Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury Playhouse – review

Barney Norris brings home the power of love

★★★

Emmet Byrne and Lily Nichol in Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Photo: Helen Murray

Wiltshire becomes a metaphor for today’s Britain in Barney Norris‘ retelling of Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury Playhouse. The blood feud of the original is replaced by laddish drunkenness and Mediterranean passion by English reticence in which ‘Sorry’ is the most used word.

That may sound like Lorca-lite but this is a good play in its own right. The characters are well drawn and the dialogue feels real. That’s partly because it is so strongly rooted in Wiltshire. There is longing, fate and disconnection in this story of an ill matched bride and groom whose tragic fate is sealed when another man stirs the bride’s heart.

What works particularly well in Alice Hamilton’s production is the feeling that these characters are trapped. They are limited by poverty. None has moved far over the years, yet they are all slightly displaced from their origins. This combination of roots and disconnection is a powerful parable for our times: England has one foot in the past while being uncertain how to step into the future; we still have bigotry but as it says in the play ‘bigot’ is now a pejorative term.

They are even trapped in an unchanging set- a beautifully constructed exterior of a once proud community hall now dilapidated. Sitting in Salisbury, watching a play so rooted in Wiltshire, adds to that feeling of being trapped.

The atmosphere of the Moonraker county is strong but the story of Lorca’s Blood Wedding is universal.

As in the original, we have a Bride and Groom. Georgie is about to marry Rob, for whom the title ‘lad’ might have been invented. He’s a four years younger than her but seems like a different generation, such is his childishness. He’s infatuated with her; she just wants to get married.

Georgie and Rob are played by very promising young actors. Reece Evans’ goofy expressions, loud jokes and wide-eyed innocence are just the right side of caricature. Lily Nichol conveys Georgie’s discomfort with the situation as if it were a physical burden.

When she meets her old flame Lee, whom she previously rejected because he’s an Irish traveller, her feeling that real love is missing from her current relationship is crystallised. Both feel, as he says, there must be more to life. After the interval, it’s time for the wedding reception and an inevitable catastrophe.

Lee too has a loveless marriage with Georgie’s old school friend Danni, now the mother of Lee’s child and pregnant again. There is a deeply moving moment when Danni, continually asking him whether he loves her, says with sadness, ‘If you did, I wouldn’t be talking now.’

An impressive look at the complex lives of ordinary people

Tensions mount until the situation explodes but, in keeping with the original, the ‘blood’ of the blood wedding is shed offstage. Although, at this point in the production, the use of a kind of one man Greek chorus high up is undoubtedly dramatic, I found it too histrionic for this tale of ordinary people. I would have preferred the description of what has happened and the explanation of its significance to have been contained within the natural conversations. In other words, show rather than tell.

The set, designed by James Perkins, is crowned by a huge moon, another Lorca reference, that underlines the feeling that there are greater forces that control the fate of mere humans.

The rest of the cast shine. Jeff Rawle plays the hall’s caretaker Brian with a white beard and a benign smile that give him a Father Christmas look as he dispenses sage advice. A perfect choice for the part. Teresa Banham is totally believable as Rob’s edgy, sensitive mother. Emmet Byrne convinces as the spirited but nervous traveller desperate to be free who sparks passion in Georgie. The confusion and desperation Eleanor Henderson beings to the role of Lee’s wife Danni is touching.

It may lack Lorca’s passion but Barney Norris‘ version of Blood Wedding is an impressive look at the complex lives of ordinary people in Britain today.

Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury playhouse. Photo: Helen Murray

Lorca’s Blood Wedding is performing at Salisbury playhouse until 22 February 2020. Tickets from Salisbury Playhouse

[This review was edited on 15 February 2020: the order of some of the text was rearranged to make it more coherent.]

Paul was given a review ticket by Salisbury Playhouse.

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend at the Menier – review

Janie Dee leads delightful revival of The Boy Friend ★★★★

Dylan Mason & Amara Okereke in The Boy Friend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Even when it was first performed in 1954, Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend appeared to hark back to a bygone era, a time of flappers and musical comedies, that preceded the then modern muscular realist musicals like Oklahoma! That it still appeals 65 years later suggests that the secret of its longevity is that it is set not so much in the past as in a world of its own.

This is a world where rich young English ladies attend a finishing school under the benign supervision of Madame Dubonnet, in which English reserve melts in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun and the charms of the French, and in which a little deception and misunderstanding are mere ripples on a smooth voyage to romance and happiness. Put simply, its appeal is that it offers us a utopian world of innocence.

