Bad Jews – Haymarket Theatre, March 2016
Anyone who knows me knows of my resistance to sentimentality of any kind, not to mention the kind of manipulation creators of musical theatre impose on audience members in their constant efforts to get us to laugh and cry. Those are two of the many reasons why I don’t go to musicals. I don’t see why they should be allowed to get away with the kind of puerile plotting and banal characterisation that you’d never see in a straight play. I don’t see why they expect us to leave our brains behind and blast what’s left of us with childish versions of history or artificially hyped songs about lurv, delivered with relentlessly overstated passion. Or what passes for passion in musical theatre.
The trouble is that more than once in recent times I’ve found myself sitting in the auditorium and watching a musical that, yes, has made me both laugh and cry. And it’s often not until later that I’ve begun to think – hang on, that was a clunky piece, that made no sense at all, why would he/she do such a thing? – in other words to pick holes in the plot, and the characterisation, and in pretty well everything else. But not at the time, and this is the crux of the matter.
Mrs Henderson Presents is a case in point. It tells the story of the 70-year-old wealthy widow who, on a whim, bought the Windmill Theatre and turned it from a struggling space showing non-stop revue to the now all-famous ‘We Never Closed’ theatre featuring naked motionless ladies in tableaux vivants. (The motionlessness in order to get past the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship.)
The show, based on the 2005 film starring Judi Dench, isn’t anything like as multi-layered or thought-provoking as it might have been. Nor does it set out to be. It is a slickly-written, cleverly directed piece – direction and book by Terry Johnson – that knows exactly how to press the right buttons to get the audience cheering and whooping. The tea girl becomes the star. The show goes on despite bombs dropping. Mrs H and her producer Vivian Van Damm show the kind of stubborn stoicism you only ever associate with the theatre and the plucky, defiant souls who keep it going against all the odds.
The obligatory clapping-along-with-the-music, not to mention the get-the-audience-on-its-feet-dancing that’s now a common feature at the end of a musical is enough to bring out the curmudgeon in anyone. But maybe that’s the whole point. What many serious, not to say snobbish theatregoers (I include myself) are at risk of forgetting these days is that there is nothing wrong with an enjoyable night out. It’s a case of adjusting expectations and temporarily stifling your inner critic.
There’s only one thing wrong with the Finborough Theatre’s current production of Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year: the theatre it’s in is too small.
I don’t mean the production doesn’t fit the space, or that the theatre is uncomfortable, rather that this classic Australian play needs a far bigger audience. In fact I believe this very production should be on the stage of the National Theatre.
The One Day of the Year is possibly Australia’s best play, or certainly its best-known. So I was quite shocked to see it hasn’t been produced in London since 1961, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Is this yet another sign of the UK’s indifference to all things Australian?
The themes of the story are still current: Anzac Day in Australia is a big event. This year, being the 100th anniversary, was even bigger. I was in Australia at the time and the coverage was so intense that come the Day itself, rather like young Hughie in One Day, I felt I had had enough. Of course there are no Anzac diggers any more and very few surviving veterans of WW2, but the event itself still sparks controversy: there are still people who believe, from the critics of the Tower of London poppies to the anti-Anzacs in Oz, that any commemoration of war is a glorification.
This is the central theme of Alan Seymour’s play. Alf is a WW2 veteran whose life since the war has been disappointing. Anzac Day is the highlight of his year and gives him the excuse to attend the dawn parade before getting blind drunk on the streets of Sydney with his mates. Son Hughie, who is at university, is appalled, not just at his father’s drunkenness but at the public ‘celebration’ of what was one of the biggest disasters of WW1.
The Finborough production is riveting: the performances – Mark Little as Alf, James William Wright as Hughie, Paul Haley as Gallipolli veteran Wacka, Adele Querol as Joe’s posh girlfriend Jan and, in particular, Fiona Press as Alf’s wife and backbone of the family, Dot, are superb. It’s hard to imagine a better production all round.
Australia’s Arthur Miller
Alan Seymour, who died in March of this year, is known really only for this one play, his first. He takes no sides in his own argument, which is what makes his play so powerful. It reminded me many times as I was watching it last night of Arthur Miller – in particular his Death of a Salesman (disappointed father, stoic, loving, long-suffering wife, generational conflict) and All My Sons (flawed father, disillusioned sons, generational conflict). Like Miller, Seymour tells his story through flesh-and-blood characters, all of them flawed in one way or another, each of them demanding our sympathy.
