Queen Anne – Sisters doing it for themselves

The second thing that occurred to me while watching this play was: why has no one written about Queen Anne before? Of all our monarchs she must be one of the least known. The only time her name crops up in conversation it’s to do with furniture.

Queen Anne

Romola Garai & Emma Cunniffe (RSC programme)

Anne was the Protestant – and estranged – daughter of the Catholic King James II and she reigned for 12 years at the beginning of the 18th century, between William III of Orange (her brother in law) and George I of Hanover. She was happily married to Prince George of Denmark and out of 17 pregnancies only three of her children survived, and none of them beyond childhood. She was more or less crippled throughout her life with arthritis and gout and, as a result, obesity, and she could barely walk. But despite all that she ruled – according to Helen Edmondson’s marvellous play – fairly and conscientiously. And she was responsible for the unification of England and Scotland.

Queen Anne the play focuses on the Queen’s relationship with her confidante and close friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, a friendship that begins to sour as Anne becomes Queen and the Duchess tries more and more to influence her politically.

The first thing that occurred to me while watching the play was that this is an almost all-female production. Written, directed (by Natalie Abrahami), designed (Hannah Clark) by women, with two stonking central performances for women. Of course most of the rest of the cast are men, excluding the Queen’s maid Abigail (Beth Park), whose influence grows as the duchess’s fades. Bearing in mind this was a time when parliament and political influence was entirely male. Behind the scenes of the royal bedchamber – into which people such as the Lord Chancellor Sydney Godolphin (Richard Hope) seem to wander at will – Anne is mercilessly lampooned by satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Arthur Maynwaring, a trick which the duchess exploits as the relationship deteriorates.

First class all round. Superb performances from Emma Cunniffe as the Queen and Romola Garai as the Duchess.

Queen Anne runs at the Haymarket Theatre until 30 September 2017

Patsy Trench, July 2017

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Wish List

It is one of the sadder and more shameful aspects of modern life, that super-innovative and successful megolithic online companies apparently do not feel it within their capabilities to share their success by extending some humanity to the workers on the shop – or, in this case warehouse – floor.

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Joseph Quinn and Erin Doherty (royalcourttheatre.org)

The company Tamsin works for as a packer in Katherine Soper’s new play at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court is for obvious reasons unnamed. But a working world which is driven entirely by targets, where workers are on zero hours and toilet stops are timed and points (or strokes) are handed out for the slightest thing such as a missed target, is made all the tougher for Tamsin who at the age of 19 is the sole breadwinner for herself and her younger brother, who suffers from an extreme form of OCD.

Wish List, like the National Theatre’s Love, is from the slice-of-life brand of theatre, featuring in both cases people on the edge of society struggling to survive against the unseen and inhumane hand of the benefits system. In both plays the sufferer is called Dean (a coincidence I presume), who is unjustifiably turned down for, respectively, housing and unemployment benefit, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. (It’s time we heard it from the other side I think.)

The two plays have other things in common, not least a set that includes a kitchen and a bathroom. The difference being that on the traverse stage of the Royal Court Upstairs every member of the audience can see everything.

Whatever reservations I might have had about the play were more than compensated for by the performances, and in particular by Erin Doherty as Tamsin: uncertain, eager to please, funny and occasionally and surprisingly passionate, and always completely believable. A talent to watch.

And now it’s over to you, Department of Work and Pensions. Seriously.

Patsy Trench
January 2017

So what is theatre exactly?

Theatre should be real, says Alexander Zeldin.

All theatre is artifice, says Paul Hunter.

I paraphrase both, but this is the essence of the thinking of two talented theatre practitioners I’ve come into contact with recently.