There isn’t much plot to tell you about. A young heiress wants to be loved for herself not her money. She meets a poor delivery boy, they fall in love, but he’s not all he seems. Don’t worry it all works out. In fact, it all works out for everybody’s love lives.

Sandy Wilson could have tried harder to incorporate some less predictable twists or more plausible predicaments but that’s not the point. The point is, to escape to this fantasy world for a couple of hours and bathe in the brightness of the song and dance.

Romantic jaunty and poignant song and dance

Mr Wilson’s delightful songs aspire to Cole Porter and, while not actually reaching the great man’s heights, there is a lot of humour in lines like ‘The mere idea of living in a palace is, so full of fallacies’. Memorable numbers include the romantic I Could Be Happy With You, the jaunty It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love, an unexpectedly poignant Poor Little Pierette and of course The Boy Friend. A quick word of praise here for Simon Beck and his live orchestra for driving the show at a jolly pace.

Tiffany Graves & Company in The Boy Friend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

In the intimate space of the Menier, the kicks are so high and the lifts bound so far across the stage that people in the front row may need to duck. Among the many glorious dances, there’s an infectious Charleston performed by Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson and Jack Butterworth (both talented performers to watch out for in the future) and an amusing tango in which the couple come to blows while maintaining the moody moves.

The splendid chorus lines extend to the girls speaking in unison as they flirt with their potential husbands. In fact, given that choreographer Bill Deamer is listed as associate director, it is hard to say where his choreography ends and Matthew White’s direction begins. But all praise to Mr White for honouring the gossamer lightness of this musical while introducing enough down-to-earth physical comedy (with homage to vintage TV) to keep a contemporary audience happy. For example, when the stern French maid Hortense, played with gusto by Tiffany Graves, describes the demureness taught at the school while leaving her legs wide apart as she crosses them. Shades here of Kenny Everett.

Adrian Edmonson squeezes every laugh he can

There’s a touch of Benny Hill when Adrian Edmonson, once a Young One, appears as an old  English lord, whose lechery is thwarted at every turn. It’s behaviour we wouldn’t expect to find funny anymore but in the world of The Boy Friend, even lechery is innocent fun and Mr Edmonson squeezes every laugh he can out of it. He even eats an ice cream lasciviously.

And he is just one of a terrific cast brought together in this Menier production. It’s led by one of the great musical stars of the older generation Janie Dee who steals every scene she’s in with her ‘Allo ‘Allo style French accent (another blast from the TV’s comedy past) and her knowing smile, especially when she seeks to rekindle an old romance with ‘Petit Percy’ played by an appropriately starchy Robert Portal.

And it’s a pleasure to see a star of the new generation Amara Okereke in the lead role of Polly Browne. Her sweet soaring voice and subtle acting convey both the strength and vulnerability of a young woman looking for love. Dylan Mason plays her suitor with fresh faced innocence.

Paul Farnsworth’s simple Mediterranean blue set is entirely appropriate and his 1920s style costumes are bright, elegant and fun.

You won’t come away from The Boy Friend feeling you’ve had a substantial meal but you will have enjoyed a superb sorbet.

The Boy Friend is performing at The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre until 7 March 2020.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Dial M For Murder – tour – review

Tom Chambers stars in tour of vintage crime drama ★★★

I suspect Dial M For Murder seemed more thrilling when it was first performed seventy years ago. The latest touring production, which I saw on the opening night at Richmond Theatre, doesn’t exactly have you on the edge of your seat, certainly not jumping out of it. However it still has a clever plot with a few excellent twists. And there’s considerable fun, intrigue and excitement to be had as you wonder whether the criminal will be caught and, if so, how.

Christopher Harper, Sally Bretton, Michael salami & Tom Chambers in Dial M For Murder. Photo: Manuel Harlan

This Simon Friend Entertainment production, directed by Anthony Banks, is faithful to the spirit of the original stage play by Frederick Knott on which the Alfred Hitchcock film was based. Tony Wendice, an impecunious former tennis player, plans to murder his rich wife because she has fallen in love with someone else and he doesn’t want to lose his cash cow. He recruits an old acquaintance with a need for money and a leaning towards crime. It could be the perfect murder… unless he makes a mistake.

