The Goon Shows are classic radio comedy. Many of us have caught up with them through the eternal repeats on Radio Four Extra. Part of the appeal is the imagination that radio encourages you to exercise. That makes it quite a challenge to present three of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts as stage shows.
Apollo Theatre Company get round that by making it seem like we’re the audience for a recording of the show. That way we can continue to imagine the explosions, falls from great heights and other crazy happenings.
The team of Julian Howard McDowell, Colin Elmer and Clive Greenwood make a good stab at imitating Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. They are well supported by Tom Capper and musicians Rachel Davies and Anthony Coote.
Nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy as Goons go on stage
What was brought home to me was just how well these shows were written. Yes, some topical references are sixty years out of date but Spike Milligan’s surreal humour seems as fresh as anything written today. I laughed a lot, even at the tongue-in-cheek corny jokes.
And there was the undeniable warmth of nostalgia for those long departed comic geniuses and their familiar characters like Bluebottle and Eccles.
If the production is short of anything, it’s the sense of anarchy and spontaneity that Sellers and Milligan brought to the original recordings. You know, the corpsing and improvisation (whether genuine or not). To be fair, I did see this production at its first performance at Salisbury Playhouse and I’m sure that missing element will come as the cast relax into both the show and each other’s company.
If you want an evening of nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy, I recommend you see The Goon Show at one of its many stops around the UK.
The Goon Show is at Salisbury Playhouse until 8 September and is touring to Churchill Theatre Bromley, Yvonne Arnaud Guildford, Everyman Theatre Cheltenham, New Alexandra Birmingham, Brewhouse Theatre Taunton, Trinity Theatre Tunbridge Wells, Theatre Royal Winchester, Richmond Theatre, Lighthuse Poole, Blakehay Weston-Super-Mare, Octagon Theatre Yeovil, Princess Theatre Torquay, Haymarket Theatre Basingstoke, Theatre Royal Brighton, Key Theatre Peterborough, The Capital Horsham, Lichfield Garrick Theatre, Leatherhead Theatre, Norwich Playhouse, Theatre Royal Bury-St-Edmunds, Waterside Theatre Aylesbury, Grand Opera House York, South Hill Park Bracknell, Mercury Theatre Colchester, Theatre Royal Windsor, Theatr Clwyd Mold and Leicester Square Theatre London (11 November). For links to box offices, go apollotheatrecompany.com
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. Chelsea Walker’s production at Nuffield Theatre’s City venue does it justice in many respects.
The cast convey the unspoken as well as spoken relationships very well. Kelly Gough gives a visceral performance as the central character Blanche Dubois who comes to stay with her physically abused sister Stella and macho brother-in-law Stanley, and whose superior behaviour and secret past create a charged atmosphere destined to explode. She’s hyperactive, nervous, fragile. You feel at any moment she could break into a thousand pieces, like the various objects during the production which do just that. A watermelon being one example.
Chelsea Walker has added many more visual metaphors, including some nicely done dance sequences, to underline what’s happening in the characters’ heads. One metaphor at the end by which the set becomes symbolic of Blanche’s state of mind and her separation from the other characters works really well.
There is a realistic lovemaking scene in which Stanley pleasures Stella. This has the effect of heightening the strong sexual atmosphere, as well as showing explicitly what the text only suggests, that one reason why she stays with this bully is that he satisfies her physically.
Chelsea Walker’s production sizzles with ideas
The production sizzles with ideas but there were times when I felt this talented director was trying too hard. For example, she’s given the play a contemporary setting. It’s true that the themes of being an outsider, domestic violence, masculinity and power, and more remain relevant to our times but by moving it to our times, many anachronisms are created.
For example, talk of sending a wire when one would send a text or of workclothes when a character is wearing a leisure outfit. This wouldn’t matter if the modern setting provided new insights but I’m not convinced it did.
