Review: The Importance of Being Earnest, Vaudeville

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”

On the other side of the Strand, Sondheim is telling us “you gotta get a gimmick” in Gypsy and so it is across the road at the Vaudeville with the second major production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to hit the West End in (just) under a year. Lucy Bailey’s am-dram take last summer featured a company of older actors and taking that gauntlet, Adrian Noble’s production has a cross-dressing David Suchet as Lady Bracknell. My full review is now live on Official Theatre but suffice to say that I still find the pilfering of already-scarce roles for older women problematic. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with 2 intervals)
Booking until 7th November

Review: Twelfth Night, ETT at Richmond Theatre

“For women are as roses…”

It is seriously impressive how sparklingly fresh Jonathan Mumby has managed to make Twelfth Night in his production for English Touring Theatre which I caught at Richmond Theatre this week. The familiarity, even overfamiliarity, which many have with Shakespeare’s work means it can often be hard to get too excited about yet another production but Mumby’s work here has all the hallmarks of a successful and subtle reinvigoration.

Colin Richmond’s artfully distressed design and an original suite of songs from Grant Olding locate this version of Illyria in the folky fancies of Brian Protheroe’s Feste, a move which pays dividends in extending its oft-melancholy mood to all and sundry. So Hugh Ross’ Malvolio is more tragi than comic, a deep sadness apparent under the prickly exterior. Milo Twomey’s Aguecheek is a rueful soul indeed and Doña Croll’s Maria has a marvellous pragmatism.

Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, ETT at Richmond Theatre”

Review: The American Clock, Finborough

“There’s never been a society that’s not had a clock running on it”

Venturing into the lesser performed works of a playwright, even one as well-renowned as Arthur Miller, is always a tricky manoeuvre. There’s often a good reason plays collect dust on the shelf and so it takes a keen eye to spot the potential for revival and reassessment in a new production. The Finborough have become one of the premier spots in London for unearthing such gems and are hoping that they have struck gold again with Phil Willmott’s new take on Miller’s 1980 play The American Clock, which hasn’t been seen here since its first (albeit Olivier-award winning) run at the National in 1986.

The play was inspired by Studs Terkel’s oral history Hard Times and also Miller’s own recollections from the 1930s, to tell a wide-ranging tale of how the Great Depression actually played out for the American people. Using an episodic structure to work his way through stories of nearly 40 characters, the focus finally settles mainly on one well-off upper middle class family, the Baums, who are forced to relocate from their Manhattan townhouse to a relative’s spare room in Brooklyn, their struggle to deal with their changing fortunes ultimately sending mother, father and son reeling off in tragically different directions. Continue reading “Review: The American Clock, Finborough”

Review: The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hours”

Very occasionally I see a play which saps the life of my desire to write about all the shows that I see. Good ones are great, bad ones are fine as they often provoke much thought and opinion, but some are just so crushingly dull that they simply inspire nothing. Trevor Nunn’s production of The Tempest at the Theatre Royal Haymarket was such a play and what is worse, I already knew that that would be my response to it due to the feedback from people who had already gone. Fortunately, I was gifted the ticket for services rendered so there was no financial cost but things can tax you severely in other ways.

Mainly it is due to the extreme lack of pace, the play is stretched out laboriously over more than three hours for no discernible reason than to fill time, there’s no reason contained within the interpretation that justifies this lack of speed and it becomes painfully obvious that we’re in for the long haul from the outset with precious few sparks of life animating events onstage. As Prospero, Ralph Fiennes was actually better than I was anticipating, the sole beneficiary of my lowered expectations, with a vocal performance that was colourful and commanding. Continue reading “Review: The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket”

Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said ‘no’”

Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead makes the leap from Chichester to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to continue the Trevor Nunn season there. For its premise, it takes these two minor characters from Hamlet and inverts the perspective of the show so that we see the events of Shakespeare’s play but from their utterly bewildered eyes. As they try to make sense of their lives and what is happening to them and around them, scenes from Hamlet play out and matters of destiny, mortality and the meaning of existence perused and debated.

