Angela by Mark Ravenhill – review

Pam Ferris & Toby Jones perfect in audio play about a mother with dementia

★★★★★

Mark Ravenhill as a child with his parents. Credit: Mark Ravenhill

I’ve listened to audio plays all my life, mainly on BBC radio, so, believe me, it means a lot when I say I have never heard a better audio play than Mark Ravenhill’s Angela. It works perfectly as audio because it’s about his mother who had dementia and it takes place almost entirely inside her head.

Why, in the throes of dementia, does she forget she has a son, why does she think her husband is trying to kill her, why does she become violent? In the course of the play, we hear what led her there: her memories of her unpleasant childhood, her ambitions to be an actor, her miscarriages and the profound effect of losing her first baby, a girl.

There is much about how her love of theatre and encouragement of her son Mark is at odds with her working class background and the cause of conflict with her husband and her sister. Central is a moment from Mark’s childhood, when we see how she copes and doesn’t cope with her son. Together they see the ballet film The Tales Of Beatrix Potter. Mark becomes obsessed with dancing the role of Jemima Puddleduck. Angela identifies with Jemima, someone who is threatened by the world and has her children killed or taken away.

It’s sad, painful even, but not depressing. It’s beautifully written and sensitively performed. We gain insights into dementia- the disorientation, the imagined world, the confusion of past and present- but what is fundamentally important is that Angela remains a person, a human being with thoughts and memories and feelings.

And there’s the gentleness with which her son- and her husband- interact with her is heartwarming.

The dialogue and the acting in Angela are pitch perfect. I can’t speak to the art of getting it right but I’ve heard many times when it’s been wrong, the dialogue stilted, the acting stagey. But here when the older Angela says, for example, ‘I bled the girl away. I was made all wrong’, it sounds natural and is spoken with understated passion by Pam Ferris.

The other cast members also get the balance of clarity and believability just right. Toby Jones as her gentle husband,  Matti Houghton as the younger Angela gradually beaten down by life, Jackson Laing as the young Mark bright, loving but oblivious to his mother’s anguish even as she supports him, Joseph Millson as the adult Mark, caring, and understanding how her past shaped her and himself. ‘We’ve all got muddled, imagined things, got angry with each other,’ he says.

‘Natural’ is rarely achieved naturally, so Polly Thomas, a hugely experienced director of radio plays, deserves her share of the credit for making this one work.

The sound too is just right. The minimalist piano music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is dreamlike and ever so slightly disorientating, as befits a story that shows the effects of dementia.

There’s much more to Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly constructed play: Angela’s mother, a parent who undermines her child; her relationship with her sister who has two boys and is insensitive as to how that might make the (at that time) childless Angela feel; the attachment of blame; the devastating hole left by a miscarriage and the way it is unexpectedly filled by her love of acting when two people with dementia meet.

The play begins and ends with a middle aged man taking a ballet class. No prizes for guessing who this is.

I appreciate this play may mean more to those of us who have experienced at first hand the effects of dementia on a loved one but I can assure you that, even if you haven’t, you will be moved by this play and be thinking about it for a long time afterwards.

Angela is part of a new season of audio plays from Sound Stage, co-produced by Pitlochry festival theatre and the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in collaborartion with naked Productions. Still to come are new plays by John Byrne, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Roy Williams and more. 

You can hear performances of Angela from 2628 March and 1 & 2 April 2021. Tickets are available from pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com and lyceum.org.uk

Click here to watch the review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Paul received a free ticket from the producers to review Angela.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray with Fionn Whitehead – review

Joanna Lumley & Alfred Enoch add gloss to digital Oscar Wilde


★★★

Fionn Whitehead in The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Despite it being co-produced by five regional theatres with the involvement of many more, The Picture Of Dorian Gray is not theatre. It’s not filmed theatre. It’s not a theatrical film. It’s not a theatre-film hybrid. It’s a film. A bit of an avant-garde film maybe, but a film. So here’s my film review.

