We know a lot more about Alan Turing, the subject of Breaking The Code, than we did when Hugh Whitemore wrote the play in the mid 1980s. His once secret work on breaking the Enigma code during World War Two, possibly saving millions of lives, is now well publicised. The government has apologised for the appalling treatment he received because of his homosexuality and he has been pardoned for his ‘crime’. He has been the subject of an excellent film The Imitation Game and his face will soon be appearing on the £50 note.
Unlike the aforementioned movie, Breaking The Code concentrates on the prejudice against homosexuals. It does cover the wartime code breaking but the code he is breaking in this play is society’s code which dictates how we are supposed to behave. And while homosexuality may now be legal in Britain and widely if not universally accepted as natural, there are always unfair rules imposed by the society we live in and the play is a plea for valuing those people- scientists, artists, whoever- who question and break those rules. The story of this brilliant mathematician adds up to a beautifully written play.
Hugh Whitemore’s play is beautifully written
Turing’s arrest for gross indecency, his prosecution and punishment run parallel with his life story. His school friend and love of his life Christopher who died young is constantly present in his mind as inspiration and is often on stage in the background. We get a glimpse of Turing’s genius when he talks about science. He explains that even mathematics that most logical of sciences may not always be right or wrong. This parallels with his personal life where he doesn’t see behaviour as right or wrong but a matter of choices based on one’s feelings. He enjoys gay sex. He doesn’t see it as wrong. He is open about it. In many ways, he is a man for today. But his honesty was his downfall in those days.
We are told in some detail about the horror of his treatment, punishment and subsequent suicide. It is as shocking as a punch in the guts and all the more so because in the course of the play we get to know the victim, not only the great scientist but the eccentric, humorous, compassionate human being. He could be describing himself when he says a computer could be ‘kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have a sense of humour, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, or enjoy strawberries and cream.’
Turing is on stage the whole time and must have as many lines as Hamlet. So the play stands or falls on the performance of the lead actor.
An enchanting portrayal by Edward Bennett
Edward Bennett is very good. I was enchanted by his portrayal of Alan Turing. If I have a reservation, it’s that he was too nice. After all, this is a person who chained his mug to the radiator pipe to prevent it being stolen or says in another prickly exchange: ‘Am I in for a lesson in morals?’ I would have liked to have seen a bit more of that spikiness in the interpretation.
This Salisbury Playhouse production directed by Christian Durham makes a good stab at telling a story once so revelatory but now so well known. It is presented in the round which give it intimacy. The lack of a set not only means the action can flow quickly and seamlessly between the past, present and memories, but also suggests the anonymity of Turing’s secret work. James Button’s excellent design uses coding sequences on the floor and boards with mathematical equations hanging above.
I particularly liked Louise Calf’s warm portrayal of Turing’s female colleague and friend Pat, and Ian Redford’s police officer Mick Ross, a subtle combination of sympathy and duty.
If you’ve never seen Noises Off, You Really Should
(5 / 5)
When I saw the first production of Noises Off back in 1982, I laughed so much I was fighting for breath. If I didn’t laugh quite so uncontrollably on this occasion, it’s only because it’s the fifth time I’ve seen Michael Frayn‘s masterpiece, so it no longer has the element of surprise. I still laughed more than at any other play I’ve seen. If you’re lucky enough to watch it for the first time (and if you’ve never seen it, you really should), I’m sure you’ll be as out of control as I was 37 years ago.
Possibly the funniest farce ever written, Noises Off is about a touring theatre company who are performing an old fashioned bedroom farce full of the usual misunderstandings, deception and people ending up in a state of undress. We join the actors at the final rehearsal and find that unlike the one dimensional characters they’re playing, these are well observed rounded human beings with flaws, emotions and rocky relationships all destined to undermine the show.
The farce ends in farce
In act two we join the production on tour but this time we’re backstage. We know what’s happening or supposed to be happening on stage but see the chaos behind the scenes. This is the most hilarious act because the actors have to be quiet so they mime all their anger and bewilderment.
There’s a priceless moment when one actor tries to attack another with an axe and others restrain him but they are still professional enough not to make a sound. In the final act we’re near the end of the tour and watching from the front as the farce falls apart and ends in, well, farce.
Confused and confounded, the actors carry on with heroic if misguided determination as they fall out with each other backstage and try to cope with plates of sardines rarely where they should be, contact lenses popping out, doors sticking and boxes disappearing and reappearing.
