American playwright Jon Robin Baitz’ new play is a fiercely intelligent retrospective on California based Republican Party politics of the 1970/80s and the rebellious generation springing therefrom. Lyman Wyeth (Peter Egan) is a Hollywood actor who has turned to politics late in life and, as we are told in an epilogue, lapsed into dementia after the events of the play; his wife, Polly (Sinead Cusack) is a hard-nosed socialite. So they are not too dissimilar from the Reagans, whose names pop up frequently, Polly’s claim to fame being that she once stood up to Nancy and won. Their daughter Brooke (Martha Plimpton) is a writer who has suffered from severe depression and their son Trip (Daniel Lapaine) is a feckless producer of low brow television shows. Making up the quintet of characters is Silda (Clare Higgins), Polly’s alcoholic sister. They gather at Lyman and Polly’s home in the desert city of Palm Springs to celebrate Christmas 2003, shortly after another Republican President has embarked on the Iraq fiasco, and the catalyst for the drama is the news that Brooke is about to publish a book which rattles the skeletons in the family closet. At first, the play seems to be no more than a left-leaning critique of right wing politics, but the writer is cleverly leading us down that path before delivering a second act knockout punch which reveals his true purpose – to show that, behind the superficial images that public figures always adopt and underneath all their regimented political posturing, exist real people living real lives. The strength of the play is that it does not takes sides in the political arguments, rather it shows the follies of polarised opinions and the collateral damage that can result from them. Under Lindsay Postner’s direction, the acting is quite superb and the company thoroughly deserved its standing ovation at the end. Peter Egan merits special mention, his Lyman being an authoritative but flawed diplomat; there are few dry eyes in the house when he delivers his revelatory speech, almost a confessional. Congratulations too to the Old Vic, now converted very successfully into the round; this production exemplifies the very best of the prominent theme of the Spacey era – strengthening the bonds between UK and US theatre – and it goes a very long way towards fully restoring the theatre’s reputation after the disaster of last Autumn.

My review can be seen at: http://www.thepublicreviews.com/good-people-noel-coward-theatre-london/
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So wealth and fame corrupt, right? The message has never been more relevant than today when show business and sports stars earn fortunes and are splashed all over celebrity magazines and television screens, but, from A Star is Born all the way through to this new play by Simon Stephens, the message is fundamentally the same and it is now old hat. Certainly Stephens embellishes his play with very modern touches, the production has brilliant sequences and we see a dazzling star turn from its leading actor, but all this only serves to gloss over the play’s big shortcoming – that it delivers an overwhelming feeling of deja vu. Paul (Andrew Scott) is a rock superstar, coming towards the end of a World tour; we see him first in Moscow, with only Berlin and Paris to go, and then home, if only he had a real home to go to. He is dependent on drugs and alcohol, arrogant, manipulative, petulant and thoughtless. He has lost all sense of reality and alienates everyone around him. The play then follows him along his path of destruction, leaving countless victims in his wake. The playwright’s directions are that “the stage should be spare and abstract rather than mimetic or naturalistic” and so Ian MacNeil’s set is until it undergoes a surprising transformation which ought not to be revealed. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, all the characters apart from Paul and his roadie Johnny (Alex Price) are played by four actors doubling, and very well played too. However, the centrepiece is inevitably Scott whose performance ranges from languid (often under the influence of some substance) to his manic Moriarty; he is on stage for almost the entire 110 minutes and his raw charisma is mesmerising throughout. He elevates a rather ordinary play into something often memorable.

