Review: The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov – in a new version by Simon Stephens, at the Young Vic Theatre

Kate Duchene as Lyubov Ranevskaya, Dominic Rowan as Alexander. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Kate Duchene as Lyubov Ranevskaya, Dominic Rowan as Alexander. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

You wait ages for one Chekhov and two arrive in less than a week. I was disappointed by Uncle Vanya at St James Theatre, which made the anticipation of The Cherry Orchard a tense affair: I don’t like not liking Chekhov. It’s almost hurtful. It doesn’t make sense. The meaning of life comes into question. Fortunately, the Young Vic Cherry Orchard – spiky, unsentimental, insolent, respectful only of a ridiculous tender heart – comes to restore the world as it should be.

The production, directed by Katie Mitchell in a new version by Simon Stephens, crackles with elegant and thrilling contradictions: outwardly it looks traditional, with its straight-laced proscenium arch and naturalistic approach. Yet it creates a feeling of uneasiness, a punky wave of a new world. The modern setting (invoked mostly due to costumes) is established with huge confidence: suits and ties don’t demand the presence of smartphones and Ipads, letters are still sent and news (good news, bad news, terrible news) is still being delivered by messenger. The characters break out into behaviours Chekhov would have never dreamed of which only highlights their inability to break free: their behaviour is often unhinged but that gives them no insight or self-awareness. It’s an act of decompression, like a balloon losing air and spinning out of control, only to end up on the floor, shriveled and defeated.

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List: Top ten theatre productions for January to June 2014

Lloyd Owen as Mike and Imelda Staunton as Margaret in Good People. Photo Johan Persson

Lloyd Owen as Mike and Imelda Staunton as Margaret in Good People. Photo Johan Persson

In a pattern frequently repeated in my life, I am about six weeks late in posting my top ten list from the first half of the year. I could have easily moved on, but 2014 is shaping into a vintage year, and I wanted to put a mark in the sand before the end of the year top ten becomes a hard and merciless business. In strict alphabetical order, the best – and favourite – productions of the first six months of 2014.

A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic (aka the Revival): it’s hard to describe how brilliant Arthur Miller’s A View from The Bridge was. Directed by Ivo Van Hove with Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone, text, acting and directorial decisions came together in a seamless union. The result was a beating heart at the palm of your hand, exhilarating and horrifying in equal measures. Eddie Carbone describing the smell of coffee will stay with me forever. What do we remember, heh?

Birdland at the Royal Court (aka the Rock descent into hell): Simon Stephens’ Birdland is not perfect. Yet it lodged under my skin more than other – more perfect (and yes, I know I shouldn’t be using a comparative construct) – productions. It had the blackest black and an aching at its bones. You can see home but you can never go back.

Blurred Lines at the Shed, National Theatre (aka the feminist rock concert): in a line of plays constructed like jazz music (pieces coming together and apart at will), Nick Payne’s and Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines was incendiary, prickly and put the cat among the pigeons. And it was fun. Continue reading

Second trip to Birdland at the Royal Court, post-show Q&A, and You ‘re Not as Tall As You Look by Chris Thorpe

Andrew Scott and Alex Price during the Q&A. Photo courtesy of @cumberbatchweb

Andrew Scott and Alex Price during the Q&A. Photo courtesy of @cumberbatchweb

Wednesday evening saw my return trip to Simon Stephens’ Birdland, Every few months, I have a play or production that ignites the imagination and thus repeat viewings are inevitable. Furthermore, this is the only way to fully experience theatre: once is often a necessity but it’s not a preference. Productions are living things, if it’s impractical to be there every night, it doesn’t mean they stay still without our presence (professional critics often seem to forget that).

It’s fun trying to decipher what changed with time (There will be SPOILERS for the rest of the post, so please don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled): Paul felt more deliberately cruel than in the previous performance. Louis – the superfan – is now holding a magnifying glass when he is meeting Paul. At one point David (the manager) puts drops to Paul’s eyes. At the same time, one of the actresses is at the roof and dropping marbles on a metal bowl held by another actress standing below, thus mimicking the eye-dropping action (and creating a loud clanking sound). On Wednesday night, the actress missed the bowl and the marble rolled all the way to the front of the stage and sank in the water. Some things are the same but now I am able to focus on them differently: I love how the set exposes the backstage area all the way to the exterior wall. When Johnny leaves through the fire escape, he exits directly into the street.

The post show talk was lovely and intimate: Continue reading

Review: Simon Stephens’ Birdland (starring Andrew Scott) at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Andrew Scott as Paul. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

Andrew Scott as Paul. Photo Richard Hubert Smith

After watching Simon Stephens’ Birdland, I jotted down a few words as a reminder of my first reaction: death, His Dark Materials, Neil Young, drowning not waving, pink and yellow, you can never go home, anti-vampire, thick black. Reading them, I hope they convey some of the play’s excitement, if not the lucidity and precision and sheer confidence with which this world unfolds.

Paul is losing his mind. It’s not the indulgence or the pampering. It’s the absence of an internal life, extinguished by the constant gaze of others. Paul doesn’t know who he is because all others do. He is the anti-vampire, his reflection everywhere, more real than the real thing. He lies like he tells the truth, and he tells the truth like he lies. Death courts him by the sheer absence of life. He tries to transcend himself, but some time somewhere he crossed a line and he can’t go back.