If you love theatre, you’ll love seeing it with its trousers down
So if you love theatre, you’ll love seeing it with its trousers down. Like the best comedy, it shows high ambitions brought down by human frailty. As the director of the show within the show says: ‘It’s farce; it’s theatre; it’s life.’
The characters are so well written by Michael Frayn, it’s tempting to think any decent actors could make a success of them. But it takes exceptional actors to make a success of farce. Nothing in theatre is more difficult than the timing and teamwork and sheer physical hard work required by this genre, not to mention truth to character.
In this Lyric Hammersmith production, we are blessed with just such a remarkable company. There is a moment where a bottle of whisky is passed from one to other all around the set with lightning dexterity. They go in and out of doors with exquisite mistiming. Each character is perfectly drawn so their reactions when things go wrong are always just right.
I’m going to credit all the actors. Meera Syal as a veteran actress Dotty, who can’t remember her lines, is wonderfully semidetached from the reality of what’s going on. Daniel Rigby excels as the inarticulate lovestruck Garry, his voice getting more and more strained and his movements more frantic as he tries to cope with the unexpected. Lloyd Owen makes an excellent exasperated sarcastic director.
Lisa McGrillis as an actor more concerned with her nails than her lines is wonderful. So are Sarah Hadland and Richard Henders as the serenely smiling Belinda and the neurotic method actor Frederick. Anjli Mohindra and Adrian Richards as the acting stage management make good innocents unprepared for the brutishness of theatre life. And finally there’s Simon Rouse who doesn’t put a foot wrong as a deaf alcoholic who constantly puts a foot wrong.
Director Jeremy Herrin sets the rollercoaster going and it doesn’t stop until the final curtain.
Noises Off continues its run at The Garrick Theatre until 4 January 2020
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is one of his lesser known musicals. Having seen this production of it at The Watermill, I understand why. There’s no story, no engagement with the characters and, like the would be assassins, it’s hit and miss. On the plus side, you do get a fascinating look at men and women who attempted and sometimes succeeded in assassinating American presidents. You are also treated to some great music and amusing lyrics and, in the case of this Watermill production, an entertaining performance that hits the bullseye.
In this fantasy musical with a book by John Weidman, all the would be assassins get together at a funfair where they are given their own special guns and cajoled into going for the big prize if they shoot a president dead. The musical is an exploration of what that prize is. The answer, and this is not a spoiler, is fame.
We learn something about each of these would be assassins, first John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln, finally Lee Harvey Oswald who shot John Kennedy. It’s by no means chronological and the various stories intertwine. We see them as failures, mentally unstable nobodies who have been let down by the American Dream which promises that everyone can succeed.
Although we never sympathise with this unhinged bunch of people, we do hear some great tunes. Peter Dukes as Leon Czolgosz (who killed President McKinley) sings one of the best- The Gun Song which describes the number of hands involved in the manufacturing process. Generally Stephen Sondheim’s score offers pastiches of various forms of traditional and popular American music. It carries us and the assassins along with the joy of America while contrasting with the grubby truth revealed before us and through his lyrics.
Another National Anthem sums it up: ‘There are those who keep forgetting That the country’s built on dreams.’ Or as another song says: ‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy.’
It’s a fast moving, slick production from Bill Buckhurst. The Watermill has a small stage but the 15 strong cast manage to fill and move round it with military precision, choreographed by Georgina Lamb. They also play instruments, so to say they are talented is an understatement.
I don’t like to pick out individual performances from this excellent ensemble, but I’m going to. Eddie Elliott is the delusional but hyper confident Charles Guiteau who expects to become ambassador to France and shoots dead President McKinley. Mr Elliott plays him with great pizzazz, jumping around the stage and shaking hands with the audience and rushing to the scaffold with a joyful gospel I’m Going to The Lordy. Lillie Flynn as the Balladeer, a kind of narrator, has the strong punchy voice of a classic musical singer. Sara Poyzer’s neurotic Sara Jane Moore gets a lot of laughs as her mind and her gun fire in all directions.
Inevitably on a stage as small as The Watermill’s, the set is minimal but Simon Kenny has cleverly created a fun fair feel particularly by showing the presidents’ faces like targets in a shooting gallery.
