Theatre

The Habit of Art

07/04/20

Original Theatre Company

In the normal run of things we would have been seeing this at the King’s Theatre just a few days ago, and basing our review around that performance. But these are very far from normal times and, consequently, this revival of Alan Bennett’s 2009 production, directed by Philip Franks, can now be accessed directly from The Original Theatre Company’s website for just a few pounds.

Ostensibly a play about the odd friendship between WH Auden (Matthew Kelly) and Benjamin Britten (David Yelland), The Habit of Art is made more interesting by allowing the audience to be observers at a rehearsal for the play, taking place in a scruffy church hall. We are afforded an insider’s view complete with all the mistakes, digressions and conflicts that exist in such situations. In effect, each actor is portraying not just the character they embody in the biographical play, but also the actor who portrays that character – which probably makes this sound a lot more complicated than it actually is. Don’t worry, the metatheatre all falls into place.

Auden, in the latter years of his career, has been reduced to living in rooms at his college in Oxford, where he meets occasional friends and regularly entertains rent boys, who supply him with his daily bout of fellatio. He is unexpectedly visited by his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter (whom he briefly mistakes for that day’s supplier of sexual favours), and later by Britten, whom Benjamin hasn’t seen for thirty years and is keen to discuss his latest project, a planned adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. (Mann, incidentally, was Auden’s Father-in-law.)

Bennett has a lot of fun dealing with the subject of homosexuality, still illegal in the 1970s when this play is set, and the secret that drove these two great artists. Auden talks much about the titular habit – how creative minds are constantly disposed to creating work, long after any real need to do so has vanished from their lives, and the moment when he seizes upon the desperate hope that Britten is thinking of offering him a collaboration is the play’s pivotal scene. Both Kelly and Yelland offer assured performances, and they are well supported by Veronica Roberts as the ever capable stage manager, Kay, and by John Wark as Donald, who can’t quite rid himself of the notion that, in playing Humphrey Carpenter, he’s actually nothing but a ‘device.’

This witty and engaging performance, even when condensed onto our tiny screen at home, is worth seeking out, but it makes me long to have seen it in the theatre, where it really belongs. Still, interested parties will find it at www.originaltheatre.com

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Much Ado About Nothing

04/04/20

The Wyndham Theatre, London (Digital Theatre)

It’s the casting that initially draws us to this one. I mean, David Tennant and Catherine Tate? In a Shakespeare comedy? Intriguing, right? And here it is on Digital Theatre, filmed live at the Wyndham, London, in 2011, the perfect choice for a locked-in Saturday night.

Robert Delamere’s production cannily sets the antics in 1980s Gibraltar. Post Falklands war, there’s a celebratory air about the place with swaggering white-uniformed naval officers coming ashore to interact with the sun bathing locals. Claudio (Tom Bateman) has his sights set on Hero (Sarah McRae), whom he wishes to marry, but fellow officer Benedick (Tennant), a proud bachelor boy, is insistent that he will never ever go down the marriage path. He and the equally sarcastic Beatrice (Tate) already have a well established enmity towards each other, but when Benedick’s friends set up a scheme to convince him that Beatrice is secretly smitten by him, the couple’s adversarial history goes straight out of the window and something suspiciously like true love begins to bloom…

Much Ado About Nothing is a Shakespeare play I barely know – and let’s be honest, on the page his comedies can come across as a bit on the dull side. So this is something of a revelation – indeed, it has to be one of the funniest adaptations of the bard I can remember seeing. Most of the laughs are generated by the caustic interplay between Benedick and Beatrice – and even if Tate occasionally looks as though she’s about to ask Tennant if she’s bovvered, I have to admit that she handles her role with consummate skill. Tennant too, is superb, his comic timing impeccable. 

But it’s more than just a double act. The design is spectacular, with the regular use of a revolving stage showing us the action from a continually changing perspective. The scene where Benedick spies on his gossiping friends whilst becoming messily entangled with a decorating table is just inspired, and Beatrice too gets a similar scene where, caught up on a workman’s harness, she is hauled into the air, flailing helplessly around while her co-stars struggle to make themselves heard over the audience’s laughter.

I also love the masked disco, where the play’s characters, dressed as various 80s celebrities – Adam Ant, India Jones, Miss Piggy! –  dance around,, occasionally breaking off into little huddles to further develop the story. And yes, the story is a bewilderingly frivolous one, with characters playing complicated tricks on each other for no convincing reason, but it hardly matters. Two hours and forty one minutes whizz by like magic.

