Writer: Polly Stenham (after August Strindberg)      Director: Carrie Cracknell

⭐⭐

If nothing else, Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 work Miss Julie has proved itself to be both durable and malleable. For example, in 2003, Patrick Marber moved the location to rural England and the time to 1945 with his After Miss Julie; more recently, Yaël Farber realised a version of the same play in a steamy modern South Africa with her Mies Julie. Now it is the turn of Polly Stenham, transplanting the drama to the North London suburb of Hampstead in the present day.

The play’s simple premise is that a lady of high birth and wealth becomes entangled with a lowly household servant, leading to (borrowing from another Strindberg title) a dance of death. Different societies behave in different ways and, everywhere, codes of morality, class structures and gender balances shift constantly. On the other hand, it is probable that human nature remains largely unchanged. The recurring fascination with the play comes from examining how Strindberg’s dark vision of the self-destructive side of our nature relates to new settings.

A full five minutes pass in Carrie Cracknell’s production before a word is spoken. Julie’s widowed father is away and she is hosting a wild birthday party, with flashing lights and thumping music. “This is 2018” is being screamed at us at unnecessary length. Gyrating revellers are silhouetted in the background and, below stairs in the basement kitchen, chef Jean and his fiancée Kristina (Thalissa Teixeira) are pilfering the booze and nibbles until Julie eventually descends.

The kitchen, spanning the entire width of the Lyttelton stage, could belong to a house that would occupy a large expanse of Hampstead Heath, but the coldness of Tom Scutt’s minimalist design works against the actors’ efforts to generate fire and passion, as does dialogue that is functional more than lyrical and witty only in flippant asides. Choreographed movement and stage effects catch the eye, but, ultimately, they are just as baffling here as in Cracknell’s recent Macbeth at the Young Vic.

Having been lauded for her performance as the young Princess Margaret in The Crown, Vanessa Kirby could be cornering the market for spoiled rich girls who fly in the face of convention. However, leaving aside suggestions of type-casting, her Julie is also touched by vulnerability and despair at the hollowness of her parasitic existence. She knows that she is a free spirit only because her father’s money allows her to be. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean is a lightweight, a shallow opportunist aiming to open his own restaurant, who looks at first to be easy prey for Julie.

“If anyone conquered anything, I had you” claims Julie in post-coital triumph, but It is surprising that Stenham finds little more room for modern feminist themes and she even allows Jean to claim moral superiority. Her main assertion is that, in the modern age, class is determined by money alone. In Strindberg’s time, birth as well as wealth would have been the determining factors and the concept of servitude would have been clear. Now, Jean is a “servant” who is merely using his position as a stepping stone towards his own riches. 

19th Century audiences may have gasped in horror when Julie and Jean consummate their relationship, but, nowadays, the likely reaction will be shrugged shoulders and the comment “so why wouldn’t they?”. The passing of time has taken its toll on the impact of Strindberg’s messages, but we are still left wondering what new points Stenham wants to make in their place.

To work properly, all versions of Miss Julie need to be delivered as short, sharp shocks. At under 80 minutes straight through, Stenham’s version is certainly short, but its focus is often blurred and, apart from a scene which is wholly unsuitable for pet lovers, the shock waves that it sends out feel buffered. It may have dropped the word “Miss” from the original’s title, but, sadly, this production is still a miss anyway.

Performance date: 7 June 2018

Photo: Richard H Smith

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

Co-author and writer: Simon Stephens      Co-author and composer: Karl Hyde      Co-author and director: Scott Graham

⭐⭐⭐

Masculism has perhaps become unfashionable at a time when, rightly, the movement for gender equality has gained urgent momentum. This new 90-minute piece, presented by Frantic Assembly as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), brings the male of the species back into the spotlight, with specific focus on father-son relationships.

The three co-authors put themselves at centre stage. Scott Graham (played by Declan Bennett), Karl Hyde (Mark Arends) and Simon Stephens (Nyasha Hatendi) convene on the pretext of gathering interviews of sons about their fathers in order to create a work of theatre. A potential interviewee, Luke (Craig Stein) turns out to be fatherless and stays around to serve as built-in critic. Seven all-male actors play the interviewees in separate scenes and intercutting with each other and a male voice choir emerges from the audience towards the end

Graham (from Corby), Hyde (from Kidderminster) and Stephens (from Stockport) make Fatherland almost as much about land as about fathers, reflecting on the geographical social mobility of post-World War II generations in England. They all originate from places “on the periphery of somewhere pretty interesting”, but they have moved on, leaving behind immobile fathers and parts of themselves. “What is the first memory of your father?” is always their first question and they hear memories ranging from the humdrum – sons watching Match of the Day and Steven Seagal films with their fathers – to the dramatic – disturbing accounts of final partings.

