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!
In the dying heat of a lovely Indian summer, I finished my set of Globe plays by watching the all-female version of The Taming of the Shrew, complementing the all-male shows I had seen earlier in the month. It is a funny choice for this treatment I think as it is such a questionable play in how it treats its heroine, but I suspect this was part of the challenge for the troupe.
The way they get round it is to play up the power struggle side of things and clearly demonstrating that Kate’s submission is in fact much more knowing, a way to keep Petruchio onboard in unknowing bliss, rather than a genuine capitulation. This allows Kathryn Hunter to play with Shakespeare’s text beautifully, pulling out new meanings as Janet McTeer’s blokey arrogance is tolerated with grim smiles.
But even with working it out this way, there was something a little odd about the production. As my first all-female experience, it was a little arresting and it was hard to shake the feeling that too often they were playing ‘men’ rather than the actual characters per se, something the audience lapped up but resulting in a sense of artifice that remained ever-present rather than allowing us to be subsumed in a fully realised world.
A curiosity but not a hugely successful one for me if I’m honest.
So my second trip to the Globe took me to Edward II, a play by Christopher Marlowe which was another all-male production and actually carried over almost the entire cast from Richard II which was a nice touch I hadn’t realised until I got there. I like the idea of a company doing more than one play as it means that the bonds within the group have time to really develop and become something more special than if just for a short run.
Covering most of the key events of Edward II’s reign, the play hooks around the relationship between the King and his favourite, Piers Gaveston who was showered with love, gifts, lands and titles by his royal lover. Though interestingly, the shock value from the play would originally have come from the social/class barriers that were breached rather than the sexual ones, as the barons and lords of the court would have been outraged at the fact that Gaveston was of lowly birth rather than the fact that he was a man. For at the heart of this play is a debate about politics and the lengths to which the establishment will protect what they see as theirs by right.
The relationship between Edward and Gaveston is perfectly played and completely unafraid of being physical. Gerard Kyd as the favourite brings a fabulous energy and a freedom to his movement and behaviour which instantly sets him apart from the rest of the staid court. And with Liam Brennan’s touching King matching him for passion, their’s was a moving, believable relationship. The rather refreshing liberal take on homosexuality both in the play and this production was negated somewhat by the giggling tourist-heavy audience of the Globe though.
But there is much else to the play, with the viciousness that spurned wife and Queen Isabella pursues the downfall of her errant husband’s lover and then the King himself as she takes her own lover, the fiercely ambitious baron Mortimer. Justin Shelvin was convincing as the tyrannical baron, but I wasn’t too sure about Chu Omambala as the Queen, not really hitting the emotional depths of either despair or vengeance, literally being outshone in every sense by Gerard Kyd’s Gaveston. The all-male casting actually didn’t make that much of a difference in the end, which I suppose is the point, it felt natural and worked with the material.
I loved being a groundling again, even with a show that was over three hours, as it was very musical with lots of drums, tribal dancing to represent battles and being up close to the actors makes me feel a little sorry for the people who are sat down on the hard wooden benches!
In a season entitled Regime Change, the all-male company are tackling Richard II, Shakespeare’s fast and loose take on the life of headstrong Richard II, this historical figure whose autocratic rule and unconventional approach to matters of state led to his cousin Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, deposing him with the help of a large faction of his family: this schism forming the basis for the long-running Wars of the Roses. On a personal note, this was my first trip to the Globe and standing in the Yard was the only way to get in so I took a packed lunch and wore some comfortable shoes!
Mark Rylance takes on the title role and it is very much his show and this came across as both a good thing and something of a negative too. He dominates proceedings as this melancholy monarch who is lacking the political nous to deal with the challenges in his kingdom, thereby minimising the role of Bolingbroke somewhat rather than presenting them as two sides of the same coin: for indeed both of these men come to learn the same lessons, about the loneliness of the realities of being king.
I found Rylance to be extremely strong in the emotional scenes as he finally begins to realise the gravity of his situation and though these gained resonance given how his portrayal of Richard as a vain, self-obsessed dandy had played earlier, I did find that his virtuosity to be something of a distraction. He garnered laughs in unexpected places due to the exaggeration of his movements and reactions to events like the death of his uncle, it felt like too thorough a reassessment of the character in order to make him a comic hero, an interpretation that didn’t sit too well with me. He showed the selfishness of the man extremely well but consequently all of this meant he rather hogged the limelight from the rest of the ensemble for me.
John McEnery’s Gaunt and Bill Stewart’s Duke of York were both strong but Liam Brennan’s Bolingbroke suffered a little in the face of such of the focus being pulled from him. And as an all-male company, there was disappointingly little opportunity for much interesting work from those playing women as they do not have substantial roles in this play.
There was perhaps a little too much of the comedy to this particular production than I thought there would be, but this is more a matter of personal expectation than a judgment on the actual show and I’m not sure if I cared for the huge amount of focus on Rylance as a performer given he’s one of an ensemble. But all in all, it was an interesting experience, a great one for a first-timer and I particularly loved the use of period music played live which really helped to build the atmosphere inside the Globe.
Anything Goes is a Cole Porter show, directed here at the National Theatre by Trevor Nunn, which has to be one of the happiest, sunniest ways to spend an evening ever, this feel-good show really does work wonders and should be seen by everyone. Set onboard a cruise liner, there’s a tangled web of romantic intentions with singer Reno in love with Billy who loves Hope who’s engaged to an English Lord who just happens to be keen on Reno. Throw in people running from the law, a minor gangster and his moll and a bunch of tap-happy sailors, plus a generous dollop of schmaltz and everyone’s a winner.
Stephen Mears’ choreography which is played out on a relatively static set, the multi-level deck of the cruise liner, was probably my favourite element of the night, if pushed, the sheer imagination and skill on display is just breath-taking and magnificent to watch – the excellent tap numbers just make me want to learn to do it properly. But there’s no real weaknesses here and Porter’s music is just so full of classic songs that everything is just so irresistible, it really was one of those evenings where I didn’t stop smiling.
John Barrowman – a man who has that kind of matinee idol looks that can only ever be described as handsome – makes a fine Billy, lovable and believable and very fine of voice, his skill at singing Porter’s songs making them feel fresh and new. He had nice chemistry with Mary Stockley’s Hope with whom he shares a number of duets but it is Sally Ann Triplett’s Reno Sweeny who emerges as the star of the night, combining great comedic skills with a belting voice that blows (Gabriel Blows) the show up to heavenly heights.
I don’t think there was a moment of dullness in the entire production though, each number has its own special quality, enlivened by fantastic performances from everyone concerned. Whether its Simon Day’s losing his inhibitions on Gypsy in Me, Annette McLaughlin’s ballsy Erma or Martin Marquez’s highly comic Moonface, the quality in this ensemble really shone through making it a highly enjoyable experience from start to finish.