Posts Tagged ‘national theatre’

Of all the plays I was expecting next from Jack Thorne, this wasn’t it. He’s a brilliant playwright, with an impressive back catalogue culminating in the global success of the Harry Potter plays, but this is very much new territory for him. It’s the true story of John Gielgud directing Richard Burton as Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. I found it a captivating and illuminating insight into the rehearsal process and the relationship between the director and his leading man, two very different personalities, from very different backgrounds.

It covers the whole 25-day rehearsal period, mostly in the rehearsal room itself, with occasional diversions to the Burton-Taylor apartment, a hotel room and a restaurant. Burton and Taylor have just got married (for the first time!). Gielgud is 60 and his career is flagging. Burton is 39 and hugely successful on the big screen, but wants to prove himself back on the boards where he started with what most actors see as the mountain of early career. His new wife is there to support him. Gielgud’s big idea is to present Hamlet as a final run through, more ordinary clothes than modern dress.

Though he is restrained, at least initially, Gielgud has clear views on how the prince should be played, but Burton has his too, keen to make it his own take on Hamlet. Though respectful of one another, there is tension between these two men from very different worlds, which eventually comes to the surface. There is a pivotal scene where Burton comes to rehearsal inebriated, and the whole cast turn against him. From here the tension is more open and healthier for it. They both open up, Burton showing more of his true self and Gielgud revealing an acerbic wit, both of which fuel the relationship.

There is a substantial amount of Shakespeare’s play interspersed with the rehearsal discussions, in short scenes that count down the days. For a theatre obsessive like me it’s fascinating, though I wonder if others might find it too immersed in its own world. At first the presence of Elizabeth seemed unnecessary, but you soon realise she is in many ways saying things her husband can’t or won’t say. He does eventually talk to Gielgud about his upbringing and this unlocks the role, enabling him to find his Hamlet and satisfy the director at the same time.

When I first saw the casting of the two leads, it was easy to see Mark Gatiss as Gielgud, but I was a bit puzzled by the casting of Johnny Flynn as Burton. Perhaps it was my prejudice as a Welsh miner’s son, wanting the role to be played by one of our own (Michael Sheen?). In the end though they both deliver towering performances of great subtlety, way beyond impersonation, getting a rare, richly deserved spontaneous standing ovation from the NT crowd. There’s luxury casting in support, with Tuppence Middleton’s Liz proving so much more that the supportive wife, Luke Norris as William Redfield (Guildenstern) and Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn (Polonius).

Though it isn’t referred to in the play, Burton & Peter O’Toole challenged each other to play Hamlet under the direction of the two great Shakespearean interpreters of the day, Olivier and Gielgud. It seems Burton chose well, lauded for his interpretation, part of the longest ever run of a Shakespeare play on Broadway. It also proved key for Gielgud, revitalising his career.

This is a theatrical feast. Great writing by Thorne (who now moves on to Churchill!), impeccable staging from Sam Mendes’ and fine performances, all of which combine to bring this slice of theatrical history alive almost sixty years on.

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The Dixon of the title could be the family matriarch or her deceased husband, buried in the local cemetery, more likely the latter as we eventually learn he haunts just about every other character and is the focus of this dysfunctional family.

Mary returns to her home from a period of three months in prison, reduced from six months. It’s not clear why she was there. She’s furious that her daughter Julie has moved in, escaping her abusive partner, and wants her out, now. Her other daughter Bernie, and granddaughter Ella, are there to welcome her home. Their relationship is much stronger.

Mary has befriended Leigh, who she’s met in prison (a subtle, perfectly pitched performance from Posy Sterling) and invites her into her home. She’s oblivious to the family tensions and brings a sense of normality to proceedings. Then Mary’s feisty stepdaughter Tina, now known as Briana, turns up (a terrific performance by Alison Fitzjohn) and the family’s tragic past comes fully to the fore. Mary’s crime is her silence.

What I loved about the play is the way the story unfolds slowly, drawing you in to he family history, getting to know the characters, with a subtle reconciliatory ending in Roisin McBrinn’s well judged production.

The NT doesn’t have a great track record with new writing of late, but this new play by Deborah Bruce is a stand-out exception.

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Memories fade over the years, but my lasting impression of the original production of this 1990 Brian Friel play is ‘what’s all the fuss about?’. A slow Chekovian piece that seemed to me to go nowhere. Though Chekhov is still one of my problem playwrights, I seem to have grown into this play.

