Hamilton – film review

The best film of a live stage show I’ve seen

★★★★★

Broadway production of Hamilton. Photo ©: Joan Marcus

Hamilton was filmed during the initial Broadway run. The recording of the live show was meant to saved for later but with theatres dark, the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to make it available now. After some intense bidding, it was Disney+ who secured the rights.

So, these are the questions: If you’ve already seen Hamilton, is this film of the Broadway show worth watching? If you haven’t seen Hamilton, does the film do justice to the stage production? Finally, if you’re not interested in Frozen II and Star Wars, is it worth subscribing to the Disney+ streaming service just to see Hamilton?

The answers, in my opinion, are ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘oh yes’. I’ve been quite critical of live recordings of large scale stage shows as removing the excitement of theatre while being too theatrical for film but, if anything, this is better than the stage show. Of course, you can’t being ‘in the room’ with live actors but here you’re able to appreciate every aspect of this great musical.  You can watch a dance sequence from the best seat in the circle, then see the faces of the performers as if you’re in the front row of the stalls.

It doesn’t harm that you get to see the first and quite possibly the best cast, including the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. His character is driven to make a difference in the world at all cost to his personal life (“I’m not going to waste my shot”). He helps lead the American revolution, which is over before the end of act one, then is one of the founding fathers of the American republic. His single-mindedness makes him enemies leading to political fights that drive the second half. His flaws, as in any great tragedy, lead to his downfall. Thanks to the music, his story is told with excitement, passion, and humour.

There are two other characters who develop through the course of the show. Aaron Burr, beautifully sung and played by Leslie Odom Jr, is the narrator and ‘damn fool who shot him’ as he says of the end of his difficult friendship with Hamilton. He starts off uncommitted but, in a moment of tremendous excitement, realises that the important decisions are being made behind closed doors and he needs to be ‘in the room where it happens’.

Hamilton’s wife Eliza, played with poignancy and the sweetest voice by Phillipa Soo, changes from a love-struck girl through pain to a powerful woman.

There is an excellent supporting cast including Renee Elise Goldberry as Angelica, Eliza’s intelligent, sensual sister who is Hamilton’s love, if not lover. Daveed Diggs is the Marquis de Lafayette and later Thomas Jefferson, both larger than life and played to great comic effect.

The background is the birth of the United States and the midwives are immigrants or the offspring of immigrants. Hamilton himself is an immigrant from a poor background. To underline the point, a mainly non-white cast play the rebels and their musical numbers are Hip-hop, the music of the disadvantaged.

We’re always aware that we are looking back from today. This is emphasised by the use of a narrator and by other asides to the audience. ‘Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?’ is a question asked by the musical, because our view of history changes with each generation. Miranda has said that this is ‘the story of America then told by America now’. We notice the parallels with today. One song says: ‘Immigrants- we get the job done’ to a cheer from the audience.

Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s music is clever, subtle and catchy. It’s no wonder millions have bought the soundtrack who haven’t even seen the show. Hip-Hop dominates but he plunders other genres as needed. For example, when Jefferson returns from France, he sings a jazz song, thus showing that he not only missed the War Of Independenceshows but also a change in musical taste. The love songs exude the pain of love.

Hip-Hop is a terrific dance music and, in the poetic language of rap, Miranda has found the perfect form to tell a story and communicate the thoughts and feelings of his characters.

The original director of the Broadway production Thomas Kail directs the film which means he knows exactly what he wants to put across. Every change of shot, whether a close-up or the whole stage, seems to come at exactly the right moment. I never felt I wanted to be looking somewhere else.

The show looks great too, thanks to set designer David Korins and Paul Tazewell‘s costumes. What a clever idea to remove the female dancers’ voluminous dresses and show off their moves in 18th century underwear.

Well worth a month’s subscription to Disney+ and you get to see Frozen II as well.

Hamilton is streaming on Disney+. When theatres re-open, the British production can be seen at Victoria Palace Theatre, London.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

5 Shows That Revolutionised Musical Theatre

How musicals came to dominate theatre for 90 years

Hamilton. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Musical theatre has dominated Broadway and West End stages for nearly a hundred years but there are five musicals that shaped the modern musical. In choosing these five musicals what I’ve tried to look at is not their quality or success at the box office but the way each one brought something innovatory to the musical.

The modern musical followed the footsteps of the European tradition of opera and Gilbert & Sullivan style operetta but it was born in America.

Song-and-dance shows in one guise or another had been produced in New York since the 19th century. These included the racist Minstrel Shows, popular variety shows in which white entertainers ‘blacked up’.

By the late 19th and the early part of the 20th century, Broadway was awash with revues. Many of these spectacular song and dance entertainments were produced by Florenz Ziegfeld under the recurring title of The Ziegfeld Follies.  It was an era immortalised by films like 42nd Street and revisited by Stephen Sondheim in his musical Follies.

There were also Musical Comedies. Successors to and to some extent popular rivals to the more middle class operetta, this genre originated in late Victorian London but soon became a staple of the New York stage. They offered lightweight, often banal plots punctuated by brilliant singing and dancing. Think Fred & Ginger movies. It’s a format that’s never completely gone away.

