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Who ever knew that Lichfield could be so much fun? George Farquhar’s joyful romp from 1707 begins with two penurious London gentlemen (Samuel Barnett and Geoffrey Streatfeild) arriving disguised in our smallest cathedral city with a stratagem to hook a pair of rich ladies. Once there, they encounter, amongst many others, a drunken husband with a lusting wife, French officers taken prisoner, an Irish-Belgian priest, several buxom wenches with drooling pursuers, a gang of highwaymen and so on. Director Simon Godwin gives a lavish and richly comic production to a play that is ridiculously over-plotted and totally nonsensical from start to finish. Lizzie Clachan’s towering set of multiple staircases is breathtaking and Michael Bruce’s music fits in perfectly with the text, always pleasing to the ear. Barnett and Streatfeild shine, Susannah Fielding’s maltreated wife sounds feminist battle cries 200 years ahead of her time, Pearce Quigley achieves the production’s best laughs-per-line ratio as the droll servant Scrub, but the cast of over 20 all give excellent performances. This is the sort of thing that the National ought to do better than anyone else and, happily, it lives up to such expectations.

Performance date: 27 May 2015

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Having established himself as a chronicler of modern British political history, James Graham now turns to anti-politics with this fact-based look at the early 1970s anarchist movement of the play’s title. This is actually two plays – one concerning the police investigation and the other set amongst the anarchists – which Graham instructs can be performed in either order with the same actors, or with different ones. James Grieve’s production gives us the police play first and uses the same four actors – Mark Arends, Pearl Chanda, Harry Melling and Lizzy Watts – in both. The order is the correct one, leaving the best until last. The police play shows us four young officers brought together by Scotland Yard to introduce some joined-up thinking to the hunt for terrorists who are modelling themselves on European equivalents and placing home made bombs at key locations in London. The point that the person sitting next to you on the tube could be one of the anarchists is well made and, ironically, the hunt itself becomes anarchic, with the officers beginning to long for release from the shackles of their everyday lives. The problem is that the play rambles aimlessly for too long at the beginning and its comedic tone does not sit well with the material; dealing with a bumbling police unit, there are times when an appearance by Rowan Atkinson would not seem out of place, except that the play is never really very funny. All attempts at comedy are abandoned after the interval when we join the Brigade in its quest to undermine the British social structure. And a very angry brigade it is, tearing down walls and hurling filing cabinets across the stage. The key protagonists are Jim (Melling). venting rage and frustration born out of the constrictions of growing up in Northern England during post-War austerity, and Anna (Chanda), a nascent feminist who is the first in the group to realise the value of what she in intent on destroying and thereby becomes the Achilles’ heel which the police can target. Graham gives the play’s most eloquent speeches to Jim and Anna, providing fascinating argument and counter-argument, but the most telling moment comes when she sets a dinner table awaiting Jim’s return to their squat, instinctively using that symbol of middle class convention – napkins. Much of what Graham writes can be related to modern day extremism and the assertion “the Tories always win” is as true as ever in 2015. Flawed and uneven as it is, this production is full of interesting insights.

Performance date: 26 May 2015

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The Welsh town Bridgend has gained an unenviable reputation for being the UK’s capital of suicide, reporting extraordinarily high figures which have led to suspicions of a cult, particularly amongst teenagers. Robin Soans’ new play, examines that fractured former mining community by looking at three of the town’s inhabitants: two schoolgirls – the self-harming Darcy (Lauren Roberts) and Meryl (Katie Elin-Salt), a budding writer whose abusive father commits suicide – and the local celebrity, Welsh International Rugby player Gareth “Alfie” Thomas, tortured and near suicidal through the process of admitting his homosexuality to the World. Soans politicises his play with an appearance by Neil Kinnock (Patrick Brennan) who says: “Scargill and Thatcher between them killed the mining industry…what was particularly sickening was the way Thatcher claimed ownership of a change that was inevitable while at the same time blaming the mining communities, but what it meant was that no social cushioning had been put in place nor was it going to be.” It is not clear whether Kinnock has himself articulated such views, but perhaps, if he and other figures on the left of politics had possessed the courage to acknowledge these obvious truths at the time, the healing process for Bridgend and similar communities could have been speedier. Soans seems to be telling us that his three central characters and Bridgend as a whole now have to face up to reality, re-group and move on. The boldest feature in Max Stafford-Clark’s production is having Thomas played, more or less equally, by all six members of the cast (the others are Rhys ap William, Daniel Hawksford and Bethan Whitcomb), only one of which is both male and in the correct age group. The actor who is to be Thomas dons a red Rugby shirt and receives a ball passed by his/her predecessor. This device has the remarkable effect of showing Thomas as belonging to the community, the well publicised trials and torments of a celebrity being of no greater or lesser significance than those of others, his denial of the truth reflecting the plight of his town. However, the effect comes at a cost, as scenes dramatising Thomas’s personal crisis are robbed of authenticity and power. Soans touches on the dilemmas facing gay sports personalities and on intrusions of prurient media into private lives, but such concerns are made to seem secondary. Hearteningly, Soans sees a bright future for all of his three central characters. He tells us that Bridgend embraces its gay son once he has come out – we have seen in Ireland this very weekend how ordinary people can prove to be much wiser than moral guardians such as media hypocrites or religious leaders – and, as in a Rugby scrum (the metaphor in the play’s title) they huddle together and prepare to advance. Beautifully acted and gripping throughout, this is, notwithstanding its flaws, a brave and imaginative piece of theatre.

