News from the National Theatre Autumn 2018 Press Conference

All sorts of goodies were announced today for the upcoming slate of productions at the National Theatre, including Small Island, Peter Gynt, and Top Girls 

Olivier Theatre

Small Island, a new play adapted by Helen Edmundson from Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning bestselling novel, will open in the Olivier Theatre in May. Directed by Rufus Norris, the play journeys from Jamaica to Britain through the Second World War to 1948, the year the HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury. Small Island follows the intricately connected stories of Hortense, newly arrived in London, landlady Queenie and servicemen Gilbert and Bernard. Hope and humanity meet stubborn reality as, with epic sweep, the play uncovers the tangled history of Jamaica and the UK. Hundreds of tickets for every performance available at £15. Small Island will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide as part of NT Live. Continue reading “News from the National Theatre Autumn 2018 Press Conference”

Review: Limehouse, Donmar

“The Labour Party is fucked”
I know a bit about a few things but for some reason, UK politics has never figured that highly on the list. So whilst Steve Waters’ new play Limehouse might well be familiar territory for the vast majority of the matinee audience I saw this with, for me it was a bit of a history lesson. It was also a bit of a challenge as I’d skipped lunch and the smell of the pasta bake being made onstage left me near-ravenous!
Limehouse follows a small group of Labour politicians as they despair at the militant leftwing direction their party is taking and try to decide what, if anything, they can do about it. Perhaps not accidentally, parallels can be drawn with the situation at the moment but this drama is set in 1981 and the quartet are Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen – the Gang of Four who went on to form the SDP.
Any doubts I might have had about being ill-informed were soon covered by the fact that this is an extremely wordy play, the four – plus Owen’s wife Debbie – essentially chew the cud around the kitchen table, filling us in on the socio-political landscape and gearing up for intermittent, individual barnstorming moments. There’s a lot of speechifying and director Polly Findlay mitigates this by casting to the hilt but there’s still something inherently undramatic about it all.
At the expense of action, there’s a false sense of jeopardy about whether they’ll make the break or not which doesn’t quite satisfy. And the final scene when Nathalie Armin’s Debbie breaks the fourth wall to tell us about what did happen and what might yet happen further highlights the staidness of the play. But Paul Chahidi, Debra Gillett, Tom Goodman-Hill, and Roger Allam offer up some wonderful character studies to make it most entertainining (even if I still wouldn’t pick UK politics as a pub quiz category).
Running time: 105 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 15th April

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

An amusing tidbit from Paul Chahidi’s Twitter takeover for the Donmar Warehouse, promoting his show Limehouse and the commitment its actors have to the art of the warm-up.

Fresh from taking the Barbican by storm (again) with Roman Tragedies, Ivo van Hove and Toneelgroep Amsterdam will be returning to London next month with a version of Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Obsession. Joining Jude Law in the multinational cast is the fantastic Dutch actress Halina Reijn, Chuk Iwuji, Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Robert De Hoog, and Aysha Kala, Rehearsal pics above by Jan Versweyveld and an excellent feature on the show here from Sarah Hemming.

Something lovely from the beginning of the week

What better way to welcome the spring equinox than with @MissDumezweni‘s beautiful reading of Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.

— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) March 20, 2017

Hampstead Theatre announced the casting for the world premiere of Stephen Brown’s play Occupational Hazards, which is based on Rory Stewart’s critically acclaimed memoir of the same name.

Directed by Simon Godwin, this new play tells an extraordinary story about the moral conflicts, the dangers and the comic absurdities inherent in any foreign occupation.Henry Lloyd-Hughes will play the role of Rory having last been seen at Hampstead Theatre in Nina Raine’s Tiger Country in 2011.

The cast also includes Nezar Alderazi, Waj Ali, Silas Carson, Amy Cudden, Vangelis Christodoulou, Vincent Ebrahim, Aishya Hart, John Mackay and Johndeep More.

Manchester’s HOME is delighted to announce the first UK revival of Martin Sherman’s award-winning Rose, which premiered at the National Theatre in London in 1999. Directed by Richard Beecham, Janet Suzman takes on the role of the eponymous Rose. As the current refugee crisis engulfs Europe, as America closes its doors to refugees, and as racism, xenophobia and nationalism are resurgent across the globe, this revival of Rose is being touted as extremely topical and timely.

Janet Suzman commented:

“This anarchic, agnostic tearaway got to me when I read Martin Sherman’s terrific play. Rose’s ironical self-awareness, her independence of spirit, her fierce instinct for survival is the story we all want to hear about the human spirit at its bravest. In the end she finds a moral purpose to a life forged in an immoral world. I salute Rose and her like.”

Richard Beecham added: 

Rose strikes me as a play for our times. Written on the cusp of the millennium as an epitaph to the 20th century, this play about the refugee experience, about anti-Semitism and xenophobia, about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, about America as a safe haven for the persecuted, looks forward to our 21st century world in a frighteningly prescient way. It does so with real insight, bravura storytelling and a mordant sense of humour and I am delighted to be working with the extraordinary Janet Suzman to bring Rose alive for audiences today.”

The production runs Thu 25 May – Sat 10 June

The Complete Walk, from the comfort of your sofa #8

A bit of an odds and sods collection this one, I wasn’t much a fan of any of them tbh,

Julius Caesar from Villa dei Quintili, Rome

Troilus and Cressida from the ruins of Troy

Titus Andronicus from Ostia Antica, Rome

Henry IV, Part I from the gents at The George Inn, to begin at least!

Henry IV, Part II from Westminster Abbey

The Complete Walk, from the comfort of your sofa #2

“I would you were as I would have you be”

Our journey along the Complete Walk, at our own speed and from the comfort of our own home, continues apace. Here’s my thoughts on the first suite of films and now there’s four more for your delectation.
Twelfth Night comes to us from Parham House, West Sussex, with the glorious Olivia Williams and Susannah Fielding playing Olivia and Viola/Cesario. And directed by Jessica Swale, it’s deliciously exciting and erotic as the former is utterly thunderstruck by the latter, both actors hitting the mark perfectly and suggesting that this would be a production for the ages were it ever to happen in full. It is spliced with Tim Carroll’s 2012 production which saw Mark Rylance reprise his Olivia, a performance of which, in all honesty, I was no real fan back then and remain so now.
Interestingly, this was the first of the films that felt heavier on the Globe production rather than the new clip. In the atmospheric gloom of Glamis Castle, Adele Thomas directs a forcefully weird Joanna Scanlan as the Porter but the majority of the action comes from Eve Best’s 2013 production, (sadly not the Elliot Cowan-starring one from 2010) with Joseph Millson’s beautifully spoken M and Samantha Spiro’s vibrant Lady M. It was nice to see them again but the final result did thus feel a little unbalanced.
Now this one was good. Sheila Reid’s storytelling Gower, reprised from the Swanamaker production earlier this year, enhanced by wordless excerpts from the National Theatre of Greece’s version from the Globe To Globe season and illustrated animation too, Dominic Dromgoole’s direction took Reid all around the Globe complex and beautifully so.
One of the cushier jobs in this series, Douglas Hodge’s achingly voiced Prospero finds himself marooned on Bermuda and shot gorgeously by Jessica Swale mostly in voiceover to beautiful effect, And it was nice to revisit Jeremy Herrin’s Roger Allam-starring version for the Globe in 2013, even if I remain unconvinced by its Ferdinand and Miranda, a sterling combination of old and new.

TV Review: Shakespeare Live, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“I am a spirit of no common rate”
The culmination of the BBC’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was the 2 and a half hours of Shakespeare Live, a veritable landslide of multidisciplinary performances of and responses to his work. From theatre to opera, jazz to ballet, hip-hop to musicals, the enormous scope of his influence was showcased in a very well put together (royal) variety show (Charles and Camilla were in attendance) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and hosted by David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
And like anything with variety, a selection box or tub of Quality Street, there are the ones you love, the ones you can tolerate and the ones that you really don’t care for (the Bounty, or the purple hazelnutty one). And I have to say as impressive as they were, the dance, jazz and opera sections really didn’t do it for me whether Berlioz or Duke Ellington. I was predictably much more interested in the theatrical side of things, particularly as such an august cast of performers was in the offing along with the thrilling thought of a Dench and McKellen reunion.

There were of course moments of brilliance, some recalling previous productions and others tempting the possibilities of the future. Who now doesn’t want to see Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear do Macbeth, or Roger Allam’s King Lear. And as pleased as I was to be reminded of Dame Judi Dench’s flirtatious Titania, Alexandra Gilbreath’s glorious Olivia and Meera Syal’s melancholy Beatrice (though sad to be reminded of the untimely passing of her Benedick, Paul Bhattacharjee), there was even more pleasure in seeing the likes of Harriet Walter’s Cleopatra and Henry Goodman’s ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, classic performances I have not seen before.
A comic highlight was the Hamlet sketch, current Hamlet Paapa Essiedu arriving onstage to deliver ‘To be or not to be’ only to be interrupted by a series of well-meaning folk with notes. That those people were Tim Minchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear, Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and then Prince Charles made it a memorable moment indeed, transformed into a superlative one by Essiedu then re-composing himself to deliver a stunning rendition of the speech. How that Hamlet isn’t transferring to London I do not know.
Personally I wasn’t much of a fan of the Joseph Fiennes-narrated historical video clips, though I appreciate they were probably needed to cover set changes, but the musical interludes were lovely, Alison Moyet, The Shires and Ian Bostridge standing out for me. I could have done without an extended look at Antony Sher’s Falstaff too, though again I appreciate that he is part of the package deal these days, I took that opportunity to refresh my gin and bitter lemon. 
The majority of the finale was excellent though, Ian McKellen’s speech from Sir Thomas More, making the argument for the humane treatment of those forced to seek asylum; Helen Mirren reprising her Prospera all too briefly, and David Suchet joining Dench as her Oberon. Yes, it would have been nice to see a little more adventure in the casting – Harriet Walter’s ‘not yet’ in response to being asked whether she’d played the Dane was cute but telling – though perhaps this wasn’t the time or place. A varied celebration of varying strengths then.

Shakespeare Solos – Part 1

“But I do think it is their husbands’ faults if wives do fall”
There’s going to be a lot of Shakespearean content coming our way in the next couple of months as we approach the 400th anniversary of his death and the Guardian have got in early with the first part of their Shakespeare Solos. Six leading actors performing favourite monologues from the Bard, directed by Dan Susman, it’s all rather luxurious, especially when we get the delights of Eileen Atkins in beautifully conversational mode as Othello’s Emilia, Adrian Lester returning to Hamlet and Roger Allam whetting the appetite for a King Lear which will surely be one of the wonders of the modern world once it happens.
And if a couple of the choices here smack a little of sneaky advertising, then so what. Better to have opportunities for people to book and see more if they are so inspired by these clips. Atkins is reprising her solo show at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Ayesha Dharker (here as Titania) will open in the RSC’s mammoth tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream later this month. It might not be Hamlet but Adrian Lester can be seen being differently Shakespearean in Red Velvet and most tenuously of all though still thoroughly theatrical, David Morrissey (a hypnotic Richard III) can be seen for another month in Hangmen.

Review: The Moderate Soprano, Hampstead

“The people of Tunbridge Wells seemed strangely indifferent to Parsifal”

Urgh. The presence of national treasures Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam meant that there was never any doubt about booking a ticket for The Moderate Soprano at the Hampstead Theatre. But sequestered in the salubrious surroundings of Swiss Cottage, David Hare’s tale of the life of John Christie – the founder of the Glyndebourne opera festival – has the feel of ultimate #firstworldproblems with zero theatrical imperative behind it, unless of course you’re the ones dropping £200 plus for tickets there.

The very fact that Glyndebourne were involved in the commissioning of the play tells you what level we’re operating on, a self-congratulatory tome of rose-tinted biography and operatic in-jokes but even that makes it sound more interesting than it actually is. Jeremy Herrin’s production is extraordinarily, fatally, lacking in anything resembling drama for a large proportion of its running time, its staid storytelling quickening no pulses, its static staging troubling no snoozers.

Allam’s innate skill means he’s rarely less than watchable as a man struggling to bring his passion project to fruition but Carroll is severely under-used, even as the only woman in the cast, as his wife, their late-blooming (for him) love an interesting mis-match of a marriage. But the arguments for opera as the highest art form are purely designed to preach to the converted, the discussion about high prices strangely proud of its challenges to accessibility. 

The Moderate Soprano does finally get there in the end with a strong final movement but it is far too little too late – Hare and Glyndebourne’s inwards-looking celebration of itself may please its devotees but I can’t imagine it will win it any new fans. 

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)

Booking until 28th November

Film Review: The Lady in the Van


“You wouldn’t see Harold Pinter pushing vans down the street”
It is more than 15 years since Maggie Smith starred in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van in the West End but one can only imagine that the intervening years have deepened and enriched her performance as in this cinematic version, directed by Nicholas Hytner, she is just fantastic. The titular lady is Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous homeless woman who sets up shop on a Camden street in her junk-filled camper van and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bennett, in whose driveway she eventually convinces him to let her park.
This happened in real life to Bennett, she spent 15 or so years there in the end, and amping up the realism, the film was shot on location in the real street but it is also a highly theatrical version of events. Alex Jennings plays two iterations of Bennett, one the somewhat timid man, the other the acutely observational writer inside, and they often argue with each other, disagreeing on whether things happened a certain way, and debating his various reasons for letting Miss Shepherd so totally into his life.
And in Smith’s hands, one can see the manipulative power she must have wielded. Fearsomely unapologetic, even Christmas presents from children are received with a scowl, and brazenly haughty despite the reality of her guilt-ridden loneliness, she nonetheless winkles her way under Bennett’s skin. And fiercely protective over the details of her past, hints of her younger years as a pianist, a French speaker, a nun, slowly spill forth, providing the film with a certain narrative propulsion. It’s a scabrously funny performance too, dry wit infused into every line making her a joy to watch.
Hytner can’t resist the opportunity to load, possibly even overload, the rest of the film with his theatrical connections though. For the upper middle class residents of Gloucester Crescent, casting the likes of Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay just about works for the fruity luvvies who are Bennett’s friends and neighbours. Shoehorning in cameos for all eight original History Boys is pushing it though – the bits of rough in their 70s wigs are fine but James Corden’s vicious-tongued market stallholder feels misjudged.
So it’s a rare supporting character that actually breaks through to become someone interesting. Gwen Taylor manages it as Bennett’s Mam, kept at arm’s length by him even with his fondness for her, and so perhaps suggesting that the relationship with Miss Shepherd had some root in familial guilt. And Cecilia Noble’s social worker comes closest to interrogating Bennett’s actions with any degree of insight but only to a very limited degree as writer and director collude to keep things from digging too deep.
In recompense, there’re flashbacks into Miss Shepherd’s past which seek to give context and an odd sub-plot with Jim Broadbent trying to do threatening which doesn’t really pay off, but at its heart, The Lady in the Van is by far at its best when it is a whimsical comedy anchored by two cracking performances from Alex Jennings and the truly extraordinary Dame Maggie Smith.


CD Review: City of Angels (Original London Cast Recording 1993)

“I’m one of a long line of good girls”

I was no real fan of the Donmar’s recent production of City of Angels, Josie Rourke’s direction ending up rather po-faced with all its noirish elements played deadly seriously, hardly the introduction one wants to a musical that many had acclaimed highly to me. But turning to the 1993 Original London Cast Recording of Cy Coleman, David Zippel and Larry Gelbart’s show, their quite different take on the material made me reappraise the show completely.
One might not be able to tell exactly how Michael Blakemore’s direction played out from listening to this CD but the sprightliness of Billy Byers’ orchestrations and the lighter touch of Richard Balcombe’s musical direction makes the whole thing seem like a much more fun affair. City of Angels is a pastiche after all, or an homage for the more earnestly minded amongst us, and played with a more warm-hearted and less self-conscious approach, it connected much more with me.

Whether Haydn Gwynne’s seductive Oolie purring her way through ‘You Can Always Count On Me’, Fiona Hendley’s Bobbi slinkily working her way through torch song ‘With Every Breath I Take’ or Henry Goodman’s Buddy wrapping his movie-producing manipulation in great charisma in ‘The Buddy System’, the music just jumps into life here in a way I just don’t remember the Donmar ever achieving (I do wish I could go back and revisit it to see if it was just the way I was feeling that night…).
This production’s trump card is Roger Allam though as fictional detective Stone who, despite some interesting but lovable accent work in his constant Marlowe-esque narration, connects beautifully with whomever he’s singing with – ‘Double Talk’ and ‘Tennis Song’ with Susannah Fellows, the Angel City Four on ‘Ev’rybody’s Gotta Be Somewhere’ or Martin Smith’s novelist Stine on the stone-cold classic Act One closer ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’, he’s the epitome of Roger Allamish wonderfulness, it all just works so well with him. Now to pester the Donmar for a belated transfer so I can revisit my original opinions…