In the Twenties The Jazz Age took hold, inspiring a range of talented composers. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and, perhaps the greatest of all, George Gershwin were all part of the Broadway scene, penning songs for revues and comedies. It was probably the most prolific period in Broadways’s history. In 1927 alone, fifty musicals were launched.

One of them launched what we know as the modern musical, or musical theatre. It was the first major musical show to feature a proper drama- and incidentally it was Florenz Ziegfeld who brought it to Broadway.

1. Show Boat

From 1912 onwards, Jerome Kern had written many musical comedies into which he brought more complex believable plots, but what he needed was a lyricist to match his vision. Then he met Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1927 they wrote Show Boat and set the template for the next 90 years of so-called ‘book musicals’, that is to say, musicals with a believable narrative and realistic dialogue. And this certainly was a serious story: it encompassed alcoholism, racism and marital conflict.

Thus the musical became a vehicle to support and enhance drama, just as opera does. As Leonard Bernstein said: ‘Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.’ As well as covering racial themes, Show Boat was the first musical show in which both black and white performers appeared and sang on stage together. And the first to feature an inter-racial marriage.

Songs drove the drama and included Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.

Other weighty musicals followed. Of Thee I Sing, a political satire from 1931 by George and Ira Gershwin, won the Pulitzer Prize. Four years later, the Gershwins along with librettist Dubose Hayward created Porgy And Bess. George Gershwin decided it would be appropriate to use African-American folk music- spirituals and folk songs with a jazz-like feel. The use of popular music and the way the music ran continuously through the work meant, although it was technically an opera, Porgy And Bess had a significant influence on musicals. And, unusually for Broadway, it featured an all African-American cast.

Oscar Hammerstein had some fallow years after Show Boat but when Jerome Kern turned down an idea he had to make a musical from a play called Green Grow The Lilacs, he got together with Richard Rodgers. Rodgers had been looking for a new lyricist to replace the unreliable Lorenz Hart and, coincidentally, had also been interested in Green grow The Lilacs. Together they produced a revolutionary musical, possibly the greatest of all time: and the first to fully integrate music, drama and dance.

2. Oklahoma!

It was 1943 and, in the midst of war, Americans were ready for a celebration of American values. They found it in Oklahoma! When Alfred Drake sang those opening lines Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ unaccompanied off stage, musical theatre changed forever.

First, there was the music. Nothing said ‘the music element matters’ more than by giving the parts to singers who could act rather the common practice of actors who could sing.

Then, there was the  drama. Oklahoma! was the first musical in which every element served the characters and furthered the story. And, for the first time, that included the dance sequences. Agnes de Mille choreographed expressive dances so challenging that professional dancers were required for some of them. Songs included People Will Say We’re in Love, Surrey With A Fringe On Top and the rousing title song.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were the perfect partnership: contrary to the usual pattern, both liked to get the lyrics first and set them to music. There followed a succession of great musicals: Carousel, The Sound Of Music, The King and I, South Pacific and doznes more. Other composers took inspiration from them and created a Golden Age of the Musical with Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls…. the list goes on and on. And all these shows made the journey from stage to the big screen to create the so-called ‘Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical’.

Dance played a part in enhancing the drama of Oklahoma! and many subsequent musicals but the final building block of the modern musical came in 1957 when dance came into its own.

3. West Side Story

The musical’s credentials were great: the book was adapted by Arthur Laurents, the music was by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, but it was the role of Jerome Robbins as the director that was crucial. He was the preeminent stage choreographer of his time, which meant West Side Story not only incorporated dance into the narrative but let it take the lead. The famous finger snaps say it all.

A writer in Time magazine found the dance and gang warfare more compelling than the love story and noted that the show’s ‘putting choreography foremost, may prove a milestone in musical-drama history.’ He was right. That the show ended tragically was also groundbreaking. Memorable songs included Maria and Tonight.

Many more musicals followed as the Golden Age rolled on, not least another contender for greatest musical of all time, Julie Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent’s Gypsy. The longest running musical ever, The Fantasticks by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the singer) opened in New York in 1960 and closed 42 years later.

Tastes in music changed: rock rather than jazz now dominated the charts and perhaps audiences were getting bored with the formula of the book musical. Whatever the reason, by the mid-1960s the first Golden Age of the Musical came to an end. Musicals continued to be written and performed but not so frequently or spectacularly as before.

The time was ripe for the arrival of the concept musical, in other words, a musical where the idea or theme takes precedence over the narrative.

4. Company

Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970 wasn’t the first concept musical. As early as 1947, Rodgers and Hammerstein created Allegro. Interestingly, a very young Stephen Sondheim worked as a production assistant on this musical. A year later, Alan Lerner of Lerner and Lowe fame teamed up with Kurt Weill who wrote The Threepenny Opera and they created Love Life. Both shows had linear plots but these were disrupted by songs that commented on a theme.

