Review: The Beaux’ Stratagem, National Theatre

“A man dare not play the tyrant in London, because there are so many examples to encourage the subject to rebel.”

It may be The Beaux’ Stratagem but it is Mrs Sullen’s play. The most striking thing about Simon Godwin’s production of George Farquhar’s final Restoration comedy is its determinedly proto-feminist stance as Mrs Sullen – an independently wealthy woman now desperately unhappily married – is given surprising agency to express herself in a meaningful way and attempt to extricate herself from her situation. And in Susannah Fielding’s superbly silken performance, she’s exquisitely played as an almost tragicomic figure, endlessly entertaining in the raucous romping around but as Jon Clark’s lighting picks her out at the end of each act, capable of holding the entire Olivier theatre’s hearts in her hands.

The beaux ain’t too bad either. Farquhar’s plot centres on their attempts to marry into money after squandering their fortunes in London. Hoping news of their disgrace hasn’t reached the provinces, they head north and stop off in Lichfield, pretending to be master and servant, where their attentions fall on a rich young heiress and her unhappily married sister-in-law. Samuel Barnett’s Aimwell and Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Archer are a witty pair of fellows indeed, with a cracking line in beautifully cut overcoats too, as their avaricious adventures are soon overturned by amorous attentions as they can’t help but fall head over well-turned heel for their marks. Continue reading “Review: The Beaux’ Stratagem, National Theatre”

Re-review: Great Britain, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“They weren’t lies, they were well researched stories that later turned out not to be true”

Just a quickie for this unexpected revisit to Great Britain. I hadn’t intended to go back to this Richard Bean play, which made a rapid transfer from the National Theatre to the Theatre Royal Haymarket after its up-to-the-minute emergence on the schedule after the culmination of a certain trial involving a certain Eastender-star-bashing redhead. But the offer of a good ticket and the chance to see Lucy Punch – of whom I’ve heard much but never seen on stage – tempted me once again into this murky world of tabloid junkies.

My original review can be read here and if anything, I think I might have been a little kind to it. The play hasn’t aged well, even in the six months since it opened as the fast-moving world of political, institutional and journalistic scandal moves on so quickly IRL that this fictional version already seems quaint. Add in that its bite has been evidently neutered by legal threats and its intelligence barely scrapes the surface of the ethical issues at hand, and it’s a bit of a damn squib for me. Punch was good though.

Review: Great Britain, National Theatre

 “That’s what we do, we destroy lives…but it’s on your behalf, because you like to read about it”

It’s not quite Beyoncé releasing her latest album without prior notice but it’s not far off. Richard Bean’s new play for the National was something of an open secret even if its specifics were unknown but still, announcing it with five days’ notice and no previews is a pretty bold move. What Great Britain has going for it though is a right-up-to-the-minute immediacy as Bean responds with speed to the scandals that have engulfed certain sections of the tabloid media in recent times and a court case that may or may not have just reached a verdict…

We’re in a satirical, pseudo-recognisable world – a ratings-hungry red-top (called The Free Press) is owned by a foreign-born media mogul who wants to buy a television station (an Irishman called Paschal O’Leary if you will) and has a fiercely ambitious news editor at its helm (a blonde woman called Paige Britain, she didn’t say she was “vindicated” so I have no idea who she was meant to be…). Manipulating their way to a position of huge influence with both Police and Parliament under their thumb, it seems nothing could go wrong. That is, until a little thing called phone hacking breaks into the national consciousness. Continue reading “Review: Great Britain, National Theatre”

Review: Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre

“No-one has time for other people’s troubles in a city”

It’s a rare occasion that I get to go to the theatre not knowing anything about a show in advance and so when the opportunity comes, it makes for a nice change. And in this case a huge surprise as Emil and the Detectives turned out to be a show with a cast full of kids! I now know that Erich Kästner’s 1929 novel is a much beloved children’s classic, though it never found a home on my bookshelf, and adapted here by Carl Miller, the tale of smalltown boy Emil going on a life-changing journey through the scary metropolis of Berlin and finding an unexpected solidarity with an army of street kids – the Detectives – is a solid entry in the National’s roster of family shows.

On the face of it, Bijan Sheibani seems an odd choice of director, an undoubtedly patchy track record leaving huge question marks but the National’s faith has been largely repaid here with a mercifully flaming skeleton-free production. Bunny Christie’s set design is a glorious masterpiece, using Constructivist angles and a stark spareness to allow for a range of different atmospheres and locations to be evoked, and the collaboration with Sheibani really pays off in key moments when the simplest solution is often used to great effect. Lucy Carter’s precise lighting comes into play in ingenious chase scenes with Ian Dickinson’s sound adding suitably creepy notes. Continue reading “Review: Emil and the Detectives, National Theatre”

Review: People, National Theatre

“People spoil things”

Were I watching Alan Bennett’s new play People at home on DVD, I would probably make it a drinking game, with a shot to be taken every time the title appears. Except it wouldn’t last very long at all, no matter how strong your liver, as it is repeated, repeated and repeated in this lament for the fading fortunes of the English aristocracy. Dorothy Stacpoole, a former model who now lives a semi-reclusive life with her companion Iris, is being forced to decide the fate of her near-decrepit South Yorkshire stately home: should some of the contents be sold on to private investors, who are also interested in buying the whole house, or should it be given to the National Trust, who Bennett has decided to take aim at with this piece of writing.