Like many of Friel’s works it’s set in Ballybeg in the north of Ireland. It’s 1936 and five unmarried sisters live together, scraping a living. Kate is the only one with a proper job, as a teacher, at least for now. She’s very much the mother figure. Rose and Agnes make gloves at home, though the onward march of mass manufacturing is about to catch up with them. Chrissie has a son Michael, now 7, out of wedlock, and Maggie keeps home for them all. It’s a picture of five women unfulfilled, making the best of what they’ve got. A simple life.

Uncle Jack has returned from his missionary work with lepers in Uganda having ‘gone native’, embracing local customs at the expense of his catholic faith, somewhat imbalanced, perhaps due to malaria. Michael’s dad Gerry makes one of his rare visits, though this time he seems keen to get closer to his son and Michael’s mother Chrissie. The festival of Lughnasa is in progress but their engagement with it is tenuous, by Kate in particular who as a devout catholic sees it as a pagan occasion. Jack’s state of mind improves and Gerry hangs around but life goes on unchanged. It’s very much a memory play, with the adult Michael acting as narrator, at one point telling us in detail how their lives will unfold.

Josie Rourke’s production is a slow burn, with more events narrated than acted out, but somehow it captivated me this time around, perhaps because the performances really are beautifully judged, with Siobhan McSweeney and Justine Mitchell in particular shining in roles unlike any I’ve seen them in before. Though the action happens in and around their small cottage, the expanse of the Olivier stage is used by designer Robert Jones to place it in the Irish landscape and open it up to be the story of a people as much as it is one family.

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I’ve been in love with this Frank Loesser musical for over forty years. I think it was the first I saw, at Bristol Old Vic. I moved to London soon after and saw the NT’s definitive production, more than once, before a long gap until it’s next and last West End outing. In recent years there have been seven or so more, out of town in big and small theatres, a miraculous production on the fringe, at drama schools and even in Wandsworth prison, but Nicholas Hytner’s production is like no other.

The Bridge Theatre have perfected the art of immersive theatre in recent years with hugely successful promenade productions of Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but an immersive musical?! A first maybe, but a triumph certainly. Damon Runyon’s 50’s Broadway comes alive like never before, and its this street-life that has always been the star of the show, notwithstanding a captivating tale of lovable rogues and their put upon lovers, and a score packed with great songs.

The love stories of crap game organiser Nathan & night club performer Adelaide and professional gambler Sky & Salvation Army girl Sarah are intertwined. Nathan has been engaged to Adelaide for fourteen years, so long that she’s had to invent a whole married life, a career for Nathan and even a handful of children to please her mum. Sky’s only in town briefly but manages to get involved in a bet that requires an evening in Havana for an unlikely dinner with and even more unlikely date. Just the names of the gamblers – Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Harry the Horse, Brandy Bottle Bates, Society Max – are a delight. It all ends happily of course with a double wedding and a mission saved from closure.

I’ve long admired Daniel Mays work, but I think this is his first musical, and he’s a revelation as Nathan (though in all fairness it’s a comic rather than singing role). Marisha Wallace’s vocals as Adelaide are stunning and she has real chemistry with Mays. Celinde Schoenmaker and Andrew Richardson make a lovely unlikely couple as Sarah and Sky as they navigate their relationship from aversion (well, her for him, or rather what he does) to true love. Nicely-Nicely is a peach of a role and Cedric Neal rises to the occasion, encoring the showstopper Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat three times.

Platforms rise to create stages of all shapes and sizes and it flows beautifully between settings as neon signs rise and fall overhead to complete Bunny Christie’s iconic period setting of Broadway. The band is top notch, for once above the playing area not buried in a pit, so you can hear every note. Arlene Philips choreography is often thrilling, notably in Havana and in the sewers below the city which the crap game eventually reaches.

This is such a wonderful uplifting joyous evening I’ve already booked for the final performance. It has to be seen more than once.

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The inspired idea that underpins Chris Bush’s play with songs (by Richard Hawley) is the telling of sixty years of social history through a building, an estate in fact, and one flat within it in particular. Though firmly anchored in Park Hill in Sheffield, it has a universality which makes you feel you are viewing the last sixty years of British social history through this one place and two interconnected families within it. Though the NT building is ten to twenty years younger, it’s architecture seems like an evolution of Park Hill’s brutalist style, so the play sits perfectly on its largest stage. This is a deeply satisfying piece of theatre.

