With director Benedict Andrews and a couple of star turns on board, this foray into the West End by the Young Vic has plenty of allure. The story of marital tension between Maggie and Brick against the background of his wealthy father’s illness is not Tennessee Williams’ finest work. Of course, it’s still better than most plays you can see. And this production’s efforts to inject an arty edge could go a long way to increase its reputation within the playwright’s canon.
For a play somewhat tiresomely obsessed with mendacity, it’s a nice touch on Andrews’ part to present such a stripped-back stage – there’s nowhere to hide here. The intense focus respects Williams’ writing and sets up the cast for their sterling performances, even if it all becomes a little exhausting.
Sienna Miller plays Maggie the Cat. She injects a strong element of realism; you can sense her desire for her husband, her desperation at the breakdown of her marriage. Escaping from the shadow of Elizabeth Taylor’s depiction in the film version is no mean feat – Miller’s hard work deserves praise. Colm Meaney takes the part of Big Daddy and benefits from Andrews’ correct decision to balance the play so that it is equally about this grand patriarch. Meaney makes this “selfish beast” of a man truly compelling to watch.
Between both frequently loud characters comes Brick, former high-school athlete and sports commentator suffering from depression. Jack O’Connell takes the role and makes the quiet work for him. There are flashes of dignity in the performance and a good deal of anger, if not quite as much depth as might be required. O’Connell is a good stage drunk, though, and sections of the play that deal with alcoholism are the strongest, which comes as little surprise, given Williams’ own relationship with booze.
As the candles burn down on Big Daddy’s birthday cake, things start to get messy. The cake for start – you know someone is going to get dirty with it. It’s distracting to guess who and a relief when sticky sponge predictably ends up all over the set. Unfortunately, the messiness in the production extends to its direction. There’s a general untidiness that means Williams’ already sprawling story starts to drag. A shame since Andrews does have a strong central idea – to turn the family into white trash, with none of the usual genteel poverty. Maggie was “born poor, raised poor”, and this is very much new money. The insight makes for startling touches but needs more focus. Despite solid work, the treatment is too slow.
For all the praise heaped on Simon Stone’s adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s play, my heart sank when the curtain rose to reveal two of my pet hates: the action takes place in a glass box and sound is relayed to the audience. Separated from the audience twice over, it’s an isolating experience. But this clinical technique, putting lives under surveillance, is actually used to perfection.
‘Her’, the contemporary Londoner whose life we follow in chapters, has it all – even a house. From the start, Billie Piper shows she’s worthy of the Olivier award she received for this performance, endearing us towards a character she makes instantly recognisable. The chemistry with her onstage husband is similarly convincing (taking that role, Brendan Cowell should have picked up a trophy, too).
It turns out that ‘Her’ has everything except a baby. The play follows her efforts to get pregnant with painful exactitude. The effects on the family are detailed with further great performances from Charlotte Randle and Maureen Beattie as ‘Her’ sister and mother. As desperation increases, mental health deteriorates rapidly and Piper’s performance becomes harrowing.
Stone is forceful about bringing his adaptation into the here and now. Piper’s character is a journalist, with blog posts that becomes increasingly personal. Egged on by a younger colleague (Thalissa Teixeira) the over-sharing may be predictable but it’s startling and provides pause for thought.
On a very literal level, it seems hard not to view the play as reductive – woman goes mad because she can’t reproduce – and it’s impossible not to feel uncomfortable about this. To add to such a challenge is the assumption the modern woman has fewer societal expectations since Lorca wrote in 1934. But does she? That desire to confirm is the uneasy question Stone leaves hanging, making his work a vital piece of theatre.
Working with choreographer Lucy Guerin, director Carrie Cracknell has created a dance-infused version of Shakespeare’s play. This isn’t one for traditionalists but, remaining agnostic about how much the accomplished dancers really add, the production isn’t quite the love-it-or-loathe-it affair you might suspect. Cracknell’s focus on Macbeth’s internal turmoil creates its own coherent, if surreal, power.
