Some critics have acclaimed Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) as the funniest show currently in London’s West End. I was late seeing this little gem at The Criterion, but I can’t disagree.
It is an outstanding achievement by Isobel McArthur. She not only wrote it, with a little help from Jane Austen, she also co-directed it with Simon Harvey, and stars in it.
What’s particularly clever about her take on Pride & Prejudice is that, although it’s a spoof, it is extremely faithful to the story. Much of the comedy derives from the same situations that are funny in the book, and it is, at key moments, quite moving. I was surprised at how touched I was by the ending. So, she has paid homage to the qualities of the story and some of the dialogue, while extracting a great deal more lol.
It’s funny before it even starts, when we’re presented with the concept of five modern working class women playing early 19th century maids who recreate the story with makeshift costumes and props. So we have the bathos of this classic story and its characters being presented from today’s perspective. There’s 21st century language, including a lot of swearing: Darcy is described as a ’twat’ (and that’s one of the milder insults). Elizabeth tells Mr Collins exactly what he can do with his marriage proposal. So, there’s the shock of seeing Jane Austen’s reserved characters, who normally use sensitive language, mouthing expletives. But there’s also the anachronism of party food at a ball being Pringles and Wagon Wheels.
Is there no end to Isobel McArthur’s talents?
Of course, the basic material is great. Pride & Prejudice is not only Jane Austen’s most popular work but one of the most read novels written in the English language. That’s thanks in no small part to the character of Mr Darcy, played over the years on screen by Laurence Olivier, Colin Firth and Matthew McFadyen. To that pantheon, we can now add Isobel McArthur.
There have been many excellent takes on Pride & Prejudice, like Lost In Austen, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and a Bollywood musical Bride & Prejudice. It is without question a crowded market, but Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) manages to stand out.
To add to the enjoyment, it’s actually a musical comedy. The story is interspersed with moments when the characters grab a microphone and sing classic romantic pop songs like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Holding Out For A Hero, Young Hearts Run Free and You’re So Vain (about Darcy of course). And Lady in Red, a song by Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s relative Chris de Burgh! It’s tremendous fun, a bit like karaoke at a hen night.
The cast of five take on all the parts. Isobel McArthur is a wonderful Darcy. She conveys very well the stiff reserve that conceals a romantic heart. In addition, she plays an even more coarse than usual Mrs Bennet. Tori Burgess creates a truly obnoxious Mr Collins, Christina Gordon plays Lizzie’s sister Jane and the appalling Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
There were two understudies on the night I saw it, which is par for the course at the moment in theatre, mainly because of the Covid. I had been looking forward to seeing Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Meghan Tyler who are both highly experienced actors and were very well reviewed. However Annabel Gordon did well as quietly desperate Charlotte trapped in her hellish marriage, as well as playing the soppy Charles Bingley. Leah Jamieson acquited herself well as the strong-willed but annoyingly self-satisfied Elizabeth Bennet.
Sometimes the characters are too much of a caricature and I did expect, having set the idea in motion, that the play would give us more of the maids’ angle on events than it actually did. But it is rich in ideas and displays non-stop creativity.
I particularly liked the moment when Elizabeth looks at a painting of Darcy and Isobel McArthur slides behind the empty frame to pose as the portrait, whose eyes then follow Lizzie round the room.
There is one simple set, designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, that suggests a rich household, not dissimilar in décor to the lovely Criterion Theatre, using minimal props, and with books as a motif. It features a magnificent centrepiece of a wide staircase that winds all the way up to the flies, with steps supported by books.
This is a light hearted and lightweight play. It doesn’t have the depth of Laura Wade’s Austen inspired comedy The Watsons, which I saw at The Menier, and which was due a West End transfer before Covid struck. Nevertheless, it’s just what you need to cheer you up in a year that has started as depressingly as the last one ended.
Covid is scaring audiences away from theatres, which is a shame, because this is a show that should be selling out, and looking forward to a long run, rather than closing prematurely. I recommend you to see it while you can.
Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is performing at the Criterion Theatre in London until 6 February. An autumn 2022 tour is planned with a possible return to London in 2023.
Best Of Enemies at the Young Vic is the best new play I’ve seen this year. James Graham’s writing is vivid, funny, and shocking. There are towring performances by the two leads David Harewood and Charles Edwards. And the production directed by Jeremy Herrin with a set by Bunny Christie is perfect.
Given the subject matter – the 1968 presidential election and in particular some televised debates between the influential conservative thinker William F Buckley and the liberal writer Gore Vidal – you might think Best Of Enemies is not for you, but you’d almost certainly be wrong. I know it sounds boring but believe me, in the hands of writer James Graham and director Jeremy Herrin, it becomes electrifying theatre.
Best Of Enemies may tell us a lot about the polarised society we live in today, but it does so in the form of a gripping entertainment that takes us inside the heads of two protagonists, narcissistic to the point of recklessness.
The play begins with the immediate aftermath of one of the later debates. There is anger and shock at language that has been used, although at that point we don’t know what’s been said or how it’s come to this. We then go back and see that the story began with ABC TV News, in a race for ratings, deciding to have well known intellectuals talking about the Presidential conventions, at which the Republican and Democratic candidates are elected.
This is about the corrupting influence of TV and there are three big screens high up at the back of the stage to remind what viewers are seeing, as well as showing us the studio control area. We see how the participants both take part because they see it as a way of promoting themselves. We then see over a series of debates how the confrontational format generates more heat than light.
We and they realise that how they come across is more important than what they say. Buckley’s wife Pat says: “That’s all this is. Who do I like the most?’ At the end, Vidal prophesies that this means that one day a candidate could get elected because he was more likeable rather than having the best policies. Don’t we know it?
Okay, that’s the bones of it but what James Graham has done is flesh that skeleton with bits of verbatim speech from the debates and lots of fictional dialogue that brings to life the two protagonists.