Like top players in a tennis match

Tom Chambers in Dial M For Murder. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The set up is slow and wordy but once it gets going, especially when events cause Tony to improvise, the play becomes quite gripping- like watching a high level tennis match in which he quick wittedly returns whatever ball comes over the net.

Fortunately the production is blessed with two fine players in the lead roles. Tom Chambers as Tony is wonderfully louche with an amusing habit of striking tennis playing poses. On the other side of the net, Christopher Harper’s police inspector is a worthy opponent. He exudes authority, intelligence and determination. I particularly enjoyed his increasing animation as he believes he’s closing in on the guilty party.

The production also stars Sally Bretton and Michael Salami .

The play was written in 1951 and the clipped dialogue and repressed emotions are typical of the time. In fact, I’m not sure why director Anthony Banks has transferred the action to the more unbuttoned sixties when an affair and the planning of a murder were more shocking in that earlier decade.

Christopher Harper in Dial M For Murder. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The production pays homage to forties and fifties cinema. It uses chiaroscuro lighting at various times which I am assuming is intended to summon up the feel of an old detective film. I’m sorry to say I found the shadows more reminiscent of a power cut than a film noir.

On the plus side, David Woodhead’s angular set with much early Sixties detail gives a good sense of both the period and of the striking camera angles used by Alfred Hitchcock.

By the way, there’s an inadvertent spoiler in the programme’s cast list so I advise not looking at that until the interval.

If you fancy a night out, you could do a lot worse than this diverting entertainment.

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Dial M For Murder can be seen at Richmond Theatre until 18 January 2020. It then tours to Norwich Theatre Royal 21-25 January, The Orchard Theatre Dartford 27 January-1 February, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford 4-8 February, Theatre Royal Bath 11-15 February, His Majesty’s Aberdeen 17-22 February, King’s Theatre Edinburgh 24-29 February, Theatre Royal Glasgow 3-7 March, Salisbury Playhouse 10-14 March, Churchill Theatre Bromley 17-21 March, Palace Theatre Southend-on-Sea 23-28 March, Dubai Opera House 7-11 April, Milton Keynes Theatre 14-18 April, The Alexandra Birmingham 20-25 April, New Theatre Cardiff 28 April-2 May, Curve Leicester 4-9 May, Lyceum Theatre Sheffield 12-16 May, Liverpool Playhouse 19-23 May, Theatr Clwyd 25-30 May, Theatre Royal Brighton 2-6 June, Theatre Severn Shrewsbury 9-13 June, The Lowry Salford 16-20 June, Royal & Derngate Northampton 22-17 June, Theatre Royal Plymouth 30 June-4 July, Leeds Grand Theatre 7-11 July, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre 14-18 July 2020. Booking details can be found on the tour website dialmformurderplay.com

Paul Seven Lewis was given press tickets to review this production

Fairview: Powerful comedy about race

Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury at the Young Vic

(4 / 5)

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. Invited critics were asked not reveal twists but it’s impossible to review why this play is so powerful without saying how and why. I paid for my ticket so I feel free to discuss the whole play.

Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Rashan Stone & Nicola Hughes in Fairview at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

‘What are you looking at?’ says the wife to the husband right at the beginning of Fairview at the Young Vic. And that really is the question. What are we looking at? The answer seems to be a well-off African-American family preparing for a special occasion. But there’s something not quite right. Is Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play going to be a family drama set around a dinner party with bickering, jealousy and secrets such as we’ve seen many times over the years? Or is this more like a pastiche of a US sitcom? The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is so bright and clean and detailed that it could be made for HD TV.

The characters are black, yes, which in our world of middle class theatre is unusual, so we may anticipate that race is going to figure. Then again, these are middle class people. Shut your eyes and the characters could be any colour: the wife Beverly played by Nicola Hughes with a perfect mix of bossiness, insecurity and affection, the playful husband Dayton played with a cheeky likeability by Rhashan Stone, Naana Agyei-Ampadu squeezing all the comedy she can from the fashion conscious, faddy sister Jasmine, the sensitive rebellious daughter Keisha played by Donna Banya, plus, off stage, the unreliable brother hoping for a partnership in his firm, the daughter’s friend and the mother who won’t come downstairs. All very amusing but fairly predictable archetypes.

There are peculiar moments in this first act: the radio malfunctioning briefly, a tendency for the characters to break into dance, the daughter appearing in a spotlight to express her discomfort with the situation.