Accounts of dysfunction and incompatibility abound, with little sign of pride or joy. When Daniel (David Judge) wails aloud “No. We don’t say the word love…” repeatedly, he strikes at the theme that becomes the essence of this poignant work and the inarticulacy that so often blights family life becomes tangible. Hyde’s music (co-composed with Matthew Herbert) lifts scenes from mundanity, particularly in echoing male voice choruses, and imaginative movement brings stories to vivid life. Jon Clark’s superb lighting design merits specific mention.

In his wounding parting shot, Luke cements his position as a potential theatre critic by telling the three co-authors that what they discover is “just stories” and not something truthful. He is exactly right. Fatherland is haunted by disappearing values in a disappearing land, telling stories, but doing so without breaking down stereotypes, nor digging far beneath the surface, nor unearthing any universal truths that would bind the stories together. For all that, the sheer theatricality of the entire experience makes it worth a look and a listen.

Performance date: 31 May 2018

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

Writer: Molière     Adaptor: Christopher Hampton      Director: Gerald Garitti

⭐⭐⭐

Even if Brexit is unstoppable, the Entente Cordiale looks set to live on, exemplified by this production of a Molière play, written in 1664, adapted by an Englishman, directed by a Frenchman, performed by French and British actors and spoken in both French and English in roughly even measures.

The production requires sur, sub and side titles, and all seat positions in this three-tiered theatre appear to be covered. French-to-English translations appear in white text, English-to-French in yellow. It takes time to get used to, but it all works fairly well. As Christopher Hampton’s adaptation tells of a French family that has emigrated to Los Angeles when Dad buys a film studio, it is logical that both languages should be in use, but less so that characters should repeatedly switch between them in mid conversation. Of course, logic is never going to play a big part in a play such as this.

As with most plays in which the plot hinges on a character’s gullibility, suspension of disbelief is essential. Here, the gullible one is family head, Orgon (Sebastian Roché) who takes in the vagrant Tartuffe and is taken in by his piety and perceived wisdom. As the play has alternative titles of The Hypocrite and The Imposter, it quickly becomes obvious that Orgon is heading for a fall, notwithstanding warnings from his son Damis (George Blagden) and others in his family. He insists that Tartuffe will marry his daughter Mariane  (Olivia Ross) against her wishes and remains oblivious to his lusting after his wife Elmire (Audrey Fleurot).

We wonder whether forced marriage is actually legal in California and, in a more general sense, why Hampton has chosen to transplant the play to there. Brief references could be taken to allude to Hollywood’s current woes, but these are passing and a final scene which openly satirises the current American Presidency comes across as clumsy and obvious. For more than half an hour at the beginning of the play, characters stand in clusters to talk about nothing else but Tartuffe and some of their chat is so turgid that it is hardly worth reading the translations. We have a long wait to see if the titular character himself can possibly live down to all this adverse hype and, when he eventually arrives, we are not disappointed.

Our first sight of Paul Anderson’s Tartuffe is with his arms raised sideways in crucifixion pose, a messianic figure, who is, at once, obsequious and dominating. He speaks (only in English) with the pronounced Southern drawl of a Baptist preacher and sings Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Although similarities with a figure seen at a recent royal event are almost certainly unintended, this interpretation of the character begins to show us why Hampton draws parallels between the court of Louis XIV and Donald Trump’s America. Unsurprisingly, all of the production’s most entertaining scenes coincide with Anderson being on stage.

Andrew D Edwards’ striking set design has the look of a chic gallery for modern art, with what could be a multi-medium Turner Prize exhibit as its centrepiece. It forms part of a production, directed by Gérald Garutti, which has enough imaginative flourishes to keep the audience engaged and which marks a bold attempt to breathe fresh life into a creaking 17th Century classic. Nonetheless, much of this Tartuffe is still tough going.