The adaptation by Henry Filloux-Bennett of Oscar Wilde’s novel brings us into the present day where Dorian Gray has been transformed into a social media star by a new digital filter that makes him incredibly attractive.  He is corrupted by his obsession with fame and his number of followers. ‘Your followers meant more to you than I did,’ his girlfriend says, or, as he says himself, he chooses ‘aesthetics over ethics’. While the filter keeps his digital face in the bloom of youth, his actual face starts to deteriorate rapidly.

Recalling what they remember of him and of what happened to him are Joanna Lumley silky-voiced as ever as an amoral Lady Narborough and Alfred Enoch as a believably bad influence called Harry, both speaking to an Interviewer played by Stephen Fry.

Their performances are excellent, and also Russell Tovey as Basil the man who invents the filter, although he appears less than the story would seem to demand.

A great deal of the film is in the form of people in isolation giving interviews or making calls or posting online, but it’s not some fuzzy set of zoom calls, it’s beautifully filmed in proper settings and from varied angles. There are cleverly cut sequences when Flashbacks are required, the main one conveying a party atmosphere very well. In fact, I found the filming and the cutting hypnotic, thanks I assume to director Tamara Harvey.

So far so good but here’s where my enjoyment started to buffer.  Because, pleasant looking and charming in demeanour as Fionn Whitehead is, and good actor as he undoubtedly is, I just couldn’t understand why the other characters feel in love with this Dorian Gray or why he would attract hundreds of thousands of followers. I admit this may indicate my lack of understanding of the kind of people who do attract a massive following on Instagram and the like.

Of course, I speak as someone who has hundreds rather than thousands of followers on social media- and I did take to heart Basil’s declaration that ‘youth is one thing worth having.’  I thought ‘Okay, let’s try a theatrical suspension of disbelief’, but the problem was that, whether he was talking to his followers or to his friends, what came out of his mouth was vacuous and spoken in a flat voice. It may have been meant to indicate the innocence of youth but to me it was just dull.

I could have written this off as my lack of appreciation of things youthful except that I did find Emma McDonald who played Sybil, another rising social media star, entirely convincing in her voice and looks, and that was as much to do with her expression as the basic tools she was working with.

As a warning against the dangers of social media, Henry Filloux-Bennett ’s script covers a well-clicked search, and has little new to say. The novelty of the way it says it soon wears off but the acting and filming make it worth a view.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray is streaming from 16-31 March 2021. Tickets from pictureofdoriangray.com

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Paul was given a review ticket by the producers

Hymn starring Adrian Lester – review

Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani give an acting masterclass

★★★★★

Danny Sapani & Adrian Lester in Hymn. Photo: Marc Brenner

Hymn, although it’s not spelled ‘him’, is a play about two men, two sons, and two brothers as it turns out. A bare stage with two actors provide possibly the best piece of streamed theatre I’ve seen.

It begins with a funeral. Gil, played by Adrian Lester, gives a eulogy to his late father, his hero. Now 50, he is the youngest child of four, the only boy, in the shadow of his older sisters and in awe of his late father. In the course of the play, we learn that his life has been shackled by following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman rather than being comfortable with being the kind but naive man he clearly is. And it seems his father was not the paragon he thought he was.

At the funeral, he meets Benny played by Danny Sapani. We soon discover he is an unacknowledged child of Gil’s father, born just a few weeks after him. Gil and Benny are drawn to one another. From then on, they are set on a road that starts with bonding and leads them hand-in-hand to disaster.

The two men satisfy a need in the other. Gil is pleased to have a younger brother, albeit by a few weeks, someone he can impress. Benny, who spent much of his childhood in care, has a connection with a dad and siblings for the first time. There’s a lot about the effect of dads on sons, or the lack of a dad.

Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani in Hymn. Photo: Marc Brenner

Both have their demons and each boosts the other. They bond through music and dance. Lester and Sapani have fine voices and are good movers. The songs they sing pepper the story and, when they relive their 80s youth, it gives them a shared experience they never had at the time. The musically knowledgeable Benny calls it ‘sympathetic resonance’. The first song significantly is Bill Withers song that says ‘Lean on me when you’re not strong.’