Patrick Knowles resisted the temptation to overplay Stanley, allowing Blanche’s character to dominate the play, as she should. He managed to convey the arrogance and insecurity of a macho man who imagines himself a ‘king’. He could perhaps have displayed more sexual swagger for a man who defines himself by his masculinity.
One thing missing was the oppressive atmosphere we expect in A Streetcar Named Desire. Georgina Lowe’s clever set, although appropriately restricted in its dimensions, has an open frame-like structure made more open by all the space of the Nuffield’s new auditorium around it. (I suspect it will work better in more intimate venues.)
The actors rarely behaved like they were weighed down by the heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer.
These caveats aside, I thoroughly recommend A Streetcar Named Desire either at the Nuffield or during its tour.
A Streetcar Named Desire performs at the Nuffield Theatres Southampton City until 31 March 2018 then tours to Keswick (3 – 7 Apr), Malvern (10 – 14 Apr), Bristol (17 – 21), Ipswich (24 – 28 Apr), Cambridge (1 – 5 May), Oxford (8 – 12 May) and Mold (15 May – 2 June), returning to the Nuffield 5 – 16 June.
‘misjudged mess’ WhatsOnStage ‘the worst Shakespeare production at the NT for at least a decade’ Time Out ‘An unfortunate failure’ Sunday Times ‘A dud’ Daily Telegraph ‘A real mess’ Variety ‘A dismaying muddle’ The Stage ‘A stinker’ Daily Mail
Macbeth at the National Theatre has garnered some of the worst reviews in a long time including a one star review from WhatsonStage. Most rated it two stars including Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Stage, Evening Standard, The Times, The Observer, Time Out and Broadwayworld.com.
‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ asks Macbeth. He wasn’t wrong- the daggers were out for this production. The Telegraph responded, ‘Is this a dud I see before me?’ and the Daily Mail said, ‘Is this a shambles I see before me?’
So what didn’t they like? Two words crop up more than any others: Rufus Norris. He’s the director of Macbeth and he’s the National Theatre’s Artistic Director. He must have felt like Macbeth did when Burnham Forest came to Dunsinane. The machetes were out for him.Quite a few of the forest of critics noted his lack of experience in directing Shakespeare. Given the hugely successful Shakespearean productions of his predecessor Nicholas Hytner, now wowing them with Julius Caesar down the road at the Bridge Theatre, the phrase ‘hard act to follow’ comes to mind.
The first problem was that he had, many felt,
No understanding of the play
Rufus Norris places his Macbeth in some kind of post-apocalyptic urban setting. Dominic Cavendish wrote in the Telegraph ‘if a director does decide to go into modern-day apocalyptic mode, they can face a losing battle (as here) defining what is being fought over, why attention is paid to hierarchies, and how any of it matters’.
‘Where are we exactly, what sort of society is this and how did people end up here? It’s never made clear – conceptually, it’s a dismaying muddle.’ That was Natasha Tripney in The Stage
Lloyd Evans writing in the Spectator agreed ‘everything is confusing here’. ‘Childish, tokenistic, muddled, this show is laughably unmoving. They splosh round masses of Kensington gore but it manages to be bloodless. Feeble,’ spluttered Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail.
Christopher Hart writing in the Sunday Times knows what he likes: ‘In the best productions, Macbeth can feel like a ferocious ride straight to hell, pausing only for some of the most haunting and desolate soliloquies in the canon: the outpourings of a human soul in the process of destroying itself.’ And he knows what he doesn’t like: ‘What it should never feel like is lacklustre, turgid, somnolent’.
‘There’s no compelling new take here on Shakespeare’s interest in questions of tyranny and masculinity,’ complained Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard.
‘Norris has taken a play best compressed into a taut psychological drama and blown it up into something operatically overblown,’ blustered Variety.
Holly Williams in the Independent said ‘vaulting ambitious becomes more survival of the fittest’. To be fair, Holly Williams didn’t hate it: ‘I’ve seen far worse than this.’ Which is what is sometimes called damning with faint praise.
