Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I thought I might be jinxed, never to see the musical theatre adaptation of Bill Forsyth’s charming film homage to Scotland. The run at The Old Vic was cancelled during the pandemic and on an earlier visit to Chichester there was a mix up with dates and I had to return home without seeing it. Fortunately, it was third time lucky.

Set in Ferness, a fictional Scottish coastal town, it takes place at the time of the North Sea oil boom. An American company wants to buy the entire village to build a terminal and refinery and despatches executive Mac MacIntyre to do a deal with the local community. Most want to sell, but beachcomber Ben and Stella, the girlfriend of the pub landlord (and unofficial negotiator) Gordon, are against. Mac grows fond of Ferness, and Stella, helped along by copious quantities of Scotch whisky. His boss, oil company CEO Happer is a keen amateur astronomer and has asked him to investigate the possibility of naming a comet while he’s there; the local skies are renowned for comets it seems. The negotiations progress well, then hit a big snag, but when Happer arrives from Houston things take a very different turn.

It’s difficult to conjure up a Scottish coastal village with its beach, sea and spectacular skies inside a theatre, but they do the best they can with the help of some real sand, excellent projections & lighting for the skies and of course a red phone box. The transformation from the Houston office to the beach is superbly choreographed. I think it would have been better in the larger space of the Festival Theatre, though, which would have opened it out and given it a bigger canvas. Mark Knopfler’s score is serviceable, but not as evocative as I was hoping and expecting. David Greig has done a good job adapting the film for the stage, necessarily focusing on just the Houston office, the beach and the pub, cutting the visit to the Aberdeen office.

I was a little unsure of it at first, but it charmed me and won me over in the end. A lot of this was down to a fine cast, extremely well led by Gabriel Ebert as Mac, a character who is also charmed. Paul Higgins is very good as the canny landlord / accountant, as is Lillie Flynn as Stella. In a fine supporting cast, Hilton McRae as beachcomber Ben, Joshua Manning as ‘Russian capitalist’ Viktor, Jackie Morrison as Mistress Fraser and Liz Ewing as Netta all delight

I’m very glad I got to see it in the end as I’m not sure it will have a life beyond Chichester, except perhaps on tour

The Sex Party

Terry Johnson is the playwright who gave us gems like Insignificance, Hysteria & Dead Funny, and another 11 that I’ve seen. He often pays homage to comedians (Cleo Camping Emmanuelle & Dick at the NT, his tribute to the Carry On films, was another gem, as was his recent biographical piece about Ken Campbell) and sex crops up more than occasionally. He’s also a director of others’ works as well as his own. Here he is again both writer and director, which on this occasion may not have been wise.

The sex party is taking place in Alex’s house in Islington. He’s invited three couples and one single to join him and his young partner Hetty. Some he knows well, some he hardly knows, but they are all up for it, well, to one degree or another.There’s very old friend Gilly and her alpha male husband of sixteen years Jake (both new to this scene), ageing hippy Tim and his assertive wife Camilla and American ‘businessman’ Jeff and his wild Russian wife Magdalena. They’re all in the kitchen, except when sex is involved in the offstage living room. It’s too much for some participants and not enough for others. Just before the interval Lucy, a late guest, arrives. After some speculation and discussion, it’s determined she is a pre-op trans woman. In the second half she becomes the centre of attention as prejudices are revealed, people feel threatened and attitudes challenged and transform in what is a provocative change of direction by the play.

What starts as a somewhat dated sex comedy with contemporary frankness turns into a very contemporary debate about gender where the characters are initially more cautious, though it proves impossible for any of them to walk on eggshells for long. This half was certainly better, but there was so much going on it moved on from one issue to the next before the discussion had run its course, and became a bit loose and somewhat melodramatic. Some of the characters suffered by being little more than stereotypes – Tim and Magdalena – whilst others had more depth. Hetty’s Welsh accent was all over the place, with references to her mam becoming mum inconsistent. Good performances generally though, particularly from Pooya Mohseni as Lucy, who commanded everyone’s attention. I’ve only seen Lisa Dwan (Gilly) in Samuel Beckett so I’ve only really seen her mouth, face, head or torso before! She also has great presence. Tim Shortall’s kitchen is uber realistic, though my full price seat restricted my view of the right of the stage, something I should have been told and something dismissed out of hand by the theatre’s AD David Brabani. So much for 18 years of loyalty and supporter membership.

I felt the writing needed more work, and the second opinion of an independent director might have helped. Far from Johnson’s best work, but not as bad as the reviews would have you believe.

I love it when theatre tackles the issues of the day. I particularly liked Nicholas Kent’s ‘tribunal plays’ at the then Tricycle Theatre – Bloody Sunday, Stephen Lawrence, Arms to Iraq and others……and last year the Grenfell Inquiry, all verbatim from transcripts / presence at the inquiry, but edited. This is in the same vein, though a libel trial, less depth and less forensic, but very entertaining.