Alexander Zeldin is the writer/director of Love, currently selling out in the Dorfman at the National Theatre. He was talking to Samira Ahmed at a platform talk before the show a couple of days ago. Love has received five star reviews from virtually everywhere, so he’s a man to be taken seriously.

alexander_zeldin_photo_credit_marie_eisendick-offwestend-com

Alexalander Zeldin, photo by Marie Eisendick (offwestend.com)

Paul Hunter is the artistic director of theatre company Told by an Idiot, which has been in existence for over twenty years performing around the country and the world. He was talking to students from the SUNY New Paltz at a workshop held at RADA yesterday.

told-by-an-idiot-workshop-8

Both comments are true of course if not the whole picture. It’s what makes theatre what it is. Paul Hunter likes to create the unexpected and spontaneous through the use of impossible games. Watching a group of people clapping in rhythm only gets really interesting when the rhythm starts to go out of control. You can see what Hunter is getting at when he explains that the best comedy springs from things going wrong.

told-by-an-idiot-workshop-11

The clapping game that goes wrong

But I can’t agree when he says reality belongs to television not theatre. Watching LOVE at the Dorfman is a painful and often boring experience because we are living with the characters on stage in real time. We watch them eating in silence. We watch them washing up (those who could see it). We experience their tedium, their boredom. If this was television we’d probably switch it off and look for something more comforting or entertaining.

love-nationaltheatre-org

Janet Etuk, Anna Calder-Marshall and Nick Holder (nationaltheatre.org)

Love has been rapturously received by the press, and I would not want to disagree except to point out, with some emphasis, that anyone sitting in the side seats in the upper level, which comprises about a quarter of the total audience, only gets to see two-thirds of the play. Anything happening on the sides of the stage, which includes the sink and the toilet and a couple of upstage rooms, is completely invisible if you are sitting on that same side. Why this should be considered acceptable in a newly-renovated and reconfigurable theatre like the Dorfman is a puzzle, to say the least.

That said, the performances are astonishing across the board. And the most touching moment, which produced audible sobs throughout the audience and happens right at the end, is totally theatrical.

Patsy Trench
London 2017

patsytrench@gmail.com

Funny Girl

There is a funny story behind this show. I was chatting away to various people after the press night of a new musical (Marco Polo: the Untold Story – for my review, click here) when the press lady grabbed my arm and said – ‘Come and meet the two wives of Bob Merrill’.

Bob Merrill, you may or may not know, was an American lyricist and composer, famous mostly for the lyrics of Funny Girl – including lyrics and most of the music of the old favourite ‘People’ – and such oddballs as How much is that doggy in the window? and If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake’.

Funny Girl Bob Merrill (bobmerrill.com)

Bob Merrill (bobmerrrill.com)

Anyway, long story short, after a couple of minutes of chat Mrs Merrill 2 invited me and my friend to accompany the two of them to Funny Girl the following night. Mrs Merrill 1 had been married to Mr Merrill at the time he was writing the show. She said he sung the entire thing, playing every part, to would-be producers by way of attracting their interest and investment. Mrs M 2 lives in London and had seen the show many times at the Menier Chocolate Factory (where this production originated) and again at the Savoy, yet she was more than happy to see it again and was one of the first on her feet at the curtain call. Mrs Merrill 1, who lives in the US, had not seen the show since who knows when, and was, understandably quite overcome by the whole experience.

What a night. And what a privilege to be the guests of two such fascinating ladies. I am still hoping to write their story.

Funny Girl 1

(atgtickets.com)

Oh, and the show? I really have very little to say. It was fabulous, from top to bottom. Beautifully staged, directed, danced, sung, performed. TOTAL star turn from Sheridan Smith. Zestily directed by Michael Mayer and gustily played by a wonderful – and almost visible – orchestra. One of the great things about old musicals is that they don’t tale themselves that seriously. It’s a long time since I had spent an enjoyable evening in the theatre.

Funny Girl runs at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October 2016. Book tickets here.

Curtain Up at the V & A Museum

The Theatre Museum used to have its own building in Covent Garden, but ever since it was taken over and minimised inside a remote corner of the Victoria & Albert Museum it’s very easy not to know it still exists.

Now, until August, the V & A has expanded the museum space to accommodate an exhibition called Curtain Upcelebrating 40 years of London and New York theatre and  the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards.