So what else did Rufus Norris do to upset the critics? Well, if he didn’t understand what Shakespeare was getting at, he also dissed the bard’s poetry.
No respect for the text
‘In more minor cuts and rewrites, metre counts for nothing,’ complained Ian Shuttleworth in The Financial Times. ‘It’s brutally truncated,’ said Sarah Crompton in WhatsOnStage, ‘its great moral debate about the corrupting effects of evil (is) entirely lost.’
Variety referred to ‘Unnecessary, almost arbitrary textual cuts’. Susannah Clapp in The Observer talked of ‘a slashed text that eviscerates the witches’ speeches – no hubble-bubble or eye of newt – and makes the drama blunter, more one-dimensional’.
Quentin Letts writing in the Daily Mail wasn’t happy with Slasher Norris from the start: ‘”When shall we three meet again?” is one of the greatest opening lines of any play. Mr Norris ditches that.’
The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote, ‘While a play is not a poetry recital, this production seems indifferent to the rhythms of the language… (it) sacrifices its tonal contrasts and mysterious poetry.’
And not only did it sound bad, they thought it looked bad.
The set is ugly
‘Rae Smith’s ugly-to-behold set is dominated by an oppressive backdrop of raven-black hangings,’ said the Telegraph. That word ‘ugly’ crops up a few times. ‘It was aggressively ugly,’ shuddered The Stage. And WhatsOnStage found it ‘ugly to look at’.
The Daily Mail called it a ‘low-lit mess engulfed by blunt grottiness’. Time Out said, ‘the setup here is essentially meaningless’. The Guardian found it ‘harsh to look at, lacking in light and shade’. The Evening Standard thought it was ‘bleak and often brutal’.
The set offended some critics so much, they couldn’t keep their eyes off it, thus subverting the Shakespeare’s classic work . Anne Treneman in The Times said, ‘the play struggles to rise above the sheer Stygian ghastliness’. ‘These distressing visual details aren’t just nasty to look at, they undermine the story,’ said Lloyd Evans in The Spectator.
Not everyone agreed. The Sunday Times thought it had a ‘marvelous look’. David Butcher on the Radio Times website praised the ‘bold production design’. The Independent said, ‘Norris’s production excels … in atmosphere and visuals. It’s dark.’
So you have this big dark set and here’s the next problem. It’s in a big theatre.
The Olivier is too big
Now arguably this is not Rufus Norris’ fault. He’s inherited the cavernous Olivier but then again he chose to place Macbeth, a play whose themes of conspiracy and paranoia probably work best in a confined space, in the biggest space the National has to offer.
‘Rae Smith’s black pleated walls – bin-bag cliffs – engulf the action on the huge Olivier stage,’ said Susannah Clapp in The Observer. Mark Shenton at LondonTheatre.co.uk thought ‘the scale of the production also mitigates against the domestic intensity of much of the drama’.
You might have thought the stars would redeem it. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff are two of our finest actors and in Mr Kinnear you have someone with a brilliant track record of playing great Shakespearean roles. And, to an extent, they did but, even though most critics liked their acting, quite a few didn’t like the interpretations, especially Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth.
Here’s what they said about this ‘poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’. ‘Rory Kinnear, one of our finest comic actors, never quite convinces as the driven, ambitious thane. He’s too dithering, nervy and jumpy.’ That was the Sunday Times.
The Daily Mail thought him ‘unexceptional’. ‘Kinnear is a martial not a meditative presence, too robust to seem deeply disturbed,’ said The Observer. The Stage said, ‘In the past he’s been an eloquent Hamlet and a bullish, envy-drenched Iago. He tackles Macbeth with the same clarity of delivery, but he never digs beneath his skin.’
