National Theatre

Home, I’m Darling

07/07/18

Theatr Clwyd, Yr Wyddgrug

What’s this? A trip to the homeland to visit family that coincides with a chance to see the world première of Laura Wade’s latest play before it transfers to the National at the end of the month? Perfect timing! Four tickets, please. For the Saturday matinee.

It’s a sunny day, so we pack some fruit and sandwiches to take with us. Theatr Clwyd is in Yr Wyddgrug (aka the more prosaic ‘Mold’), and there are picnic tables outside, with panoramic views over the Clwydian hills. It’s a lovely place to sit and eat our lunch before we venture indoors. This is a bustling regional arts centre, with three theatres, a cinema and a function room, as well as a shop, bar, and bistro cafe. Neither Philip nor I have been here for a while, so we spend some time exclaiming over changes, and reminiscing about the past (factoid: Philip’s band, Hieronymous Bosch, used to play here, providing the music for youth theatre productions such as Godspell back in the day). We’re with my parents and, as mum walks with a zimmer frame, we’re pleased to note that the venue is pretty accessible, and that the staff are friendly and willing to help, e.g. with storing her wheels while we watch the play.

And what a play! We’re so glad we’ve come, even though there are blue skies outside and mum and dad are missing England defeating Sweden in the football word cup (we’re missing it too, of course, but we wouldn’t have watched anyway).

Katherine Parkinson stars as Judy, a woman obsessed with the 1950s. She met her husband, Johnny (Richard Harrington, or – as he’ll always be known in this house – DI Mattias) at a vintage car convention; their clothes and home decor are all authentic detritus from the decade they love so much. But paraphenalia isn’t enough to satisfy Judy and Johnny’s obsession; unlike their best friends, Fran (Kathryn Drysdale) and Marcus (Barnaby Kay), who just like the 50s aesthetic, the dancing and the airstream caravans, Johnny and Judy choose to model their whole lives around the fantasy, embracing – as Judy’s mother (Siân Thomas) says – a strange nostalgia for a time they never knew. Judy’s redundancy (she’s been working in finance and hating every minute) is the catalyst for their whole-hearted immersion; she will become a traditional housewife, making everything from scratch, keeping their home perfect. Meanwhile, Johnny will continue to work, but – when he comes home – it will be to warm slippers and a cocktail, a clean house and a fragrant wife. He takes some persuading – this is Judy’s dream, really – but he knows she’s unhappy in her job, and he can’t pretend he isn’t drawn to the idea of being waited on. It sounds great, right?

Except, of course, that it isn’t real. This isn’t the 1950s and this is not what life is like. Indeed, again according to Judy’s wonderfully acerbic and impatient mother – Siân Thomas is clearly relishing this role – this is not even what life was like in the actual 1950s. It’s a sanitised, glamourised version, an ideal that glosses over myriad inconvenient details. And, when Johnny’s new boss (Sara Gregory) fails to honour the promotion he’s been promised by her predecessor, Judy’s carefully constructed edifice is threatened by the humdrum irritant of ‘not having enough money to pay the mortgage or the bills.’

It’s a clever play, this, with a lot to say. Through Judy’s brittle fetishisation of the past, we get to analyse the gender politics of the modern age, to see that traditional gender roles don’t make men happy either; they’re no good for any of us. The rise of the alt-right means we’re being dragged backwards, losing rights hard-won by those who came before us. This play lays bare the problem with rose-tinted reminiscence, with cherry-picking details that seem appealing to us now. It also looks at the present with an eye that matches Judy’s gimlet cocktail, with nods to #metoo and eroding workers’ rights. Under Tamara Harvey’s direction, the performances are note-perfect, six complex, rounded characters with believable relationships.

I like the set, designed by Anna Fleischle: a doll’s house construction with a front wall that’s opened out as the play starts, all yellow kitchen and pineapple ice-buckets, flamingo shower curtains and muslin bottle tops. And the transitions between scenes are audacious, choreographed by Charlotte Broom, the jive entwined with prop-positioning.