Curtain Up (vam.ac.uk)

(vam.ac.uk)

Most of the original exhibits are still on view: the costumes, Kylie’s dressing room, the huge Rhinoceros and Joey from War Horse. But now there is much more, including a Curious Incident room, where you can sit in a miniature version of the set with the lights flashing amid that evocative music; extracts from shows such as Matilda and Les Mis; displays of old programmes, letters to and from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (the censor) requesting changes to be made to plays by Joe Orton and others; and you can listen in on interviews with actors, designers and directors etc on headphones attached to monitors.

Unfortunately, considering theatre is all about sound and vision, much of it is inaudible and/or hard to see. The censors’ letters and old prompt scripts for instance are displayed in understandably dim light, but too far away to read (for my ageing eyes). And the interviews, transmitted through headphones, are virtually inaudible.  The discussion with theatre people from both sides of the Atlantic comparing the influence of critics for instance, which I was particularly interested to hear, was a case in point. (I did ask a lady attendant about this and she said yes, there had been some problems with sound, which they are trying to address.)

Curtain Up (thestage.co.uk)

(thestage.co.uk)

Being an old-fashioned and conventional soul I do still like my museum exhibits to be displayed in chronological order however; or at least to give me an overview of what to me is the most fascinating way that theatre has evolved, and continues to. I acknowledge it’s only covering the last 40 years but I still didn’t get much of a sense of this in the exhibition – changing shapes of theatres for example, and changing audiences and expectations. That said it was a brief visit and I intend going back, when hopefully the sound issue will be resolved (and the schoolkids are back at school – though it’s great to see them enjoying the hands-on exhibits).

The exhibition runs until 31 August 2016 and is free. For more information:
www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/display-curtain-up/

Hand to God

Who would have thought you could stick a sock onto the end of an actor’s arm and turn him into the star of the show?

Hand to God (handtogod.co.uk)

(handtogod.co.uk)

To be precise, Tyrone is more than just a sock. He has ears and stick-on eyes and an enormous mouth, which grows teeth as the play progresses. He is teenage Jason’s alter ego, if you like, created as part of his mother Margery’s ‘Christian Puppetry Ministry’, which she runs in the local church hall. As is traditional with puppets that are extensions of their masters’ bodies Tyrone is able to articulate things the deeply withdrawn, troubled Jason could never say. He can entertain young Jessica with a rehashed Abbott and Costello routine – ‘Who is your boss?’ ‘Yes you’re right, Hoo is my boss’, etc – which is all very well, but when he goes on to tell he she’s ‘hot’ the bashful Jason is mortified.

The problem is that as time goes on and Tyrone becomes more and more tyrannical, not to say demonic, so he gets more and more out of Jason’s control until he starts attacking other people and, ultimately, Jason himself. At one point it looks as if this might turn out to be some extreme, bizarre story of suicide. (It isn’t.)

You couldn’t make it up, and nor did the writer Robert Askins. His mother really did run a Christian Puppet Ministry in his local church in Texas, and he was the boy whose father had recently died. Whether his mother went on to have a wild affair with Jason’s teenage nemesis Timothy or found herself propositioned by the pious Pastor Greg is less likely. This is a troubled community, to put it mildly.

The joy of the production lies mostly in this central relationship between nasty, vile-mouthed Tyrone and the gentle and tongue-tied Jason. Such is the skill of the actor Harry Melling that that awful puppet really does take on a life of its own, and the more aggressive and violent Tyrone becomes the more you fear for the vulnerable, sweet-faced Jason. They spend much of the time eye-balling one another, nose to nose, and while Melling – and the other actor-puppeteers – makes no attempt at ventriloquism he gets to achieve the miraculous: he not only manages to create two distinct characters, he also somehow manages to react as Jason while being harangued by Tyrone.

