Review: Grief, National Theatre

“I don’t want some lovely pink lemonade, I want a sherry”

Mike Leigh’s new play for the National Theatre was finally entitled Grief after going under ‘A New Play’ for what felt like the longest time and sees him reunited with frequent collaborator Lesley Manville. I was quite looking forward to it as my first ‘new’ Leigh stage experience, the revival of Ecstasy having whetted my appetite quite considerably. Manville plays Dorothy, widowed in the war and frozen in the past, who lives with her stroppy teenage daughter Victoria and also her older brother Edwin, a complete creature of habit who is coming to the end of 45 years working at the same insurance firm. A set of visitors offer a little relief to this suffocating routine in Alison Chitty’s drab suburban living room set, Edwin’s brusque doctor friend and Dorothy’s old colleagues who love a good natter but it is the cleaner who gets more of a view into the quietly toxic atmosphere of this household which gradually gets worse.

It is acted well, extremely well in most places. Marion Bailey and David Horovitch are striking in the vividness of their characterisations as two of the visitors; Ruby Bentall’s sullen teenager captures the tragedy of wasted potential, stymied by her surroundings and unable to break free; Sam Kelly’s retiree is a powerfully effective study in near-paralysis and Lesley Manville is utterly superb as a woman who seems unable to move on from the past, yet not even really gaining succour from singing old songs with her brother any more. Continue reading “Review: Grief, National Theatre”

Review: Ghost Story, Riverside Studios

“I don’t want to be an ill person any more”

The second play in the Sky Arts Playhouse: Live project is Ghost Story, written and directed by Mark Ravenhill and featuring an amazing cast of Juliet Stevenson, Lesley Manville and Lyndsey Marshal. Stevenson plays Lisa, a breast cancer sufferer who has come to visit Meryl (Manville), a healer who believes in the curative power of positive thought. Then, as the programme says “as time folds back on itself, Lisa and Meryl cross the line between the healer and the healed and discover that the world is full of ghosts”.

On one level, this is a satire on the doctrine of positive thinking, questioning how real or effective it could possibly be in the fight against terminal illness, posing serious questions but also playing it for laughs, the scene in which Lisa is encouraged to draw what her cancer looks like on the wall of the apartment is brilliant (I thought it looked like an evil frog) and wryly amusing (it then gains a penis, and pubic hair). It is also though a poignant account of people’s battles with illness, how it affects relationship with the self and the loved ones around us. It is particularly moving in the way it depicts the lies and half-truths we have to tell to protect others or even our own egos: all the characters obfuscate the truth at some point or other. Continue reading “Review: Ghost Story, Riverside Studios”

Review: Six Degrees of Separation, Old Vic

“Every person is a new door, opening up into new worlds”

John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation receives its first revival in 18 years with this David Grindley directed production at the Old Vic. Based on a true story of a conman finagling his way into the lives of wealthy Manhattan socialites by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier, we see the lives of two New York art dealers, Ouisa and Fran Kittredge turned upside down after they take an injured Paul into their home and he wreaks havoc on their lives and those of them around them as he challenges their comfortable existences. It is kept in its original 1980s setting, presumably as the issues around financial greed are as pertinent today, even if those around race and homosexuality are less so.

Onstage narration seems to be the flavour of the month and it is a tricky thing to get right: Innocence fails, Midsummer gets it right, here is somewhere in the middle. There’s a mixture of Ouisa and Fran, and indeed other characters, narrating the events and the action being played out, and I’m not sure the balance is wholly there: it is just so much more entertaining when the actors are engaging with each other and I was frequently left wanting to see more of that. Continue reading “Review: Six Degrees of Separation, Old Vic”

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”

Review: Pillars of the Community, National Theatre

From where preconceptions come I am not entirely sure, but I’ve never been a fan of Ibsen’s plays even when they come as highly recommended as this production of Pillars of the Community at the National Theatre. The play marks the centenary of Ibsen’s death and is apparently one of his lesser performed works, something that doesn’t always inspire the greatest of confidences.

The play centres around Karsten Bernick, an avaricious and deceitful man who has climbed the greasy pole to become something of a bigwig in his small Norwegian town and managed to create an allure of benevolence and good standing in the community. But skeletons in the closet have a way of re-emerging and when two members of his extended family, who know all of his dirty secrets, return from America, Bernick is challenged to discover just how far he is willing to go to protect his reputation and continue to ignore his conscience. Continue reading “Review: Pillars of the Community, National Theatre”

Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre

Most of what I wanted to say about His Dark Materials have been made in the earlier review of Part I, but I wanted to separate the reviews out as they are treated as separate plays although I can’t imagine anyone would just see Part I, especially with its cliff-hanger ending, and I know I couldn’t have waited any longer than the couple of hours that we did to see Part II on the same day.

This part is where some of the more obvious changes to the original books are more evident. Much of the third book has been excised, the character of Mary Malone not used here and the amber spyglass becomes less important as a result. But the story still works nonetheless, and the trip to the Land of the Dead has to rank as one of the most beautifully realised pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, haunting and incredibly moving. Likewise, the ending to the whole story was devastatingly done, leaving me crying for a good 10 minutes after we had left the theatre even though I knew what was coming. Continue reading “Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre”

Review: His Dark Materials Part I, National Theatre

The National Theatre revived their adaption of His Dark Materials for a second run in answer to my prayers, or so I like to believe, in order to let me see it. The novels by Phillip Pullman are among my all-time favourites and though the idea of translating them to the stage caused me a little trepidation, I was immensely glad of the opportunity of the chance to see the shows.

Adapted with love and precision by Nicholas Wright who has been daring enough to make the judicious cuts necessary to create a workable piece of theatre out of the at-times-sprawling works of literature that form Pullman’s trilogy, the story that is told here is strong and cohesive and told with a sensitive clarity (although I can’t be sure how clear it actually is to anyone who hasn’t read the novels, truth be told). We follow the coming-of-age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry and their adventure across a set of parallel universes as they search for answers to huge questions they both have, a journey that causes them to cross paths with polar bears, angels, witches, Texan explorers and in one of the most contentious of the strands of Pullman’s work, the organised might of the Church. Continue reading “Review: His Dark Materials Part I, National Theatre”