Jack Absolute Flies Again


This wartime spoof on Sheridan’s The Rivals, by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris and playing at the National’s Olivier Theatre, seems to have mostly impressed the critics. It certainly impressed the audience on the preview performance I attended.

However I was disappointed. I love farce, I spent a good deal of my youth acting in plays by the likes of Ben Travers and I learned – mostly from the farce master, the (late) actor Ben Whitrow – that it must be played at speed, with deadly seriousness, and above all with a light touch.

Ben Whitrow (rottentomatoes.com)

It’s this last quality that is missing from the production, in my view. Here and there are the odd very funny lines, some but not all of which are well-delivered. Posh Lydia’s inept attempts at rhyming slang did not always hit the mark. And the Malapropisms are laboured and delivered with a sledge-hammer. On the other hand the scene between the maid Lucy, when she picks up on the fact that would-be poet Bikram, aka Tony, is nicking lines from Shakespeare and Keats, is as funny as it is unlikely.

But all in all there were only two performances I could properly believe in. Helena Melville, as Lydia’s friend Julia, plays her with a true sincerity that is straight out of the 1940s. And the star of the show, in my humble opinion, is Tim Steed, who unlike most of the rest of the cast brings a reality that is both hilarious and occasionally poignant to his character Brian Coventry, manager of the base, thanks to his underplaying and lightness of touch. A true successor to the late and great Ben Whitrow.

Ben Whitrow & yours truly in Happy the Bride, Bradford, 1960s
Ben perched on sofa, yours truly behind him,
Happy the Bride

Children of the Sun

Protasov’s gate is stuck half open, which is unfortunate bearing in mind what happens at the end of the play. It seems his front door must be stuck open too seeing the amount of visitors he gets. Apart from his wife and his sister Liza there’s Melaniya, who prostrates herself in front of him, offers to give him all her money and is then humiliated when he smashes her eggs; her brother Boris, who loves Liza, Protasov’s artist friend Vageen and Protasev’s ‘nanny’, who does as all Russian nannies do – stomps around complaining and fussing over her charge (and his sister) and gets verbal abuse in return. There is the pawnshop owner Nazar and his son Misha (played incidentally by actors with the same surname, father and son perhaps?) and, less welcome, the man who beats his wife because he is desperate and unemployed.

Children of the Sun programme

Children of the Sun (at the National Theatre) is definitely a play of two halves. Adapted by Andrew Upton (artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company and married, incidentally, to Cate Blanchett) it takes a long time to get going, which is a shame as some members of the audience (including my neighbours) walked out at the interval and missed a blazing second act. Beyond the penetrable walls of Protasov’s house trouble is welling in the streets of 1905 Russia but nobody except his increasingly troubled sister seems aware of it; and like many honest and right-minded souls she comes across initially as a bit of a bore. Protasov himself is too immersed in his scientific experiments to take any notice of anything, including his wife. Though once she gives him a piercing piece of her mind he does an extraordinarily unmasculine thing: he listens.

Upton’s adaptation and Geoffrey Streatfeild’s playing probably make Protasov more sympathetic than he’s supposed to be. I did wonder if the modern anachronisms were more intended to amuse (and shock) than remain true to Gorky’s original intentions (though I’ve never read nor seen the play before). Once again it struck home to me how much more flexible writers are allowed to be with plays written in a language that is not English. (See my blog on this Paradox).

Anyway the second act of the play is devastating, thanks mostly to Emma Lowndes as Liza and Justine Mitchell in particular as Protasov’s wife. You may have to wait till the very end to see the National in full explosive mode, but there’s wonderful stuff here, so long as you can survive the first act.

Public Enemy

Last year the Young Vic produced a new version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Carrie Cracknell. With its breakneck speed, aided quite a bit by the whirling set (Ian MacNeil) it managed to be both faithful to the original and utterly accessible to the 21st century viewer.

Now the Young Vic have done something similar with An Enemy of the People, which in its latest version by David Harrower has changed its name to Public Enemy and runs, again at speed, non-stop for 90 odd minutes without a break. The difference is that whereas A Doll’s House remained rooted in its original 1880s setting Public Enemy has been updated to what I took – bearing in mind the orange wallpaper and electric typewriter – to be the seventies.


The story of a doctor in a small Norwegian spa town who – curious to know why a handful of holidaymakers contracted diseases such as typhoid after taking the water decides to have it tested and discovers it is contaminated, even poisonous, due partly to a tannery owned by his father in law; only to find himself then ostracised and vilified by the entire town – should make  good sense to modern perceptions. But the problem with this adaptation (as I saw it) is that it doesn’t really sit comfortably in its new period. Perhaps it’s the adaptation itself that’s too faithful to the original. There is a good deal of speechifying, and people behave to one another in an almost formal way that in no way reflects my memory of the seventies. The clothes are indeterminate, and there’s a moment when the Stockmans’ elder boy sits rapt for a rather long time listening to a family friend playing the harmonica (in the seventies??). There’s no sign of a radio or TV nor of the two boys demanding to plonk themselves in front of it. In fact there is very little direct reference to the seventies  anywhere (other than the wallpaper and the electric typewriter), such as a burgeoning public awareness of the effect of man-made climate change.

That said the play zips along at a cracking pace and keeps a firm hold of our attention (or mine at any rate). It even implicates the audience at one point when Stockman, addressing us directly, challenges us to disagree with his premise that democracy doesn’t work because the majority of the people are stupid and incapable of making the ‘right’ decision, at which point we (I) realise he is actually bonkers. Whether or not this is faithful to the original – which I don’t have to hand – it’s a remarkable, and temporary, switch in the doctor’s character which rather distracts from and undermines the sympathy we’ve been led to feel towards him.

It’s still a cracking play though, with good performances all round, especially from Nick Fletcher as the doctor (Krogstad in Doll’s House) and Darrell D’Silva as his brother and enemy, the mayor. I just wondered if this adaptation might have worked better if, as with Doll’s House, it had kept to its original 1882 setting.

Patsy Trench


Here is a paradox. (I think that’s the word I’m looking for.)

Classic plays written in a foreign language are constantly updated. It would be unusual for a theatre such as the National, or more pertinently in this case the Young Vic, not to commission a new adaptation of an Ibsen play such as A Doll’s House, for instance.

Young Vic production

Yet at the same time classic plays written in the English language, from Shakespeare to Shaw and beyond, are not.

Does this place English-speaking dramatists at a disadvantage? Does Shaw’s A Doctor’s Dilemma, written not that long after Doll’s House, seem crusty and old-fashioned by comparison?

National Theatre

Or should we be grateful to be watching the real thing, free from possible adulteration by modern adaptors wanting to give an old play a modern ‘spin’?

Any comments?