As if a brick wall has collapsed on you

Then we come to act two and everything changes. It’s as if a brick wall has collapsed on you. From here on in, we are in no doubt this is about race and we are looking at what it means to be black: the white gaze, the stereotypes, the cultural appropriation. Not that Jackie Sibblies Drury presents a simple lecture. Fairview is subtle comedy with many layers, presented with a unique theatricality and directed with flair by Nadia Latif. The twists are jaw dropping and lead you to question what happened in the first act and who these people are. So please don’t read any more if you don’t want to spoil those dizzying surprises.

WARNING: SPOILERS

Act two repeats act one but this time it’s acted out silently while the radio- maybe the radio- provides a commentary from four white people. Who are they? They could be the creators of the characters we are seeing or they could be simply ciphers for the white gaze. Anyway they digress into a discussion about what race they would like to be, each time coming up with stereotypical views of those races, ending with black, where they conclude they wouldn’t want to be the kind of middle class black people we are viewing because they are boring. It’s poor black people who are interesting- the rappers, the loud mamas. The voice who would like to be black remembers her black maid.

This does go on a bit but then there’s a delightful moment when the characters on stage, previously unsynchronised, segue into apparently mouthing what the voices are saying, even though we can remember that this wasn’t the dialogue from the first act. So, in a way, the characters come together in a prelude to the third act.

An uncomfortable evening for those ‘identifying as white’

Because, if that wasn’t enough, we then pick up story of the family and it’s not long before the characters we previously heard talking decide to come on to the stage to spice up this middle class family with black characters who are more ‘interesting’. So the missing brother appears as a rapper, although his sister is still asking how the partnership is going. The mother appears twice, once as the remembered black maid, a history Beverley contradicts. The white people confuse, question and provoke the black people. The black people object to being told what they are. It all ends in an amazing food fight.

Then in a final coup, the daughter invites those in the audience ‘identifying as white’ to come up on stage and see what it feels like to be in the spotlight. To not be ‘normal’, but instead to be focussed upon, expected to perform in a certain way, simply because of the colour of your skin. The actors leave the stage; many of the audience climb on to the stage including me. I’m uncomfortable with defining myself by race but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see the view from the stage.

It was an interesting experience. The lights are blinding. You can’t see the audience (or what’s left of it). You go from being an anonymous member of that audience to being the focus of attention. I tend to think that theatre is about letting you into other people’s lives or letting us see ourselves in different ways but this really took it from an intellectual exercise to a physical one.

Because Fairview is an American play, it wasn’t as much a punch in the guts for me as it clearly was to audiences when it first performed in the US where there is a history of slavery and segregation. Black people in this country have been and are subject to racial prejudice but they have never been divided from the white population. It would be much harder to write a play which involved stereotyping a black British culture.

A subtle layered comedy

Not that Jackie Sibblies Drury presents a lecture about racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation, except right at the end. If she did, I might be saying that she wasn’t telling us much we didn’t know already. Instead she starts with a middle class family, and thereby acknowledges that education and money are levellers. She subtly shows that even they are aware of what is expected of them which manifests as what you might call watered down stereotypes, a tendency to break into dance for example. She also presents the white people as stereotypes (the camp gay man springs to mind) which suggests that Fairview is not only about race.

I took from the evening a strong plea to take individual people as you find them- with a fair view- rather than imposing preconceptions or prejudices. Anyone could be a victim of prejudice if they are in an underprivileged or weaker group.

That’s what I came away with but this is such a good play that I think people, depending on their backgrounds and prejudices, will have come away with many different reactions. Even if you see it and decide, as some critics did, that Fairview is divisive or outdated, you will come out thinking and talking about it long after the audience have left the stage.

Fairview can be seen at the Young Vic in London until 23 January 2020.

Click here to watch the review of Fairview on YouTube

Minor amendments made on 14 January 2020

& Juliet at Shaftesbury Theatre – review

Max Martin’s songs power a musical triumph

(4 / 5)

Watch the review of & Juliet on YouTube

Miriam-Teak Lee and cast in & Juliet. Photo: Johan Persson

I’m pretty sure I’m not the target demographic for & Juliet but I loved it.

It’s a jukebox musical which is an art form usually well down the West End hierarchy. It features the work of Max Martin whom I’d never heard of until now. Although I vaguely recognised a lot of the songs, they arrived a long time after I lost interest in teens and twenties music. The choreography is mainly street dance, which I admire but am usually unmoved by. The plot is a love story with a strong dose of girl power which I applaud but the story is too lightweight for me.

