The Frogs** (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Posted: March 26, 2017 in Theatre

Let’s face it, even Shakespeare had a few bad days at the office, so it should come as no surprise that, among the masterpieces of Stephen Sondheim, there lie some green slimy things. Maybe it is a little uncharitable to remind the God of musical theatre of this during the week of his 87th Birthday.

The big surprise is that The Frogs premiered after Sondheim’s sophisticated hit A Little Night Music; a surprise because it has all the feel of a year-end revue by a bunch of Classics undergrads. This could be down to the fact that, in its early form, with a book by Burt Shevelove, the show did the rounds of universities, opening at Yale gymnasium in 1974, with Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the chorus. The version seen here has a new book by Nathan Lane, who starred in the first Broadway production in 2004. This is the UK premiere.

Freely adapted from a BC405 Greek comedy by Aristophanes, the story tells how the ranidaphobic God of Drama, Dionysos (Michael Matus) and his chirpy wee Scottish slave, Xanthias (George Rae) set off for Hades on a mission to retrieve George Bernard Shaw, eventually opting for William Shakespeare in preference. The journey is plodding, interrupted when Dionysos is kidnapped by frogs, and the second act, set in Hades, is much like Hell for the audience. Yes, it is all highly camp and hopping crazy and an infusion of topical gags raises more cringes than laughs.

With limited resources, director Grace Wessels does her best to give the show the kiss of life and she gets some lively performances, particularly from Rae, but turning amphibians into princes proves beyond their cumulative efforts. Gregor Donnelly’s set looks like a communal sauna and the cramped space feels like one, a company of nine plus four musicians filling the Jermyn Street stage to overflowing.

On the plus side, no show with songs by Sondheim can be completely worthless. The sparkling lyrics are unmistakably his, but the music has little distinction and the main interest comes from picking up chords that would recur in later shows (there’s a lot of Sweeney here).  It is all as if Sondheim in the early 1970s was out to demonstrate the ridiculous theory that anything could be turned into a musical. It was to take him a few more years to prove that theory true.

Performance date: 25 March 2017

The name Terence Rattigan and the description “old-fashioned” now go hand-in-hand but countless revivals of the writer’s plays over the last decade or so have proved conclusively that it is worth clearing that particular hurdle to delve deeper into his work. One such revival was Flare Path, directed by Trevor Nunn, who now turns to this play, also written and set during World War II. The return to the London stage of the luminous Eve Best puts the icing on Nunn’s cake

Towards the end of the War, Michael (Edward Bluemel), a month short of his 18th Birthday, arrives home from four years in Canada to find his widowed, lower middle class mother Olivia (Best) shacked up with prominent industrialist and wartime cabinet minister, upper middle class  Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head), who is separated from his flighty wife (Helen George). Michael, his head filled with progressive left wing ideas, identifies himself with Hamlet and proceeds to drive a wedge between his mother and her beau. Issues surrounding marital breakdown and distressed children are probably more common now than when the play first appeared, but it is the class structure about which Rattigan writes with perception that makes the play feel old-fashioned, while at the same time generating its prime areas of interest,

In Rattigan’s world, wealth and power are distributed unfairly and unevenly. The dice falls differently today, but, otherwise, has so much changed? The differences which we see most starkly are in the roles of men and women, the latter appearing (in ascending class order) as a chambermaid, a toiling housewife and a party hostess. Nunn’s production is acutely aware of gender and class issues, highlighting them with sets and costumes, particularly in a final act which contrasts sharply with what has preceded it. Best’s beautifully nuanced performance shows us all the shackles that hold Olivia down and it feels as if her deliberate vagueness is just part of what is expected of her while playing the role in which life has cast her. This is a comedy, staged to boost morale during the War, and Olivia does not assume the tragic dimensions of Joan in After the Dance or Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, but she fascinates and illustrates yet again Rattigan’s gift for writing oppressed female characters with subtlety and insight.

