Review: The Knot of the Heart, Almeida

“If we don’t like it, we can get on a boat to the Isle of Wight”

Following the well-received, sharply funny Becky Shaw into the Almeida is David Eldridge’s new play The Knot of the Heart about middle-class drug addiction: this is a review of a preview performance on Monday 14th March. The play stars Lisa Dillon, for whom the central character was specifically written, as comfortably middle-class Lucy whose recreational drug use leads to her losing her job as a children’s TV presenter and sets her on a downwards spiral into genuine hard addiction as her mother and sister struggle to deal with the impact it has on the family.

On Peter McKintosh’s set of sliding glass panels and doors, dividing up the revolve into ever-shifting living rooms, hospitals, bars in and around Islington, we see how Lucy’s life crumbles around her, reduced to stealing from her sister and forced to move back into her mother’s house, unable to extricate herself from the grip of heroin no matter how grim things get. But what Eldridge is also interested in looking at is how Lucy’s key relationships are affected and defined by her addiction, how parental and sisterly love can actually help to enable it due to differing attitudes to drugs: at one point, the mother actually goes out to buy the heroin for her daughter from a guy at a bakery on Upper Street, after she is raped by a different dodgy dealer, at another she wonders whether she should have stopped Lucy’s teenage dabbling in pot, despite finding it innocuous at the time given her own youthful experiences in the 60s. Continue reading “Review: The Knot of the Heart, Almeida”

Review: Becky Shaw, Almeida

“Were you waiting for me to walk through the door? This isn’t Jane Austen’s England, Susie, you could’ve walked through it too.”

Bringing a much welcomed shot of sharp comedy to a dull January, Becky Shaw is the first play of 2011 for Islington’s Almeida Theatre. Written by American Gina Gionfriddo and directed by Peter DuBois, also over from the States and who directed this show there too, it really is a breath of fresh air and one of the funniest shows I have seen in ages.

Newlyweds Suzanna and Andrew set up her adoptive brother Max with a new work colleague Becky Shaw in an attempt to break his run of three-month relationships, but their matchmaking has huge consequences as a disastrous first date leads to a series of events that causes everyone to seriously question the relationships they have built up with each other and wonder what the future could, or should, hold for them. The play questions their moral obligations to everyone, strangers and family alike. Continue reading “Review: Becky Shaw, Almeida”

Review: The Master Builder, Almeida

“I have underwear in my haversack”

I have made no secret of my issues with Ibsen on this blog: he is a playwright whom I have never really ‘got’ and whose enduring popularity at theatre houses baffles me, I struggle to see what relevance much of his work has to audiences today. So when the Almeida announced a production of The Master Builder as their winter show it was with a slightly heavy heart that I booked tickets: I do try to keep my mind open to the chance that one day something might suddenly click, indeed I was in Manchester to see The Lady From The Sea just last week. And funnily enough, if you had to pick two Ibsen plays to see this close together, then it might as well be these two as to my surprise, they feature a recurring character in Hilde Wangel.

With a new translation by Kenneth McLeish, director Travis Preston has created a minimalist, modern-dress production of this cautionary tale of the drive for ambition at all costs. Halvard Solness is a self-made master builder, lacking in training but dominant in his small town world with a towering reputation that he zealously protects. This single-mindedness has had a corrosive effect on those around him though: his employees fear him and his wife is a mere shadow of her former self, the couple having suffered unimaginable tragedy with the death of twin sons and the ramifications of which still reverberate strongly for both of them. Into this world arrives Hilde, a young woman who claims a past connection with Solness and offers an alternative to the emotional paralysis that characterises his life but one which leads up a dangerous path. I must admit to being quite pleased to see a modern-day version of an Ibsen work for once, but having never seen The Master Builder before, you will have read elsewhere for commentary on any changes that have been made. Continue reading “Review: The Master Builder, Almeida”

Review: House of Games, Almeida

“Now that’s what I call a therapeutic intervention”

The Almeida plays host to the world premiere of House of Games, a Richard Bean stage adaptation of David Mamet’s 1987 film Margaret Ford is a celebrated wealthy psychoanalyst working in Chicago but after allowing one of her patients to get under her skin, ends up compromising her professional reputation as she attempts to resolve his gambling debts and gets sucked into a world of tricksy cardsharps and handsome hustlers. She attempts to justify her actions by writing a book about this world but soon realises she is in way out of her depth.

