Review: Top Girls, National Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s superb Top Girls receives a luxurious but clear-sighted production from Lyndsey Turner at the National Theatre

“They’re waiting for me to turn into the little woman”

Written by a woman and directed by a woman, the opening night of an all-female play couldn’t have been better timed for the National Theatre. But while this doesn’t negate the concerns raised in the too-male-heavy partial season announcement from last week, it does frame them – and the questions it provokes – in a larger context. After all, Lyndsey Turner’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is the first not to use double-casting, which means it boasts a company of 18 women – more of this please.

It helps that they are performing such a bravura piece of writing. Churchill’s 1982 play is a shrewd and startling affair which has lost none of its impact here as it gives women their voices in ways which haven’t always (and in some ways still don’t) been encouraged. From historical characters (both real and imagined) to contemporary families (it may be set in the 80s but there’s nothing dated about what is happening here), we are dared to listen. Continue reading “Review: Top Girls, National Theatre”

Review: The York Realist, Donmar Warehouse

It continues to be grim up north. Especially if you’re gay – The York Realist comes to the Donmar Warehouse.

“It was very Yorkshire wasn’t it, not that I mind”

I’d decided not to bother with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of The York Realist and such is karma, I found myself offered a ticket on a night when I had nothing but laundry planned. And so off to Covent Garden for gay northerners I went.

I first saw the play in the first year of my blogging life, in a production at the now-defunct Riverside Studios, but I would be lying if I said I could remember too much about it (that’s why I blog, so I don’t have to remember!). By all accounts, I was well out of whack with those who declare it a modern classic… Continue reading “Review: The York Realist, Donmar Warehouse”

Review: Strife, Minerva

“There is only one way of treating men, with the iron hand … yield one demand and they will take six”

The list of the NT2000 top 100 plays is an interesting one, full of the sort of plays I wouldn’t ever have chosen to see and so using it as a guide to stretching my theatrical viewing has been illustrative. Which is a roundabout way of saying the latest play I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for myself that I went to see was John Galsworthy’s 1909 Strife at the Minerva in Chichester, incidentally marking Bertie Carvel’s directorial debut.

Set around an industrial dispute at a Welsh tinplate works where a strike has been running for six months, Strife examines the stresses this places on all concerned. The workers, who don’t have the support of their union; the board, who have travelled from London to thrash out a compromise; and the firebrand leaders of each faction who might not be so different as all that, each equally stubborn in refusing to budge from their position. Continue reading “Review: Strife, Minerva”

Review: 3 Winters, National Theatre

“Governments fall, wars break out – there’ll be nothing left of this country”

Recent Croatian history forms the fascinating backdrop to Tena Štivičić’s 3 Winters, a multi-generational family drama that stretches across nearly 70 years and endless drama, both political and personal. From the 1945 establishment of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that replaced the monarchy and promised a bright future, to its collapse in 1990 presaging both independence and the bitterly fought Balkan conflicts of that decade, and then on again to a 2011 that heralds another form of confederacy as Croatia enters into EU accession talks. Štivičić’s focus remains on a single household throughout but it can’t help but be influenced by the turbulence of the times.

That household is the Zagreb home of the Kos family, a plush place passed into their hands during the nationalisation of property at the end of the Second World War. So the residence that Monika previously served in becomes the house her daughter Rose moves into with her daughter Masha. Masha grows up to be a forthright wife and mother of two and as the clan gathers to celebrate the wedding of one of those daughters Lucia, years of frustrations and secrets and history and lies begin to uncoil as past events catch up with present actions. Štivičić takes her time to set up the play in a languorous first half but the pay off is intensely wielded after the interval. Continue reading “Review: 3 Winters, National Theatre”

Review: Drawing the Line, Hampstead via livestreaming

“When blood is spilt, disputes between people, nations, religions become all but impossible to solve”

A complete Brucie bonus to start off the year was the unexpected announcement that Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing the Line – a sell-out success at the Hampstead – would have its final performance live-streamed on t’internet. I hadn’t booked for the show as something had to give over Christmas and New Year and so the chance to catch up with it for free, albeit on the screen of my laptop, was one I was glad to take.

