Review: Arcadia, Churchill Theatre Bromley

“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on the empty shore”

With London audiences pondering The Hard Question and struggling to find the answer (we’re insufficiently classicly-educated apparently, though the journalist getting the name of the play wrong here is hardly a great start to counter that assertion) fans of Tom Stoppard can also catch his more celebrated play Arcadia in this English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton co-production, directed by the ever-interesting Blanche McIntyre. I hesitate to call it a nationwide tour as it doesn’t appear to heading any further north than Birmingham but it is still a healthy enough trek for this pleasingly complex but affecting play.

As is customary with this playwright, it is a play full of weighty ideas – complex mathematics and chaos theory, entropy and existential truths, and takes place in the same country house drawing room in two time periods simultaneously, 1809 and the present day. Along the length of a fine dining table, the past rubs up against the present as the scientific rigour of the intellect goes head to head with the emotional poetry of the soul as Stoppard ultimately explores what it simply means to be human (and also what stirring rice pudding really represents). It is perhaps easy to get caught up in the density of the detail during the play but it would take the hardest of hearts not to be swept up the heart-breaking swing and sway of the final scene. Continue reading “Review: Arcadia, Churchill Theatre Bromley”

Re-review: The James Plays, National Theatre

“The wheel will turn. The wheel always turns. The wheel will turn around again.”

One of the joys of a boxset is that they can be watched over and over again so when I equated the joy of seeing all three of The James Plays on the same day as below 

 I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I would be trying my damnedest to get to the second of the two three-show-days in order to get that experience again whilst the opportunity was there. 

And since I’m clearly in credit with the theatrical karma gods at the moment, a ticket made its way into my grateful hands and I was able to go through the whole 10 and a half hour rollercoaster ride through this vibrantly realised cross-section of under-explored Scottish history. As ever, it was great to be able to revisit such interesting plays – original reviews can be read here James I – The Key Will Keep The LockJames II – Day of The Innocents and James III – The True Mirror – especially now there’s a little more distance from the Scottish referendum which coloured much of the coverage of the plays. There isn’t too much more to say about them aside from I hope they are absorbed into the theatrical culture and emerge again soon somehow, somewhere.

Review: James III – The True Mirror (plus overview of the trilogy), National Theatre

“Scotland herself doesn’t know what kind of nation she is half the time but I’ve learned that there’s no sense being frightened of what you don’t know”

If the world of James III – The True Mirror is what Scottish independence might have actually looked like, then I reckon the Yeses might have had it. Pithy remark aside, the costume work is spectacular here, conjuring up a modern classic look for the Scots that is to die for and which also serves as a visual cue into this production, the final of Rona Munro’s James Plays which abandons its medieval setting for this notional updating. Seeing it as the final part of the marathon trilogy day, it was a brilliant shift in tone and the pre-show entertainment (simply not to be missed) just adds to the sparkling invention as pop songs get the ceilidh treatment from Alasdair MacRae.

Though the play may be entitled James III, the reality is that this slice of the Stewart monarchy was indubitably shared with his wife Margaret of Denmark. The third king of his name was a capricious fellow indeed, the self-confessed “sparkle before the dark”, a rebellious dandy concerned far more with the trappings of monarchy than the minutiae of ruling, most amusingly evidenced by his procurement of a choir to accompany him at all times. By contrast, his pragmatic wife (“from a rational nation with reasonable people” lest you forget!) looks after the treasury, pets the furrowed brow of the privy council and generally rules the roost. Of course she does, she’s Sarah Lund! Continue reading “Review: James III – The True Mirror (plus overview of the trilogy), National Theatre”

Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre

“You’re a great-great-great-grandson of the Bruce. Like me. You could be King.”

On first sight, it may seem that James II – Day of The Innocents is the weakest of The James Plays. On a personal note, it is blighted with blasted puppets which is rarely a good thing for me and more generally, the structure of the first half is more challenging than anything else across the trilogy. But on reflection and on reading the play, it isn’t that difficult to follow and across the broader sweep of the three dramas, there’s something admirable in the determination of writer Rona Munro and director Laurie Sansom to stamp a different identity on each one and ensure that whilst seeing them all would be great, it is far from necessary.

