Posts Tagged ‘Donmar Warehouse Theatre’

I don’t think either the history of the Butetown area of Cardiff, or Tiger Bay as it’s also known, or the plight of black American GIs in the UK during the Second World War are particularly well known, so it’s good to see both featured in Diana Nneka Atuona’s excellent new play.

Tiger Bay was the home of Cardiff docks, once the largest in the world, sending coal from the South Wales valleys to virtually every corner of the planet. It was one of the first places to receive immigrants to the UK and with much inter-racial marriage soon became a melting pot. The play is set during the war in the unofficial boarding house of Gwyneth, where she lives with her young mixed race daughters Connie & Georgie. Her Nigerian husband is at sea it seems. Her current guests include local merchant sailor Patsy, West Indian Norman and Dullah, a muslim from the Muddle East or Asian sub-continent. Dullah’s girlfriend, local ‘coloured’ girl Peggy is a frequent visitor.

‘Coloured’ GIs are confined to their barracks in nearby Maindy, but there has been an incident where a white officer has been murdered and two ‘coloured’ soldiers are on the run. Unbeknown to the other, one has been killed. His friend Nate is hiding out in the boarding house’s back yard. After being found by Gwyneth’s youngest daughter Georgie, he is taken in and welcomed, shocked at the existence of, and being accepted in, an unsegregated place like this. They don’t initially know what he’s running from but they get caught up in his predicament.

There’s a really authentic sense of location and period in Tinuke Craig’s production, with an excellent design by Peter McKintosh including a lot of period detail. The first part is a touch slow, largely because there’s so much background to cover, but I was content absorbing the atmosphere of the period and the place. The faithful local accents (I was brought up 12 miles away) added to the authenticity (some actors, like Bethan-Mary James, are clearly from the area).

It’s really well performed, with a cast led by Sarah Parish as Welsh matriarch Gwyneth who’s come here from the valleys, a pitch perfect performance. There are hugely impressive professional stage debuts by Rita Bernard-Shaw as Connie and Samuel Adewunmi as Nate, and on the night I went, another auspicious stage debut by Rosie Ekenna as young Georgie.

As if to illustrate my little known history point, in the interval the American gentleman sitting next to me asked why the British wouldn’t allow the GIs to mix with the local community. Little known over there as well as over here it seems.

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American playwright Lillian Hellman has a much higher profile than you’d expect for someone who only produced eight original plays and three adaptations. This is partly because of her other work – screenplays, memoirs, a novel and the original book for Bernstein’s Candide – but also because of her politics; she appeared before the Committee on Un-American Activities and was subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood.

I can only recall revivals of two of her other plays in my 40 years of theatre-going in London – Little Foxes in 2001, also at the Donmar, directed by Marianne Elliott with acting royalty Penelope Wilton, and The Children’s Hour ten years later in the West End, directed by Ian Rickson, with Keira Knightly and Elizabeth Moss.

The play is set in 1941 in the home of a wealthy family near Washington DC, widow Fanny Farrelly and her single son David, a lawyer. The US has yet to enter the 2nd World War. Fanny’s daughter Sara has been in Germany for 20 years, married to Bavarian Kurt, with three children. Kurt has been active as an anti-fascist in both Germany and Spain. As war approaches, the family make their way to Sara’s homeland, which her children have never visited, to see the grandmother they’ve never met.

Fanny has long-term guests, down at heel Romanian Count Brancovis and his American wife Marthe, whose marriage is on the rocks and who seems to be carrying a torch for David. Despite being European, Brancovis’ politics and sympathies seem very much at odds with Kurt’s and they clash, before the Count sees a way of making money quickly from the situation, through blackmail.

It’s an interesting piece, though it feels its age and creaks more than a little. The first part contains a lot of background and scene setting, but it does evolve into more of a thriller after the interval. Ellen McDougall’s production serves the play well. It’s framed by a giant period TV set (designer Basia Binkowska) and starts and ends with brief projections, as if we’re watching an old black & white TV programme.

I was looking forward to seeing Patricia Hodge on stage again, but her understudy Jane Lambert provided excellent word perfect cover. It was good to see favourite Kate Duchene again though, as Fanny’s French housekeeper. Both Mark Waschke and Caitlin Fitzgerald give passionate performances as Kurt and Sara, and the three children are outstanding.

It isn’t a great play, but its a welcome revival given an excellent production.

