For many actors, there’s a role they’ll always be remembered for no matter what else they do. Sean Connery as James Bond, Mark Rylance as Rooster Byron in Jerusalem, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien.
I suspect, when the day comes to present Sheridan Smith with her lifetime BAFTA, her role as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl will be seen as the moment she achieved greatness.
The production, originally staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory and then the Savoy Theatre, would be worth seeing as an excellent musical but what makes it exceptional is Smith’s performance. I saw her before on stage in Legally Blonde, on film in Tower Block and in various TV appearances including Cilla and Gavin And Stacey so I knew she was good but I never appreciated just how funny she is and just how deeply she can occupy a role.
She makes Fanny Brice seem real, a genuinely complicated human being. But there’s more to it than that. I don’t doubt that the original Fanny was uniquely great but Smith’s acting makes you believe you are seeing one of the finest stage performers of all time.
Game Of Thrones Star Displays His Acting Skills (and his body)
Kit Harington stars in a modernised in-your-face version of Doctor Faustus at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, in which he sells his soul for celebrity. Yes, the blood was sometimes over the top but this production is an engaging, contemporary take on the Christopher Marlowe play.
Making the protagonist want to be a celebrity magician may have been designed to appeal to a younger crowd, although it did seem a trivial ambition to me, given the price he has to pay. There was another price, the cost of a coherent plot. Then again, perhaps the young brains coped better than mine.
Jamie Lloyd‘s production was gory, sexual, violent, disgusting and many other things designed to shock but much of it worked. What I liked best was that the Devil and his disciples were so lacking in glamour or sexiness. Some had saggy bodies and all were dressed in grubby underwear. Their dancing would shame dads at a party. It made Faustus’ blindness to any consequences of his deal with the Devil even more clear.
Soutra Gilmour‘s grey set, revealing the drab backstage of the theatre, reinforced this sense of the hellish emptiness of celebrity.
Kit Gets Most Of His Kit Off
Anyone expecting to be titillated by the nudity is likely to be disappointed. Early on we see full frontal nudity but, as it suggests Adam and Eve and the original sin of the first human beings to be tempted by the Devil, it is the opposite of sexual. The only other flesh revealed in any quantity is Harington’s when Kit gets most of his kit off in the second act. He has a great body but the naked flesh reminds us of the earlier scene and suggests vulnerability rather than sexuality.
Some people have suggested Kit Harington only got the lead because of his success on TV as Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones. That’s as may be but he was actually very good. He spoke the Elizabethan poetry well and offered a convincing portrayal of Faustus’ ego and anguish, although I have to say I wasn’t ultimately moved by it.
Jenna Russell damn near stole the show as Mephistopheles. She was world weary and sarcastic and exuded an inner sadness- and she’s a good singer, as people who stayed in their seats during the interval discovered.
When a public vote chooses Boaty McBoatface as the name for a polar exploration ship, it’s easy to agree with the main character in Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People (Chichester Festival Theatre) that the majority is ‘stupid’. I’m don’t even want to talk about the EU referendum.
Dr Tomas Stockmann starts out believing the people will welcome his revelation that the town’s spa water is unhealthy. But when local people of influence realise the effect on business and the cost of putting it right, the townspeople are soon persuaded by them that Stockmann is their ‘enemy’.
His mistake is to think that truth cannot be denied. The reality is that most of us believe what we want to believe against the facts. And if the facts don’t fit, we blame a cover up or a conspiracy or make a leap of faith.
If our hopes and fears are exploited by ruthless politicians, advertisers or other people with an agenda, all the worse. The debate about ‘fake news’ and the behaviour of Donald Trump and some of our own politicians makes Ibsen’s play seem bang up-to-date. When you hear the outrageous statements made by our political elite during the EU referendum campaign and the level of ignorance among the electorate, even though the BBC’s Reality Check was freely available, you can sympathise with Stockmann.
He may believe the majority are stupid and society would be better run by an elite but we the audience can see that the majority are not stupid, merely uninformed, and the elite are the very ones who have undermined his truth.
A mountain range of a performance
An Enemy Of The People, directed by Howard Davies, offers a view of society in which nearly everybody operates out of self interest and those that don’t are crushed by those that do. Ibsen tells the truth as he sees it and it’s a view of human nature that may make him an enemy of the people but like all great artists he helps us understand humanity, if we are prepared to accept that life isn’t black and white. Our hero Stockmann isn’t spared from an honest depiction. He may be admirable as a whistleblower but he has flaws and suspect motives.