This is a superb slice of comic theatre that should please ardent Shakespearos and the lead couple’s sizeable fan bases alike. Interested parties will find it at digitaltheatre.com 

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

One Man, Two Guvnors

02/04/20

National Theatre Live

Recordings of live theatre are the closest we can get to the real thing right now. It’s not the same, of course, especially not as an iMac is the largest screen we have. But it’s a whole lot better than nothing and, like thousands of others, we’re sitting on our sofa at 7pm tonight, ready to take advantage of the first of the National Theatre’s free YouTube screenings, a welcome Corona-distraction if ever there was one.

It’s One Man, Two Guvnors this evening, which we saw at The Lowry back in 2011 and thoroughly enjoyed. And it’s long enough ago for us to relish the chance to see it again, to retain an element of surprise at the humour, to have forgotten the punchlines to the jokes.

James Corden is magnificent in the lead role (the ‘one man’ of the title, Francis Henshall); it’s easy to see why his performance was so lauded, earning him a coveted Tony award. He’s brimming with talent, and I’ll never understand why he’s anathema to so many people. I defy them to watch this and remain unimpressed.

Based on Goldoni’s eighteenth century play, The Servant of Two Masters, Richard Bean’s farcical script transposes the action to 1960s Brighton, where Henshall finds himself doubly employed, acting as ‘minder’ not only to Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), but also to Roscoe Crabbe (Jemima Rooper) – a situation made more complex by the fact that Stubbers is in hiding after murdering one… ahem… Roscoe Crabbe. Hapless Henshall tries to juggle the two jobs and fails at every turn. It’s ridiculous, nonsensical stuff – and I love every minute.

Nicholas Hytner’s direction is spot on, and the skiffle band covering the scene transitions is a lovely idea that pays real dividends. But it’s Cal McCrystal’s choreography of the physical comedy that really stands out, a dynamic blend of clowning and drama that ensures there’s never a dull moment. The storyline is pretty slight, but holds up for three hours because of the vitality of the performances.

One Man, Two Guvnors is available on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until next Thursday, the 9th April, when Jane Eyre will take its place.

Don’t miss the chance to see it. After all, what else have you got to do?

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Emerald City

26/03/20

Digital Theatre (Griffin Theatre, Sydney, Australia)

We’ve managed to find ways to get our cinematic fix from home, but what about theatre? In the normal run of things, we’d be out two or three times a week watching shows, but these are extraordinary times. Thank goodness then for Digital Theatre, which, for a modest £9.99 per month, gives us access to a whole range of top-level productions. A quick glance through their offerings reveals that there’s plenty of Shakespeare on there, musical theatre and a lot more – but tonight we’re in the mood for something completely new to us, so we opt for the Australian National Theatre’s production of Emerald City by David Williamson.

Set in the 1980s, it’s the story of Colin (Mitchell Butell), a critically acclaimed screenwriter, recently moved from arty Melbourne to money-obsessed Sydney, where all the big Australian film deals happen (think Australia’s Hollywood). Colin and his wife, Kate (Lucy Bell), who works in publishing, move into a modest apartment with their children (whom we never see nor have any real sense of) and Colin sets about writing a long cherished project, based on his Uncle’s wartime experiences. His hard-bitten agent, Elaine (Jennifer Hagen), isn’t keen on the premise, which she feels just isn’t commercial enough.

At a party, Collin encounters Mike (Ben Winspear), a wannabe screenwriter with more ambition than his slender talents can support – but he does have a bullish approach that seems to get results. The two men team up on Colin’s project, though Mike is clearly more keen to work on his own idea, a kind of Australian Miami Vice. Colin soon finds himself unhealthily fixated on Mike’s girlfriend, Helen (Kelly Paterniti), and she is clearly interested in him. As the two men’s lives become increasingly entangled, Colin’s professional integrity – and Kate’s – come up against some unexpected challenges.

At first, I’m not at all sure about this production. The garish and unconventional stage set is rather unsettling, with the actors moving out into the audience, along a kind of V-shaped thrust design. Characters keep breaking off from conversations with each other to confide their innermost thoughts to the audience which again, takes a little time to get used to. But, once into the rhythms of Williamson’s approach, the piece embeds itself and starts to pay dividends.

This is a dry and witty play that constantly points up how difficult it is to have integrity in a world that is so fixated on financial results. The eternal conflict between art and commerce provides the real meat of this story. Winspear offers a bruising depiction of toxic masculinity and Hagen somehow manages to be the personification of every literary agent I’ve ever met. Some of the developments are wildly funny – I love the idea of a publisher flying first class to the Booker Prize ceremony when the author of the nominated book has decided not to go because she disagrees with the very idea of it!

I have thus far had no knowledge of Australian theatre but Emerald City proves to be a rewarding first dip into its unknown waters.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Songs of Friendship 3: Revelations

13/03/20

It’s likely that James Rowland’s trilogy will be the last stage performance we see for a while, thanks to a certain wee virus up-ending life as we know it. As mass gatherings are banned and large theatres begin to shut, we’re here, slathered in hand-sanitiser, hoping that the small, clean Traverse 2 is a safe enough space.

