Twelfth Night and This House, press nights that didn’t happen make it to print

Stephen Fry as Malvolio. Photo Simon Annand

Press nights often create the headlines (after all you need a press night in order to have press reviews. Or do you? More about this later), but in the past week press nights ARE in the headlines: Twelfth Night started previews at the Globe, or more accurately started its Globe performances that function as a preview run before the official opening at the Apollo Theatre in November. None of the Globe performances are for the press and the expectation was, at least on the part of the producers, that the production will be reviewed for the first time at the Apollo. It didn’t quite work out that way: the Telegraph prominently run a review under the headline “Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night – First Review” and the Times followed suit a few days later. Both five star reviews I might add, but the producers are not happy: they protest these reviews break the embargo. I can’t help but feel it is a token effort whose main purpose is to prevent a precedent. With Mark Rylance playing Olivia  and, especially, Stephen Fry playing Malvolio, did they really believe the press would sit on their hands till November? But I wonder how critics from other papers feel. They have every reason to be unhappy as they played by the rules and punished for it.

On the other hand, the Guardian plays a different game these days: it encourages readers to use its own twitter hashtag #GdnReview, and between this and comments on its blogs, it published the readers views of the production. I am ambivalent about the prominent way the Guardian uses the public’s comments: there is a fine line between encouraging dialogue and encouraging people to give you content for free. As these are difficult and confusing days for the press, there is no easy answer. Continue reading

Review: Three plays by Nick Payne, Duncan Macmillan, Penelope Skinner at the Roundabout

Maya Alexander and Andrew Sheridan in One Day When We Were Young. Photo: Elyse Marks

After a few weeks where my theatre consisted of Shakespeare, Ibsen, a revival of an eighties play and a Chekhov that didn’t look like Chekhov, it was great pleasure to go back to new writing. With a packed schedule and within twenty four hours, I saw four plays from four young playwrights (you are getting old when the playwrights start looking younger): first it was This House by James Graham at the National Theatre, and the next day, the Roundabout season, three plays in a single afternoon, produced by Paines Plough and Sheffield Theatres and performed at the Shoreditch Town Hall.

Three playwrights, all under 35, three different visions all performed in the same intimate, almost inescapable, space:

One Day When We Were Young by Nick Payne: My favourite piece of the day, especially the second act, tenderly performed by Andrew Sheridan and Maya Alexander. Nick Payne is currently riding an immense high, with Constellations at the Royal Court being a huge success (and transferring to the West End) and his play “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” playing in New York. “One Day When We Were Young” is a story of an unlikely and brief love affair that marks two people in different ways for the next sixty years. Payne’s writing probes difficult places of loneliness and heartbreak, and the actors, especially Andrew Sheridan (who has the rare ability of drawing you in so effectively and with so little fanfare that takes you by surprise) make the play justice. Continue reading

Review: A Chorus of Disapproval at the Harold Pinter theatre

A Chorus of Disapproval, the whole cast. Photo Catherine Ashmore

The last Ayckbourn I saw was Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter theatre last spring. In that play, a long lost friend, still grieving for the death of his fiancee, shows up in a casual get-together. Over the course of an afternoon he becomes the catalyst of change and the cracks in the lives of three couples are blown wide open. In A Chorus of Disapproval, written by Alan Ayckbourn in 1984, a stranger, still grieving for the death of his wife, becomes part of an amateur operatic group that rehearses The Beggar’s opera. In the course of a few months, he becomes the catalyst of change and the lives of everyone in the group change for ever. When I saw Absent Friends, the increasing desperation as the play progresses made for a profound impression. A Chorus of Disapproval, in this production performed at – can you guess? – the Harold Pinter theatre, doesn’t have the same effect, but there is still plenty to recommend.

First of all, the production is very funny. Most of the credit for the laughs belongs to Rob Brydon playing Daffydd ap Llewellyn, the director of the production the group prepares for.  Unsurprisingly, he has perfect comic timing, moreover he can use it in a way that allows the character to develop. It’s a perfectly judged performance, forceful enough to drive the play, but not so overwhelming that drowns the story and the other characters. Continue reading

Review: This House at the National Theatre

Philip Glenister as Walter Harrison and Charles Edwards as Jack Weatherill. Photo Johan Persson

I like a production that announces itself with a bang. And This House is such a production. The energy of the first entrance, in addition to the set, both intimate and imposing – the Cottesloe never looked this huge, make a clear statement and from the first few minutes I knew this production will be something special. The next three hours didn’t disappoint.

