Posts Tagged ‘Laurie Sansom’

I saw the three previous Barney Norris plays at the Arcola and the Bush, in their smaller spaces, so I was wondering if his unique brand of wistful, poignant charm would survive scaling up to a big London theatre like the Bridge. Half-way through I wasn’t convinced, but by the end I was.

We’re back in rural south England, this time a Hampshire farm. The two years since her husband’s illness and subsequent death have been a struggle for Jenny, her son Ryan, daughter Lou and her boyfriend / Ryan’s best friend Pete. Ryan and Pete were involved in a drunken incident which resulted in Pete’s imprisonment and his split from Lou. The farm, which Ryan is somewhat reluctantly continuing to run, is deep in debt. Ryan and Pete have taken a huge risk by siphoning oil from the pipeline running through the farm (a touch implausibly, I thought). They’re all grieving in different ways.

A hell of a lot more happens in the second half where we see the games people play. We learn that Jenny and Ryan knew more about Pete’s fate than was thought. Lou and Pete rekindle their relationship. Jenny struggles to keep the family together and some of her tactics backfire. We begin to wonder if Ryan’s friendship with Pete, for him, is more than it seems. Lou and Pete make plans to leave and Ryan seeks to persuade his mother to sell up. In the end, the family saga and rural decline come to a rather sad conclusion.

Rae Smith’s design manages to evoke the countryside without losing the intimacy of the individual scenes in yet another different use of the new Bridge space. In thirty-five years of London theatre-going, its the first time I’ve seen a pipeline and actual brick-laying live on stage! All four performances – Claire Skinner as mum, Sion Daniel Young as Ryan, Ophelia Lovibond as Lou and Ukweli Roach as Pete – are excellent. Laurie Sansom’s staging is as fine as we’ve come to expect from him.

Despite an unevenness between the two halves, Norris just about survives the scale-up. To be recommended.

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Yet another occasion where the critical reception lowered expectations only for them to be exceed on the night! I saw the world premiere of this Manuel Puig play in the tiny (old) Bush Theatre in 1985, with Mark Rylance and Simon Callow no less, but this production of a new version by Jose Rivera & Allan Baker opens it up, and seems to me to have even more power in its coruscating examination of the evils of tyrannical regimes.

Valentin is a political prisoner in a Buenos Aires jail in 1975. He has clearly been tortured. His cellmate Molina is a gay window-dresser, imprisoned for alleged indecency, who the authorities are hoping to use to get information on Valentin’s activities and associates. As a result, Molina is given supplies after each supposed visit by his mother or lawyer, in reality meetings with the authorities, so that they don’t have to eat the vile prison food. In order to kill time, Molina describes his favourite movies, a ritual which initially irritates Valentin, but one he learns to embrace and enjoy. The unlikely relationship between the chalk-and-cheese cellmates becomes affectionate, and more.

Designer Jon Bausor has used the concrete of the Menier space to create the prison, with cell doors along a corridor above and around around the cell of our subjects. When Molina is outlining the stories of his films, sound and projections onto the prison walls illustrate the fantasies. The design, and Laurie Sansom’s staging, are effective in conveying the claustrophobic intimacy of the cell, bringing a cinematic quality to the fantasies and underlining the power of the opressive state. Declan Bennett as Valentin and Samuel Barnett as Molina are both outstanding, playing very different characters with different motivations, but also making their intimacy and affection for one another believable.

This is way better than the critics will have you believe; go and make up your own mind!

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No, this isn’t the history of my family in three plays, it’s the 15th century history of Scotland; far less important. These three plays take us through a turbulent time from 1406 to 1488, when the Scottish nobility fought amongst themselves during the imprisonment of James I by the English, the youth of James II, too young to reign, and the excesses of James III. In England, the same century starts with Henry IV and goes through Henry’s V & VI and Richard III to Henry VII. Rona Munro’s plays provide a 6h40m Scottish history lesson, but also entertaining and thrilling theatre. The National Theatre of Scotland’s new Artistic Director, who was last at the (English) NT with brilliant and rare early Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, starts his reign with a bang.

The first play covers just four years, from the end of James I’s imprisonment in 1422, at the time of the death of Henry V, through his return to Scotland aged 28 to deal with a bunch of noblemen who’ve got far too used to running the show on their own. He has to despatch rather a lot of them before he can rule for 15 years himself; it’s bloody and brilliant. In the second, James II becomes king aged 6 and a battle for power rages between noblemen on who rules on his behalf until he is 18, after which he goes on to rule for just 11 years. The third play starts when James III has been an adult king for around 15 years and has become an exceedingly unpopular one. Despite a seemingly successful marriage to Margaret of Denmark (played here by The Killing’s Sofie Grabol, a real Dane!), he has become a philanderer and spendthrift with a debauched lifestyle. Margaret tries to keep things in control, but rebellion becomes overpowering and she has to take power herself hold Scotland together. The third play ends movingly as James IV ascends the throne aged 15. It was a chaotic, anarchic century for Scotland, which brought out the worst in their greedy, blood-thirsty nobility. You can see why clans were forever in conflict. What struck me most was how young people had to grow up so soon and assume positions of power and authority as mere children.