However Company was the first significant concept musical where the narrative was virtually abandoned in favour of a theme, in this case, an exploration of relationships in songs like The Ladies who Lunch and Being Alive. Other concept musicalss followed including Chicago, A Chorus Line and Cats, as well as many more by Sondheim such as Follies and Sunday in The Park With George.

Hair was another concept musical of sorts but it’s more memorable for bringing rock music into the previously jazz-based world of musicals. It’s arguable that rock is a genre better suited to the individual song than to carrying a whole narrative or theme but there’s no arguing with the success of Hair, Godspell and the early Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice collaborations like Jesus Christ Superstar.

One trend of the last few years has been the jukebox musical which recycles existing popular songs around a story: it’s not exactly new- the film musical Singin’ In The Rain uses an existing songbook but the genre has been unstoppable in the last few decades- the most successful is Mamma Mia! featuring the music of ABBA. Early examples were Return To The Forbidden Planet and Buddy- The story of Buddy Holly. Others include We Will Rock You featuring the music of Queen, Jersey Boys which tells the story of the Four Seasons and, last year, the wonderful & Juliet showcasing the songs of Max Martin.

And, having made films out of so many stage musicals, Hollywood has repaid the compliment in recent years by providing the inspiration for Little Shop Of Horrors, Disney’s The Lion King, The Producers, Spamalot, Billy Elliott and many more.

Talented writers have created musicals that continue the tradition of exploring serious themes: Rent, Blood Brothers and The Book Of Mormon to name but a few.

The mid 1980s saw the arrival of the mega musicals where the sets became as or more important than the content- and Britain led the way, revitalising this great American genre, just as The Beatles had revitalised American rock’n’roll in the sixties. In what could be described as a second Golden Age, there are two landmarks – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s almost operatic Phantom Of The Opera and Cameron Macintosh’s production of Les Misérables.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical may be, as The Observer put it when it opened, “a witless and synthetic entertainment” but its popular appeal is undeniable. With its rousing story of doomed revolutionaries and its uplifting tale of a man who pays back a debt with heroic charity, Les Misérables is now the second longest running musical ever. It’s certainly a musical I could see again and again. However, although this musical is about revolutionaries, it’s not actually revolutionary.

We had to wait 45 years after Company before we got another genuinely revolutionary musical. In fact, in 2015, you could argue we got two in one year.

Fun Home was the first show on Broadway to have a lesbian protagonist- some 30 years after La Cage Aux Folles focussed on male homosexuality. It showed that musicals can tell complex stories about women and indeed lesbian women, who are not often represented in the mainstream, and that musicals written by women can be successful on Broadway.

Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were the first all-female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Score, as well as Best Musical. But is it revolutionary simply because women take centre stage? I would argue, in the male dominated world of musical theatre, that it is, but I have to admit there is no new musical form here.

However there was another musical that also started off-Broadway in 2015 that has found a new form.

5. Hamilton

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda (streaming on Disney+ channel from 3 July 2020) does everything the best musicals do in terms of taking an engaging subject and combining it with music and dance. Miranda plundered a number of musical genres but what makes Hamilton look like the future of the musical is its use of hip hop or rap music  in songs like Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down) or Right Hand Man. Rap is  the music of revolution, because it expresses the angry feeling of the underprivileged. But more than that, just as the jazz sound was used by Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein and the other greats of the first Golden Age of the musical to create dance tunes and complex lyrics, hip hop rhythm is great for dance and rap’s poetic use of language make it the perfect music for lyrics.

Stephen  Sondheim put it this way:  “Of all the forms of contemporary music, rap is the closest to traditional musical theater… both in its vamp-heavy rhythmic drive and in its verbal playfulness.”

Ninety years previously Show Boat was the first musical to put black and white performers on stage together. In 2015, there has been deliberate casting of non-white actors in Hamilton as the mainly white Founding Fathers and other historical figures. It is, as Miranda put it, ‘the story of America then told by America now’Hamilton has found a way of making what we’ve been calling the ‘modern’ musical for nearly a hundred years actually work for a modern audience.

It remains to be seen whether more rap-based musicals with such wide appeal will emerge but the signs are good. One of the best new British musicals I’ve seen in the last couple of years is Poet In Da Corner by Debris Stevenson which features grime music.

What Stephen Sondheim said about Hamilton could apply to any of the five musicals I’ve chosen: “What it does is empower people to think differently. There’s always got to be an innovator, somebody who experiments first with new forms.”

Watch the video version of Five Musicals That Changed Theatre History on YouTube

Groomed by Patrick Sandford – review

An important play about the lasting damage of child abuse

★★★★★

Patrick Sandford in Groomed

‘The adult tries so hard to forget, but the child always remembers,’ says the protagonist in Groomed, written and acted by Patrick Sandford.  I am sure you will be as sad and angry as I was by the end of this 50-minute monologue about the abuse suffered by a 10-year-old child and the reverberating effect on the rest of his life. Its exceptional impact is a tribute to the former Artistic Director of the Nuffield Southampton.