Performance date: 23 May 2015

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Shakespeare described life’s last scene of all as being “second childishness and mere oblivion….sans everything”. French writer Florian Zeller now expands that scene into this 90 minute play, translated by Christopher Hampton. “The Father” is Andre, played with intense feeling by Kenneth Cranham, a retired engineer, once a man of intellect and dignity, now afflicted by the onset of dementia and clinging desperately to the wreckage of his life. His only surviving daughter, Anne, is torn between duty towards her father and living her own life. The set-up seems to suggest that we are in for a worthy if rather routine drama about caring for the elderly, but Zeller’s novel twist is to tell the story from the perspective of Andre, rather than from that of Anne, thereby giving the audience an insight into Andre’s nightmare. Each short scene ends with the stage blackening and then, after a brief spell of grating music, the lights return for us to see possibly the same room, but with some slight difference – perhaps an unfamiliar character appears or a piece of furniture disappears – and what is said may contradict what we have been told previously. As Andre becomes confused and disorientated, we share in his experience, unable to distinguish between truth and make-believe, not knowing exactly where we are. The device is executed brilliantly and it also opens the door for some delightful comedy to relieve the gloom of a tragic situation. Andre’s regression from proud senior citizen back to childhood and eventually infancy is played out as something like a harrowing comedy. The great strength of Cranham’s performance is his ability to show us the man that Andre once was as well as the pale shadow of him that he has become. Claire Skinner matches him by bringing out the suffering of Anne as she tries to care for her father, only to be faced with wounding insults from him and little support from her partner. James Macdonald’s sensitive production is seldom sombre in tone as it charts a tragic and unstoppable decline and it becomes deeply moving when the play reaches its own last scene.

Performance date: 20 May 2015

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Alan Ayckbourn and I have drifted apart in recent times, amidst a growing feeling that his comedies of middle class social manners now feel very dated. After his big successes of the 1970s and 80s, many of Ayckbourn’s plays delved into darker areas of the human condition and others have tackled science fiction and the supernatural, but I still did not find those that I saw (by no means all of them), fully satisfying. This one, dating from 1995, is a comedy-thriller on the theme of time travel; it had previously escaped me, but the fact that Lindsay Posner is directing and it is being staged at the wonderful Menier made it worth a look and I am happy to say that this is the first production of an Ayckbourn play that I have truly enjoyed for more than 30 years. The play is set in 1980, 2000 and 2020 in a luxury hotel suite (splendidly designed by Richard Kent), which has a closet enabling those entering to travel backwards and forwards in time. It begins in 2020 with a dying man meeting a prostitute in the suite, whilst civil disorder is rife in the street below. Rachel Tucker’s Poopay, the bewildered whore, aided by a document that had been stuffed down a bidet, colludes with her client’s feisty wives, Ruella (Imogen Stubbs) in 2000 and Jessica (Lucy Briggs-Owen) in 1980 to bring to a halt the murderous spree of Julian (David Bamber), the sort who would kill his own mother and, in fact, did exactly that. A hapless hotel detective (Matthew Cottle) gets dragged into the ensuing mayhem. Obviously, suspension of disbelief is essential and very little stands up to scrutiny after the curtain call, but the beauty of the writing and direction is that they carry us with the play whilst it is all going on. Aided by a top class cast, Ayckbourn and Posner ensure that this production pulls off the notable double of being both hilarious and suspenseful; they throw in a couple of shocks to jolt us and the big highlight is what must surely be the best balcony scene since Romeo and Juliet, although it is far, far funnier. Not everything is wonderful; corrupt businessmen and ill-used housewives are familiar stereotypes in Ayckbourn and the conservative (small “c”) values that they represent sometimes cause irritation, particularly when they embrace sneering attitudes to minority groups, as again here. Also, the final scene is possibly the most stilted in all Ayckbourn’s 79 plays, with two characters revealing to each other what both already know just for the benefit of the audience. However, it contains a surprise that is such a peach and rounds of the play so perfectly that it almost makes the appalling writing of the scene forgivable. Taken overall, this production is terrific entertainment.