In an incredibly slow-moving opening 30 minutes or so, it becomes apparent that Dorothy – Frances De La Tour oozing hauteur – favours the former option, whilst her Archdeacon sister June is determined that it should be the latter. Bennett rails against the commodification of history and the creation of ‘experiences’ but curiously he makes Dorothy the mouthpiece with her fears of having people traipsing through her home and disrupting her life. Quite why we’re expected to feel sympathy for this poor little (formerly) rich girl whose inability to take responsibility has left the house, and her life, in the state it is in, I’m not sure. Continue reading “Review: People, National Theatre”

Review: 13, National Theatre

“Over the last year, it feels like it’s all falling apart…in this country…across the world…”

Mike Bartlett can probably lay claim to being one of the most interesting new British playwrights to emerge this century, steadily building his oeuvre of plays that pick at modern life and expose its shortcomings… And as his profile increases, so too have the stature of the commissions, moving from the Royal Court – where I saw his Cock  – to the Cottesloe at the National Theatre with last year’s Earthquakes in London and now graduating to the Olivier – the youngest writer in 10 years to be staged there – with his latest new play 13.

What is it all ‘about’ I hear you say. Well if that question is foremost in your mind then it is likely that you may be disappointed with 13, as it eschews a conventional sense of narrative for the creation of apocalyptic foreboding in a contemporary London that feels all too realistic. For it is a piece of writing that feels incredibly pertinent, full of up-to-the-minute references to public disorder, social media, student riots and the Arab Spring, concerning a society wracked with disturbing dreams and a crippling uncertainty. What Bartlett alights on is the importance of belief, not necessarily in God but having some conviction that things will be ok if we trust our instincts, and the succour that is gained from collecting as a group behind such beliefs. Continue reading “Review: 13, National Theatre”

Re-Review: The Habit of Art, National Theatre

“I don’t prey on boys…”

Given how much theatre I like to get to see, it is very rare that I go to see plays for a second time, much less those with which I wasn’t wholly enamoured first time round, but circumstances conspired to get me back to the Lyttleton with an old friend from far away to see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. The show has returned with a new cast for a brief residency here before a nationwide tour, taking in 9 cities in the UK.

You can read my thoughts on the original production here but I’ll quickly recap here for you. Through an imagined meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten, Bennett’s canvas covers a huge range of issues, the nature of creativity and what to do when the inspiration stops, following these two artists dealing with their homosexuality and growing old in their own ways. It also looks at the ethics of biography, the role of the National Theatre and the generation of all kinds of arts, so weighty stuff! When it works it is brilliant, but it must be said there are also times when it doesn’t quite click. Continue reading “Re-Review: The Habit of Art, National Theatre”

Review: The Habit of Art, National

“I want to hear about the failings of great men”

The Habit of Art
is Alan Bennett’s first new play since the juggernaut that was The History Boys and is his fifth for the National Theatre in total. Having sold out its first run in a matter of weeks, this world premiere has been eagerly anticipated, despite the late withdrawal of one of its main stars, Michael Gambon, due to minor ill health.

The premise of this play is around an imagined meeting between old friends Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) and W.H. Auden (Richard Griffiths taking over from Gambon) as Britten is seeking advice and reassurance about his new opera, Death in Venice. However, this is not all Bennett wants to talk about, so he uses the framing device of us being backstage at a theatre watching the rehearsal of a new play about this meeting, as witnessed by Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), a man who was later to write biographies about both of them. Thus the stage is set for an examination of the creative process of collaboration, whether between these two legendary figures or between the acting company representing them. Continue reading “Review: The Habit of Art, National”

Review: Her Naked Skin, National Theatre

Much of the talk about Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play Her Naked Skin has focused on the rather shameful fact that it is the first play by a female writer to be staged on the main Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Which whilst true and a definite achievement in itself, should not detract from the fact that this is a really rather sensationally good play.

Set in the Suffragette Movement in London in 1913 with excitement in the air as victory can be tasted, but times have never been more frenzied or dangerous as militant tendencies are at their strongest and many women are experiencing jail time on a regular basis. Lenkiewicz pitches the continuance of this struggle against the more personal story of Lady Celia Cain, bored in life and with her traditional marriage and family, who launches into a passionate lesbian love affair with a much younger, much more lower-class seamstress whom she shares a cell with and soon much more. As the affair hots up, so too does the political climate as emancipation comes closer to becoming a reality. Continue reading “Review: Her Naked Skin, National Theatre”