Review: Life is a Dream, Donmar

“Is the craft of our mind’s eye so skilful in its artistry, the fake becomes the thing itself?”

Written in 1635 by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La Vida Es Sueño is considered one of the most significant plays in Spanish literature and enjoys a stature similar to Hamlet. It is presented here at the Donmar Warehouse in a new translation and version by Helen Edmundson and entitled Life is a Dream. Despite being nearly 500 years old, its central issues of the nature of reality and the possibilities of freedom in a cruel world have a remarkably current feel.

Set in Poland, the play focuses on Segismundo, played here by Dominic West, the young heir to the throne who has spent his life imprisoned in a tower because omens foretold that he would one day overthrow his father, the king. Given the chance to prove fate wrong and released into court, the prince lives up to his savage reputation and so is swiftly returned to jail where he is persuaded that all he thought he saw was a dream, hence the title. When he is then released a second time, events take a different turn as Segismundo has matured and learned about the consequences of his actions, especially as a future king, but also he realises that if indeed life is a dream, then it should be lived to the full.

West is excellent here as Segismundo, equally convincing as the unsocialised animal unequipped to deal with freedom, crouching in his throne but also as the courtly heir to the throne his father so desperately wants him to be, with all the statesman-like froideur necessary in a king. Also superb was David Horovitch as the courtier who provides the link between the main plot and the sub-plot who dealt with his countless speeches of exposition with aplomb.

This version mainly uses blank verse with numerous long speeches (mainly in the first half) which threatened to slow down the action intolerably, but once the scene has been well and truly set, the pacing remained admirably swift. Helping this was a surprising amount of humour throughout the play, and not just from the designated clown, Clarin: Kate Fleetwood imbued her indignant Rosaura with a great humanity which frequently brought laugh-out-loud moments from a sub-plot that sometimes seemed a little unnecessary, hers was a cracking performance though. As the aforementioned clown Clarin, Lloyd Hutchinson brings a great sen
se of levity to proceedings, with a very modern feeling comic turn, and I also enjoyed Rupert Evans’ preening Astolfo. The only disappointment for me was with Malcolm Storry’s King Basilio, a performance which I found to be underpowered and not quite regal enough.

Angela Davies’s design is starkly simple, with a highly effective back wall coated in gold leaf which shines to reflect the prevailing mood: sometimes a bright gold; sometimes an ominous deep red. The lighting by Neil Austin and Dominic Haslam’s eerie score also combine to create the requisite atmosphere of isolation needed for the prison scenes and indeed Segismundo’s dominant feelings.

This is a production which lives up to the Donmar’s usual high standard, and even when the play seems to be heading for a saccharine sweet happy ending, the final couple of twists leaves a sufficient ambiguity to make it bittersweet at best. And the final chilling image of a slumped chained prisoner is one which echoes earlier imprisonments, perhaps indicating that one man’s dream can be another man’s nightmare.

Review: Little Fish, Finborough

“I had never known what I was really like until I stopped smoking, by which time there was hell to pay”

I was looking forward to this, if only because it was my first trip to the Finborough Theatre: tucked away in Earl’s Court, this tiny fringe theatre has a sterling reputation and always has a hgihly varied programme, so off I went along the District Line to see what all the fuss was about. The play in question was Little Fish, advertised as the European premiere of a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa (a great name for a playwright, obviously I need to change mine so that I too can write musicals, Foster just ain’t exciting enough!)