And yet love it I did. Why? Because the songs are actually great. The performers generate enough energy to power Regent Street lights. The costumes, the set, the sound quality (great to be able to hear the words) and most of all the singing are phenomenal. If the director Luke Sheppard were a football manager, he’d be winning the Premiership.

The show features nearly 30 hits from the most successful songwriter of the last 20 years, Max Martin – songs like ...Baby One More Time, It’s My Life, Roar, Oops I did it again, I Kissed A Girl, Can’t Stop The Feeling and many more which fit like a glove around the story. The plot imagines Juliet living on after Romeo’s death and going on to write her own story.

It’s presented as a kind of workshop in which at Anne Hathaway’s insistence, her husband William Shakespeare rewrites the ending of Romeo & Juliet. She wants it to be about empowering women and about finding true love. She wants the love to spread beyond the traditional romantic leads. She even writes herself into the plot. Will tries to undermine this, partly to inject some conflict and setbacks into the drama but also to re-build his male ego.

It’s not quite F—ing Perfect (another Max Martin song). David West Read’s book has some cheesy moments, unlikely plot twists, cliche characters and terrible puns but it is all tongue-in-cheek and, as in all good musicals, you are carried along by the emotion of the music more than the words in between. And you definitely Can’t Stop The Feeling!

Miriam-Teak Lee: Stardom beckons

There’s slick street dancing choreographed by Jennifer Weber. Paloma Young’s colourful costumes nod to Elizabethan symbolism as well as today’s streetwear. Soutra Gilmour’s set joins in the fun by melding various centuries plus street art and pop culture and giving many opportunities for the principals to spin round and to rise into the air. (It’s been a good year for Gilmour with her stark dramatic set for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s Evita helping the show win an Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.)

Cassidy Janson, Miriam-Teak Lee & Melanie La Barrie in & Juliet. Photo: Johan Persson

Then there’s the cast. I was exhausted just watching them. Miriam-Teak Lee is destined to be a great star. I thought she was outstanding in the Open Air Theatre producton of On The Town, this time she blew me away with her Juliet- a powerful voice and a strong character mixing strength, emotion and comedy.

Matching her is Cassidy Janson as Anne Hathaway. This musical is as much about her disappointment in her relationship with Will as anything and her poignant rendering of That’s The Way It Is is a highlight of the show.

The third in the triumvirate of strong women in this show is Melanie La Barrie as the Nurse. Her comic performance deservedly got the most laughs. She has a heartwarming mature love affair with the poised Lance, charmingly played by David Bedella, who is bowled over by love.

This is a musical in which women dominate so generally the male characters fare less well. William Shakespeare (Oliver Tompsett) is a deliberately one dimensional sexist. Juliet’s gay friend played by Arun Blair-Mangat is a cliche. His love interest Francois (Tim Mahendran) is lightly drawn. Romeo is amusingly shallow and given an appropriately preening performance by Jordan Luke Gage.

Much to my own amazement, I came out of the theatre singing I Want It That Way and I’d be delighted to see & Juliet ..Baby, One More Time.

& Juliet is performing at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. For tickets, visit the official website shaftesburytheatre.com

Paul Seven Lewis was given complimentary review tickets.

Click below to view this review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

The Watsons at The Menier Chocolate Factory

Laura Wade’s play is funny, thought-provoking and exhilarating

(4 / 5)

The Watsons starts as a fairly conventional adaptation of a Jane Austen story taking place on a lovely white set by Ben Stones.

The Watsons at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Emma needs a husband and the question is, which of the three contenders will she end up marrying? Will it be for love or money? But this is an unfinished novel so we reach a point where the plot runs out and, suddenly, the author of the play steps in to prevent it going in an unintended direction. Played by Louise Ford, she’s a wonderful combination of determination and exasperation. From here on, it’s mayhem all the way.

At first it’s a conversation between the playwright Laura and the lead character Emma. Grace Moloney makes her totally believable as a typically intelligent witty Jane Austen heroine who takes the opportunity to figuratively (or, come to think of it, literally) rip off her stays.

Soon all the other characters are involved. Laura has a clear idea of how the story should develop but these are not her characters: they’re Jane Austen’s. They have their own ideas and Laura starts to lose the plot.

Quite mind-blowing

Thus we enter into an exploration of the creative process and, if that sounds a little dry, let me assure you it’s more like entering a flume ride. Many authors have talked about how characters take on a life of their own and begin to dictate the plot. Here it happens in front of our eyes. And of course the author, even though she’s called Laura, is a character herself created by the actual playwright Laura Wade.

