Review: Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker

“Fear no more the frown o’ the great”

You wait for a production of relatively little-performed Shakespeare play and then three come along in the same year. Melly Still is doing Cymbeline for the RSC in the summer, Emma Rice is reclaiming and renaming it Imogen for her inaugural season at the Globe and inside at the same venue, it is being performed as part of a run of the Bard’s late plays in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Sam Yates.

Ah yes, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I’ve not been much of a fan of this theatre, for purely practical reasons rather than artistic ones, but with this programming that has allowed me to tick off Pericles and see Rachael Stirling, Niamh Cusack and John Light onstage, I’ve succumbed to a rash of bookings. With that, I’ve opted to be brutally honest about the experiences as a paying customer. Continue reading “Review: Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker”

Review: The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I will not hear thee speak; I’ll have my bond”

Following the exceptional Rupert Goold/RSC adaptation which played the Almeida over Christmas, it seemed a brave decision for the Globe to also lead their 2015 season with The Merchant of Venice but Jonathan Munby’s production proves to be just as revelatory, albeit in a completely different way. With Jonathan Pryce making his debut here at this venue, accompanied by his daughter Phoebe no less, it is no surprise that his beautifully realised Shylock is at the heart of the show here but it is also good to see Jessica (played by Pryce junior, natch) also take her turn in the spotlight.

In some ways, this echoes the Al Pacino version, showing us how Jessica is cruelly caught in the middle – torn between duty to her father and her Jewish faith, and the delight that a genuine love match with Ben Lamb’s Christian Lorenzo brings to her life. This conflict is fiercely felt – she argues ferociously in Yiddish with her father but there’s no doubting the haunting anguish of the production’s end, her Hebrew lament powerfully affecting as Shylock faces yet another disgrace as we’re reminded that – even if she has shunned him – it is still a familial bond being sundered here. Continue reading “Review: The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s Globe”

DVD Review: Mrs Henderson Presents

 “I’m bored with widowhood”

As the aristocratic Lady Conway, Thelma Barlow’s amusing run through the options open to a rich widow of nearly 70 sets up Mrs Henderson Presents succinctly in its opening moments – Laura Henderson pricks her thumb trying embroidery as a hobby and bristles at the snobbery of the ladies who run charities for the deserving and so is left to spend money as she sees fit, alighting on the derelict Windmill Theatre which she purchases in a moment of inspiration as she passes in her car. Martin Sherman’s script is based on the true story of this woman who became an unlikely theatrical impresario and in director Stephen Frears’ hands, Judi Dench delivers a heart-warmingly cracking performance at the centre of a lovely film.

Set in the late 1930s, the story follows Laura as she and her theatre manager, Bob Hoskins’ cantankerous but inspired Vivian van Damm, set up a continuous variety revue called Revudeville and trying to keep ahead of a market full of copycats, they introduce still tableaux of female nudity into the show which becomes a roaring success. The onset of war casts a heavy shadow though and whilst the show continues, providing much needed entertainment and respite, as the bombs fall on London, the determination that the show must go on puts everyone in serious peril. Continue reading “DVD Review: Mrs Henderson Presents”

Review: Thérèse Raquin, Finborough

“Blood and nerves…blood and nerves”

Rather oddly, I’ve already seen the first half of Craig Adams and Nona Shepphard’s powerful new musical Thérèse Raquin. It was featured as part of the Vibrant play readings festival in 2012 with the promise that the rest of the show would follow swiftly and sure enough, the full production has now materialised in the intimacy of this West London venue (supplemented once again with a drinking venue beneath).

Musically, it is a beautifully rich and pleasingly intricate piece. Adams’ score has near-operatic quality, a denseness of recitative that conjures up worlds of feeling more effectively than traditional song-writing could ever do. It can be challenging at times, especially on first listen, but there’s something exciting about the scope of ambition here, a determination to tread a singular path that bodes well for British musical theatre writing. Continue reading “Review: Thérèse Raquin, Finborough”

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I shall do thee mischief in the wood”

It’s taken me a while to get around to the Globe this year – their Tempest was fine but not particularly inspired and so my enthusiasm for booking for Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream waned. But the thought of missing Michelle Terry was not one I was prepared to countenance and taking a chance on an Indian summer, I booked for a random Friday matinée for the latter, hoping that the rain would hold off. Fortunately it did and with perhaps my lower expectations, I was entirely dazzled by Dominic Dromgoole’s production of what is one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, which cast the newly opened Michael Grandage adaptation firmly in the shade.

Pleasingly, especially for someone who knows the play quite well, the production abounds in new textures and fresh insight into characters, relationships and events. I loved the early establishment of the former relationship between Joshua Silver’s Demetrius and Sarah MacRae’s Helena and their definite lingering attraction – I’ve never heard the beginning of “ohhh spite” loaded with such meaning – which makes their conclusion much more dramatically satisfying. Puck as a posh stroppy teenager is an inspired choice with Matthew Tennyson’s angular presence; the way in which Pearce Quigley’s Bottom has to be coaxed into accepting Titania’s advances makes perfect sense; the Rude Mechanicals’ play being unrehearsed chaos is entirely appropriate and of course, downright hilarious. 

Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Blue Stockings, Shakespeare’s Globe

“The only thing a woman can own is knowledge”

The experience of a groundling at the Globe can range from the sublime (Eve Best clasping your hand) to the ridiculous (standing for two and a half hour in the pouring rain) yet it is a unique kind of experience that always keeps me coming back for more. At £5 a ticket, it is the bargainous type of risk that is worth taking and with plays like Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, the dividends it pays forth make up for the sheer sogginess of the journey home. Swale is perhaps best known as a director, particularly for her inimitable takes on Restoration comedies but also for striking contemporary work of devastating precision but she now returns to Shakespeare’s Globe, where she directed 2010’s Bedlam, as a playwright with this, her first play. 