Paul and Johnny. Johnny and Paul. Johnny escapes the gaze, can go for a walk, fall in love. Johnny still knows home. Their friendship survives everything but them being together. In one scene, they are as close as they will ever be, just before they explode apart. Continue reading

Photo of the Week: Andrew Scott in Original Sin – 2002 (with added fantasy casting for Angels in America)

Andrew Scott as Angel in Original Sin. 2002 Sheffield Crucible. Photo Simon Walker

Andrew Scott as Angel in Original Sin. 2002 Sheffield Crucible. Photo Simon Walker

We are only a few weeks away from the first performances of Simon Stephens’ Birdland at the Royal Court. So much excitement riding on this: Andrew Scott in a Simon Stephens play (Sea Wall anyone?) directed by Carrie Cracknell. No pressure but anything less than superlative might be a disappointment.

This is not Andrew Scott’s first theatrical appearance since he played Moriarty (there is no way around it, for certain actors in certain roles there is before and after). He always stuck very close to the stage, all the way back to his native Ireland and Abbey theatre. My first introduction to his talents was at a Royal Court rehearsed reading in early 2009. (I had to look it up but the play was The Uncertainty Of The Situation (Die Unsicherheit der Sachlage) by Philipp Loehle. The cast – take a deep breath – included Katherine Parkinson, Jeff Rawle, Paul Ready, Samuel West). Once I saw him on stage, I always kept tabs, I wanted to have that rush again.

But this was seven years after he played Angel in Peter Gill’s Original Sin, after Frank Wedekind’s Lulu. The production premiered in Sheffield Crucible with mixed reviews but I can’t help to feel bawled over by its subject matter: “Angel, a spell-bindingly beautiful boy is plucked from the streets to be the plaything of a wealthy newspaper proprietor. Continue reading

Review: Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall, starring Andrew Scott, at the Shed – National Theatre

Sea_Wall Andrew Scott reviewSome reviews start with a memory: four years ago, at the Bush Library – an open space with stacks of books all over, the same space occupied by the Bush Theatre today, expect without walls, or proper seating or playtexts for wallpaper in the toilets – I saw Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall. I remember entering and two things were worth noting: even though it was ten minutes before the start, Andrew Scott was already pacing on stage and Ben Whishaw was in the audience. And then it started. And many more things were worth noting and remembering and in the end it went down as one of my best (distinct, powerful) experiences at the theatre.

How does the production at the Shed compare with that memory? On the minus side, I knew what was coming (whatever you do, don’t read spoilers). On the plus side, I knew what was coming (somewhere in the first ten minutes, my heart started pounding while the story was about packing for holidays and travel arrangements). Which is the genius of Simon Stephens’ text, and Andrew Scott’s performance and George Perrin’s direction: it’s artful and skilled in not being artful at all, playing out as real life, when a split second of a moment, without an explanation or a calling card or a lesson, punches you in the stomach and leaves you drowning and unable to make sense of anything for the rest of your life. Continue reading

A Curious Night at the Theatre – Part Two, when Christopher meets Ben Whishaw and Andrew Scott

Chris Martin at the Curious Night at the Theatre. Photo Luke Treadaway, hope he doesn't mind I am using it

Chris Martin at the Curious Night at the Theatre. Photo Luke Treadaway, hope he doesn’t mind I am using it

Continued from Part One

Christopher met Q at a secret location in the South Bank (if you don’t go to the theatre, it looked like a secret location. Otherwise, it looked like the National). They talked about viruses, and integrating the lines of radiant and whether you can dig someone if they are not a garden. Q rememebered Moriarty from the time they were together in Mike Bartlett’s Cock and sent Christopher on his way with a flirty “any time, cowboy”.

And back to school where Christopher said goodbye to Jude, heartbroken and disheartened not to have a future with Siobhan. And coming home one day, just like that, Christopher found Moriarty in his living room, cocky (not just because of Mike Bartlett’s Cock) and arrogant and a little bit sexy. Moriarty agreed to let Christopher mess with his computer on one condition: that Christopher can get hundreds of people to sit in one room and switch off their phones in order to engage in a metaphor (which is really a story). A little bit like a play. And here we are. Continue reading

A Curious Night at the Theatre starring Christopher, the Doctor, Q, the Queen & Moriarty (& a guy called Jude Law)

Parental guidance: I don’t intend to take a measured approach with this post. Be warned of breathless and shameless enthusiasm. I am told it’s called squee. I wouldn’t know.

Jude Law and Christopher (Luke Treadaway) on stage at A Curious Night at the Theatre. Photo Ellie Kurttz

Jude Law and Christopher (Luke Treadaway) on stage at A Curious Night at the Theatre. Photo Ellie Kurttz

When a show overruns by 75 minutes, it finishes at close to three hours without interval and no one complains, you know it’s a rare experience. A Curious Night at the Theatre was always destined to be, well, curious: part theatre, part live concert, part charity event, it could all have gone very wrong. In the end, it delivered on all counts: A funny play, party atmosphere, surprises, confetti and £100,000 raised. The curious night was something of a special night.

First things first, it’s theatre after all and there is a new play by Mark Haddon and Simon Stephens: a detective story for Christopher, where he is contacted by the Doctor and entrusted with an important mission: Moriarty – who, as the Doctor admits, looks suspiciously like Andrew Scott – has developed a computer virus and all people coming in contact with it will lose the ability to understand metaphors. “You, and only you Christopher, can rescue the metaphor.” Christopher is hesitant: “Why me?”. “No, no, no” says the Doctor, “the virus started working already”. Christopher doesn’t trust metaphors, which are lies after all, but is convinced to help. The Doctor calls the Queen and, amid some giggling and old fashioned flirting, gets Christopher an invitation to the Buckingham palace. The Queen has, after all, the best contacts.

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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