Grace Moloney and Louise Ford in The Watsons. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The play becomes mind blowing as Ms Wade digs through the layers of implications and branches out in many directions to explore artistic creation and women’s experience.

She raises questions of free will and predestination. The characters are the creations of a God-like author but we living human beings also ask how much we are in charge of our destinies and how much our character seals our fate.

It’s partly an argument about whether you should conform or be true to yourself but when the characters put taking control to a vote, it also raises a cheeky referendum-related question of whether people should have a say if they don’t have all the information.

When the characters take charge, anarchy reigns. People behave out-of-character or perhaps as they would without the restraints of society’s rules, in this case a society created by the author. You see what I mean when I say this work is vertiginous.

A head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade

The Watsons at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Watsons is a head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade whose reputation is already high after her brilliant Home, I’m Darling. Directed by her husband Samuel West with a lightness of touch, the production makes the most of every opportunity for humour. There is a wonderful moment just after the characters have just discovered that they are in a play. When Laura steps through the fourth wall, as one they gasp and sway backwards.

You also realise that the significance of the white set is probably that the author hasn’t filled in the details.

There is the odd moment when the examination of the author’s own situation feels a little indulgent but The Watsons delivers a funny, thought-provoking, exhilarating evening.

The Watsons is running at The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre until 16 November 2019

Paul saw a preview performance of The Watsons

Click here to watch the video review of The Watsons on YouTube

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre

(3 / 5)

Juliet Stevenson outstanding in Robert Icke’s exposure of populism

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Dr Wolfe, played by Juliet Stevenson, prides herself on being logical and making medical decisions based on facts in a world of irrationality.

Hildegard Bechtler’s stark set is quite a contrast to the detailed oppressiveness of her design for Rosmersholm. Here you have bare pale walls with only a table and benches in the middle, very clinical and hospital-like but also reflecting the cool rationality of the main protagonist.

On this occasion she’s treating a 14 year old girl who has botched a self administered abortion and contracted sepsis. She’s going to die and Dr Wolfe wants her to die peacefully. A Catholic priest turns up expecting to give her the last rites but the doctor doesn’t want her patient disturbed.

Thenceforth this sparkler of an incident turns into a stick of dynamite as the doctor is attacked on all sides: by her colleagues who want her power reduced, by campaigners who seize an opportunity for publicity, by internet trolls who want to vent their anger.

The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

An online petition condemning her gains tens of thousands of signatures from people who know nothing of the case. An anti-abortionist attacks her even though she didn’t carry out an abortion. People abuse her and accuse her of murder. Her Jewish parentage is invoked as a reason for her anti-Catholic behaviour.

Much of the play is about a rational person trying to maintain her position while being besieged by irrational, prejudiced people with their own agendas.

Robert Icke’s clever use of gender and colour blind casting

Writer and director Robert Icke cleverly uses gender and colour blind casting to wrong foot the audience. We don’t see why the doctor should be accused of prejudice until we realise that someone we thought was white was black or someone we saw as a woman is a man, thus underlining that it is the accusers who are prejudiced.

The doctor is drawn into defending herself and, under pressure, she reveals   some prejudice in her own behaviour which leads to irrationality, but in unexpected ways.

Take language. Her pride in her rationality is illustrated by her obsession with the correct use of English. She picks someone up for saying ‘literally’ in a context where it means precisely the opposite. Later she is forced to acknowledge that language is fluid and subjective, when her enemies pick on a seemingly innocuous phrase  as being racist because she used it against a black person.

She also freely admits that her practice of medicine is only the sum of today’s knowledge and could be seen as ignorant and like witchcraft in the future.

The original play on which The Doctor is based is Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. Written a hundred years ago it was a warning against the rise of populism and its use of people’s prejudices as a weapon. These days the tools may be different- social media and TV- but Robert Icke’s new version suggests the tactics of populists remain the same.

Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance

The Doctor shows how frighteningly easy it is for the rational can be submerged by the irrational. Our protagonist gradually breaks down as she is engulfed by a nightmare. Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance as she descends from the ramrod stiff leader at the opening through anger to desolation and tears.

The problem for me was that the plot seemed contrived. I didn’t believe that events would turn out this way. Would a senior doctor in dementia take on someone with sepsis from A&E? Would a TV debate really include an anti-abortionist when abortion was not the issue?  Add to which, the other characters seemed like ciphers there simply to make a point.