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This may be the most unlikely Broadway musical, a show about an Egyptian police band who end up in the wrong city in Israel. It’s based on a 2007 Israeli film by Eran Kolirin, adapted by Itamar Moses & David Yazbek as an Off-Broadway musical which made its way to the Great White Way in 2017 and now to the West End five years later.

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra have been invited to the opening of an Arab Cultural Centre in a town in Israel, but through a mis-pronunciation get a bus from Tel Aviv airport to a different town in back-of-beyond Israel where they are stranded overnight. Both the locals and the band are wary of each other, but the offer of hospitality from restauranteur Dina breaks the ice.

Conductor Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, a widower, is shown around the town by Dina. Band member Haled accompanies four youngsters to a roller disco and coaches the shy Papi in courting. Another, Simon, gets taken in by Itzik where he is exposed to his troubled relationship with his wife and grieving father-in-law Avrum. Somehow, the initial wariness is replaced by warmth and friendship as these Egyptians touch the lives of their hosts, and vice versa.

Yazbek’s music is a million miles way from the scores of his other shows – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and The Full Monty – with a distinctive Arab / Israeli aesthetic. It feels more like a play with music than a musical, and a very original one at that. Michael Longhurst’s production is sensitive to the material, with a gentleness and charm that captures your heart. It’s beautifully performed by a cast led by Miri Mesika as Dina and Alon Moni Aboutboul as Tewfiq. The onstage orchestra is terrific.

The lasting impression of this lovely show is that humans will connect and befriend each other in any circumstances provided they ignore the political, cultural and religious prejudices that otherwise pervade and poison their daily lives.

A surprising and lovely evening.

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When I booked to see this months ago, I didn’t know I would spend the preceding few days raging against the pollution of water companies facilitated by 265 MP’s voting to allow raw sewage into our rivers and sea. Dawn King’s play was preaching to the converted.

The trials in question take place in the future, after pollution has got even more out of control and become unsustainable. Having tried governments and corporations, the younger generation now form juries to try individuals who have exceeded their personal carbon limit. We hear the testimonies of three of them, and the jurors deliberations and decisions. The testimonies are impassioned, desperate, the deliberations more emotional than objective, reflecting the immaturity of the jurors or the determination for revenge in some cases.

In focusing on personal responsibility, mentioning the culpability of governments and corporation only in passing, it lets them off the hook, as it does younger generations, which are hardly blameless given their rampant consumerism, said the ‘dinosaur’! Nevertheless, it presents crucial issues and Natalie Abrahami’s production grips throughout. The three on trial are played by Nigel Lindsay, Lucy Cohu & Sharon Small, all excellent. The twelve young actors who the Donmar call ‘the next generation of talent’ are all outstanding.

Well deserving of its place on the Donmar stage, worthy of a longer run.

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Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is apparently the most produced play in the world, and considered to be the first feminist play. I’m not sure what attracts so many to produce it, and what propels a writer to produce a sequel, but I’m glad Lucas Hnath did.

When you walk into the theatre you find yourself sitting around the exterior of a house, with smoke coming out of the chimney. As the play starts it rises to reveal a platform with just a table and some chairs. It’s a coup d’theatre by designer Rae Smith, albeit an expensive one, and we never see it again. It’s fifteen years since Nora walked out on her husband and children. Only the housekeeper Anne-Marie knows she is about to return, on a mission to tie up loose ends to protect herself. She’s now a successful feminist writer who has been more fulfilled since leaving, but her writing has brought enemies who have been digging around.

Anne-Marie refuses to become involved in her plan to make things safe, and Torvald won’t give her the divorce that would be the easiest way out. Her daughter offers a solution but Nora won’t implicate her. It’s a plausible speculation and an even handed treatment of the parties. James Macdonald’s production is surprisingly funny and the play is way lighter than Ibsen’s play. I really liked it.

There are four fine performances. The ever wonderful June Watson plays Anne-Marie as an indefatigable, loyal family retainer. Noma Dumezweni is terrific as Nora, riddled with guilt for deserting her children but defiant in her beliefs. Brian F. O’Byrne and Patricia Allison provide fine support as Torvald and the daughter.

I had to reschedule it after a cancellation due to covid, but it was worth it.

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The Donmar’s last production, Henry V, a play about one sovereign nation invading another based on a dubious historical premise, opened as a sovereign nation invaded another based on a dubious historical premise. It’s current production is Jackie Sibblies Dury’s play, ostensibly about the 19th century Jamaican nurse famous for her nursing during the Crimean War, against the Russians. Timeliness indeed.