Performance date: 29 May 2018

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

Book: Warner Brown      Lyrics: Warner Brown and David Heneker      Music: David Heneker      Director: Jenny Eastop

⭐⭐

Revived as part of the Finborough Theatre’s British Musicals season, The Biograph Girl, an account of the rise of Hollywood’s silent movie industry in the teens and twenties of the last century, dates only from 1980. This comes as a surprise, because an old-fashioned musical style which owes more to Ivor Novello than to Lionel Bart or Andrew Lloyd Webber, suggests something much earlier.

The show had a modest initial West End run at the Phoenix Theatre, but, shortly thereafter, Torvill and Dean popularised Jerry Herman’s superb score for the erstwhile Broadway flop Mack and Mabel and that became the early Hollywood musical of choice. Mack Sennett appears again here, characterised in Matthew Cavendish’s pratfalling, scene-stealing performance as a man who lived his life in the manner of a Keystone Cop.

The chief problem with Warner Brown’s book is that it charts movie history in sketchy, semi-documentary style without fully developing a central narrative focus to drive the show. Famous names come and go, but Brown’s interest seems not to be in their lives, but in their industry. His lyrics, co-written with composer David Heneker, range from the mildly amusing to the predictable, while lines such as “…your dreams come true on the casting couch” and “every lady needs a master who can guide her through” are pretty well guaranteed to enrage supporters of today’s Me Too movement.

Heneker is no Herman, but his score, played on a single piano by musical director Harry Haden-Brown, is pleasantly hummable. Director Jenny Eastop’s production is zestful, if not over-imaginative and it includes several excellent performances. Sophie Linder-Lee is a bubbly Gladys Smith (aka Mary Pickford, aka America’s Sweetheart, aka The Biograph Girl), the 21-year-old child star that her studio will not allow to grow up; Linder-Lee manages to be endearingly juvenile and, at the same time, steely and avaricious. Emily Langham’s sweet-natured Lilian Gish, a serious stage actor from New York who looks down on the burgeoning film industry, is the closest that the show gives us to a character that we want to root for.

The show’s strongest theme centres on the struggle between art and commerce that has defined Hollywood throughout its history. Jonathan Leinmuller’s DW Griffith is a proud and upright visionary, demanding truth in his films, but denying reality in the real world and believing that audiences would want silent Shakespeare more than talking pictures. His Birth of a Nation stirs up racial tensions in the Deep South and his Intolerance inspires indifference everywhere. In the long-term, both were to gain critical plaudits, but it is Mack Sennett who rakes in the cash.

Some musicals benefit enormously from being miniaturised to fit into tiny venues such as the Finborough, but, performed here with minimal set and props, this is not one of them. The story and songs are too slight to compensate for the absence of big theatre spectacle and this contributes to a feeling that the show is as dated as silent movies themselves must have seemed with the advent of the talkies.

Performance date: 24 May 2018

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

PREVIEW: Swinging Back in Time

Posted: May 25, 2018 in Theatre

They say that, if you remember the Swinging 60s, you weren’t really there. However, perhaps the more pertinent question is whether the era itself, as it has been mythologised, was ever really there. Now, 37 years after Liverpool introduced its highly successful Magical Mystery Tour, London has its own bus tour, Swinging 60s Experience, setting out to find some answers and The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates hopped on board to swing back in time.

The label “Swinging London” first appeared on a Time magazine cover in 1966, rather endorsing the view that the whole thing was dreamed up by the Americans as a fantasy escape from their own period of Civil Rights disturbances, political assassinations and the Vietnam War. However, the music of the era is no fantasy and, rightly, this is where the tour’s focus lies, taking us back to an age when Paul McCartney could only imagine what it would be like to be 64 and Mick Jagger still had plenty of time on his side.

The tour’s normal starting and finishing point is the Victoria and Albert museum, but, on this occasion, our bus, a gleaming red 1965 Routemaster, sets off from the Hard Rock Cafe in Piccadilly and a soundtrack of 60s classics begins, to be interrupted only by the voice of our guide. As the engine revs up, Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes of the Broken Hearted hardly seems the most optimistic start, but, by the time we get to a near-gridlocked Hyde Park Corner, the Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place expresses the views of most passengers perfectly.