I met Alan when he was working at the BBC here in London. He was tremendously helpful and encouraging when I was trying to become a TV scriptwriter. After he moved back to Australia I visited him whenever I was there at his beautiful Darlinghurst flat in Sydney. He was one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever known, and one of the most self-deprecating. He once described his play as an ‘albatross’, but I think he’d have been very proud and delighted at this latest revival of it.
He would have been even prouder to see it on stage at the National Theatre, where it should be.
The Wild Duck – Barbican
(First posted 25 October 2014)
I don’t know the original though I realise Sydney’s Belvoir Street production, playing for ten days here at the Barbican in London, is stripped down to its basics. It’s a melodramatic piece, being Ibsen, and it contains a death – not, thankfully, of the duck – and in its modern context it makes perfect sense.
Set in a glass box, partly presumably to keep the (live) duck from wandering into the audience, and partly to accentuate the claustrophobia of families with secrets, the play is set in an unspecified country and place – there is talk of ‘the city’ being a five hour train ride away – but the names are the original Norwegian, all of which add a sense of heightened and unsettling reality. The performances, particularly from Brendan Cowell as the likeable but distraught father, are excellent, the finale is intensely moving. My only quibble is the lengthy scene changes, particularly at the beginning (in order presumably to enable the actors to negotiate the blackouts), and the head mikes. If they have to amplify the voices do they have to make it so obvious?
Otherwise, a stunning piece of work. More please.
PS The duck is a star. It opens the play alone on stage and waddles towards the audience to give us a beady eye, before fluttering its wings. Such self possession. It got a round of applause, and quite rightly.
Shakespeare in Love – Noel Coward Theatre
(First posted 10 July 2014)
One of the many joys of Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay of Shakespeare in Love is the way it takes the p*** out of the acting profession – with its preciousness, its silly rivalries and ridiculous rituals – while at the same time spellbinding us with theatre magic. One of the joys of the stage show is that it – or rather the adapter Lee Hall – retains the wit and magic of the original and adds some of his own.
I wasn’t sure in the beginning if the wit wasn’t veering a bit towards slapstick. Shakespeare appears not to be able to write a complete sentence, and has to rely on his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe to write his sonnet for him and the actor Ned Alleyn to give him the title of his play. The motley group of actors auditioning is straight out of panto. There’s even a scene borrowed from Cyrano de Bergerac where Marlowe prompts Shakespeare as he stands beneath his Juliet’s (Viola de Lesseps’) balcony clumsily attempting to woo her with poetry. But as Shakespeare regains his muse and his senses so does the play.
It’s an inspired choice to have Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod of Cheek by Jowl to direct and design respectively; they of many productions of minutely observed and forensically detailed Shakespeare. There are cheap gags but there are also moments of stillness and profoundly moving seriousness, as in the final death scene from Romeo and Juliet, which is played and performed as written and which rendered the otherwise up-for-a-thoroughly-good-time audience totally silent. The cast of thirty or so is largely unknown, though I recognised Paul Chahidi from playing Maria in the all-male Globe Twelfth Night, Ian Bartholomew from Oh What a Lovely War at Stratford East earlier this year and the glorious Anna Carteret – who never descends from her Olympian balcony – as Queen Elizabeth. But the younger ones are unknown (to me at least). Tom Bateman is a virile, tender and funny Shakespeare, and speaks the poetry beautifully. Lucy Briggs-Owen as his love and muse Viola seemed a tad fidgety and overwhelmed by the space, but the moments between them are sweet and funny and as romantic as they need to be. Otherwise I particularly enjoyed David Oakes as a dry-as-a-bone Marlowe and Alistair Petrie as a gloriously understated Wessex.
The set is a simple galleried theatre, plain wood, that moves up and down stage and represents the two theatres (the Rose and the Curtain) plus Juliet/Viola’s balcony and the ship on which Viola de Lessings finally departs from England to her new life in Virginia with the tight-arsed, ludicrous Earl of Wessex. The cast is huge and includes four versatile musicians, one with a cello strapped to him and one of them singing in counter tenor.