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Jason (Harry Melling) & Tyrone (lovetheatre.com)

The graphic sex scene, in which Tyrone and Jessica’s buxom creation do everything conceivable to one another while their manipulators chat about this and that, looking faintly bored, is hilarious (if rather out of character for Jessica). But that is the nature of the play. It deals with difficult topics – the bereaved, deranged mother and the neglected, hopelessly troubled and misunderstood, even possessed, son – in a way that’s farcical rather than crude. It is extreme but surprisingly affectionate.

The performances – Janie Dee as Jason’s mother Margery, Jemima Rooper as his would-be girlfriend, Neil Pearson as the pious pastor and Kevin Mains as ‘school bully’ Timothy – are universally excellent. The director is Moritz von Stuelpnagel – a name to conjure with – who has been with the play from its original reading in a hall off-Broadway to its off- and then on-Broadway production (where it was nominated for five Tonys). The set (Beowolf Borritt) moves from the church hall to Jason’s bedroom on a revolve. The special effects – Tyrone seems to have the power to make light bulbs go on and off – are spot-on, and very very funny. But the evening will remain in this reviewer’s memory mostly for that glorious central performance, or should that be performances, from the supremely talented Harry Melling; and all credit to whoever taught him to become such a slick puppeteer.

One of the weirdest and most wonderful nights I’ve spent in the West End.

This review was originally posted on londontheatre1.com.

 

Hangmen

Hangmen poster (delfontmackintosh.co.uk)Martin McDonagh is the sort of writer who has you laughing at things you know you shouldn’t be laughing at.

In  The Beauty Queen of Leenane you laugh at a mother and a daughter destroying one another. In the film In Bruges you find yourself laughing at – and even empathising with – a psychopathic killer, played endearingly by Colin Farrell.

In Hangmen you’re invited to laugh at cruelty, put-downs and casual, politically incorrect racism. There are no likeable characters in this play, with the possible exception of Harry the (ex) hangman’s plump daughter Shirley – nicely played by Bronwyn James – who hides behind a wall of shyness and sudden aggression towards parents who accuse her of ‘moping’. Now there’s a character I can identify with.

Set in the 1960s, the first act trundles along quite merrily in its Orton- and Pinteresque way, set in a fuggy pub presided over by the bow-tied ex hangman Harry and his wife, and peopled by men – no women – who seem to have nothing else to do but hang around drinking pints (Harry won’t allow them to drink anything else) and hanging on Harry’s every word. For someone who was probably not old enough to remember the sixties (unlike me) McDonagh captures the atmosphere perfectly, with just a couple of blips: I would take a bet that no one in those days referred to ‘train stations’, that being a relatively modern Americanisation of what used to be called railway stations. And not enough of the pub customers smoke to be able to create the fug produced by the theatre’s smoke machines, not to mention the distracting smell of herbal cigarettes. Otherwise, it’s pretty spot-on.

Hangmen (telegraph.co.uk)

Andy Nyman and David Morrissey (telegraph.co.uk)

The second act is full of plot twists to do with disappearing daughters and possible past murderers who escaped Harry’s noose, and the sudden appearance of Harry’s number one rival and nemesis, Albert Pierrepoint, (ex) Chief Hangman. But the play isn’t really a thriller. It’s not even really about hangmen. It is ultimately, and disappointingly in my view, about nothing more than the rivalry of the Alpha Male. Every character has to feel superior to someone else, so while Harry bullies everyone beneath him, from his (ex) assistant to his daughter and his customers, he in turn is cowed and humiliated by his superior, Pierrepoint.

The play has won five and four stars from every major newspaper reviewer other than the Daily Mail, and I wonder whether that might have something to do with the fact that it started its life in the much smaller space of the Royal Court theatre. From the Upper Circle of Wyndham’s it promises more than it delivers. Beneath the clever menace and banter and the uncertainty of who was who and why, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal going on. In the end it’s about nothing more than oneupmanship, with emphasis on the ‘man’.

But it’s impressive to see the first set, a prison cell, rise up all the way into the flies to reveal the pub beneath it. Who’d have thought there was that much room up there in the roof of the Wyndham’s Theatre?