Archive for September, 2013

Adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay for television and then cinema, this is a case of the title telling almost all. Marianne and Johan have the perfect marriage, they congratulate themselves on it in the midst of their friends’ marital turmoil. But, typical of highly educated professionals, they think too much, then talk too much and pick at perfection until it starts to unravel. They then become a couple that can neither live together nor apart. A few of the early scenes in Trevor Nunn’s slick and classy production are pedestrian but most scenes work to great effect and the play tightens its grip as it progresses. It is tender and harsh in turns, with considerable warmth and nice dashes of humour belying the play’s Nordic origins. Chief credit for this all coming together so well must go to the superb chemistry between Olivia Williams and Mark Bazeley, who bring their complex characters completely to life and sustain a magnetic presence throughout. The St James continues to establish itself as a prime destination for quality theatre.

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

Faced with irksome neighbours, wouldn’t we all sometimes like to just build a barrier between properties and shut them out? This new play begins with one household going to such extremes over what could seem to some a petty dispute and it goes on to examine the consequences for themselves, their neighbours and the surrounding community. Shalev and Malka (Toby Liszt and Dominique Gerrard) are Hasidic Jews who move in next to Cas and Sam (Antonia Davies and Jack Pierce), whose house has an automatic security light covering the approaches. Turning on a light on the Sabbath contravenes strict Jewish teaching, thereby leading to the dispute. When challenged on the unreasonableness of his request to have the light removed, Shalev simply pleads “It’s my religion”. Therefore, the play asks to what extent, in a multi-faith community, is one party entitled to impose religious beliefs and customs on another and whether religion should override all other considerations in disputes. A Polish builder asserts that the British allow minorities to get away with too much, another character proclaims that the World would be a much better place without any religion at all. The arguments are presented and discussed succinctly and with great clarity. The play takes no sides and reaches no conclusions. We see people who are essentially reasonable and tolerant becoming unreasonable and intolerant when under pressure and occasional intrusions by a drunken fascist thug serve as a reminder of the dangers that such a drift can present. As a play debating social and moral issues, this all works very well, but, sadly, it is much less successful as a human drama. Sally Llewellyn has created the characters to demonstrate the points that she wishes to make, but they are one-dimensional and under-developed. This lack of depth gives the actors too little to work on and, as a result, some of the performance often seem laboured and unconvincing. Additionally, the Spartan stage design and bright, harsh lighting give the production a chilly feel that distances us further and counters our efforts to empathise with the characters. It is not until deep into the second act, when both of the wives veer toward breakdowns, that we feel any emotional currents and, by then, it is much too late for us to begin to care. This is an intelligent and topical play that embraces important themes. There is much to stimulate the brain, but, with so little to stir the heart as well, it is ultimately less than satisfying.

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This review ws originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Six Welsh miners, trapped underground after an accident, listen for the sound of drilling and await their fate. Chris Urch’s first full-length play is set in May 1979, the month of Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory and, although it is not overtly political, it draws clear parallels between the plight of these men and a whole industry, together with the communities built around it, for which by then the death knell may already be tolling. The dramatic structure is fairly familiar; a small group facing a common peril tears itself apart and pulls itself back together. If Urch does not completely avoid all the cliches, he creates well-rounded and believable characters and he manages to sustain the play’s grip on us through solid and varied writing. As the men stare death in the face, there is always time for dark humour and even a song or two. It is quite a treat hearing numbers normally associated with Julie Andrews or the Sex Pistols being sung (surprisingly well) in the style of a Welsh male voice choir. Paternal figure to the group is Bomber (Clive Merrison), nearing retirement and hiding ill health, and the play begins with him dispensing fatherly advice to Mostyn (Joshua Price), a naive youth who is struggling to deal with his incarceration. Curly (Kyle Rees) and Chewy (Taylor Jay-Davies) are brothers, very different in character, the former tied to his community and the latter about to leave mining to start a life in London. Hovis (Paul Prescott) is a stoical former Polish soldier in World War II who has seen much worse before in his life. Individually and as an ensemble, the acting is very strong. The “deputy” or leader of the six is Chopper (Patrick Brennan). For much of the time, he appears strong and silent but, as the days drag on without rescuers arriving, he is faced with a mutiny and Brennan delivers the production’s tour de force; raging as he is losing his power, standing almost naked in the face of adversity, he is King Lear in miniature. Designed by Signe Beckmann and lit (sometimes unlit) by Hartley T A Kemp, the small set evokes perfectly the claustrophobic atmosphere of the underground cavern in which all of the action place. A less intentional contributor to giving the play the right feel is Theatre 503 itself, which is badly ventilated and lacking any form of air conditioning; as the audience leaves dripping in sweat, we have certainly shared in the experience of the characters in the play. If this production often makes us feel uncomfortable, it is both for the right and the wrong reasons.