Electrifying performances by David Harewood and Charles Edwards
The two leads charge the production with electricity. David Harewood plays William F Buckley. You might be surprised that a Black actor is playing a right-winger whose whiteness was part of who he was, but a good actor inhabits the role. In this case, the role is of a man not comfortable in his own skin. Mr Harewood relishes the part, not only the external mannerisms, tics and lip licking and other nervous affectations, but also the inner person- the loneliness of the outsider, the devoted husband, the foundation of his beliefs, and the desperation to win. He does a remarkable job of making us feel sympathy for someone who could so easily be the villain, because of his racism and homophobia. When the first debates go badly for him under an onslaught from Vidal, I actually felt sorry for him. Then we see him planning to raise his game.
Charles Edwards conveys the smooth charm, razor wit, the insufferable superiority, obsession with power, and the vulnerability of Vidal. He was a patrician and his sense of superiority, while insufferable, helps him dominate those early debates. Then Buckley prepares better and starts to score points, and as Vidal squirms, so do we.
They are both intellectuals and they’re both narcissists. They want to win the debate so they can be more influential in the world of politics. Each of them is delighted when they’re recognised by leading politicians. They’re not portrayed as bad people, their extreme views seem to be more like an academic exercise than something from the heart, but they do have hearts and it’s their pride, and above all their desire to win that drives them from civilised conversation to conflict to playground name calling. Both seek out each other’s weaknesses, initially of their arguments but eventually personal ones, and you find yourself not wanting to look, as their feelings are exposed.
They live in ivory towers, not what most of the electorate would recognise as the real world. Obsessed by their personal dislike of each other, they don’t even anticipate the effect of their clashes on the world of politics, which is moving from compromise to polarisation. In the real world things fall apart.
We are shown something of what’s going on in that real world of 1968: Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are assassinated; an extreme feminist shoots Andy Warhol; there are protests about the Vietnam War. Looking back, we see that this was the beginning of the end of consensus politics and the start of polarisation: Left v right, young v old, plus conflicts of gender, race and sexuality. And on the other hand, there’s the so-called silent majority which Presidential candidate Richard Nixon appealed to. So tempers are rising, creating a sense of a pressure cooker.
The set itself is a small open stage surrounded on three sides by audience, turning the protagonists into gladiators in an arena.
All the other actors are first class. Among them, there’s Clare Foster as Buckley’s cheerful wife Patricia, Syrus Lowe as the angry but expressive James Baldwin and John Hodgkinson who plays the chair of the debates, revelling in the viewing figures but out of control of the wild horse he is riding. It’s only a cast of ten but they take on many characters, all well delineated, so you might think there were twice as many actors. It seems like every one of the characters has a contribution to make and every line has something to say.
Under the direction of Jeremy Herrin, this production zings along. As with the Wolf Hall trilogy or James Graham’s This House, which he also directed, he uses movement to add a physical excitement to the dialogue. I like the way he and James Graham make politics exciting. Because politicians shape our country and it’s a crying shame we find them boring or see them reduced to personalities.
Why were they the ‘best’ of enemies? They needed one another and they’re really quite similar.
Best Of Enemies is performing at the Young Vic until 22 January 2022. Performances will be streamed live on 20, 21, 22 January, 7.30pm, and 22 January 2.30pm GMT. Tickets from youngvic.org
Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.
According to Britain’s leading showbiz reporter Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail, Milord Lloyd Webber is so concerned that he is considering revising the show. So what did the new Butcher of Broadway (Baz’s description) say about Cinderella, and why do I disagree with him?
I don’t need to sum up Johnny’s opinion because he does it himself: ‘Bibbidi-bobbidi-cut 30 minutes! Bibbidi-bobbidi-scrap the set and costumes! Bibbidi-bobbidi-more jokes and dancing!’
The Butcher Of Broadway (Baz’s description) first buries his cleaver into the writer of the book and original story, Emerald Fennell:
‘Problem is this revisionist “Cinderella” isn’t dark and brooding like “The Phantom of the Opera.” With a book by Oscar-winning “Promising Young Woman” scribe Emerald Fennell, it fancies itself a musical comedy, like “Guys and Dolls” or “Hairspray.” But at the matinee I attended, the silent crowd might as well have been watching Ibsen.’
An audience can enhance or dampen your enjoyment, and I’ve sat through a few ‘dead’ matinees in my time. So, the ‘silent crowd’ could have affected Johnny’s appreciation of the show. At the performance I attended (which was a Sunday matinee, by the way) the audience laughed, cheered and clapped throughout, ending with an almost universal standing ovation. I can’t deny that the atmosphere added to the pleasure I got from the show.
The Transformation scene just before the interval did leave me feeling underwhelmed (it’s no Wicked or Phantom in that respect) but the Ball at the opening of act two more than made up for that.
Too long? I enjoyed every minute
‘For a straightforward tale, the show takes its sweet time — a good two hours, 45 minutes all told,’ continues Johnny.
First of all, that timing includes a 20 minute interval so it’s actually well under two-and-a-half hours, which is quite short for a musical. I guess any new show can be tightened up, once the audience’s reaction has been gauged, but I myself would be hard pressed to know what to cut since I enjoyed every minute.
So what is this apparently longwinded ‘revisionist’ story? You don’t need me to tell you that it concerns a ‘Bad Cinderella’, that earworm has been widely played. She lives in Belleville, a tourist destination whose attraction is based on the physical beauty of its citizens. Cinderella is a rebel whose activities undermine the town’s reputation. She’s in love with her best (and only) friend, the heir apparent Prince Sebastian. Not Prince Charming who has been lost, presumed dead, in a war. Sebastian loves her too but neither will admit it for fear of damaging their friendship.
She falls into the trap of believing he wants a glamorous beauty queen and undergoes a transformation at the hands of a nip-and-tuck Godmother. Inevitably her plan goes wrong and there are a few twists and turns before the happy ending.
The so-called ‘revisionist’ message is that you shouldn’t judge by appearances, and that character is more important. There is a wonderful moment when a macho male character reveals that he is gay and introduces us to his fiancé. There was a spontaneous roar of approval from the audience which made me feel delighted at the way in which public attitudes have changed since I was a lad, a feeling tempered only slightly after the show when I heard a woman say: ‘I didn’t know where to look when the two men kissed.’
