OTHER PEOPLE’S SHOWS
Here are some reviews I’ve written at various times and for various publications, including the Brighton Argus and The Latest
Theatre Royal, Brighton, 14 July 2008
It’s hard to believe that Royce Ryton’s Crown Matrimonial emerged from the same vibrant theatrical era that gave us the likes of David Hare, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill and Trevor Griffiths. The play was premiered in 1972, yet its creakiness is such that it actually feels as old as the 1936 Abdication Crisis it so ineptly documents.
Not that Monday’s full house seemed to mind. They had come to see Patricia Routledge as Queen Mary, and many were delighted by her work, especially her handling of some of the great lady’s more caustically witty lines.
Unfortunately, witty lines (caustic or otherwise) are rarities in a script predominantly characterised by ham-fisted exposition, needless repetition, and a tendency for almost everything interesting to take place off-stage. Ms Routledge’s role, as the forbidding Windsor matriarch, would be challenge enough were it well written; as it is, she is charged with the extra burden of trying to compensate for Mr Ryton’s shortcomings. The energy essential to this unreasonable task proves to lie beyond her reach.
Rufus Wright’s Edward VIII goes a long way toward filling this energy gap. Capturing both the infectious likeability and the fatal naivety of the lovestruck monarch, Wright raises the bar every time he’s on stage. There is also a touching performance from Richard Hansell as Edward’s painfully shy brother Bertie – doomed to take the crown as George VI – and a simmeringly dangerous one from Emma Handy as Bertie’s devoted wife Elizabeth. Considering that the future ‘Queen Mum’ was very much still alive when Crown Matrimonial made its debut, the play is surprisingly frank in its depiction of her bitterness towards her brother-in-law. It’s a welcome frankness, though; the angry exchanges it generates show what Mr Ryton might have achieved if he’d tried using drama throughout the whole play.
Old Vic, London, December 1998
Although Peter Shaffer's dark comic fantasy Amadeus bears Mozart's middle name as its title, the Latin meaning of that name – beloved of God – indicates where the author's concerns really lie; the play is not so much an account of
Mozart's rise and fall from grace in imperial Vienna as an examination of a man's relationship with God.
That man is Mozart's rival, Antonio Salieri. All he has ever wanted in life is to serve his creator through music, yet no sooner does he get the chance to do this – as Court Composer to the Austrian Emperor – than God ruins everything by bringing Mozart onto the scene. As
depicted by Shaffer, Mozart is an oversexed, overgrown schoolboy with a love of toilet humour and a lack of any social graces. Yet it is through this foul-mouthed oaf, rather than through the pious Salieri, that God chooses to express his celestial magnificence. Salieri seeks to understand this injustice, and when it passes all understanding, he sets out to destroy God's creation.
Peter Hall's revival of Amadeus, currently running at the Old Vic, is superb. Beautifully costumed yet unfussy in terms of settings (back-projections on a gold screen take us swiftly from one location to another), it boasts two immaculate lead performances, from David Suchet as the tortured Salieri and Michael Sheen as a Mozart with more than a hint of Rik Mayall. There's excellent support, too, from Karl Johnson as Mozart's champion Baron van Swieten, Christopher Benjamin as the scheming director of the Royal Opera, and Charles Kay as the dim-witted emperor, who, for want of any thoughts of his own, parrots the opinions of those around him (memorably taking the Director of the Opera's line on Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail – "Too many notes").
Shaffer's script is as crisp and witty as the day it was first aired (by Hall) at the National nearly 20 years ago. One of the most important things about it is that you don't need a knowledge of classical music to enjoy the play. Having said which, the author does some of his finest writing when speaking through Salieri about the emotions evoked by Mozart's work. The most extraordinary scene of the evening is the one in which Suchet's Salieri leafs through a portfolio of Mozart's pieces; with each turn of the page a new excerpt flutters through the sound system and Salieri's expression acquires a new degree of agony; though moved to sheer ecstasy by the beauty of the music arranged before him, he is simultaneously wracked by the confirmation of his own mediocrity. In the end, God's cruellest trick is not depriving Salieri of genius; it is giving him the wisdom to recognise it in Mozart. He may succeed in the short-term goal of destroying the boy wonder, but he can do nothing about his own inadequacy – and as he contemplates Mozart's posthumous popularity from the perspective of old age, he can take comfort only in proclaiming himself “the patron saint of all mediocrities”.
