Lesley Sharp and David Morrissey provide laughter and emotion in Jack Thorne’s family drama
(5 / 5)
It’s a world away from Jack Thorne and John Tiffany‘s last collaboration- Harry Potter And The Curse Child– but the end of history is another moving drama about parent child relationships.
The title may refer to a book by Francis Fukuyama which around 1990 declared that, with the fall of communism in eastern Europe, liberal democracy had triumphed and its flag would fly forever and a day.
It’s 1997 and we meet Sal and David, two lifetime left wing socialists who perhaps can longer expect radical change. A clue is they’re not happy that Blair, leader of their party, has become prime minister. It may even be significant that they came from hard Manchester and now live in soft Berkshire.
Their three kids are in their late teens and early twenties. The oldest Carl is bringing his new girlfriend Harriet to dinner. She is the daughter of a rich father who owns hotels and service stations. Sal is as fascinated by the privileged as she hates the liberals. She talks too much and in a very frank way. In fact Lesley Sharp’s unfiltered talking when she’s nervous is hilarious. ‘No talent when it comes to cooking, she says of herself, but when it comes to pissing off my children – immense talent – Olympian talent.’
Her children are indeed embarrassed by her but they expect to be. But it’s the red parents who seem red faced because their children are not turning out to be radical socialists. A bust up ensues.
We move on ten years. The parents, true to their socialist ideals, take a decision that makes their children feel they have been judged to have betrayed the cause. Leading to another bust up.
All the children are much more their own people now. In fact, one of the joys of this play is how the children mature but are recognisably the same characters. Kate O’Flynn is the hard-edged Polly with a surly bottom lip like a snow plough. Always the best at winning arguments, she has become a cynical corporate lawyer. The less confident Carl, played by Sam Swainsbury, is married to Harriet (Zoe Ball), but not that happily. He has joined the family business. The highly strung youngest Tom, played by Laurie Davidson, remains a misfit with an inferiority complex and is yet to find his way. None of the children have the certainties that characterise their parents.
By the end of act two, having experienced a wonderfully funny performance from Lesley Sharp as the mother, I was wondering why an actor of the quality of David Morrissey had been employed to provide a fairly standard dour northern dad. Then came the third act, ten more years on, and he delivered the most moving emotional monologue that explained so much of what formed the parents’ characters and relationship. ‘I thought she was astonishing, she thought I’d do,’ he says.
And the children at something like the halfway stage in their lives see their parents with a new perspective. Not the familiar ‘we just wanted you to be happy’ but something more appropriate to their intellectual rigour.
I don’t want to make this sound too political or philosophical because it is ultimately the story of a family, a believable family. They are loving but they’re not tactile and they’re not sentimental- and neither is Jack Thorne’s script. His dialogue conveys the relaxed banter and the rows of people who love and know one another. The children’s attachment to their parents and its effect on their lives is tangible.
John Tiffany directs with precision. The beautiful design by Grace Smart presents us with a simple family kitchen but with holes in the walls, perhaps suggesting the uncertainties of their lives.
A word of warning. In the middle of one argument, Sal says, ‘I’m going to the toilet. It’s an a political act.’ This is a particularly cruel thing to say in front of an audience who have to sit with their legs crossed through one hour fifty minutes without an interval.
Bitter reviews for David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat at The Garrick
Even recruiting John Malkovich, one of the finest stage actors of his generation to make a rare West End appearance couldn’t sweeten the critics’ reactions to David Mamet‘s Bitter Wheat:
“a flabby, cynical and pointless effort” cried Tim Bano in The Stage
“lazy, crude and empty” railed Henry Hitchins in the Evening Standard
Michael Billington of The Guardian called it “ineffectual” which is quite restrained compared with “a hot mess of gauche plotting, unfinished ideas and sheer wrongheadedness… It might just be the most pointless play of the year” That from Alice Jones writing in The i
“Politically, it’s tiresome; theatrically, it’s loopy” said Holly Williams in Time Out
“(It) manages to spend two hours saying very little at all” moaned Greg Stewart in Theatre Weekly.
“as flaccid as a deflated balloon” lamented Matt Trueman in Variety
“Implausible, daft and irritating” said Aleks Sierz on The Arts Desk, sounding a little irritated.
