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 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. That’s 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, 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. Alfred Enoch and Wendy Kweh as well, 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 transmission. 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, but 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 are being live streamed until the 7th of November. Tickets from £10 at 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

Fleabag stage show online – review

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting

★★★★★

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo: Matt Humphrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

One Man Two Guvnors – NTLive – review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physical comedy, wordplay and first class acting

One Man Two Guvnors. Photo: Johan Persson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Cyprus Avenue starring Stephen Rea at Royal Court – review

Stephen Rea triumphs as psychotic bigot

★★★★

Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

With theatres closed and all of us staying at home due to the coronavirus threat, I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the theatre shows that were recorded live and are now being made available online or on TV for you to watch from the comfort of your sofa, starting with Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland.

The Royal Court and Abbey Theatre production starring Stephen Rea was filmed live in early 2019 and will be streaming on the Royal Court’s website and on their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts until 26 April 2020.

Cyprus Avenue is a black comedy about a Belfast loyalist. He’s done something bad and he’s seeing a psychiatrist, played by Ronke Adekoleujo. We learn that he’s a bigoted man in fear of losing his identity as British.

In a series of flashbacks he’s seen meeting his granddaughter for the first time and believing that she is Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein. From then on, it’s a rollercoaster ride as he vacillates between his love for his family and its newest member and his prejudice against Gerry Adams and all things Irish catholic.

There are two reasons you need to watch this: David Ireland’s hilarious script and Stephen Rea’s delivery of it. The latter has a face for which the expression ‘hangdog’ could have been invented and Eric’s sadness and confusion and frustration are all in that face. His hunched posture suggests the weight of Irish history.

If, like me, you think of Stephen Rea as an actor who exudes languidness, think again, because the best moment in this play is a monologue, akin to stand up comedy, where Eric races back and forth ranting and raving about Irishness. It had me rolling around on my sofa. That alone is worth the ticket price- if you were paying.

We first meet Eric on a bare stage with the audience on two sides, traverse style- and a nice touch by designer Lizzie Clachan, I thought to suggest the Protestant loyalist, catholic republican divide. The square is also in a sense the inside of Eric’s closed mind with characters appearing and disappearing as he thinks about them. She made a similarly effective use of traverse in the unforgettable Young Vic production of Yerma with Billie Piper.

Amy Molloy and Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Stephen Rea is supported by some precision directing from Vicky Featherstone where every move seems to mean something. And some fine actors. Amy Molloy is his daughter Julie who loves her dad but is offended by him, an internal conflict she makes you feel. She represents hope- a younger generation that has grown up with peace and is no longer twisted by sectarian prejudice. Andrea Irvine is Eric’s firm but caring wife and Chris Corrigan steals his scenes as a loyalist terrorist whose lust for violence is tempered by philosophical thoughts.

David Ireland’s script sparks and fizzes

David Ireland’s script sparks and fizzes with laughs at the expense of Eric’s shockingly warped logic and bizarre prejudices (he talks of ‘exotic catholic hairdos direct from the salons of the Vatican’).

As an examination of how loss of identity can lead to bigotry can lead to psychotic behaviour, Cyprus Avenue works well but the ending, which I don’t want to spoil, left me feeling the playwright had gone too far in wanting to shock. It draws comparison with Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant Of Inishmore which, with all due respect to the unquestionable quality of David Ireland’s writing, is a more thought-through play.

What we miss in this filmed version is the way as a member of the theatre audience you would be looking up at the actors and always seeing an opposing audience in the background as well the whole stage and its boundaries.  While we gain from extreme close-ups of Stephen Rea’s magnificently craggy face, we lose quite a bit of the time the stage actor’s art of suggesting emotion and meaning through their whole body.

And, of course, the film director chooses what you should look at and while I accept that Stephen Rea is riveting, there were times when I wished, as in some football coverage, I could switch to a different camera looking at another actor’s reaction. The addition of some location filming in Belfast is a mistake. It did not add anything for me and merely broke the tension of the intimate enclosed stage setting.

I found the play flawed but the production is tight and Stephen Rea gives what must be the performance of a lifetime.