If you’re in or near North Wales, you really should try to catch this before it makes the move to London – you’ve got until Friday. If not, it’s worth the trip to England’s capital.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Advertisements

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

Angels in America

 

 

09/09/17 and 14/09/17

Thank heavens for NT Live. The National Theatre’s 2017 revival of Angels in America sold out within a few short hours. Of course it did! And, although there’s always the tempting possibility of day tickets (available for same-day performances from 9.30am in person from the box office), they’re only really practical if you’re based in London. We are certainly never going to travel from Scotland on the off-chance we might procure a couple of seats. But NT Live means we can experience this landmark production anyway – even though we’re too busy to see the actual live screening in July, the fact that it’s been committed to film bypasses the ephemeral nature of theatre, and gives us the opportunity to catch up with an encore showing at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, a short walk from our apartment.

Okay, it’s not as good as actually being there, sharing a space with the actors in real time. There’s none of the intimacy or jeopardy of live theatre, but it’s a pretty decent second best and we’re very grateful for it. The Festival Theatre is an excellent venue for such a venture: I’ve only seen these screenings in cinemas before, but being in a theatre adds a level of authenticity, and the screen is huge, the sound quality excellent.

It’s a bit of a marathon, this play, even spread over two evenings. But, my word, it’s worth it. In just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s script offers us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic.

The protagonist is Prior Walter, played here by Andrew Garfield in an eye-opening performance: he is, we discover, an actor with real range. Prior is dying and he’s afraid; his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), can’t cope and so he leaves. While Louis weeps and beats his breast with useless, futile public expressions of guilt, Prior begins hallucinating, having visions. He’s visited by an angel and by his long-dead ancestors. And, in his dreams, he collides with another tortured soul, Harper Pitt (Denise Gough), the mentally ill Morman whose husband, Joseph (Russell Tovey), is secretly gay. It’s a convoluted, complex plot, difficult to summarise, but eminently watchable: it all makes perfect sense when it unfolds before our eyes.

I’ve read the play, of course (I’m a theatre studies graduate), and I’ve seen the 2003 mini-series starring Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino. But this production, directed by Marianne Elliott, is something else: it’s genuinely stupendous. Susan Brown’s performance, for example, is impeccable; she plays six roles with utter conviction. And I find myself especially delighted by Amanda Lawrence’s Angel; she’s mesmerising, and beautifully supported by the Angel Shadows, six black-clad actors, who control her wings as well as performing the lifts and balances that make her seem airborne.

The set is a thing of wonder too, although I’d like to see more long shots in the filming, to help me envisage what the piece looks like as a whole; instead, there are a lot of mid shots and close-ups, which allow me to see the actors clearly but don’t give me a true sense of the space. Still, it’s obviously spectacular, all rotating cogs and zooming rooms, a whole world contained within the confines of the stage.

I’m delighted to have had the chance to see this play; it’s a truly iconic piece, challenging and thought-provoking and entertaining to the end.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Jane Eyre

15/05/17

When it comes to adapting a work of classic fiction, there are basically two ways you can go. You can opt to be as faithful to the original as possible, depicting it scene by scene, or you can bend the rules somewhat and come at it from an entirely different direction. In the case of The National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre, they haven’t so much bent the rules as torn up the book and started over – and yet, I’ve rarely seen the spirit of a story captured quite as convincingly as this.

Susan has already seen the play – during a brief visit to London – and she came back raving about it (https://bouquetsbrickbatsreviews.com/2015/10/04/jane-eyre/), so I was delighted when I heard that it was going out on tour. Now I can absolutely understand what she was so enthused about. This is a powerful production that eschews the straightforward plod of earlier adaptations in favour of a nimble, expressionistic approach, where the performers hurtle back and forth across the stylised set, climbing ladders, descending staircases and barely pausing to draw breath. They manage to pull the audience in and carry them along for the ride.

It’s probably pointless to recount the particulars of such a famous story. Suffice to say that Jane (Nadia Clifford)’s birth, abandonment and adoption are dealt with visually in a matter of minutes. Her subsequent coach journey is depicted in a simple but totally convincing manner and, despite the fact that the actors switch effortlessly from character to character throughout the play (Paul Mundall even portrays Rochester’s dog, Pilot!), we are never at a loss as to who is who at any given moment – even when Jane’s thoughts manifest themselves in human form, asking her difficult questions at pivotal moments in the proceedings.