Much of the credit is down to the startling design by Lizzie Clachan. Reminiscent of Allies & Morrison’s pedestrian tunnel at King’s Cross, the production has a consistently claustrophobic feel. Nightmares are the preoccupation and the witches (played by Anna Beatriz Meireles, Jessie Oshodi and Clemmie Sveaas) are creators of this nasty dream. Mannequin-like manipulators in a very literal sense, they lay the banqueting table and double as the children in the play.
The witches’ relationship to Macbeth is particularly intimate, toying with the idea that much of the action is in his mind and through his perspective. Appearing as pregnant on some occasions, the witches hint at trouble in the Macbeth marriage and highlight his preoccupation with Banquo’s progeny. Tellingly, it is Macbeth’s own voice that delivers prophecies when he visits them for the last time.
This is a Macbeth about personality rather than politics – despite the gruesome Abu Ghraib aesthetic employed – and there are sacrifices made because of this. Anna Maxwell Martin’s Lady Macbeth suffers most, her role feeling truncated and leaving little impact. For all the ghosts and ghouls, Macbeth’s hallucinations feel distant from the supernatural, making his a modern nervous breakdown of unsettling intensity.
Relying so much on the lead actor, Cracknell is fortunate to have cast a performer as talented as John Heffernan. Taking the strange musical interludes in his stride, Heffernan anchors us in the text and sounds simply wonderful. Few can speak Shakespeare as effectively and Heffernan alone makes the show worth watching. But with one important warning – appreciating what Cracknell is doing needs a strong knowledge of the text. Even with a work as famous as this, it means the production isn’t for everyone.
It requires a director as bold as Joe Hill-Gibbins to revel in the oddness of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ play. Taking licence with the tragi-comic text and its complex moral questioning, this production is radical in the true sense of the word: a far-reaching, thoughtful interpretation that strips it of context and relies on emotional realism.
On the Saturday matinee I attended, Ivanno Jeremiah was unable to perform as Claudio, so first a big thank-you to Raphael Sowole, who stepped up and allowed the show to go on. It’s not ideal conditions but one absence did little to detract from how forthright Hill-Gibbins’ vision is. And, besides, the supernumerary cast of sex dolls more than manages to fill the stage.
That’s right – inflatable sex dolls, which are inevitably what the production will be remembered for. This is a shame since, while irreverent fun, they are not the best thing on offer. With live video recording projected onto the stage, this show gets up close and personal. And, with some help from Hans Memling’s apocalyptic artwork, arresting imagery is everywhere, with a pulsating soundscape from Paul Arditti adding to the atmosphere.
Best of all are the performances. The cast, like the text, is slimmed down and works hard. Romola Garai is brilliant as an indignant Isabella, as is Paul Ready as a cool Angelo – both performers root out the essentials of their characters. There are also strong roles for Cath Whitefield’s Mariana (although why she should be a fan of pop star Pink baffled me) and John Mackay’s Lucio, whose joke with the Duke has far more mileage than usual. It’s with the Duke, given a towering portrayal by Zubin Varla, that Hill-Gibbins should get most credit. This ‘power divine’ is displayed in his twisted benevolent best – a Rasputin gone right, with an injection of tension that suggests his plans could go awry. The conclusion, shuffling the cast into a deranged and confused photo opportunity, makes quite a picture for this flash-bang-wallop of a show.
The combination of respected playwright Simon Stephens and director of the moment Ivo van Hove makes this new play a hot ticket. A demanding monologue, presented as letters written by well-to-do young banker Willem recalling his brother’s death, funeral and family relationships, it’s an intense 80 minutes that has exceptional moments.
Dutch actor Eelco Smits gives a wholly admirable performance in a difficult role – not least because a good part of it is performed naked, and mostly since the character is curiously bland. While it’s clear he’s a tortured soul, the reasons why remain tantalisingly unexplored. Stephens carefully controls Willem’s above-average executive angst and the audience’s latent sympathy. Moments of empathy for his parents are moving, his own lost love likewise, but so much is left unsaid, despite detailing his life and grief.