So, for me, an interesting story, with plenty of twists and fun.
Scrap the set and costumes? This is a fairy tale, not a concert
‘Scrap the set and costumes… drab and forgettable,’ moans Johnny. His recommendation seems to be a ‘bare stage’, or at least that’s when he says this production was at its best. I expect he’s looking forward to the concert version. There is a short time when the stage is bare but I totally disagree that this was an advantage. This is a fairy tale, even if it’s been turned on its head, and it needs a fairy tale look. And, for me, that’s what we get with Gabriela Tylesova’s set which is a mixture of the rococo style of 18th century France and Bavarian castles, reflecting the time when the version of Cinderella we know and love was written. At the same time, it is not done in icing cake colours and is surrounded by slightly sinister thorns, suggesting that all is not well in Belleville.
Her costumes are clever too. We have bare-chested, muscular men in tight lederhosen, evoking the mid-European period setting while emphasising their macho narcissism. The women are given sumptuous, brightly coloured gowns but with sexually suggestive splits, underlining their shallow attitude to relationships. Except, of course, for the rebellious Cinderella , who is clothed like a Goth with a black dress and Doc Martins.
‘More jokes and dancing,’ pleads Johnny. It’s hard to understand why he would want more jokes because Cinderella is full of innuendoes. Maybe he just doesn’t find that kind of joke funny. Admittedly some hit the mark, some missed, and some were deliberately designed to make you cringe. For example, one of the hunky knights invites Cinderella to ‘polish my sceptre’.
Rival mothers Rebecca Trehearn as the Queen and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s stepmother got plenty of laughs for their Ab Fab haughtiness and sly bitchiness.
David Zippel‘s lyrics have wit and feeling. Take Bad Cinderella:
Yes I’m bad Cinderella, I will not say goodbye You’ve been hateful since I met you Barking mad Cinderella, flying high in the sky And I hope I have upset you Well, forget you!
As for dancing, they never stopped moving from the opening number of villagers going about their business- and admiring the baker’s buns (more innuendo)- to the Finale. Joann M Hunter‘s choreography is imaginative, energetic and stage-filling, and totally in tune with the varying moods.
The Butcher Of Broadway also takes the boning knife to the director Laurence Connor, declaring that his ‘plodding, one-note direction is the production’s biggest offender’. If you find a show dull, it’s likely the blame lies with the author, the director or the cast. These are not always easy to separate. I found the production had plenty of pace, and struck many different notes between energetic ensemble numbers, comic routines and the pathos of love gone wrong. I would attribute this to the director bringing out the best of the book, cast and music.
Johnny praises the cast but, as I said, it can be hard to separate direction and cast, so, if the show was plodding on the day Johnny attended, it is possible that some of the performers were having an off day. It does happen that a cast, especially at a matinee, just don’t generate the energy needed for a show like this. Baz Bamigboye reported that Andrew Lloyd Webber had had a go at the cast, following Johnny Oleksinski‘s review, so maybe he thought some of their performances needed sharpening, rather than the direction. I obviously don’t know and I can only say the cast were full of energy and commitment when I saw them a few days later, and gave some excellent perofrmances.
Carrie Hope Fletcher leads an excellent cast
Carrie Hope Fletcher plays Cinderella. She has such an open-faced smile and sweet, powerful voice that’s it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. However, her alternate Georgina Onuorah has had many favourable comments, and that’s who Johnny saw, and liked.
Ivano Turco as Prince Sebastian has a good singing voice and conveyed well this shy, sensitive, good-hearted lad.
And then there’s the music. Here Johnny and I agree. He praised Lloyd Webber’s ‘heart-racing ballads’. He’s right. Bad Cinderella is a stand-out song but the slower, plaintive, soaring ballads Only You, Lonely You sung by Prince Sebastian and Cinderella’s I Know I Have A Heart represent Andrew Lloyd Webber on top form. I’ve never been a big fan of his lush light operatic music but I freely acknowledge he can write a good tune. In this case, his traditional melodic style and big orchestral arrangements seem perfect for the subject matter.
Johnny Oleksinski feels ‘There is a satisfying musical buried somewhere in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella”. ‘ Once they’ve added more jokes and dancing, cut half an hour, and changed the story, script, sets, costumes, and director, presumably.
I wonder if there is a clue in the way Mr Oleksinski writes his review as to why he is critical of so much of the production. Right at the beginning, his reference point is the 1950 Disney film Cinderella. ‘Bibbety Bobbity’ he quotes. Could it be the British lord inadvertently trampled on an American child’s happy memory?
We British on the other hand have been brought up with Cinderella pantomimes in which subversion (and innuendo) are the norm. There’s no Buttons in this production, a character who traditionally loves Cinderella for what she is rather than her shoe size, even if his love is unrequited. However, that panto character prepares us nicely for Prince Sebastian’s attitude. Then there are the panto traditions, derived from 19th century music hall, of men playing female characters like the wicked stepmother and the ugly sisters, or women playing the so-called principal boy part of Prince Charming. We’re well used to a bit of rule-breaking, which is what this Cinderella celebrates.
To be clear, this is not a pantomime, it’s an excellent musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber on good form, a satisfying story and a scintillating production. I hope those involved don’t take too much notice of Johnny Oleksinski. After all, he didn’t like Caroline, Or Change with Sharon D Clarke either. And that was one of the best British productions of the last decade, winning her an Olivier Award.
When a theatre production is filmed, you get the opportunity to see some great acting but you lose the very thing we love- theatricality. Something fundamental to theatre – people performing live in front of you- is lost when the fourth wall is replaced by a screen. In my experience, the best are those that enable you to concentrate on the acting, because the majesty of a big set filling your field of vision just doesn’t come across on film.
This is my choice of shows which have survived the transition best, either because you can still imagine being there at the performance, or because it has been filmed in a way that substitutes the qualities of film for those of theatre.
1. Hamilton (Disney+)
It could have been a disaster but the Broadway production of Hamilton with original stars Lin Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Junior was expertly filmed over three performances and edited together to perfection. If you love this show as much as I do, you will not be disappointed with the way the vigour and emotion are caught by the camera. It shows what can be done with sufficient resources.
