Review: The Amen Corner by James Baldwin at the National Theatre

amen_corner_Marianne Jean-Baptiste_reviewOccasionally reviews can (and should) be simple. Like simply saying “go and watch this”. Not because there is nothing else to say but  because the message needs to be loud and clear and not get lost among convoluted comments and explanations. James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the National Theatre is one of those productions.

James Baldwin’s play, taking place in an African-American community in Harlem after World War II, addresses questions of god, love, desire, gossip, human weakness, poverty, music and the shadow of racial prejudice in the early 1950s. It could have been dry, confusing, overambitious. Instead, as directed by Rufus Norris in an exquisite production, it’s effortlessly poignant. It’s life, not as we know it, but as some people did, and it cuts like a knife. Continue reading

Review: Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude at the National Theatre

strange interlude poster reviewAs luck has it, in the last week I saw two of the longest productions I am likely to see all year: Lucy kirkwood’s Chimerica at the Almeida – at a hefty 3 hours 10 minutes – followed a few days later by Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude at the National Theatre – at an even more impressive 3 hours 30 minutes. As a regular theatregoer my dirty little secret is long running times make my heart sink. I don’t exactly feel negative towards long shows, but I want them to justify my investment for the better part of four hours. While Chimerica’s ambitious world won my affections, Strange Interlude, despite many fine moments and stellar performances, struggles under a text that goes from compelling to flabby in a heartbeat. Continue reading

Will Adrian Scarborough be Simon Russell Beale’s Fool? Could the cast of King Lear get any better?

national theatre imageSimon Russell Beale’s King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes and heading for the National in 2014, will undoubtedly be the theatre destination for next year. Phrases like “hot ticket” and “eagerly anticipated” are frequently used, but in this case totally justified. The rest of the cast isn’t announced yet, but word is Adrian Scarborough will be Simon Russell Beale’s Fool. Be still my heart, can this be right? Excitement kicks up another notch (if that was possible) and we only have nine months to wait.

In other casting news,  Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II starring John Heffernan and directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, will be staged at the National Theatre later in the year, a great opportunity to see the play with one of the most exciting young actors in the title role. (And it will make a nice companion piece to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II starring David Tennant). Again, very little information about the remaining cast but Vanessa Kirby will play Isabella, a sign that things will be very interesting indeed.

Review: Othello at the National Theatre (starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear)

Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello. Photo Johan Persson

Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello. Photo Johan Persson

For pure heart-fluttering excitement,  the combination of Shakespeare and big name actors is hard to beat. Macbeth and James McAvoy earlier this year, Richard II and David Tennant from October, and somewhere in the middle Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear punctuate the theatrical year with spine tingling anticipation. Shakespeare’s plays breath with charismatic actors who can take reign of uncompromising characters, and Nic Hytner’s production, visceral and sharp, delivers in those terms.

Having said that, the first twenty minutes were not as promising. Pubs and alleyways and indistinct boardrooms, soldiers on leave in ill fitting civilian clothes (and ill at ease civilian mode),  the setting was too drab to set the imagination alight. Landing on Cyprus, the story started gathering momentum, but it was Iago manipulating Cassio in one almighty brawl that set the production on its proper course. Once the seeds of jealousy and doubt are planted in Othello’s mind, the story started hurling to the finish like a wild horse: beautiful and scary and dangerous. Continue reading

Review: Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

Emma Lowndes as Liza and Paul Higgins as Boris. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Emma Lowndes as Liza and Paul Higgins as Boris. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

In conversations about seminal productions of recent years, specifically seminal productions I have missed, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, performed at the National Theatre in 2010, often comes up. A russian classic, adapted by Andrew Upton, directed by Howard Davies, designed by Bunny Christie and with Paul Higgins and Justine Mitchell in the cast, made a huge impression to anyone who saw it. The current production of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, with many of the same people involved, inevitably carries high expectations. And they are not squandered.

Early 20th century Russia, the middle classes play and live in the protected bubble of self-delusion and good intentions while a new world is tearing down the gates. Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has a god-like insight into the future of science and cosmos but human interactions escape him (and he escapes them). His wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell), an intelligent earthy woman, desperately tries to connect her husband to herself and to the world, and her continuous failure wounds her deeply. His friend Boris (Paul Higgins) despises illusions and has clarity of vision, but his inability to act and affect change increasingly drains him of hope, with only his love for Liza giving him focus. Protasov’s sister Liza (Emma Lowndes), a vulnerable woman who feels the world as a stab, clings to, spars with and rebuffs Boris in equal measures. Other friends, lovers, work associates and servants swarm around the family, the focus of the community for generations and the eye of the hurricane to come.