For Debbie Gilpin on the BroadwayWorld website, it “lacks clarity and intent”
Dominic Maxwell of The Times called it “a wonky piece of theatre”
“Bitter Wheat is a bitter disappointment” said Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph. (You see what he did there?)
Distasteful and misjudged don’t begin to describe it,” said Mark Shenton in londontheatre.co.uk. Okay, Mark, so what would describe it? “stupefyingly silly and frequently offensive.” Well I did ask.
The star ratings tell it all.
(1 / 5) The Stage (1 / 5) WhatsOnStage (1 / 5) londontheatre.co.uk (1 / 5)The Arts Desk (2 / 5) The Daily Telegraph (2 / 5) The Guardian (2 / 5)The Times (2 / 5) Time Out (2 / 5) The i (2 / 5) Evening Standard (2 / 5) Theatre Weekly (2 / 5) Broadway World
I’ve only found one of the overnight reviews that gave more than two stars. That was a 3 star review from David Lister in The Independent and even he said: “Malkovich deserved a more rounded and thought-provoking play”.
So what was it that they were bitter about? Five themes emerge from the reviews.
Not much in the way of plot
First there was the thin to non-existent story. The character is Barney Fein which sounds like Harvey Weinstein. And that’s because it’s a satire about a movie mogul who abuses his position.
“It feels like a first draft, its silly and unsatisfactory second half needs rewriting,” said The Times bluntly, and went on: “Can you make high comedy about something so blatantly inspired by the Harvey Weinstein story? Not without a more evolved storyline than Mamet manages here.”
“Mamet’s play lurches from set piece to set piece and tone to tone in search of a good-enough counterpoint to its awful antihero…” complained WhatsOnStage, continuing “(it) is not really a play at all but an unfocused and tawdry howl of anger”
“a classic of lazy playwriting” said the Arts Desk, explaining: “Mamet follows a simple recipe, writing by numbers. And you could do this too. Here’s how: 1) Select a current controversy; 2) Read a couple of Sunday supplement articles about it; 3) Dredge your memory for some Tinseltown anecdotes; 3) Write a monologue. Add jokes.”
The New York Times weighed in with “‘Bitter Wheat’, bilious to a fault, also feels scattershot and lazy”.
Time Out seemed to enjoy the first act but not the second: “typical Mamet fast-paced, sarcastic exchanges with some zinging insults, revealing the hollow nature of Hollywood and ultimately pitting a smart young woman against the sleazy older man” but “the extremely brief and sketchy second half is just bizarre”
It sounds like it might be a good idea to leave at the interval. Here’s Variety: “the plot creaks with convenient fire alarms and useful idiots. It’s lazy and that’s before Mamet gives up on a short second half that piles on a bonfire of improbabilities.” And that’s the fourth time the word ‘lazy’ has been used.
“Mamet doesn’t even bother to give his play a proper ending” gasped The i.
The play clearly has its moments. The Times describes a scene that “depicts a moment of sexual threat with such horrible ordinariness that you feel as if you are locked in the room with its characters yourself. It’s an unforgettable, unhysterical scene.”
Secondly, there’s the disappointing dialogue.
“Given Mamet’s expertise and the sensitivity of the subject-matter, what’s surprising is just how dashed-off the dialogue seems” said the Daily Telegraph, continuing: “Where once Mamet’s lines zinged, too often they wheeze on Zimmers; there’s more chaff than wheat here.” Dominic Cavendish’s previous “bitter disappointment” inspiring another pun on the title. “Some jokes land. Others go thud.” said The Times, not referring to his fellow critic.
The Stage quite liked the “Entertaining dialogue” but found it “empty of revelation”. For Theatre Weekly, “It’s not the story being told, or even the person telling the story that’s the issue, it’s that it lacks any kind of challenge to the audience, and the instances of clever writing are drowned out.”
No depth to the main character
The critics found the main character just as lacking in depth as the plot.
“this is a vehicle for pithy lines that don’t amount to a character” said The Stage. The Evening Standard made the same point: “The role lacks psychological depth: Fein is a profane, abusive, creepy figure, but essentially he’s just a conduit for Mamet’s vitriolic lines.”