Oh, and there’s the dog. Of course. Not a major role but shaggy and adorable, and with his own particular brand of curtain call.
The Pajama Game – Shaftesbury
(First posted 21 May 2014)
It’s the songs that make the show irresistible. I boasted to my cousin beforehand that I could sing every single one of them, word for word, and would do so there and then if she didn’t buy me a drink. She, being considerably younger than me, found to her amazement – though not till afterwards – that she could have done the same, even though she had no idea such classics as ‘Hey There‘ and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway‘ came from a show she’d only vaguely heard of.
I did think to begin with the vast expanse of the Shaftesbury Theatre was too big for a show like this. (I wished I had caught it at the little Minerva in Chichester where this production originated.) It’s not just the crudeness of the sound quality – the continuing problem of personal miking makes some of the voices uncomfortably shrill, and you never quite know where the sound is coming from – but a big space like this by definition enduces big performances and a sort of overexuberance that can be quite annoying, and can detract from what is, at its centre, a small and sweet story of the company man and the union woman falling in love and then falling out again over seven and a half cents.
But you can get used to anything I guess and by part two it’s impossible not to sit back and just let those fabulous songs wash over you. ‘There once was a man‘ works wonderfully in that space and is wonderfully staged. The performances, over-projection and shrillness apart, are excellent. I particularly enjoyed Alexis Owen-Hobbs as Gladys, and one of my favourite musical songs of all time – ‘I’ll never be jealous again‘ – performed meticulously by Peter Polycarpou and Claire Machin.
The show is directed by the miraculous Richard Eyre and choreographed by Stephen Mear. It runs until September. Resist it if you dare.
King Charles the III – Almeida Theatre
(First posted 15 April 2014)
Mike Bartlett has stepped into the future and written a remarkable play about what might happen when the Queen dies and Charles becomes King. He has invented what on paper may seem a slightly implausible premise but which on stage appears utterly credible, and given it in scope, reach and language the full Shakespeare treatment.
The play begins with the Agnus Dei and the death of the Queen, and before he’s even managed to get himself crowned Charles is refusing to sign off on a Bill restricting the freedom of the press, on grounds of principle. The result is a constitutional crisis, a tank outside Buckingham Palace and threatened civil war, not to mention tension and treachery within the Firm itself.
It’s a bold, brave and beautiful play, cast, directed and acted to perfection. Each member of the Firm is instantly recognisable the moment he or she steps onto the stage – Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and a wonderfully tousled Harry – yet while none of the actors attempts anything like an impression of the famous character they are playing they are all utterly believable. The heightened language could so easily have sounded portentous, yet it doesn’t, it adds grandeur and stature to a play that, though speculative, makes a lot of sense and with great intelligence and integrity questions the whole purpose of the Royal Family and the fact that, ironically, the only person not allowed to voice his political opinions in public is the monarch. At one point Charles, in anguish, cries ‘Who am I?’ – if he is not allowed to act on his principles, what is the point of him?
There are echoes of Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth, with the ghostly appearance of Diana, and Henry IV, with the heartbreakingly lost Harry trying so hard to extricate himself from the constraints of the family he is born into, and yet… but I don’t want to give that away. There’s even a touch of Richard II about a desperate, thwarted Charles poring over books in search of royal precedent and and declaring ‘the king is ordained by God’.
Above all else is a towering performance by the great Tim Piggott-Smith, a humane, sympathetic yet finally out of control Charles (who in reality I suspect would not find it so easy to express his genuine love for his sons). The director is Rupert Goold. A great play for our times.
The Audience – Gielgud Theatre
(first posted 15 June 2013)
She is a stoic and a good listener. She has a quiet and ironic sense of humour and a superhuman sense of duty. She thinks nothing of picnicking in Balmoral in freezing temperatures and her favourite Prime Minister was Harold Wilson. Winston Churchill refused to sit down when he was with her and John Major, Britain’s most reluctant Prime Minister, treated her as his psychotherapist. She is a humanitarian who counts among her friends many of the leaders of African nations and she would give anything in the world for privacy and the privilege of being allowed to be an Ordinary Person.