I say ostensibly as it’s not a biography of Seacole, but uses her as a symbolic representation of how black nurses, or rather black people in general, have been used for centuries. As the character of her mother says in the final part ‘they need us, but they don’t want us’. I think the reason for the plural Mary’s is that in addition to THE Mary Seacole, who we encounter in Jamaica as well as the US, England & Crimea, we also meet what appear to be contemporary carers, her ‘descendants’, and the attitudes of those they serve.

Based on this, and her play Fairview which we saw here in 2019 (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/fairview), I think she’s too fond of shock & surprise, and too focused on structure & form over content, to be a great storyteller. That said, this is a lot less heavy-handed than Fairview, thereby more successful in making it’s point, in my view. The six actors, most of which play multiple roles, serve the play well, including a fine leading performance from Kayla Meikle.

It seems to me that it falls between two stools, a biography of Mary Seacole and a statement on black lives matter, but neither has quite enough substance.

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The Donmar will not have known their new production of Henry V, a play about a sovereign nation invading another sovereign nation over some obscure historical claims, would open as a nation invaded another over obscure historical claims. Life imitates art.

This is a very contemporary take on the play, cast regardless of sex, with most actors playing multiple roles. After the prologue there appears to be an additional scene of revelry with Falstaff et al prior to the announcement of Henry VI’s demise, making it a more seamless follow-up to the previous (chronologically) history play, but not what Shakespeare wrote. There’s also a lot more narration than I think Shakespeare wrote. In fact, they take rather a lot of liberties with the verse, not least putting the desire for naturalistic dialogue above respect for it. Perhaps the most radical thing is the French speaking in French, with English surtitles, plus a smattering of other tongues, including Welsh. While I’m on that subject (subjectivity alert!), the stereotyping of the Welsh is clumsy and tiresome – you’ll hear ‘look you’ more times in three hours at the Donmar than in a year living in Wales.

There are things to like, mostly visual, including battle scenes, Fly Davies’ design and the use of sacred music, sung live by some of the cast. Kit Harington makes a decent job of the Henry he’s tasked with characterising, though it won’t go down as a great interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s meatier roles. While I’m on the subject of Shakespeare, who wrote the play by the way, they are way too preoccupied looking for contemporary relevance and modern resonance to bother with something as basic as serving the play, hence my title of this review. I usually enjoy modern, contemporary productions of Shakespeare, but here director Max Webster pushed it too far and lost so much in the process. Still, they’ll continue reviving the play long after his production is forgotten, so I guess The Bard gets the last laugh.

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Given it’s iconic status in musical theatre, I’m surprised this is only the fourth major London revival since I moved here forty years ago. Sam Mendes also turned his theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, into the Kit Kat Club for his 1993 production, albeit less dramatically. This transferred to Broadway, where it ran for six or seven years, returning less that ten years later for another year. Rufus Norris’ 2006 revival was a radical production on a conventional stage. Now Rebecca Frecknall’s is a complete reinvention within an elaborate reconfiguration of the Playhouse Theatre. There was so much to take in, which might be why I’m still struggling to write about it four days later.

It must have felt extraordinarily ground-breaking when it was first staged on Broadway 55 years ago; it felt pretty much the same now – a musical set in 30’s Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party featuring prostitution, drugs and homosexuality, the Kit Kat Club at the heart of all the decadence. It starts when you enter, walking through the bowels of the theatre to emerge in what used to be the foyer where the ‘prologue cast’ were performing. Then you enter the auditorium, where the club vibe continues, with the audience on two sides of a round playing area which revolves and rises, and the band above in the two boxes that once housed audience members. It’s actually a small playing area, though Frecknall and choreographer Julia Cheng use it brilliantly, switching from the club to all other locations with few props very speedily.

In addition to Tom Scutt’s physical design, his Kit Kat Club costumes have a distinct aesthetic too, a sort of surreal punk fantasy, never more so than with Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee, which he invests with an extraordinary physicality and a manic stare. One of the striking things about this production is how all of the roles come to the fore; it isn’t just Sally & the Emcee’s show, the audience waiting for their next entrance. This cast rise to that challenge superbly. Lisa Sadovy is terrific as landlady Fraulein Schneider, her relationship with Elliot Levey’s excellent Herr Schultz growing, exuding warmth, before it crashes so sadly. Omari Douglas continues to impress with a very subtle and sensitive Clifford, struggling with his sexuality. It’s great to see Anna-Jane Casey back where she belongs investing prostitute Fraulein Kost with such exuberance. Then there’s Jessie Buckley, conquering yet another peak in a short career that has demonstrated extraordinary range. Her Sally Bowles balances confidence and vulnerability perfectly.