“Bitter Wheatnever fully reveals the psychological depths of this depraved character” agreed The Independent. “The sorry fact is that Fein never deepens or darkens” said the New York Times. “the hero is unrelievedly vicious” cried The Guardian. For WhatsOnStage “Fein is a pantomime villain, a buffoon rather than a real threat”
Other characters thinly drawn
Did the other characters make up for the failure to create a believable central character? I’m afraid not.
“The rest of the cast are merely decoration around him, treated in various shades of contempt and dismissal” said Theatre Weekly.
“none of his characters are psychologically credible” noted Variety. They were, said WhatsOnStage: “virtually unplayable and criminally under-written roles”.
“at least put a teeny bit of effort into any of the other characters” pleaded The Stage.
Damning with faint praise, Time Out declared: “the best things about ‘Bitter Wheat’ really are the women, even though their parts are thin”.
The male viewpoint
Finally the critics didn’t like the viewpoint. Where angels fear to tread in the aftermath of #MeToo, Mamet appears to have jumped in with both hobnail booted feet.
“we really didn’t need a Harvey Weinstein play, written by a man and from a male perspective. The whole thing leaves you feeling… grubby” shuddered Time Out.
Variety summed up: “he ends up exploiting the experiences of assault survivors for entertainment”. BroadwayWorld felt the same: “It does ask that we re-hash all those harrowing #MeToo revelations for entertainment… but hardly shedding any new light” Furthermore “women’s voices are once again being drowned out by that of a man”
The i got the same impression: “the victim is relegated to literally watching men talk to each other from the sidelines.” The i continues: “It’s as if he wants to write about anything except the effects of sexual assault and what should happen to the perpetrators”
What about John Malkovich?
So those are five major reasons the critics didn’t like Bitter Wheat. But what about John Malkovich? Surely he offered some compensation? Not according to The Stage: “Malkovich – obviously a brilliant actor – isn’t brilliant here. He delivers everything in an unceasing monotone, like someone is doing some drilling next door”
Time Out found “he plays Fein as wholly unpleasant, he’s not nuanced.” WhatsOnStage starts by describing Malkovich as “one of the most charismatic and dangerous actors of his generation” before saying “even his light seems dulled.”
“Fine actor though he is, Malkovich has to work overtime to invest a character who claims ‘people are animals’ with any light and shade” said The Guardian. “At times his performance is fun; at times it’s funny; over time, it’s a bore” concluded The Arts Desk.
“A passable performance from Malkovich cannot save this play, or make it into something it’s not” said BroadwayWorld. It’s hard to believe that a word like ‘passable’ is being used about the great John Malkovich but I guess you can’t make bricks without straw.
Others were more impressed by him.
The Daily Telegraph praised: “Malkovich’s ability to hold our attention” continuing “Malkovich re-affirms his idiosyncratic charm and nonchalant aura. It’s great to see him” before concluding on a downbeat note: “he’s not enough to tip the balance fully in the evening’s favour”
The Independent had no doubts about his quality- and perhaps this was what swung the three star review: “John Malkovich, prowling the stage like a bloated, warped colossus,… is present on stage throughout and dominates it with a towering performance that conveys not just the vulgarity, the bullying, and the predatory nature of the movie mogul, but also the paranoia that helped to define Weinstein.”
One word noticeably crops up twice in the reviews.
It was, said The i: “The theatrical equivalent of clickbait.” The Evening Standard suspected the same: “instead of prompting nuanced discussion, it has the rancid smell of clickbait.”
Personally I think it might be going a bit far to suggest that somehow Bitter Wheat was written purely with ticket sales in mind. But certainly we can conclude from the reviews that while much was promised in this comedy by David Mamet starring John Malkovich about one of today’s important issues, little was delivered.
Not everyone who’s seen it agreed. An actual movie star Rupert Grint, who should know whereof he speaks, said it showed the reality of behind the scenes in the entertainment world. And, even if this is not Mamet’s finest hour, it is still a rare opportunity to see John Malkovich on stage. You can see Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre in London until 21 September 2019.
Reviews that arrived later weren’t much kinder. Susannah Clapp awarded Bitter wheat one star in her Observer review, calling it “a feeble fizzle”. Ben Croll in Vanity Fair called it “a tired play on autopilot, courting scandal by inertia and grabbing whatever low-hanging fruit it can.”