As with his father, assassinated by some disgruntled noblemen, the young James II finds himself a prisoner for much of his early life, this time held captive by Scotsmen though, who use the young monarch to legitimise their dominance of the privy council. Through a series of fever dreams, flashbacks are played out with nightmarish intensity by the puppets whilst concurrently we see their effects on a haunted young man. Much of the success of these scenes lies with the listeners – Blythe Duff’s imprisoned Isabella and Sarah Higgins’ compassionate Meg – who anchor the fantasia of this first half and gently hint at the forthcoming trials that James must face. Continue reading “Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre”

Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre

“I am the King of Scots. In 18 years I never forgot that”

The first of The James Plays – a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre (of Great Britain) – James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock sets the tone for this Scottish history trilogy brilliantly. Rona Munro guides us in with the recognisable figure of Henry V of England but then unleashing upon us the little-known and little-explored early Stewart kings and the maelstrom of conflict that was the Scottish court.

The reason we meet Henry V (a wonderfully belligerent Jamie Sives) is that for 18 years he kept James Stewart a prisoner, humiliating him at every opportunity, and it is only after Henry’s death that James was able to negotiate a release to return to his own kingdom, albeit one that barely recognised or wanted him. From these inauspicious beginnings, we then see how he sets about ruling with an iron fist, finding that the only way to dominate the murderous noblemen is join right in the skulduggery. Continue reading “Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre”

Re-review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Apollo

“I like maths, and I like outer space. And I also like being on my own”

One of the most successful plays of 2012 (and indeed my personal fourth-best play of the year) was the National Theatre’s adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time so it was little surprise to hear that it would transfer into the West End, albeit a little belatedly. So from the immersive in-the-round staging of the Cottesloe, it has now graduated to the much larger proscenium of the Apollo but where one might argue it has lost a little something of what made it so intimately special first time round, the transfer expands the physical and visual language of Marianne Elliott’s production to great effect to create something even more theatrical.

Mark Haddon’s novel was inescapable as it rose to cult status and it is impressive that Simon Stephens’ adaptation manages to create something new, albeit entirely recognisable, out of the story. I still remain unconvinced by the touch of meta-business of the characters putting on a play of the story that is largely narrated by Niamh Cusack’s achingly kind Siobhan, but otherwise it is a sensitive and witty re-telling of the tale of Christopher Boone, a teenager who sees the world in an entirely different way to many of us and who is swept up in a personal odyssey spearheaded by his discovery of the body of his neighbour’s dog with a garden fork through him. Continue reading “Re-review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Apollo”

Review: The Second Mrs Tanqueray, Rose Kingston

“All jealous women are mad”

Stephen Unwin’s run of home-grown productions for the Rose Kingston, where he is also Artistic Director, continues with this revival of Arthur W Pinero’s Victorian melodrama, The Second Mrs Tanqueray. Respectable member of society and widower Aubrey Tanqueray scandalises his friends when he suddenly announces he is to be married again. The issue is that his intended, Mrs Paula Jarman, is a woman with a past – a sexual one at that – but his determination to go through with the marriage leaves Paula feeling increasingly alienated from her new world and particularly from her new stepdaughter. And try as they might to overcome their differences, secrets from the past threaten to overwhelm everyone. 

Though meant to be something of a mismatched couple, James Wilby and Laura Michelle Kelly struggle to convince that there could have been anything between Aubrey and Paula, both performances missing some psychological depth to point us to the truth of their characters. Wilby does mannered Victoriana extremely well but seldom gives a sense of real man behind the bluff exterior, and Kelly’s whole air a little too girlish, rarely feeling born of the frustrations of a life already lived though the second half does see her start to darken the tone effectively.  Continue reading “Review: The Second Mrs Tanqueray, Rose Kingston”