Review: The Cardinal, Southwark Playhouse

“A poet’s art is to lead on your thoughts through subtle paths and workings of a plot. I will say nothing positive; you may think what you please…”

It’s not too often that I open a review with mention of the sound design but Max Pappenheim’s work in The Little at the Southwark Playhouse is undoubtedly worthy of the accolade. In this intimate auditorium on the architecturally clean lines of Anna Reid’s set, there’s an extraordinary sense of being in vaulted palace chambers and cathedrals as echoes and reverberations amplify our imaginations perfectly.

It’s the kind of creative invention that those familiar with director Justin Audibert have come to expect and it is thrilling to see it maintained whether working in the vast Royal Shakespeare Theatre where his recent Snow in Midsummer was excellent, or on this much smaller scale where it is a real delight to see someone really understanding how to play to all sides of a thrust stage. There’s also a fascinating choice of material here in this revival of James Shirley’s The Cardinal, a 1641 play whose claim to fame is being one of the last to be performed before Oliver Cromwell pulled the plug on show-business.

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Review: Don Quixote, Swan

“We are all gathering dust here, none of us have much to do”

It’s a tough job being an actor junkie. Even whilst trying to cut down on the amount of theatre I see, I find it immensely hard to turn down the opportunity to watch long-admired actors in the flesh, hence dragging myself to see A Christmas Carol for Jim Broadbent, overriding my Pinter-averse instincts to book for Timothy Spall in The Caretaker, and heading to Stratford-upon-Avon to see David Threlfall return to the RSC, over 35 years since he was last there.

Drawing him back is a new adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote by poet James Fenton (pulling the focus a bit in marking the 400th anniversary of someone else’s death) that is filled with mayhem and music and madness and melancholy. Determined to translate the world of chivalry of which he has read so much, Don Quixote sets out on his own quest to become a wandering knight, carrying out acts of derring-do with his hapless squire but finding that fictional romantic ideal increasingly hard to come by. Continue reading “Review: Don Quixote, Swan”

Review: The School for Scandal, Park Theatre

“I bear no malice to the people I abuse”

Sparkling reinterpretations of 18th century comedies have become something of an annual treat from Jessica Swale’s Red Handed Theatre company and following on from the delights of the Celia Imrie-starring The Rivals, the remounting of Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem and last year’s excellent The Busy Body, it is now the turn of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal to be primped and preened in their deliciously inimitable style. So for those as yet uninitiated to their ways, prepare for witty musical interludes and warmly embracing audience interaction as a vivacious ensemble romp through this comedy of manners.

Led by the machinations of the vicious-tongued Lady Sneerwell – Belinda Lang in epically glam form – Sheridan’s plot winds through a portion of the higher echelons of London society and exposes the gossip-fuelled hypocrisy at the heart of it. Lady Sneerwell wants others to suffer the loss of reputation she has; Sir Peter Teazle is concerned about the flightiness of his flirtatious younger wife; Sir Oliver Surface wants to test the mettle of his two nephews who stand to inherit his vast fortune; and above all, everyone wants to be the first to tell the juiciest pieces of gossip with the most salacious details.

It is these scenes which glitter the best – Michael Bryher’s Sir Benjamin Backbite and Buffy Davis’ Mrs Candour delight in outdoing each other with the latest tidbits and Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Teazle gives as good as she gets, even as she sees the effect of the ridicule on her husband, a battered if not quite elderly enough Daniel Gosling. But there’s much fun too with the errant nephews. Harry Kerr’s ruffled and raffish Charles can’t hide his innate goodness even at the heights of his carousing, and Tom Berish’s Joseph is just excellent as the seductively handsome one that everyone likes, little suspecting his most devious nature.    

The production is always light-hearted and fun – a trick with a book is particularly well played, the programme is a work of genius and Fi Russell’s costumes are a bejewelled array of lush fabric – but there’s also a sureness to Swale’s direction as she constantly refines and sharpens her approach. Laura Forrest-Hay once again contributes original music rather than pastiches of pop songs, the portrait gallery ditty and the raucous lark in the park number add to the general feel of a delightful romp, unafraid to play it to the back of the (admittedly intimate) Park Theatre but crucially never takes itself too seriously.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 7th July


Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Laburnum Grove, Finborough

“I ought to be thankful I’ve got a nice honest, sleepy old thing like you”

Continuing their practice of reviving long neglected classics, JB Priestley’s early comedy Laburnum Grove is the latest work to receive the Finborough treatment, in this case a turn in the limited Sunday/Monday slot. But though their hit rate has been quite successful, this slice of melodramatic suburban life was a rare misfire for me with a solid production unable to disguise a rather aimless story or its meandering intent. 

The Radfern family lives a quietly respectable life in the suburb of Laburnum Grove but patriarch George’s patience is sorely tried when the in-laws, staying with them for the duration, make yet another request for money and his daughter’s prospective fiancé likewise proffers an expectant palm, an unexpected revelation shakes up everyone’s certainties. Well I say shake, it’s more like a ruffle, as the pace and mood of this 1930s piece never really picks up from its initial gentle mood. Continue reading “Review: Laburnum Grove, Finborough”

Review: She Stoops to Conquer, National Theatre

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no fibs”

Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century comedy She Stoops to Conquer was last seen at the National Theatre in 2002 in an Out of Joint co-production, but has now been revived by the seemingly tireless Jamie Lloyd with a star-studded ensemble dripping with talent, both established and new, and breathing an entirely fresh energy into the Olivier theatre.

This comedy of manners centres on the Hardcastle clan, a family of means in the country: daughter Kate is due to be married off to young Marlow, the son of a friend of Mr Hardcastle’s but she is determined to ensure the match is to her liking; Mrs Hardcastle is determined to have her heiress ward Miss Neville married off to her own son Tony in order to keep her fortune in the family though Miss Neville’s attentions are focused on Marlow’s friend Hastings. But when Marlow and Hastings get lost on their way from London and end up in a bawdy inn frequented by Tony, he espies an opportunity to make mayhem and sets in chain a series of mischiefs, misunderstandings and mistaken identities as convoluted courtships and class differences collide in the countryside. Continue reading “Review: She Stoops to Conquer, National Theatre”

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Theatre Kingston

“Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?”

She’s back!! I’m referring of course to Aunty Jean who popped down for the evening for some dinner and a little theatrical amusement. The play in question was A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring a reunited Peter Hall directing and Judi Dench as Titania, 40 years on since their last collaboration in these two roles. “The wisest aunt” casually regaled me with her (not sad) tales of seeing Peter Hall’s redefining production of this self-same play and McKellen and Dench in Macbeth as we sipped some vile pinot grigio at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, anticipating the treats in store and giggling at the warning of the use of ‘haze’ in the performance.

The conceit is that Dench is actually playing Elizabeth I, as she does in a brief wordless prologue where she opens a performance of a play, who then materialises as Titania in the same dress. It’s an interesting take which works almost entirely due to the warmth radiating from her performance. The scenes when she is bewitched are just delightful, her coos and chuckles with her paramour display all the ecstasy of a lust-fuelled passion simply through the strength of her verse-reading. She also displays some considerable stamina: at one point laying slumbering with her neck in a most awkward position for such a long time, and let us not forget she is 75 now, that I did worry for her joints: I don’t think I could have stayed that still for that long, at least without falling asleep!

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