Although written for the stage, this is a filmed version directed by Nancy Meckler. As with Andrew Scott in Sea Wall, having one person talking directly to you through the camera seems to me to come closest to the experience of theatre. The film also takes the opportunity to place our protagonist in a primary school classroom, the scene of the crime if you like.

Patrick Sandford takes us on a giddying ride. He tells us stories- stories from the ancient classics, a history of the saxophone, the story of the Japanese soldier who carried on fighting for 29 years after World War 2 ended, all providing metaphors for this protagonist’s experience and how it can be faced. He plays parts, even taking us a little way inside the mind of the abuser.

Most heartbreaking is the gradual revelation of the damage that the experience has inflicted on the adult. The fear, the shame, the guilt: ‘the bad done to me becomes the bad in me becomes the bad is me.’

It made me want to hug him

Like a tide that goes out and comes in again, we keep returning to the child and his awful experience at the hands of his teacher.  There are no details- he is very clear that this isn’t fodder for sensational tabloids. The shock is not in what happened but how it happened, and how the grooming was allowed to happen, and how there were apparently no consequences for the teacher.

It’s so upsetting that this should happen to a fellow human being that you almost want to block it out, just as you now might want to avoid seeing this play, but Patrick Sandford stares at you, defying you, both in his words and in his piercing eyes, to look away.

And there is hope in talking about it: ‘Rage that is heard transforms to mighty trees’ he says and talks of ‘the alchemy of anger into trust’.

I understand now much more now than I did about the way in which the experience of abuse is never something historical, but rather something ever present in the life of someone who was abused. So it is educational. However Groomed is so successful as a drama because Patrick understands the power of theatre as a cathartic experience and the way it can elicit empathy as well as sympathy. ‘Open my heart for me,’ he implores. Even in these times of social distancing, it made me want to hug him.

Groomed is available on sohotheatreondemand.com until the end of August 2020

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

 

This House – NTLive – review

Film fails to convey thrill of live theatre

★★★

Phil Daniels in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.

At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.

Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.

What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.

Photo: Johan Persson

We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.

Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason,  recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.

Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith

When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.

So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.

This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny,  as when they drag in a dying member to vote.

Charles Edwards in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.

Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.

I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.

This House is streaming on the YouTube channel National Theatre At Home until 3 June 2020.

Click here to watch the review of This House on YouTube

Andrew Scott in Sea Wall – film review

Andrew Scott unforgettable in Simon Stephens’ astounding play

★★★★★

If you’ve seen Andrew Scott as Moriarty in Sherlock or the hot priest in Fleabag or Hamlet or in Present Laughter, you know he’s a great actor. After seeing this, you may well think he is the greatest actor we have.

I don’t want to say too much about what the plot because I don’t want to spoil the impact. Let’s just say it’s a one-man play featuring a father called Alex telling us a story from his life. I can tell you that while it has its amusing moments, it is not a comedy. Alex says at one point “There’s a hole running through the centre of my stomach.”

I would like to talk about Andrew Scott. What you experience is acting of the purest kind. He hesitates. He doesn’t finish his sentences. There’s a moment when he’s about to say something and pauses- and as you wait for him to finish, time seems to be suspended.

His delivery is so natural, that it seems like he’s just talking to you. Yet it absolutely is acting because it has a poetic rhythm and his body language- the way he might giggle or cover his face or stare into space- all tell you what he’s not saying, tell you that this is more than a nice story about holidays in the south of France and the charms of his daughter and father-in-law.

Andrew Scott has the ability of a great actor to not only engage you but involve you. He draws you into his heart so you feel what he feels.

Great acting needs a great script and here every word, every phrase, every incident, every little detail- the colour of a dress, some athlete’s foot cream- seem precisely chosen by Simon Stephens to make a point about how life or even perhaps God mocks our love of it, because it is a story about life’s uncertainties, about not knowing what’s round the corner, like when he goes scuba diving and is suddenly plunged into the blackness beyond the sea wall.

The play lasts just over thirty minutes but every word and gesture counts so much that it concentrates into that half hour, as much emotional impact as a four hour epic.

This is not a film of a stage performance. Andrew Scott first performed Sea Wall in 2008 and has revived it in theatres a number of times, most recently at the Old Vic in 2018. This is a film made in a studio around 2012. But, despite being a film, nothing distracts from the acting. There are no cinematic tricks and no background music. There’s natural light. The camera is fixed and we always see his whole body. It appears to be done in one take.

I don’t want to give any more away, I may have said too much already. Please see it for yourself. You will never forget it.

You can watch it on YouTube for free until 25 May-ish and after that you can still pay to rent or download it from Vimeo. In fact I would recommend spending the £5 and download it because the more times you watch this you more you will get out of it. Full details can be found at seawallandrewscott.com

A Separate Peace with David Morrissey & Jenna Coleman – review

Live reading of Stoppard zooms off the page
★★★★

David Morrissey, Jenna Coleman & Ed Stoppard in A Separate Peace

The Remote Read is an exciting project born out of the coronavirus lockdown. The producers Curtain Call are intending to bring together actors in their own homes via Zoom for live performances of plays. The first was A Separate Peace which streamed on Sunday 2 May 2020.