Park Hill is a homage to French architect Le Corbusier, a post-war development meant to recreate the sense of community of the houses it replaced. It was built as a council estate to house thousands of the growing steel town of Sheffield’s working class. Newlyweds Rose and Harry, an ambitious young foreman, make their first home there. Their struggle to start a family eventually succeeds with the birth of son Jimmy. A while later, an influx of immigrants brings refugees Grace, her nephew George and niece Joy, from Liberia. Further on again and Jimmy and Joy get together, marry and give birth to daughter Connie. With the rise of Thatcherism in the 80’s comes unemployment and social unrest and the estate goes into decline and is eventually abandoned until the 21st Century brings regeneration and gentrification and a more affluent owner-occupier influx, here represented by outsider Poppy, escaping from London.

The blend of social history and personal storytelling work well together. In Ben Stones’ design, the stage is a footprint of one flat which houses these different families at different times, the iconic walkways of the estate rising behind and above it. The story hops back and forth between periods, sometimes scenes from each played simultaneously, seamlessly. Hawley’s songs, selected for the show rather than written for it, also seem to grow out of the story, commenting upon and illustrating it, sometimes sung in character, at others ‘in concert’. Though it doesn’t shy away from problematic issues and tragic events, the writing is objective, such as when it makes arguments for and against gentrification.

I was captivated by this show and felt I was looking back at the last sixty years, understanding more by focusing on it as a big picture rather than the detail of particular events. Robert Hastie’s staging is a brilliant use of the space, Hawley’s songs act as a soundtrack of this city and all of the hugely talented performers – too many to list – bring these people to life. One of the most memorable nights I’ve had in many at the Olivier Theatre.

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I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally engaged in a play. It isn’t a reworking of Shakespeare’s play, it’s a modern love story – moving, tragic and beautiful. Simply staged, with stunning performances, I adored every minute of it.

Romeo is a single dad from Splott, a working class area of Cardiff. He got a girl pregnant on a one-night stand which she at first decided to terminate but then changed her mind. After the birth she didn’t want the child, so Romeo is left, literally, holding the baby. His alcoholic mother tries to get him to put her in care and when she fails refuses to play a part in her granddaughter’s upbringing. He’s on his own, but he’s a loving dad.

There’s a chance meeting with Julie in the library. He’s killing time and she’s trying to study. She’s destined to read Physics at Cambridge, spurred on by her dad and step-mother who live nearby, but in a better part of town. Their relationship develops and history repeats itself, which results in a period of agony for them both as they weigh up their options. Julie’s parents won’t support her, Romeo’s mother is incapable of support though they do take refuge with her. Not only are they in love with one another, but both with Romeo’s daughter.

Playwright Gary Owen showed he had an affinity with stories like these in three previous plays in the last eight years – Violence and Son, Killology and Iphigenia in Splott. He has an ear for the dialogue of such characters – authentic and sparkling with humour, accompanied by sincere emotionality and pathos. You can’t fail to have empathy with all of these people, not just the lovers. There is a sense of both hope and hopelessness. I was captivated by it.

All five performances are pitch perfect. Callum Scott Howells invests Romeo with a nervous energy, physicality and vulnerability that is extraordinary. Rosie Sheehy brings the intelligence and logic of a budding scientist to Julie, but also her profound love for Romeo and his daughter Neve. Catrin Aaron as Romeo’s mum Barb shows the scars of being a single mum, her support for her son tempered by realism. Paul Brennen as Julie’s dad Col conveys the desperation he has for her to realise her potential and frustration with anything that might get in her way. Anita Reynolds as step-mum Kath shares these, but in a more detached way. Rachel O’Riordan has directed two of the other three Owen plays I’ve seen and she clearly has a strong connection with the material.

It’s great to see the NT hosting and co-producing the best of regional theatre, with Sheffield’s Standing at the Sky’s Edge in the Olivier next door, and this really is the best. Don’t miss this little gem.

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It’s not often you go to the theatre and come out having seen something so far removed from what you expected. I was prepared for a modern adaptation of Seneca’s take on Euripides with a nod to Racine, but what I got was a shocking modern drama with a very tenuous link to its sources, yet its brilliant, thrilling stuff, if a bit over-engineered.