The play is set in the final days of the empire, as the British are beating a hasty retreat from the subcontinent but are determined to partition the land, and its diverse people, into India and Pakistan. The job of, quite literally, drawing the line falls to archetypal Englishman and judge Cyril Radcliffe who is shipped off to somewhere he has never been before, to accomplish what turns out to be a fiendishly complex assignment.  Continue reading “Review: Drawing the Line, Hampstead via livestreaming”

Review: Children of the Sun, National Theatre

“We are tiny, tiny fragments of miniscule cogs in a grand and fabulously random collision”

If it ain’t broke… Adaptor Andrew Upton, director Howard Davies and designer Bunny Christie have had considerable success with previous Russian epics Philistines and The White Guard and so they’ve reunited once again, this time to breathe new life in Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, which has just started its run in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre. Set in a small town in a Russia on the cusp of revolution (1905 rather than 1917), experimental chemist Protasov and his coterie of middle class hangers-on are waltzing through life oblivious to the turmoil outside the gates of their estate, but their tragedy is as much personal as they turn out to be as blind to the needs and desires of each other as well. 

Gorky’s writing is remarkably perceptive throughout the play. Written in 1905 as a direct response to the huge societal changes around him, he skilfully diagnoses the malaise of the self-absorbed bourgeoisie and lays bare the blinkeredness of their cosseted ignorance and the hopelessness of their grandiose idealism. But he does it with a real deftness of touch, creating richly detailed characters who are rarely so insufferable that one’s heart doesn’t ache at the inevitability of the violent collapse of their entire world. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s erudite academic Protasov fully exemplifies this – a man full of an acute sense of the growing importance of science in the world yet an abject failure at maintaining the relationships in his life. Continue reading “Review: Children of the Sun, National Theatre”

Review: The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, Southwark Playhouse

“They must be her winter knickers…”

Perhaps better known as a novelist (A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture have both been Booker-nominated), Sebastian Barry’s 1995 play The Only True History of Lizzie Finn receives its UK premiere here at the Southwark Playhouse in a production by award-winning director Blanche McIntyre. Having carved a niche for herself as the most celebrated dancer in Weston-Super-Mare, Lizzie Finn finds herself swept off her feet by an Irish soldier returning from the Boer War. Despite their completely different backgrounds, they return to their homeland anticipating married bliss but at a time when changes in the land laws are causing huge societal changes in Ireland, life is far from easy.    

The play is not without its challenges. Made up of sequences of short scenes, sometimes just a few lines long, the rhythm of the production is something that takes getting used to: James Perkins’ design of wide steps, whilst effectively evoking the seafront, doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to the format. But in the rather impressionistic approach by McIntyre, moments of visual grace emerge from these scenes, like embers spiralling out of the fire, flashing brightly and disappearing into the dark. I particularly loved the doubling of actors at the Castlemaine’s dinner party to create a witty echoing of an earlier scene.   Continue reading “Review: The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: Cause Célèbre, Old Vic

“That damned woman”

Cause Célèbre is perhaps one of the most eagerly awaited events of the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations, being directed by Thea Sharrock who helmed the multi-Olivier-winning After the Dance at the National Theatre last year. She brings this play, the last to be written by Rattigan in 1976 before his death the next year, to the Old Vic featuring the return to the stage of Anne-Marie Duff, alongside Niamh Cusack and a large supporting cast. This was a preview performance and I attended as part of the What’s on Stage group outing.

The play is based on the 1930s real-life story of Alma Rattenbury, a woman nearly 40 accused and put on trial for murdering her elderly husband along with her 18-year old lover. Society was scandalised and enthralled by the trial, not necessarily because of the crime but because of the moral profligacy that was perceived in Alma taking such a young lover, and one who was her servant to boot, and it is the attitudes of society that Rattigan focuses on. He introduces the fictionalised character of Edith Davenport into the narrative, a woman of very traditional values who is the forewoman of the jury hearing Alma’s case, yet who is struggling with her own issues as she is divorcing her feckless husband and dealing her son who has inherited his father’s taste for debauchery (as she sees it), a crucial point being that he is the same age as Alma’s lover, something which clouds her judgement from the start. Continue reading “Review: Cause Célèbre, Old Vic”