Ria Zmitrowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlanliet

The exception was the troubled young person staying with Dr Wolff and who has her private life exposed. only the other week The Sun published a repugnant story which used the name of famous cricketer Ben Stokes as an excuse to write about his parents and a family tragedy that happened before he was even born.  Ria Zmitrowicz was convincingly nervous and vulnerable as she placed her trust in her substitute mother.

A lack of respect for his audience?

I was disappointed in one element of Robert Icke’s direction. There is a point where Juliet Stevenson sits on the front of the stage and has an important confrontation with another character. This was not visible from the Circle where I was sitting. I have worked in a 2000 seat theatre where the directors would go to the back and sides of each of the three levels to ensure that the actors could be seen. It would be surprising if, in a theatre as small as the Almeida with 360 seats and two levels, Mr Icke was unaware that hundreds of ticket buyers would be unable to see this crucial moment.

Remembering the theme of this play, I will admit that I don’t know all the circumstances and I’m not a director. Nevertheless I find it difficult to believe he couldn’t have moved this scene upstage a little. I’m not going to start a Facebook petition or a Twitter campaign but he does appear to be showing a lack of respect for his audience.

Robert Icke is a hugely talented director and while his final production as associate director of the Alemeida Theatre may not be his best, The Doctor is an imaginative, thought provoking work that generates a powerful performance by one of our finest actors.

The Doctor is performing at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September 2019 before transferring to the Duke Of York’s Theatre for a limited run from 20 April 2020.

Click here to watch the YouTube review of The Doctor starring Juliet Stevenson

Hansard starring Lindsay Duncan & Alex Jennings – review

(5 / 5)

Hansard in the Lyttelton Theatre of the National Theatre is what I love about theatre. Forget video screens, background music, special effects. Simply two great actors live on stage telling a story to a live audience. For ninety unbroken minutes this couple bickers and takes swipes at each other until eventually they reveal what’s behind their fractured relationship. It’s art on a human scale.

And what’s amazing is that this is Simon Woods’ first play which makes its perfect structure and precise and funny dialogue all the more remarkable. And there’s confidence in how he handles his audience- he’s even bold enough to make a joke about plays with no interval. 

In case you don’t know, Hansard is the written record of all that is said in Parliament. But it doesn’t tell the full story. This play is about what’s not said. The story behind the legislation. The point where the personal and the political meet.

It’s 1988. Robin, a public schoolboy MP, arrives home for the weekend. His wife Diana seems unprepared for his arrival. She isn’t happy that his government has just passed section 28 which outlaws sympathetic teaching about homosexuality. He’s upset at how wild animals are wrecking his lawn. She lays into him, pretending she thinks he’s talking about what his government is doing to the country. There are many more crowd pleasing snipes at the public schoolboys who run the Conservative government and the country. For example, there’s a joke about how people who keep voting for them are like abused partners. It all sounds so contemporary despite being set 30 years ago. 

It’s clearly familiar ground this couple are going over, a bit like putting on old slippers, neither surprises the other, being amused even by each other’s insults.

Gradually the humour subsides without totally disappearing and the previously unspoken reason for the schism between them is revealed, followed by secrets that are deeply upsetting but show how much they have misunderstood one another in their anger.

I suspect Diana and Robin owe a debt to Edward Albee’s warring couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? but this war of words is less vicious or at least more civilised.

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings convince

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, directed by Simon Godwin, are top class. He is totally believable as the upper class husband who keeps his emotions battened down and reacts to everything in the modest self-deprecating way of those born to rule. (I was very impressed by his ability to first cook toast on an Aga and then eat it while still projecting his lines to the back of the circle.)

She too is upper class but while she enunciates vowels that could cut glass, her voice is strained by emotion suggesting she is close to the edge. Even so, she is in control enough to toy with her husband and give him sideways looks that could cut steak.

These are convincing characters in a real situation. What implications there are about the way we conduct our politics- her ineffective left wing words, his assumption of his right to govern, the need for understanding and common ground- are very subtly woven in. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s set, a naturalistic kitchen and dining area, uses the often intimidating width of the Lyttelton stage to great effect by bringing down the proscenium arch until it looks even wider, like a letterbox. Which means the warring couple seem at times miles apart. 