The play is set in 1896 in Girton College, Cambridge which 20 years prior, became the first college in Britain to admit women. But though they can study, they are denied the right to graduate, their time at university leaving them with little but the stigma of being a “blue stocking”, a woman whose education was deemed unnatural and thus leaving her unmarriageable. Swale explores the year their right to graduate was finally put to the vote, following a group of four students as they are introduced to the novelties of university life, albeit segregated and belittled by the vast majority, where taking exams has to compete with the richer pleasures that a modicum of independence brings.  Continue reading “Review: Blue Stockings, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: The Magistrate, National Theatre

“It’s the little lies that get you into trouble”

Aged 36, the widowed Agatha Posket feared for her re-marriage prospects so when the genial Aeneas Posket, the magistrate for the Mulberry Street Police Court, arrived on the scene, she lopped 5 years off her age and promptly became Mrs Posket. The only trouble is her 19 year old son Cis whom she tells the world is actually 14 in order to make her fib fly. The farcical trials that follow as he continues to act as a 19 year old and the arrival of his godfather threatens to undo the whole deception make up the plot of Arthur Wing Pinero’s rather delightful play The Magistrate, which takes up residence at the Olivier as the National’s Christmas offering in place of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Nancy Carroll is simply sensational as Agatha, an actress in full control of her considerable gift and razor-sharp throughout. Whether layering in real pathos in lamenting the lot of a middle-aged widow, working in genuine comedy whilst extemporising wildly as chaos surrounds her or managing to make the spitting out of some bread into a moment of sheer genius, she is never less than unmissable. And she supported excellent by Joshua McGuire as her son Cis, who has a wonderful physicality and gleeful sense of timing in his teenage rampaging and Jonathan Coy’s family friend Colonel Lukyn who is pretty much scene-stealingly fantastic, a true master of comic acting which fully deserves the mid-show round of applause he received. Continue reading “Review: The Magistrate, National Theatre”

Review: Macbeth, Crucible

“I go, and it is done”

They appear to be creatures of habit up in Sheffield. Just as big musicals pop up at Christmas, a high profile Shakespeare forms the centrepiece of their autumn schedules and powerless to resist once again, I made my way to the Crucible, this time for Macbeth. Last year’s Othello was an extraordinary success – John Simm’s Hamlet the year before somewhat less to my tastes – and the casting news of Geoffrey Streatfeild and Claudie Blakley whetted my appetite for what lay ahead in Daniel Evans’ production.

But part of the problem in investing too much expectation in anticipated performances means that one can end up blinded to the more general merits of a production through the haze of disappointment. And so it was here as the central casting just doesn’t seem to work. I have no problem at all with atypical interpretations of characters, such subversions often lead the way to sensational new insight, but I simply couldn’t get a handle on what was trying to be done here. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth, Crucible”

Review: Drama at Inish, Finborough

“We do serious plays – Russian plays and that sort of thing”

The pleasures of theatregoing, especially in London, are many and varied but amongst my favourites are the chances offered to see some of our best actors in the most intimate of surroundings. So the opportunity to see the glorious Celia Imrie in the 50 seater Finborough Theatre in Earls Court was one I was never likely to miss. She is part of a large company performing Drama At Inish, a 1933 Irish comedy by Lennox Robinson which has not been seen in London for 60 years, in a strictly limited engagement. Also known as Is Life Worth Living?, the play is something of a farcical comedy, set in the small village of Inish where a travelling repertory company arrive for the summer, replacing the usual circus with their weightier fare of Ibsen, Tolstoy, Strindberg and Chekhov. But their serious drama soon begins to impact massively on the mood of the town with the inhabitants sinking into a melancholy morass of neuroses, unduly influenced by the theatre going on around them.

Fidelis Morgan’s production is full of hustle and bustle as the cast of thirteen swirl around the Seaview Hotel, where the entire show takes place, spread over a week. The actor couple of Hector De La Mare and Constance Constantia – a delightfully expansive pair of performances from Rupert Frazer and Juliet Cadzow – watch on bemusedly as their drama plays out in real life with character after character affected by what they see: political consciences, long hidden romances and secret dead children are exposed, people are moved to attempt suicide and murder, but it is all played with a jovial silliness that lifts the heart. Continue reading “Review: Drama at Inish, Finborough”

Review: The Belle’s Stratagem, Southwark Playhouse

“In short, ‘tis one universal masquerade but where all assume the same disguise of dress and manners”

When I first heard that director Jessica Swale was doing a new play at the Southwark Playhouse, my heart skipped a little tiny beat as her last work in London, the excoriating Palace of the End, was a truly astounding theatrical experience and one that ranked a mighty third in my list of everything I saw last year (271 shows for the record). That the play she was putting on was The Belle’s Stratagem, a Georgian comedy of manners by Hannah Cowley, gave me momentary pause but then I quickly remembered that Swale had previously mounted The Rivals, by Cowley’s contemporary Sheridan, to great effect in a raucously inventive production back in January last year at this same venue.

I was lucky enough to catch a small production of one of Cowley’s other plays, A Bold Stroke for a Husband earlier this year, and so I was a little more familiar with her history than most. A playwright who became one of the most successful of either gender in her day which is quite extraordinary given how little rights Georgian women had and just how forward-thinking her message of female empowerment was. Despite this, her plays quickly fell out of favour after her death, meaning that even The Belle’s Stratagem, her most successful work, has not been seen in London for over 200 years. Continue reading “Review: The Belle’s Stratagem, Southwark Playhouse”