That latter point is echoed by others. The Guardian said he ‘never takes us inside Macbeth’s head’. WhatsOnStage agreed saying he ‘does little to convey the conscience-stricken inwardness that makes the character so complex’. The Radio Times said, ‘There’s not enough sense of the dense geography of Macbeth’s inner life’ and continued ‘we don’t get the feeling here that his Macbeth is a great soul laid low by baser instincts, more an exasperated middle manager.’
Lloyd Evans in The Spectator had a similar thought. ‘There’s no trace of poetry, grandeur or mystery about him. But he’d be ideal casting as the tetchy manager of an Amazon warehouse.’
There’s more from Mr Evans. ‘Rory Kinnear makes an unlikely Macbeth,’ said The Spectator. ‘His voice is dark, rich and characterful but he has few other assets. Physically he’s suburban: a bit bald, slightly stooping, with a faint beer gut and a pinched, narrow frame.’ In other contexts, this would be body shaming but we can take his point that Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth is an ordinary guy.
Rosemary Waugh from Exeunt Magazine had the same impression: ‘Rory Kinnear plays Macbeth as the-bloke-down-the-pub, making some of the most famous monologues in the history of well, theatre, sound as dramatically intense as a food order.’
Not everybody was unhappy with Rory Kinnear. Marianka Swain from Broadwayworld.com said he ‘showed real existential angst’ and was ‘as clear-spoken and intelligent with verse as always’.
So what about Anne-Marie Duff? She came in for less stick than Rory Kinnear but The Observer did say, ‘Duff is precise, guarding against her own fragility – she delivers her smashing-the-baby speech tearfully – but lacks the fire that usually makes her so memorable.’
And BroadwayWorld.com thought, ‘Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth feels half-formed.’ Variety was even less impressed: ‘as Lady Macbeth, Duff all but goes missing’.
That said, many critics did like the acting of both Mr and Mrs Macbeth. Mark Shenton at londontheatre.co.uk said, ‘Neither of these fine, fierce and always ferociously intelligent actors disappoints.’ The Radio Times enthused about the ‘clarity of delivery and line-reading that makes the text sing’.
And quite a few singled out Anne-Marie Duff. The Financial Times said ‘she makes every word vibrate with high-tension significance’. The Guardian’s Michael Billington, who didn’t find much else to like, said ‘she lives vividly in the moment’.
So there you have it. The critics full of sound and fury but… signifying nothing? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will tell whether sales or indeed Rufus Norris’s reputation are badly affected. I can say that when I saw it the audience reacted well. There was no polite round of applause- I heard strong clapping and some cheering. So word-of-mouth may prevail.
Did any critic give Macbeth at the National Theatre more than two stars? Yes- the Financial Times, The Independent, the Radio Times, the i and the LondonTheatre website to name but a few gave it three stars. One lone voice even gave it four stars. That was a certain One Minute Theatre Reviews.
What can I say? I liked the dystopian setting. I thought the poetry was beautifully spoken. I loved Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Macbeth as an ordinary man caught up in lawless times. I found it interesting to see the themes of Macbeth played out, not in a war for a mighty kingdom but in the kind of nasty modern war over a destroyed city, such as we’ve seen in Syria or Bosnia.
I did think it would have been better in a more confined space, and it did lack tension at the end but I really hope the massed ranks of the critics advancing on Rufus Norris’s Macbeth don’t put people off this Scottish Play for our times.
Nativity! is already one of the nation’s favourite Christmas films, now Nativity! The Musical is destined to become a fixture on theatres’ advent calendars for many years to come.
For this, we have to thank writer and director Debbie Isitt. She did the same jobs on the Nativity films but, before she went into moviemaking, she was a renowned theatre writer and director. And it shows. Ms Isitt knows what works on stage.
So she has taken all the elements that made her film such a hit: the story of the disadvantaged schoolchildren attempting to put on a five star nativity show against all the odds, the memorable characters, the upbeat songs like Sparkle And Shine and Nazareth. Then she’s added many more songs (co-written with Nicky Ager) and some scenes that are pure theatre, such as a satirical number about Hollywood and the nativity show itself, and turned it all into perfect theatrical entertainment.