The story is based on 2 short stories by Deborah Eisenberg, and revolves around a single New York gal, Charlotte, whose decision to give up smoking leads her down a path of startling self-realisation, as she comes to terms with her troubled past to try and deal with her current unhappiness and finally learn how to enjoy life in the city. It is presented in an episodic form, with key scenes from Charlotte’s past being interspersed throughout the modern day storyline of her trying to find activities to help keep her off the tobacco. I loved this portrayal of urban life as it felt so much more authentic than any number of television shows would have us believe, and the difficulties in maintaining friendships in the face particularly rang true.
If I am being picky, I think there could have been more differentiation between the flashback scenes and the modern-day action. As admirable as the pacing was throughout the swift 90 minutes, it sometimes took me a little too long to work out exactly when we were, though this is only a minor quibble. The larger question that I had concerned whether the ‘little fish’ concept really worked or not, i.e. Charlotte being a little fish in the big pond of NY and learning not to ‘swim alone’. During the swimming scenes it worked ok, but almost every other time it was mentioned, the references felt forcibly shoe-horned in and didn’t fit smoothly with the rest of the scenes. For me, this theme was overplayed and in the end, was not even necessary as the story stood up for itself even without this motif overlayed on the narrative.
LaChiusa clearly has a talent for writing multi-part songs and the opening number was absolutely superb, with some great choreography thrown in there, despite the tiny stage. Personally I would have preferred a few more of these bigger numbers, but Julia Worsley’s central performance as Charlotte is excellent, being unafraid to be spiky and believably unlikeable in her Sondheim-like solo numbers, and slowly beginning to thaw out during the process of self-discovery and the warmer songs of the final third. Elsewhere, as the best friend Kathy, Laura Pitt-Pulford was provided great support, as did the under-utilised Lee William-Davis as the gay friend, but the hardest working seemed to be Ashley Campbell who played a number of minor roles in very quick succession.
I certainly enjoyed my first trip to the Finborough, there’s a great pub downstairs with some extremely friendly bar staff. Little Fish itself was an intriguing experience: by no means perfect, but diverting and entertaining enough, to earn a recommendation. And quite frankly, any play that features onstage eating of pierogi and the dance move ‘the running man’ is a keeper!

Top five plays of October

Here’s my top 5 plays for the month of October

1. The Spanish Tragedy
2. Inherit the Wind
3. Judgment Day
4. Power of Yes
5. An Inspector Calls

And the top 20 of the year so far

1. Our Class
2. When The Rain Stops Falling
3. Hello, Dolly!
4. La Cage Aux Folles
5. A Streetcar Named Desire
6. Arcadia
7. A Doll’s House
8. Enron
9. The Pietà
10. Duet For One
11. Hamlet
12. Sister Act
13. The Last Five Years
14. Burnt By The Sun
15. Parlour Song
16. All’s Well That Ends Well
17. The Cherry Orchard
18. The Spanish Tragedy
19. Inherit The Wind
20. Speaking in Tongues

Review: Inherit The Wind, Old Vic

“I don’t want to believe that we come from monkeys and apes, but I guess that’s kinda besides the point”
Inherit The Wind is a courtroom drama, based on the true life story of a Tennessee schoolteacher who was threatened with imprisonment for teaching Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution, in direct contravention of school policy. A highly strung court case then follows, pitching creationists against evolutionists, and bringing two legal titans to a small town in Tennessee to argue the case, the ramifications of which clearly extend beyond that classroom in the Deep South. Its timing seems uncanny: even on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species, a highly recommended (by me at least) film Creation, about Darwin’s struggles with his own faith as he wrote it, has not been able to find a distributor in the US because it is considered too ‘controversial’ in a country where allegedly barely a third of the population actually believe in evolution.
The scale of this production really is admirably epic: the staging is superb, with the Old Vic’s stage being opened up to a great depth (you could probably fit the stage for Annie Get Your Gun on there 15 times over!), the already healthy cast is ably bolstered by a phalanx of supernumaries, bringing the total company to 50 bodies who bring an authentic air of claustrophobic small-town living to several scenes, most notably the prayer meeting just before the trial. The use of hymns sung by the company during scene changes further reinforces this strong sense of a community joined by the power of their faith.
Such largesse however does need to be matched by strong acting, and in the two leads of David Troughton as the Bible-bashing and frustrated politician Matthew Harrison Brady and Kevin Spacey as the more free-thinking and sharply comic Henry Drummond, Inherit The Wind more than delivers with two powering, barn-storming performances. It is a sheer delight to watch these two go at each other during the trial scene which is worth the ticket price alone, but they both delivered throughout, Troughton’s subtle hints of humanity through the bluster of his people-pleaser just edging it for me. And in a sea of supporting roles, Mark Dexter as the sceptical visiting journalist was a standout for me, with a cracking line about rancid butter that I can’t quite fully recall.
As for the play itself, whilst it contains little in terms of intellectual debate on the key issues (or maybe because of this) it is highly entertaining, and offers a strong argument for tolerance in an ever-more polarised world. My only real criticism would be the use of a real monkey on stage. I felt it added nothing of value to the performance, and it looked desperately unhappy, clutching onto the leash about its neck throughout: I’m not even particularly an animal lover, but this made me sad. That aside, I would highly recommend this show (and then go and see Creation at the cinema).