Proceeds (you have to buy a ticket) go to The Felix Project, a charity which helps vulnerable people in need of food. Whether for this reason or simply that they’re glad of something to do, a top notch cast assembled for this half hour production, led by the wonderful David Morrissey, all soft-spoken and twinkly-eyed.

I didn’t know the play. It was written for television back in 1966, about the time of Tom Stoppard’s first theatrical hit Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. It owes something I think to Pinter and Beckett in that John Brown played by David Morrissey arrives at an anonymous nursing home. There’s nothing wrong with him but he has a suitcase of cash and just wants to stay there, being looked after and doing nothing. The nursing staff take him in but, even though he is no way sinister or even difficult, they cannot resist finding out who he is and trying to ‘help’ him.

So it’s about the right to privacy, our inability to leave someone alone without wanting to know more or do we think is best for them, and society’s discomfort with people who do nothing.

This is an absorbing play with some excellent dialogue. ‘It’s not good for you, what you’re doing,’ says one of the staff. ‘You mean it’s not good for you,’ says Brown.

The members of staff were played by Denise Gough as a Doctor, Ed Stoppard as the Matron, Maggie Service as a Nurse and Jenna Coleman as Nurse Maggie Coates (the only other character given a full name). She was the one who befriended John Brown. The subtle way she conveyed her liking of him and her wrestling with her conscience as she ultimately betrayed him was outstanding.

So how did it work on Zoom? Quite well, thanks to director Sam Yates. The actors might have been positioned sideways so they appeared to be talking to each other. Instead, they all faced the camera and this was curiously effective. With both actors looking at you while they talked to each other, it was as if you were invisible but standing in the middle of the conversations.

The actors in simple black tops were placed against white backgrounds which cut out any distractions from bookcases or trophies or whatever actors often have in their homes. Unfortunately Zoom works with some kind of facial recognition when you use a background so there can be distortion and blurring.

That’s a minor point. It was a nice touch that as John Brown painted a mural in his room that countryside scene gradually replaced his white background, indicating perhaps that he was receiving the calm of isolation that he craved. The editing was very smooth as actors appeared and disappeared very much like entrances and exits on a stage.

Actually it was more akin to a television programme than a stage show,  but it was very exciting that it was live and, as I understand it, unrecorded. This meant there was a real sense of being at a unique event.

A Separate Peace was billed as a reading but, apart from someone looking down occasionally, it came across as a well prepared and well-acted performance. I look forward to more from The Reading Room.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Oscar Wilde Season on Marquee TV – review

★★★

The Importance Of Being Earnest

I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth because it is great to have the opportunity to see all four of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedies in stage productions. Unfortunately, good as they are, these Classic Spring Theatre Company versions really don’t work that well on film, hence my three star rating.

I think it’s a lot to do with the difference between theatre and film. For a start, in a large auditorium like London’s Vaudeville Theatre, stage actors need to speak slowly and loudly to be understood at the back of the upper circle. To be fair, when we watch a large scale play on film, our brains usually allow for the slightly melodramatic way actors deliver speeches on stage. However, Oscar Wilde’s fast-moving, sharp-witted dialogue is really sabotaged by this approach. The strong element of melodrama in these plays becomes very obvious.

You also realise just how much of the content of most stage plays is verbal. When we’re watching a drama made for the cinema or TV, we’re used to lots of changes of scene, fast editing, and action. On stage, let’s be honest, in most plays most of the time, they stand around and talk. In the first halves of all of the first three plays, partly because of the pace, I was thinking ‘My goodness, they talk a lot’. This wouldn’t even occur to you if you were there in the theatre, hanging on every word. At least at home, you can press pause and make a cup of tea. Whatever you do, don’t pour a glass of alcohol!

Thank goodness they pick up the pace after the interval. By the way, each interval is spoiled by a silly music hall song, inappropriate to mood of high society that’s being portrayed.

The third acts follow the interval, and in the first three they are invariably the best, as all the plot setups of the first half come to an explosive fruition, the fourth act being how it all works out. These third acts are full of surprises and Wilde’s trademark epigrammatic wit.

Just to remind you, if you want to watch them in chronological order, the plays start with Lady Windermere’s Fan in which a woman thinks her husband is having a secret affair whereas, in fact, he’s hiding a very different secret. In A Woman Of No Importance, a single mother battles with the secret father to prevent her son falling under his influence. Then comes An Ideal Husband in which a secret mistake made early on his career threatens to derail a successful politician but more importantly ruin his marriage to his holier-than-thou wife. Finally, there’s Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest in which the two main male characters maintain secret lives causing much confusion, as well as upsetting a certain Lady Bracknell.

So they all concern secrets, which we now see as being very significant given what we know about Oscar Wilde’s own secret life. It’s hard not see some personal feeling in epigrams like ‘scandal is gossip made tedious by morality’ or ‘Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do’.