The Pajama Game
Chichester, May 2013
Juxtaposing picnic dress primaries and sombre shopfloor ironwork, Tim Hatley’s designs for The Pajama Game vividly evoke the contradictions of an American age which gave rise both to McCarthyite paranoia and one of the most vibrantly joyous musicals ever written.
Joanna Riding and Hadley Fraser crackle as the sleepwear factory employees trying to build a relationship despite conflicting loyalties in a pay dispute.
Fraser brings rich emotional shading to his solo numbers. Hey There – killed so many times by so many people – has never sounded better.
The cast move with universal grace under the tutelage of choreographer Stephen Mear; helped by the lithe precision of Alexis Owen-Hobbs, Dan Burton and Richard Jones, he even makes a genuine showstopper of the often superfluous-seeming Steam Heat.
Musically directed by Gareth Valentine, the brothers and sisters give full heart and voice to Adler and Ross’s score, their thirst for justice so infectious that by the time they get to singing Seven And A Half Cents, there’s a powerful urge to invade the stage and swell the union’s ranks.
The Scarlet Letter
Minerva, Chichester, summer 2005
If there’s one thing you’ve got to do in adapting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, it’s to retain and amplify the sense that the characters are living in a stiflingly repressed society, ruled over by the 17th-century equivalent of the Taliban. Set among the Puritan folk of colonial Boston, the story is of Hester Prynne, a woman who bears a child out of wedlock and steadfastly refuses to reveal the identity of the father – even though it could save her the ignominy of having henceforth to walk abroad with a large red ‘A’ (for ‘Adulteress’) pinned to her dress.
However, from the opening scene of Phyllis Nagy’s Chichester adaptation, wherein Hester is forced to exhibit her ‘A’ for the first time, there’s a sense that neither she nor anyone else sees it as that big a deal. Over the next couple of hours there’s a certain amount of interest in the continuing question of “Who’s the daddy?” (it’s the vicar, as it happens), but, considering it’s one of the main plot strands, it’s surprising how mild-mannered that interest is.
Some good acting goes a small way towards compensating for the absence of dramatic tension. Sure, there’s a lack of spark (repressed or otherwise) between the leads, but that’s almost to be expected. In any case, Elizabeth McGovern is an engaging Hester, and Jo Stone-Fewings does a fine job of portraying the conflicting impulses which lead Hester’s once and future lover, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, to mental disintegration.
Katherine Tozer is suitably pestilential as the child, Pearl, and Alan Williams is compelling as Roger Chillingworth, the quack doctor who poses as Dimmesdale’s friend but is actually Hester’s vengeance-seeking husband. If there’s any sense of danger to be had, it derives from the aptly named Chillingworth, rather than from Martin Duncan’s ineffectual Governor Bellingham.
The actors work hard on our behalf, but ultimately they’re making bricks without straw. How much of the blame for this should be apportioned to Phyllis Nagy the dramatist and how much to Phyllis Nagy the director, it’s impossible to say.
St Mary’s Church, Brighton,
Up, Up and Away. Wichita Lineman. Galveston. For all these and more must we give thanks to Jimmy Webb – and where better to give thanks than in a church?
The great tunesmith (and preacher’s son) was impressed, well nigh humbled, by the neo-Byzantian grandeur of St Mary’s; and yet, with his warmth and his abundant wit, he brought a beguiling intimacy to the occasion – just a man and his piano, a few songs, a few showbiz stories.
And great stories they were, with a great cast: grouchy Glen Campbell, Richard “the maniac” Harris, practical joking “Mister Sinatra” – not to mention the frantic backstage fan alarmed by the alleged geographical inaccuracy of By the Time I Get to Phoenix.