Bluemel’s Michael, wearing his Oedipus complex like a badge, is thoroughly obnoxious and fully deserves the spanking with which Sir John threatens him and which would have been permissible in those days. Even so, the warmth in the Hamlet/Gertrude relationship comes across strongly. Through Michael, Rattigan foresees Britain’s post-War lurch towards Socialism and to some extent he welcomes it, but he also sees clearly that individual ambition inevitably bursts the bubble of Socialist idealism and predicts that changes will be short-lived. The writer’s prescience gives out a message that may not go down too well with modern day Corbynites. So, yes it is all very old-fashioned, but still relevant and this delicious revival is never less than hugely entertaining.

Performance date: 24 March 2017

Limehouse**** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: March 20, 2017 in Theatre

Perhaps no one ever learns the lessons of history, but Steve Waters’ new play reminds us that history is currently repeating itself, with the politics of the left in the United Kingdom being in a remarkably similar position now to that of 1981 when the so-called Gang of Four broke away from the Labour Party to form the new Social Democratic Party. Labour, having lost the 1979 General Election, had been taken over by left-wing factions and the four centre-lefties plotted a way forward – Dr David Owen had been the youngest Foreign Secretary in history, but was now consigned to the opposition benches along with former minister Bill Rodgers. Another once rising star, Shirley Williams had lost her seat in 1979 and elder statesman Roy Jenkins, who had lost the 1976 Labour leadership election to Jim Callaghan, was returning home after completing a term as President of the European Commission. On 25 January 1981, they became a prototype for the now much reviled metropolitan elite

Waters approach is to emulate the style of the favourite playwright of the time when his play is set – Alan Ayckbourn. American-born Debbie Owen (Nathalie Armin) busies herself in her 80s chic kitchen, preparing Sunday brunch from a Delia Smith recipe for her hot-headed Welsh husband David (Tom Goodman-Hill) and their three guests – jocular “neighbour” Bill (Paul Chahidi), matronly “cousin” Shirley (Debra Gillett) and wise “Uncle Woy” (Roger Allam). The three all get lost trying to find the Owen home in Limehouse, a soon-to-be-gentrified area of Docklands, but they arrive one-by-one and the Chateau Lafite Socialists argue, bluster, dither, get a little tipsy and eventually reach a decision that they convince themselves is momentous.

All of these characters have many equivalents in Ayckbourn and “Absurd Person Quadrupular” suggests itself as an alternative title for the play. Being the Donmar, the production values are top class, Polly Findlay directing the comedy with the gentlest of touches. Alex Eales’ kitchen set is a delight and the costumes were designed for him over 36 years ago. The acting is exemplary, with Allam, not over-doing the speech impediment, stealing everything in sight..

In a “what if” epilogue, Armin drops the American accent and laments the twists of fate that led to the SDP being absorbed by the Liberals and fading into near-obscurity. It was to take the Labour Party a further 16 years to again become a party of Government and 18 years more for it to make the same mistakes all over again. As an account of serious historical events, Waters’ play is lightweight, but it is highly enjoyable, its point being to show us that the people who make history are as flawed, fallible and comical as the rest of us. To that end, it succeeds admirably.

Performance date: 17 March 2017

How can you possibly translate a sprawling four-volume novel into a five-and-a-half hour (in two parts) stage play? The answer of course is that you can’t, but April De Angelis’ adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s massive work, My Brilliant Friend, does a superb job of conveying its essence, while suggesting to us that, if we want to fill in the detail, we should go away and read/re-read the original or wait for a television mini-series.

Telling an intimate story against the epic backdrop of turbulent times, Ferrante emulates a potent formula that has succeeded from, for example, War and Peace to Doctor Zhivago. Here, two childhood friends, Lila (Catherine McCormack) and Lenù (Niamh Cusack) forge a path for themselves that takes them from the slums of Naples in the 1950s through more than half a century of personal traumas, social upheaval, natural disaster and, most significantly, rising feminism. With the Mafia never far away, their friendship survives them both being in love with the same man, the fickle Nino (Toby Wharton), and they find success in very different careers, Lila in business and Lenù as a novelist. If Ferrante takes licence to paint a distorted picture of a world of strong women and worthless men, she earns it.