By contrast, AppleTV+ offers the stage musical Come From Away. I was excited to see this become available. It’s one of the best stage shows of the last decade ( as you can see from my review) but here it’s an example of what’s worst about filmed stage shows, namely that it seems very stagey.
2. Sea Wall (seawallandrewscott.com)
Sea Wall is very simple film of a one man show. In this case it has been specially staged in a studio, but, and perhaps because of this, it is devastating as Andrew Scott speaks to camera and tells his tragic story. For a small charge, you can see it at seawallandrewscott.com
3. Fleabag (Amazon Prime)
Not the Fleabag TV series but the original stage play performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The two TV series are superior to this monologue, but to see Phoebe Waller Bridge sitting on a chair with no props and no other actors, simply speaking her lines, miming taking a photo of her genitalia, doing impressions of other characters, and, just as important, pausing, gives an absolute masterclass.
It forms part of British Theatre. Season One. You’ll also find Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and the National Theatre‘s Frankenstein with Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, in which they took turns in playing the doctor and the monster. Amazon Prime has both versions.
No sign of Season 2
4. Beat The Devil (Sky Arts)
This November, Sky Arts are launching a season of British Theatre starting with David Hare’s recent Beat The Devil, a funny angry monologue about his near fatal Covid illness starring Ralph Fiennes. I saw it at The Bridge Theatre and have every hope that, because it is basically one actor and an audience, it will come across well.
5. Hymn (Sky Arts)
Sky Arts have been quietly picking up some excellent shows including Hymn, Lolita Chakrabarti’s study in masculinity starring Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani. Other treats on this channel include a film of the stage show Billy Elliot The Musical, Funny Girl with Sheridan Smith, a New York production of Jesus Christ Superstar with John Legend and Alice Cooper, the 25th Anniversary Concerts of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. You could spend your entire viewing time for many weeks dipping into the treasures therein. Sky Arts’ biggest fault is that everything is lumped into one huge catalogue with no categories, so you have to scroll through hundreds of programmes, unless you know what you’re looking for. On the plus side, it’s free on FreeView.
6. Romeo & Juliet with Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor (National Theatre At Home)
National Theatre At Home is a streaming service with a rolling selection of productions from the National Theatre and some other leading venues. The quality varies enormously but a rule of thumb is, the older it is the more likely it will be an uninspiring theatrical record rather than a proper film that uses cinematic techniques to convey the show. Even then, some come across better than others.
Romeo And Juliet with Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor isn’t really a stage show, although it is treated as if it is. In reality, it was made as a movie, and, probably for that reason, although Shakespreare’s play is greatly cut, there is speed and passion in this version. By the way, you can watch it for free, just search for it on Sky Arts.
The less theatrical a production the easier it is to enjoy. So a straightforward play like the excellent Hansard or Under Milk Wood are better choices than, say, Amadeus which was brilliant to watch in the theatre with its orchestra on stage but not so interesting on screen.
There are some shows from the Young Vic, including two of the best plays I have seen in recent years: A View From The Bridge with Mark Strong and Nicola Walker and Yerma with Billie Piper, I was tempted to put them in my top 10 but neither can convey the purely theatrical elements which made them so good. In the case of Yerma, the production took place behind glass so the characters were like specimens and in A View From The Bridge, there was a sense of a family being trapped in a ring and an unforgettable coup de theatre at the end.
To try to persuade you to take a monthly subscription to National theatre At Home, the shows come and go. I suggest taking an initial month subscription and after that, pay for individual productions.
Digitaltheatre.com has a lot of good stuff. There are Royal Shakespeare Company productions aplenty, the Open Air Theatre production of Sondheim’s into The Woods with Hannah Waddingham as the Witch
David Suchet in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Manchester Royal Exchange’s Hamlet with Maxine Peake, but I would start with It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Breach Theatre’s dramatisation of the 1612 trial of the rapist of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi. It uses a transcript of the trial to show her own ordeal in a way that is at times shocking, and, with three women taking all the parts, at other times it’s an amusing parody of male attitudes. You can take a subscription to this streaming service, starting with a free trial, or rent shows individually.
8. In The Heights (Amazon Prime)
There are some good film versions of stage shows, as opposed to filmed stage shows. which have found their way onto streaming services. Lin Manuel’s In The Heights received mixed reviews but I thought it was a lot of fun. You miss the cinematic spectacle of the ensemble dance scenes when viewing on Amazon Prime, but it’s as uplifting as the stage show.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has also slipped quickly onto Amazon Prime. It’s a well-made film but the musical, which works really well on stage when you’re carried along by the emotion of the music, is appears as a wish-fulfilment fantasy when distanced by a screen. This is underlined by the additional scene that recreates the LGBTQ world of the 90s and has more impact than the rest of the film put together.
Netflix has Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which is a great play by August Wilson, but a classic example of the way you can get away with melodrama in theatre but not on film.
9. An Ideal Husband (marquee.tv)
marquee.tv, a specialist arts streaming service, offers a set of four Oscar Wilde plays, of variable quality in terms of the filming, but very well acted. The is An Ideal Husband with Freddie Fox, Nathaniel Parker and Frances Barber. And, if you love Shakespeare, marquee.tv offers a number of Royal Shakespeare Company productions including David Tennant’s Richard II and Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet and an enjoyable Twelfth Night with Adrian Edmonson. You’ll also find Donmar Warehouse’s all female Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
If Shakespeare is your food of love, you can get excess of it by tuning in to globeplayer.tv where dozens of Globe Theatre productions nestle. They tend to be bland in the filming but it’s always a pleasure to hear good actors get their tongues round the great man’s lines.
Uncle Vanya (BBC i-Player)
The BBC, despite its excellent track record in showing stage plays, has surprisingly little in its library. Still available, at least for a few more weeks, is Uncle Vanya with Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, an excellent version of Chekov’s masterpiece originally seen at the Harold Pinter. The BBC filmed it specially without an audience and you may find the closeups of the players come across better than when viewing it in a theatre.
