Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

The Breadwinner, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, April 2013

21 April, 2013

People are trapped by the expectations of society, and it can take a dramatic rupture from convention to move on with your life. This was something Somerset Maugham dealt with in his 1916 novel The Moon and Sixpence, published when he was forty-two, which is precisely the age of Charlie Battle in this play.

Charlie and Alfred, all images Robert Day

Charlie and Alfred, all images Robert Day

Maugham himself, born into a family of distinguished lawyers, opted out of a conventional life when he first decided against a legal career, and then after qualifying as a doctor he abandoned professional life for writing. In this clever play, Charlie is not a lawyer or doctor, but a stockbroker living comfortably with a wife, son and daughter in Golders Green. We also meet his close friend and solicitor named Alfred, who has a wife, son and daughter of similar ages.

Alfred's daughter, Charlie's son

Alfred’s daughter, Charlie’s son

Auriol Smith’s well-directed revival of The Breadwinner has two intervals, and we only meet Charlie just before the first one, having already met the others. They come in various states of vacuity, though they think themselves pretty clever, thoughtful and witty, and all agree that Charlie lacks a sense of humour. In fact, Charlie is the only one who has a sense of humour — the only one who can laugh at himself.

Charlie's wife

Charlie’s wife

Alfred's wife

Alfred’s wife

It all starts with the four callow young people whose naïve ideas that anyone over forty is a dead loss (and it’s a good job so many of them died in the Great War) brought smiles and laughter from the audience. His son Patrick is the worst offender, a clever young man who aims for politics and wants to jump on the Labour bandwagon with no clue about life unsupported by the comforts afforded by a substantial income. But if the young ones are idiotic so are the grown-ups, with Mark Frost and Isla Carter as the bouncy good humoured Alfred and his emotionally too-clever-by-half wife, so sure that they understand what goes on in the minds of others, and Cate Debenham-Taylor so pretty as Charlie’s artistically worthy wife.

You just want someone to put these fools in their places, and Ian Targett as Charlie does it in a cleverly disingenuous way. Three women bounce off him like flies hitting a window pane, and the only person he has any sympathy for is his daughter. Perhaps he will meet her again, but you can see why Targett’s beautifully acted Charlie would be happy to get rid of the rest of them.

Performances of this satisfying production continue until May 18 — for details click here.

Peter and Alice, Noël Coward Theatre, March 2013

25 March, 2013

Imagine yourself, as a child, the subject of a book — the protagonist in a series of whimsical adventures that happen around you. How would it affect your future life? Being true to yourself and dispensing with the image formed by millions of readers may be hard. And does it make any difference whether you’re a girl or a boy? In this play there is one of each, the Peter of Peter Pan and the Alice of Alice in Wonderland.

— check back later for images, when available —

They are quite different. Peter Llewelyn Davies and his four brothers were informally adopted by J M Barrie after their father’s death, and Barrie publicly indentified him as ‘the original Peter Pan’. By contrast, Alice Liddell, daughter of scholar Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, was only twice in her life alone in the company of Rev Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) who wrote the Alice books. At least that is what she says in this new play by Peter Logan.

The play refers to a break between Charles Dodgson and the Liddell family in June 1863 when Alice was 11, and associates this to Alice’s feeling uncomfortable in Dodgson’s company once when he took a photograph of her (he was a keen amateur photographer). But the central truth in this drama is a meeting between Peter and Alice that took place at Columbia University in America on the centenary of Dodgson’s birth in 1932 when Alice was 80. It was the first time that Peter Llewelyn Davies, aged 35, had met the widow Mrs. Alice Liddell Hargreaves, and Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench brought their characters very much to life.

As they talk, the young Alice and the young Peter join them, along with J M Barrie and Charles Dodgson, brilliantly played by Nicholas Farrell. Judi Dench brings out razor-sharp responses from Alice, as if she were one of the queens in Through the Looking Glass, overwhelming Peter with her intelligence and insight. As present meets past we see the proposal from her future husband Reginald Hargreaves, nervous that a girl from her intellectual background will simply dismiss him.

When the meeting between Peter and Alice took place, the First World War was over, and the world they grew up in was gone. We hear of Peter’s searing experience in that war, and at the end of the play we find out he committed suicide by jumping in front of an Underground train at Sloane Square in 1960. By contrast, Alice died peacefully two years after this meeting.

Good set and costume designs by Christopher Oram, and lighting by Paule Constable, served this Michael Grandage production very well. Fine acting — and I went for the actors — but I found its 90 minutes insufficiently compelling.