This of course is Peter Morgan’s version of our head of state and Queen, Helen Mirren – sorry, Queen Elizabeth the Second. His play The Audience probably tells us more about our reigning monarch than we’ll ever learn about the enigmatic Real Thing, and in a manner that is sympathetic to the point of idolisation. A humanitarian, who treats her Prime Ministers with equal respect no matter what party they represent; who is up to speed on current events yet has a profound knowledge and sense of history; who acknowledges that – unlike Queen Beatrice or the Pope – duty dictates that she will never retire or abdicate.
The Queen hasn’t seen the play apparently, but she should. And now that National Theatre Live has filmed it she could, in the privacy of Buckingham Palace perhaps, which she dislikes (according to Peter Morgan). If she’s anything like this portrayal of her she’d be tickled pink.
The play owes almost everything to Helen Mirren of course, in fact you could say that Dame Helen ‘owns’ the Queen, and while other actresses have portrayed her in the past – Prunella Scales comes to mind – nobody personifies her more solidly than HM. Long may they both reign.
Alongside HM is a cracking cast – in particular Richard McCabe as a (rather more personable than the real thing) Harold Wilson and an unrecognisable Paul Ritter (in wig) as John Major. There is a ‘magical’ costume change where HM is transformed from her 60s to her 20s in full view of the audience. Everything, from the costumes to HM’s astonishing ability to age and de-age and change shape in seconds, is immaculate.
Tonight (June 15) is the play’s last night at the Gielgud Theatre. But now that NT Live has recorded it generations to come will have the unique opportunity to view one of the great performances of our times. The Audience was transmitted all over London and the UK last night and you could hardly get a ticket. It’s a revolution in theatre and I only wish NT Live had been around a hundred or more years ago so we could all have seen what Olivier and Irving and Kean and Garrick were really like.
NB: The Audience returns to the Apollo Theatre on 21 April 2015, starring Kristen Scott Thomas. http://www.theaudienceplay.com/home
Oh What a Lovely War – Theatre Royal, Stratford East
(first posted February 2013)
When I heard that the Theatre Royal in Stratford East was reviving the iconic show that premiered in that same theatre back in 1963 I had to buy a ticket right away, and that was over a year ago. I didn’t see the original production, so the opportunity to be able to sit in the same seats watching the same show folk were first watching fifty years ago was irresistible. My expectations were sky-high, and I was not disappointed.
Oh What a Lovely War is the First World War done as an end-of-the-pier pierrot show. This means bawdy humour, national stereotypes, goosing and bad jokes, most of which we probably wouldn’t be able to get away with now. But all this is counterpointed by a banner stretched across the back wall filling us in with the progress of the war. So for instance while we’re watching characters dancing to the Twelfth Street Rag we are being told ‘November …Somme battle ends …Total loss 1,332,000 men … Gain nil’. So a bit of you is laughing your socks off and then suddenly being caught up short, which means your emotions are being put through such a wringer that at one point – especially towards the end of the first act when the Jerries and the Tommies sing carols and started chucking Christmas presents at one another – it becomes almost unbearable. I can’t remember when I last felt quite so emotionally battered in the theatre.
There have been complaints, from Michael Gove in particular (our education secretary, for overseas readers) that shows like Oh What a Lovely War and Blackadder present a distorted view of the war and undermine our soldiers’ bravery and heroism. It seems to me he is completely missing the point. The show goes nowhere towards glorifying war, quite the opposite, but nor does it neglect the fact that ordinary soldiers were anything other than astonishingly brave and remarkably heroic. However rather than presenting them as gung-ho heroes waving flags and singing patriotic songs we see a bunch of exhausted, muddy, disheartened and often badly wounded lads desperately trying to keep their spirits up by singing a bawdy song, knowing the next push will probably be their last. There is one scene where a bunch of French soldiers, resisting orders to advance as ‘lambs to the slaughter’, eventually do so and ‘baaa’ like sheep while being gunned down one by one.
As a chronical of war it may not be to an academic’s taste, and obviously not to an Education Secretary’s, but as a piece of theatre it is everything theatre should be. The ensemble cast is faultless. Joan Littlewood would have been proud.
Directed with great panache by Terry Johnson, it features among others Caroline Quentin – surprisingly good, I’ve never seen her on stage before – Saun Prendergast as a hilariously incomprehensible drill sergeant and Ian Bartholomew (last seen by me as a panto dame) as General Haig. Fabulous. Cannot recommend it highly enough.
