Archive for September, 2013

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

Getting bored with salads, sandwiches and sushi? Maybe it’s time to invigorate lunch breaks with a little Chekhov. Not an obvious choice, as the great chronicler of the declining days of the privileged classes in pre-Revolutionary Russia may well be thought to have become something of a bore himself, with just five plays being revived perennially on our main stages. So it comes as a pleasant surprise to be reminded that he wrote other things and that a Chekhov comedy can actually be very funny. Presented by the Butterfly Theatre Company, this short production, targeting workers in their lunch hours, brings together two battle of the sexes comedies lasting around 20 minutes each. The Proposal sees a young landowner (Matthew McPherson) calling upon the daughter of another (Nadia Hynes), very nervously, to propose marriage, only to get tangled up in disputes about a worthless piece of land and the relative merits of their family dogs. In The Bear, another landowner (Gary Sefton) visits a grieving young widow (Caroline Colomel) to collect an overdue debt and, when prompt payment is refused, he finds himself forming an attraction to the lady. Jestyn Phillips provides admirable support in both plays. The comedies are performed in a boisterous style, not normally associated with the melancholic mood of Chekhov’s more famous plays. In both, the male leads give physically comic performances, bordering on slapstick, whilst their female opposites are feisty and shrewish. The format of these snappy plays could well be regarded as a prototype for some episodes of superior American television sitcoms. They are small, perfectly formed and not a second too long.

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After a successful debut run at the Park Theatre, actor Oliver Cotton’s play is now touring and could well have the legs to take it to the West End. Dancing lightly around serious issues without ever tackling them head on or becoming too heavy, it has a formula that often produces commercial successes. Set in 1986 in the New York apartment of Elli (Maureen Lipman) and Joe (Harry Shearer), an elderly Jewish married couple, it starts in Neil Simon territory; however, with the arrival of Joe’s brother Billy (John Bowe), events take a dark turn and the spectre of the past looms; it transpires that the trio had been held in a German concentration camp and the play asks the question whether it is better to leave past events behind or to confront them. The switches of mood between comedy and drama are handled deftly and the performances are excellent. In both halves the play labours at times due to overlong speeches which, although beautifully written, sound more like descriptive extracts from a novel than dialogue in a play. Overall, not particularly profound, but, as an evening of undemanding entertainment, it passes the test.

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

Spanning around 30 years in the lives of two women, Carol Vine’s two act play is about characters “in exile”, living false lives and struggling to find their true identities. It examines the emotional cost of their misjudged choices both to themselves and to others around them. The story intercuts between showing the two firstly as adolescents and then as women in their mid-40s, reunited after a nine year separation. The young Suzy (Lorena Vila) is straight-laced and conventional when she befriends Lan (Nellie McQuinn) who is naturally non-conformist and suffering violent bullying at school. Lan is always aware of her lesbian tendencies and, although Suzy resists at first, the two eventually become lovers. In these scenes, the two young actresses give sensitive and convincing performances. In later life, Lan, now played by Anita Parry, is is an abrasive and unsympathetic character who shows few signs of the fragility of her younger self. She is openly gay, has become a successful businesswoman and yearns to resurrect her relationship with Suzy (Melanie Ramsey), who is married and has settled for a dreary suburban life. Suzy’s seriously disturbed teenage son Lewis (slightly over-played by Pierro Niel Mee) is portrayed as collateral damage from her dishonest marriage. The writing is humourless, but, commendably, avoids excessive sentimentality and the bare stage design, using just five tea crates to serve multiple functions, also belies any feeling of romance. At times there are lyrical qualities in the script, but it is patchy and sometimes lacks complete authenticity. The play is structured so that almost every scene centres on a heated argument in which self-interested characters talk at cross-purposes with each other. Eventually this becomes very tiring for the audience and it undermines our efforts to empathise with the characters; we are left with a need to explore inside these people more deeply, which is never satisfied when the focus is always on the differences between them. The core theme, which is the cost of adhering to social norms instead of following the dictates of the heart, is well presented, but some interesting sub-themes are only partially explored. For example, a natural affinity between Lan and Lewis is suggested but not developed. Writing in the programme, Carol Vine states that she “simply wanted to write a love story”. Ultimately, she may have achieved this, even though the confrontational nature of much of the play works against her objective, as does her reluctance to allow any of her characters more than fleeting happiness. However, in the closing scenes, when past and present are reconciled, she gives us a genuine insight into the nature of love and thereby brings the play to a touching conclusion.