The first three play owe a debt to Ibsen even as Wilde blends in his legendary wit. So there’s quite a bit of serious talk about love and real goodness in a hypocritical society. ‘All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon,’ says one character.

The exception is The Importance of Being Earnest in which Wilde goes all out for comedy from the first line and never stops, even if there is an underlying satire of society’s hypocrisy.

The productions are well acted and the naturalistic, late Victorian settings are spot on. I particularly liked the lightness of Paul Wills’ designs for Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Eve Best in A Woman Of No Importance

In the first three plays, women play major parts and the actors in these productions make the most of their meaty roles. Eve Best is particularly impressive in A Woman of No Importance. Her breathless shock as she reacts to a momentous decision that she makes at the end of the play is heart-grabbing.

You probably want to know about Lady Bracknell. Well, Sophie Thompson plays the part well, enunciating every vowel and consonant as if she wants to control each word she speaks, as well as controlling everything else. There are prototype Lady Bracknells in the earlier plays- typically snobbish matriarchs. Jennifer Saunders is excellent in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Susan Hampshire great in An Ideal Husband but the best is Anne Reid’s employment of a tiger smile as Lady Hunstanton in A Woman Of No Importance.

It’s difficult to make a proper judgement on the quality of the stage productions but the best is An Ideal Husband but then the material is very good. The director Jonathan Church (each production has a different director) has a lightness of touch. And there’s a stellar cast which includes Nathaniel Parker, Frances Barber, Edward Fox and the excellent Freddie Fox, all languid limbs and ironic smiles, as the louche Lord Goring who is, to quote a different Wilde play, ‘pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time’.

Marquee.tv is a subscription channel offering a range of recordings of live performances including many Royal Shakespeare Company productions.

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RSC’s Twelfth Night on Marquee TV

Adrian Edmonson’s comic turn stands out in Shakespearean farce

★★★★

Adrian Edmonson in Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

In case you get confused with Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is the one with a woman disguised as a man and much mistaken identity. That doesn’t narrow it down that much? Okay, it’s the one with the shipwreck at the beginning. Still too many to choose from? Well, this is the one where Malvolio is tricked into wearing yellow garters. Now, you’ve got it. That’s what we all remember. Which is a shame, in a way, because the main plot concerns quite a profound comedy about the meaning of love.

In this 2017 a moviueproduction, director Christopher Luscombe has chosen to go with the crowd and ramped up the farce. Olivia’s puritanical steward is played by Adrian Edmonson, still best known for The Young Ones. He has a wonderful comic range from displeasure (liked he’s sucked a lemon) to swaggering pomposity (bouncing around the stage like a demented rabbit) to abject misery.

He is a total delight (as he was in The Boyfriend) but so are the ageing delinquents who set him up for a fall. John Hodgkinson as Sir Toby Belch is a predatory con artist with some unpleasantly sneering looks. Michael Cochrane as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, while not as thin as you might expect, delivers his lines with a bright-eyed naivety and has an impressive sprightliness. (He plays Oliver in The Archers by the way.) Vivien Parry as the scheming Maria and Sarah Twomey as Fabia, traditionally a male part, also play their roles well.

Sir Toby’s very loud and long lasting flatulence sets the tone early on. In fact, like much of the plot, there are times when the physical comedy is ludicrous. As Malvolio reads the fake letter purportedly from Olivia, the conspirators get so close to him, it’s impossible he wouldn’t see them. It is, as I say, ludicrous, but also very funny.

Running alongside the farce is a comic love story woven around a woman disguised as a young man. Count Orsino, who seems in love with the idea of being in love, is infatuated with Viola (in male guise), whilst continuing to pursue the grieving Olivia who has sworn off men. Olivia then falls in love with the apparently male Viola who in turn lost her heart to Orsino. From then on, we’re just waiting for Viola’s twin brother Sebastian to turn up for typical Shakespearean mix ups and misunderstandings.

Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Here’s a difference between film and theatre. In a movie, we would expect Sebastian and Viola to be identical but in the theatre, we’re used to suspending disbelief. However, this filmed production with its close-ups makes the lack of similarity very obvious.

Needless to say, all’s well that ends well- oh no, that’s a different play. This production’s sing-song at the curtain call makes Shakespeare’s happy ending even happier. Possibly a little too happy, in that there’s little room for the undercurrent of pathos in Twelfth Night.

For any production to succeed, Viola must be lovable, because we must believe she can ignite feelings in both Orsino and Olivia, so crucial to the central plot. In Dinita Gohil the RSC production has such an actor. She is without question a delight to look at and listen to in her acting of this character.

I have some reservations about the people who fall in love with Viola. I’m not questioning the emphasis placed in this production on sexual ambiguity, which is there in the text. No, for me, the problem is, when Ms Gohil disguises herself as a male, she is more boy than man. This is partly a problem with the play itself:  reference is repeatedly made to the young man’s inability to grow a beard.