Exposing the reality of divisions between the North and South of England and between the social classes of the 21st Century, Torben Betts’ new play is razor sharp, very funny and moving. Emily (Laura Howard) is the sort of woman who should have been strangled at birth; she is nagging and self-centred, continually spouting all the loony left theories that have driven Socialism into disrepute. She decides to move from London to live amongst “real people” in the North, dragging her ineffectual husband Oliver (Darren Strange) and two children in tow. Their new neighbours are Alan (Daniel Copeland), a fat, beer-swilling football obsessive who could bore for England and his blowsy wife Dawn (Samantha Seager). The stage is set for hilarious culture clash comedy as Oliver comes to realise that he does not fit in and that education in a state school that seems like Borstal is not good enough for his kids; he decides that he must assert himself against Emily, firstly in defying her left wing principles by joining both Facebook and the Labour Party in the same week and then by starting the ball rolling for a move back to Highgate. Betts’ writing constantly reminds of Alan Ayckbourn at his peak, being bitingly comedic and acutely observant, but also embracing much darker themes. The economic downturn looms large for these families and, for all their coarseness, we are not allowed to forget that Alan and Dawn are the people who send their sons to Afghanistan. The play’s impact is heightened by a quartet of superb performances, making all the characters totally believable. Playing near the River Thames in Richmond, the production drew howls of laughter, but it would be interesting to see if it would have the same effect in, say, Rochdale. In any event, it deserves a much wider audience.

It is often said that the 1919 Treaty of Versailles both ended the First World War and started the Second, but Peter Gill’s new play takes that viewpoint even further by arguing that the short-sighted and self-interested actions of politicians at that time set the course for World political, economic and social developments throughout the remaining four fifths of the Twentieth Century. The play is intelligent, engrossing and beautifully written, but its content is too huge to take in on one visit; it needs to be read through afterwards and herein lies one of the problem with it – it is often more a history lesson than a drama. Acts I and III take place in the drawing room of an affluent upper middle class household in Kent. Act II is set in Paris during the negotiations for the Treaty. The central character is Leonard Rawlinson (a simply superb performance by Gwilym Lee), a young civil servant working for the British Government on the Treaty; he is a gay man and many of his developing ideas are articulated in conversations with his dead lover (Tom Hughes), lost in the War. The central theme of a young man working on an historic document that he believes to be fundamentally flawed and then trying to adjust his own life to conform with his progressive ideals is a great one and, when this theme comes to the fore, the play soars. However, Gill clutters his script with too many subsidiary characters who come and go without registering and too many sub-plots that serve only to detract from the main themes. At over three hours (including two intervals) the play is much too long anyway and several sheets of the script belong in the shredder. Also, the political and social discussion is much too wide and generalised. It is very difficult to see how a man speaking in 1919 could foresee conflicts in South East Asia, religious tensions in the Middles East, the rise of Socialism in Britain, women’s and gay liberation, etc, etc. This is self-indulgent writing by Gill, who is expounding his own views from the perspective of the 21st Century, but undermining the credibility of his main character and blurring the play’s focus. The production has an opulent feel and is impeccably acted by a cast headed by grande dames Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn as family matriarchs. Notwithstanding all the criticisms, there are moments, particularly in the deeply moving final Act, when it feels as if there is a masterpiece struggling to surface, and those moments will live in the memory long after the play as a whole is forgotten.

My review can be seen at: http://www.thepublicreviews.com/never-try-this-at-home-soho-theatre-london/

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Treading the path laid down by Stephen Sondheim with Passion and moving further along it, Nona Shepphard (book and lyrics) and Craig Adams (music) have created a remarkable new work of musical theatre. It is an adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel set in late 19th Century Paris in which the eponymous heroine is trapped in a loveless marriage and embarks on a tempestuous affair with Laurent, her husband’s friend. The show is almost sung-through to the accompaniment only of a single piano and harmonising choruses, the lyrics translating Zola’s prose beautifully and matching the rich, melodic score to perfection. As is often said of Sondheim, the words sing and the music speaks. Laura Cordery’s adaptable set of a small shop and living quarters is an object lesson in how to make maximum use of a tiny space. In the title role, Julie Atherton is a silent prisoner for the first 45 minutes, exuding suppressed passion, but then explodes to life when her lover releases her. As Laurent, Ben Lewis is beefy, brooding and dangerous, whilst Jeremy Legat makes an irksome Camille, Therese’s weak and sickly husband. Also outstanding is Tara Hugo as Camille’s controlling mother. The show’s failing is much the same as that of Passion in that there is too little variation in tone, so that the air of prevalent gloom begins to wear too heavy over the course of two hours and this failing could well impair the show’s popular appeal. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if it can be developed further, maybe for a larger venue and with a full orchestra. The potential is certainly there.