As an avid theatre-goer, when I walked into Wyndhams Theatre I knew I was not with ‘my people’. This show, originally scheduled as a one-off but now at least seven, has attracted the twitterati and the media. There were whoops, cheers and gasps, but then again we were witnessing a distilled version of one of the most preposterous cases even to be heard in a British court. Whatever possessed Rebecca Vardy to bring her libel action I don’t know, but it misfired even more than could have been predicted. The winners, as always, were the lawyers, with total costs of something like £3m, all paid by a very rich Vardy to very rich legal eagles. Just think how many hospice beds or food banks that would fund. Obscene.

Liv Hennessy’s editing and adaptation seems to have captured the key points and essence of the case, confirming the limited amount I’d read. Lisa Spurling’s staging is very clever, employing two football pundits to act as narrators / commentators. The stage floor is even laid out in green with pitch markings. Lucy May Barker as Vardy and Laura Dos Santos as Rooney are both terrific. The pundits double up to play smaller parts, notably Nathan McMullen as Wayne Rooney. They have small tablets which double up as character tools and actor scripts. For something put together quickly for what was meant to be tonight only, it’s very well done.

I will be amazed if seven doesn’t become a much bigger number. You move from disbelief (mostly at Vardy’s lost documentation) to admiration (of Rooney’s detection strategy) to anger (at the waste of time and money and the damage both the gutter press and social media do daily) to the guilty pleasure it brings. Vardy and The Sun come out of it badly – nothing new with regard to the latter, but the former was just foolhardy and / or badly advised & single-minded in her quest for fame. Yet I left the theatre feeling sorry for both of them.

Go see for yourself. You’re unlikely to regret it.

I love seeing Pimlico Opera’s work in prisons because the rehabilitative power is palpable and the effect uplifting. This is my second visit to women’s prison HMP Bronzefield, the last for Hairspray just before the first lockdown. It was meant to be for Little Shop of Horrors, but the Ministry of Justice decided a show about a man-eating plant featuring a sado-masochistic dentist was unsuitable. Betty Blue Eyes was the substitute, a show about local authority corruption and the theft of a pig, with more than a hint of bestiality. Good to see at least one government department fully focused on protecting the citizens of this fine country.

I loved Stiles & Drewe’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s film A Private Function when it first hit the West End in 2011, I saw the first revival in Colchester three years later and saw it again at Mountview, also just before lockdown. Set in 1947 in a northern town, with rationing still in place, the dodgy local councillors are breeding an unlicensed pig for the royal wedding banquet, whilst they are scuppering Gilbert Chilvers’ attempt to lease a unit on The Parade for his chiropody practice, but his wife Joyce is having none of it. They steal the pig, now named Betty, in revenge, The trouble is, Chilvers and one of the councillors are rather fond of Betty.

Even though it’s a substitute, it’s in many ways a good choice of show, not least because it affords parts for 18 prisoners in addition to the 6 professionals. Charlotte Fleming is outstanding as Joyce, in a hugely impressive professional debut. There are some excellent performances from the prisoners too, some of whom you only realise reside here if you read the programme. Ashley Jacobs’ band of professional musicians play the score extremely well, and the production values are excellent. This is director Sasha Regan’s debut in prison and she does a great job.

If you are in any doubt of the positive impact these initiatives have, Bronzefield’s Deputy Director Vicky Robinson’s passionate and moving curtain call speech will dispel them. She also lays out little known facts about prisoner numbers, typical crimes and sentences and possible outcomes. The co-operation and determination of both the institution and their creative partners is obvious and deserves our support, but it’s also a great show and a lot of fun.

Not Now

I’ve become fond of playwright David Ireland’s unique brand of black comedy since I was introduced to it six years ago at the Royal Court with Cyprus Avenue. This is the third I’ve seen since then, a short piece which started as ‘a play, a pie & a pint’ at Oran Mor in Glasgow earlier this year and has transferred to the Finborough, which staged the last one I saw just under a year ago.

Somewhere in small-town Northern Ireland Matthew prepares for a RADA audition, just after the funeral of his father. His Uncle Ray overhears and interrupts, offering to help, greeted with distain by Matthew. Uncle Ray is a middle-aged bachelor boasting of a long line of romantic, or at least sexual, conquests. Matthew is flip-flopping about going to the audition with his uncle insistent he does. As they talk, secrets are revealed and Ray may even have helped Matthew find something which will make him stand out from the audition crowd.

The dialogue is sharp and funny, often at the expense of Ray, but affectionately so. It’s delivered with authenticity, coupled with an impeccable comic timing by actors Matthew Blaney and Stephen Kennedy. Max Elton’s traverse staging, with two men around a kitchen table, has the sort of intimacy that draws you in to their world quickly. Given it’s only 50 minutes long, it’s surprising how much depth these characters have. It’s a much gentler, less surreal piece than Ireland’s previous work, but it’s a little gem that I would wholeheartedly recommend.