We see that he is driven by jealousy of his brother. We cringe at his hubris when he thinks he will be feted by his fellow citizens. We realise his ‘honesty’, at first attractive, is naive because he doesn’t see the need to engage and persuade people. We find him arrogant in thinking he is superior. We are shocked at his willingness to sacrifice his family.
All these swings from initial confidence through pride, bewilderment and anger to eventual collapse are conveyed in a brilliantly nuanced performance at Chichester by Hugh Bonneville. You may know him from TV’s Downton Abbey or W1A. I could feel every emotion his character was feeling. Even when I was laughing at his naive expectation of the honour he would receive, I still felt sorry for him. This is a mountain range of a performance.
For the second time in six months, a star known for his serious acting has amazed me with his skill at comedy. Just as when I saw David Morrissey in The Hangmen, I was surprised and delighted to find that Kenneth Branagh’s talent for farce was the outstanding feature of The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre.
He plays a hired killer who gets drawn into helping a suicidal photographer. This being a farce, he ends up the victim of many misfortunes including suffering from the effects of a tranquilliser. Branagh’s portrayal of exasperation, his slurred and mixed up words, his comedy walk were a revelation from an actor I had previously known and admired in Shakespeare and Chekhov.
It helped that his opposite number was Rob Brydon, who was every bit as funny as you would hope. Thanks to them and the rest of an excellent cast, there were times when I, along with most of the audience, was crying with laughter.
Sean Foley adapts & directs top class comedy
Considerable credit should go to the French writer Francis Veber and Sean Foley who adapted and directs this now vintage play. Like all good farces, it is built on step-by-step misunderstandings that lead logically to a ridiculous conclusion. Any moments when you might question the likelihood of something happening are lost in the sheer speed, another vital element in farce.
Taking the whole thing seriously, in other words not being deliberately funny, is another key factor in successful farce. In this respect, I couldn’t fault any member of the cast. Mark Hadley was brilliant as the confused Hotel Porter attempting to carry out his job in the face of an increasingly bizarre situation deserves a special mention.
Alice Power’s clever set was as crucial to making the farce work as any of the characters. Two identical hotel rooms with an adjoining door and an imaginary wall split the stage into two halves. We the audience could see what was going on in each room but the participants couldn’t.
Hangmen by Martin McDonagh already feels like a classic. The pompous, arrogant man brought down by jealousy is the stuff of many great comedies. The sharp dialogue and the fast moving farce would be a gift to any actors but in the hands of David Morrissey and his fellow cast, they became comedy gold.
I never realised Morrissey is such a great comic actor. He starts off strutting the stage like a bantam cock as the second best hangman in Britain, newly redundant with the abolition of hanging and relishing the attention. Then comes an amazing moment when he seems to deflate before your eyes.
The second act in which one misunderstanding leads to another and disaster looms had me in stitches. Every line, every action counts. Together they make this one of the finest plays I have seen.
When The Father opens, it appears to be straightforward comedy about Alzheimers. In other words, easy laughs at the way the old man can’t remember things.
By scene two, when one woman goes into the kitchen and a new actor comes back out, it’s clear we are in a very different play, a drama in which we are inside the father’s head and are as confused by what’s going on as he is. By the end, I was as emotionally wrung out as him.
My mother had Alzheimers, which may have made me recognise the grief more, but experiencing the man’s desperate retreat into second childhood at the end had me in tears. It was an acting tour-de-force by Kenneth Cranham.
The Father, directed by James McDonald,is a French play written by Florian Zeller, who is clearly a huge talent, and translated by Christopher Hampton, whose credits include the hit translation of Art. Claire Skinner provided excellent support.
The first course Anthony Horowitz’s witty play is better than the second
Dinner With Saddam by Anthony Horowitz has a winning way with witty dialogue and farce.
As the harassed head of the household in war torn Iraq, Sanjeev Bhaskar’s reactions both facial and verbal are very funny and his comic timing is perfect. It should be said that the whole cast was good.
You could say the first course of Dinner with Saddam is better than the second. The second act loses impetus with the arrival of Saddam Hussein (Steven Berkoff) and a massive dose of politics. It’s not that I didn’t find the analysis of the West’s position on Iraq interesting but it simply wasn’t that funny.
The Menier Chocolate Factory is a wonderful place for a theatre, intimate and exciting. This was my first visit. It won’t be my last.