In another scene Benny introduces Gil to a gym where he can unleash his frustration with his life.

For a while, it is wonderful to hear two men conversing about their lives and their feelings, relaxed and natural. But we know something must go wrong- the hints are there- and inevitably it does, but I won’t spoil anything by going into the details. Just to say, like any two people who blindly love each oither, they lead one another down this fatal path.

Adrian Lester takes us through many emotions as his character moves from confident to destroyed. His face, his voice, his eyes all transform— it’s a masterclass in acting. Danny Sapani too is excellent.  I was touched by sensitivity and a puppy-like enthusiasm he conveyed, so apparently at odds with his bulky body.

The 90 minutes fly by. Lolita Chakrabarti’s script is so tight and so true. It’s interesting, I think, that, in a time when it is sometimes suggested that authors should not or cannot write about things outside their experience, a woman manages to make these men so believable.

It’s unfortunate that covid restrictions prevent the actors touching, because there are moments when they would have hugged or given one another a helping hand but the camerawork does well to suggest closeness.

In fact, this is a lesson in how to film a stage play, especially considering it is done live. It feels very like theatre- the bare stage designed by Miriam Buether tdoes just enough to suggest and leave the rest to our imagination, Prema Mehta‘s lighting and Blanche McIntyre‘s direction ensure we concentrate on the two characters and hardly notice that we are seeing it through a lens.

I was applauding at the end. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a recording will be made available.

Hymn is streaming nightly until Sunday 21 February 2021. Tickets available from https://almeida.co.uk

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

 

Good Grief with Sian Clifford – review

Subtle Performances in comedy about bereavement


★★★★

Sian Clifford and Nikesh Patel

Lorien Haynes’ play Good Grief lasts less than an hour but in that time it follows two people on an emotional rollercoaster as they suppress and express their feelings through various stages of grief.

The two, played by Sian Clifford (Claire in Fleabag) and Nikesh Patel, are mourning the death of his partner and her best friend. They have a deep affection for one another and, as they try to cope with the death of someone they both loved, they also attempt to support each other.

Good Grief is honest about the sadness and anger of bereavement, and if you have suffered the loss of a loved one, it is bound to hit home, but it isn’t depressing.  It is a comedy with many amusing moments and much dark humour.

And it is a love story, or rather a love triangle. That’s because the question running through the play is how much should one respect the wishes of someone who has gone. I was going to say ‘who is no longer with us’ but she is ever present ,affecting what the two do and how they relate to each other.

Some people are calling this a play-film hybrid including Sian Clifford herself but I don’t think that’s a good description. For me, it is simply a play that’s been filmed. Yes, it’s not filmed in a theatre or with an audience, but the simple makeshift set is very clearly theatrical in that it lacks the realism that you would expect in a film.

Nikesh Patel and Sian Clifford in Good Grief

What you do get and benefit from is close-ups. There’ are many emotions flitting across their faces, especially Sian Clifford’s. She has a great ability to convey the complexities of, say, a nervous laugh or a bemused empathy and to the change between the two in the blink of her eye. Nikesh Patel‘s character wears his mood changes on his sleeve, which is not to say his performance is any less impressive.

It’s a well written script with natural, rhythmic language.  However it ‘s clearly intended for characters in their twenties, whereas these two excellent actors are in their thirties. While it’s relatively easy to act younger than you are on a stage, close-ups make age much harder to disguise on screen.

My only other reservation is the presence of the crew. You see them reflected in a shiny cycle helmet, you see them between scenes. I don’t what the point of that was. To remind us it’s a film? To remind us it’s theatre? I don’t think would be in any doubt about either. It seemed to be a form of alienation at odds with the intimate style of the play.

The play is sensitively directed by Natalie Abrahami, by which I mean there are no gimmicks and the actors are given space to express their emotions.

[Paul received a complimentary review ticket]

Good Grief is available at originaltheatreonline.com for £15 until April 15th 2021.