Jon Bausor’s design make the Olivier Theatre in-the-round with seven entrances and action between and in the high-level stage seating. There’s a giant sword which at various times bleeds, it set alight and becomes bejewelled. The first two plays are costumed alike in rough-and ready period dress, but the third takes a more modern spin; I’m not entirely sure why, but it worked. The staging is wonderful, often thrilling, managing to play battles and intimate scenes equally effectively. It would be invidious to single out any performances because it seems to me that the excellence of the entire cast is key to its success. The second play isn’t as good as the other two (again, I’m not entirely sure why; maybe for us all dayers just a natural PM drop in energy) but in my view its not as much of a dip as others have suggested. Overall, I think its a theatrical feast, one which I’m glad I ate in a single day and one which I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

Though a product of the ever enterprising and nomadic NTS, this co-production with the more static NT provides a timely example of what union can bring. A highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going.

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I’m fascinated by the work of J B Priestly, but we rarely get a chance to see more than a few of his plays. Stephen Daldry’s iconic NT production of  An Inspector Calls seems to be on tour permanently and When We Are Married gets wheeled out fairly often, but that’s about it. The NT gave us Time & The Conways a couple of years ago and Southwark Playhouse put on the very rare They Came to a City earlier this year. So here was a chance to catch this one on tour to Richmond.

It’s more conventional and less moralistic, political, radical and experimental than I’ve got used to from Priestly. They say it’s his most Chekovian, a comment likely to put me off I’m afraid. We’re in the Kirby household, where widower Dr. Kirby is looked after by daughter Lilian whilst son Wilfred is working in Nigeria and theatrical daughter Stella has been on tour now for eight years. Wilfred is home on leave when Stella springs a surprise visit and the family dynamics unfold. Lilian resents Stella leaving her as homemaker and being the subject of local boy Geoffrey’s infatuation whilst she has designs on him herself. Stella’s confession that she married a fellow actor secretly on tour enables Lilian to get her own back.

Laurie Sansom’s production is virtually faultless. He has a fine attention to detail and evokes Edwardian society brilliantly. I wasn’t convinced  by the backdrop of Sara Parks design, but her drawing-room was appropriately claustrophobic and spot on for the period (not that I personally remember 1912!). There isn’t a fault in the casting, with Charlotte Emmerson and Daisy Douglas particularly good as Stella and Lilian and an auspicious professional debut by Nick Hendrix as son Wilfred. Daniel Betts really came into his own in the terrific drunk scene in Act III.

This will never be my favourite Priestly – too Checkovian! – but I’m glad I saw it in a production it would be hard to better.

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What a great pairing this early Eugene O’Neill play is with Tennessee Williams’ Spring Storm, also transferred from Northampton to the National.

The three great playwrights of the 20th century were all American and seeing these two plays reveals the direct line from O’Neill to Williams to Arthur Miller like never before. This was O’Neill’s first full length play, a very assured work that I’m astonished has not been seen here before as in so many ways it betters later work.

The story revolves around two brothers love for the same woman and her unexpected choice, which leads to a tragic turn of events. The one she chooses proves incapable of providing for his family and the one she doesn’t goes to sea so that he doesn’t have to live with the consequences of her choice.

Again, Liz Smith and Michael’s Thomson and Malarkey give absolutely committed and passionate performances and the remainder of the small cast give fine support – particularly Joanna Bacon as a crabby mother / mother-in-law. The staging is impeccable and the design this time is spot on. The final death scene, with the characters not part of the scene observing in silence, was masterly. 

Another deeply satisfying theatrical experience. I think we’ll have to detain Northampton’s director Laurie Sansom here in London – he’s clearly far too good to let go!

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Tennessee Williams wrote this play at University and it lay untouched for the next 60 years until it was first staged in the US in 1996; this is the European premiere. It opened here to rave reviews and for the first 30 mins or so I was wondering what all the fuss was about, but then it began to captivate me.

It covers the usual TW ground – Southern sensibilities, social-climbing, mental illness, alcoholism…. The central character flits between poor macho man – who she loves and who her heart says is Mr Right – and rich wimp – who the family are promoting and who her brain says she should marry. What’s so fascinating is how, from a flawed early work like this, you can see the seeds of genius so clearly. It takes your breath away in the same way as it does when you hear a piece by a very young Mozart – you just can’t believe someone so young can produce something so mature. Of course, what followed were much better plays, but I suspect many playwrights would die happy if this was the pinnacle of their work.

There are some very good performances. I really liked Liz Smith’s energy as heavenly (what a terrific name!) and thought both the male leads – Michael’s Thomson and Malarky-  excelled; this was a very impressive stage debut for Malarky (what must it feel like to have your debut performance go straight to the National!).

I thought it was a huge mistake to have a back curtain on three sides as this required you to suspend disbelief a little more than necessary; in fact, though I appreciate the difficulty of moving from high bluff to home to garden to library,  the design overall was the weak link here. I thought the voice-over stage directions rather quirky – it made it seem like a film – but I can’t say it bothered me.

It’s great to see regional work of this quality being brought to the National. Congratulations to Laurie Sansom for discovering and bringing this play to the UK and thanks to Nicholas Hytner for recognising both the significance and the quality and transferring it to London.

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