Posts Tagged ‘Tom Penn’

A 20th Century classic, a favourite play by a favourite playwright, my sixth production. High stakes. When I left the theatre, though, it felt like I’d seen it pass on to a new generation, taking a fresh look without in any way damaging the legacy. What a wonderful start to a new theatrical year.

Blanche and her sister Stella have a Mississippi plantation heritage. Stella left some time ago to pursue a new life in New Orleans, in love with her man Stanley, at home in her new community. Blanche presided over the loss of everything they had, now leaving Laurel to make an unexpected visit to her sister in her two-room apartment in this very different world. At first she seems a fantasist, needy and vulnerable, somewhat manipulative. It takes some time before the underlying mental health issues reveal themselves.

Rebecca Frecknall demonstrated her understanding of, and affinity with Tennessee Williams with Summer & Smoke, also at the Almeida, four years ago. This impressionistic, very physical staging, also finds new depth by abandoning realism in favour of visceral emotion. On a relatively bare, relatively small platform, with the audience wrapped around, there is an immediacy, an intimacy and pace which draws you in quickly and never lets you go. Blanche’s plight and fate, in reality TW’s sister Rose, has never felt so real.

I jumped on a number of occasions at Stanley’s sudden fits of rage. Paul Mescal prowls around with an animal magnetism, unpredictable, violent and misogynistic; yet you can’t fail to be sympathetic to the contempt shown for his immigrant status and working class roots. On TV, screen and now on stage, Mescal proves to be a rare talent. I’ve seen Jessica Lange, Glen Close, Rachel Weisz and Gillian Anderson as Blanche, yet Patsy Ferran’s is a more complex interpretation, a fascinating evolution to Blanche’s true self, from provoking laughter at her affectations to genuine shock at her tragedy.

I’ve also been lucky to see fine actresses like Ruth Wilson and Vanessa Kirby as Stella, and Anjana Vasan joins them with a pitch perfect characterisation which conveys the love that proves stronger than the abuse Stanley subjects her to. In an exceptional supporting cast, Dwane Walcott’s passionate Mitch, whose love for Blanche proves unrequited, stands out. The music played live by Tom Penn on a drum-kit above the stage provides even more tension, and more jumps of surprise.

In just three shows, the third being the reinvention of Cabaret still in the West End, Frecknall has proven to be one of the most exciting new talents. Here, the relative youth of the cast and the intensity of the staging make it an electrifying yet respectful revival. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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For the second time in a matter of weeks, hot on the heels of Paper Cinema’s Odyssey, BAC is hosting something completely original and unique and this time showing off the wonderful Grand Hall in the process. How to describe it is another matter!

The Grand Hall, with its proscenium stage, high ornate ceiling & pipe organ has become a 30’s /40’s Paris music hall where the legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt & chanteuse Yvette Pepin (fictional?) are performing. They ‘step out’ of the concert performance on platforms in front of the stage to perform the story of Orpheus & Eurydice on the stage, playing the lead roles themselves with all other roles played by five members of the band. In effect, there is a musical prologue, interlude and epilogue with the story told in two halves in-between.

The performance style can best be compared with a silent movie – all exaggerated gestures and movement, hammed up mercilessly and a real hoot – with added retro inventiveness. The music, mostly live, is an eclectic selection of all things French including Reinhardt, Saint-Saens, Faure, Debussy & Piaf plus Bach, Monteverdi, Brahms and original compositions! The musicianship is superb – Dominic Conway’s guitar playing in Django’s (necessary) two-fingered fashion, piano, violon, accordion, double bass, flute, clarinet & percussion – and when Charlie Penn takes to the Hall’s organ it takes your breath away, quickly followed by gasps as percussionist Tom Penn proves to be an extraordinary counter-tenor!

It took a short while before my puzzlement subsided and I allowed it to cast its spell, but then it never let me go. It’s not often someone who’s been going to the theatre a few times a week for over thirty years can say ‘well, I’ve never seen anything like that before’ but that’s exactly what I did say. Sparkling originality, consummate musicianship and great fun. Absolutely not to be missed – and Little Bulb yet another company to follow.

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