Review: Pains of Youth, National

“People should just shoot themselves at 17. Everything after is a disappointment.”

Written by Ferdinand Bruckner, the alias of the German Theodor Tagger, in 1929, Pains of Youth enters the rep at the Cottesloe Theatre and is the latest play to be directed at the NT by Katie Mitchell, known for her interpretative style and creative use of multimedia techniques, but only the former is in evidence here. It is presented in a new version by Martin Crimp, thereby renewing the creative partnership with Mitchell which has seen recent productions of works like The Seagull and Attempts on her Life, both also at the NT.
It is described as shocking and erotically-charged, which instantly means that it is neither of these things. Set in a Viennese boarding-house in 1923, a group of medical students negotiate the trials and tribulations of their sexually entangled lives, against the backdrop of the recently ended First World War. With an ever-revolving carousel of relationships and interactions, all are struggling to escape the disillusionment of their existence, but choose wildly different paths in order to achieve this.
The six students and one maid make up quite a dislikeable bunch of protagonists, there’s a lot of self-indulgent flailing around and ridiculous posturing: “you only make love to your pain” being a personal favourite. This is not a problem in itself, but for the fact that their alleged decadence in their post-war malaise is really quite dull and I did not find it at all engaging, so I couldn’t have cared less about any of them. For all the promise of erotic charge, there was very little sexual chemistry on stage between any of the characters, only Geoffrey Streatfeild coming close to exuding the necessary magnetism for his cruelly manipulative Freder.

The staging of the Viennese drawing room is quite traditional, given Mitchell’s pedigree, but where her influence is apparent is in the manner of the scene changes. The action periodically freezes onstage and besuited, futuristic Men-In-Black types appear to rearrange the sets, producing new props in little plastic bags and popping the props from the just-ended scene in bags as well before departing the stage and allowing the action to proceed. It is extremely random, but I thought it added a kooky sense of puppetry to the production, these actors on stage are just being manipulated by an unknown body, towards their ultimate destinies.

However, there is an awful lot of this messing around with the plastic bags, and whilst the artier side of me could kind of see where they were going with this, the length it took to bag up every flower and teacup in the big scene change in Act 1 nearly drove me to just leaning over, grabbing one of the plastic bags and smothering myself so that I didn’t have to sit
through any more.
If the idea of people from the future putting on a fatally dull puppet show in which little of any interest happens, then this is the show for you. I couldn’t really tell what Bruckner (or Crimp’s) intent was in terms of story-telling: assuming this was the generation that was instrumental in allowing the rise of Nazism ten years later, the potential for an interesting look at the genesis of their complicity is surely there, but just not in a trite look at their bedhopping. Personally, I would save your money and look at your own plastic bags

Review: The Turn Of The Screw, Coliseum

“There is nothing to fear here. Nothing could go wrong…”

Britten’s opera, The Turn of the Screw, is based on the novella by Henry James and is about an idealistic but inexperienced governess sent to care for two children, Flora and Miles, at an English estate. Returning to the Coliseum for six performances after a successful 2007 run, this production maintains three of its original cast, and a conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, who last conducted this opera in 1956!

Essentially, this is a Victorian ghost story, albeit one which much ambiguity and the suggestion of a harrowing past of child abuse. At first, the governess is charmed by her charges and comforted by the companionability of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Soon, however, ominous things begin to happen, and the governess encounters what seem to be the ghosts of two former employees: the last governess Mrs. Jessel and Peter Quint the former master’s valet. There is a hint that something unsavory happened between the children and these domestics, but this has not ended, despite their deaths, leading the current governess to pursue the truth, regardless of the consequences.

Britten’s spooky score was performed with diamond precision by the chamber orchestra, the air of tension never far away, and a number of excellent solos were impressive. Rebecca Evans as the governess was superb, her voice being equally strong no matter where on the register she wa singing, and she brought real emotion to her every word. Elsewhere, I was particularly fond of Ann Murray’s Mrs Grose, her starched performance perfectly suiting the role of the disbelieving housekeeper. And Nazan Fikret and Charlie Manton as the two children more than held their own against these seasoned professionals, and I have to mention Manton’s extremely impressive piano playing miming which from my seat looked extremely convincing.

