National Theatre Live

Amadeus

16/07/20

National Theatre Live

Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus is that rarest of creatures, a celebrated play that went on to become an equally celebrated film. 

This 2016 production by the National Theatre, streaming live on YouTube for a limited period, is well worth catching. Lively, vivacious and compelling, it offers a thrilling blend of theatre and music – indeed, I’ve rarely seen an orchestra so perfectly integrated into a performance. They move around the stage with their instruments, performing brilliant renditions of Mozart’s best known work, and are as much a part of the production as the characters in costume, ‘players’ in every sense of the word.

This is, of course, the ‘based-on-fact’ tale of the bitter rivalry between successful-but-mediocre musician Antonio Salieri (Lucian Msamati) and youthful musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen). Mozart has newly arrived at the court of Joseph II in Vienna, expecting to be feted by all he meets, but he unwittingly ignites Salieri’s jealousy and enmity by being too talented for comfort. Some historians have questioned the authenticity of Schaffer’s story, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s quite simply a great idea, beautifully realised.

At first, I have some doubts about this particular adaptation. In the opening scenes, Msamati’s grandiloquent and declamatory delivery is a little hard to take but, thankfully, he soon switches to a more naturalistic approach and, from the moment we are introduced to Gillen’s Mozart, the play finds its wings and soars. 

Gillen plays the upstart visitor as a hypercharged, twitching bundle of neuroses, coming across as a weird mixture of Rick Mayall and Thing 1(or 2?), seemingly unable to stand still for a moment as he spouts strings of inventive obscenities. He’s an absolute joy to watch, and the calm, still performance of Msamati provides a perfect foil for his talents.

Of course, this is much more than a two-man show. The large cast offer faultless support, as they speed the story headlong from each scene to the next.

Under Michael Longhurst’s direction, this production is both playful and inventive, veering expertly between slapstick comedy and moments of pure poignancy. It’s easy to see why the play has achieved such success and the opportunity to reappraise its considerable charms is surely not to be missed.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Deep Blue Sea

15/07/20

National Theatre Live

Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play seems remarkably contemporary, despite the period details that flood both the script and director Carrie Cracknell’s interpretation of it. Boarding houses are prevalent; Freddie has turned to alcohol because of his awful experiences as a second world war pilot; suicide is illegal; Dr Miller (Nick Fletcher), the doctor-turned-bookie, has a German accent that makes him an outsider. But its central themes – of love, loss and alienation – endure, even if the specific context does not.

Helen McRory is an inspired choice for the lead role, imbuing Hester Collyer with an oxymoronic fierce fragility. She’s at once desperate and sprightly, confident and lost.

Hester too is an outsider: a vicar’s daughter, she has left a respectable marriage (to the paternalistic Sir William, a judge, played with eminent likeability by Peter Sullivan) in favour of a love affair with the dashing Freddie Page (Tom Burke). It’s to the play’s credit that neither of these men is easily dismissed: Sir William is kindly, but Hester wants more than the pleasant companionship he offers; Freddie is unreliable and unromantic, but he is no cad. Both men offer Hester what they have to give, but neither has enough.

And, unable to envisage a future without Freddie’s love, Hester attempts to kill herself.

It’s undoubtedly a tragic tale, brutal in its exposure of human sadness. Tom Scutt’s design, with its eerie reflectiveness and skeletal outlines of other apartments – other sorrows – underscores the universality of Hester’s unhappiness.

But there is hope here, and redemption. And a fried egg sandwich too!

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Small Island

19/06/20

National Theatre Live

Anyone who’s still clinging to the notion that #BLM protests are not needed in the UK would do well to watch this latest screening from the National Theatre, and remind themselves of the shameful way black British subjects from Caribbean countries have been treated here.

Andrea Levy’s novel, adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, is set in the 1940s, so does not directly address the 2018 Windrush scandal – where at least eighty-three people were wrongly deported – but it does show very clearly how they came to be here in the first place, encouraged to embrace their Britishness by fighting for ‘their’ country in the war, then helping to rebuild a battered Britain afterwards. ‘Used’ is the first word that comes to mind. ‘Abused’ is the second.

The play, directed by Rufus Norris, is at once an expansive, epic sweep of a project, and a deeply intimate portrayal of three people, cast adrift and then brought together, an intricate web linking their lives.