★★★ If you’re fascinated by show business, you’ll definitely want Musicals, Marigolds & Me, the new autobiography by Paul Nicholas, in your Christmas stocking.
He’s already given us one slice of his life back in 1999, so his latest contribution concentrates on his career as opposed to his personal life, and in particular brings up to date with his 21st century life producing shows, touring in musicals, and his newfound stardom as one of the inhabitants of TV’s Real Marigold Hotel.
Since the latter is what many people now know him for, Paul sensibly starts with a few stories about his experiences on the programme, which I’m sure will amuse the show’s many fans. I haven’t seen the show but this did tempt me to watch it.
The most interesting part of the book, for me anyway, is the behind-the-scenes story of what it’s like to be a producer. In particular, his greatest successes Grease and Saturday Night Fever.
During my time in theatre management, I worked with Paul on a number of occasions and his book is very like himself: he rarely boasts, he doesn’t upset anybody, and he keeps most of his life private. And this is where the book falls down a bit. You get very little sense of what it feels like to be a star or to be in the middle of the world of show business.
After many little stories about making the Marigold programmes, there are also very few anecdotes about the rest of his career. And when he does come up with a story, he doesn’t exaggerate or add comedy, as some would, to make them more memorable. He certainly doesn’t reveal any secrets, sticking religiously to the unwritten rule that what happens backstage stays backstage. I’m not saying I was looking for juicy scandals and salacious gossip, just some colourful stories about the people and things that happened behind the scenes.
We learn about his progress in the world of pop music which included some chart hits, and touring with the likes of Screamin’ Lord Sutch and Del Shannon and The Who. I mean, how can you tour with The Who and not have a colourful story or two? Has he really nothing to report on meeting David Bowie beyond ‘he didn’t strike me as a happy-go-lucky person’?
When he embarks on his lengthy career as a musicals performer which includes starring roles in the original London productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats. This section of the book reads like a Wikipedia entry: I did this, then I did that; I met this person then I met that person. Even though you may not get much feeling for what the life or even the people were like, you do see how show business works, and Paul shares some of what he has learned. For example, ‘ If you try and short-change the public, they will catch you out.’
When he gets into producing, the book goes up a gear. He is rightly proud of his achievement in this field, including two outstanding West End musicals Grease and Saturday Night Fever. It started in 1990, when he teamed up with David Ian to put together a touring production of the Joseph Papp version of The Pirates Of Penzance. There are many insights into the difficulties of raising money, casting and marketing (I never knew he was responsible for the iconic Grease logo).
When he had the idea of reviving Grease in 1993, he dumped the original theatre show and transformed it into a stage version of the film by incorporating new songs that featured in the movie. It proved immensely popular, especially with young people.
In 1998, he co-produced the first stage version of Saturday Night Fever. The details of his contribution to making the show the success it was, from the original idea to stage the show, the negotiations with Robert Stigwood who owned the rights, his rewriting of the script, his discovery and mentoring of the leading man Adam Garcia, the difficult decision to invest his own money, will fascinate anyone who is interested in the business side of show business.
But still no juicy gossip. After his huge success as a co-producer of Saturday Night Fever in the West End, it’s clear he was annoyed that Robert Stigwood went on to produce the show on Broadway without him. But he continues to talk well of him. I think part of the reason may be that Paul is a very nice man who genuinely doesn’t want to be unkind to anybody, even someone no longer with us.
One thing that emerges very clearly from his book is the basis of his success. He is of course talented, but so are many entertainers. He is certainly good looking and charming, and he has a good stage presence. He was a born singer but he had to learn to act, and to dance. Although he was never the greatest at any of these, what he did do was work hard. He is a supreme example of the saying that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. His work rate is hugely impressive. For Singin’ In The Rain, he had to learn to dance well enough to play a role made famous by Gene Kelly. When he starred as Barnum, he learned juggling, unicycling, trampolining and tightrope walking. He certainly deserves his success.
Paul displays his gentle sense of humour, as when he says that, even as an old man, he still has fans, including a stalker. ‘I just have to walk very slowly,’ he writes.
And that’s typical of Paul Nicholas. It is no surprise that he is growing old gracefully. By dint of talent, determination and hard work, he has had an impressive career, but all with good grace and self effacement. And that’s what you get in his latest autobiography.
Musicals, Marigolds & Me is published by Fantom Publishing
An enjoyably theatrical show based on Noel Coward’s iconic romance
If you’re expecting to see a straightforward stage adaptation of the film Brief Encounter, you may be disappointed. If you’re expecting to see Emma Rice’s legendary multimedia production of Brief Encounter, you may be disappointed.
If you go without ever having seen the film, or at least without any expectations, you should enjoy an evening of humour, passion, poignancy and great theatricality.
Let’s take the lack of similarity to the film first. Part of the issue here is that in writing this play, Emma Rice has combined elements of Noel Coward’s screenplay with his original short play Still Life on which the film was based. A great idea but this means it isn’t pure Brief Encounter.
As to Emma Rice‘s adaptation, the original Kneehigh production from ten or so years ago,included a big screen with a movie showing that imitated the David Lean version but featured the stage actors, who then interacted with it. In this production, the screen has gone.
The story of the chance meeting of two married people in a railway station buffet and their subsequent, hesitant, guilt-ridden affair is still centre stage in this production of Brief Encounter but, there is much more about the relationship between Myrtle the café manager and Albert the station guard than you see in the film.
This is especially true in the first act where their flirtatious and at times vulgar chatting up is given almost equal weight with the more reserved and cautious romance between Alec and Laura. There is a strong and, I suggest, elitist suggestion that middle class equals repressed and serious, while working class equals liberated and comic. Indeed Kate Milner-Evans and Charles Angiama are funny as Myrtle and Stanley, and the former is a particularly strong singer.
As well as those two couples, there is a third romance going on between a more innocent younger couple Beryl the waitress and Stanley who sells food from a tray on the platform. There are nicely judged performances by Hanna Khogali and Oliver Aston. Although the ‘compare and contrast’ is very interesting, this made the first act very bitty. It was quite a challenge to get to know Alec and Laura.