It’s an unsettling, dark show and this production is often chilling. Perhaps because of the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, the parallels between him and Kander & Ebb struck me. They both tackled subjects unusual to musical theatre before, and each show was completely different. Cabaret will go down in history as a show which made a great contribution to the evolution of the form in the last half of the 20th Century and this production will be remembered for proving the point that great shows evolve and change, reflecting the period they are performed in and the talent that creates and performs them. I’m so glad I was there to experience this one.

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This black comedy is a stage adaptation of a much garlanded 2014 Swedish film by Ruben Ostlund. The American 2020 remake, Downhill, was a lot less successful it seems, and the stage version by Tim Price may illuminate why. I haven’t seen either film.

Tomas, Ebba, their teenage daughter Vera and young son Harry take a skiing holiday in the French Alps. On their first full day, whilst having lunch at a cafe at the top of the slopes, a controlled avalanche looks as if it is getting out of control and Tomas’ reaction has a profound effect on his family. That evening Ebba relates the tale to a guest she has befriended and the following day to Tomas’ friend and colleague Mats, who has by now arrived with his young girlfriend Jenny, during a drunken evening. In doing so, she embarrasses and humiliates Tomas. Things escalate as Tomas & Ebba’s relationship appears to disintegrate, affecting their children and contaminating Mats and Jenny’s relationship in the process. Whilst all this is going on, others party and the staff go about their business, but everyone knows there’s something up.

It’s often very funny, but also often uncomfortable. It makes us consider how we deal with different perceptions of the same event and our own and others’ flaws, and what happens when the acceptable / unacceptable line is crossed. The problem for me was the uneven pace, particularly in the multiple short scenes of the first 30 or 40 minutes. We were entertained during the scene changes by skiing, choreography and skiing choreography (!), but it still hampers the dramatic flow. The meatier scenes, like the drunken evening and Tomas and Ebba’s confrontation are excellent, though.

It isn’t easy to set a play in the Alps, but Jon Bausor’s design gives us ski slopes, restaurants & bars, bedrooms and an elevator on his brightly lit set. The four central characters are well played by Rory Kinnear, Lyndsey Marshal, Sule Rimi and Siena King, and there’s a fine supporting cast in Michael Longhurst’s production. As much as I enjoyed the evening, though, I couldn’t help wondering if it was really worth adapting for the stage.

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This early Alan Bennett play, 48 years old now, is rarely seen. I can only recall one London revival, by Sam Mendes at the Donmar twenty-five years ago, which I missed because the performance I’d booked was cancelled and I couldn’t make another, so it’s been a long wait, not just the eighteen month lockdown one.

It’s his most farcical play, which seems to me to be a send up of the form, without slamming doors, but with the trouser dropping. It’s more Joe Orton than Brian Rix, both of which pre-date it. It also has more than a touch of absurdism, and is partly in verse. A very odd concoction which I’m not sure has stood the test of time.

Dr Arthur Wicksteed is a GP with a roving eye. His son Dennis is desperate to lose his virginity and his sister Constance wants false breasts to bag her a better man than the Canon, her fiancee. His wife’s ex flame is Sir Percy Shorter, the President of the BMA, who’s here in their home town of Hove for a conference. Lady Rumpers and her daughter Felicity, back from their colonial adventures, turn up, though it’s a long time before you realise why. Add in the false breast salesman / fitter, a suicidal patient and the Wicksteed’s housekeeper Mrs Swabb, our ‘narrator’ – a brilliant performance from Ria Jones – shake & stir and you have a surreal take on the classic British farce of that time.

It’s all very well plotted and littered with good jokes. There’s a coffin centre stage, the purpose of which remains unclear, otherwise there are no props, so it zips along. The costumes are pitch perfect 70’s, and of course the soundtrack is to die for. Underneath all this there may be some messages, but if there are they get lost in the form. You can’t fault the performers, who make the best of every line and every situation, but it didn’t really work for me.

It’s a curiosity, and as a big Bennett fan I’m glad I went to see what he was up to in early career, but it’s easy to see why its taken 25 years to reappear on a London stage again.

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