Leah Harvey is Hortense, a prim, ambitious Jamaican school teacher, desperate to escape the confines of her upbringing and live amongst the china tea cups and cream teas that define Britain for her. The love of her life is her ‘cousin’ Michael (CJ Beckford), but he doesn’t feel the same way about her. Spurned, Hortense realises that, by paying for his passage to England,  she can persuade RAF airman Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) to marry her, and offer her the life she dreams of.

But when she arrives in London, Hortense is horrified to discover that their accommodation is a tiny room in a rundown boarding house, that she is subjected daily to the most appalling racism, and that no one will employ her as a teacher, or even recognise the qualifications she’s worked so hard to acquire. The landlady, Queenie (Aisling Loftus), is their one ally, but even her support seems less assured when her bigoted husband, Bernard (Andrew Rothney), finally returns home from the war.

The acting from all is superb, although it is Harvey’s performance that lingers in the memory, a study in rigid reserve and masked disappointment.

I love Katrina Lindsay’s set design, which is perfectly complemented by Jon Driscoll’s projections, making full use of the enormous Olivier stage. The storm scenes in particular seem immersive, and the size of the Windrush boat (and thus the scale of the ensuing scandal) is cleverly conveyed.

The first act is more complex than the first, cutting between countries and characters, but we always know exactly where we are, and all the disparate strands are brought together skilfully in a more cohesive second act.

This is a timely release from the National Theatre, and reinforces the need for more BAME representation in the arts.

You have until next Thursday to watch it.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Twelfth Night

23/04/20

National Theatre Live

I’m never sure about Twelfth Night. Yes, it’s a perfectly constructed play, with a rich cast of characters and some of Shakespeare’s most profound and memorable lines. But I’m always pulled up short by the identity swap stuff, because it’s so silly. And, dare I say it, over-used in the bard’s comedies. Yes, I know he’s a genius. But come on. It defies credulity.

Still, major plot quibbles aside, this latest offering from the NT Live’s lockdown programme is nothing short of glorious. Director Simon Godwin really revels in the play’s theme of gender fluidity, and it makes perfect sense in this context to have a female Malvolia (the marvellous Tamsin Greig), Feste (Doon Mackichan) and Fabia (Imogen Doel).

For those who need a memory jog or who are new to the play, this is the story of twins Viola (Tamara Lawrance) and Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), washed up on the shores of Illyria following a shipwreck. Each believes the other dead, and sets out alone to seek shelter.

To Viola, disguising herself as a boy seems the safest bet, so she changes her clothes and calls herself Cesario. So-disguised, she finds work as a messenger for Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris), and is soon engaged in the peculiar business of attempting to woo the Countess Olivia (Phoebe Fox) for him. Unfortunately, Olivia falls for Cesario instead – and, to complicate matters further, Viola herself is smitten with the Duke. Add Olivia’s unruly uncle Toby (Tim McMullen) and his drunken entourage into the mix, and it’s easy enough to see why the prissy, order-loving Malvolia becomes so peevish and out of sorts.

The standout here is clearly Greig’s Malvolia; this is a star turn. Her obsessive, precise nature is beautifully detailed, and the frenzied abandon that follows when she falls for the revellers’ trick – instructing her to dress in yellow stockings to win Olivia’s favour – allows us a glimpse beneath Malvolia’s repressed exterior, as her secret desires are cruelly exposed. Her abject humiliation is genuinely heartbreaking.

But there’s plenty to admire besides Greig: McMullen’s interpretation of Toby (all louche and dissipated, like an ageing rock star) is original and works well with the script, while Daniel Rigby’s man-bunned Andrew Aguecheek makes a perfect comic foil.

The set, by Soutra Gilmour, is inspired: dominated by a huge rotating staircase, that turns to reveal a vast range of locations, all cleverly depicted with a few deft strokes.

This is a lovely, light production, with both exquisite foolery and emotional depth. I reckon I’ll even let the false identity stuff go. Against the odds, they make it work.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Treasure Island

16/04/20

National Theatre Live

Treasure Island is one of those stories I know without knowing. Despite being an ardent bookworm as a child, I never read past the first couple of chapters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal text. I’ve never watched a film version all the way through either. I’m not sure why; maybe I just didn’t think that seafaring adventures were for me. And yet, of course, I know the characters, the plot, the tropes – because every pirate cliché emanates from this book.