This House is set in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979, when Labour, with a tiny majority (or often with no majority at all) was trying to hold onto power. The period has inescapable drama and Margaret Thatcher looms large: not in the choices of the characters but in the mind of the audience, we know the consequence of those choices even if they don’t. The action is largely set in the offices of Tory and Labour whips, with excursions to almost all parts of the building (toilets, corridors, basements, chapel) but we see very little of the House of Commons’ main chamber. This story is set at the bowels of power. The Cottesloe is made to look like the debating chamber but that only reinforces the point: the backstage drama is central to politics, only punctuated by the political debate.

James Graham (who wrote The Man, one of my favourite plays of the last few years) makes a marvellous job of the story: his script is astute, funny but, most of all, interested in the human condition: these people plod along, get confused, are not always clear about what they can achieve. Characters with very few lines are still fleshed out to a poignant presence. This is a world before media spin and expenses scandal. It’s a world where politics – both the debate and backstage action – can relate to real life. The writing has flair and substance, and the result is fast, funny, involving and unexpectedly moving. Continue reading

The day Simon Russell Beale broke his finger on stage (and other stories)

Simon Russell Beale as Timon. Photo Johan Persson

Last night, thirty minutes from the end of Timon of Athens at the National Theatre, Simon Russell Beale slipped and broke his finger. The performance was interrupted – “I’m sorry ladies and gentleman, I seem to have broken my finger” – an announcement was made by the stage manager, and ten minutes later Paul Dodds, Simon Russell Beale’s understudy, took over and finished the performance. Thankfully, the injury was a minor fracture and Simon Russell Beale is back performing tonight. This is very good news, first and foremost, for Mr Beale (see what I did there, I am turning into the New York Times), the audience (I am sure Mr Dobbs was fantastic, but nobody wants the big star to go off sick for long) and me. Because I can now discuss, guilt free, my not entirely healthy fascination with injuries on stage.

I am not attracted by the pain and misfortune. But in a live performance, it’s the thrill of the unexpected. When an actor falls, even a practiced fall, you know it is real, it must hurt a little. And if something goes wrong, everyone, actors and audience, enter a place when noone knows what will happen. It’s always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to the understudy who takes over: in theory, this should be a disappointing development, but the audience wants to experience the adrenaline, fear and excitement of someone who goes on stage at a moment’s notice. The best performance in the world can’t quite beat that. Continue reading

My top ten theatre productions of 2012 so far

Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins in Constellations. Photo Simon Annand

I am not good with deadlines. Not so much that I miss them but I like pushing the boundaries, doing things last minute. So blogging about my top ten theatre productions for the first half of the year some time in September is entirely in character. And everyone knows the year truly starts in September, right? (That’s my excuse anyway).

Before we move onto the actual list, a little teaser: There are four play starting with C and four plays revolving around exact sciences. It’s fair to say any play starting with C and about exact science is likely to be a huge hit with me. There are two productions from the Sheffield Crucible (more often than not, plays I see in Sheffield end up on my top ten list, Daniel Evans has done a great job), two adaptations by Simon Stephens (as well as being a great writer, he has been everywhere this year), and two plays starring John Heffernan.

In strictly alphabetical order, my top ten theatre productions for the first half of the year: Continue reading

Review: Three Sisters at the Young Vic

Gala Gordon as Irina, Mariah Gale as Olga & Vanessa Kirby as Masha. Photo Simon Annand

A talented cast, a classic play, a theatre that regularly produces thrilling work (see A Doll’s House only a few weeks ago), where did all go wrong? You might have guessed that this production won’t make it to my top ten of the year, but a word of warning, my negative view of the production is considerably stronger than a mild dislike.

Short disclaimer: I have seen a few plays by Anton Chekhov, but I haven’t seen Three Sisters before. I don’t dislike unconventional interpretations of classic plays, it’s up to every individual production to won me over. But Three Sisters at the Young Vic, adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews, is so far off the mark that at times I felt personally insulted it was wasting my time (and at three hours running time, that’s a lot of time to waste).