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

You can watch Cyprus Avenue online until 31 May:

Click here to view Cyprus Avenue on YouTube

Click here to watch Cyprus Avenue on the Royal Court website

The Time Machine at London Library – review

An entertaining evening full of fun and frightening facts but light on drama ★★★

Leda Douglas in The Time Machine at London Library.Photo: @Ri chardBudd

The Time Machine offers an opportunity to tour the magnificent London Library. This 180-year-old private lending library is housed in a grade II listed building in Mayfair. It has had among its members Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Agatha Christie and of course HG Wells.

It’s his novel The Time Machine that inspired Creation Theatre’s entertainment. The audience is restricted to groups of twenty. We meet a time traveller in a lobby area. Ours is played by Leda Douglas. She’s charming towards us but she’s breathless and clearly on edge.

She takes us on a journey to various points in the future represented by the different rooms in the library. We don’t go many years ahead but far enough to be in the dystopian world that has terrified her.

Although it purports to be the true story of secretive time travel that has been going on for about forty years, The Time Machine is really a warning that what we do now affects the future, that our polluting the planet and our scientific tinkering is going to get us in trouble. Or should I say even more trouble?

Interestingly the show which was written last October predicts the current virus epidemic. Did they go back in time and alter the script I wonder?

Anyway, along the way, we meet an amusing computer (Graeme Rose) which is clearly where Alexa and Siri are heading if the backchat is anything to go by. We encounter a scared scientist played by Sarah Edwardson. And finally a chat show host played with gusto by Funlola Olufunwa. Other members of the creative team were Ryan Dawson Laight (designer) and Matt Eaton (Sound Designer).

The play seems to stick the blame for our apocalyptic future on rich capitalists and corporate greed rather than humanity in general. Any way you look at it,  the message is bleak and there’s little hope.

This play about time is a timely warning

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of fun to be had in Jonathan Holloway’s witty script. This mainly stems from the notion that once people go back in time, they mess around with the future and ‘every effort might be rendered redundant at any second’. So familiar names are thrown about in totally unfamiliar contexts. Oliver Hardy marries Virginia Woolf and invents time travel. Events are not quite as we remember them: I’m pretty sure the first man on the moon wasn’t Japanese.

There is also a lot of delight taken in exploring the mind-blowing nature of time. Are there multiple universes? Is time a loop?

Amusing as the story of time travel was and frightening as the information was about the way the future is likely to turn out was too, the show’s weakness is that it promises more than it delivers.

We’re told by our guide to be careful, to stick to the walls because of the dangers we may encounter. People are liable to shift shape, or their socks might change colour, or the dreaded Morlocks might appear from under the ground. But actually, none of this happens.

I wasn’t expecting a Disney ride or Doctor Who effects but the odd scary or simply dramatic happening might have been expected following the introduction.

Not enough drama in this crisis

Here are a couple of examples. In order to travel in time, we hold up our arms and our guide holds a briefcase and says “Zoom!” I guess time travel could be as prosaic as that and maybe director Natasha Rickman wanted to avoid the clichés of strobe lighting and loud electronic noise but it did feel a bit flat.

Graeme Rose in The Time Machine. Photo: @RichardBudd

On one occasion, we arrived in a book-lined room with leather armchairs, where we were told about the first time trip. It happened in the basement of Studio 54 New York to the soundtrack of Donna Summers’ I Feel Love. There was talk of the music being turned up and a prospect of disco dancing but, no, we stayed seated in our lovely leather armchairs.

So, although we’re told that the world has been turned upside down and inside out by the constant changing caused by people travelling back in time, nothing ever happens physically to disconcert us.

What is as disconcerting and frightening as a horror film are the many startling facts about the past, present and likely future. I assume these are accurate since The Wellcome Centre for Ethics And Humanities was involved in the production. In fact, there is the odd moment when it seems more like a lecture than a play.

Even if the production seems determined not to make a drama out of a crisis, The Time Machine offers an entertaining evening as well as being a timely wake-up call. And the setting is amazing.

The Time Machine can be seen at The London Library until 5 April 2020 and in summer 2020 at The Museum Of Natural History, Oxford. For more information about The Time Machine, visit www.creationtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/time-machine/

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

Paul Seven Lewis was given review tickets.