This is the most experimental piece I’ve seen in a long time. There are something like 300 characters, most just getting a soundbite, all voiced by playwright Martin Crimp, who is sometimes onstage, sometimes off. Oh, and they aren’t live, they are on screen, and they’re not real, they are created by Artificial Intelligence.

At first we just see them, their mouths not moving, only hearing their words from the playwright. There appears to be no narrative connection, except there are sections where their statements all start with the same few words. They are often very funny. Then they are synchronised with the writer’s voice, mouthing the words too. Finally the playwright appears in his office in the background whilst they continue to speak.

It’s the playwright as puppeteer. You find yourself interested in, and inventing the rest of the character, though sometimes they change so quickly there’s no time. You start looking for links, but soon realise there probably aren’t any. A few people appear more than once. It’s intriguing, but it doesn’t really sustain ninety minutes. Still, a fascinating experiment.

Mary

Eight years ago I spent a day in the NT’s Olivier Theatre immersing myself in 15th Century Scottish history. It was thrilling. Three plays – The James Plays – with an epic sweep that took your breath away, a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going. Playwright Rona Munro has this year returned to Scottish history, with a fourth instalment – James 4th, Queen of the fight – touring Scotland, and this here in London. There’s at least one more, with the 5th already written for production in 2023, but this one, No. 6, comes first, with an unwritten 7th promised.

If you’ve seen the trilogy, you have to accept that this is its own thing. It’s so different, focusing on just a few months in 1567, in one location, with just three main characters. Mary’s husband, the King of France, has died and she returns to Scotland. She soon marries again and has a male heir before her new husband is murdered. Some think she’s complicit; her catholicism means there is much mistrust, which leads to rebellion. After an attempt to escape, she surrenders and abdicates. This all happens offstage.

On the stage there is a debate between Sir James Melville, hitherto loyal to Mary, and two surprisingly lowly retainers, gate-keeper Thompson, who appears to become an important messenger for Mary’s new husband Bothwell, and Agnes, a servant who also seems to be a key figure in the protestant rebellion. They discuss what really happened – how much was Mary’s free will? was she coerced or even assaulted?

Once I’d put the trilogy behind me, I found the debate fascinating, a tribute to the lead actors – Douglas Henshall, Brian Vernel & Rona Morison – who bring it alive on a relatively bare stage, with a brilliant moment towards the end where a chorus of women have their say.

Good

C. P. Taylor wrote 80 plays, including work for TV and radio, in less than twenty years as an active playwright, but this seems to be the only play produced since his death in 1981. It was premiered by the RSC at the Donmar, one of their then two London bases, a few months before he died. The Donmar revived it eighteen years later, and nine years after that it was adapted for the big screen. It’s an unlikely piece to go straight to the West End, no doubt driven by the casting of David Tennant, who is excellent, with ‘Sold Out’ signs outside the Harold Pinter Theatre.

John Halder is a German academic who is recruited by the Nazi’s as a consultant, probably because he has written a pro-euthanasia novel. His best friend Maurice is Jewish (a fine, very moving performance from Elliot Levy). Halder considers the anti-Jewish wave likely to be short-term, and justifies this involvement as an opportunity to influence. This gets deeper, he joins the party, moves from consultancy to staff and ultimately becomes an SS Officer. He becomes involved in book burning, kristallnacht and ‘ the final solution’. In his personal life, this hitherto quiet and gentle man becomes intolerant to his aged sick mother, abandons his wife for a young woman and hides his relationship with Maurice, whose requests for help remain unanswered, all with a cold detachment. Taylor’s point seems to be how easy it is to get drawn into such horrors.

Three actors play all roles, with quick switches between them (particularly from Sharon SmalI, who excels). I struggled with the staccato style of Dominic Cook’s production as you have to focus on character changes, sometimes working out who’s who, as well as follow the unfolding story at the same time. Set in a small grey space, it also feels very static, though the drama is heightened as Halder dons his SS uniform, and later his long leather jacket, and there is a chilling coup d’theatre at the end.

Despite the quality of the performances, I did find this heavy going and, in the second half, somewhat harrowing, though Taylor’s point was not lost on me, and it does feel timely.

Tammy Faye

I have to confess I knew nothing about Tammy Faye before I saw the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye nine months ago. Though I was well aware of American TV evangelists, I’d paid little attention to individual players. As much as I enjoyed the film, this new musical seems to have much more biographical depth and detail. It’s also huge fun.

It’s not the first musical about her; there were two in quick succession in 2006-7, soon after her death, but this one has a dream team – book by James Graham, one of our greatest contemporary playwrights, music by Elton John no less, lyrics by the Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, directed by theatrical magician Rupert Goold – and it’s terrific.