It’s set in a glass box that revolves. The actors are miked, speaking naturalistically, fast, overlapping, which makes it a challenge to absorb all of the dialogue. We start in the home of Helen and Hugo and their teenage son Declan. She’s a shadow minister, he’s a diplomat. It’s a very modern family where frankness and ripe language are the norm. Their older daughter Isolde and her husband Eric come for dinner. Everyone loves Eric. They’ve been struggling to have a child and are now investigating adoption.

We learn that Helen travelled to Morocco more than thirty years ago, a hedonistic trip where she had an affair with a married man who died in a car crash whilst she was there, his young son Sofiane witnessing his father’s death. The adult Sofiane, now around forty, unexpectedly, and seemingly inexplicably, arrives during dinner. He’s welcomed by all, but as the story progresses their lives are irrevocably turned upside down.

It’s impossible to reveal more without spoiling it, suffice to say it elicits gasps from the audience on a number of occasions, though there are plenty of laughs too, as the tale takes some very unexpected twists and turns. Director Simon Stone, best known here for Yerma at the Young Vic (also in a glass box but more intimate in a traverse setting in a smaller theatre) makes life difficult for himself with some very complex and long set changes, which slows the pace and lengthens it to 2h45m, though I understand this has been reduced by 35 minutes since the first preview. There’s a lot of time looking at a black screen, albeit with voiceovers and music.

We see too little of Janet McTeer on stage here since she’s settled in the US; it’s been seven years, but well worth the wait. Hers is a terrific performance as the somewhat self-centred Helen, around which everything revolves. The always reliable Paul Chahidi excels as the tolerant much put upon husband and father Hugo. French-Moroccan actor Assaad Bouab’s charismatic, magnetic presence ensures Sofiane is the centre of attention whenever he’s on stage. Notwithstanding the issues with the scene changes, Chloe Lamford’s designs are really striking.

Despite its faults, it’s a compelling and enthralling modern drama and I loved it.

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The first full year of theatre going since 2019 and I saw 129 shows in the 42 weeks I was in the UK (my travels resumed too!). A good indication of its quality was that a third made my long list.

BEST NEW PLAY – PATRIOTS at the Almeida Theatre & MIDDLE at the NT’s Dorfman Theatre

It was a particularly good year for new plays, perhaps because playwrights had more time during lockdown to craft and perfect their work. There were twenty contenders and after much deliberation 7 rose above the rest. Nell Leyshon’s Folk at Hampstead, about the song collecting of Cecil Sharp, proved a real treat, as did Marvellous, the life-affirming inaugural offering @sohoplace about the extraordinary Neil Baldwin. At the National, an adaptation of Sheriden’s restoration comedy The Rivals, Jack Absolute Flies Again, was by far the funniest new play, whilst down the road at the Young Vic The Collaboration was a fascinating examination of an unlikely relationship between two artistsWarhol & Basquiat. Prima Facie was a great play exposing the broken legal system of trials for sexual offences, but it was really all about the sensational star performance from Jodie Comer. It was two plays about relationships – Peter Morgan’s Patriots, about Berezovsky, the kingmaker of both Putin & Abramovitch and David Eldridge’s Middle about the divergence of a couple in mid-life, that stood out most.

BEST REVIVAL – The Crucible & The Corn Is Green at the NT and Handbagged at The Kiln Theatre

I couldn’t choose between the three, and there were six other very good contenders too. I’ve seen quite a few productions of The Crucible, but few had the intensity of the NT’s revival in the Olivier. Next door in the Lyttelton, what made The Corn is Green was the addition of singing by the miners, fully anchoring the play in Wales. I was surprised how much Handbagged, about the relationship between Thatcher and the Queen, resonated twelve years on and how clever and funny it still was.

The six ‘bubbling under’ were the return of Jerusalem after 13 years as good if not better than before, two Shakespeare’s at the NT – Much Ado About Nothing and Othello, Age of Rage – a Greek Tragedy ‘mash up’ from Amsterdam, a timely revival of Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads in Chichester and To Kill A Mockingbird, transferred from Broadway to The West End.


Every year is a lean year for new musicals these days, but this new musical had it all – great book, lyrics and music, given an audacious production with as fine a set of performances as you could hope for.

The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band lost in Israel, was a joy, understated and full of hope, which could have won in any other year. I loved Newsies too, but more as a dance showcase than a musical. The others on the long list were Mandela at the Young Vic, Local Hero in Chichester, Bonnie & Clyde in the West End and The Lion, though I was late to that party.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – Spring Awakening at The Almeida, Crazy for You in Chichester and Billy Elliott at Curve Leicester.

