Martin Marquez

Still Alice

25/09/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Still Alice started life as a novel, self-published by Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Genova in 2007. It tells the story of Dr Alice Howland, a – wait for it – Harvard neuroscientist with young onset dementia, charting the impact of this terrible disease on both Alice and her family. Its success led first to commercial publication, and then – such was its appeal – to adaptations for both stage and screen. The movie version (which we reviewed in 2015: https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/03/17/still-alice/) secured Julianne Moore an Oscar, and it’s clear that the eponymous Alice requires a strong performer.

In fact, this touring production by the Leeds Playhouse utilises two strong performers in the central role. This is playwright Christine Mary Dunford’s masterstroke: Alice’s inner self (Herself) is played by Eva Pope, while her physical manifestation belongs to Sharon Small. The two start off almost identical, dressed in the same clothes, mirroring each other’s moves. Herself does not have much to say, because Alice can articulate her thoughts. As her condition worsens, however, Herself becomes louder and more vocal, speaking up when Alice can not. They become separate entities with bigger spaces between them, but Herself is never less than nurturing and protective. It’s an effective device, performed in an understated and unfussy way that makes it really powerful.

Of course, Alice is not the only one affected by her diagnosis and deterioration: the play focuses too on her family’s struggle to deal with this new version of their wife and mom. She’s no longer a fit and healthy high-achiever, a Harvard professor with an enviable career. Her son, Thomas (Mark Armstrong), who’s about to become a father, is especially troubled: he wants his mother back. He’s confused and angry; refuses to accept reality. Her daughter, Lydia (Ruth Ollman), seems to be coping better. She hasn’t always seen eye to eye with Alice (she’s chosen acting over academia, and Alice thinks this is a mistake), but she’s able to support her mother through her illness with an open mind and gentle acceptance.

But it’s Alice’s husband, John (Martin Marquez), who bears the brunt of the responsibility, and he does his best to care for his wife, while – sensibly – ensuring he looks after himself too. He’s a research scientist, and he doesn’t let his home life impinge on his career. Why should he? Alice has always been a careerist too; she wouldn’t want him to abandon his passions. This tension is beautifully realised, with sensitive direction from David Grindley, and a subtle, convincing performance by Marquez.

The set, designed by Jonathan Fensom, manages to be both naturalistic and metaphorical: we start with a cluttered stage, filled with the detailed trappings of a family home – a fitted kitchen, a three-piece suite – but, slowly, scene by scene, this paraphernalia is stripped away, until we’re left with an empty space, all we – and Alice – can see reduced to the present moment: two chairs, a handsome man with a checked shirt. What’s startling is that this is not an unhappy place; Alice has found peace and acceptance of a sort.

It’s a heart-breaking and thought-provoking piece, with much to recommend it. If I’ve a quibble, it’s the moment when Alice delivers a speech at an international conference. I want this to be more of a battle cry, or at least to illuminate something new; it doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already learned by this point in the play. It’s a climactic scene,  pregnant with possibility, and I don’t feel it achieves all that it could.

Still, that doesn’t prevent this from being an important piece of theatre, and well worth going to see. It’s at the King’s until the 29th September, and will be at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow from the 13th to 17th November.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

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This House

27/03/18

Politics. What’s it all about, eh?

Well, a viewing of This House will certainly make you feel a lot more informed on the subject. Not so much the more visible aspects of it – the ministers themselves –  as those who wheel and deal behind the scenes: the party Whips. There’s a live band up in the gallery, who offer a couple of spirited Bowie songs that eerily echo what’s happening down on the stage and, lest anybody assumes that politics inevitably make for dour viewing, please be aware that this is a lively, engaging piece, utilising humour to illuminate some grim facts. Ultimately, what the production does best is to demonstrate what an outmoded farce our political system is, and it’s very entertaining in the telling.

This play is a fiction, though it references many real players and actual events. It is the whips’ job to ensure that as many members as possible make themselves available to come in to the Commons and vote on the latest motion set before the house. Sometimes, they are called upon to make near superhuman efforts in order to effect a win – in some cases, even calling MPs in from their hospital beds! First performed at the NT’s 400 seat Cottesloe Theatre (or the Dorfman, as it’s now called)  in 2013, This House‘s success has created such demand that it’s now playing much larger venues, which obviously has something of a distancing effect, and I find myself envying the select band of spectators who are seated on green benches on the stage (in the House of Commons chamber) so that they’re woven into the very fabric of the piece. 