Performance date: 19 May 2015

High Society***** (Old Vic)

Posted: May 17, 2015 in Theatre

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Well, did you evah?! I really wasn’t expecting very much at all of this. The 1940 Hollywood film The Philadelphia Story is, of course, pure bliss, but Philip Barry’s stage play which preceded it disappointed when it was performed at this same theatre in 2005 and the 1956 film musical adaptation, High Society, has never felt quite as good as it should have been. Furthermore, this stage version of the film musical has not been a big hit anywhere before and it is brought here without the benefit of big star names on the posters. However that last point works very much in this production’s favour, because, given a choice between mis-cast big stars and lesser knowns who fill their roles perfectly, the second option always wins hands down and superb casting is one of two main reasons why the show now hits the heights. The other is the work of director Maria Friedman, who, along with her choreographer Nathan M Wright, turns the show into one long party, fizzing as much as the Champagne that is on constant flow. It helps that the Old Vic is still in the round, thereby making the audience part of the festivities, although it is a shame that we are not offered a small glass of bubbly, maybe just Prosecco, to get us in the mood; with ticket prices as they are here, this is not such an unreasonable request. The theatre ushers are dressed as party waiters and the hired entertainer, Joey Powell (Joe Stilgoe) takes to the grand piano to amuse us with a brilliant 10 minute improvised routine – can this be the first show in history to get a rapturous ovation before it has even begun? The party at the Long Island estate of the very rich Lord family, is to celebrate the second wedding of daughter Tracy Samantha to a very dull social inferior. It is gatecrashed by Tracy’s ex, Dexter (still a “one gal guy”) and two paparazzi, Mike and Liz. The appearance of classical actor Kate Fleetwood (she is off to play the murderous Medea after this) as Tracy comes as a surprise, but, pitching her performance much closer to Katherine Hepburn than to Grace Kelly, she sets the tone of the show and is a true delight. Rupert Young is not quite Cary Grant, but he is a lot more comfortable in the role of Dexter than was Bing Crosby, whilst Annabel Scholey also scores as the lovestruck (for Mike), but constantly overlooked Liz. The plum role in most versions of this story is that of Mike, the cynical hack who sneers at the lifestyle of the snobbish filthy rich whilst himself grasping at the opportunity to revel in it. Frank Sinatra put an indelible stamp on the role and James Stewart won an Oscar for it, but now think only Jamie Parker, who makes it completely his own. Barbara Flynn, Ellie Bamber, Jeff Rawle, Richard Grieve and Christopher Ravenscroft all feature strongly in support, even though Arthur Kopit’s book is forced to condense sub-plots in the original play in order to make room for the musical numbers. Almost all of Cole Porter’s songs are now standards, so much so that over-familiarity could have made them boring, but it is here that Friedman and Wright really triumph, reinventing and reinvigorating each of them with imagination and zest so as to make them seem fresh and new; As performed by Parker and Scholey, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is simply dazzling and, when Young, perched on a balcony duets True Love with Fleetwood, who is standing beside a pool of blue light on which a miniature yacht is circling, the whole theatre is reduced to tearful silence. The party gets into full swing in an intoxicating second act, the highlight of which is the full company displaying shameless decadence for a lengthy and dizzying Well Did You Evah/Let’s Misbehave sequence. Designer Tom Pye, unable to use backdrops, manages to evoke an air of opulence, with floral displays, gleaming furnishings and pianos popping up from beneath and ornate balconies on opposite sides of the stage, which provide a home for the orchestra. What a swell party this is!

Performance date: 16 May 2015

SOAE DressThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In the catalogue of unspeakable atrocities which plagued the 20th Century, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 holds a prominent position. Ken Urban’s taut and riveting new thriller is set in the aftermath of the war in that country, using a fictional incident to explore how blame can be attributed and to ask whether it can ever be possible for survivors to find closure. The structure of Urban’s play is reminiscent of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica in that it centres on an American journalist setting out to uncover the truth lying behind a tragic event in recent history. The Rwandan conflict was rooted in tribal warfare between Hutus who ruled the country and Tutsis who became the victims of the genocide. The journalist, needing to revive his career, is Charles (Ben Onwukwe), who asserts proudly that he is an African American, only to be rebutted with: “American, yes. African, no!” by Paul (Abubakar Salim), a Rwandan army corporal. Thus Charles is shown that he brings with him prejudices and preconceptions from a different culture, likely to colour his view of the events that he is investigating. Two nuns (Lynette Clarke and Akiya Henry), both Hutus, face trial in Belgium accused of being complicit in a massacre of Tutsis which took place in their church. Charles’ mission is to prove their innocence to the World before the trial begins, being driven by the assumption that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church would have overridden tribal loyalties. As the truth begins to unfold, Charles meets Dusabi (Kevin Golding), a survivor of the massacre who describes the events in horrific detail and sows seeds of doubt in his mind over the involvement of the nuns. Cecilia Carey’s multi-functional set of wood and tinted glass panels encloses the intense drama, which is brought to life by five passionate and authentic performances. Urban is posing profound questions about what defines complicity, how blame can ever be fairly attributed to individuals in wartime situations and whether there is any point in doing so anyway. Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction is crisp and focussed, maintaining the tension throughout. The scenes are short and actors arrive on set in darkness so as to begin a scene instantly once the preceding one ends. O’Boyle seems to realise that any break would loosen the play’s grip and, wisely, he runs it straight through its 90 minutes without an interval. There is sour irony in the fact that Urban’s play gets its World Premier in the same week that a new Hutu-Tutsi conflict has broken out in Burundi, neighbouring Rwanda. Sadly, it may be premature for the play’s title to refer to any sort of “ending” when, in this and other parts of the World, senseless violence goes on.

Performance date: 15 May 2015

Photo: Jack Sain

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