Posts Tagged ‘Jasper Britton’

Throughout this play I was wondering why it felt different from any other one-act two-character piece I’d seen before. Reading the writer Cormac McCarthy’s biography in the programme on the way home, I saw it described as ‘a novel in dramatic form’ and then it made complete sense. Though there’s an apartment setting and the two characters interact, it did feel more like reading a novel, and the writer is indeed a novelist.

The characters are called White and Black, though their race didn’t seem particularly significant to me. We’re in Black’s NYC apartment. He’s brought White home after rescuing him from a suicide attempt. He believes god sent him to do this. White doesn’t remember seeing him there before his aborted jump. We learn more about Black than we do about White – his murky past, being born again and his faith. All we really learn about White is that he’s a professor, he’s alone and he’s deeply pessimistic about the world in which we live. Black is trying to keep White there because he fears another attempt, and believes it’s his calling to prevent this.

I was a bit puzzled by the fact that the play seems to be named after a long-distance Amtrak train (I’ve been on it!) but it goes nowhere near NYC and the suicide attempt appears to have been on the subway anyway. It’s a very wordy piece that’s relatively undramatic, though the performances of Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton are superb. Not being someone of faith and being a generally positive person, I’m afraid I found both Black’s blind faith and White’s nihilism difficult to stomach. Worth a visit for the performances alone, though, and good to see this new venue is as suitable for intimate theatre as it was for a chamber musical.

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Playwright Hugh Whitemore, who died this year, was better known as a TV writer, but between 1977 and 1987 he wrote four outstanding plays, all factually based, of which this was the second. The original West End production 35 years ago starred Judi Dench and her husband Michael Williams and ran for almost a year. This first major London revival at the Menier sees their daughter Finty Williams take on her mother’s role.

It’s set in 1960 in the Ruislip home of the Jackson family, a model of suburban ordinariness. Their best friends and neighbours the Krogers are apparently Canadians; the two families are very fond of each another. One day a man called Stewart enters the Jacksons’ lives and persuades them to allow surveillance from their upstairs bedroom. As the surveillance period is lengthened, Stewart feels obliged to feed them information about the reasons for it, until they discover it’s their best friends who are being watched. The highly-strung wife Barbara struggles to reconcile the reality of the warm friendship with the likelihood the Krogers are spies.

The period feel is extraordinary, from Paul Farnsworth’s brilliantly detailed design – the depth of a suburban house the width of the theatre, furniture, fittings and everyday items spot on – to the pitch perfect performances, with behaviour very much of the time. Chris Larkin and Finty Williams play the empathetic Jackson’s, the heart of the play, beautifully and Macy Nyman is terrific as their daughter Julie. Jasper Britton navigates the role of Stewart from gently persuasive to assertively determined extremely well. Tracy-Ann Oberman is excellent as brassy but loving Helen Kroger.

The attention to period detail and suspense does slow the pace, but I felt it just about sustained its length. In many ways its an old-fashioned evening, but Hannah Chissick’s impeccable production brings out all the psychological and emotional impact of this true story and makes it a very worthwhile revival.

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It’s takes a brave theatre, a brave director and a brave leading actor to revive this 2009 Jez Butterworth play, which had two West End runs and one Broadway run in the two years following it’s Royal Court premiere. Less than two week’s ago, The Guardian’s Michael Billington listed the ’25 best plays since Jerusalem’, which he referred to as ‘the hit that transformed British theatre’. One of those was Butterworth’s The Ferryman which is Broadway-bound, having just completed almost a year in the West End following it’s Royal Court premiere in 2017. It’s a big show for the Watermill, but they pull it off with great aplomb.

I still stand by my earlier thoughts (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/jerusalem) though my reaction has evolved through the passage of time and changes in the country, which seems to be clinging to a Jerusalem of its own. Rooster Byron is the ultimate rebel, the lovable rogue that some see as the personification of evil – contributing nothing to society, leading their children astray, polluting their backyard with noise and junk, but he’s also a defender of rural encroachment, gentrification, the rights of outsiders and independence.

