Archive for September, 2020

Rose (Hope Mill Theatre Online)

Posted: September 10, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Martin Sherman.     Director: Scott Le Crass


Premiering in 1999, Rose was Martin Sherman’s parting gift to the 20th Century, seemingly presented with a card reading “Good Riddance”. He could not have known what was to follow.

In common with Bent, Sherman’s most famous work, Nazi atrocities during World War II lie at the heart of the drama, but the focus of this story is wider. The play is a monologue, which had Olympia Dukakis playing the title role in the original National Theatre production. Here, in a recording made during lockdown of a one-off production by Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Maureen Lipman is Rose, an 80-year-old naturalised American Jewish woman, reflecting with some confusion on the turbulent events of her life.

Rose was born and raised in a small village in a part of Russia that is now Ukraine, accepting antisemitic persecution as one of life’s norms. As a teenager, she followed her older brother to Poland, ending up in the Warsaw ghetto and the city’s sewers for most of the war. Afterwards, she fled to safety in the promised land of Palestine, prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Our initial reaction could be to think how lucky Rose had been to survive, but Sherman always questions this and the deep bitterness underlying Lipman’s portrayal tells us otherwise.

Director Scott Le Crass’s production is a strange hybrid, possibly unique to modern times. Lipman sits in a pool of light on the darkened stage of an empty theatre and we wonder to whom she could be talking. This is not an intimate chat with each individual viewer, as in the style of the recent Talking Heads series on television, and it is not a recording of a proper theatre production in which the actor would be performing to a live audience and drawing response therefrom. Some visual effects are added, but they feel out of place and add very little.

Leaving these reservations aside, Rose is all about vivid storytelling, both in the writing and the performance. Lipman is mesmerising. Her Rose is, at first glance, desensitised by the traumas in her life, but subtle smiles and grimaces reveal her true emotions, which turn to outright rage when talking of the role of the British Government, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in particular, in trying to stem the flow of Jewish refugees to Palestine.

Sherman’s writing is full of dark humour, brought out with natural ease by Lipman. Rose’s recollections are hazy as she questions whether a childhood event actually happened or was it a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. Similarly, she questions whether her memories of a perilous Mediterranean crossing is from “that Paul Newman movie” (Exodus). Sherman is making the serious point that 20th Century history has become blurred by dramas, adventures and even musicals. He wants to remind us that, inside horrors of enormous proportions lie millions of real individual human tragedies.

Rose is alert to the many ironies in her life as a pawn in a bigger game. She recalls how Hitler and Stalin were friends at one moment and at war the next and how Jews fleeing Poland after the war saw Germany as a safe haven. Her accounts of crossing the Mediterranean will jolt audiences seeing the play more than 20 years after it premiered into seeing a further irony, that of refugees from the Middle East making the same crossing, but in the opposite direction.

Writer: Michael Burdette      Music and lyrics: Robert Scott and Brendan Cull      Director: Brendan Cull


When Nora Ephron’s film Sleepless in Seattle was released in 1993, the words “social” and “distancing” would not have been commonly linked together, but its story of a romance between Sam and Annie, separated by the width of a continent, makes it perfect to be adapted for the stage in 2020. This is, as the old song goes, “a fine romance with no kisses”.

Sam is a young widower who moves with Jonah, his 10-year-old son, to live on a houseboat in Seattle. Annie is a journalist with the Baltimore Sun who is almost engaged, but having her doubts. When Jonah calls a late night nationwide radio phone-in show to find a new wife for his dad, Annie takes an interest from a professional and a personal viewpoint and Jonah is left to organise a rendezvous on top of the Empire State Building in New York City on St Valentine’s Day.

It took all the charisma that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could muster to save the film from drowning in syrup, but Jay McGuiness (who seems to specialise in stepping into Hanks’ roles) and Kimberley Walsh have ample charm of their own. There are few surprises in Michael Burdette’s book. His biggest problem is that everyone knows where the story is going and he needs the songs, which slot in neatly, to help it on its way.