You might wonder why 1988, why not now? Certainly much of what is said in the play could refer to today. Common values, tolerance and liberal democracy are once again taking a bashing at the hands of public schoolboys. I guess one answer is that setting it in the past will stop it being dated. But it’s also an important reminder that government backed homophobia was present in Britain only 30 years ago and therefore how recent and possibly fragile gains in LGBT rights are.

Hansard is an excellent and an important play.

Hansard was at the National Theatre until 25 November 2019. An NTLive recording and can be seen at cinemas in January 2020.

Andrew Scott in Present Laughter – review

Comedy gold from Noël Coward, Matthew Warchus and Andrew Scott

(5 / 5)

Present Laughter at The Old Vic is not only the best show I’ve seen this year, it is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen.

Why? Let me quickly pay credit to Noël Coward. That man knew how to put together a stage play and he wrote fabulous dialogue. But it’s got to be directed and acted well. Well, director Matthew Warchus proves once again he is a genius and, after this and his previous Hamlet, Andrew Scott is now the leading contender for the best actor of his generation.

Present Laughter is about a famous comic actor called Garry Essendine. He can’t stop acting even when he’s being serious. He’s surrounded by a team of people who rely on him and upon whom he relies. Everyone- his team and his fans- needs him and reacts to him but he needs them to maintain his celebrity.  The achievement of this production is to bring out this neediness.

How does Andrew Scott do it? Not with the suave coolness or the drawling delivery we might expect from Noël Coward or any old fashioned actor but by behaving like a spoilt child. He is a lost boy in Peter Pan, as Kenneth Tynan famously described Coward. This seems to perfectly capture the nature of celebrity.

Present Laughter

Garry is always performing and, from the moment Andrew Scott appears, about ten minutes in, he dominates the stage. Even when he’s not speaking his face is a constant picture of reactions. When he is speaking, his face continues to express shock, anger, amusement, the whole range of emotions. That might sound like it’s superficial or dumbshow, however the great achievement is that we are always aware that there are feelings inside that he is choosing to convey or hide through his acting. His reaction when accused of overacting is comedy gold- because of course his reaction is overacted. Scott is on stage nearly the whole time and the centre of attention for nearly all that time which means he keeps up this constantly changing expressions and cascade of lines for over two hours.

His comic timing is superb. For example, there is a moment near the end when he is slapped by someone who then makes a big exit. Garry simply resumes the previous conversation as if nothing had happened. That much is in the script but Mr Scott makes us wait for his reaction, holds that anticipation how he will respond to the slap, so that when he carries on about a contract which is much more important to him, it says so much about his attitude to sex versus his career. And of course there are those deep eyes that can twinkle, pierce or panic.

In the programme, Mr Warchus points out that Essendine is an anagram of ‘neediness’. The character seems shallow but hints, as he reaches middle age, at depths of self doubt and loneliness . Notably at the beginning of the final act, he is alone and, without can audience to bounce off, touchingly desperate.

To heap all this praise on Andrew Scott is not to forget the other actors. They all support fantastically well- their comic timing also excellent. In particular Indira Varma as Garry’s separated wife Liz and Sophie Thompson as his secretary Monica provide touching performances as Gary’s calm support contrasting with his frenetic energy. They are not deceived by him and they care for him deeply, both managing to bring tears to their eyes at certain poignant moments.

Luke Thallon gives a bravura performance as the passionate aspiring playwright Roland Maule. Enzo Cilenti charms as the disruptive Joe who threatens to break up the team. Joshua Hill is the down-to-earth valet Fred. Liza Sadovy as Miss Erikson, Suzie Toase as Helen and Abdul Salis as Morris all contribute to the fun.

Congratulations to Rob Howell for designing beautiful costumes and an art deco set that seemed to radiate from and swirl round our central character. He also neatly accommodated doors left right and dead centre for the French farce elements of the play.

I loved this production of Present Laughter with Andrew Scott. I recommend you do all you can to get a ticket and if you can’t, then watch the film of a live show later in the year in the cinema.

Present Laughter runs at The Old Vic until 10 August 2019. For details of cinema screenings in January and February 2020 of a recording of the live show go to NT Live

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat with John Malkovich – reviews round-up

Bitter reviews for David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat at The Garrick

John Malkovich in David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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.”

Disappointing dialogue

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 Wheat never 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?

John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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.”

Clickbait?

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.

Footnote

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…”

Click here to watch the One Minute Theatre Reviews roundup of reviews of Bitter Wheat on YouTube