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The greatest things sometimes emerge from the simplest of ideas. In a city where, supposedly, nobody ever talks to their neighbours, this is just an evening of Londoners talking to Londoners. Each participant was directed around various rooms in all parts of the old Battersea Town Hall where no more than two of us met ordinary people telling their own personal stories of the City, each lasting approximately 10 minutes. With almost 40 story tellers, several return visits would be needed to hear them all. The stories were, in turns, happy, sad, moving, amusing, up-lifting. I heard of a lost childhood friend, trolls in Highgate Cemetery, a suicide attempt on Blackfriars Bridge, the joys of being a Millwall supporter, an anorexic rejected by her family and a woman secretly married because of cultural differences. Each story was beautifully told. Others attending on the same evening would have heard completely different stories, but it is likely that the cumulative effect for them all would have been just as stunning. These were no more than six snapshots of a sprawling cosmopolitan conurbation, but they provided a remarkable insight into what makes up the whole City.

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

Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays of 1896 and 1904 told of a young dancer who uses her sexual charms to entice wealthy men, climbs the German social ladder and later falls into poverty and despair. These plays were then adapted into an opera, left unfinished, by Alban Berg and it is this opera that the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth has now developed further. For the first two acts, she has adapted and re-orchestrated Berg’s work and written the text, in collaboration with Helga Utz; for the final act, she has composed original music and written the text.  Wedekind wrote a bold and, at that time, controversial indictment of the treatment of women in German society. Looking back on his plays and on Berg’s opera, Neuwirth sees them as defining women through the eyes of men and she now seeks to tell the story from the perspective of a woman, Lulu herself reflecting on her life. Abused and consigned to a demeaning role in a male dominated world, she turns the tables on her oppressors and ruthlessly uses all means at her disposal – sex, duplicity, prostitution, even murder – to break free. The basic narrative supports the feminist themes well, but Neuwirth then adds another layer to the sub-text by transplanting the story to New Orleans and New York during the era of the Civil Right struggles between the mid 1950s and the early 1970s. Lulu is now a black woman facing still further oppression and we hear extracts from Martin Luther King’s speeches and June Jordan’s poems to underline the historical context. Possibly this added dimension gives the opera one sub-text too many. It is already a complex and multi-layered work that is sometimes difficult to absorb and a further diversion does not help us to follow the plot or to assimilate the core feminist messages which go back to its roots. Magda Willi’s design evokes the atmosphere of a seedy night club which befits the drama well. All the action takes place on a small performance area in front of the orchestra, London Sinfonietta conducted by Gerry Cornelius, with a shimmering see-through curtain veiling different parts of the stage at various points. Angel Blue makes a striking Lulu; she possesses the looks, the acting skills and, above all, the glorious soprano voice. Berg’s dramatically effective music is not always easy on the ear, but, as adapted, it is infused with influences from American jazz; these influences become more prominent in Neuwirth’s original composition. The accomplished jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth plays Lulu’s lesbian lover Eleanor and hearing the two women sing together delivers some of the evening’s greatest pleasures. Opera being performed in a night club setting seems incongruous, as does the fusion of classical and jazz styles, but, intriguingly, these odd combinations work well. This is an ambitious project, possibly overly so and it does not quite hit all of its targets. However, working from rich source material and mixing in unusual elements, Olga Neuwirth and director John Fulljames have created a unique musical and theatrical experience that is, for the most part, innovative, powerful and compelling.