As for the songs and the singing, yes, there were moments of uncertainty, there were high notes that challenged, but to hear Jimmy Webb at full throttle, to hear him unleash the same emotional power with which he himself had first invested these songs, was something very special.
Did he do MacArthur Park, though? Why, of course he did – right at the end, when the audience thought he wasn’t going to. MacArthur Park – all of it; all seven minutes he gave us – every era-defining movement of that mini-pop opera, including its long, frenetically gorgeous instrumental break.
He gave us everything.
Vincent in Brixton
Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
‘A woman does not grow old as long as she loves and is loved.’ This contention, expressed by Vincent van Gogh in a letter of 1874, lies at the heart of Nicholas Wright’s highly speculative, highly enjoyable account of the great man’s little-known London years.
Arriving as a lodger at the Brixton home of Ursula Loyer, the young Dutchman quickly recognises a kindred spirit in his melancholic landlady. ‘You want whatever makes you unhappiest’, he alleges at one point in their doomed affair. Certainly, after 15 years’ mourning for her late husband, Ursula seems suited to her misery – yet she embraces her sudden unexpected glimpse of happiness with a touching and ultimately tragic enthusiasm.
Mark Edel-Hunt’s skilfully wrought Vincent is awkward and shy yet frequently arrogant and insensitive – something of a handful, in short, and yet you get the attraction. Lin Blakley is heartrendingly affecting as Ursula, an apparently formidable woman who proves unprepared for the emotional torrents into which she is thrown.
There is excellent support from Emma Vane as Ursula’s daughter Eugenie, Alastair Whatley as her fiancé Dan, and Nicola Sangster as Vincent’s clodhoppingly gauche sister Anna, expert comic timing belying the catastrophic effect her character has on all around her.
The Shape of Things
Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham-by-Sea, February 2011
Adam meets Evelyn at an art gallery: he’s a guard, she’s an artist with a spray-can, hell-bent on defacing a sculpture she reviles for its lack of “truth”.
Instead of calling for back-up, Adam asks for her number.
Soon they’re an item, and Evelyn is embarking on a new mission: to change her man – his hair, his clothes, his weight, his friends. Nothing unusual in this, one might think – it happens all the time. As it transpires, however, Evelyn has far from conventional reasons for wanting to effect this transformation in Adam.
By happy coincidence, Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things crossed my radar the same week as Black Swan, serving up further food for thought on the issue of art and what people are prepared to do in its name.
In Darren Aaronofsky’s film, of course, it’s a matter of self-sacrifice; here it’s more about what an artist may be prepared to do unto others.
Though steeped in its author’s trademark misanthropy, LaBute’s play is also sharply funny, frequently touching, and top-full of compelling, quick-fire dialogue. In short, it’s a very fine but very challenging piece of work – and Ross Drury’s wonderfully detailed production did it full justice.
Rachel Savage and Kett Turton were outstanding as Evelyn and her human artwork, and if Stuart Robinson and Jill Rutland seemed less fully at home with the required Stateside accents, the power of their performances ultimately transcended such considerations.
Chichester, summer 2006
Ralph Nickleby is a man who may be summed up by his belief that “All love is cant and vanity”. Thus, when his freshly widowed sister-in-law comes to him for support, he minimises his contribution while maximising its benefit to himself.
More than capable of using his niece Kate for the furtherance of his business interests, he forestalls opposition to his policies by packing off his nephew Nicholas to teach at a ‘school’ in Yorkshire called Dotheboys Hall. However, Nicholas takes issue with the harsh treatment routinely meted out to the inmates and, after intervening on behalf of a physically and mentally damaged orphan called Smike, sets out on a long and uncertain road to who knows where.
Though much imitated since its RSC debut back in the 1980s, David Edgar’s two-part adaptation of Dickens’ novel has lost none of its epic power to thrill and to keep an audience rivetted to its seats for six hours or more.
Part One is the lighter of the two plays, culminating in a magnificently funny recreation of Victorian-style Shakespearean tragedy. Part Two is considerably more heavily laden with evil and death, as well as with outrageous coincidences and loose ends in need of laborious tying-up. Such shortcomings, however, are down to the hackier elements of the source material, not to Philip Franks and Jonathan Church’s painstakingly detailed production.