Although the screen has disappeared, much of Emma Rice’s inventive adaptation remains in this production directed by Robert Kirby. Songs and dance are used to dazzling effect, with all seven actors singing and several playing instruments as well. The songs are by Noël Coward, sometimes his music and lyrics, sometimes his lyrics with music by Eamonn O’Dwyer. They are well chosen to reflect the mood of each moment. For example, Beryl sings an appropriate Mad About The Boy and, at the end, to match the poignancy of the parting, Alec (Callum McIntyre) sings A Room With A View with lines like ‘A room with a view / And you / And no one to worry us / No one to hurry us / Through this dream we found’. And beautifully sung.
There is also mime and dance. It is pure theatre, which I mean it couldn’t be done in any other medium and it is what we love about being at a live performance.
The Watermill stage is small so Harry Pizzey’s set design leaves it open and cleverly uses a few pieces of scenery to convey the locations. The café counter doubles as a piano; armchairs and tables roll smoothly on and off as the scene changes from the café to a flat to Laura’s home. Which is where we meet her husband Fred, also played by Charles Angiama. You can see why she might want someone less solid, a lot more exciting.
There may be no big screen but the production does use a nice and very amusing device to remind us of its cinematic connection, namely sound effects. As Myrtle mimes pouring tea, one of the cast in the corner pours water into a jug in front of a microphone.
The second act is much more focused on Laura and Alec, and the better for it. This is a classic love story and well told in this version. Their blossoming romance, their growing love that becomes increasingly reckless, the agonising over the rights and wrongs of their affair, the ecstasy and the heartbreak.
As Laura says at one point, their love has made her ‘a stranger in her own home’. The most interesting, because the most conflicted, character is Laura. Played by Laura Lake Abedisi, it is the more difficult role because she has to express herself from behind a mask of repressed feelings and the kind of strangulated accent that you will be familiar with from films of the 1930s and 40s, or the Queen in The Crown. Ms Abedisi does a splendid job and, by the end, I was totally in tune with her anguish.
Callum McIntyre is excellent as Alec Harvey, combining charm, confidence, humour and profound feeling.
This may not be what you would expect if you love the film, but if you accept that it has been taken apart and reconstructed as a piece of theatre, I think you will have a great evening.
Brief Encounter continues at The Watermill in Newbury until 13 November 2021
One Minute Theatre Reviews was supplied with a press ticket by the producers
Aleshea Harris’ bloodbath thriller is a bit anemic
Is God Is by up-and-coming American playwright Aleshea Harris is a revenge tragedy, or perhaps tragicomedy, in a tradition that dates back to the Old Testament and takes in Jacobean tragedy and Quentin Tarantino along the way. Perhaps it most resembles the plays of Martin McDonagh, but, in any comparison with them, I’m afraid Is God Is comes off worse.
17 year old twins find out that their mother, whom they thought had died in a fire when they were small children, is actually alive but finally succumbing to her injuries. The reunion is not entirely joyous because she wants them to kill the man responsible for her condition, her former abusive partner and their father. She wants him ‘dead. Real dead. And lots of blood is fine’. The young women, who were also scarred by the fire, don’t really question whether this is moral or legal or even practical. As far as they are concerned this is a mission from God, since their mother created them. They are driven by the need for vengeance and so is the plot.
So begins a killing spree.
Aleshea Harris’ play won the Relentless Prize in the USA and the relentless speed is helped by the device of the characters introducing themselves in the third person, rather than reveal their characters through their words and deeds. The killing spree leaves no time for a pause for thought about morality, family, class and race, which are all touched on. And the play’s high speed drive straight down the highway gives no opportunity for a twist or a turn, like the sudden slamming on of brakes and or a hairpin bend, except perhaps at the very end when you might be left wondering whether vengeance is worth it. Compared with all the plays by Martin McDonagh that I have reviewed in the last couple of years, The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, Hangmen, A Very Very Very Dark Matter and his early work The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, seen recently in Chichester and at the Lyric Hammersmith, there are no shocking twists or unexpected revelations, of the kind which enrich his work.
No blood but real fire
The older more extrovert sister Racine acquires a rock- which is thought to be the weapon with which Cain killed Abel- and proceeds to use it against all she comes into contact with, even after the slightest offence.
Unlike, I believe, the original New York presentation of Is God Is, there is no blood splattering Ola Ince’s production. So much for ‘lots of blood is fine’. The violence, while plentiful, is so stylised that it neither shocks nor is any more convincing than the characters’ motives. The horrific scars become symbolic tattoos. Once you take both horror and nuance out of the equation, you’re not left with much.
There might not have been any blood but there was real fire in Chloe Lamford‘s design. I liked her simple cartoon-like sets, with the titles for each scene like Going West and Showdown from the script writ large, encouraging the sense that we were watching chapters of a pulp novel being acted out.
I also enjoyed the acting. Out of a uniformly strong cast, I’ll mention in particular Cecilia Noble as the mother or God or, as in the cast list, She. It was a chilling moment when she conjured up what happened to her on the fateful day of the fire, and her powerful command to ‘make him dead’ was like the word of God.
Her two twins, the older Racine played by Tamara Lawrence and younger Anaia played by Adelayo Adedayo were a great double act. Their repartee was sharp and funny, made more so by the use of the Southern States vernacular and rhythms of speech.
It’s clear that Aleshea Harris is a writer to watch. She has a poet’s ear for dialogue. She is also able to make subtle homages to past masterpieces of the vengeance genre without laying it on thick. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more from her but I don’t think she’s quite there yet.
At the beginning of What If If Only, we meet a man referred to in the cast list as ‘someone’. He’s sitting at a table in a small room talking to himself or rather to someone who isn’t actually there.
His first words are about a man who spent ten years trying to paint an apple so that it looked just like an apple, then seven years trying to paint an apple so that it looked nothing like an apple. Given that Caryl Churchill’s new play is less than 20 minutes in length, I assume she wouldn’t waste words. So what’s the significance of the apple fable? I’ll come back to that.