The adaptation sets the play in modern times, the actors wear modern, if largely old fashioned, clothes and words like television and hair transplant are used. But the setting is neither naturalistic nor poetic, and that world never comes alive. It’s a vague place for people who probably don’t exist whose suffering is not real. As a result, their conflicts seem small minded and inconsequential. The modern words make the text sound banal, which in turn makes Chekhov’s big ideas sound nonsensical. Continue reading

Review: The Judas Kiss at the Hampstead Theatre

Freddie Fox as Bosie, Cal MacAninch as Robbie and Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde.

The Judas Kiss, a play written in 1998 about a story more than a hundred years ago, gets a revival at the Hampstead theatre and although the production doesn’t try any new tricks, the experience is full blooded and rich, the performances first rate. The play recounts two significant events in Oscar Wilde’s life: his decision not to flee London when his arrest was imminent and his break up from Bosie (or Lord Alfred Douglas) a few years later. Saying the play is about homosexuality is shallow. Saying that it isn’t might be glib. Are we more advanced today? Ultimately, love in this play  is controversial and destructive because all love is.

For me the star of the show was David Hare’s text. Dense but playful, quick but truthful, it balances wit and pathos without letting down either side. Neil Armfield‘s direction lets the text breath and show its colours, and in the end these are all the colours the productions needs.

In addition to the text, I loved the performances of Freddie Fox as Bosie and Cal MacAninch as Robbie. Freddie Fox’s Bosie is all mouth (lips, voices, words, kisses), he constantly walks a tight rope between devotion and deceit and is often truthful for both things at once. Cal MacAninch as Robbie Ross is a quieter presence but no less interesting: his earnestness is complicated, tinged with regret, memories and unfulfilled promises. When Wilde says “you were the first man I slept with”, we can see the attraction.

Continue reading

Review: King Lear at the Almeida

Jonathan Pryce as King Lear and Phoebe Fox as Cordelia. Photo Keith Pattison

If you are a regular theatregoer, you quickly find out you are never too far away from a new Hamlet or King Lear. And as much as I initially resist buying a ticket, more often than not I succumb to the temptation of any new production. Jonathan Pryce as King Lear is an irresistible premise, and in that sense the Almeida production doesn’t disappoint.

In fact, Jonathan Pryce is extraordinary. I don’t have the knowledge or inclination to compare him with other King Lears, but the fact remains I found him incredibly moving, his Lear full of “rage against the dying of the light” and increasingly desperate that he exhausts himself out of his sanity. In Act 2, Scene 4, when Lear confronts Regan about the treatment of Kent, his rage was so infused in sorrow that I felt myself going cold. This is only the second time seeing Jonathan Pryce on stage (the first time was in the Donmar production of Dimetos a couple of years ago, and I didn’t like that play), and his immediacy and emotional power alone are reason enough to see this production.

Jonathan Pryce is matched by Clive Wood as Gloucester and Ian Gelder as Kent. Clive Wood, a big man and a very powerful presence, makes Gloucester a faithful and unwavering subject to the king, whose fate is all the more moving because his physicality is so imposing. Ian Gelder plays Kent as if he is of the same stock as Lear and he understands him in a way that he can’t understand himself. The three of them are at the centre of the best scenes in the production. Continue reading

Review: Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic

Adrian Scarborough as George Tesman and Sheridan Smith as Hedda Gabler. Photo Johan Persson

Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic, with Sheridan Smith in the title role, was always destined to be a much talked production: a successful star in a famous and demanding role is catnip for the media: I expect that, come Thursday morning, the headline “Is Sheridan Smith’s Hedda a hit?” will show up in the papers – hopefully in the front page. But theatre isn’t meant to be a test, and without a hint of nervousness or acknowledging the expectations, this production, directed with huge confidence by Anna Mackmin, bypasses the media hype and does what great theatre should do: it’s thrilling, visceral and fresh.

I ‘ll start with the set (designed by Lez Brotherston), partly because it’s the first thing we see: multiple glass panels and huge windows, they create depth but also give out a bottomless feeling, like if someone could fall into this world and never manage to come up for air. First scene, at night, Hedda silently stalks the house like a ghost and admittedly, this made me a bit nervous: I am not a big fan of additional scenes bolted at the beginning of a play, seemingly for the star to appear first. But soon it became clear I had nothing to be nervous about: the production, as well as beautiful to look at (the costumes alone are a marvel), brings this world alive and makes you look at it with fresh eyes. Continue reading