A leaner than usual year for musical revivals; covid related costs and delays I suspect, but these three matched (Billy) or bettered (Crazy For You and Spring Awakening) all previous productions. Four of the seven contenders were in the regions (the other two being a terrific revival of Gypsy in Buxton and Terry Gilliam’s Into the Woods exiled to Bath). As much as I enjoyed Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club and Oklahoma at the Young Vic, they didn’t match these three.

So that’s it for another year. Here’s to as much, if not more, in 2023.

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Yet another occasion where reading reviews is bad for your health. I almost didn’t go to see this on Monday, snow and travel disruption adding to the critical mauling, but I’m glad I did. April De Angelis’ new play has its flaws, but it’s very much a play for our times.

She’s putting up a mirror to our new world, where everything is black and white, no shades of grey, and you’re either for or against everything. Class wars, Brexit v Remain, gentrification or preservation, woke and anti-woke. We either sympathise with immigrants and the homeless or we see them as parasites, to be sent home or left to rot.

The setting is Walthamstow Village, where working class Essex girl Kerry is trying to fulfil her dream and ambition of owning a Spanish tapas restaurant. Her chef Athena is struggling to get Leave to Remain even though she’s been her since she was 5; a hold Kerry has over the person who is clearly key to her chance of success. Outside homeless Will is putting off the customers. She seeks to recruit local worthy Stephen to deal with this, and at the same time publicise her venture in his news sheet for the gentrified. Stephen is recently widowed and he and his gap year daughter Alice are struggling to move on. An unlikely relationship develops between Kerry and Stephen, as ex-copper Warren, a very old and very vague acquaintance of Kerry, turns up with only one thing on his mind.

The problem is that De Angelis throws in the kitchen sink and allows her characters to become caricatures and stereotypes spouting cliches, and the humour sometimes crosses the line to gross, even for someone as broad-minded as me (well, I suppose I would say that!). This waters down a potentially strong argument that our divisive world, fuelled by social media and fake news, is exceedingly unhealthy, sacrificing intelligent debate and free speech at the alter of point-scoring.

The cast work hard to develop these characters and get every laugh they can, though I thought Fay Ripley was dangerously close to over-acting on occasion. The most successful characterisations were Madeline Appiah as Athena, Michael Fox as Will and Gavin Spokes as Warren. I would have expected its flaws to have been ironed out before it got on one of the National’s stages, particularly by a director of the quality of Indhu Rubasingham. Still, I don’t regret going and making my own mind up, which is more 3* than 1* or 2*. Decide for yourself.

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I’ve lost count of the number of productions of this play I’ve seen, but few of them unfolded like a thriller, or seemed to fly by so quickly. Clint Dyer’s production is a very fresh take on Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The setting feels like a 1930’s fascist state. There’s a silent chorus, called ‘system’, all dressed in black, who sit on steps on three sides of a rectangular amphitheatre with the fourth side steps down into the auditorium. The edgy soundscape is the final touch in creating a sinister atmosphere. The racism is heightened by this, together with the fact Othello is the only black character on stage, but the misogyny is heightened too, particularly with the abuse of Emilia by Iago clearly visible.

Iago, black-suited with a Hitler moustache, is a very malevolent presence throughout, signalled by every gesture and expression, though his motivation isn’t entirely clear; is it really just racism? Othello’s origin in slavery is suggested by a back covered with scars from whipping. Much of the time he seems so alone, our sympathies are intensified, though we still can’t stomach his treatment of Desdemona. In the final scenes the soundscape is silenced but the tension increased.

Paul Hilton’s Iago has a touch cartoon villain about him, but this didn’t detract from the personification of evil. Tanya Franks was excellent as Emilia, clearly afraid of her husband, eventually struggling to come to terms with his villainy. Desdemona is a bit of an underwritten role, but Rosy McEwen somehow brought her to the fore more than I’ve seen before. I thought Giles Terera had great presence as Othello, and brought passion and physicality to the role. His Othello is one man against the world.

It’s only nine years since the NT last staged it, with Adrian Lester & Rory Kinnear in the Olivier next door, but this proves to be a very welcome and very impressive new look at what I think is one of Shakespeare’s best plays.

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