So now’s the time for me to see it through, via the National Theatre’s free YouTube screening, available until next week. I settle on the sofa next to my husband, who hands me a glass of wine. So I’m relatively happy, although I can’t refrain from grumbling, ‘It’s not the same as actually being out.‘ It’s not, obviously. But, for now, it’s what we have.

This is a sprightly production, and a lot of fun to watch. Bryony Lavery’s script is fleet of foot, and Polly Findlay’s direction lively and light, although there’s more than a hint of darkness here.

Patsy Ferran is a female Jim – a Jemima – whose encounter with Bill Bones (Aidan Kelly) at her grandma’s inn leads her into piratic escapades. Before long, she’s left granny far behind, and is employed as a cabin-girl on the Hispaniola, learning to read the stars while befriending the dark-hearted Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill), as they sail forth in search of Captain Flint’s buried treasure. Betrayal and misadventure follow, of course, as do enlightenment and redemption. It’s never less than an exciting ride.

Ferran’s is a beguiling performance; indeed, the whole production charms. Joshua James’ Benn Gunn is bewitching, his conversations with himself simultaneously enervating and captivating; it’s a clever portrayal.The swordplay sequences, choreographed by Bret Yount, are bold and athletic. And Lizzie Clachan’s design shows us the boat as a living, breathing organism, exposing the metaphor of the island’s tunnels as Jim’s inner self, her conscience and her soul.

Whether Treasure Island is an old favourite or unexplored territory, this is certainly a piece of theatre that everyone can enjoy.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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

Present Laughter: NT Live

26/01/20

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe that National Theatre Live is already celebrating its 10th anniversary. This brilliant initiative, which makes the very best theatrical productions accessible to a much wider audience than they could ever reach on the stage, has been a resounding success. Like many people, we usually view them at the cinema – but there’s something very fitting about seeing this West End winner on the big screen at the Festival Theatre.

The play invites us to witness a few turbulent days in the life of highly successful actor, Garry Essendine (Andrew Scott). Recently turned forty and about to embark on a prestigious tour of Africa, Gary is suffering something of a mid-life crisis and, at the play’s opening, wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to discover that he has slept with ingenue Daphne Stillington (Kitty Archer). Unfortunately, she is still hanging around his swish apartment, hoping for breakfast and that meaningful relationship he promised her last night.

Her presence is tolerated with little more than a raised eyebrow by Garry’s long-suffering assistant, Monica (Sophie Thompson), and by his ex wife, Liz (Indira Varma), who has long ago abandoned her personal feelings in favour of managing and protecting the Garry Essendine ‘brand.’ Both women know that such indiscretions are parr for the course.

But further complications rear their heads when Garry’s married business associate, Morris (Abdul Salis) confesses to having an affair with Joe (Enzo Cilenti), and it isn’t long before the self-same Joe has arrived at the apartment and is making flirtatious advances to Garry.

Coward fans will know that in the original play, Joe was Joanna, but this gender-swap is an astute move on the part of director, Matthew Warchus, reminding us that Coward was a closeted gay man at a time when such inclinations could never be expressed onstage. As the tempo steadily rises, and the play careers like an out-of-control vehicle from one frenetic scene to the next, it’s no surprise to hear the complaint, ‘I feel like a character in a French farce.’

The actors are all pretty much note-perfect: Luke Thallon is particularly assured as a sycophantic fan prepared to move heaven and earth to be near his idol, while Sophie Thompson is an absolute delight as Monica, enmeshed in a love-hate relationship with her employer and sometimes in danger of veering towards the former. But make no mistake, this show belongs to Scott and his undeniable talent. His embodiment of the vain, childish and self-obsessed Garry Essendine is an absolute comic tour de force. I’ve seen plenty of Noel Coward plays over the years but I’ve never laughed as uproariously as I do at this one.

I think he’d be thoroughly delighted by this version, though, which is fresh and vivacious enough to make me think that I’d like to see more of The Master’s plays reimagined for our times.

There are more top flight theatrical productions scheduled to view at the Festival Theatre. Why not treat yourself?

