Taking up residency on Shaftesbury Avenue, this production of Don Carlos directed by Michael Grandage was originated at the Crucible in Sheffield last year and received rave reviews. It is one of Schiller’s less performed works apparently, but I have to admit this was the first time I had seen any his plays (or indeed heard of him, eek!) so a new experience for me.
Don Carlos is passionately in love with Elizabeth, the French Princess to whom he was once betrothed. Carlos’ tyrannical father, King Philip II of Spain, decides to marry Elizabeth himself. The young prince’s hatred for his cold and distant parent knows no bounds. He enlists his oldest friend the Marquis of Posa to act as go-between. But Posa decides to convert Carlos and Elizabeth’s youthful passion into a full scale rebellion against King Philip’s oppressive and bloody regime.
It is heavy stuff, examining the nature of the relationship between church and state, especially with a dictator at the helm, but it is also an intimately personal drama with a King who is incapable of normal human relationships, even with his own son. As Philip II, Derek Jacobi dominates the stage with a hugely brilliant performance of an isolated man, unable to gain the same succour from power as he would from love and equally unable to change.
Around him though are a range of good performances: Richard Coyle’s titular Carlos is a dreamy romantic irreparably damaged by the lack of love from his father and he is brilliantly balanced with Elliot Cowan’s Posa whose idealistic nobility pushes everyone closer to the precipice; Peter Eyre’s Inquisitor is a vision in chilling scarlet and I was also impressed with Una Stubbs and Claire Price as the captive royal wife.
It looked amazing with Christopher Oram’s design evoking a starkly religious Spain and with menacing music and lighting enhancing the mood, this was a highly enjoyable production, fiercely intense and excellently acted. My only complaint was the use of so much incense in the swinging thing they used: it was a little too much especially for us up in the gods as it collected up there and lulled several to doziness!
Days of Wine and Roses was a 1958 teleplay written by American JP Miller, but adapted here by Northern Irish writer Owen McCafferty and relocated to 1960s London, in its tale of the troubling effects of alcoholism on a young immigrant couple.
Donal and Mona are a couple who meet for the first time at Belfast Airport in 1962, as they are awaiting a delayed flight that will complete their emigration to London. Donal is a happy-go-lucky bookie’s clerk who likes a cheeky drink, while Mona is a timid civil servant from a strict family background who has never touched a drop until now. Her introduction to alcohol sets her on a headlong passionate journey and they enter a fast relationship which soon develops into marriage and parenthood. They enjoy the good life, liberally oiled with vast quantities of whisky but it soon becomes apparent that they’re losing control of the situation as looking after their son becomes less important than finding another drink. The play then hinges on the divergent paths that Donal and Mona takes as they come to terms, or otherwise, with their alcoholism.
It is excellently acted by Peter McDonald who ends up having to make the most heartbreaking of decisions and Anne-Marie Duff whose spiral of self-destruction leads her to the darkest of places. Together they make such a believable couple with palpable chemistry which makes their ultimate incompatibility all the more heartbreaking, somewhat impressive given the paucity of the material they are given.
Despite the quality of the acting, other aspects of the production felt not quite up to par. The simplicity of the staging and set appeared unimaginative with only the crackling 60s music of a radio punctuating creating the necessary ambience and rather highlighting the insubstantiality of this play: it doesn’t quite seem to justify its existence. So a mixed bag for me, strong acting but a disappointing production.
More seasoned theatregoers will tell you you should never book a play on the strength of its star alone, but when that star is Academy Award winning actress Holly Hunter, star of one of my favourite films The Piano, then I had no hesitation in booking my ticket no matter what the play was. The play in question in By the Bog of Cats, a retelling of Euripides’ Medea by Marina Carr which blends aspects of ancient Greek myth with more modern Irish folklore creating a world of gypsies, witches and ghosts in which this story pays out.
In this adaptation, the Medea figure is represented by Irish tinker Hester Swain, a woman living on a rural Irish bog and facing the fact that everything in her life is slipping away: her man, her child, her home, her heritage. Her younger lover has left her in order to wed a woman who can bring him increased wealth and prestige, and he constantly threatens to part Hester from their child in order to raise the girl in his new, more privileged world. The play opens at dawn on the fateful wedding day, and we watch the lengths Hester goes to as she fights like a hellcat not to lose what belongs to her as horrific secrets from the past reveal themselves.
For me, Holly Hunter was note perfect in her performance: darkly humorous, spurned and sympathetic at times, yet as vicious as a wildcat as she is forced to be and at times utterly breathtaking in her desperation to reclaim the life she feels is hers by right. I loved being able to see such an accomplished film actress as Hunter up close and it was the power of her performance that pushed me through this production.
As it isn’t perfect: there is so much talking in here rather than doing, that it was hard to maintain full attention. After about an hour, all we had really ascertained was that we were in Ireland, in a bog full of weird characters. Even once the events of the wedding had started, the wordiness dominated so that scenes were mostly static rather than full of the energy that should have driven the play onwards. The rest of the company did well to keep up with Hunter’s epic performance, Sorcha Cusack’s kindly neighbour, Trevor Cooper’s blustering father of the young bride and Bríd Brennan’s portentous Catwoman.
It is hard to be fully objective about this play as so much of my pleasure was directly derived from watching Hunter submerge herself in this role and I have a bit of an aunt-crush on Sorcha Cusack too, so I was all too willing to overlook the weaknesses in the play and just enjoy the acting.
Gaffer! at the Southwark Playhouse is the story of George, a star footballer-turned-manager of Northbridge Town, a struggling League Two side whose fortunes look set to change with a takeover from an ex-record producer and a great run in the FA Cup. But change isn’t always for the best and when he is caught in a compromising situation with the new young team hero and the certainties of his world begin to crumble.
As a black comedy, in describing the trials of managing a football team from the lower divisions and the randomness that George has to deal with in its collection of peculiar characters around the ground and in the dressing room, it is extremely funny, as it is when replicating the bizarre touchline antics of football managers. And it is also good at depicting the clash between the thoroughly old-school George who is all about the football and the new chairman with his modernising ways and vision of the club as a money-making machine.
But it also tackles the thorny issue of the rampant homophobia in the world of football and this is where Deka Walmsley’s performance really is impressive in showing the turmoil of a man fighting the tsunami of intolerance from everyone in his world, the endless hounding from the press, all the while having to deal with his own repressed sexuality which he has not come to terms with.
Altogether, it came across as a potent piece of drama, incredibly gripping given that it was a one-man show, but all the more powerful for its even-handedness in its treatment of its subject matter. Chibnall’s writing steers clear of judgement on either side or reaching for the easy solutions with a subject that is agonisingly real, in that even in today’s society, there are no openly gay footballers in the Premiership and the tragic story of Justin Fashanu’s suicide after he was the first to come out is still painfully fresh.
Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is a show that has a special place in my heart: I’ve sung in primary school productions, played the piano for high school productions and seen it countless times so I struggle to see how other people can actually have gotten through life without seeing it at least once! And when I find people in my life who have escaped it thus far, I do try my best to drag them along, the regular changing of its lead star meaning that there’s something new and different for me as well.
Currently wearing the Dreamcoat is former Steps star H, otherwise known as Ian Watkins, who takes the lead role in Bill Kenwright’s production which is currently residing at the New London Theatre. Watkins transfers much of his chirpy pop persona to the stage very well, strong and secure in his singing but managing a commanding leading man presence too, engaging well with the audience but reining in the excesses to ensure we have the requisite emotion too.
There’s enthusiastic support from the ensemble especially Vivienne Carlyle as a clear-voiced narrator, but the company is too small to be really effective as a proper West End musical in a big theatre: there’s noticeable doubling up even within the brothers, there aren’t enough women to balance out the sound, being so familiar with the score I wasn’t keen on the changes that have been made to accommodate this with a loss of many solos and all in all, it just doesn’t feel value for money.
To be frank, the production looks cheap and shoddy, and doesn’t quite make enough of its homespun virtues to be able to get away with it. This is exacerbated by the endless encores, repeated songs and megamixes that make up the finale of the show which goes on well beyond tolerable levels: I don’t think people mind a short show as long as they have been entertained, and padding it out in this way simply highlights the uncertainty of the producers that there is actually enough here to satisfy.
So a big disappointment for me: this feels like a show that is resting on its laurels somewhat and relying on its reputation and the familiarity that so much of the audience will have with so many of the songs. It simply doesn’t make enough effort to reinvigorate the material despite the best efforts of Watkins and the rest of the cast.
Marking Dame Judi Dench’s return to the RSC after many years away, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare lesser performed plays, transferred to London from the Swan in Stratford. It is called a problem play as it is neither fully comedy nor tragedy but a curious mixture of fairytale-like wonder, cold realism and gritty humour. Helena loves the arrogant Bertram, son of the Countess of Rousillon, but the only way she can gain him as a husband is as a reward for curing the King of France of a terrible ailment. He reacts badly to being forced into marriage with someone of lowly birth and so runs away to Italy to join the wars but not before fixing two fiendishly difficult conditions to their marriage, things he believes Helena will never be able to achieve but he does not count on her tenacity.
Even in a relatively minor part, which the Countess is it has to be said, Dench is a mesmerising performer, she manages so much with such economy of performance, the simplest gesture or twitch of the face speaks volumes and as the matriarch of the piece, she oozes a compassion and wisdom that makes a firm bedrock for the production. Gary Waldhorn as the King of France does well though as the most senior male character, rising from his sickbed to become an inspirational leader.
As the ‘romantic’ leads, I felt Jamie Glover suffered a little from Bertram’s limitations as a character, playing the cold arrogance well but not really doing enough to justify Helena’s enduring passion for him. This was exacerbated by a stellar performance from Claudie Blakley who brought such perky energy and likeability to another potentially problematic role, but creating something original and believable and utterly watchable. The rest of the company were fine, especially the soldiers in the scene where Parolles is hoodwinked into revealing his true colours and Guy Henry’s performance here actually managed to squeeze a little sympathy for this rogue despite his despicable behaviour and came close to stealing the show.
The production values were classy in their simplicity, the set cleverly designed and the costumes beautifully put together in dark greys with luxurious flashes of gold and copper and altogether, it made for a beautiful night’s entertainment. The only slight problem was Judi Dench’s scratchy throat but she struggled manfully on and had minions with glasses of water at her beck and call which was actually quite amusing to watch, summoned as they were with a mere flick of a wrist.
Tell Me On A Sunday is a funny beast, not quite a full musical, more of a song cycle as it has now been divested of its other dance-based half in its original form as Song & Dance to create this vehicle for Denise Van Outen. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music and Don Black’s lyrics have now been blessed with updated new material from comedian Jackie Clune, showing that broken hearts and disappointments are still just as easy to come by, if not more so, in the 21st century.
Our leading lady is a girl from Ilford who, when she discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her, relocates to New York for a fresh start and a whole new set of men to be unlucky in love with as time and time again, she find the perfect guy, tells everyone back home about him and then it goes pear-shaped. The set is on a revolve with an ever-changing set of props that evoke the range of locations, helped by projections onto the walls, as we move from England to the USA, from date to date, from New York to LA. It fills the stage well, but there is the ever-present nagging sense that the material here is paper-thin. There’s no real attempt to make its leading lady anything more than a dumb blonde, or show any real depth to her, any sense of her learning from her mistakes. Like the Duracell bunny, she just gets back up and keeps on going same as before.
Consequently it needs star quality to deliver it some weight and fortunately Van Outen rises to the challenge in a star-making performance. Vocally, she is strong at everything: the anger of Let’s Talk About You, the tenderness of Come Back With The Same Look, the playfulness of Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad and best of all, a hushed version of Unexpected Song which is probably the loveliest thing I have heard all year. She really controls the stage well though, taking us through the ups and downs and more downs of her romantic life and remaining utterly convincing throughout. She really sells the whole damn thing and deserved the wild reception when the curtain finally came down.
So can I recommend this to people? I am really not sure. If you like Lloyd-Webber’s stuff and/or Denise Van Outen, then this will be perfect for you as it involves someone at the top of her game delivering the goods superbly. For casual viewers though it might be too much of an ask and at these ticket prices, it is too slight and insubstantial a piece to justify what they are charging, no matter the quality.
Marking my first visit to the National Theatre since moving to London, His Girl Friday is a play which has been adapted by John Guare from 2 sources: the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the 1940 film adaptation His Girl Friday by Howard Hawks which inverted the gender of the lead protagonist. Thus a madcap romantic element to this story of energetic newshound Hildy Johnson and her editor (and ex-husband) Walter Burns who will stop at nothing to stop her impending wedding to another man. In the midst of all of this is the scoop of the century which Hildy cannot resist as she revels in the world of cutthroat journalism.
As the central couple, Zoë Wanamaker and Alex Jennings were simply fabulous, the electricity between them just crackles with suppressed sexual energy as it is clear that this couple really does belong together and their fights full of whip-sharp wisecracks and putdowns are a joy to watch as the intersection of their professional and personal relationships makes for a whole lotta farcical fun and they are both excellent at showing how dog-eat-dog their world is.
The supporting cast was full of brilliantly observed cameos, chief of which was Margaret Tyzack’s feisty mother-in-law-to-be who was scene-stealingly funny every time she appeared. Nathan Osgood’s ridiculous reporter, Harry Towb’s corrupt mayor and Nicola Stephenson’s moll were all good value for money too.
Altogether it was a great show, huge amounts of fun to watch and quite ingenious in its staging, playing like a black and white film in a nod to its origins with its reporters’ room and court sets and its monochromatic palette. And with Jennings and Wanamaker working wonders at the centre of the play, it was a great re-introduction to the National Theatre.
Not much more to say about this as the production is largely the same as that which we saw at the National but enjoyed so much that I wanted to take my little sister who was visiting for the weekend. The major change was a sadly enforced one as one of the actors Denis Quilley died of cancer just before the transfer opened, but there’s also a few new faces in the ensemble.
I think I might even have preferred it this time round, it suits the ‘proper’ theatre building it is now housed in and knowing what to expect meant my anticipation levels were sky-high (and fortunately met). This is definitely the kind of theatre I love and hope to see much more of now I live in London: who knows, I might even try and sneak in another visit to this!