Continue reading

Punchdrunk is back in town. But The Drowned Man comes at a (steep) price

The Drowned Man - A Hollywood Fable. A Punchdrunk production. Photo by creativeXs

The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable. A Punchdrunk production. Photo by creativeXs

Last week, a wave of excitement shivered among theatre junkies. A cryptic email by the National Theatre, and snippets of information ingenuously gathered by the most inventive among us, pointed to a new Punchdrunk production (or rather experience) coming to town. Quickly the rumours were confirmed, the National Theatre website got very busy, and The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable became a hot ticket. To top up the excitement, a mini preview show – a bit like a live trailer – played in a secret location in Dalston (not so secret that the Telegraph didn’t get to review it though).

I have to admit  my enthusiasm is somewhat muted. Mainly because the ticket prices don’t feel right. First of all, considering it’s a National Theatre co-production, the tickets are fairly expensive (standard tickets £39 or £47.50 depending on the day, previews a bit cheaper, limited number of concessions at £19.50). The ticketing policy is also unclear and some of the pricing information is  only provided after you start the booking process.But the main source for my dissatisfaction is the presence of premium tickets. Premium seats are nothing new, most theatres have a variety of ticket prices based on the fact that, unless you stage a production in someone’s living room, not all seats are equally  good.

The premium prices for Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (at a massive £85 a ticket) are somewhat different. Continue reading

Review: The Captain of Kopenick, by Carl Zuckmayer at the National Theatre (Olivier)

captainofKopenickposterI have a peculiar fascination with record keeping. Some of it is professional, some of it is the anarchist in me. If you know how it’s supposed to work, you know all the parts that simply don’t. Life is an adventure, not a shopping list.

A small record keeping error lies at the heart of Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Köpenick. Wilhelm Voigt, opportunistic small time crook in Kaiser’s Germany, doesn’t have official papers to prove he exists. Under different circumstances, he may have been pleased: his success as petty thief relies on flying under the radar. But he is a little bit tired. His personal resilience, among much running and evading, is waning. He wants to leave his mark, and that mark involves being formally recognised as a person, not as an administrative oddity. (As an interesting aside, the Christmas episode of Call the Midwife relied on impeccable public record keeping in Britain of the same period to give closure to one of its most destitute characters. In early 20th century Britain, you formally exist even if you are a baby dying of abject poverty). Continue reading

Review: Port by Simon Stephens, at the National Theatre (Lyttelton stage)

Mike Noble, Liz White and Kate O'Flynn in rehearsal. Photo Kevin Cummins.

Mike Noble, Liz White and Kate O’Flynn in rehearsal. Photo Kevin Cummins.

Port is the story of Racheal, a little girl who needs to grow up. If it was a fairy tale, she would go to the woods, slay the dragon, become the woman she wants to be. But this is Stockport in the nineties, there are no mythical feats as rites of passage but boredom, no prospects, parents who don’t know how to love, feral children left to find their way alone in the shadow of the world. It sounds grim and foreboding, but Simon Stephens’ play, as directed by Marianne Elliott, has stubbornness and determination at its heart, and the energy and beauty of youth at its side.

In recent years, Simon Stephens has become one of England’s most prominent playwrights. Continue reading

Review: The Magistrate at the National Theatre (starring John Lithgow, Nancy Carroll)

Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate was not the first choice for a Christmas show at the National, but as Christmas productions go, it’s a perfect seasonal treat: expertly directed by Timothy Sheader, it’s light footed, frothy, witty, with a twinkle in its eye and a spring in its step.

For anyone familiar with 19th century farce, the plot has few surprises: Agatha Farringdon, a young widow with a son, married the Magistrate Mr Posket and a little lie at the time of her wedding has complicated her life ever since. The more she tries to cover it, the more things twist and turn out of her control. At the same time, her husband and son succumb into their own temptations, as a result two imperfect worlds collide with – as they say – unforeseen consequences.

The plot might be less than surprising but the fun is in the spaces in between: Continue reading

Review: The Effect by Lucy Prebble, at the National Theatre

In all the best productions there is always a moment when I, in the audience, feel this is the best place in the world to be. In The Effect, the new play by Lucy Prebble as directed by Rupert Goold, that moment came half way through the first part when, in a surprising turn, Jonjo O’ Neil displays some unexpected talents. For a play grappling with serious and fascinating questions, this was a moment of uncomplicated bliss.

But can I trust this feeling? If my feelings can be traced to and manipulated by chemical changes, are they mine? Does it matter? The four characters in the Effect struggle with these questions with various degrees of passion, desperation and urgency. At the same time, life relentlessly moves forward without waiting for the answers. Things happen faster than people can process. And Lucy Prebble’s play, sparkling with humour, wit, ideas and warmth, finds a way to capture the emotional and physical bewilderment and joy as well as the scientific questions. This is science sitting squarely in the middle of everyday life as it should be.

It’s hard to find enough words to praise the performances: Continue reading