The staging is very sparse, brilliantly evocative of a Victorian horror story from the start (never has a rocking-horse seemed so creepy) and transitions between scenes were excellently executed by a number of a silent maids and butlers and an ingenious system of a series of sliding panels which never seemed intrusive. The lighting was also particlarly effective in creating the requisite haunted mood of this archetypal English stately home and in creating a real sense of intimacy on a massive stage.

James’ original novella has long been the source of much debate, and this leads to the only real problem that I had with this production. There are numerous interpretations of the story, mostly around whether the ghosts are really there or just part of the Governess’ imagination, and I felt that here, they were trying to have the best of both worlds and maintain the ambiguity too much. The extent to which the ghosts interacted with the children and indeed sing, strongly suggests their malevolent presence as something of the supernatural. However, Evans’ portrayal of the anguished Governess often tended to the desperate side with much crumpling to the ground and combined with Miles’ flirtatiousness, this left me feeling like they were making the case for it all being in her head. Certainly though, this production does not shy away from considering her equally responsible for the final tragedy, no matter what form this particular evil took.

Review: An Inspector Calls

“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”
Despite being a much-lauded and much-travelled production, and a mainstay of many a GCSE English Lit exam, An Inspector Calls has completely passed me by until now, my first engagement with this play. Time and the Conways at the National was my first Priestley play earlier this year, so I was interested to see another of his plays, especially one so well known. Representing the other side of the coin was my companion for the evening, Aunty Jean a former English teacher who knew the play inside out, so we had the makings of an intriguing night at the theatre.
JB Priestley’s period thriller, adapted here by Stephen Daldry, opens in 1912 with the self-satisfied Birling family celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft. Oozing wealth and pomposity, Arthur Birling takes the opportunity to share his theories on money and success along with the glories of being on the right side of the social divide. Interrupting this cozy evening strides Inspector Goole, who informs them a young local girl has killed herself just hours before. As he quizzes them about her sacking, pregnancy and suicide, the previously composed family gradually falls apart as various revelations about their involvement with the girl come to the surface and how each of them contributed to her downfall.

The set is a sight to behold with an exaggerated sense of perspective adding a disorienting effect, but the Birlings’ house is really something else. Throughout the play, the house visually represents the fortunes of the family in a way that took me completely by surprise! Perched on stilts, with dolls-house dimensions, the house perfectly exemplifies the social hierarchy that affords the Birlings’ their upper-class arrogance and lack of a sense of responsibility. And this is what really shines through in this production, is the indictment of the way in which the upper and middle classes have treated their working class brethren.

Less clear to me was the setting of the play in different time periods: I think we reached the consensus that although the family and their house were in 1912, the rest of the set, and so the world that the Birlings were interacting with was actually 1944 (when the play was written), suggesting that the actions of society in 1912 were responsible for the terrible events of the two World Wars. Although looking back on it, I wonder whether Daldry’s intention wasn’t to indicate simply that the upper classes hadn’t learned their lesson even then.

Still, this was a surprisingly enjoyable evening out. Strong ensemble acting, stirring Hitchcockian music, and the noir-ish staging made this an impressive production, with a timely reminder that we must never forget our social consciences and the way in which we treat those around us, especially those less fortunate.

Review: The Spanish Tragedy, Arcola

“Vengeance is mine. Ay, heaven will revenged of every ill”
The Spanish Tragedy was written by Thomas Kyd in the 16th century and is regarded as one of the first ever examples of the revenge tragedy. Kyd’s play proved to be highly influential on other Elizabethan writers such as Marlowe, Jonson and indeed Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular takes much inspiration from several key elements of this play. It is presented here at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, one of the most interesting fringe venues in London, with a great cafe and bar for pre/post-show interactions.

In the aftermath of a bloody war, the royal leaders of war-torn Spain and Portugal plan a marriage between their families in the hope of forging peace. But the bride already has a secret lover. When he is murdered to make way for the new groom, his father Hieronimo is forced down a brutal path of vengeance from which there is no return. Watched throughout by the ghost of a soldier and Revenge, personified here by a chillingly played, creepy little girl, there seems no doubt about the inexorable path of vengeance that Hieronimo takes, the implication being that their supernatural influence is guiding the grieving father. Yet the heart of the play is more about the human reaction to being wronged, and the pervasive need for retribution, no matter the consequences.