Click here to watch Paul’s review on YouTube

 

Theatre To Watch At Home

The Best Stage Shows Online or on TV

Let’s face it, for many of us, the only way we’re going to get to see some theatre in the foreseeable future is on a screen, either online or on TV. So here are the best theatre shows that you can watch in your own home.

All my recommendations come with a health warning. This is because films of stage shows rarely convey what makes theatre unique. Film can offer highly realistic spectacle whereas spectacle in a theatre requires more imagination. On the other hand,  its physical reality in the form of a massive set or two dozen dancing feet can be eyepopping, and the physical presence of actors performing in front of you creates a tension that can’t be replicated in a film where things are re-filmed and edited to predictable perfection. Also, what seems totally natural when you’re watching it- the louder voice, the bigger gesture- looks totally unnatural when you see it on a screen because the language of film is about small facial expressions in close-up and words delivered at conversational levels.

Experienced theatre goers can of course allow for this but I worry that people new to theatre will simply think how ‘stagey’ it all is.

Hamilton

Hamilton. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Top of my list is Hamilton. It’s one of my favourite musicals so disappointment at a film version was almost inevitable but, against all my expectations, the film of the Broadway show is a triumph. It remains a theatrical show but the music and movement carry you along. As a bonus, you get to see the original cast including Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even if you’re not interested in Toy Story and Frozen, take a month’s subscription to Disney Plus, just for Hamilton.

Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya on BBC4

Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s classic play about getting old and wasted time and unrequited love, sensitively modernised by Conor McPherson, was having a phenomenally successful run at the Harold Pinter Theatre when Covid cut it short. So the producers decided to film it and what we get is not simply the play filmed but a stage play enhanced by film. In some ways, because the cast can speak normally and to camera, it’s better than the original and that’s saying something of a production that got pretty much universal five star reviews. The leads Toby Jones, Richard Armitage and Roger Allam live up to the epithet ‘stars’. It’s on BBC4 at 10pm on 30 December and then I assume on BBC iPlayer.

Sea Wall

Andrew Scott in Sea Wall

Sea Wall by Simon Stephens starring Andrew Scott is another stage play specially filmed without an audience. It’s a one man show in which the camera barely wavers from looking at Scott as he recounts a tragic event that engulfed him. It is devastating as a play and in no small part because of the visceral performance by Andrew Scott. and you can buy it for about £5.00. Find out more at seawallandrewscott.com

A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic

Andrew Lincoln in A Christmas Carol

One of the most anticipated Christmas shows in recent years has been the annual revival of the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol. This year’s Scrooge is Andrew Lincoln. I saw the show a couple of years and it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve spent in a theatre. I was a little worried when I heard that the Old Vic were streaming it because the production relies so much on being an immersive performance where actors and props are coming at you from all directions. However what the Old Vic are doing, even though the theatre is closed to the public, is to continue to stage live performances until Christmas Eve and stream them. Again, like Uncle Vanya, they can adapt it for the camera. Some of the best bits of immersion, such as all the food flowing from the circle to the stage, can’t be conveyed, and some of the use of Zoom is clunky, but it’s still an uplifting experience. Tickets are available from oldvictheatre.com

Pantomime

Lots of enterprising theatres have made their pantos available online including the National Theatre’s Dick Whittington. It’s radical, it’s politically correct and rather garish but an excellent production. You watch Dick Whittington for free on their YouTube channel from 3pm on Wednesday 23 December, then available on demand until midnight on Sunday 27 December. More details here on the National Theatre website.

Peter Duncan in Jack And The Beanstalk

For me the panto to watch with the family this Christmas is Peter Duncan’s traditional Jack And The Beanstalk. He understands panto and does everything you’d expect from a panto, including lots of audience participation. It may be old fashioned in many ways but I found that rather comforting in these troubled times, like a Christmas pudding- and its saving the planet theme is bang up to date.