Tim Curry was forced to withdraw from the Chichester run during rehearsals – Chris Andrew Mellon continuing to act up in his stead – but Nunn’s canniest casting is in reuniting original History Boys Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker in the title roles. The pair exchange huge amounts of great banter, insistently rhythmic at times but differentiated too, as Barnett’s quavering Rosencrantz edges closer to panic whilst feeling his way around the uncertainty that dominates their existence and Parker’s Guildenstern maintains a stiffer resolve. Continue reading “Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Theatre Royal Haymarket”

Review: The December Man/L’homme de Décembre, Finborough

“Ordinary people aren’t expected to be heroes”

There are mini-seasons within seasons now at the Finborough and so the three Sunday/Monday slots of the women playwrights programme, In Their Place, are being used to introduce the work of Canadian writer Colleen Murphy: the first of these is The December Man or L’homme de Décembre. Wanting to commemorate the horrifically tragic events of a massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montréal on December 6, 1989 where a gunman killed fourteen women for being ‘feminists’ but not be guilty of exploiting it, Murphy shifts her focus onto what might have happened to those that survived the attack and the ongoing consequences it has on their lives.

The play centres on the Fournier family: Jean, a man ordered out of the room before the massacre began and his working-class parents, Benoît and Kathleen, who struggle to deal with their son’s survivor guilt and the destructive impact it is having on his psyche and on the family as a whole as well. And to further deflect attention from the event itself, the story is told in reverse chronology, starting with shocking events in March 1992 and working backwards to 1989 to reveal just how we’ve arrived at these final actions.

Powerfully persuasive performances from all three actors means that this is never a dull evening, but choosing this format means that any sense of mystery about why things have happened is resolved by about the third scene and so from then on we know the whole story of what is going to happen, in reverse of course, but even then, there are scenes which seemed to do little but further establish the mood rather than revealing anything. Where the problem really lies is in not delving deep enough into the psychological motivations of the characters to give us at least some clue of why they are driven to such extremes. Keeping the actual events at L’École Polytechnique at arms length promises a universality of experience which is somewhat undone by the unexplained responses here.

Matthew Hendrickson’s grizzled father, weighted down by a lifetime of frustration yet fiercely proud of his son and Linda Broughton’s suffocatingly well-intentioned mother, clinging onto childhood memories of her family, both did excellent work, pulling us in straightaway with the hardest of opening scenes but also playing the lighter side of the family dynamic well too, bursting with pride at their first university-going relation. And Michael Benz also impressed as the introverted Jean, emotionally damaged by his inaction and the subsequent inability to deal with the fallout whilst sequestered in his tightly repressed family unit, although never given the opportunity to really explore why he is so particularly affected, likewise with the later decisions of his parents, we’re never really shown what drives them to such lengths.

One can see why Murphy has made the choices she has, in pulling back the lens to show how the effects of tragedies can ripple out far beyond the initial impact but in making it such a specific response to a specific event, the universality never really rings true. Part of it also comes back to the fact that she can afford to play fast and loose with the connections to the Montréal massacre because of the emotional resonance that association has with a Canadian audience, an analogous example would be a British play circling the Dunblane tragedy which would be sadly meaningless to other nationalities as we all have our own tragedies in this world. That said, it is very well-acted with some really moving moments within, and forms the first part of what I am sure will be an interesting journey through this playwright’s work over the next few months.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 21st March

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: You May Go Now – A Marriage Play, Finborough

“You will get off the bus and go to some sort of dining establishment and make eyes. Someone will find you.”

You May Go Now – A Marriage Play, written by US playwright Bekah Brunstetter takes up the Sunday/Monday slot at the Finborough theatre for the next three weeks, and is the first time that this play has been performed in Europe. Things open with Dottie teaching her daughter Betty how to be the perfect 1950s housewife, today’s lesson is baking and icing a cake. The kitchen set is carefully dressed with a great eye for period detail but it soon becomes clear that all is most definitely not what it seems under the surface. Betty has been a virtual prisoner, allowed no contact with the outside world, yet Dottie then throws her out into that world on her 18th birthday to find herself a husband. The next scene then flips the scenario on its head as Dottie becomes a modern-day woman, with a depressed husband, struggling to complete a novel: or does she? When Betty returns from the bus stop, and is followed by a mysterious boy called Phillip, it is clear things are about to change.

It is darkly funny, with lots of sparky dialogue especially around the largely unaware Betty, and the story itself is engaging and suspenseful once one has gotten a handle on the wilfully obscure structure. But there were also elements that didn’t work: the hints of child abuse were most disconcerting but then swiftly abandoned and left unexplored. And it was never apparent to me why Dottie was trying to get rid of Betty in the first place, the act that sets up the whole play. Continue reading “Review: You May Go Now – A Marriage Play, Finborough”