It is all good fun and nicely paced under Lindsay Posner’s direction as we whip through the series of events in 100 minutes without an interval. There’s lots in here to keep you guessing throughout, but there are a couple of moments where it resembles the BBC1 programme Hustle far too close for comfort, and those experienced in this type of thriller might be a little disappointed the way in which things go. That said, although I worked out what was going on, my companion remained unaware and consequently really enjoyed the revelations. Continue reading “Review: House of Games, Almeida”

Review: Through A Glass Darkly, Almeida

“It’s the confusion that terrifies me”

Through a Glass Darkly is a bit of a coup for the Almeida Theatre, a world premiere of this Ingmar Bergman story and directed by long-term friend of the Almeida, Michael Attenborough. It tells of a family, a couple Karin and Martin accompanied by her father and brother, holidaying on a bleak Swedish island once associated with family happiness, now revisited at the behest of Karin. Recently released from an asylum after some sort of psychiatric breakdown, she is trying to recapture the feelings of contentment she remembers from the past, but her father, brother and husband for their own various reasons seem unable to help her realise her ambition and so she decides to take control of her own destiny.

This is the only one of Bergman’s works that he permitted to be adapted for the stage and I’m pretty sure I read that Andrew Upton was doing the adaptation when this was first announced, but Jenny Worton is credited here. Not knowing the film, I can’t comment on how good an adaptation it is; structurally, it takes place over 24 hours through a series of scenes. There was something a bit too mechanical about the transitions though, not enough of a feel of the links between the scenes for my liking and so it all felt a bit disconnected, a series of tableaux rather than a well-integrated play. Continue reading “Review: Through A Glass Darkly, Almeida”

Review: Ruined, Almeida

“People come here to leave behind whatever mess they made out there”

Working in partnership with Amnesty International, the Almeida theatre gives us the European premiere of Ruined, the Pulitzer Prize winning play from Lynn Nottage. It is set at Mama Nadi’s, a bar and brothel in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mama runs her bar with a rod of iron, serving anyone who will pay, no matter what side they are fighting for, along as they leave their weapons and their politics at the bar. As the civil war encroaches ever nearer and two new arrivals who have suffered particularly badly at the hands of soldiers, she is forced to reassess her life of providing women and whiskey without question and decide if it is enough.

As Mama Nadi, Jenny Jules is excellent. She’s rarely off-stage and holds the whole play together with her irrepressible hostessing, able to charm any customer yet possessed of an indomitable spirit, no soldier, no matter how threatening, gets past her with a weapon and she rules over her girls with a rod of iron. Starting off like Brecht’s Mother Courage, a similar profiteer from wartime chaos, her motivations remain mostly ambiguous but as events catch up with her, she becomes much more emotionally engaged. Jules is supported extremely well by Pippa Bennett-Warner as Sophie, bright and beautiful yet ‘ruined’ by a bayonet, Michelle Asante as Salima, gang-raped by soldiers but then even more painfully, shunned by her husband and Kehinde Fadipe as Josephine, the most sexually confident of the three but just as damaged. Together, they form an uncompromising group of women, scarred both inside and out by rebel soldiers, government soldiers, even their own families, and only able to dream of what might be in the (relative) safety of each other’s company. Continue reading “Review: Ruined, Almeida”

Review: Measure for Measure, Almeida

“Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?”

First things first: this has a double revolve, a double revolve people!! Two bits that move independently from each other! And a table that rises up from the ground! And now breathe… So, from the Shakespeare play I know the best, to one which I’ve never seen before in two days. Measure for Measure sees one of the largest casts ever at at the Almeida, 17 if you’re wondering, and I caught a preview last night.