The action takes place in the years 1974 to 1979, when the UK famously had a ‘hung’ parliament and where the absence of a single voting member might result in the ruling Labour party having to vacate its seats. Everyone on the red side of the house is horribly aware that a certain Mrs Thatcher is waiting in the wings for her chance to rule the world… Oops, sorry, I mean, country. Obviously.

If the characters on both sides of the divide occasionally come across as caricatures – the Labour team all ‘eh up, lad, what’s ‘appenin’?’, the Tories as suave and slick as their Savile Row suits – I feel that’s entirely intentional on the part of writer James Graham. With such a big cast, it’s crucial that those time-worn divisions are made as broad and accessible as possible. In this, he succeeds admirably. With everybody on stage working their respective socks off, it’s difficult to single out individual performances, but I do like Martin Marquez’s turn as cockney wide boy, Bob Mellish, and Matthew Pidgeon’s ultra-groomed toff, Jack Weatherill, is also eminently watchable. Natalie Grady makes a big impression as the labour team’s ‘token’ female, Ann Taylor, ready to correct anyone who has the temerity to underestimate her abilities.

So, grab tickets for this and, if it’s at all possible, get yourselves as close to that stage as you can – perhaps, if you’re really lucky, even on it. Interestingly, it doesn’t cost more. You just need to ask when you make the booking.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Husbands and Sons

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23/02/16

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Welcome to the world of DH Lawrence – a world of coal and sweat, where every husband is a drunken, boorish tyrant, where every wife is a much put-upon angel, and where every mother secretly harbours an unhealthy regard for her own son.

Husbands and Sons is a curious concoction, a mingling of three early plays by Lawrence – The Daughter-In-Law, A Collier’s Night Out and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd – all of which take place in the same village, which has allowed adapter Ben Power to overlay them, so that one piece of action appears to comment on the next. The protagonists are onstage most of the time, while the script cuts nimbly back and forth between the three households involved – the Lamberts, the Gascoignes and the Holroyds. At first, this technique is disorienting; it takes a while to settle into the rhythm, but eventually you do and things pick up.

The Exchange is famous for its sets and this one is remarkable in its ingenuity. The three households are delineated by ranks of cast iron cooking ranges, sculleries and dining tables, all balanced precariously on top of the colliery, represented by heaps of coal and a grilled floor, lit from below. It looks fantastic.

But there seems to be a lack of consistency in the style. Why, for instance, go to the trouble of creating plumbed-in taps that spout real water and cooking ranges that belch real flame, and then oblige the actors to perform a mime every time they enter a house: opening and closing invisible doors, removing and hanging up imaginary coats and hats? It just looks odd amidst all the naturalistic clutter. Another puzzling detail – two bread tins, complete with knives, are used to prise out… fresh air. In her programme notes, director Marianne Elliott claims that she wanted the audience to ‘concentrate on the people and not get bogged down in the detail of the bread or the stew or sweeping the floor,’ but the absence of these things made no sense when so many other fripperies were included. If we’re meant to concentrate on the actors, why surround them with so much paraphernalia? Or, if this level of detail is required, why not see it through consistently?

There’s no doubting the quality of the performances here. Anne Marie Duff, making her debut at the Exchange, has little to do in the first half, but really comes into her own in the second as the tragic Lizzie Holdroyd, obliged to deal with the sudden death of her boorish husband, Charles (Martin Marquez), killed in a colliery accident. Meanwhile, Lydia Lambert (Julia Ford) is trying not to feel jealous of her son’s new flame and over at the Gascoigne house, Luther (Joe Armstong) has been unfaithful to his wife, Minnie (Louise Brealy), and has got one of the neighbours in the family way. Reparation must be made, it seems but what does Minnie have to say about it?

What you feel about this production will probably depend upon how you regard the writing of D H Lawrence. There are many who think of him as a genius, a man before his time. Others simply see him as a sex-obsessed neurotic with a large chip on his shoulder. Husbands and Sons is an interesting piece that takes time to build in intensity, but we feel it is somewhat compromised by unnecessary complications, that have nothing to do with the performances or, indeed, the script.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield