Humming the set

is what some reviewers said they found themselves doing after the first night of Lionel Bart’s Blitz, way back in the sixties. Meaning they found the set (Sean Kenny) more memorable than the songs, or anything else in the show. (It ran for nearly two years despite their comments.) I could have said the same about Les Miz when I saw it at the Barbican way back in 1985 (set by John Napier), which – it goes without saying – is still running despite my opinion.

Les Mis (Michael le Poer Trench)

(Michael le Poer Trench)

I can remember a production of Trojan Women at the National (not the Katie Mitchell version) where the set consisted entirely of a mountain, and I was so concerned for the actors – or actresses for the most part – having to negotiate their way from one part of it to another without breaking a limb I didn’t take in a word they said. I also remember on another occasion in a production of, I think, Love’s Labours Lost, an upstage staircase that stretched from stage level up to fly level which had to be negotiated by entering and exiting actors, at speed. And while miraculously throughout the whole evening only one of them tripped the suspense was unbearable and the distraction, needless to say, even more so.

The same could not quite be said of the National’s production of The Magistrate, though the set – based on a pop-up book which folds and swivels and at one point threatens to squash the cast like cartoon characters – was definitely, for me, the star of the show (designer Katrina Lindsay) It was infinitely more absorbing to watch than the (slightly irritating) sub-Gilbert and Sullivan chorus whose purpose was to cover the scene changes. In fact the highlight of the evening was being able to see the Olivier’s drum revolve in its full glory, emerging from the depths, swivelling and splitting into two – the first time I can recall seeing it used in such a way.

Magistrate 3

The Magistrate (designer Katrina Lindsay)

It was an odd space for a play that’s so obviously written for proscenium arch. As the director Timothy Sheader said in the Platform talk before the show there are the doors, and the asides that characters are meant to deliver to the audience the moment they enter through them, and all this doesn’t fit naturally onto the open stage of the Olivier. So taking that into consideration it was a triumph. But despite John Lithgow’s non-appearance (the understudy did a great job but …) I still found it a strange choice to replace The Count of Monte Cristo.

Master and Margarita 1

The Master & Margarita (wikipedia)

The set certainly stars in The Master and Margarita (designer Es Devlin), along with the lighting, the sound, the special effects, the back projection, the performances – Paul Rhys in particular as both the Master and the Devil – and the wondrous precision and inventiveness you expect of a Complicite show. I also thought they managed to tell the story, scatological as it is (I hope that’s the right word – I’ve never used it before), pretty well. But something in me misses the simplicity of the old Complicite shows, before technology and spectacle got to star – and sometimes distract from – the performers.

The set of 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is definitely, and quite rightly, one of the four – or five, counting the animator (Paul Barritt) – stars of this show, which I saw two years ago at the BAC and enjoyed even more the other day at the Lyttelton.

The perfect show: the Caretaker rescues little (cartoon) Evie (guardian.co.uk)

On three stage flats are projected the crumbling, cockroach-ridden walls of the dreaded Bayou (‘Born in the Bayou, you die in the Bayou’), a slum tenement in an unnamed city, perhaps Paris, perhaps London, perhaps nowhere in particular. Three supremely talented women – Suzanne Andrade, Esme Appleton and Lillian Henley – portray a collection of characters including a lugubrious caretaker with a heart of gold, an idealistic young mother who believes all the poor, disadvantaged children need is love, encouragement ‘and a little bit of collage’, a whorehouse madame and her pirate daughter, and many others. The rest of the cast – the children, the animals and the police – is animated, but cartoon and real people interact perfectly. It is funny, dark, sardonic, sophisticated, unexpected and sweetly moving. In a phrase, it is perfect. I would urge everyone to see it if it hadn’t, sadly, finished its run last week.

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