We immediately discover that his partner has died but that he still likes to talk to his beloved and wishes he could get in touch with them, beyond the grave, as it were. John Heffernan’s portrait of grief is touching, it’s so quietly sad. A bit too quiet actually in terms of being heard at the back which is a shame because James Macdonald’s production savours every word.
Our ‘someone’ wonders ‘what if’ his loved one had lived, and wishes ‘if only’ they had lived. He longs to see a ghost. Designer Miriam Buether’s cube-shaped room, which is a metaphor for being contained by the present, rises to let in a ghost from outside the present moment.
Thought provoking and cleverly told
What follows in this short comedy about loss is both thought provoking and unexpectedly funny. Much to our surprise, and that of the protagonist, the ghost that appears is not wished-for dead figure from the past but a ghost from the future, then more futures. All are represented by a smiling and occasionally stern Linda Bassett who has great fun switching between characters in some packed monologues.
Actually, we do meet one more character- a child who could be part of this man’s future. ‘Child Future’ was confidently played on the occasion I saw it by Samir Simon-Keegan who may well be part of the future of acting.
It’s a play about dealing with grief and the theme that emerges is that you can’t bring back the past, only take one of many possible routes into a future that is certain to be different from the past. Not a hugely original idea, but cleverly told.
So what about the apple? Is the apple a metaphor for the present? While his loved one was alive, each new moment resembled the previous moments in his memory, so was he at that time painting an apple that looked like an apple, but when his loved one died, the present was no longer matched his memories, so he was trying to paint an apple that looked nothing like an apple.
Maybe I’m reading too much into the apple. What if I hadn’t tried to analyse the meaning of the apple story? If only I hadn’t mentioned the apple.
Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles provide a fitting end to a great theatrical trilogy.
It’s a few years since the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s outstanding stage versions of the first two books in Hilary Mantel‘s trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. At last, we arrive at the final volume The Mirror And The Light. So did episode three reach new heights or fall from grace?
Just in case you don’t know your history or haven’t read the book, we begin with Cromwell in prison, his fate already sealed. We see who his enemies are and who among his allies has betrayed him.
The prison set is dark and foreboding with high steely grey walls, designed by Christopher Oram. Then we go back in time to when Cromwell was still riding high, and, with a jolt, we realise the court is almost identical to the prison. Even the King is trapped by what is required of his position but the rest are prisoners to his whims, as well as constantly vulnerable to enemies in the court.
The story of Cromwell’s fall then plays out and is more, not less, tense for our knowing the fate that awaits him. This is not a simple adaptation of a novel. It is a gripping piece of theatre, as if writers Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles have taken the story of Cromwell and written a play about it from scratch.
So we’re not inside Cromwell’s head, as in the book, but rather witnessing this central character’s interaction with those around him, showing how others see him and how he works the court. We see the fragility of his power and his own awareness of his vulnerability.
Jeremy Herrin’s production feels Shakespearean
The play feels Shakespearean, and under Jeremy Herrin’s direction, it looks like a traditional production of one of the history plays, with everyone looking like they’ve stepped out of a painting by Hans Holbein. The language while not as poetic has an Elizabethan style, but also pace and a natural flow. The resemblance to modern day politics or even office politics is striking.
Cromwell, hated by his fellow councillors and by the people, is dependent on the goodwill of the King. British prime minister Harold Macmillan said the greatest challenge for politicians was ‘events, dear boy, events.’ So it proves for Cromwell. A mishandled northern rebellion, the death of Jane Seymour, a disastrous marriage to Anna of Cleves and the king begins to have less faith in his right-hand man. It’s all his enemies need, chief of which is the Duke of Norfolk, played by Nicholas Woodeson as a little weasel of a man, who resents the rise of a blacksmith’s boy above his ancient aristocratic family, and takes every opportunity to bring about his downfall.
Cromwell is always either on stage or being discussed. He is not exactly a good man, actually he’s a greedy manipulator, but he comes across as honourable, at least by the standards of the day, and compassionate, for example to Princess Mary, in a way that few of the others do.
Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker head a well chosen cast
Ben Miles‘ performance as this complex man- laughing, worrying, macho, submissive- his eyes constantly flicking round the room- is a tour de force. Both he and the King are lonely at the top. Nathaniel Parker’s Henry, the mirror and the light of the title, is a capricious child in an oversized man’s body, self indulgent, self pitying, isolated. A telling moment sees him by alone, feeling the cold, desperate for the warmth of the fire.
With a cast of 24, this Royal Shakespeare Company production has an epic feel. And it is a well chosen, diverse cast, who are a compliment to the RSC’s casting director Helena Palmer.
Melissa Allan reveals the steel in Mary Tudor. You can see Bloody Mary waiting to emerge. Geoffrey Lumb as Thomas Wriothesley and Leo Wan as Richard Riche make you recoil at their sliminess. Terrique Jarrett as Cromwell’s son Gregory adds a bright presence, and Jordan Kouamé was moving as Cromwell’s ally Rafe Sadler, desperate to save him without offending the King. Matthew Pidgeon’s double act as the friendly ambassador Eustache and the vicious Bishop Gardiner was impressive.
Inevitably death hangs over this evening. The two most influential people in Cromwell’s life appear as ghosts: his old mentor Cardinal Wolseley, played by a jolly Tony Turner, and his father, played with a spitting nastiness by Liam Smith.
I’m sorry if I’ve made the evening sound grim, it’s actually leavened with a great deal of humour. Paul Adeyefa brings much comedy as Cromwell’s faithful French servant Christophe. Nicholas Boulton is a Tigger-like Duke Of Suffolk, a friend to Cromwell in the sense of ‘with friends like these who needs enemies’. Jo Herbert is a cynical Lady Rochford. One of the funniest moments of the evening is when the new queen Jane Seymour, played as a likeable young woman by Olivia Marcus, complains to Cromwell about Henry’s unreasonable demands. An embarrassed Thomas, assuming them to be sexual, tries to coax more detail out of her, only to discover she is referring to the King wanting her to ride with him to inspect the fortifications at Dover.