Performances continue until June 1 — for details click here.

Sauce for the Goose, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, December 2012

22 December, 2012

Just the ticket for the Christmas season, this Feydeau farce is huge fun. The driving force is marital infidelity, real and imagined, and what’s sauce for the goose is …

1.Sauce for the Goose_Orange Tree Theatre_1

M et Mme Pontagnac

Bedroom doors opening, closing, locking and unlocking, … all done in the round — how is it possible? The answer is doorless doors, working very cleverly with noises off, and compared with a farce of that name this is far more enjoyable. There is no tripping over things, no overt clowning, and though the first two acts last nearly two hours they flew by in wonderfully entertaining fashion.

Not what he bargained for

Not what he bargained for

It all starts with bright cheerful music and the world seems so simple, until Lucienne enters pursued by the impossible Monsieur de Pontagnac. Thinking he can have her as she takes revenge on her husband Vatelin, he ends up being the fool of the piece, and rather than getting sauce for the gander, finds his goose to be well and truly cooked. The translation by Peter Meyer has plenty of nice lines and the play on the words dog and hound by Heidi, who spoke bits of perfectly good German in her confused anxiety, was very amusing. Blood-dog for blood-hound, lap-hound for lap-dog, and being dogged into bed came over with spontaneous wit.

She's exhausted him

She’s exhausted him

Act III starts with a cheerful march, perhaps reminding us of the military man Pinchard and his wife who take the bedroom booked by Vatelin, creating utter confusion at the end of Act II. The music, translation, and timing brought this delightful farce to life, with fine acting from the whole cast, including notable performances by Stuart Fox as an engagingly simple husband Vatelin, Beth Cordingly as a prim, proper, determinedly vengeful wife Lucienne, and Damien Matthews as the lover she would gladly embrace if she could manage it.

Someone's in the wrong bed

Someone’s in the wrong bed

I don’t like the dropped trousers and silly moments of some farces, but love Fawlty Towers, which is farce par excellence. The important thing is that the characters play it seriously, as they do in this excellent production by Sam Walters. After all, adultery is a serious business, and Feydeau’s knack for immediately bringing together people who should never meet one another makes for laughter that keeps us riveted from beginning to end.

Performances continue until February 2 — for details click here.

Love’s Comedy, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, November 2012

26 November, 2012

When Ibsen was about 21 he fell in love with Clara Ebbell, an intelligent, spirited girl two years his junior, considered to be the town’s most brilliant young lady. A similar thing happens in this play to the poet Falk and his beloved Svanhild, one of two daughters in a house presided over by Mrs Halm. All the names mean something: Falk refers to the falcon, representing liberty, freedom and victory; Svanhild to a mythological Nordic princess trampled to death by her horses after choosing true love, and Halm refers to a fortified homestead.

Svanhild and Falk, all images Orange Tree/ Robert Day

This is a battle between young love and convention, with Mark Arends giving a razor sharp performance as Falk, ever ready to respond, dispute and pierce the protective skin of others. Can he win Sarah Winter’s dreamily perspicacious Svanhild, who very ably matches his words and mockery?

Julia Watson as Mrs Halm

In the meantime there are other couples to put life in perspective. Svanhild’s sister Anna, beautifully and simply played by Jessica Clark, and the young Lind who has a clear direction to his life … until it changes under pressure from Mrs Halm and others. Those others include Styver, a civil servant and coin of low value, well portrayed by Mark Oosterveen, along with his fiancée the bold, nosey and noisy Miss Jay whose pinched intensity was ably captured by Amy Neilson Smith. And Pastor Strawmand, very engagingly played by Stuart Fox with his mellifluous voice, yet this man of straw cannot stand up to Falk, who metaphorically knocks him over. Can anyone stand up to Falk? Well, there is the wealthy Mr.Guldstad, and one must see this early Ibsen play to find out how things resolve themselves in the second half.

It’s worth every minute of our attention in this riveting production by David Antrobus, aided by Katy Mills’ lovely costumes and powerfully evocative music by Dan Jones. This was complemented by the director’s extra music for lyrics by Don Carleton, who made the excellent translation.

Wonderful imagery in the first part as Falk sees Svanhild as the warm air that will lift the falcon to glorious heights, and she sees herself as a string holding the kite — but the string can always be cut. And in the second half, the pastor’s pleading speech to Falk to remove the boulder that he has suddenly placed in his path was beautifully delivered by Stuart Fox. These performances of an early and relatively unknown Ibsen play are not to be missed.