It runs until 15 March at the Theatre Royal.
The Mistress Contract – Royal Court Theatre
(first posted February 2014)
The mistress’ contract is a great idea. She gets to live in a house with a swimming pool, rent free, in return for sexual favours granted to him any time except when she’s travelling or ill. What they get up to at other times is their own private business. The contract obviously works because it has lasted over thirty years and it still continues even though She is 88 and He 93.
The play isn’t quite so successful. There’s an awful lot of talk, and most of it isn’t that interesting. Sexual and gender politics, sex, feminism, what her kids are up to etc., some of which they tape for possible publication, but nothing about what’s going on in the world outside the plate-glass house she lives in and he visits, which appears to be in the middle of the desert yet by the sea somewhere on the west coast of the USA not far from LA (so I assume).
The problem is it is hard to engage with either character. She, the naturally beautiful and extremely talented Saskia Reeves, has worked strangely hard to make herself unattractive, with her specs, lank hair and drab clothes. Moreover she’s a windbag, which is a problem for the audience if not for him. There is one heart-stopping moment when, having been told by her that She has been propositioned by a younger man, He cries – I don’t want you to fuck anyone else and I don’t want to fuck anyone else! – which is really the first sign of a genuine and actually rather conventional emotion: jealousy. Unwittingly or otherwise this rather undermines the play’s theme of non-commitment but it’s a one-off moment and though it ends in an embrace – a rare moment of physical contact – it doesn’t really lead anywhere.
I almost (but not quite) longed to see the two of them getting their gear off and getting down to it rather than talking about it (they don’t). Calling the characters He and She and setting the play in an unknown place doesn’t help. Significantly when they are preparing their book she refuses to allow him to mention her mastectomy because it’s too personal, and she wants to be seen as Everywoman.
The Mistress Contract, based on the true and eventually published story (by He and She) and dramatised by Abi Morgan, touches on fascinating stuff but in such a bone-dry manner it’s difficult to feel truly involved. I was reminded partly of The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion’s account of the year her husband died and her daughter simultaneously contracted a serious illness. Two potentially dramatic emotions, death and sex, intellectualised till there’s very little life left in them.
But the idea is something else, definitely worth thinking about. I wouldn’t half mind living in the desert by the sea with a swimming pool in return for … A high price to pay? Maybe, maybe not. All enquiries please send to Box No 2038698.
Candide – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford on Avon
(first posted August 2013)
When I first read Voltaire’s Candide – as part of an Open University module I was studying about the Enlightenment – I took it at face value. As a pessimist I rather envied people who could genuinely believe that no matter how many disasters you experience as you stumble through life that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, and that personal suffering is worth it if it is for the public good. When I eventually realised the book was intended as a satire mocking the then popular philosophical theory that an all-powerful, benevolent God must have a positive reason for, for instance, disasters such as the deaths of 100,000 people in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 I was still a tad puzzled.
But then reading about Mark Ravenhill’s thoughts on updating this play I thought they made real sense. There cannot be a generation in history that hasn’t said ‘why would anyone want to bring a child into a world that’s obviously going to the dogs?’. And I suppose each one of them has had a point, if you look hard enough.
But now look at us: climate change and world overpopulation, and what are we doing about it? (says Ravenhill) ‘Oh, it’ll sort itself out’ seems to be a common response. In an increasingly secular society we can’t – or don’t – blame God any more so that just leaves us. And what are we doing about us?This is I think is the prevailing thought behind Ravenhill’s version of Candide at the RSC at Stratford, currently running at the Swan Theatre until October 26. We begin with Voltaire’s original reconstructed as a play based on Candide’s actual words and witnessed by Candide himself. Then whizz bang and we’re into the 21st century and an 18th birthday party where everything from the guests’ clothes to the cake itself is black, and where the subject of the party, who seems to have retreated into her own wordless world, suddenly finds her voice and bumps off every member of her family (except her mother) before shooting herself, because she believes their generation are responsible for climate disaster and overpopulation. Then into a film producer’s office where the girl’s mother, who’s written a book about her experiences, is discussing a film adaptation, aided – or distracted – by a ‘narrative therapist’ (‘Pause: reflect: what does this person want from me?’). Next we’re into the future where Candide’s 18th century mentor Pangloss is reincarnated as a scientist who has discovered how to eliminate the pessimism gene so we can all go on thinking ‘all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Oh, and along the way Candide experiences El Dorado, where the folk live in peace and harmony and have no interest in the gold that lives in the rocks around them. (And from where Candide, desperate to flee from this idealistic, dull place, takes off into the skies on the back of a farting sheep.)