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photo-97Since the consignment of “…the Shrew” to the graveyard for the politically incorrect,”Much Ado…” has taken over as the Bard’s most popular rom-com, popping up everywhere at regular intervals. Its most hilarious incarnation in recent years was at the National where the only slight criticism was that Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale may have been a little on the old side playing Beatrice and Benedick. That criticism now pales into insignificance as we see Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, taking on those roles; bold casting it would seem, but surely, we thought, with that great Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance directing, the production would be in safe hands. Wrong! Maybe the desire was to showcase the sweetness of post-Autumnal romance, but, if so, this was never going to be the play in which to do so. A second odd choice is to set the play in England in 1944, with American troops mingling in with the locals; this setting does nothing to illuminate the play and serves only to undermine credibility as we witness GIs, in an army seemingly with no retirement age, addressing each other as “Señor” “Don” and “Count”. In general, there is nothing wrong with classic plays being reinvigorated with imaginative interpretations, provided they work within the spirit of the play; in this case, the interpretation always works against the play and diminishes its strengths. Of course there is pleasure in hearing the unmistakeable voices of two legendary actors booming around the Old Vic and they give us occasional glimpses of how wonderful they could have been as these characters 40 years ago, but, sadly, at this performance, the diction of both seemed flawed and too many of Shakespeare’s best lines floated into thin air and remained unheard by many in the audience. Highlights of the evening include an uncle trying to marry-off his septuagenarian niece to a gallant war hero who waddles around the stage looking like a suntanned Captain Mainwaring; this is not funny in the way that Shakespeare intended, it is simply ridiculous. At several other points, ripples of embarrassed laughter run through the audience as the text suggests these characters’ intended ages. There are a few decent performances amongst the supporting cast, but mostly they are ordinary and the two principals should not shoulder all the blame for the entire production being leaden-footed and lifeless. Things are not helped by a dreary all brown stage design. Possibly this is the biggest disservice to Shakespeare seen at the Old Vic since Peter O’Toole played Macbeth here to unprecedented critical derision; on that occasion, the public rushed to see the debacle for themselves and sell-out audiences howled with laughter for the entire run. So there lies a ray of hope for this awful production; it might be better for it not to improve, rather for it to get even worse.

photo-96Having loved Alexi Kaye Campbell’s most recent play, “Bracken Moor”, I welcomed the opportunity to see a revival of his first, which won three major awards when premiered at the Royal Court in 2008. I was not disappointed. If “Bracken Moor” paid homage to JB Priestley, half of this play could well have been written by Terrence Rattigan, had he been allowed the freedom to write so frankly. The half in question is set in the 1950s and depicts a love triangle between Sylvia (Hayley Atwell), her husband Philip (Harry Hadden-Patton) and Oliver (Al Weaver), a writer with whom he begins a tortuous affair. “The Deep Blue Sea” with a twist that Rattigan would surely have relished, but there is another half to this play. In alternating scenes, we leap forward by more than half a century and see another Philip ending a long relationship with another Oliver because of the latter’s uncontrollable promiscuity, whilst Sylvia is Oliver’s friend and confidante. Different characters, similar dilemmas, different times and the only link only between the eras is a hinted mystical one. But this bold dramatic structure opens the door for the writer to explore how many things in society have changed, whilst many others have not. It is a structure that would only be attempted by a playwright with supreme confidence and one who has a natural instinct for extending the boundaries of theatre. Whilst making the wider social resonances clear, the play never loses sight of the fact that these are deeply personal and sometimes painful human stories. The three actors are all superb, as is Mathew Horne who plays three minor roles and adds some comic touches. The stage design (dominated by a huge painted mirror) and the lighting are particularly striking, allowing the director, Jamie Lloyd, to accentuate the mystical feel. As the actors take their bows, they carry placards reading “To Russia With Love”, adding volume to the already loud applause. 50 years from now maybe even Russia will have learned the lessons that this great play teaches us.