I thought the other characters came to the fore this time – Ginger refusing to grow up, Davey not seeing the point of leaving Wiltshire, Lee naively thinking he can see the world with a one-way ticket to Australia and $200, but still reluctant to go, emasculated publican Wesley and The Professor, clearly unfulfilled with nowhere to go. Rooster’s past also seems more significant, with the arrival of his ex and son more poignant.

Designer Frankie Bradshaw has brilliantly created the same wild glade with caravan in the woods, much more intimate in the Watermill, and referenced the Flintock Fair in dressing the auditorium. Jasper Britton makes Rooster Byron his own, in a towering performance, with outstanding support from a cast who are so good they banish from the memory those that came before, particularly Peter Caulfield as Ginger, Santino Smith as Davey and Sam Swann as Lee.

This is a fine early revival, by Lisa Blair, of a ground-breaking state-of-the-nation play, perhaps even more timely today. Another great reason to head west to this lovely, ambitious theatre which consistently delivers.

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My response to this new David Mamet piece is probably affected by having seen Chimerica, a stunning new play, the night before. It’s also the second American play in six days (Disgraced at the Bush is the other) which felt cold & cynical and made me feel more than a bit manipulated.

If you like lawyers before you see this, you probably won’t after. I didn’t, so it confirmed all my prejudices. Money grabbing bastards with few principles for whom truth and justice are barely relevant.

White billionaire Charles Strickland may or may not have raped a black girl in a hotel room. He leaves one lawyer and asks another to take on his case. The two partners – one white, one black – and their young black trainee Susan debate the case, its merits, possible outcomes and whether they should take it on. It’s an interesting debate but to me it seems more about the flaws of the legal system than racism. Right and wrong don’t figure as much as what will and won’t work and truth seems irrelevant.

Tim Shorthall’s giant wood-panelled book-lined office is superb and the performances are all excellent (particularly Jasper Britton, for whom this is a career high in my view). I engaged with the debate at an intellectual level but unlike Oleanna, the Mamet play I feel its closest to, I didn’t really care about anyone and it didn’t ignite a passion in me, which plays like this usually do.

It’s clever and balanced, but without warmth and too cool and clinical for my liking.

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John Gay has a lot to answer for. In satirising 18th century opera, he invented the musical as we know it today (and even jukebox musicals, as his was a compilation of popular songs of the day) and it’s content was so controversial, it resulted in the introduction of theatrical censorship which continued for 240 years until just 43 years ago. He also made more money that a lot of contemporary musicals – the equivalent of £1m!

Lucy Bailey’s production for the Open Air Theatre is much darker and bawdier than any I’ve seen before, and somehow feels much more authentic. It’s another show (after Into the Woods and Lord of the Flies) that’s perfect for the venue too. Bill Dudley has created a superb death & torture location with gallows and stocks, brilliant period costumes and a Hogarthian front cloth to take you to the London of the early eighteenth century.

Macheath is a highwayman and womanizer, target of thief catcher Peachum and jailer Lockit, both of whose daughters he has bedded and proposed to (and in Lucy Lockit’s case impregnated). Along the road to his capture we seem to spend most of our time in bars and brothels with a surfeit of thieving, drinking, fighting and fornication. It’s a bit shocking today, so I dread to think what they thought of it 283 years ago!

It’s a great ensemble, expanded to 26 with the addition of students from E 15 Acting School with stand out performances from Jasper Britton and Janet Fullerlove as the Peachums, Oliver Hoare as their servant Filch and Beverly Rudd as both Lucy Lockit and Dolly Trull. They’ve cast singing actors rather than singers, which I think is right for the piece but doesn’t make for the best vocals. The playing of six piece ensemble The City Waites though is first class.  The choreography and fight direction of Maxine Doyle and Terry King is outstanding; you often went ‘ouch’ as you could virtually feel the punches and falls.

Another great night at the Open Air on another great night. Next stop Gershwin’s Crazy for You in a month’s time.

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