Phew. Any conclusion to be drawn from all this chaos and incoherence? I don’t think so. I don’t think that was Mark Ravenhill’s intention. Some of the scenes are quite crassly written: the 18-year-old spouting pious cliches about climate change, the likewise cliche film producer looking for ‘the truth’ (so long as it’s redemptive). But as each scene rolled by I began to realise this is precisely the playwright’s point: that is what we have become – cliches who go on about things but really do nothing about them (who complain about climate change from the comfort of their cars for instance), who insist on happy endings while knowing life is not like that – precisely perhaps because it is not like that.
So I ended up thinking this play was in its own way magnificent: not setting out to find answers (no playwright should do that), or even to ask a coherent question. Certainly not mocking Voltaire, or Candide himself. Rather showing us how the pursuit of happiness appears to be part of the human condition; that the genetic-engineering scientist of the future is just another version of the optimistic, God-fearing philosopher of the 18th century; that so long as we think we are looking for happy endings there will always be philosophers, scientists and film producers to pander to us as we walk without direction into the future, too busy talking to really notice where we are going.
All this is very cleverly and deftly staged by the director Lindsey Turner and beautifully played by a talented cast including Ian Redford as Pangloss, Matthew Needham as Candide, Ishia Bennison, doubling as a lusty Countess and an earnest (and hilarious) ‘narrative therapist’ and the still stunningly beautiful Susan Engel as a 400-hundred-year-old Cunegonde.
Henry VI part 3 – Globe Theatre
(first posted July 2013)
Poor Henry. He so did not want to be king, yet his reign was dominated by a virtually continuous series of wars between other rivals who did, and his own people who thought that he should.
I had to gen up on my history for this one. I’ve never seen any part of Henry VI before and couldn’t help but wonder why Shakespeare chose to wrote no fewer than three plays about one of Britain’s most unremarkable monarchs. Henry was the unwitting product of a slightly dodgy coup, going back to the days of Edward III’s grandson Richard II, who was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke – not his rightful heir – who went on to become Henry IV (parts one and two). Henry V won battles with France but all his gains were lost during the reign of his son Henry VI, and so set off the battles between the Houses of Lancaster and York that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses.
At the Globe they are presenting all three parts of Henry VI, sometimes on the same day. It’s a tough, physical production and there’s a lot of sweaty fighting and sword clashing. Difficult to make this interesting but helped by some powerful performances, in particular by Brendan O’Hea doubling as the ultra macho Richard Duke of York and the super camp King Lewis of France, Mary Doherty as Henry’s ferocious wife, the doughty Queen Margaret (rather oddly wearing breeches, perhaps because she’s required to do so much sword-fighting), Simon Harrison as Richard Duke of Gloucester, aka Richard III, and especially Graham Butler as the bothered and bewildered Henry. There is some slightly confusing casting: the same actor plays Henry’s son Prince Edward in one scene and almost immediately after young Rutland of York, who gets hacked to death, only to crop up a couple of scenes later alive and well and still the heir to the throne.
If this play has to be done then it could not be done a lot better. And it’s good that the Globe is sticking its neck out with this triology (also to be seen at the scenes of the original battles).
A Season in the Congo – Young Vic
(first posted July 2013)
Until a week ago the name Patrice Lumumba was only vaguely familiar, but if he’d cropped up in a pub quiz I wouldn’t have been able to answer any questions or place him in any kind of context. I now know that he was a Congolese beer salesman who was voted in as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first post colonial Prime Minister in June of 1960, and by January of the following year he was dead: by firing squad (according to the play), shot and dissolved in acid by the CIA, according to the programme notes.
The Young Vic is an astonishing space: it’s like visiting a whole new theatre with each new production. For this one it seems even bigger than ever before. The stage occupies three levels and part of the audience sits in a kind of pit – like a drained swimming pool as someone described it – surrounding it on two sides.