McCormack and Cusack are both staggeringly good, showing anguish and joy, hope and despair, and the adjective in the play’s title can certainly be applied to them. The differences between the two women are made crystal clear, yet, with great subtlety, they show how they change with time and how their bond in so strong that characteristics of one transfer to the other.  The two actors form part of a company of only twelve, the others sharing numerous lesser roles which are cast often without regard to age or appearance. Inevitably, this creates confusion, but it also has the effect of sharpening the focus on the two central characters. No one would want the actors to assume faked Italian accents, but director Melly Still’s decision to allow them to speak with a variety of strong UK regional and Irish accents seems odd and this proves to be an irritating distraction.

Behind the large thrust stage, Soutra Gilmour’s design, steeply ascending staircases, vaguely resembles the fire escapes of a Neapolitan tenement block, but, elsewhere, there is very little Italian flavour, particularly when we hear a wide selection of British and American pop hits, all of which evoke a sense of time but not of place. Still uses the space with real panache, her production including many imaginative theatrical flourishes and rarely flagging throughout its marathon.

Looking back on the central narrative, one regret is that Lila’s achievements in business do not come across strongly, leaving the impression that the character is more fragile and the friendship less well balanced than is perhaps intended. Otherwise, it is unavoidable that lesser characters and storylines are under-developed and loose ends are left untied, but the key thrust of Ferrante’s writing emerges with clarity in a production that is often thrilling, always engrossing and never dull.

Performance date: 16 March 2016

What is this? A drama? A documentary? A radio play? A film? A computer game? Not for the first time, the work of Simon McBurney (director and co-writer with James Yeatman) and Compolicite defies categorisation. Here, his multi-media techniques are applied to telling the story of Robert Evans, a New York Jewish kid who rose to become a Hollywood mogul and fell almost as quickly. Music, sound effects, virtual reality and film clips all come into play. Actors speak directly to the audience and stand in front of cameras at the side of the stage, projected onto a big screen where they merge with footage of their real life equivalents. Had it been a film, this is a production that would be lined up for multiple awards for editing and the dizzying whirlwind that McBurney generates gives constant reminders that great art often arises out of chaos and disharmony.

At first a model and then a not very talented film actor who stayed in a picture despite protests from Ernest Hemingway, Evans chanced his arm to become the young boss of Paramount Studios, filling their coffers with the massive hits Rosemary’s Baby and Love Story, before creating cinema history with The Godfather and, as producer, Chinatown. He rubbed shoulders with Hollywood greats and politicians such as Kennedy and Kissinger and married the biggest star of the age, Ali MacGraw, before losing her because of his greater love story – that with his work. There is lots of juicy showbiz tittle-tattle to digest. More importantly, we get cutting insights into the Hollywood mentality that intoxicates everyone that we see, as when Evans persuades Mia Farrow to sacrifice her marriage to Frank Sinatra rather then lose an Oscar winning opportunity.

Eight actors – Thomas Arnold, Heather Burns, Christian Camargo, Max Casella, Clint Dyer, Danny Huston, Ajay Naidu and Madeleine Potter – share and interchange all the roles, their performances supporting a continuing narration as in a documentary film. The actors are not asked to develop characters and the drama does not emerge from interchanges between them, rather from the stories that they are telling. At first, as the eight line up in front of microphones, we ask whether the play, if that is what it is, would work better in audio-only format, but then, one after one, stunning visuals begin to appear and what we experience belongs uniquely and unquestionably to theatre.

There are echoes of Citizen Kane in McBurney’s style as he orchestrates matter-of-fact storytelling so that it generates its own emotional power and, in common with that masterpiece of cinema, his production climaxes with a haunting, revelatory image. Evans sits front of stage, back to the audience, watching himself watching himself acting opposite Ava Gardner in The Sun Also Rises. His is a story of a man who may have flown too close to the Sun, but, although we are told that his life was touched by personal loss, drugs, scandal, failure and financial ruin, we see no catastrophic fall. Evans was eventually eclipsed by new generations in the fickle business of movie making, his star faded and he simply grew old. He is now 86, credited as a co-producer here and still very much in the picture.