I’ll mention a couple more children’s shows that the whole family can enjoy. The Wind in The Willows with a script by Julian fellowes and an hilarious performance as Mr Toad by Rufus Hound can be streamed for £4.99 from willowsmusical.com  And you can watch the delightful Timpson The Musical in which gigglemug Comedy imagine how the high street cobblers came also to cut keys by portraying the warring houses of Montashoes and Keypulets united by a pair of star-crossed lovers. And that’s free on YouTube.

Streaming

Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson

Lots of arts streaming services have been springing up this year, the biggest of which from a theatre goer’s point of view is NationalTheatreAtHome who are gradually making available their vast archive of productions. Right now you can watch Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, Helen Mirren’s Phedre, Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in Othello, and for one month only War Horse (in the UK only). There are many more National Theatre productions and some by other theatres including the Young Vic’s Yerma. This is one of the best stage productions I’ve seen but I’ve no idea how it will come across on film, since the set involved viewing through a glass careen with the rest of the audience opposite, giving the effect of a fish tank. Still, it should be worth seeing if only for Billie Piper’s performance of a lifetime as the anguished would-be mother.. You can rent individual shows or take a monthly subscription at just under £10.

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True

Other streaming services worth looking at are digitaltheatre.com which hosts the excellent Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, which I thoroughly enjoyed in the theatre) , Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet in All My Sons, Richard Armitage in The Crucible, the Regents Park Open Air production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods and Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True which is a funny but shocking dramatization of the trial of the man who raped painter Artemisia Gentileschi which turned into a trial of herself. That alone would be worth a month’s subscription of £9.99 but you can rent it as a single film for £7.99.

At Stage2View you can rent such treats as 42nd Street, Kinky Boots, An American in  Paris and Red starring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko. Each costs £5 or so.

Amazon & Netflix

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

Finally, if you subscribe to Netflix, check out Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film of August Wilson’s play which stars Viola Davis

Over on Amazon Prime, try Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over. Inspired by Waiting For Godot, it’s about two men who are trapped by being black and persecuted by the police. It was filmed by Spike Lee in front of a live audience and Mr Lee knows how to make theatre work on film.

View Theatre To Watch At Home on YouTube

Crave by Sarah Kane at Chichester – review

CFT production goes to the heart of Kane’s scream of despair


★★★★

Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Four actors are standing on four travelators which are in reverse so their characters are constantly having to move forward. While in constant motion, they face front and speak, usually in a staccato sound, often in short single sentences or phrases, some of them repeated. It sounds like a spray of bullets from a machine gun.

They seem to be talking to you but they may also be talking to each other or to no-one. The travelators keep them separate, even if they are communicating, so the effect is of isolation.

Is it all the stream of consciousness of one person? Are they all dead or on their deathbeds facing a form of judgement day? There is no plot, no clear relationships, not even clearly defined characters. As someone says at one point: ‘If this makes no sense, then you understood it perfectly’. So I think I must have understood it perfectly. No matter. I certainly found it engrossing.

Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Evans talked in his interview with me about seeing Crave in a new light because of the isolation we are all feeling at the moment. I’m sure this is true, but the director Tinuke Craig seems to have got beyond the lockdown resonance to the very heart of this play, because it’s not only about the loneliness but also the darkness of human existence.

When she wrote the play Sarah Kane offered no help in how to stage her text. It has been done in many ways, for example with the characters together in a room, but Tinuke Craig’s decision to stage Crave in this way, both in concept and the realisation in Alex Lowde’s set is genius, even if it may have been triggered by the requirements of social distancing. These anonymous traumatised characters are truly isolated and stuck on their own relentless path. “Here I am in the darkness again,’ says one. ‘On the edge of nothing’ comes the liturgical response.

You wouldn’t be surprised if this was a play by Samuel Beckett except there is none of the hope and courage that his characters show in the face of their futile situations. Here there seems to be only despair at the human condition.

I found myself deeply disturbed by this bleak view of life but could perhaps have been more moved if Kane had made her characters more like real people that I could connect with. However, I hesitate to call this a failure on her part as I assume it was a deliberate decision to disconnect them emotionally from those watching, just as they have no names, only letters A, B, C and M.