You smile all the way through and come out beaming like a red nosed reindeer.
Debbie Isitt knows how to create a hit
This touring production, which I saw at Leeds Grand Theatre, is also blessed with an excellent cast. Simon Lipkin is very funny as the wildly enthusiastic man-child Mr Poppy. Daniel Boys as Mr Maddens finds the same combination of inner sadness, quiet determination and basic niceness that Martin Freeman found before him.
And the children, on whom the show stands or falls, are disciplined, well rehearsed and a total delight- the icing on the Christmas cake.
A bit of sentimental light entertainment is just what you need in the deep midwinter but there’s more to Nativity! The Musical than that. It has something to say about the importance of inspirational teachers, it captures the spirit of Christmas and it’s faultless theatre. Only a Scrooge wouldn’t love it.
Good Play With A Great Performance From Denise Gough
(4 / 5)
Sometimes a good play can be made great by a great actor. Sometimes a great play makes a good actor seem great.
Take the Headlong / National Theatre production of People Places And Things which is about to embark on a national tour. Duncan Macmillan‘s play is about Emma, an addict in rehab. She tells us plausible stories about her life and the people around her until a pattern emerges in which we discover she is deceiving everyone including herself. Is her name even Emma?
Although the play talks about an addict’s relationship with the world, it didn’t seem to me to give her that universal quality that makes a great play. On the other hand, it cleverly shows us what it’s like to be an addict and thus creates a great character. Other roles and group scenes don’t have the same depth, the latter even drag a little.
Powerful Agonising Performance
Denise Gough grasped this complex character with both hands and turned in one of the all-time great performances. It was all the more powerful and agonising because she underplayed what could easily have been an over-the-top portrayal.
Add Jeremy Herrin‘s direction, Bunny Christie‘s appropriately clinical set and an unnerving use of lighting and sound, and I felt I was inside Emma’s head.
The production is the same as the London one so it will be interesting to see what Lisa Dwyer Hogg, who takes over as Emma for the tour, makes of the part. I can imagine many great actors in the future choosing this play to showcase their talent.
Other roles and the group scenes in People Places And Things don’t have the same depth, the latter even drag a little.
There are many moments of humour alongside the desperation and self deception. When she’s off her head, Emma is comic as well as tragic. Her resistance to the group sessions and twelve steps to recovery are as funny as they are sad.
Between 22 September and 25 November 2017 the tour of People Places And Things will visit Manchester, Oxford, Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton, Liverpool and Cambridge. More information and booking details on the National Theatre website.
See my video review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews https://youtu.be/pTVFJHYVrQk Or view here
If, like me, your first experience of professional theatre was a puppet show, you may be surprised that a story for children featuring puppets should be a huge theatrical hit.
Don’t let anything you’ve seen before put you off. The quality of the puppets in the National Theatre production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is extraordinary, a world away from Sooty with Harry Corbett. In the hands of their expert operators, the wooden frames are capable of the most subtle and realistic movements. Using the power of the imagination, it is pure theatre. I would recommend getting a seat close to the stage in order to catch all the detail.
Near the front, you’ll also feel right in the middle of the frightening battle scenes which, partly thanks to Rae Smith‘s imaginative design and Paule Constable‘s dramatic lighting, create the horror and chaos of war before your eyes.
The direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and the script by Nick Stafford deserve credit for turning Morpurgo’s brilliant story, which was written from a horse’s point of view with children in mind, into a tale of love, courage and hope that resonates with all ages.
While telling the story of a farm animal enlisted by the army to take part in the First World War and his owner’s attempts to find him, it is also the tale of the common humanity of the people who were forced to fight each other.
Before we are transported to France, we experience wonderful heartwarming scenes conjuring up the pre-war age of a countryside where working animals were at the heart of farming.
War Horse is uplifting at times and, at others, heartbreaking. Make sure you take a hankie.
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.