Stephens’ writing is poetic and full of satisfying observations. The ordinary is addressed in a meticulous manner that grows on you. But it’s hard to disguise the play’s thinness. Nonetheless, van Hove makes the show super stylish with a portentous atmosphere. There’s a fulsome appreciation of the silences in life, which Stephens writes eloquently about and enriches Mark Eitzel’s recurring song for the piece. Above all, there’s some stunning staging, akin to still lifes with nudes, through the exquisite design and lighting by Jan Versweyveld, which enforce the play’s understated poignancy.
Nick Gill’s adaptation of Kafka’s novel makes for a puzzling piece of theatre. Cold, confusing and frustrating (I’ll get back to that last point), it has the feel of an endurance race, not least because the action takes place on a conveyer belt, built into Miriam Buether’s eye-wateringly orange set. There’s a lot of distance covered by the famous Josef K: arrested and fighting a faceless system to discover the nature of his crime, he is forced into a painful self-examination that drives him mad. There are so many themes here, from bureaucracy, lots of yellow paper, to role of the artist (cue dance music), that the show becomes so relentless it becomes monotonous.
The cast under Richard Jones’ direction win your admiration. Hugh Skinner adds a modern sleekness to the role of Josef’s work colleague – you can picture him in the City, despite the costume. And Sian Thomas is superb as Josef’s fast-talking lawyer. Taking on six parts as the women in Josef’s life, from a lap dancer to his next-door neighbour, keeps Kate O’Flynn busy. But Rory Kinnear in the lead role gets the gong for sheer hard work. On stage for near two hours, in a gut-wrenching performance that connects strongly with the audience, he is remarkable.
Kinnear also has to deal with an unusually difficult script. Josef’s internal dialogue is presented in a novel, poetic form that, perhaps because of the set’s colour, is reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Take the first line – “An almost woke ee up one morn” – and you get the idea. The execution is visceral, the technique arresting. Josef’s sexual frustration and anxiety are captured (the connection between lust and legal problems is one of Gill’s more intriguing insights), and his articulacy seems to deliberately deteriorate as the play goes on. The dialogue certainly becomes more difficult to follow, which increasingly jars – so much so that the play’s end comes as a relief for regrettably prosaic reasons.
Small-town family life, along with youthful ideals and romance, are the subjects of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness! Infused with poetry and memory, Natalie Abrahami’s sensitive revival adds a melancholic edge to this surprisingly gentle coming-of-age story.
This is O’Neill in an uncharacteristically good mood as he dwells on domesticity, reminisces about youthful rebellion and speculates about parenthood. Tinged with nostalgia and filled with ardour the play has an almost whimsical feel that’s quite charming.
Ah Wilderness! is also a memory play and a work very much for fans of O’Neill, who feels like a huge presence in this production. Set directions can be heard in the background and O’Neill’s younger alter-ego, Richard, performed vibrantly by George Mackay, is followed around by David Annen, who slips into smaller roles while taking notes and observing the action – suggesting a ghost at the feast – with great economy.
There are also strong performances from Martin Marquez and Janie Dee as Richard’s parents, while Yasmin Paige tackles well the uncomfortably written role of a prostitute. But the star is Dick Bird’s eye-catching set: a mountain of sand, cascading from expressionist doorways, that contains hidden props. This serves to emphasise time and is a sardonic hint at an unhappy future.
This production has a lot going for it, but, sadly, its stories of lost love and innocence are not quite interesting enough. It’s a shame that, for all the care, attention and ideas, the play itself is a little dull. It may be a quality affair with no shortage of insight – and I doubt anyone will be disappointed by attending – but this doesn’t feel like essential viewing. Sorry.
Mike Bartlett’s play Bull is a scorching consideration of corporate culture and bullying at work. Under an hour long, it’s remarkably powerful, as three colleagues do battle for two jobs. It’s an unfair contest, with Tony and Isobel ganging up on the “drip drip” Thomas, using underhand tricks and downright menaces to torment their co-worker into becoming the eponymous beast – and we all know what happens to bulls in the ring.
This fight is gruesome. Though darkly funny, the play is the stuff of nightmares for office workers. You really do want to hit Adam James, his performance as team-leading Tony is so good, while Eleanor Matsuura, as Isobel, gets better each moment of the show. Sam Troughton takes the part of Thomas, careful not to make him too sympathetic a character, his violent breakdown at the play’s finale superb.
Clare Lizzimore’s direction is spot on, but the show is all about Bartlett’s skillful script. Starting out the wrong side of exaggerated, with witty barbs you can just about imagine and Neil Stuke’s excellent appearance as the ruthless boss, more convincing that Alan Sugar (in real life), Bartlett becomes increasingly daring. Thomas loses the job but his humiliation isn’t complete. Even though the competition is over Isobel circles her prey with an offensive rationale that makes a chilling conclusion.
1927’s new work, Golem, is currently showing at the Young Vic. The company, which combines live performance with animation and film, creates spellbinding works with stunning visuals and a wicked sense of the comic, both characterised by a unique style and independence of thought. Gustav Meyrink’s novel about Golems – clay figures that can ceaselessly follow human commands – is the inspiration for the show, and creates a springboard for a witty and insightful commentary on modern technology.
The magical Golem, who revolutionises the world, morphs from an all too anatomically correct mute to an updated version, a Klaus Nomi-styled imp, who knows what you want before you do and tells you about it. The illustrations by Paul Barritt are a marvel, and the interaction with them by the talented cast is a joy. Blink and you’ll miss the rich details. The accompanying music by Lillian Henley contributes atmosphere and humour. You’ll want to be all ears, as well, for the clever verse script by writer and director Suzanne Andrade, which I would love to take home and study.
Wry and wise, it’s the ubiquity of the Golem and its corporate owners, a chain called ‘Go’ that upsets most. The home, office and town drawn by Barritt change as Go’s logo takes over. Things become cleaner, maybe safer, but a lot more homogenised – sounds familiar? 1927 knows none of us is immune, not even the show’s punk band, Annie and the Underdogs, which is eventually co-opted (anarchy is also a lifestyle choice). But not all is gloom. This theatre company alone is contrary enough to show that all is not lost – 1927 at least wants to think for itself and does so with style. As Robert comments after the first attempt to sell him Golem, it’s intriguing, and it rhymes.
A sell-out last year at the Young Vic, with rave reviews, The Scottsboro Boys has now transferred into the West End. Kander and Ebb’s last musical, the story of an infamous miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama, is a harsh, uncompromising look at racism that makes for powerful musical theatre.
The performances are great, with key cast members visiting from Broadway: Brandon Victor Dixon, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon all take on demanding lead roles with inspiring confidence. The whole ensemble is tight and standards of acting high. The staging is sparse – director and choreographer Susan Stroman uses chairs to create the sets – it’s inventive but feels a little lost in a big space.
Kander and Ebb never shied away from ‘difficult’ subject matter. Don’t forget, Cabaret and Chicago are about Nazis and gangsters. Their final work together was just as brave: accused of raping two white girls, nine blatantly innocent black men spent years in prison and fought trial after trial, becoming a focal point for the civil rights movement.
The music will sound familiar to fans, but the approach here is as bold as the subject matter. Taking on the format of a minstrel show (akin to appropriating cabaret and vaudeville for their previous hits) the black actors perform white roles, serving as a commentary on racial stereotypes that is provocative and tense. It’s a reflection on the entertainment industry as well, with the stock characters of Mr Tambo and Mr Bones creating an uncomfortable undertone.
There were small protests at the use of a minstrel show on Broadway. I can’t see the reason myself – the criticism of the genre is so implicit and the final rejection of the format by the performers, who refuse to do the Cake Walk, is rousing. But the humour here is harsh and bleak making The Scottsboro Boys unusually devoid of laughs. This show is a huge achievement, but not an easy night out.