The large Troubadour is adapted for social distancing. Strangely, when we see a more than half empty auditorium for a musical, our brains are programmed to tell us that we are watching a flop. It takes time to adjust, but there are big compensations. Theatregoers have long yearned for audiences that dare not cough and now they are here. Long may they remain.

Director Morgan Young’s big, slick production cuts no corners. A company of 18 fills the stage, backed by a 12-piece orchestra and Morgan Large’s colourful set designs, using a central revolve, enable swift transitions and allow for scenes in different locations to be on stage simultaneously. Standing out in supporting roles are Tania Mathurin as Annie’s friend Becky, Harriet Thorpe as her mother, Daniel Casey as her almost fiancé Walter, Corey English as Sam’s friend Rob and Charlie Bull as his would be girlfriend Victoria, the lady with the excruciating laugh. The key role of the precocious Jonah is being shared by Theo Collis, Mikey Colville, Jobe Hart and Jack Reynolds.

Simple tunes and lyrics mark the songs by Robert Scott and Brandan Cull. Their style is a cross between 1940s jazz and modern pop. They are catchy enough, but lack a showstopper until Walsh belts out Things I Didn’t Do, after which the show stops, albeit  for the interval. In the second act, a duet for Rob and Jonah, Now or Never, goes one better and earns an encore. Overall, perhaps the songs could have been sold with greater energy if the show had more dancing. The shortage thereof is particularly disappointing when the company is led by a Strictly… winner.

Sleepless… is sentimental and predictable; it manipulates our emotions shamelessly, but resistance proves to be futile. It may not be saying much, but, without a doubt, this is the best musical in town right now

Performance date: 1 September 2020

Beat the Devil (Bridge Theatre)

Posted: September 1, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: David Hare      Director: Nicholas Hytner


David Hare’s most recent play for theatre, I’m Not Running, looked at British left wing politics as they had been many years earlier and, when it opened at the National Theatre in October 2018, he stood accused of living in a time warp. Not so on this occasion. Beat the Devil is as much 2020 as it can get.

The play, a 50-minute monologue, is built around the writer’s own battle with Covid-19 in March and April this year. In theory, the “devil” in the title is the virus, but the actual devil that Hare seems to have in mind is the Conservative Government and what should have been a fascinating insight into the physical and mental impact of the illness disintegrates into a rambling and unconvincing politically motivated rant. 

The play starts promisingly with Hare telling of the first symptoms – the taste of sewage in his mouth, crippling lethargy – and continues at intervals with details of how he and his wife Nicole (Farhi) cope day-to-day. In between and possibly for more than 50% of the running time, Hare launches into a fierce assault on politicians (always emphasising that they are Conservative politicians), including some particularly venomous personal attacks on named individuals. Nothing that Hare says is factually inaccurate, but inconvenient truths are overlooked and his writing is short on wit and fresh detail, while being flavoured strongly with the benefit of hindsight.

We can stay at home and be lectured by Emily Maitliss on government shortcomings, so do we really want to go to a theatre for much of the same? If the answer is “yes”, it is probably because we are so starved of theatre at this time that we would go to see anything and, if we are going to receive a lecture, there could be no one better to deliver it than Ralph Fiennes. His sardonic style and natural gift for comedy paper over many of the play’s cracks and help him to find humour even in parts of the play where Hare has placed none. Director Nicholas Hytner’s production has a large desk centre stage, helping to generate the feel of an academic presentation.

The management and front of house staff at the Bridge Theatre must be congratulated for getting this production, the first in a season of monologues, up and running. Capacity is reduced to under a third of normal, with seats configured as pairs or singles well spaced out, and audiences are made to feel safe at all times.

The theatre is not the BBC and there is no necessity for balance, but, in this case, the omission of key facts that do not support the writer’s case undermines the credibility of everything that he has to say. Beat the Devil is a huge disappointment, but, thankfully, Hare lives to write another play and, hopefully, to return to better form.

Performance date: 31 August 2020