Everyone has sung the praises of the remarkable Chiwetel Ejiofor and I really have nothing much to add. It is a masterly performance and all the more so I think because of the actor’s own take on his character who – according to one interview I read – he didn’t think was quite the hero the playwright, Aime Cesaire, claimed he was. In Ejiofor’s performance he is charming, physical, dynamic, vain and totally unable to compromise: hence his demise.
The cast is entirely black, and when playing white characters don white snouts. I wasn’t sure about this before I saw the show, as I had doubts about the outside forces – the US and the USSR – being represented by animals’ heads and international bankers by a cluster of grotesque puppet figures spouting verse. Not exactly subtle, I thought. But as one my students pointed out this is how the Congolese people saw these outsiders: puppet masters portrayed by puppets. Nice. And it makes sense in a remarkably clever way.
Wonderfully staged by director Joe Wright (with puppetry by his sister Sarah), astonishing choreography (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), marvellous music (Kabongo Tshisensa and Kaspy N’Dia), and a great set (Lizzie Clachan). A fascinating tale of post colonial chaos. See it.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
(first posted July 2013)
The critics by and large didn’t like this show and compared it unfavourably with Matilda. I didn’t really go for Matilda so I was predisposed to like Charlie, but having seen both shows now I find myself wondering whether there is a way to transform Dahl’s stories into musicals without turning his quirky characters into pantomime cliches.
Technically Charlie is amazing. I am not an expert but I suspect there are elements of the staging that break totally new ground. And here I think is part of the problem: money and technical ingenuity don’t necessarily equal magic. For all its lavishness and extravagance and technical wizardry there is something deeply old-fashioned about this show that I found disheartening. The book was written in the sixties but the feeling of the show is more fifties, despite random references to computers. The four ghastly kids are crass cliches – the fat boy from Bavaria who yodels, the streetwise kid from California who has an entourage, the prima donna ballet dancer and the breakdancing TV addict – oh dear, maybe I was completely missing the point but I found it all rather embarrassing.
However: there is a glorious central performance from the miraculous Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka. Dressed as a ringmaster, with top hat and purple tails, he conducts proceedings (literally at one point) with a flourish and a smirk that manage to convey just the right amount of Machiavellian relish and sinister playfulness. He is not hugely helped by a script and lyrics that confuse rather than intrigue (as in the song Strike that! Reverse it!, in which familiar phrases are transposed, such as ‘It must be believed to be seen’ – a nice concept that is never really realised).
The kids are great of course, as we would expect these days. But I found myself longing for the wit and freshness, and the relative simplicity, of a show like Billy Elliot. For all its technical innovation and clever puppetry (the Oompah Loompahs are quite something) Charlie by comparison feels stale and unimaginative. I’d say it’s unlikely to run as long as Billy but then the kids in the audience at the Theatre Royal were screaming with delight, so what do I know?
Talking of chocolate …
Merrily We Roll Along – Harold Pinter Theatre
(first posted August 2013)
… is not about chocolate but is a transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory (now a fringe theatre), where it was packed out. While I’m not a huge Stephen Sondheim fan – his music is a bit too intellectually detached for me and I don’t always find his super-sophisticated characters easy to engage with; with the notable exception of Assassins, one of the best musicals ever, with stupendous, un-Sondheim-like music – I was knocked out by Merrily. It’s beautifully realised, directed (by musical star Maria Friedman, who once played the character of Jane) and performed by a group of young actors, none of whom I was familiar with. I saw a different production of this show some years ago and didn’t like it all. I found the reverse chronology, where we watch a group of cynical, world-weary and bickering friends go backwards in time to their younger, more idealistic selves, a cliche. Life is not like that, surely. Is it? Well maybe it’s because I’ve become a bit more cynical and world-weary myself or maybe it was this particular production that made it so hard not to enjoy, but enjoy it I truly did.
Merrily We Roll Along – based on the play by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart, and with a book by George Furth – was not popular in the US when it first opened in 1981. (It ran for 52 previews and 19 performances on Broadway, according to Wikipedia). Sondheim is a bit of an acquired taste and despite the fact that there’s rarely a time when he doesn’t have a presence in the West End I’m not sure whether any of his shows have made money there (though I stand to be corrected); although they do win awards – the Donmar production of Merrily won three Olivier awards in 2000, for instance.