Nicholas Bishop as Orsino and Kara Tointon as Olivia are both, I think, in their early thirties. In any case, I found it a little discomforting to see these mature people desiring such a boyish young man. To be fair, Kara Tointon does carry it off by behaving skittishly and I did like the way she portayed Olivia’s confusion and infatuation. On the other hand, Nicholas Bishop’s Orsino – and this is not the fault of the actor- comes across as silly and a bit pervy.

Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Hanlan (c) RSC

This is a good looking production. Kara Tointon’s dresses, designed by Simon Higlett, are beautiful. As is his set. It’s hard to appreciate fully on a screen but you can see that it’s colourful and exotic and clearly shows the Victorian British fascination with India- another theme of this production.

I think the greatest tribute I can pay to this recording is that it really made me wish I had seen it live.

You can watch Twelfth Night on marquee.tv, where there are lots of other great RSC productions including Paapa Essendieu’s Hamlet, David Tennant’s Richard II and Anthony Sher’s King Lear. At the time of writing, Marquee TV are offering a 14 day free trial.

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Fleabag stage show online – review

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting

★★★★★

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo: Matt Humphrey

Last year Phoebe Waller-Bridge performed her original stage show Fleabag for the last time. Now she has generously made the NTLive recording available on demand online with the proceeds going to charity

This is the show that was first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and which led to the two incredibly successful TV series.

First thing to say, the quality of this film is excellent, at least on the TV I saw it on. The performance takes place entirely centre stage where Phoebe Waller-Bridge sits on a chair, only occasionally standing up. She is picked out by lights and all around her is an inky blackness that fills three quarters of the screen.

It’s an apparently simple design by Holly Pigott but the suggestion of isolation and that this person is on the edge of a dark emptiness is hugely effective. And the film doesn’t mess with this. In fact, this has got to be as good as it gets if you’re not actually there, because it’s like a front row seat, it may even be better than being there.

What we get is the full impact of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent acting because she has to mime some of her past activities such as taking a photo in a toilet of her vagina and does impressions, for example imitating a guinea pig or pursing her lips like her rodent-mouthed lover. Her clipped plummy voice is gorgeous to listen to and offers a contrast to the earthy descriptions that come out of it, masturbating to Pornhub for example.

Because we’re all so familiar with the TV series, there is little to surprise or shock us now in the way that her explicit language and her casual even cynical attitude to sex must have done when this first hit the stage. The story contains many of the elements of the first series: the suicide of her best friend, her own guilt, her cold sister and her sister’s lecherous husband, the guinea pig-themed coffee shop and so on. But it’s different because it is a monologue and therefore incredibly intense.

I did notice that the Fleabag character is harder edged than on TV where she reveals more tenderness and good intentions even if they are usually misinterpreted.

Assuming you’ve seen the TV series, there isn’t the surprise revelation of why she is so depressed, why she has such a low sense of worth, and why she’s obsessed with sex, so often involving being abused, but the gradual revelation- in throwaway lines- still packs a ‘what did she say?’ punch. It is a master class in constructing and writing a script.

One of the great qualities of the writing in both this play and the subsequent TV series is the way it leads us into laughing at things that are quite shocking or reprehensible and then pulls the rug from under us for laughing- or vice versa. Because there is so much sadness in the midst of the comedy. ‘People make mistakes’ she says wistfully.

Although it’s a one-woman show, we shouldn’t underestimate the contribution of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s long time collaborator and in this case director Vicky Jones and the subtle mood lighting by Elliott Griggs and the often  graphic sound effects by Isobel Waller-Bridge that accompany the monologue.

You can see Fleabag on the sohotheatreondemand.com website until the end of May 2020 and on Amazon Prime. It will also be available to audiences in some other countries as well as on Amazon Prime in the US from 10 April for two weeks. In the UK, it costs £4.00 to watch, although you can choose to pay more and all proceeds will go towards the National Emergencies Trust, NHS Charities Together and Acting for Others, which supports theatre workers in times of need, and also towards grants of £2,500 to freelancers working in the UK theatre industry.

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One Man Two Guvnors – NTLive – review

James Corden’s finest moment on stage not quite captured on film

★★★★★ (National Theatre production) ★★★ (NTLive recording)

James Corden in One Man Two Guvnors. Photo: Johan Persson

I saw One Man Two Guvnors at the National Theatre back in 2011 and would have given it five stars if I’d been posting reviews back then. It is a love letter to theatrical comedy. So, how do you tackle recording on film a play that is all about the stage?

Richard Bean’s script and Nicholas Hytner’s production are a tribute to Commedia dell’Arte and its influence on subsequent comedy such as Music Hall, pantomime and farce. It’s a deliberately theatrical show- shouty and with over large gestures. It shouldn’t work on screen and, for a few minutes at the beginning, I did fear that it was going to be everything I hate about recordings of stage shows.

Then I realised NTLive had been very clever. They made hardly any concessions to film, barring the odd close-up. There are many views of the proscenium arch and of the whole stage. The actors weren’t miked, which they often are for live recordings, so the sound is echoey. What better way to film a self consciously theatrical show than by confronting its theatricality?