After the rollercoaster of events leading to Cromwell’s arrest, the ending is downbeat. This is partly because Cromwell accepts his fate with dignity. Despite a dramatic beheading orchestrated by illusionist Ben Hart, it’s a climax that didn’t leave me quite as shocked or drained as I expected. Nevertheless the play is a fitting conclusion to a fine trilogy.
The Mirror And The Light is due to run at the Gielgud Theatre until 23 January 2022. Tickets from delfontmackintosh.co.uk
Larry Kramer’s blistering attack on prejudice and complacency in the early days of AIDS epidemic
The Normal Heart, written in 1985 as the AIDS epidemic was finally beginning to be acknowledged, is based on author Larry Kramer’s own experience of this period. It’s a play that highlights prejudice and ignorance, fighting for what is right, and what it’s like to live in a time of plague.
The lead character Ned is semi-autobiographical and it’s great to see Ben Daniels given the starring role. He’s an excellent actor who always delivers on stage or screen. These days is probably best known for playing Princess Margaret’s husband in The Crown but in this production, directed by Dominic Cooke, he shows how he can carry a whole show.
This production was stopped in its tracks by the COVID -19 pandemic. So, inevitably, now that it’s finally made it onto the Olivier stage, we view it in the light of our experience of what’s happened over the last year and a half. We recognise the authorities’ slowness to respond to what was going on, albeit nothing like the fatal head-in-the-sand attitude to the early deaths within New York’s gay community. In the unwillingness of people to do what’s necessary to save lives, we can see a parallel with some gay men back then refusing to modify their sex lives. We are also familiar with wide-ranging and sometimes wild theories about causes and cures that have since gone by the wayside. In the play, you get the sense of bewilderment and panic about where this so-called ‘gay plague’ has come from and how it’s being spread.
What’s also happened between the postponement of this production and now is the joyous but devastating TV series It’s A Sin by Russell T Davies. That was set in the UK rather than New York and took us into the 90s but anyone who has seen it will recognise the way some newly liberated gay men became highly promiscuous during the 70s and 80s, and again the slowness to react, and the crushing sadness of friends dying all around, and the reconciliation between some parents, especially mothers, and their dying sons.
The Normal Heart is much more overtly political than It’s A Sin. It might be better compared with Albert Camus‘ The Plague, in which an outbreak of bubonic plague follows a similar trajectory and is intended as an analogy for the rise of Nazism.
The Normal Heart follows closely the developments in early 1980s New York: the early deaths, the uncertainties, one doctor flagging up the concern, and the forming of an organisation intended to warn gay men of the danger, help those that contracted AIDs, and pursue the authorities for support.
It’s hard to know what’s more depressing: people faced with the possibility of contracting a fatal disease still carrying on with a reckless lifestyle, or the authorities and media trying to pretend it wasn’t happening because this seemed to be only to do with gay men, and not something they wanted to be associated with. So both familiar and yet still shocking.
Ned is instantly at odds with his fellow campaigners. He is all for directness and shouting from the rooftops in order to pressurise those in power into action, and his fellow gay men to refrain from sex. I guess he’s the kind of person who these days would be gluing himself to the motorway. Others, some still in the closet, argue for a more softly softly approach.
Humour, pain, anger and compassion
Because the abrasive Ned is never afraid to tell it like it is, he has some barnstorming moments, but the other actors in Ned’s circle including Luke Norris, Dino Fetscher, Daniel Monks and Danny Lee Wynter, take hold of their well drawn, varied characters and fill this evening with humour, pain, anger and compassion.
Liz Carr plays Doctor Brookner who first notices the increase in this distinctive illness and goes from compassionate but objective medic to militant campaigner, with a blistering speech in the second act. ‘How does it always happen that all of the idiots are always on your team?’ she asks her opponents.
Ned is also in conflict with his straight brother Ben, given a nicely nuanced performance by Robert Bowman, who shows the love he feels for his brother while barely able to disguise his homophobia.
Not only does Kramer give the various members of the group the space to express their differing feelings and opinions, he digs deep into his main protagonist’s character. Despite all the risks of intimacy, the previously lonely Ned falls in love and suddenly the story of this epidemic becomes very personal. Love is what makes Ned a human ding rather than a simple polemicist
The end is heartbreaking, compounded by the misery of the latter stages of the disease and, even after their death, the continuing prejudice in the treatment of their bodies. If you are not in tears by the end, I would question whether you have a heart.
Although the setting is specifically the gay community of New York in the early 80s, the behaviour it shows can be seen again and again in many other situations. We’re reminded by Ned in the play how governments turned a blind eye to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. And if we look around today, we could take the example of the way a male-dominated, misogynistic judicial system consistently fails to take effective action against the number of rapes and other violence against women. Or the way elderly people in care homes were treated during the COVID -19 outbreak (see Help by Jack Thorne on All4). Or the daily discrimination against black people (see my review of Typical).
A word about the set. The Olivier at the National Theatre has been converted into a theatre-in-the round. The stage is a circle with a thin light all the way round the circumference, perhaps suggesting the way gay men were seen at that time as separate from the rest of society. It’s pretty much bare apart from a few benches so this production is all about the acting, and that to be frank is a relief after many productions I’ve seen in this large space where the set design has dwarfed the play. The set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, also has a flame burning high up throughout. I took this to represent the kind of eternal flame you find at a tomb of the unknown soldier, as if to say these thousands who died through the prejudice and ignorance should not be forgotten.
To make this truly in-the-round, there are seats on what would normally be the stage, though it was my impression, sitting in the circle that the actors faced to the traditional front the majority of the time. A word of warning: there are lighting towers positioned around edge of the circular stage. These will inevitably give you a restricted view if you sit in the right or left stalls and circle. I know this to be true because a delayed train caused me to arrive at the last moment, so I was sitting to the side for the first act before I was able to take my central seat.
The Normal Heart is a deeply moving play, with scintillating, witty, powerful dialogue that deserves this well acted revival.
Revision made on 1 October 2021 to add more about the significance of love and the universality of the message