If only there were room here to commend every cast member by name. As it is one must draw attention to Leigh Lawson’s commanding Ralph Nickleby; to Daniel Weyman and Hannah Yelland for their heartfelt renderings of Nicholas and Kate; to John Ramm as the unconventionally heroic Newman Noggs; to Pip Donaghy, Veronica Roberts and Zoe Waites as the repulsive Squeers family; and to David Dawson’s extraordinary inhabitation of the saintly Smike.
Yet every performer here is a star. Church and Franks have fostered a true community spirit amongst their cast, who between the 23 of them play somewhere in excess of 100 characters. Everyone gets a chance to shine, yet the bit parts are handled with just as much commitment as the showier roles.
Theatre Royal, Brighton, March 2008
If Chekhov has a bad reputation in some quarters, it’s because his work is frequently over-revered to the point where every line, every word, every syllable comes ponderously pre-loaded with SIGNIFICANCE. Happily, English Touring Theatre’s Uncle Vanya avoids that trap – though in doing so it stumbles into one or two others.
Under the direction of Sir Peter Hall, Chekhov’s tragicomical masterpiece moves along at a commendably breezy pace – so breezily, in fact, that the characters don’t always seem to have had time to think up the things they’re saying.
Furthermore, while it’s right that Hall should mine Chekhov’s rich seam of comedy, the full depth of the tragedy is sometimes neglected. This is especially so in the seminal third act, where Vanya (Nicholas le Prevost) explodes with years of suppressed resentment at his smug, pompous brother-in-law (Ronald Pickup). The bitter laughs are there in abundance, yet I wasn’t convinced that this Vanya was truly grieving for his wasted life.
Still, there’s much to commend in this enjoyable production, not least Neil Pearson’s Astrov, and, as his unrequited admirer Sonya, the revelatory Loo Brealey, seeking through smiles and nervous energy to hide an all-too-credible sense of heartbreak.
Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford
Theatre Royal Brighton, July 2010
One of the many joys of Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare: The Man From Stratford is the shortness of shrift it accords the anti-Shakespearean conspiracy industry.
In his programme notes Bate comments on the snobbery which underpins the question “Who wrote Shakespeare?” (almost all the alternative candidates are toffs), but in the show itself the controversy does not merit a mention. The authorship is taken as read as we embark, with tour guide Simon Callow, on a journey through the seven ages of Shakespeare, from “mewling and puking” infancy to “second childishness and mere oblivion”.
Along the way we are naturally treated to extracts from the Works, deftly selected, for the most part, to illustrate aspects of Shakespeare’s experience. For instance, Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” is used to demonstrate the various forms of rhetoric in which the future genius would have received intensive instruction at Stratford’s grammar school. Not all the extracts are so clearly relevant, but it’s reward enough to see and hear Callow embody not just Romeo and Juliet, but also Falstaff rationalising his cowardice, Bottom trying to bag every role in the play for the royal wedding, and Launce, in Two Gentlemen Of Verona, berating a clockwork dog for its lack of compassion.
There’s more to this, however, than well-chosen quotes. Bate’s narrative is vividly descriptive of Shakespeare’s world – when Callow details the Bard’s epic journey on foot from Stratford to the festering sore that was Elizabethan London, you feel as if you’re trudging along beside him.
Every so often, though, he’ll reach forward in time to connect Shakespeare with our own experience – sadly observing, for instance, that the Forest of Arden, which once stood to the north of Stratford and was immortalised in As You Like It, has long since given way to “motorways and Little Chefs”.
If the piece has shortcomings, they’re in the form of unnecessary failures of nerve. Director Tom Cairns has beset his man Callow with back projections and a set of sorts – a sloping wooden rostrum with hatches that open to reveal helpful items, such as the fire which flickers through the extracts from Caesar and Macbeth.
Such party tricks, though they may add a little something, don’t add enough to justify the distraction. Callow is more than capable of commanding the stage on his own – indeed, he held the first-night crowd in thrall for two hours, and there was every sense they could have sat there a lot longer.