One Man Two Guvnors is probably best remembered as being James Corden’s finest moment on stage and this recording is worth seeing for his performance alone but it is a production of all-round excellence. Starting with the script.

Richard Bean‘s play is an adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. This 1746 classic comedy came directly out of the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, which is pretty much the earliest form of European theatre.

The playwright has stayed faithful to Goldoni’s original story, but relocated it to 1963, recent enough to feel contemporary but long ago enough to be able to get away with sexist stereotypes and language. James Corden as Francis Henshaw, in a checked outfit, a toned down version of the Commedia dell’Arte Harlequin character’s traditional chequered costume, decides to earn some extra money by working for two bosses and then gets into all manner of confusion trying to juggle those jobs.

More than an adaptation of Goldoni, Richard Bean makes One Man Two Guvnors a tribute to Commedia dell’Arte’s influence on theatre. The standard characters and plots, so recognisable across all cultures and centuries, formed the basis of many of our comedies and comic traditions ever since. You’ll find it in everything from da Ponte’s libretti for Mozart’s operas to The Benny Hill Show.

So we get a Music Hall style production, with an emphasised proscenium arch and a skiffle band playing musical interludes between scenes. The set designed by Mark Thompson uses what appear to be traditional flats- pieces of flat wooden scenery- to add to the old fashioned feel.

We get pantomime elements- Pantomime itself being a direct descendant of – such as a slush scene where Francis serves dinner to both his guvnors while trying to keep them apart in separate rooms, and eating most of the meal himself. Doors open and shut, the two bosses appear and disappear, food and drink get mixed up and reduced as Francis tries to eat most of it, people are knocked over, all ending in a climax of flames and foam.

Talking to the audience and audience participation and the accompanying improvisation, familiar from both music hall and pantomime, are a key feature of this play and provide some of the funniest moments, whether they are really as spontaneous as they appear or not.

We get knockabout Farce: Francis falls over a chair trying to catch a nut in his mouth; Stanley, one of his guvnors, uses him as a punchbag; or, in one of the most laugh-out-loud moments, an elderly servant Alfie, played fearlessly by Tom Edden, is pushed headlong down some stairs.

Physical comedy, wordplay and first class acting

One Man Two Guvnors. Photo: Johan Persson

In fact, he has many of the funniest physical moments, from being hit by a cricket bat to having his pacemaker turned up so his shoots around the room like a pinball. These, for me, were the best bits of the evening and credit here goes to the associate director Cal McCrystal who was responsible for the physical comedy.

There is even a scene where two characters have their trousers down, reminding me at least of the inevitable moment in the legendary Whitehall farces where Brian Rix would lose his pants.

Just as Commedia dell’Arte benefited from the audiences’ familiarity with characters and plots, modern day comedy audiences like the comfort of a catchphrase. And there are catchphrases galore in One Man Two Guvnors.

Pauline played deadpan by Claire Lamb repeatedly says ‘I don’t understand’, the reformed villain Lionel’s most memorable experiences all seem to have happened at ‘Parkhurst’, a word weighted with significance by actor Trevor Laird’s glances at the audience. And there’s a running joke about a male and female twins being misdescribed as identical.

The script is also full of wonderful wordplay. There’s alliterative repartee involving the phrase ‘He was diagnosed with diarrhoea but died of diabetes in Dagenham’. There are non sequitors like ‘We had to put newspaper down because I’d had a banana’ or ‘You can’t trust a Spaniard alone with a Swiss Roll’. Hyperbolic metaphors proliferate: ‘a floral clock in the middle of winter, all the flowers dead, the hour hand pointlessly turning, the minute hand stuck on a long gone begonia’.

As to Nicholas Hytner’s production, you couldn’t ask for more variation of pace and tightly choreographed movement.

The acting is first class. James Corden has a great ability to connect with an audience, so important in a role that requires interaction with them, and a warmth that enables him to gain sympathy for the mess his deceptions have landed him in. Like other oversize comics- Oliver Hardy springs to mind- he also extracts humour from being unexpectedly delicate in his movements and surprisingly agile.

The rest of the cast extract everything they can of their largely two dimensional characters. Let’s look at the two guvnors who are also lovers- a further plot complication. Jemima Rooper is great at putting on a tough exterior while hiding a quivering heart. Oliver Chris is perfect as an upper class twit. Also gaining a lot of laughs from being serious while behaving ludicrously is Daniel Rigby as a pompous young actor.

Susie Toase is Francis’ love interest Dolly. She’s a bookkeeper and her seaside postcard body contrasts comically with her feminist ideas. The elders in this play, Fred Ridgeway as Pauline’s criminal Dad and the previously mentioned Trevor Laird, both add to the verbal comedy.

This recording of such a eulogy to theatre could never be as good as being there but in these days of being confined to home, I couldn’t be more grateful to the National Theatre for giving us this chance to see it.

The NTLive recording of One Man Two Guvnors can be seen on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until 8 April 2020.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube