Flowers for Mrs Harris, a musical based on a Paul Gallico story and directed by Daniel Evans, is set in East London just after the end of the second world war. In a world of rationing and drabness, Mrs Harris has a dream of owning a Christian Dior dress. She goes about achieving this, mainly by being nice to people and bringing out the niceness in them.
There are set backs along the way but they are easily resolved within minutes. I think this is the essence of why I didn’t enjoy this musical. There is no grit, no tension, no sense that this won’t have (spoiler alert!) a happy ending.
Richard Taylor’s opera-style sung-through music is unmemorable. To complete a dull presentation, the sets are grey. Even when we relocate to Paris for the second act, they offer hardly anything in the way of scenery or dynamic changes to delight the eye. Only the Dior dresses and of course flowers provide colour, which I guess is designer Lez Brotherston’s point but you have to wait quite a while for those.
And just because it’s a musical, don’t expect any dancing.
On the plus side, there are some good characters well acted by a strong cast that includes Claire Machin, Joanna Riding and Gary Wilmot and especially Clare Burt who is brilliant as the self effacing, resilient Mrs Harris.
I admit I did feel like a miserable git when I saw people around me crying at the end.
1956, the year Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden was first performed in Britain, was also the year in which Look Back In Anger exploded upon the British stage and made all those upper middle class drawing room comedies like The Chalk Garden with their standard formats and neat conclusions seem irredeemably old fashioned. On the strength of this Chichester Festival Theatre production, you can understand why.
Which is unfair on The Chalk Garden because it’s an intelligent mysterious drama about mothers and daughters, old age, death and the human need for love. There’s also much consideration of old age and death which should put it right on the wavelength of Chichester’s baby boomer audience.
There was no pace to the production which wasn’t helped by Simon Higlett‘s enormous, naturalistic set. It was impressive but the actors spent a considerable time getting from a to b. I did go early on in the run and it may be that once the actors bed down into their parts, the pace will improve.
There’s a lot of witty dialogue cloaking the deep sadness of some intriguing characters’ but on this occasion, for the first half at least, all I heard of this witty dialogue was blah blah blah.
The epigrams scattered throughout which should rival Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward just didn’t flow with the conversation and ended up sounding far too pleased with themselves. I suspect Bagnold aspired to be like Wilde and Coward but lacked their ability to incorporate bon mots into dramatic dialogue.
We’re presented with an unhappy mistress of the house Mrs St Maugham, played by Penelope Keith, who is directed or rather misdirected by a fearsome unseen dying butler (for which read ‘old testament god’?). She can’t control her granddaughter nor can she make anything grow in her garden. Dame Penelope captures the Lady Bracknell-like imperious entitlement wonderfully but much less so the emptiness at her heart. Emma Curtis plays her troubled granddaughter with energy.
Then there’s her mysterious new companion Miss Madrigal, whose contained passion was beautifully conveyed by Amanda Root, understands both the granddaughter and the garden but is hiding something devastating from her past.
After a somewhat monotonous first half, the second half with its revelations and resolutions was much more involving. Even so, there is far more to be got out of this play and its characters than Alan Strachan’s production managed.
When you watch one of my reviews on YouTube, is how I look the main thing you remember? Does my actual review only account for 7% of the impression I make on you?
According to Quiz, that’s what MPs were told when parliament was first televised. Television, it argues, blurs appearance and reality because it’s a visual medium and an entertainment medium. The assertion that in today’s world image is more important than facts runs through James Graham’s latest play which has opened in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and may well follow This House, Ink and Labour of Love into the West End.
In Quiz, we learn about the history of popular ITV quizzes and their connection to the commercial nature of the channel thence to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire via pub quizzes throwing in along the way the televising of parliament and the way the dangers of news becoming entertainment.
These many facts sprinkled throughout the evening distract from what is at heart an amusing, interesting story about the trial of Charles and Diana Ingram and one other for defrauding the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire of a million pounds.
The trial wasn’t televised but Quiz is a warning about what might happen if courts cases were on TV. Television is a visual medium that values appearance above facts and entertainment over reality. And, appearances are deceptive.
The quiz show gives the appearance of being fair but may not be. Major Ingram appears to have cheated but maybe he didn’t.
Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street are splendid
Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street as the Ingrams did a splendid job of keeping us guessing as to what was appearance and what was true. Were they more clever than they appeared to be or more stupid?
Keir Charles provided excellent impressions of an unctuous Chris Tarrant and numerous other game show hosts.
Just as politics and the news (and by extension, because of social media, many people’s whole lives) are said to have become entertainment, the trial is turned into a show. It is presented as a two act theatrical entertainment with act one delivering the case for the prosecution and act two the defence. Laying it on thicker, Daniel Evans‘ production is also set in a TV quiz show studio. Nearly everything on stage is filmed and shown on monitors. We were even givenMillionaire style voting buttons on which we can say whether we think the defendants are guilty or not guilty.
If placing much of the action inside a cubic frame that blocked one’s view was meant to have a Brecht-style alienating effect, the production succeeded too well. I simply saw it as a gimmicky production that added to the bewilderment I was already feeling from being bombarded with so many facts (or fictions) about television.
As a result, it is hard to get involved in the characters as real people or the story or the interesting issue of television blurring image and reality.
James Graham has had a series of winners with Our House, Ink and Labour of Love. Daniel Evans has put on a victorious first season at Chichester. Neither of them have hit the jackpot with Quiz, but that’s entertainment.
Quiz is a warning against televising one of the last parts of public life that is still not filmed, arguing that the media will turn justice into entertainment. Whether it makes a convincing case, I am unsure.
The trial of the ‘coughing Major’ inevitably excited the media in the way that most don’t because it involved a hugely popular TV programme and massive amount of money. Making it carry the burden of showing that television turns everything into entertainment is asking too much of it.
Courts are already a form of theatre in which judges and advocates play to their audience. Juries have a tendency to decide verdicts on appearances rather than evidence whether cameras are present or not.
I don’t believe television has made as much difference to politics as James Graham thinks. It seems to me politicians were aware of the importance of image long before the televising of parliament: Harold Wilson put a pipe in his mouth for public appearances; President Roosevelt made sure he wasn’t seen in his wheelchair. In fact, leaders have been image conscious for centuries as evidenced by the work of Holbein, Van Dyck and others.
The news media have been inventing stories for most of their existence. Hollywood decided early on to encourage media interest in the lives of their actors, thus making their often fictional offscreen lives an extension of the onscreen entertainment.
I’ve seen countless Lears over the years. Until now, the one I best remember is Ian Holm performing in the tiny Cottesloe (now Dorfmann) Theatre at the National. Therefore it may not be coincidence that Ian McKellen‘s Lear in the equally small Minerva Theatre at Chichester now ranks as the best I’ve seen.
The play describes the break up of a kingdom and the melodramatic villainy of various adult children and therefore may seem to require a grand scale. But the central story of a foolish father who prizes flattery above honesty is best told on an intimate stage.
Jonathan Munby‘s pared down production still manages to make a contemporary political point about powerful people destroying a country on a whim or for their own ends (and Lear cutting up the map of the UK is amusing). However the main fascination is that the great Ian McKellen is able to use his wonderful voice at an almost conversational level, bringing out all the subtlety and depth of Shakespeare’s language and revealing the humanity of the character.
Never have I experienced Lear’s swinging moods from anger to defensiveness, his sudden insights into the horror of what he has done, his fear of losing his mind, his awareness of approaching death and his ultimate anguish, as I did in this production.
The King becomes the Fool but as he does so, his vulnerability as a human being is heartbreaking. The scene that encapsulates this best comes when he meets the blinded Gloucester. His jokes collapse in a moment into almost whispered melancholy and as quickly into stream-of-consciousness musings (“When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.”)
A Powerful Performance by Sinead Cusack
Ian McKellen understands that good theatre is more than having a star in the lead. For a production to work, it must be the joint effort of a company starting with the playwright and going through the director, the creatives and all the cast. The latter is especially good in the production.
Sinead Cusack knocks another brick out of the wall that says casting must be ruled by gender by giving a powerful performance as Kent. The parallel story of father/child betrayal is played out strongly by Danny Webb as Gloucester, Damien Molony as Edmund and Jonathan Bailey as Edgar. A word too for Lear’s daughters- Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia is a star in the making, Dervla Kiran and Kirsty Bushell as Goneral and Regan filled the enclosed space with a suffocating evil.
That Ian McKellen sees himself as part of a company is just one mark of his greatness. His ability to vocalise the deep meaning of words is another. He has said that this will be the last time he plays a major Shakespearean role. If so, I feel privileged to have been there for it. As the final line of the play says, I “shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
The Chichester Festival Theatre production of King Lear with Ian McKellen transferred to the Duke Of York’s Theatre in London from 11 July to 3 November 2018 and has now closed.
Here’s my review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-
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.