Johnny Oleksinski in The New York Post used a quote from the play against it: “Bitter Wheat begins … when a young screenwriter pitches his script to Fein. “Your script is a piece of s–t,” he says. If only someone had told Mamet the same.”
There were exceptions. Two positive reviews came from Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times and Lloyd Evans in The Spectator- both are often contrarians. Mr Letts gave Bitter Wheat 4 stars but unfortunately his review is trapped behind a paywall. And Mr Evans “could have watched this captivating freak-show until midnight and beyond. It’s a fine play, rather creakily structured…”
(5 / 5) Prism at Hampstead Theatre (touring autumn 2019) is a double pleasure. It marks a welcome return for Terry Johnson, author of Dead Funny, Hysteria and Insignificance with his first full length play in ten years. And it gives Robert Lindsay the chance to get his teeth into a role worthy of his great acting talent.
Based on the life of the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Prism tells a story of dementia. It shows us Cardiff’s uncertain grip on present day reality and, in a ‘wow’ moment of revelation, we get to see the world as he is seeing it – memories of his life in the movies. On top of that, we are given a fascinating insight into the art of lighting and treated to some magical effects.
Terry Johnson’s understanding of the art of theatre is peerless. He describes himself as a ‘dramatist’ and rightly so. Here he has directed as well as written this play and has created a pretty much perfect piece of theatre, which is ironic for a play about a filmmaker.
It has sharp dialogue, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it does things only theatre can do. There is a moment when, as the scenery moves, Jack steps from a location in his memory of the past to his present location but still acting out in his mind a past situation which we have already seen from the others’ point of view. It could only work in a live performance.
Robert Lindsay is one of our great stage actors
It’s a play full of metaphors for the process of growing old and dying. Cardiff fears blindness more than death but we realise the obliteration of his brain will be as bad. A prism is the key to making colour filming work just as the hippocampus is the key to a functioning brain. The ‘dying of the light’ as night approaches was Dylan Thomas’ metaphor for death: here it is literally the moment when you can no longer film.
Above all, this is an opportunity to see one of our great stage actors. Robert Lindsay has done a lot of work in light entertainment from the musical Me And My Girl to TV’s My Family to the recent stage version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He has done it brilliantly but perhaps his ability to entertain us has made us forget the depth of acting of which he is capable. This is a timely reminder that his combination of rich voice, rugged good looks, timing and sheer presence are to be treasured.
Claire Skinner, Barnaby Kay and Rebecca Night all provide excellent support but the evening belongs to Robert Lindsay. I hope Prism gets a West End transfer. This is a production that everyone who loves theatre should see.
News added June 2019
Prism starring Robert Lindsay but with some changes to the rest of the cast is touring during autumn 2019:
Sweat- an important visceral play by Lynn Nottage.
(5 / 5)
There is so much I could say about this play but I want to concentrate on the central story which concerns the deindustrialisation that happened in the US in the early 21st century. It’s something we in the UK are only too familiar with. Our government, like many others, moved the economy away from manufacturing, letting those jobs go to China, Mexico and other developing countries where labour was cheap.
In Sweat the action takes place in 2000 in Reading, Pennsylvania and is based on true events surrounding factory closures. Lynn Nottage has created complex believable characters and we see at first hand their sense of betrayal, loss and anger. They feel betrayed because generations had worked at the factory and displayed what they saw as loyalty. They lose their way of life and their sense of worth.
In a succession of scenes, the main characters meet up in a bar that looks as industrial as a factory. In particular we meet two good friends Tracey and Cynthia. At first all is well but we can see the seeds of what will happen. Unlike Tracey and her son Jason (Patrick Gibson) who see working on the line as their lives, Cynthia and her boy Chris (Osy Ikhile) aspire to get away from the grind of the factory floor. Chris plans to go to college, Cynthia would like to move into management.
Both women apply for a supervisor vacancy, Tracey just for the hell of it but Cynthia because she really wants it. When the more suitable Cynthia gets it, Tracey who’s white puts it about that Cynthia only got the job because she’s black- in other words, because of positive discrimination. Racism, it seems, is just waiting below the surface like sewer beneath a road. When the factory threatens jobs, the division between old friends just gets worse as does prejudice against any ethnic minority.