Performance date: 14 March 2017

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

There was once a joke that began: “An Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman entered a bar and…”. To continue would now be deemed politically incorrect, but, in this 80-minute show, partly a state of the nation(s) address, the National Theatre takes licence to exhume all the old perceptions and prejudices and make fun of them.

The Brexit vote on 23 June 2016 left the United Kingdom more divided and apprehensive than at any time in the modern era. The National Theatre conducted interviews with ordinary people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities in the days after the vote and their testimonials, spoken verbatim by actors, form the core of the show, embellished with stirring patriotic verse by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and expanded with words spoken by politicians. Following its run in the Dorfman theatre, the production embarks on a 13-venue tour covering all four nations.

Britannia (Penny Layden) convenes a meeting of representatives from Scotland (Stuart McQuarrie), Wales (Christian Patterson), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke), the North-East (Laura Elphinstone), the East Midlands (Seema Bowri) and the South-West (Adam Ewan). They all air their grievances – significant and petty, sentimental and rational, parochial and national – leaving the overriding impression that they sought to lay the blame for everything wrong in their lives on the only target available for them to shoot at – the European Union. Layden represents the politicians, having particular fun with Boris and Nigel.

This is not a post mortem on the referendum outcome, but still it is odd that few of the testimonials represent the views of over 48% of the electorate. The positive case for remaining in the European Union is as absent here as it was during a referendum campaign swamped by negativity on both sides. New divisions came to light after June 2016 and the danger here is that director Rufus Norris and his company could be accused of mocking and deriding the populace and populists as part of a fightback by the metropolitan elite. The lighthearted nature of the performances probably allows the show to dodge that accusation, but only just.

As it should be, we laugh more with the people who were interviewed than at them, the politicians being the exceptions of course. In bursts of national and regional pride, the bearded Welshman impersonates Shirley Bassey, the South-Westerner demonstrates a Morris dance and the Irishman jumps into Riverdance, but the Scotsman shrinks in horror when reminded that his land was the birthplace of the new American President’s mother; cue a chorus of Donald, Where’s Your Troosers? It is all very funny, but trivial in relation to the shows’s underlying themes.

Yes, our country is, as it ever was, a work in progress, but this introspective which gives entertainment precedence over substance does little to point the way forward. The one clear message to be drawn is that, so long as we can still laugh at ourselves, all is not lost.

Performance date: 10 March 2017

Bunny*** (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: March 10, 2017 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer Jack Thorne is riding on the crest of a wave right now with Harry Potter… in the running for multiple awards and heading for Broadway, but it is a big leap from a West End extravaganza to a small pub theatre production of a gritty hour-long monologue such as Bunny, first seen in 2010. It is also a long way from Hogwarts to Luton, the setting for this play.

As with the later Let the Right One In, Thorne concerns himself with an adolescent straying into dark territory. Katie is in her last year at school, casually promiscuous, showing tendencies towards kleptomania and playful, but with a spiteful streak. Jumping randomly between inconsequential ramblings and pointed storytelling she describes her family, her boyfriend Abe who, to her parents’ consternation, is black and his two mates from the Vauxhall factory – mysterious Asif and stuttering Jake. She tells us that she prefers surprise to suspense, because “I feel suspense all the time”, a trait that perhaps typifies an age group dogged by insecurity.

Catherine Lamb’s Katie is hyperactive in body and mind, inquisitive but knowing too much at the same time as knowing too little. A petty tiff over a ruined ice cream becomes a matter of honour and revenge as she and the three men enter into a chase across a town that is multicultural but divided along ethnic lines. The location is as confused about its identity as is Katie about hers. Thorne’s colourful writing and Lamb’s lively delivery take us effortlessly with the quartet on its journey.

Lucy Curtis directs a taut production, hinting at hidden danger even when there is none there. Flickering lights and sudden noises keep us on edge and, until we actually arrive, it is never obvious where the journey will end. Dramatically, Thorne’s narrative is low-key and he delivers no hefty punches. Instead, he turns his play into a methodical, probing exploration of the uncertain and dangerous place that exists between childhood and adulthood.

Performance date: 9 March 2017

Photo: Dashti Jahfar