This is part three of the trilogy, but – at the time of watching – we hadn’t yet seen part two. That has now been rectified, which is good because it means I’m writing with full knowledge of the story – but bad because it’s playing havoc with our house-style of writing in the present tense…

Anyway.

Revelations is about an older, sadder James. The shock of losing a best friend to cancer; the awkward sadness of an inevitable break-up – these heartaches belonged to a young man, not quite fully-fledged, whatever his birth certificate might have said. This final instalment is altogether more grown up, although, of course, James is still James, so ‘maturity’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Still, he’s forced to confront some pretty adult issues, and there’s an endearing frankness to the way he details his response.

The main focus is parenthood, specifically the idea of being a sperm donor for his best friend and her wife. He wouldn’t be the baby’s father (it would have two mothers), but he would be an active presence in its life. And, he worries, maybe too active a presence: is he getting in the way of Sarah and Emma’s relationship?

This final instalment is, without doubt, a tragedy, albeit told with humour – and without clothes. Yes, that’s right – without clothes. Because Rowland spends the last twenty minutes stark-bollock naked. It’s a shame that we need trigger warnings (and I do understand why; I’m not arguing against them in principle) because the shock-factor is somewhat undermined by a ‘THIS SHOW CONTAINS FULL-FRONTAL NUDITY’ poster that greets us as we enter. Instead of being startling, the undressing is more: ‘Oh, okay then; here it is…’

It’s definitely brave, although I’m not sure why he doesn’t pop on a dressing gown after the key moment of revelation. Except that there’s a sense throughout the trilogy of a character who always pushes things too far, and maybe this is just the final iteration of that trait.

All in all, Songs of Friendship establishes Rowland as an accomplished and empathetic storyteller, whose friendly bumblings through life will retain a place in many hearts.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Songs of Friendship 2: A Hundred Different Words For Love

14/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Actor/writer James Rowland presents the second part of his Songs of Friendship trilogy, although we’re seeing it out of sequence, having already seen parts 1 and 3.  Though it employs pretty much the the same techniques, it feels decidedly gentler and much more light-hearted than either its angst-ridden predecessor or successor.

The music also reflects this softer feel. Once again, Rowland uses a looping device to build up layers of melody, but the mellow-sounding keyboard he uses creates a lusher sound than we heard in either of the other parts.

In this episode, James’s best friend, Sarah, is getting married to her partner, Emma, while James himself is going through the throes of a passionate, but ultimately doomed romance with an un-named woman. As before, Rowland plays all the roles, flitting from one character to the next with ease. He effortlessly draws his audience into the story and there’s some nice interplay between him and us. The story is very funny in a Richard Curtis sort of way – something that Rowland happily refers to during the telling – and he scampers around the stage, dispensing observations and even, at one point, sporting a very fetching red dress.

For my money, this is the most successful chapter of the trilogy. It doesn’t try to shock or challenge too much, but just envelops me in a warm glow and sends me on my way with a smile on my face.

Philip Caveney

Songs of Friendship 1: Team Viking

11/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer/performer James Rowland is on stage at the Traverse, dressed in a shabby suit and telling us a delightful shaggy dog story. This is Team Viking, the first part of a trilogy, though we are assured that each one is stand-alone. (We’re booked in to see the other two as well – although, because of other commitments, not in the right order.)

Rowland is an aimiable and affable storyteller, who knows how to handle a joke and has us laughing at some pretty unlikely events. Somebody’s mother being run over and killed by an ambulance? That’s not funny! And yet… somehow… you don’t want to laugh but…

James relates how, eight years ago, his best friend from childhood, Tom, was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer (also not the kind of thing that comedy gold is generally inspired by)  – and how Tom’s dying wish was to be given a proper funeral, just like the one Kirk Douglas’s Einar had in the 1958 film, The Vikings. You know the kind of thing. A longboat drifting out to sea, set ablaze by fiery arrows while that unforgettable theme music plays. He assigns a very reluctant James and another friend, Sarah to organise it for him.

So, no pressure there.

Exactly how they achieve this memorable send-off provides an hour of pleasurable storytelling, with Rowland breaking off every so often to add another layer to a looped song he is gradually putting together as the tale unfolds. There’s a message in the song, but we won’t fully appreciate it until the end…

As it’s fairly unusual to be reviewing a trilogy, we’ll wait until we’ve seen the next two instalments to issue the requisite stars. Those who would like to immerse themselves in the full experience can book to see the complete trilogy on Saturday night.

Team Viking is an encouraging start – and, considering recent world events, this cheery, relaxed session may be just the kind of thing we’re all in need of.

Philip Caveney