Archive for June, 2015

Oresteia***** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: June 5, 2015 in Theatre

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Beginning the Almeida’s Greek Season in just about as ambitious a way as possible, Robert Icke has created a new version, directed by himself, of Aeschylus’ trilogy from c.458BC. Many Greek tragedies are notable for their brevity and intensity. This runs for a bum-numbing 3 hours 40 minutes, but the intensity is there in spades and “new version” means much more than just a new translation – it is modern in language, characters and relevance. Time is one of the most significant themes and digital clocks can be seen on stage, in the auditorium and even the foyer; they stop to highlight the precise time during the performance when each key incident occurs and they even count down the two interval breaks to get us back to our seats promptly for the resumption. We are reminded repeatedly that the time which each of us spends in the universe over the  entire course of its existence is miniscule. At the beginning and the end, the Chorus reads out a roll call of Gods of all main religions from ancient Greece to the present, as if pointing a finger of guilt at them for all the carnage brought about in the name of religion throughout the ages, up to and including the year 2015. The overriding theme is the link from the Gods to family, going through the military. Agamemnon (Angus Wright) receives a sign from the Gods to commit an act which will lead to victory in a war, but will have devastating consequences for his wife Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) and their family. The trilogy follows their son Orestes (Luke Thompson) through from a happy family childhood to the realisation of his own fate. The Almeida stage is widened to its full expanse and left bare, save for a few furnishings, and clouded screens at the back conceal a bathroom in which key events take place as if in distant nightmares. Such is the power of the raw drama in the first three hours that they feel like one, scenes gripping with the ferocity of the eagle’s talons, referred to in a repeated metaphor. Williams is magnificent, reacting like a wounded tigress to her husband’s foul deeds. Wright and Thompson are also superb, as is Jessica Brown Findlay (an impressive stage debut for the former Downton star), making a relatively brief appearance as Elektra. It is only in the final section that the production loosens its grip as it centres on an overlong trial sequence and its key themes become lost. Now the play questions how it can ever be possible to discern between truth and fantasy when the perceptions of two or more people can be so contradictory; unintentionally, the play actually demonstrates its own point by relating the same events as Sophocles’ play Elektra, but with major differences. When the question of gender inequalities is thrown in late on, the point being made is an important one, but it feels like too much of a diversion from the main track. Nonetheless, this brave production is a substantial achievement and it augurs well for what is to come in the Almeida’s Season.

Performance date: 4 June 2015

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Obvious comparisons can be drawn between the fascination which Victorians had for freak shows and the modern day obsession with Hollywood movie stars. In the 1880s, John Merrick, the title character of Bernard Pomerance’s play, drew the masses to grubby funfair tents to stare disbelievingly at his grotesque deformities and then he moved upwards to become the darling of high society, whose members were equally intrigued, but in a slightly more refined way. Hollywood has turned out few bigger names in the last decade than Bradley Cooper, star of many critically acclaimed and commercially successful films. Huge crowds might gather in Leicester Square to gawp at his appearance for a premiere, but now he can be seen in a more civilised (and probably drier) setting just around the corner by anyone prepared to cough up for a ticket at West End prices and pay £10 for a programme (justify that please!). Defying the suggestion that movie stars are superhuman, Mr Cooper shows that he is in fact made of just flesh, blood and bone and he is actually not at all bad, or rather he is as good as Pomerance’s somewhat creaky play allows him to be. In David Lynch’s 1980 film of this story, John Hurt had to give his performance whilst buried in tons of prosthetics, but, in Pomerance’s stage version, we see Merrick as the human being behind the disfiguration, Cooper distorting his face and body and straining to speak in an affected English upper class accent. He gives Merrick dignity, but Pomerance does not overcome the character’s problem with articulation, not finding a way to express his inner thoughts to the audience. As a result, the surgeon, Frederick Treves becomes the play’s more interesting character, a scientist in the post-Darwin era, struggling to find a moral code to equate with his beliefs. Alessandro Nivola gives a compelling performance as Treves, but this production’s star turn comes from the wonderful Patricia Clarkson as the actress Mrs Kendall who befriends Merrick. This character is the polar opposite of Treves in her certainty that moral conventions are there to be defied and Clarkson, giving her both the classiness of a society lady and the sauciness of a mischievous tart, lights up the stage with her every appearance. London theatre needs to see her again, often. Director Scott Ellis’s production, transferred more or less intact from its Broadway run, is conventional and efficient, the simple set designs by Timothy R Mackabee ensuring that the focus stays where it needs to be – on the actors. However, the play itself still falls well short of classic status.

Performance date: 4 June 2015

The Clockmaker's DaughterThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

It’s time to pop Champagne corks. Here we have a brand new British musical that does not simply recycle old hits and is not adapted from a film, a play or a novel. Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn conceived and developed this show as a totally original piece of musical theatre, the story, words and music being woven together from the very start in a process which now looks set to pay them handsome dividends. The show is a fairy story with hints of Pinocchio (maybe even Frankenstein in its darker moments). Abraham (Lawrence Carmichael), the clockmaker in the small Irish town of Spindlewood, grief-stricken at the loss of his only daughter, makes a clockwork replacement for her, Constance, who takes human form but needs to be wound up to become active. Abraham holds her key. Of course, this all requires considerable suspension of disbelief, but didn’t Wicked? The songs work perfectly in harmony with the book to propel the story. Webborn and Finn’s lush, melodic music has touches of Irish folk and, if influences of previous shows can sometimes be detected, they are only the best shows. Constance is a massive starring role and it gets a massive starring performance from Canadian actor/singer Jennifer Harding. Her quizzical eyes and beaming smile convey astonishment and joy at the world outside her maker’s home, her mechanical movements becoming progressively more human as she grows in confidence. The town’s dressmaker (Jo Wickham) turns into Constance’s adversary and the story’s villain, but her son, Will (an endearing performance by Alan McHale) befriends the girl, leading to a tentative romance. Robert McWhir’s production, choreographed by Robbie O’Reilly, is mysterious, enchanting and, at times, dazzling. A company of 20 fills this small stage as the townsfolk of Spindlewood celebrate New Year, Market Day, a wedding, etc. The chorus singing and dancing is marvellous to hear and behold. David Shields’ set designs of gold-painted pillars and clocks enhance the timeless, magical feel, with moveable blocks quickly adapting from, say, a library to the town’s bridge. As with all good fairy tales, this is also a morality tale and the show has darker themes which come to the fore in Act II, changes in tone always being driven by the music. Abraham can now be seen as a possessive and manipulative father, Constance becomes a social outcast and the people of Spindlewood, earlier a joyful throng, turn into an unruly mob in a powerful transformation scene. Drawing parallels with racism, the story asks what is the difference between clockwork and bones, or between oil and blood. The serious undercurrents give the show depth and texture. British musicals have had a rough time in the last couple of years. Producers who have dropped new works straight onto West End stages, expecting them to make a running start, may want to ponder the advantages of opening in a small venue such as the Landor, thereby giving a show time to settle, breathe and find its audience. The Clockmaker’s Daughter could be adapted easily for a bigger stage, but it is here for just five weeks, an opportunity to get in on the birth of something very special.

Performance date: 1 June 2015

Photo: Poppy Carter

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