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That I should choose to see a film about motor racing or any film directed by Ron Howard is as likely as catching a cold during the warmest Summer for years. But this is superb and I enjoyed it enormously despite the cold. Peter Morgan’s script is intelligent with razor sharp dialogue, the acting by the two leads is top class and the racing footage is breathtaking. Going back to days when two drivers were expected to be killed during races each year, the film focusses mainly on the 1976 Season, and the intense rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), the handsome daredevil playboy and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), the uncharismatic technical geek; its masterstroke is not to side with either driver, each is hero and villain in equal measure and the audience is left rooting for both. All of the period detail may not be quite right and dramatic licence has been taken with some facts (see below), but these are very minor quibbles, because the film is totally absorbing, exciting and, at times, very moving; the two hours literally goes by in a rush.

After this screening, the writer Peter Morgan took part in a Q&A session. SPOILER ALERT. He is particularly noted for re-creating actual events from recent history for stage, film and television (“Frost/Nixon”, “The Queen”, “The Audience” etc) and he began by discussing the responsibility he has to the real people involved. He said that, in the week of David Frost’s death, he had felt guilt about the disproportionate coverage given to the Nixon interviews in the tributes being paid; he felt that this was partly caused by the success of his play/film, in which he had magnified the extent of Frost’s “victory” for dramatic purposes, and that the many other significant achievements in Frost’s life were being overlooked as a result. He collaborated extensively with Lauda in writing “Rush”; his dialogue was written with his voice and speech patterns in mind and the Bruhl replicated them to perfection. Lauda had seen the film three times; on the first occasion he seemed simply curious, but on the second he was overcome by emotion; this was because he had deliberately put his horrific accident behind him and never thought about it; however, seeing it on screen made him realise the magnitude of it for the first time. Hunt’s family were at first reluctant to cooperate but overcame their suspicions; it seems likely that Hunt suffered from bipolar condition, something hinted at in the film. Regarding the accuracy of events depicted, the hitch hiking incident was invented (although Lauda and his wife both felt they would have acted in that way had the situation arisen) and Hunt did not assault the journalist who asked Lauda an offensive question; with regard to this latter incident, Morgan said that it was true to Hunt’s character to launch physical attacks, the journalist really asked that question and so he created the scene to demonstrate the friendship and respect between the two drivers. He also commented on his boundaries in distorting facts for dramatic effect, saying that the audience must be able to believe in what is on the screen; as an example of something that crosses his boundaries, he cited the ludicrous climax of the Oscar-winning “Argo” which he feels (and I agree wholeheartedly) ruins the entire credibility of the film. Finally, on being asked why he had a tendency to write scripts about male rivalries, Morgan refuted the suggestion that he is a one-trick pony and said that he had resolved never to write another such script. However, shortly after making this resolution, he received a commission that no writer could refuse (from Ang Lee) to write about another male rivalry. That should be worth waiting for.

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

In 1945, a soldier returns home from the War to find everything changed; his parents dead, his wife unfaithful, the infant he never saw buried under the rubble of a bombed building. There have been many dramas illustrating the human costs of the two World Wars, most that are seen in this country being told from an allied perspective. However, this one centres on Sergeant Beckmann, a soldier who had been fighting for the German army on the Eastern front in World War II and it leads us to ponder how the sense of the futility of it all must have been magnified still further in a defeated country. It is a brave move by the young company, Invertigo, to take on a rarely performed play that is so seemingly cheerless, but they have enlivened it by bringing to the fore the surreal humour in the script and have even added songs, composed by Blair Mowat. Wolfgang Borchert wrote this play in just six days after escaping from a prisoner of war camp and walking 370 miles back to Hamburg. If the story is not autobiographical as such, the writing is heartfelt and clearly draws deep from Borchert’s emotional turmoil at that terrible time. After a month in Edinburgh, the performances are finely tuned. The five strong all male cast, four of them taking on multiple roles, interact perfectly, giving the production the pace, energy and physicality that are crucial for the play to hold its grip on the audience. The language in this translation by Tom Fisher is very modern and, as played by Paapa Essiedu, Beckmann is a very modern, laddish character. In striking a balance between despair and sardonic humour, this is a beautifully pitched performance. Running for just an hour, Outside On The Street is a challenging piece. However, at a time when our forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan and other conflicts loom on the horizon, it is still as relevant today as when it was written and all involved with this production are to be congratulated for bringing it to the stage and interpreting it in a way that makes it accessible for audiences in 2013.

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