Review: Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida theatre

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving.  Photo Hugo Glendinning

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving. Photo Hugo Glendinning

Between new plays and Shakespeare performed in modern dress, it seems it’s only the late nineteenth century playwrights who are performed in period setting any more (the odd production by Benedict Andrews notwithstanding). All joking aside, there is a special challenge – but also revelation – when the period setting comes alive to carry the heart of the play in a timeless way.

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, is such a pleasure. The story of a family in the course of an evening, when five people are connected in different – sometime unexpected – ways and the ghosts of the past strangle the present. It’s not other people’s but one’s choices that haunt the play. And that ultimate crime of all, to be untrue to one’s self.

The production has simplicity and confidence and a rare unhurried richness. Set and lighting are grave but not dour. If joy is in short supply in this place, it is vividly suggested that it lives elsewhere and people can – and should – find it for the salvation of their souls. The wood and glass and tapestry of the set are like a magic mirror – unbearable one moment, warm and comforting the next. Continue reading

Review: Handbagged by Moira Buffini, at the Tricycle Theatre

handbagged posterYou know how it is, you wait ages for one and two come along at the same time. After Peter Morgan’s The Audience, centered around the weekly meetings of the Queen with the prime minister in office, a second play, Handbagged by Moira Buffini staged at the Tricycle theatre, talks about the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. If The Audience is the blockbuster version (West End staging, Helen Mirren as the Queen), Handbagged is the indie alternative version. And for all its weaknesses, and there are some, it has the indie spirit and bold ambition to match it.

The premise is simple: the play tells the story of Margaret Thatcher’s time in power through her meetings with the Queen. We start with the first meeting, we finish with the last. The simplicity of the approach is deceptive: Continue reading

At rehearsal with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II

Unfortunately, the title of this post doesn’t reflect my personal experience but the multimedia and audience engagement work done by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Illuminations around the upcoming production of Richard II. (Yes, I am referring to the David Tennant / Greg Doran Richard II, and if you still don’t know what I am talking about, you definitely found your way here by mistake).

Richard II opens in less than three weeks – have they started feeling the pressure yet ? I might be taking too much pleasure in this thought – and the RSC has posted a series of production video diaries, of which the most recent is my favourite, as it provides a rare glimpse into the rehearsal process.

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Review: Lily Bevan’s The People of the Town, John Gielgud theatre, RADA

David Dawson as Antoine

David Dawson as Antoine

As we were leaving RADA after seeing Lily Bevan’s The People of the Town, my friend asked me whether I had done exercises like the ones in the play when I was taking acting lessons. The play, an acting workshop under the obsessive eye of a famous avant guard french director, finds its natural home in the RADA building, but it never feels as narrow focused as the description suggests. As I told my friend, I thought everyone had taken acting lessons at one time or another. And if they hadn’t they should. Because the  exercises might be silly, but once you commit to them with the seriousness only silliness deserves, new worlds open up. Like with this play. Continue reading

Old Vic’s Much Ado About Nothing or the nature of early word of mouth

old vic much ado about nothing posterIt’s a rare pleasure when I can enjoy advance word of mouth without first hand experience of a production. When I am without a ticket and uninterested enough not to be avoiding spoilers, but intrigued by what I hear and read. This is the case with the Old Vic production of Much Ado About Nothing, with its big name cast (Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones) and its larger than life director (Mark Rylance). Press night is tonight but the word of mouth has been interesting (to use a word that, if it had an expression, it would be a poker face).

“This Much Ado About Nothing is bolder than one might have expected” writes Ian (Ought to be clowns) . Another blog (Cream of Vampire Soup) disagrees: “All Old Vic productions are the same (…) No mess. No fuss. And definitely no risk.” Webcowgirl (in a blog post that has generated 46 comments so far) isn’t impressed: “Rarely has a title for a Shakespearean show proven so prophetic.” Westendwhingers give it two out of five. Huffington Post raves about it: “This wonderful production has so much innovation, spirit and humour that I loved every minute.”

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Review: The Herd, by Rory Kinnear, at the Bush Theatre

the herdThe Herd, written by Rory Kinnear, directed by Howard Davies and with a very fine cast, doesn’t suffer from the absence of eye catching names. Its subject matter, a family celebration of a special birthday, shows ambition in its simplicity. Yet, as the play started, I started noticing things I disliked: the mother was obnoxious,  with a suffocating flat quality. The daughter – thirty three years of age – was behaving like a spoilt teenager. First impressions can go either way, but in this occasion they started shaping into substantial objections.

First and foremost, I struggled with the characters: the women were universally unlikeable, worse they didn’t feel flesh and blood. The grandmother was a formidable character, but she was just that, a character. The daughter was meant to struggle but came across as whiny. The men fared a little bit better: they were salt of the earth, perhaps a little bit too much. Wisdom came easy to them, even for the father who abandoned the family but still was emotionally articulate to know why. Continue reading

Review: DryWrite’s Fleabag at the Soho Theatre (transfer from the Edinburgh Fringe)

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo Richard Davenport

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo Richard Davenport

“That’s why they put rubbers onto pencils”.

In the two previous occasions I came across writing company DryWrite, the results were fresh, engaging and a little bit subversive. Fleabag, the company’s new offering written and performed  by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and directed by Vicky Jones, comes with a spate of awards from the Edinburgh Fringe so the expectations are heightened. And thankfully not squandered.

Fleabag is the monologue of a woman. It’s bookended by a job interview and in between we learn about affairs, casual sex, friendships and guinea pigs. She is very funny, often unlikeable, frequently deluded. The sex is often misjudged but never judgemental. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s performance is unsparing but compulsively watchable. Pencils have rubbers because people make mistakes, and there is a devastating effect when you realise you can’t put to right all the mistakes you have made. Continue reading

Secret theatre: To Be or Not To Be (thoughts on the Lyric Hammersmith project – but no spoilers)

The company in rehearsal

The company in rehearsal

And so, somewhat unexpectedly, we have a debate in our hands. Last night the first play of Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre initiative started performances (it’s the first play to start performances but it’s Secret Show no 2, stay with me) and Mark Shenton took to twitter to reveal the title. A certain amount of outrage followed – with Jake Orr writing a blog and several tweets expressing displeasure (we have to accept a theatre outrage is a very contained affair. I live for the day when arguments about theatre will spill over to the streets).

There is no question, spoiling it for people who want to play the game makes you a party pooper, no matter how you look at it. But other questions also spring to mind. Continue reading

Review: Hysteria by Terry Johnson at the Hampstead theatre

Antony Sher (Freud), Lydia Wilson (Jessica) and Adrian Schiller (Dali) in Hysteria

Antony Sher (Freud), Lydia Wilson (Jessica) and Adrian Schiller (Dali) in Hysteria

The current production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, directed by the playwright, started its life in Bath last year, before a UK tour and performances at the Hampstead theatre this September. Antony Sher and David Horovitch have been in the cast from the start, while in the London performances Lydia Wilson and Adrian Schiller have replaced Indira Varma and Will Kean. A play capable of attracting actors of that calibre carries high expectations, and sadly in this instance they are not met.

The play is the story of Sigmund Freud meeting Salvador Dali in London towards the end of his life. A woman persistent in meeting Freud and Freud’s physician are added to the story, as is the shadow of Nazi Europe. Continue reading