Tracey is repulsive. She’s undoubtedly the life and soul of the party but she’s also ignorant and blindly prejudiced. And very aggressive- Mike Tyson would hesitate to pick a fight with her. It’s a layered character brilliantly conveyed by Martha Plimpton. You are appalled by her but you know enough about her to recognise her as a fellow human and to realise her biggest problem is a lack of education, which leads to her inability to see the bigger picture, and her failure to see that her interest lies in unity not division.
When we go forward eight years, we see the long lasting devastating effects of job loss on individuals when a whole community becomes poor. Frankie Bradshaw’s set now represents the isolation of homes rather than the community of the bar. Clare Perkins breaks your heart as Cynthia who dreamed of improving her life and ends up used, abused and struggling to survive.
There is a shocking act of violence involving Jason and Chris that stems from the threatened factory closure. Perhaps Jason was always likely to resort to violence when under pressure but it is easy to see what happens as a metaphor for the blows against the establishment struck by working class people voting for Trump or Brexit.
Lynette Linton‘s direction is tight and the characters express themselves as physically as they do verbally. While the production might not be as visceral as it must have been in the cockpit of its original venue The Donmar, Sweat remains a harrowing, important experience. It brings home the shocking reality of the effect of deindustrialisation on people and communities. It also gives us an insight into why we are seeing such a rise in racism and populism.
Much is being made by the National Theatre of how this play and its author Githa Sowerby are not that well known and that if she had been a man, it would have been a different story. She would have stood alongside Bernard Shaw or even Ibsen in whose footsteps she followed with this realist drama of ideas. Well, I would have to say, on the strength of this production, there’s another reason that this play is not well known and that is that it ‘s dull. Worthy but dull.
Before I go into detail, let me say that the acting is excellent. Roger Allam dominates as an actor much the same as his character dominates. It’s a powerful performance as the bullying father who is more committed to his family glassmaking business than to his family. His beard deserves a star dressing room of its own. It says to all the other characters, I can grow bigger thicker beard than any of you.
Admittedly I saw a preview, so it may get better. Maybe it’s Polly Findlay’s heavy handed production that doesn’t do Sowerby’s work justice. I’ve no doubt part of the problem is the perennial one of the size of the Lyttelton stage. This is an intimate family drama intended for a stage the size of a drawing room, not one made for spectacle. I’ve seen The Cherry Orchard chopped down by this auditorium so Rutherford And Son is in good company.
Even so, I was not convinced that this play has aged well since its premiere in 1912. The story tells how Rutherford’s grown up children rebel against the repressive businessman. It was revolutionary in its time for its depiction of women as people who could think for themselves and lead lives of their own, not to mention its exposé of the patriarchy, class prejudice and the evils of capitalism.
Well, I’m all for exposing the patriarchy but I found the outcome of their family quarrels too predictable, mainly because nearly all the characters were caricatures of weak men. They just bounced off Rutherford who was the polar opposite, powerful and with depth.
The women were stronger and their engagement with Rutherford more interesting. Anjana Vasan is the working class daughter-in-law Mary, who realises she needs to be as ruthless as Rutherford. Justine Mitchell is the put-upon daughter who learns she can’t rely on men.
The characters may be weak but, as I said, the cast is strong. It includes Joe Armstrong as the blindly loyal worker Martin and Sam Troughton as Rutherford’s ineffectual, overwrought son John who has been alienated from the business.
Lizzie Clachan‘s set is naturalistic and full of detail as befits a realist drama. It suggests the draughty, high maintenance nature of homes in those days and the bleakness of life with Rutherford.
I recommend that if you want to experience a strong female character and a critique of society in the genre of realist drama, you give this a miss and go across the river to see the wonderful production of Ibsen’s Rosmerholm at the Duke Of York’s.
Note: More about Roger Allam’s performance added on 6 June 2019. YouTube review re-recorded with better sound quality on 13 June 2019.
Sheila Hancock and James Nesbitt are the leading lights and Kirsty MacLaren shines
(4 / 5)
There’s a lot to like in This Is My Family which is directed by Daniel Evans with a light comic touch.
This is the second of CFT Artistic Director Daniel Evans‘ ‘greatest hits’ from his days at the Sheffield Crucible to be revived at Chichester. I wasn’t so keen on Flowers For Mrs Harris but I’m delighted he brought this show south with him.
Nicky, our narrator and the daughter of the family in question, sees that her family is falling apart. Her mum and dad are hitting midlife crises, they bicker and don’t seem loving any more, her brother is moody and withdrawn, her grandmother is beginning to lose her mind. Nicky’s solution is a camping holiday back where mum and dad first met.
Put like that, it sounds quite predictable and in truth there’s not much to challenge the audience but Tim Firth has written a beautifully observed comedy about family relationships through the generations. There are some very witty lines, the best of which go to Grandma (‘Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and there’s the nut left’) and Mum’s libido driven sister Sian played by Rachel Lumberg. The latter part is, unlike the others, more of a cariacature but it’s all the more funny for that and her song comparing lovemaking to driving a car is hilarious.
This is My Family is a musical play rather than a musical musical which may be why I didn’t find the songs memorable. There are no show stoppers or vocal stretching moments- they’re more like words accompanied by music, almost recitative, and this may be the point because Tim Firth‘s many lovely metaphors would be too poetic or emotional for spoken dialogue.
Kirsty MacLaren is magnificent as Nicky. She holds the show together and is one talented young woman, living up to the promise she showed in Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. Scott Folan as the lovestruck brother is good too and their antagonistic but loving sibling relationship feels spot on.
At the other end of the age scale, Sheila Hancock is fabulous as the grandma who’s frightened of what she’s losing but finds peace in the past.
James Nesbitt and Clare Burt are a pleasure to watch for their comic acting.
The set by Richard Kent is clever. This is the Minerva so mostly it’s three-sided space but at the back in act one there’s a kind of slice through the middle of a house, filled with domestic details, which then spins round to form a wood in act two.
In the end this is a hopeful view of the family that we can all recognise. As I said, there’s a lot to like about This Is My Family. It’s been a while since Chichester had a West End transfer, this feelgood musical deserves to be the one.
Avengers star Hayley Atwell is forceful co-star with Tom Burke
(5 / 5)
Rosmersholm is about wanting to pursue passion and change but being held back by the past – the political system, religion, inhertitance.
At the beginning, everything is covered in dustsheets in this stately home- Rosmersholm. The walls show signs of flood damage at the lower levels. It’s murky. Until Hayley Atwell playing Rebecca West starts pulling the sheets off and letting the light in.
It’s a year since Rosmer’s wife committed suicide in the lake and clogged up the millwheel, thus causing a flood.
Her death raised questions, the main one being why did she do it? Rosmer is weighed down by his past. Not only the recent tragic event of his wife’s death but his whole inheritance. The high walls of Rae Smith’s brilliant set are covered in paintings of his ancestors staring down. He is expected to keep the line going.
We are on the eve of an election and people are looking for a lead from Rosmer. But his disillusionment with the political system, where everyone is in it for themselves is profound. He renounces his traditional party- the conservatives, whose representative is superbly conveyed by Giles Terera as the likeable but ruthless Kroll who views women and the working class with contempt. So it seems Rosmer should back the radicals but both sides take against him. Both own newspapers that lie about him. You see there are many modern parallels.
Mildly spoken Tom Burke as Rosmer pefectly conveys the uncertainty that alternates with his passion for Rebecca.
Good as Mr Burke is, the evening belongs to Hayley Atwell as Rebecca. She is the force of change and she is a force on the stage. Her performance is bravura but always believable. However even Rebecca is dragged down by the past.
This is an excellent cast. Lucy Briers is the housekeeper, representing the dour working class, still mired in superstition and believing what she reads in the papers. Jake Fairbrother is the radical newspaper editor, previously driven out of the town by holier-than-thou outrage, led by Rosmer, who is now the victim of the same high mindedness himself. Peter Wight is the faded leftwing revolutionary who is violently rejected by the workers he wishes to empower.
Nothing in Ibsen is straightforward and, as in his earlier An Enemy Of The People and The Wild Duck, naively believing that all you need is truth is a sure recipe for disaster.
Ultimately the politics gives way to the personal. Hope and heartbreak mark the love between John Rosmer and Rebecca West and, as this is Ibsen, a happy ending never seems on the cards. There are many questions and no easy answers in this masterpiece but there is much to thrill to as emotions once constrained begin to burst free.
Ibsen is famous for his revolutionary realism and Ian Rickson’s production and Duncan MacMillan’s adaptation triumph in making the characters in this 130 year old play seem totally real.
Also realistic are the set design by Rae Smith and lighting by Neil Austin which emphasise the claustrophobic setting and changing moods. Rae Smith‘s final contribution (which I won’t reveal), as the curtain metaphorically is about to come down, is a coup de théâtre that underlines what has happened and gives final proof of how much the design is another actor in this terrific production.
Finally a quick word of praise for producer Sonia Friedman. Again she has brought a play to the West End that might have been expected to stay in the domain of subsidised venues and, although she has used star names from film and TV, the stars are stage actors of the highest calibre. Commercial producers often look for safe, audience pleasers but Ms Friedman stretches and challenges her audience and, on this occasion, has rewarded them with an evening of extraordinary theatre. Click here to watch the review on YouTube
SPOILER ALERT! This is a complaint about the publicity material. Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen’s least produced plays (although this may change after this powerful production), so audiences are unlikely to know how it ends. However, having seen the picture on the posters and adverts, they are likely to have a good idea as the play progresses.
Downton Abbey star in clever one woman play by Christopher Hampton
(4 / 5)
The set comprises a small living room with an old lady sitting on a chair alone on a thrust stage talking to the audience. She never stands up. For 100 minutes we listen, I mean really listen.
The lady is Maggie Smith playing a real person called Brunhilde Pomsel who among other things was secretary to the monstrous Josef Goebbels, a top Nazi during World War Two. Apart from the light around her getting darker and focusing increasingly on this slight figure, Jonathan Kent’s production and Anna Fleischle‘s design are restrained, by which I mean, as gimmick-free as they can be.
The play is based on interviews Frau Pomsel gave in her old age. They may have been intended to show how ordinary Germans behaved during Nazi rule and pose the question, would you have behaved any differently: ‘I had no idea what was going on. Or very little. No more than most people.’ However Christopher Hampton’s play is much more nuanced.
A German Life is partly about the false memory of old age but also the deliberate rewriting of one’s history. And Hampton is brilliant at giving clues as to what the truth might be but leaving you to make your own mind up.
This woman says she was brought up to obey but she got her first job by going off to Berlin on her own initiative. She says she was quite distanced from the womanising Goebbels yet she describes with excitement how she sat next to him at a dinner in his house when his wife was away.
She clearly didn’t subscribe to the Nazi ideology- for example, she had nothing against jews, she had jewish friends and employers. In that sense she is only guilty of acquiescence, of not doing anything, like many ‘ordinary’ people. But she was not in an ordinary situation- and we are bound to question her claims that she was unaware of what was going on, when she was one of the people in Goebbels’ office.
So how does Maggie Smith do at conveying this? The answer is, in the main, she plays Pomsel as a doddery old lady. Personally, I found the hesitations and repetitions grated a little but perhaps they were meant to. It’s as if Pomsel is acting, deliberately portraying herself in this way to emphasise how harmless and how naive she was. She fiddles with her glasses, puts her hands to her face. Then every so often, emotion, usually in the form of pride, causes her mask to slip: her face lights up with a vivid memory, her voice gains a steely confidence and her glasses stab the air.
I accept that a portrayal of a normal person isn’t going to lead to a barnstorming performance but I have to say I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected to be. I think the problem was that this was an intimate play and, although I could hear her familiar nasal voice perfectly well at the back of the stalls, I could not see her piercing eyes and facial expressions.
This may have been a performance for people sitting in the first ten rows but it takes a great actor and a great play to hold an audience for an hour and 40 minutes.
Anne-Marie Duff adds Wow Factor to excellent production of Sweet Charity
(5 / 5)
Sweet Charity with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields.
This would be an excellent production with any musical star but Anne-Marie Duff adds a wow factor. She may not be as good a singer or dancer as those who’ve made a career out of musicals but she can sing and she can dance and she brings to the part all the emotional depth of a great actor. You feel her pain and you feel her ecstasy, and her pick-yourself-up-and-try-again smile is infectious.
Charity is a taxi dancer in the 1960s. If you don’t know what that is (and I didn’t), it’s someone who works in a club where punters can hire them for a dance, and sometimes more. Charity believes in love. Despite being conned and let down many times, she remains an optimist and keeps looking for love. When things go wrong, she simply changes reality to suit her romantic view of love.
Ironically, despite being no virgin, she remains an innocent, which is the essence of her vulnerability but it’s also her strength. You could simply dismiss her as a naive fool, instead her way of seeing the best in people and not losing hope is inspirational. We want her to find love, even though we fear she won’t.
Anne-Marie Duff is perfect for the part. Her song-and-dance rendering of If My Friends Could See Me Now complete with a routine with a top hat and cane perfectly conveys Charity’s child-like unaffectedness. And her I’m A Brass Band is a joyous expression of what it feels like to be in love.
But it’s not a one woman show.
Arthur Darvill as Charity’s shy insecure boyfriend and Martin Marquez as a charming and charmed (by Charity) film star are both superb. Most of all there are the women who make up the rest of the taxi dancers. Their performance and reprise of Big Spender are astonishing. In the intimate setting of the Donmar where the audience is only four rows deep, these women saying ‘Let me show you a good time?’ is very personal.
The stunning choreography by Wayne McGregor, paying homage to the original work by Bob Fosse, evokes Cabaret and Chicago. Robert Jones’ set, a simple open stage with silvery props and furniture inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s Silver Factory, suggests Charity’s bright optimism in a harsh world.
What a way for director Josie Rourke to bow out as Artistic Director of the Donmar.
Sweet Charity can be seen at the Donmar until 8 June 2019
Handbagged by Moira Buffini in a new production directed by Jo Newman
(3 / 5)
Handbagged takes us through the major events of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as British prime minister. I use the word ‘reign’ deliberately because the story is told through a series of meetings between an increasingly regal Thatcher (Eve Matheson) and the actual Queen Elizabeth (Caroline Hacker).
Handbags multiply as those two are overseen by older versions of themselves, played by Sarah Crowden and Susan Penhaligon. Much of the humour stems from the characters commenting to the audience on what is said. Typically: ‘I never said that’.
Because the play is speculation, no-one knows for sure what was said and the characters are aware that they are performing this version of events for an audience. ‘Whatever we say, it must stay within these three walls,’ says the Queen. What we are presented with is a conflict between the ideological, deaf-to-compromise, humourless Thatcher (‘No’ being her favourite word) and a more compassionate, ethical and wryly amusing Queen. It’s no surprise who ends up the winner in this handbagging contest.
The author Moira Buffini clearly thinks Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was bad news. If you agree, you’ll get a lot of pleasure in hearing the Queen being upset by the effects of her government’s policies- dividing the nation, creating a greater gap between rich and poor, encouraging greed. ‘We lost the feeling that had persisted since the war,’ she says, ‘That we are all in this together.’ ‘Is she a socialist?’ asks Mrs T.
I never really felt I got beneath the skin of the two women in power, despite the poignant moments of shared sadness at the IRA bomb attack on Mrs Thatcher in Brighton and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten.
I found the history lesson got a bit boring at times but there is plenty of fun to be had in the conflict between these two women in power. All the women do good impressions of the protagonists but Susan Penhaligon is uncannilly believable as the older Queen and- perhaps because we nearly all have this well of affection for the real queen- she gets the most laughs.
Supporting the four women, two men play actors who have been hired to play all the other parts- Denis Thatcher, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Neil Kinnock, Michael Hesletine, and so on- and who also address the audience with their ‘own’ left wing views, in case we found the Queen’s opinions a little oblique. Andy Secombe and Jahvel Hall provide a lot of knockabout comedy and almost steal the show.
On the whole the performance I saw seemed a little hesitant which, for me, dampened the laughs. I expect, after a few more outings, it will be much sharper.
Handbagged can be seen at Salisbury Playhouse until until 20 April 2019 then tours to York Theatre Royal (24 April – 11 May) and Oldham Coliseum Theatre (14 May – 1 June)