So much of what they say you might generously call aphorisms, like ‘no-one

Erin Doherty in Crave. Photo: Marc Brenner

survives life’, and there are echoes of other works, which is not a criticism. The borrowing reminded me of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. I think the poetry of this piece- and it is a poem- is not only in what is said but how it’s said. During the play someone describes poetry as ‘language for its own sake’ but the language of this poem has a kind of jagged beauty because, within its cadence, telling words about need and rejection constantly jab at you. And every so often a line really brings you up short, like: ‘What I sometimes mistake for ecstasy is the absence of grief.’

The actors were impressive. Neediness and desperation pervaded all that they did. Some of what they talked about was very upsetting. Erin Doherty‘s character referred in a sometimes strangulated voice to the rape and abuse she had received and talked about her poor self image. Jonathan Slinger’s character first announced he was a paedophile which then coloured a subsequent long and touching monologue about love which itself was later contradicted by his nasty cynicism. A mentiuion too for Alfred Enoch and Wendy Kweh. It was a bravura performance by all concerned.

‘A horror so deep only ritual can contain it’

The sound, composed by Anna Clock, comprised sawing, disjointed, low notes played on, I think, a cello. It was discomfiting but in just the right way. And Ravi Deepres’ back-projected film of images of the characters, sometimes negative or blurred, added rather than distracted. I was particularly struck by a close up of Erin Doherty’s face and the words ‘What have they done to me’ gradually appearing in writing on her skin.

When one character talked of ‘a horror so deep only ritual can contain it’, I thought of the horrors that were being contained on this occasion because they were being presented within the ritual of a play. And when I say ‘contained’, I mean only just. At the end, in quite biblical language, the characters embrace the freedom of death, and the play ends with a blackout. I was left totally wrung out.

About the screening. The process of logging in to view the event was straightforward and I was pleased that I was able to sit back and watch it on my telly with good picture quality rather than on blurry Zoom or the small screen of my laptop. The live broadcast went without a hitch when I saw it. We had front views, side views and close ups but in a way that enhanced the performance. The way the production was done had the advantage that, although it was a theatre show, it didn’t look like a film of a stage play because it could also be a movie about four people trapped in any empty space. Congratulations all round.

Performances of Crave was live streamed in November 2021. cft.org.uk

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Erin Doherty is currently playing Princess Anne in the Netflix series The Crown.

Faith Healer at Old Vic – review

Great play, great cast but a strain on the eyes.


★★★★

Michael Sheen in Faith Healer. Photo: Manuel Harlan

First things first, Brian Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer is a masterpiece. The question is, did this production streamed live from the Old Vic via Zoom do it justice? Sadly, the answer is, no.

Not because the acting wasn’t good, it was great. Michael Sheen was charismatic as the touring faith healer Frank Hardy describing unreliably events from his hit-and-miss performances in village halls. Indira Varma as Grace his brittle depressed partner gave us a different and hugely poignant version of events including a lost baby. His agent Teddy, so much a showbiz cliché when described by Frank, seen in David Threlfall’s amusing portrayal as a sensitive, caring man beneath his convivial and somewhat seedy exterior. Both have given up a lot to support Frank and it is through them as much as by seeing Frank himself that we appreciate he has an inspiring gift despite his apparent cruelty.

At first glance, Faith Healer would seem ideal for our social distanced times comprising as it does of four monologues, bookended by Frank. However watching a small screen for nearly two-and-a-half hours without a break is too much. The Health and Safety Executive advises a break from a computer screen every hour.

In the theatre, out of the comfort zone of home, and with the actors physically in front of you, it’s much easier to concentrate. Zoom works wonderfully for shorter monologues such as the previous Three Kings with Andrew Scott that came in in under an hour.

Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall are a dream cast

Indira Varma in Faith Healer. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Sometimes the filming worked as when Michael Sheen emerged in silhouette from the darkness all shabby and funereal or when David Threlfall sat in his comfy chair in the middle of emptiness, but against that there was a use of close-ups which were so close up that they took away the sense of theatrical performance, and made it more like a TV drama.

The play is all about the words. And it’s a dream cast delivering them. Also, how great to see a play that doesn’t need a massive set or special effects to make its point. The poetic words prove to be as glittery and slippery as a live fish. They are whatever the speaker wants to believe or wants to make us believe. All teh characters are telling us stories but what is fact and what is fiction? The more we hear, the less we know.  Did healings take place or didn’t they? Is Grace Frank’s wife or mistress, from Yorkshire or Ireland? Who chose the music to play at the performances? Where did Frank’s mother die? Are they all ghosts?

Faith healing is itself a performance and we can see that it relates very much to art. Just as Frank is tortured by not knowing know where his gift comes from and whether it will manifest itself any particular evening, so the artist, be it a playwright, an actor or some other creative person, is uncertain about why sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. And when we go the theatre, we all have to have faith or to put a more familiar way, suspend disbelief.

So, a great play, great acting… just not the medium for it.

Faith Healer was performed at the Old Vic and streamed on Zoom from 17 – 20 September 2020

Click here to watch this review of Faith healer on YouTube

Sleepless with Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh – review

Sleepless Is A Romance About Musicals


★★★

Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh in Sleepless. Photo: Alistair Muir

If you’re worried that a musical couldn’t do justice to the classic film Sleepless In Seattle, don’t be. Sleepless does pretty much all you would hope from it and more.

Okay, Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh are not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. However what makes Hollywood stars great is their ability to convey their thoughts and feelings through their faces in close up. The composer Alan Menken said songs in a musical substitute for close ups when it comes to revealing character. And the songs by Robert Scott and Brendon Cull are both charming and do the job.

Jay McGuinness and Kimberley Walsh perform well, especially the latter as Annie who is the full package of acting, singing and dancing. Jay McGuinness as Sam is also impressive and very likeable but I felt his inexperience as an actor showed a little bit in the more emotional moments.

Now, you’ll remember the plot but just in case… A widower in Seattle can’t sleep and his son gets him on a late night radio show to talk about his situation. He’s heard by a journalist in Baltimore and she is one of many thousands who are moved by what he said. He receives a letter from her. She invites him to meet her at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away the ending (and best not look at the production photo).

That subtitle A Musical Romance is interesting because this is not only a romantic musical, it’s a romance about musicals. Nora Ephron’s movie, although set in 1993, harks back to the films of the 1950s and in particular An Affair To Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (or it Carr, as the characters keep saying). So does this show. It is a tribute to the musicals of that time.  Just as the film has a soundtrack of songs from the swing jazz era, the songs here are a homage to the hits of that time- you can almost hear Frank Sinatra singing some of them. The costumes by Sue Simmerling are technicolored. There is a joy in language in Michael Burdette’s book.

You may be aware that I’ve been doing a podcast History of Stage Musicals for Box Office Radio so I’ve been steeped in the very best of the so-called Golden Age Of Musicals. While it may not plumb the depths of South Pacific or hit the heights of Gypsy, Sleepless is an uplifting musical and the creators’ love of that period really comes across.

Where Sleepless falls down is that it sticks too closely to the plot of the film. The first half is all about setting up for the second half. While that’s quite normal, Sam probably wouldn’t have had his problem with sleeplessness if he’d watched this first act late at night.  It really needed an additional subplot or at least some dancing to spice up the proceedings. I was probably naïve to expect the show to be sprinkled with dance numbers but it does star two Strictly Come Dancing alumni. Also, it’s a long time since I went to a musical that didn’t feature lots of dancing.

There’s plenty of smooth jazz style walking from the chorus and the odd moment of where emotion is expressed through movement. That includes a comedy duet between Sam’s son and his friend. The only ‘proper’ dance is during the curtain call when our two stars show that they still remember their Strictly moves.

There is good support from Daniel Casey as Annie’s dull fiancé Walter and the splendid Harriet Thorpe as her domineering mother. Tania Mathurin as her extrovert friend Becky and Cory English as Sam’s friend Rob (a new character) inject a healthy dose of comedy.

The set designed by Morgan Large evokes Sam’s job as an architect by using back projections of architectural drawings. In the same vein, the skeleton of a multi-purpose structure dominates centre stage with lots of vertical and horizontal lines.  Morgan Young directed this most enjoyable show.

Finally a word about the producers Michael Rose and Damien Sanders. I can’t praise them highly enough or indeed thank them enough for giving audiences starved of live theatre the chance to see this lovely musical, even though at 30% capacity because of social distancing they can’t possibly be making any money out of it. And well done to the Troubadour for their exemplary Covid-19 safety precautions.

Click here to see Paul’s YouTube video review of Sleepless

See Sleepless at the Troubadour Theatre until 27 September 2020. Click here for tickets.

This is the link to Paul’s podcast History of Stage Musicals in Ten Decades on mixcloud.com

Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil – review

Ralph Fiennes mouths David Hare’s righteous anger at Boris Johnson


★★★★

Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil. Photo: Manuel Harlan

After five months of being deprived of live theatre, I say all hail the Bridge Theatre for being, as far I’m aware, the first to put on an indoor show. How wonderful I thought not only to see Ralph Fiennes in the flesh but also to get away from the pandemic. Except David Hare’s new play Beat The Devil is about the pandemic.

Sir David caught the virus just before the lockdown and was seriously ill with it and, in this monologue through the medium of Ralph Fiennes, he talks about the progress of his illness and in parallel the actions of the government. As the virus went mad so did the government, he says, or words to that effect.

We’re all too familiar with the failings of our leaders in this crisis but it didn’t harm to be reminded of them. And he does tell both stories with righteous anger and a pleasing wit. On the personal level, there’s his puzzled response to finding that his signature dish tastes so much like sewage that he feels he must have made a  mistake in the cooking. Describing the government as ‘mediocre’, he sys, ‘does violence to the word’. Of course, if you feel the government has handled this crisis well or at least no worse than any other government would have done, I realise the polemic may lose some of its impact but it’s still fun.

It greatly helps that the lines trip off Ralph Fiennes‘ tongue so naturally, just as if he is having a conversation with us, albeit a conversation fueled by anger and bemusement. Bunny Christie’s set is admirably simple but effective, being appropriately a desk placed centre stage, which gives Mr Fiennes as the writer something to move round or sit at, under the direction of the incomparable Nicholas Hyntner.

David Hare has been writing plays for fifty years and by comparison with his best- Plenty, Skylight, Pravda, the Absence Of War– this 50 minute memoir may seem slight. It is fair to say that many elements of the public story of the pandemic will be familiar to anyone who follows the news but Sir David’s ability as a writer is undiminished. He can still coin a phrase: ‘it’s a sort of dirty bomb thrown into the body’, or be wryly detached in his descriptions of his illness thereby enabling us to see for ourselves the horror. For that reasons, it’s all the more startling when he lets out his pent up anger. ‘I don’t have survivor’s guilt, I have survivor’s rage,’ he says.

His concludes that what we need is ‘truth’. It seems incredibly potent in its simplicity.

Naturally because he was isolated during his illness, there’s no room for the renewed sense of community that many of us found during lockdown but there is a touching moment of love when he describes how his wife selflessly lay on him to keep him warm.

Ralph Fiennes at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If anyone doubted the need for the Bridge’s precautions, the vivid description of the disease would surely change their mind. Talking of which, I understand that you might still be hesitant to go to an indoor performance but let me tell you, the safety measures taken by the Bridge Theatre were exemplary- from the controlled entrance to the thermal imaging to the one way system, to having to wear a face mask throughout the visit, to the spaced out seats. I felt totally safe. What was interesting was the way the spacing had been managed. The less than one third capacity audience still produced the atmosphere of a much fuller house.

I hope that, in giving this show four stars, I’m not just intoxicated by finally seeing a live performance.  I think not. The proof is, I would happily see it again.

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

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