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Macbeth

10/05/18

Let’s face it, Macbeth’s biggest problem is its ubiquity. Easily the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays – and arguably one of the most powerful – we’ve seen so many average versions of it over the years (amongst which I am inclined to include Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation) that a production really needs to do something very special with the source material in order to make it an enticing proposition. I’m therefore delighted to say that the National Theatre’s latest production, directed by Rufus Norris and seen here via a live cinema linkup,  does exactly that, giving us a Macbeth that rivals the very best of them.

It almost goes without saying that both Rory Kinnear (in the title role) and Anne Marie Duff (as his manipulative wife) submit exceptional performances, giving those oh-so-familiar lines enough oomph to make you feel as though you’re actually hearing them for the first time. No mean feat.  But it’s the production design that really shines. This version takes place in what might well be a post-apocalyptic world, where a civil war has just been bloodily disputed and where everything has a grungy ‘make do and mend’ look. Severed heads are proudly displayed in supermarket carrier bags, food is served in battered mess tins and even Macbeth’s armour is contrived from found items battered into shape, which have to be literally gaffa-taped onto him before each battle. Duncan (Stephen Boxer)’s royal regalia comprises an ill-fitting red velvet suit, that might have been salvaged from a charity shop. It provides the one splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise drab and scuffed world.

Production designer Rae Smith has created a huge wood and metal arch upon which much of the action plays out. It somehow contrives to be both heavily industrial yet strangely ethereal as it swings silently back and forth. It is poised over a revolving circular stage, so that each successive scene can glide effortlessly into position. In one sequence, the Weird Sisters move with the turning of that central wheel like the protagonists of a particularly disturbing nightmare. There’s some great use of regional accents: Trevor Fox’s Porter is a dour Geordie; Patrick O’ Kane’s MacDuff a pugnacious Irishman. Oh, and the element that lets down so many stage productions – that climactic battle – is delivered here with enough zeal and gusto to be truly convincing. You’ll believe that a head can be bloodily severed.

Of course, if you’re reading this and you weren’t at last night’s showing, you’ve already missed your chance to see the live broadcast, but the good news is that the production is heading out on a UK and Ireland tour from late September, so – if it’s showing anywhere near you – do take the opportunity to see it. It will serve to remind you that Shakespeare, when convincingly done, can be truly and utterly enthralling.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

18/05/17

Edward Albee’s 1962 play was famously adapted as a movie in 1966, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The role of Martha is widely considered Taylor’s best onscreen performance, so it’s a tough act to follow – and perhaps, on paper, Imelda Staunton is an unlikely candidate for the role. But never underestimate her. She is an absolute revelation in this National Theatre production, beamed out live to cinemas across the UK. These screenings are a wonderful (and more affordable) way for people outside London to gain access to the very best of theatre.

George (Conleth Hill, best known for Game of Thrones) is an associate Professor of History at an American University, a man who feels that he hasn’t really achieved his life’s ambitions. This belief is constantly reinforced by his hard-drinking wife, Martha (Staunton), who seems to delight in reminding him of his failures at every given opportunity. The events of this three hour play unfold over one night, after a party at the faculty. George and Martha are already well-oiled when they arrive home and George is dismayed to discover that Martha has invited a young couple back ‘for drinks.’ They are a young biology professor, Nick (a barely recognisable Luke Treadaway) and his ditzy wife, Honey (Imogen Poots). Given the gladiatorial nature of the host couple’s conversation before the guests arrive, it’s clear that we are in for a bumpy ride… and as the drinks flow and inhibitions are increasingly broken down, the deepest secrets of everyone present are pulled out and ripped to shreds.

This is an incendiary, vitriolic drama, often wickedly funny but ultimately heart-breaking. Staunton’s extraordinary performance is perfectly matched by Hill’s dry, acerbic turn as George; indeed many of the play’s funniest moments are his, most tellingly the scene where he immerses himself in a favourite history book, while Martha and Nick cavort unabashedly just behind him. The other two actors may have somewhat less to do, but they make the most of what they’ve been given.

It’s a while since I’ve seen this performed and I was astonished at the similarities between this and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, which came along more than a decade later. In both plays, an ambitious male character is pushed to the very age by an unforgiving wife. In both plays, we laugh at the resulting humiliation, only to have that laughter snatched away by the misery of the conclusion.

This was a one night only screening, so if you really want to see this show, you’ll need to head down to ‘that London’ where it’s currently showing  at the Harold Pinter theatre.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney