is almost impulsive – but Gray’s great creation is a strangely blank character that helps to put distance between the actor and his usual personas.

Most impressively, and appropriately, Atkinson appreciates that Quartermaine is a character around whom the action revolves rather than a star turn. His fellow cast members are, to use Quartermaine’s own catchphrase – “terrific”, and this is a strong ensemble piece. Malcolm Sinclair plays the school’s deputy head, a captain of education, with sardonic, steely beneficence. Felicity Montagu is superb as a study in repression and hysteria. And, as her old flame, Conleth Hill gives the real comic turn of the evening, with every gesture getting giggles, as the two flirt over the croquet sticks and lecture notes.

Increasingly “absent” as time goes on, Atkinson manages Quartermaine’s withdrawal with impressive control and intelligence; perfect for a play so concerned with the passage of time. Eyre’s direction has a thoughtful, elegiac quality, mostly arresting but sometimes robbing the play of zest. Yet as the family dramas that have occurred off-stage (they never involve the lonely Quartermaine) come to our attention, both Eyre and his star provide a melancholic sting that’s perfect for the piece.

Until 13 April 2013

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 30 January 2013 for The London Magazine