Set in a Vienna which is riven with sexual depravity and political misdeeds, the Duke of the city decides to leave it in the hands of his hardline deputy Angelo, whilst remaining about incognito in order to see how he fares in restoring order. He disguises himself as a friar where he encounters the highly religious Isabella, who is faced with the prospect of sacrificing her virginity in order to save her brother’s life, that brother having been sentenced to death by Angelo for getting a girl pregnant before they were married. There is then all sorts of gameplaying that ensues, both political and personal, as we rush headlong to the conclusion which may or may not include lots of weddings. Continue reading “Review: Measure for Measure, Almeida”

Review: Rope, Almeida with Q+A

“People argue about the queerest things nowadays”

Perhaps an odd choice for a festive show, Rope at the Almeida Theatre is a dark tale of murder, abusive relationships and a dinner party (which I guess is what Christmas is about for some people…) Two Oxford students, Brandon and Granillo murder a third for the existential thrill of committing the ‘perfect murder’, they then invite people, including the dead boy’s father, round for supper, which is served on the chest where the body is stashed. Only one guest begins to suspect something is amiss, Rupert Cadell, a WWI veteran now a world-weary Nietzschean and over the course of the evening, the men try to argue the case for their intellectual superiority and play the dangerous game of trying to get away with murder.

The most arresting thing about this production upon entering the theatre is that it is presented in the round. This is a first for the Almeida and it is highly effective. It gives the real sense of being in the room with the protagonists and also has the visually pleasing effect of placing the chest in the centre of the action, both physically and metaphorically. This worked beautifully in the scenes which had several of the characters on stage, but I felt that when there was just two or three of them, more could have been done to utilise this format: the final face-off scene in particular was very static and played as if on a normal stage. This worked fine for us in our central seats but people to the side would have just seen the back of one or other of the main characters for the final 20 minutes of the play.

Continue reading “Review: Rope, Almeida with Q+A”

Review: Mrs Klein, Almeida

“If you want to be an analyst of any worth, you have to trust your patients with the truth, however harsh. They’re strong, they’ll take it.”

After the highly successful Duet for One which toured and then transferred into the West End, we return once again to the theme of psychoanalysis with this revival of Mrs Klein at the Almeida theatre in Islington.

Struggling to come to terms with the death of her son Hans in a climbing accident, noted controversial psychoanalyst Melanie Klein asks a colleague to cover for her while she goes to the funeral. Paula, recently escaped from the rising anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, is finding it hard to make a living in London and agrees to this, but is interrupted by the arrival of Klein’s daughter Melitta also a psychoanalyst, resentful of her presence and angry with her mother’s domineering behaviour. After Mrs Klein herself returns unexpectedly, Paula gets caught up in the longstanding conflict between mother and daughter which comes to crisis point in the wake of revelations about Hans’s death. Continue reading “Review: Mrs Klein, Almeida”

Review: Judgment Day, Almeida

“The train is coming…”

Judgment Day is a play by Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, which has been translated here at the Almeida theatre by Christoper Hampton. One of the first commissions after Michael Attenborough’s arrival as Artistic Director, Hampton has long been a champion of this writer and this is the first full production of this play in this country. Von Horváth wrote much of his anti-Nazi work in Germany in the 1930s, but opted to remain in the country to study the encroaching rise of Nazism, instead of fleeing like many of his compatriots such as Brecht.

It’s the story of Hudetz, a stationmaster of a small village who, distracted one evening by a popular local girl eager for a kiss, fails to make the necessary signal to a passing train causing a devastating fatal crash. The girl Anna then perjures herself to defend Hudetz as he seeks to escape justice, despite his unhappy wife also witnessing the events. We then see the effects of overwhelming grief on this pair as they struggle to carry on with their lives, exacerbated by the ever-changing moods of the townspeople, whose vicious, bigoted anger seems to be refocused with every new piece of gossip that comes their way. Continue reading “Review: Judgment Day, Almeida”