As Hieronimo, Dominic Rowan is entirely captivating. In the intimate space of the Arcola, there’s nowhere to hide and subsequently no escaping the intensity of the emotion that he shows, from the sorrow at the death of his son to his anger at the complicity of the royal family to the unnatural calm demonstrated during the execution of his final revenge. Initially a quiet man of words, he is forced to the fore by painful events and his clamour for revenge and the slow realisation that actions speak so much more loudly than words is really quite hard to watch, yet still engrossing. Elsewhere, I was bewitched by Charlie Covell’s mellifluous tones, her speaking voice is gorgeous (even more so in French) making her Belimperia a painfully tragic figure, unable to manoeuvre out of the machinations of those around her, including Patrick Myles’ ambitious and conniving Lorenzo. Keith Bartlett, Guy Williams and Richard Clews lend real gravitas through their senior royal roles, making this a very well-rounded company, with some doubling going on as well.

It is performed in modern dress, which works for the most part, although the relative anonymity of the various suits proved a little difficult in the opening scenes, when I was struggling a little to distinguish the key players from each other, but armed with a cast list I was soon on top of things. Props and staging are pared down to a minimum, so that when something is produced, which is invariably a weapon or a corpse, it becomes all the more effective. The discovery of Horatio’s suspended bleeding body was a simply sensational scene, hauntingly played by all and one of the most heart-wrenching evocations of grief I’ve seen on the stage. And the final scene, when Hieronimo exacts his final revenge on those who have wronged his family, is as brutal and gory a finale as you will see anywhere.

On a slightly lighter note, the use of the Japanese Kuroko theatre style to present the first play-within-the-play was ingenious and provided a welcome comedic respite in the midst of the bleakness: it really does command a huge level of respect for the performers who have taken on this challenge whilst also playing roles in the play itself. And I think this is indicative of the joys of seeing theatre on the fringes, you have the opportunity to witness epic theatre up close and have the kind of intense experience, suffused with an inventive spin, that you rarely get in the West End. Highly recommended!

Images taken from

Review: Cymbeline, Arts

“Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”

One of William Shakespeare’s later, and lesser well-known plays, Cymbeline is presented here at the Arts Theatre by the National Youth Theatre, in a rare sojourn out of their regular summer performances.

It is not really hard to see why Cymbeline is one of the lesser known works of the Bard. The story feels like a random selection of typical Shakespearean events, flung together haphazardly, and then tied up with a bow at the end in a rather laboured fashion. There’s cross-dressing princesses, wagers about virtue, long-lost princes, potions that feign death, wicked stepmothers, lifelong betrayals, all things that hark back to previous works and little that felt fresh here, not least because of the confusing tone of the play. Continue reading “Review: Cymbeline, Arts”

Review: The York Realist, Riverside Studios

“Foxes their dens have they
Birds have their nests so gay
But the son of man
Has not where his head may rest.”

The York Realist was one of Peter Gill’s most well-known plays, and was revived at Hammersmith Riverside Studios, a theatre co-founded by Gill, as part of his 70th birthday celebrations.

It tells the story of George, a Yorkshire farm worker content with his lot in life, until his participation in a production of the York Mystery Plays throws open a new world of possibilities and choices. He discovers a talent for acting, and a relationship with the assistant director blossoms, leading him to the chance of a career acting on the stage in London. But his ties to his home life are incredibly strong, most notably in the form of his ailing mother, and George finds himself torn between these two worlds, these opposing facets to his life which he finds impossible to reconcile.

The play works best when it is observing the minutiae of daily living in a small rural community, and Stephanie Fayerman as the mother is wonderful, with lines full of the type of Northern humour espoused by Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett. Stephen Hagan as George is really good, with a great line in dark and brooding suggesting the torment raging beneath the gruff farmer’s exterior, but I was less keen on Matthew Burton’s John, although I suspect that was as much to do with his character as anything. The main problem for me though was that their performances together were basically too convincing: I just didn’t believe that they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) work things out, and that leaving them apart felt very much like a purely dramatic decision to allow for maximum angst.

The set looked authentic, the Yorkshire accents (to this Lancastrian ear) sounded spot on, but somehow I was left wanting more from the play itself. The issues of class and alienation that it raised felt quite hard to engage with, the sense of attachment to the rural way of living did not ring true for me, and I had major problems with the central dilemma to the show. A lot of this is probably to do with the fact that I was brought up in a rural village, and left to pursue my dreams and heart in London at the first opportunity. As a drama, this has a long way to go to persuade me that the alternative was a feasible option!