We start when Tammy is diagnosed with cancer, before we flash back to see the meteoric rise of the ‘mission’ of her and her husband Jim Bakker. They start with a touring Christian puppet show before they persuade media mogul Ted Turner to give them not just a programme but an entire satellite channel. After a rocky start, they become a radical and hugely successful force in TV evangelism, even setting up a Christian theme park. Their more conservative colleagues, busy ingratiating themselves with Reagan’s new right, decide to take control and as the first act ends, the fall begins.

After the brash exuberance of the first half, there is a change of tone as Bakker’s infidelities are exposed, fraud uncovered and the old guard conspire to hijack and take control of their empire. Graham handles this change brilliantly, toning down the manic pace and introducing a pathos in line with Tammy’s sympathetic character development, surrounded by all these devious, sexist, hypocritical men, perhaps the only christian (with a small c) amongst them.

Elton John knows how to write a catchy tune and the show is jam packed with them, with an Americana feel through its gospel and C&W references. Shears sharp lyrics compliment Graham’s book and do more to add colour and propel the story than lyrics do in most musicals. The book is a very comprehensive telling of her story, and it’s also extremely funny. I particularly liked the idea of a triumvirate of global Christian leaders – The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Mormon church – discussing and commenting on the rise of the TV evangelicals.

Katie Brayben is simply sensational as Tammy, navigating the emotional roller-coaster of her life, with solid characterisation, superb comic timing and brilliant vocals. Andrew Rannells’ Jim has a hapless quality and faux sincerity, as if things happen to him rather than made to happen by him, a great interpretation. It’s an extraordinarily accomplished cast, most of whom play more than one role, often in delicious combinations. Peter Caulfield as Billy Graham becomes porn baron Larry Flynt, Pontius Pilate and a judge. Nicholas Rowe as Ted Turner, TV evangelist Pat Robertson and The Pope! Steve John Shepherd plays evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Ronald Reagan. Zubin Varla is excellent as Jerry Falwell, the stern, conservative architect of the Bakker’s demise, a dramatic contrast to those around him.

Designer Bunny Christie channels the TV show Celebrity Squares (and Zoom meetings) with a versatile wall of 25 cubes in which people appear and on which things are projected, brilliantly lit by Neil Austin. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are period perfect and for once a huge shout out to the wigs and make-up teams whose work is spectacular. Rupert Goold’s production is packed with inventiveness, complimented by Lynne Page’s terrific choreography. The show oozes quality in every department; the first act in particular takes your breath away.

New musicals come along rarely, British ones even more rarely, shows this good once in a blue moon. A huge treat.

Enid Blyton’s series of adventures were at the top of my childhood reading list, with The Secret Seven close behind. They whisked me away from the valleys of South Wales on adventures which fed my imagination. Little did I know I’d be seeing their stage adaptation more than fifty years later, and when I entered the auditorium to see Lucy Osborne’s picture-book design my eyes lit up and a wave of nostalgia enveloped me.

Enid Blyton has sold over 500 million copies of her 700 books in 40+ languages, one every minute in 2021, so I’m not alone. There were 21 adventures in this series (and another 15 Secret Seven stories) between 1942 and 1962 and I don’t think they’ve ever been out of print. Adaptor Elinor Cook gives us a mash-up, with a sprinkling of more modern themes like equality and the environment.

Julian, Dick & Anne are spending the summer with eccentric inventor Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny, an archetypal loving mother and domestic goddess. Their headstrong tomboy daughter George and her dog Timmy make it five. The double kidnap adventure is connected to Quentin’s latest work on alternative energy but it has a redemptive ending as Quentin accepts his flaws. The benign station-master moonlights as the kidnapper’s accomplice, anything for money, but he regrets it and is ultimately forgiven.

I’ve much admired the orchestrations, arrangements and musical direction of Theo Jamieson and this is his first full musical. The songs are not always well served by the vocals, with Lara Denning as Aunt Fanny & Isabelle Methven as Anne taking the musical honours. Katherine Rockhill’s band, though visible behind a gauze screen above the action, sometimes seemed disjointed from the vocals, presumably because of the sound design. In the acting department, Louis Suc is terrific as Dick, capturing all of those young teenager mores. Sam Harrison gives a fine comic performance as the station master et al. A puppet takes a starring role as Timmy, with others as sea lions, birds and bunnies, all designed and directed by Rachael Canning. I liked the staging by Tamara Harvey, with choreographer Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Forster bringing both pace and a teenage adventure feel.

It’s an impressive first musical, if not a great show. The young audience clearly enjoyed it. For me, it seemed a bit surreal seeing contemporary youngsters connect with something I’d hitherto considered belonged to my childhood!