While this is not exactly a musical, it is a play with music, and it is integral to the show. The musicians are onstage at all time and Bertha (Melanie Marshall), a formidable presence in a bright red dress, delivers a series of haunting songs, including the most original version of Gnarls Barclay’s Crazy that I’ve ever heard. Clifford succeeds in conveying Jane’s fieriness (something that earlier adaptations have missed entirely), and Tim Delap’s Rochester is also impressive, a brusque hulking presence, who literally towers over Clifford’s ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’ form as they converse. Anyone worried that the limitations of a stage might rob the story of its climactic scene – the fire – need have no worries on that score. It’s right there and is utterly convincing.

If you can get a ticket for this then I would urge you to do so. It’s one of the most convincing literary adaptations I’ve ever seen, an absolute must-see.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Jane Eyre

Unknown-3 333880_770_previewFullSizeRender

03/10/15

National Theatre, London

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books, but I’ve been bitterly disappointed by most film and theatre adaptations, despairing of directors who interpret Jane as quiet and reserved. Thank goodness then for this collaboration between the National Theatre and Bristol’s Old Vic, devised by the company, which is by far the best I have ever seen.

It’s a dynamic interpretation, eschewing the rigid formula of a period drama, in favour of a more holistic view of the novel. This makes for a surprisingly faithful telling of the narrative: free from the confines of a naturalistic set and strict chronology, director Sally Cookson has created space for Jane’s whole story to be centre stage.

The set is functional: a series of wooden boards and platforms linked by steps and ladders. It works, each of the locations rendered believable by the way in which the actors interact with it. This is a very physical production, with actors hurtling up and down and all around. With less assured direction it could all seem chaotic; in these hands, it’s a lively, energetic delight, with all Jane’s feisty, angry, raging spirit spilling out over the stage.

Madeleine Worrall, as Jane, embodies that spirit perfectly, and Melanie Marshall’s musical Bertha, dressed in red and looming large throughout Jane’s life, is truly glorious: Jane’s inner self writ large, demanding both our attention and our care.

There is humour too. Craig Edwards’ Pilot is a triumph of physical theatre: a huge, enthusiastic, bounding dog brought convincingly to life. Laura Elphinstone’s Adele is equally engaging, a needy, sweet and funny child, just desperate for love.

But this is ensemble theatre, and the whole cast work together well. I can’t do justice here to the breadth of ideas sewn so seamlessly into this play. It’s an imaginative, exciting and innovative piece of theatre, breathing fresh life into a tale I thought I knew too well.

Do try to catch it if you can.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Our Country’s Good

Unknown-2 Unknown-1

02/10/15

National Theatre, London

Our Country’s Good is undoubtedly a wonderful play; the text is intense, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and funny. Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, it tells the tale of the first convicts deported from Britain to Botany Bay, and how they put on a production of The Recruiting Officer in honour of the king. Even on the page, it has the power to make the reader question the very nature of humanity, and to consider how theatre can aid the civilisation of the most troubled soul.

A shame, then, that the National Theatre’s production, directed by Nadia Fall, should play up the comedic aspects at the expense of everything truly important in the play. We laughed, yes – but we didn’t cry.

The set is magnificent, and the opening moments genuinely awesome, the rotating wooden stage splitting and rising to reveal the ship’s hold, an unfortunate convict lifted through the hatch to be whipped. But the ensuing cacophony of singing and shouting from below means that we hear neither the convict’s cries nor the subsequent silence, and the unbearable sight of seeing a man so maltreated has barely any effect at all.

In truth, it’s just not grimy enough: the prisoners’ plights not desperate enough to make me yearn for their redemption in the way I have in other productions I’ve seen. By foregrounding the comedy, Fall has sacrificed a key ingredient of the play: the abject misery and desperation which marks the convicts’ lives. Nor do we get a sense of what the officers suffer: they too are far from home, cut off from everything they know. But it’s hard to feel much empathy here, when their brutality is rendered so superficially.

But it’s the music that really undermines this piece. Cerys Matthews’ score is clearly thoughtful and well-intentioned, but – for me, at least – it really doesn’t work. It undercuts the tension instead of heightening it, impeding the audience’s emotional response. The scene where Harry attacks Duckling, for example, is rendered absurd by his sudden bursting into song.

There are good things too: Lee Ross skewers Sideway’s pretensions with deft precision, and Matthew Cottle’s Wisehammer is nuanced and complex. But they’re not enough to save this production, and that’s a crying shame. It could so easily have been a triumph.

2.6 stars

Susan Singfield