Performances continue until December 15 — for details click here.

Medea, Richmond Theatre, November 2012

21 November, 2012

In the original Greek play by Euripides, Medea is a barbarian princess brought to Corinth by Jason as his wife. After he leaves her to marry the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, her sexual and vengeful energy finds a way to burn up those holding power over the civilization she finds herself in.

In this modern tragic-comic version of the story by Mike Bartlett, Corinth is a small-town housing estate, Creon owns the house she lives in, and Aegeus, the king who offers her a safe haven to his city of Athens hoping she will help him father a child, is a man with a house in Spain.

Interior of the house

The fine designs by Ruari Murchison allow us to see the interior of Medea’s house, as well as its neat façade when the walls close up. At the end, where in Euripides’ original Medea ascends into the chariot of the sun god, the roof of the house opens and we see the full horror. It is all very cleverly done, with superb music and sound design by Tom Mills. Towards the end when Jason (Adam Levy) comes to see Medea on his wedding eve and try to settle things, she says, “I forgive you”, and the music stops dead. They go upstairs to her room, and the little boy in the next room wakes up. The designs allow us to see it all, and bring it alive as a modern drama.

Medea and her boy

Medea herself is brilliantly portrayed by Rachael Stirling. Clever, mercurial, narcissistic and appallingly low on self-esteem, the text even allows her neighbours Sarah (Lu Corfield) and Pam (Amelia Lowdell) the use of modern psychological terms such as, “She’s transferring her anger”. Her feeling of being an outsider is well captured when she complains about Sarah and Pam having known one another for years, when in fact they have only just met. The bitchiness at the beginning of the play pales into insignificance as things move on, and Medea’s barbed comments turn to a native cunning whose consequences catch us by surprise.

Jason and Medea

Rachael Stirling, whose mother Diana Rigg played the same role in Euripides’ play twenty years ago, gives a riveting performance of a woman who sees in the breakdown of her marriage a grievous insult to her own wit and intelligence. Other people are simple-minded clots, except for Jason, the landlord (Creon) and his daughter (Glauce), who will find everything they cherish burn to oblivion in the fire of her revenge. Her portrayal demands a visit to this intriguing production by the Headlong theatre group.

Performances continue until November 24 — for details click here — after which it goes to the Northcott Theatre, Exeter until December 1.

A Walk Through the End of Time, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, November 2012

20 November, 2012

In Summer 1940 as a member of the French forces, Olivier Messiaen became a POW at Stalag VIII-A in Silesia. The future looked extremely bleak and he composed Quartet for the End of Time, performed by himself and three fellow prisoners in January 1941. “Never have I been listened to with so much attention and understanding”, he later recalled.

The circumstances of composition dictated the instruments: piano, violin, cello and clarinet, with the piano played by Messiaen, and the clarinet by Henri Akoka, both of whom are background characters in this two-hander by Jessica Duchen. She originally wrote it for the opening of a new performance space at St. Nazaire in France to celebrate the centenary of Messiaen’s birth, and as a prelude to the quartet. Here at the Orange Tree in Richmond it was followed by a brief presentation and question and answer session by Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and later Bergen-Belsen.

Harriet Walters and Henry Goodman

Ms. Duchen’s play was performed in a ‘rehearsed reading’ by Henry Goodman and Harriet Walters, who brought their characters beautifully to life. She the daughter of a man who was imprisoned with Messiaen, he a scientist with a strong religious faith, meeting again before a concert of the quartet, having not seen one another since their divorce twenty-five years ago. At that time she glimpsed the possibility of something different from the spiritual journey he was making, and left him, “I needed more” she said. “Because your father did so much more than we ever could”, came the response. A good point perhaps, but they were far apart in a way illuminated by his admiration for Messiaen’s religious beliefs, “Messiaen believed in God”. “And my father believed in man. Like me!”

He is Messiaen, she Akoka, a spirited and witty musician with a great sense of humour and an ability to hang on to his own clarinet through thick and thin. After leaving Stalag VIII-A and being transported by cattle truck on suspicion of being Jewish, which he was, he escaped through the roof and jumped from the moving train, clarinet in hand.

Should we applaud Akoka’s pragmatism, or Messiaen’s religiosity? Both are valid but music transcends them, and as she says about the quartet, “I had a longing for an emotion I knew must exist because it’s in the music”. At this point a performance of the quartet would be perfect, but the play stands on its own and should be performed more often. At one hour long it is only slightly shorter than another two-hander currently winning four star reviews in the West End, but it is far deeper and far more compelling. Let us hope this ‘rehearsed reading’ is the prelude to something further.

For details about the background to Ms. Duchen’s play see her article in The Independent.

Constellations, Duke of York’s Theatre, November 2012

17 November, 2012

Actions have consequences, but change the action very slightly and the consequences change. That is the theme of this two-hander with Roland (Rafe Spall) a bee-keeper representing the simple, reliable world of bees, and Marianne (Sally Hawkins) a highly-strung particle physicist representing the complexities of the quantum world.

In quantum physics a particle can be in multiple states, unknown and undetermined until compelled to choose by interacting with another particle. Such is the philosophy behind Schrödinger’s Cat, which is both alive and dead at the same time until the box is opened. Projecting quantum indeterminacy into the real world leads either to nothing unusual, as all the tiny indeterminacies cancel out, or to parallel universes. This play goes for the latter.

Marianne and Roland, image/ Johan Persson

The heart of the matter is love, marriage, infidelity, and terminal illness. Each brief scene is replayed with slight variations, leading sometimes to no real change, at other times to entirely different consequences. In between the replays are some very fine lighting tricks as the stage goes dark and lights come on again in a different form. I loved the scenes in which he proposes marriage, to be rejected or accepted or simply to lose the plot.

At first it all seems to be going very slowly, yet we see the vicissitudes of two lives, and everything is over in 70 minutes. Fine direction by Michael Longhurst and wonderful lighting by Lee Curran for Nick Payne’s imaginative play that has transferred from the Jerwood Theatre, upstairs at the Royal Court, to the West End. Audiences see the disquieting prospect of parallel worlds allowing replays of life’s little interactions, and life itself.

Performances continue January 5 — for details click here.

Twelfth Night, Apollo Theatre, November 2012

8 November, 2012

In Shakespeare’s day a ‘Lord of Misrule’ would call for entertainment and songs on Twelfe Night, a tradition going back to the medieval Feast of Fools and even the Roman Saturnalia. His play celebrates this by making a fool of the miserable Malvolio, hilariously played here by Stephen Fry, with Sir Toby Belch and others representing the spirit of festive enjoyment.

Played with an all male cast, as in Shakespeare’s original, it was hugely illuminating and fun, particularly with the confusion of identities between Viola/Cesario and her twin brother Sebastian, whom she thought lost to a shipwreck. This production by Tim Carroll has transferred from the Globe where it was impossible to get tickets, and the seats on either side of the stage representing the Globe audience, along with musicians above the set, help to recreate the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s own theatre. As in that venue the performers danced together on stage at the end, rounding off a super evening’s entertainment. Delightful designs by Jenny Tiramani, well lit by David Plater, and the music by Claire van Kampen was ideal, with spontaneous applause from the audience after the musicians’ crescendo at the start of part two.

You won’t find a better cast for this huge bundle of fun. Peter Hamilton Dyer was a wily and bright-eyed jester, and Mark Rylance a cleverly subdued and pretty Olivia, very different from the bullish Orsino of Liam Brennan, who doesn’t seem to realise he fancies his servant Cesario, really Viola, beautifully played by Johnny Flynn as a girl disguised as a man. Here is the theatrical joy of an all-male cast, and Olivia’s servant Maria was gloriously played as a wittily assertive woman by Paul Chahidi. But then there are the real men, or people who think they’re real men, like the idiotic Sir Andrew Aguecheek hilariously portrayed by Roger Lloyd Pack, with Colin Hurley as Olivia’s rowdy cousin Sir Toby Belch. The two of them, along with James Garnon as Fabian, made a fine trio of jokers, listening in the tree house while Malvolio reads that mischievous letter.

At this point Stephen Fry was an utter delight, and the audience roared with applause as he hopped off after reading the letter, returning for the postscript. In the second part, thinking he’s on a winner and persistently smiling at Olivia, he came over as a sympathetic character, easily misled into believing he could raise his status. Of such errors is life made and entertainment provided, as Shakespeare knew so well. An iconic reading of the role in a wonderful production — get tickets if you can.

Performances continue until February 9, 2013 — for details click here.

The Judas Kiss, Richmond Theatre, October 2012

30 October, 2012

This David Hare play focuses on two moments in Oscar Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). One is at the Cadogan Hotel during the day leading up to his arrest, the other in Naples after his release from prison.