The traffic eases (very slightly) as the bus reaches Sloane Square and the beginning of King’s Road, which, the tour guide informs us, was built in the 1640s “before any of the Rolling Stones were even born”. Nowadays, the road has many more locations with stories of the 60s than it has red ‘phone boxes. We see the hotel, then named the Royal Court, where the Beatles stayed on their first visit to London in 1963 to record their Please Please Me album. We pass Ringo Starr’s current London home and the Chelsea Potter pub where Michael Caine and Terence Stamp hung out back in days when the price of a pint could have stretched them.

The is some alarm when we pass the Chelsea Drug Store, associated with the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, to discover that it is now a McDonald’s restaurant and there is further bad news for Stones fans when we reach the venue where Bill Wyman first auditioned for the band and see that it has become a branch of Paddy Power. The site of Mary Quant’s boutique, the town hall where Judy Garland made the last of her many marriage vows Jimi Hendrix’ pad and the flat once shared by Mick Jagger and Brian Jones all attract passing interest and Benny Hill’s home less so, but then he had to wait until 1971 to have a number one hit.

Theatre addicts could well observe that it was all happening between the Royal Court and the Finborough in those days, even though a lot of what we are told feels like insignificant trivia. However, the Troubadour in Earl’s Court is of real importance, being the venue where little-known Bob Dylan and Paul Simon played early gigs. Once the tour gets fully into its stride, hopefully greater efforts will be made to coordinate the music being played with the locations visited.  Without this, the whole experience tends to feel a little disjointed.

By marketing this one-hour ride as a tour of “West London’s cradle of rock”, the organisers get out of having to negotiate further heavy traffic by taking in, say, Abbey Road and Carnaby Street. Two and four hour tours are also on offer. As a parting thought, it would be a nice touch if the last tours of the evening could end on Waterloo Bridge. Unlike many of the sites seen on the ride around Chelsea, the sunset there is something just as spectacular as when Ray Davies wrote about it half a century ago.

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

 

 

Faced with saturated media coverage of Harry and Meghan’s nuptials, the theatre could seem like a good place to escape all talk of royal weddings for an hour or two, but not so at London’s Union Theatre, where the new satirical musical HR Haitch has just opened. The show’s director, Daniel Winder, took time off to chat with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates at the base of his Iris Theatre Company, St Paul’s Church which is in the heart of Covent Garden.

Daniel founded Iris Theatre in 2007 and has been its Artistic Director ever since; “i trained as an actor at Drama Centre, but had a previous career as a theoretical physicist”, he says, smiling at this unusual change of vocation and adding “I was all purpose understudy for the first three or four years (of Iris Theatre) but I’ve not been on for four years now and let’s hope it never happens again”. St Paul’s is still a fully-functioning church, known as “the actors’ church” and Iris Theatre stages site-specific productions there for two-and-a-half months every Summer.

HR Haithc marks a breakthrough for the company; “It’s the first time that we’ve done a full length run with another theatre and it’s the sort of start of an ongoing process, because we’re doing a four-and-a-half week run of Arabian Nights (at Hoxton Hall) in September”. Daniel explains; “This (St Paul’s) is still the centre of what we do … but opportunities for growth exist outside this building rather than inside”.

Daniel has been involved closely with the development of HR Haitch since its inception: “about 5 years ago now, we started a process of doing new musical one-nighters and we also run a Christmas song writing competition called Xmas Factor… Maz (Evans) and Luke (Bateman), who wrote HR Haitch, first met at one of these and we put them together…they then won two of the competitions and we commissioned them to write a full musical…in 2015 they came to me with the idea of a mixed race person entering into the royal family and we did workshops”. So this was a case of fiction becoming fact? “Yes, when the news about Harry and Meghan broke…literally in January or February…and it’s all been turned round in a few weeks…it all came together very quickly”.

After almost 11 years working as a director, this is Daniel’s first full musical. “I’ve done a few one-nighters here, but I’m not Thom Southerland, I’ve not done 100 musicals…in the past, the majority of my work has been Shakespeare or family shows like Treasure Island”.  So what attracted him to this project? “We are satirising both high and low, it’s a classic, very English comedy ploy… you have someone low class and their family clashes into the Royal family” Touches of Shaw’s Pygmalion perhaps, but Daniel adds “within that, there’s a large satire of the Royal family and there’s also a satire of Millennial youth culture…the girl is Essex…there is also satire of the current political environment in terms of referendums and there is a referendum (about the Royal family) in the story…we call it “Rexit” and that always gets a laugh”. 

