Review: Chariots of Fire, Gielgud

“100 metres can feel like a marathon”
For the longest time, I was sure that I didn’t want to see Chariots of Fire, not least because the hoarding for this Hampstead Theatre transfer into the Gielgud finds it necessary to call it Chariots of Fire on stage, as if it could be anything else in a theatre. But Mike Bartlett, who adapted the film, is a writer I like and a change of cast meant Gabriel Vick, an actor whose charms I, erm, appreciate, was able to tempt me there on the final day of the (curtailed) run. The most arresting aspect of Edward Hall’s production is Miriam Buether’s design which snakes a running track around the front stalls and puts audience members on the stage – it makes for constant visual interest and not just for the men in shorts.
As a story set around the Olympics (Paris 1924), when the production was first announced it felt like a bit of a cash-in to the upcoming Games (London 2012) and sure enough, a West End transfer was announced even before it began. And to be honest, I’m not sure that it really stood up as a piece of effective theatre when separated from all the 2012 buzz. I’ve never seen the film so I wonder if this had an impact, but essentially the thrill of having athletically performed athletic races aside, it was rather dull.

The rivalry between two British runners – religious Scot Eric Liddell, played with fervent defiance by Jack Lowden and James McArdle’s first-generation Lithuanian immigrant Harold Abrahams – never really takes off dramatically as it is largely implicit, rather than actualised (the pair are rarely together). The whirl of supporting characters get so little stage time that very few of the fine actors onstage get the opportunity to make an impact and I wasn’t a fan of the way in which the action sequences were blended, or otherwise, with the dramatic scenes, too often the transitions felt painfully obvious. 
Using the famous music, written by Vangelis, also didn’t really work for me. It’s a no-brainer in the end and the oohs and aahs of recognition from the audience around me clearly showed that it was the big money note they’d been waiting for but it felt so unsubtle, so bolted onto the production that it just didn’t connect with the whole. So I should have listened to my instincts in the first place! 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 5th January

Review: 13, National Theatre

“Over the last year, it feels like it’s all falling apart…in this country…across the world…”

Mike Bartlett can probably lay claim to being one of the most interesting new British playwrights to emerge this century, steadily building his oeuvre of plays that pick at modern life and expose its shortcomings… And as his profile increases, so too have the stature of the commissions, moving from the Royal Court – where I saw his Cock  – to the Cottesloe at the National Theatre with last year’s Earthquakes in London and now graduating to the Olivier – the youngest writer in 10 years to be staged there – with his latest new play 13.

What is it all ‘about’ I hear you say. Well if that question is foremost in your mind then it is likely that you may be disappointed with 13, as it eschews a conventional sense of narrative for the creation of apocalyptic foreboding in a contemporary London that feels all too realistic. For it is a piece of writing that feels incredibly pertinent, full of up-to-the-minute references to public disorder, social media, student riots and the Arab Spring, concerning a society wracked with disturbing dreams and a crippling uncertainty. What Bartlett alights on is the importance of belief, not necessarily in God but having some conviction that things will be ok if we trust our instincts, and the succour that is gained from collecting as a group behind such beliefs. Continue reading “Review: 13, National Theatre”

Review: Electra, Gate Theatre

“Electra, you need to calm down”

This version of Electra by Nick Payne which is currently playing at the Gate Theatre is brand new, but it does bear some resemblance to the production Elektra, which played, for free, at the Young Vic last summer. That version was by Anne Carson was a co-production with Headlong but is now being labelled the workshop production of this one, as it was also directed by Carrie Cracknell and featured the same creative team around her here, indeed one of the actresses involved has travelled too though Cath Whitefield has been promoted from the chorus to the title role.

Based on Sophocles’ Ancient Greek myth, the story centres on Electra, seething with rage at the murder of her father Agamemnon at the hand of her mother Clytemnestra, who in turn was avenging his sacrifice of another of their daughters, Iphigenia, to appease the gods for a prevailing wind. Electra ships off her younger brother to safety but remains with her mother and new lover, silently plotting for the chance to take the ultimate revenge in the memory of her father and praying for a brother she has not seen for ten years. Continue reading “Review: Electra, Gate Theatre”

Review: Greenland, National Theatre

“It’s like we’re conducting a big, massive experiment…”

Pulling together narratives and investigative work from four playwrights, Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne around the ever-current issue of climate change, Greenland is the latest play at the National Theatre to tackle this issue, following on from Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London last year. Based on interviews with scientists, politicians, money-makers and philosophers, woven together by dramaturg Ben Power and directed by Bijan Sheibani, this is a highly ambitious, challenging piece of work and though this was the first preview, it seems that some of these challenges might be a little too much.

Predictably, multiple strands of story run parallel, some explored and revisited more than others as the narrative shifts around, there are occasional intersections but these are perfunctory rather than integral to the stories. Amongst everything, there’s a young woman moved to drop out of university to become a climate change activist; two women in a therapy session (there was division in the group as to whether they were mother/daughter or a lesbian couple, but it really isn’t that important) who are being driven apart by the strident ‘green’ views of one of them; two guys bird-watching in Greenland, one of whom has been doing it for 40 years; a Labour politician struggling to make a difference leading up to and at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. All are trying to make sense of the conflicting viewpoints around the issue and figuring out who to trust and what, if anything, can be done. Continue reading “Review: Greenland, National Theatre”