Bosie, Robbie, Wilde

The audience found several of Wilde’s lines amusingly witty, and some of Bosie’s breathtakingly narcissistic. This obnoxious young man was well portrayed by Freddie Fox, his admirable physique well befitting the nude scenes, though Tom Colley as Bosie’s Italian lover in Naples arguably beat him in this respect. Cal MacAninch as Robbie Ross, an ex-lover of Wilde who adores him and wants to help him, was very convincing, and the scene with the hotel servants was well played, but Rupert Everett made an unsympathetic Wilde. It’s essential to feel for him, otherwise the play rather loses its point.

Everett as Wilde

In an interview in the programme, David Hare is asked why he picked the two moments he did, and to what extent the dialogue was Hare’s own invention — the answer is most of it. Among numerous other questions and answers, the one asking what the author was trying to achieve is absent: was the intention to explain Wilde’s demise, was it to grieve over a relationship that halted Wilde’s creative genius, or was there some other purpose? However, in an article by Wilde’s only grandson — well worth the price of the programme — Merlin Holland wishes he could ask his grandfather one single question, ’Why on earth did you do it?’ suing Bosie’s father, landing himself in gaol and allowing society to rid itself of a rebel “who called into question … the hypocrisy of those social, sexual and literary values upon which Victorian society was so firmly based”.

The creative team that put this on has done a terrific job. Fine direction by Neil Armfield with excellent designs and costumes by Dale Ferguson and Sue Blaine, and clever lighting by Rick Fisher that allows the audience to experience the passing of many hours as Wilde sits almost immobilised.

Bosie and lover

Time waits for no man, but at the end of this play it seems that Wilde is waiting for time so it can annihilate him. I would have preferred more depth.

Performances at Richmond continue until November 3 — for details click here — after which it goes to the Theatre Royal Brighton, November 5–10, before opening in the West End at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 17 January 2013 (previews from 9 January).

Paris Alexandros, by Euripides, Actors of Dionysus, October 2012

29 October, 2012

This was a theatrical reading at Europe House in London on 25th October 2012.

Euripides’ play The Women of Troy starts two days after the Greeks have taken the city, and ends with Queen Hekabe stepping forward into slavery. It is the final part of a Trojan Trilogy whose first two parts are largely lost, but inspired by known fragments of Euripides’ work, David Stuttard has given an imaginative recreation of the first play: Paris Alexandros. As he says, seeing only the final play is like seeing the end of Hamlet without the rest, and the full trilogy is important for understanding the playwright’s take on a great Trojan misadventure.

Here we find Queen Hekabe contemptuous of a young man brought up by shepherds who named him Alexandros. She encounters the youth when the shepherds accompany him to Troy on the day of the annual games honouring the childhood death of her son Paris. He wants to compete, and though she dismisses him as a mere slave, King Priam is more sympathetic. He accepts him as an athlete and the youth fulfils his promise, besting the king’s sons Hector and Deiphobus and winning the games. To assuage the envious fury of Deiphobus, Hekabe plans to kill the youth by offering him a poisoned drink, and sends for her daughter Cassandra.

Having already abandoned her infant son Paris to death following a dream whose interpretation was that he would cause the destruction of the city, Hekabe will now kill some other innocent. But when Cassandra hands him the poisoned drink … she lets the cup fall in horror. Suddenly her gift of prophecy is in full flood as she sees the future of Troy. In a theatrical speech that reminded me of Isolde’s Seht ihr’s freunde, seht ihr’s nicht? she calls to her mother, can’t you see it, can’t you see it? — a thousand ships, the death of her own brothers, her father, the capture of Troy, the enslavement of its women. “Kill him!” she screams, for this Alexandros is her brother Paris whose abduction of Helen from Sparta will cause the downfall of Troy.

But it is Cassandra’s fate that no one ever believes her prophecies, and Hekabe is delighted. Paris has returned and defeated all of Troy in the games, so the prophecy is fulfilled and there is no more to fear. General celebration, and he must now stay at home forever. Of course he will … but first he must fulfil his destiny by visiting Sparta.

Stuttard’s theatrical reconstruction of the play, beautifully performed by the Actors of Dionysus, reduced some audience members to tears, particularly in the scene where Cassandra, brilliantly played by artistic director Tamsin Shasha, foretells the future. Fenella Fielding gave a thoroughly convincing performance of her mother Hekabe, and Carol Royle as Athene delivered a gripping speech at the start of the play. Matt Barber made a coolly handsome Alexandros, and the whole cast was uniformly excellent, as was James Albrecht’s direction.

Seeing this performed by the Actors of Dionysus was a treat, and for more information on the Trojan Trilogy as reconstructed by David Stuttard, click here.