It becomes clear that Daniel takes a great interest in the future development of musical theatre as a whole. “My general feeling is that I see a lot of new musicals come through this building…theres one big risk with them, it seems to me that there’s a lot of sub-Jason Robert Brown kind of 20-something middle class kids’ emotional problems, song cycle type of stuff and, for me, if they didn’t have the songs in them, would they stand up as plays?” He advocates strongly that, even in musicals, the play’s the thing, adding “Maz, Luke and I wanted to create this piece with a strong narrative arc, something that is unashamedly and unapologetically popular in form, songs that you can hum. There are a lot of people who want to be Sondheim and, unless you’re Sondheim, you’re always going to come across as a poor comparison. I think we should all want to be Lionel Bart. For me, what is important is that the book should stand alone as a play”.

HR Haitch runs until 2 June at the Union Theatre, but does Daniel hope to take it further? “I would love to. i was always trying to create something that could have a future…we’re not looking at vast expense, (it’s) just a cast of six and a single piano, that’s built into the narrative…it was never meant to be a West End Show and it’s never going to be a West End show…my dream would be somewhere like Menier Chocolate Factory”.

A musical theatre novice Daniel may be, but, while he does not try to hide his enthusiasm for the form, he tempers it with touches of realism. “But it’s hard” he shrugs, “there’s a whole world of economics that doesn’t work… there’s still a step missing (for low-budget musicals) where you can have a 100-200 seater and take some risks and have a chance of recovering your money”.

For the immediate future, Daniel’s schedule is busy. “I go into rehearsals for The Tempest next week and then we’ve got Three Musketeers and Arabian Nights” The Tempest will be the twelfth Shakespeare play that he has directed professionally, but, having dipped his toes into musical theatre, are there any classic shows that he would like to work on? He responds instantly “Man of La Mancha”. Let’s hope that this does not prove to be an impossible dream.

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

 

Writer: Felicity Huxley-Miners      Director: Richard Elson

⭐⭐⭐

Girl meets boy, girl Rugby-tackles boy and so begins an imperfect relationship. Felicity Huxley-Miners’ short (70 minutes), bitter-sweet new play introduces us to Ellie and Rob, a couple who we come to feel need a lot of things in life, but not each other.

The opening scenes feel like an old-fashioned screwball romcom in which, say, Goldie Hawn could have been Ellie and the writer, taking on the role herself, certainly plays it that way. However, we already know that Ellie’s dramatic first entrance had been to intervene when Rob was about to jump under a train, which leads us to expect that the play will take us to much darker places.

David Shears gets Rob, the ordinary Geordie bloke who has just lost his girlfriend to his best mate, precisely right, but the chemistry between him and Huxley-Miners’ Ellie always feels completely wrong. If this is a deliberate ploy to show a dysfunctional relationship, it is very clever acting indeed. Having rescued Rob, Ellie goes several stages further than a typical Samaritan and invites him to share her bed. “Too much too soon” we think and we are right.

The needy stare in Huxley-Miners’ eyes, her frail demeanour and the desperation in her gestures make it clear that Ellie is by far the more troubled of the two. Having lured Rob into her web, she uses all her guile to keep him there, but this central section of the play is its least convincing. Rob’s inability to walk out is irritating, as are Ellie’s semi-comic attempts to keep him. We are told that Rob is close to his mother, but not his father and that Ellie is estranged from both her parents, but deeper knowledge of their past emotional lives would have helped us to understand them better and to care more for them.

At a time when the mental health issues affecting young people, facing the intense pressures of modern life, are being brought into sharper focus, the play has much to say. Rob, coming out of a failed relationship and discontented with a job that he hates, struggles to see the point of carrying on. Ellie is told pointedly that she needs to like herself, but she persists with the misguided mission to make Rob, a man too wrapped up in his own problems, to like her instead.

Director Richard Elson’s production tunes in well to the shifting tones of the play. In the Shadow of the Mountain needs more depth and it needs more polish, but it makes a brave stab at probing the turbulence inside so many young minds today.

Performance date: 17 May 2018

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