When it comes to the climax- the assassination of JFK- the back of the set spins round to become the windows of the famous Book Depository. All previous assassins led by Wilkes Booth (a chilling portrayal by Alex Mugnaioni) gather to nudge the suicidal Oswald to pick up the rifle.
The previously black comedy becomes serious and even sentimental which makes the end inconsistent with what leads up to it. Presumably Sondheim and Weidman decided this particular assassination was still too raw in their and our minds. Perhaps, unlike Oswald, they lost their nerve.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Juliet Stevenson outstanding in Robert Icke’s exposure of populism
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.
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.
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.
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 continues at the National Theatre until 25 November 2019 and can be seen at cinemas on 7 November 2019.
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.
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 of the film of the live show go to NT Live
Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate is a gift to performers. It has a great story- a play Taming Of The Shrew within a play in which the lead actors in conflict on stage are at loggerheads behind the scenes. It has tuneful songs with clever lyrics. It has strong characters. It is a perfect musical comedy. Changing it would destroy it. Like putting lipstick on the Mona Lisa. You’d think.
Paul Hart, The Watermill’s artistic director, has decided to take the risk and adds more comedy in the form of farce by making it a kind of Kiss Me Kate Goes Wrong plus a dose of sexual politics.
Most of the time he pulls it off. But not always. Petruchio famously spanks Kate but having her spank him as well, in the cause of sexual equality, takes the edge off the subsequent joke that she can’t sit down. That’s one bum note.
Another is making so many things go wrong from the start because this takes away from Lily’s belligerence being the factor that brings down the previous order of the theatrical production. If it falls apart without her help, that removes one of the golden threads that is woven into the cloth of this glorious musical.
In a similar way, if the actor manager Fred is a loveable idiot from the start, his descent from a big headed authoritarian to broken fool is lost.
And yet, there’s no denying the added farce is very funny. The chorus has to improvise an encore when the curtain fails to rise. Actors leave the stage on the wrong side and have to scurry across in the background. The witty lyrics are still given full weight, so this an evening in which the laughter rarely stops.
It helps that there are some terrific performances. Rebecca Trehearn and David Riccardo-Pearce as the lead actors Fred and Lilli have strong, pure voices that both soar and express pathos. They are engaging performers. Fred running round the auditorium buttonholing members of the audience as he asks Where Is The Life That Late I Led? had the audience in stitches.
The highly talented Kimmy Edwards as Lois/Bianca does justice to both her big numbers- Tom, Dick Or Harry and the showstopper Always True To You In My Fashion. The latter climaxes with her skirt ripped off and Edwards high kicking in true showbiz style, using drumsticks like majorette batons.
Sheldon Greenland and Robert Jackson make amusing gangsters who become enchanted by the theatre, eventually exhorting us to Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Jay Perry is a charming Bill and Andre Fabian Francis is a stupendous dancer.
Talking of the dancing, Oti Mabuse does an excellent job as choreographer. Given the small space at The Watermill, there’s no opportunity for big chorus line numbers but there are quite a few energetic ensemble numbers that are all the more thrilling for squeezing flamboyant movements into the limited room.
Finally, the piece de resistance: all the actors play instruments which gives the show an added sense of excitement and makes the music seem like an extension of the acting.
So, while I may have small reservations about this production, I found it a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
Lesley Sharp and David Morrissey provide laughter and emotion in Jack Thorne’s family drama
(5 / 5)
It’s a world away from Jack Thorne and John Tiffany‘s last collaboration- Harry Potter And The Curse Child– but the end of history is another moving drama about parent child relationships.
The title may refer to a book by Francis Fukuyama which around 1990 declared that, with the fall of communism in eastern Europe, liberal democracy had triumphed and its flag would fly forever and a day.
It’s 1997 and we meet Sal and David, two lifetime left wing socialists who perhaps can longer expect radical change. A clue is they’re not happy that Blair, leader of their party, has become prime minister. It may even be significant that they came from hard Manchester and now live in soft Berkshire.
Their three kids are in their late teens and early twenties. The oldest Carl is bringing his new girlfriend Harriet to dinner. She is the daughter of a rich father who owns hotels and service stations. Sal is as fascinated by the privileged as she hates the liberals. She talks too much and in a very frank way. In fact Lesley Sharp’s unfiltered talking when she’s nervous is hilarious. ‘No talent when it comes to cooking, she says of herself, but when it comes to pissing off my children – immense talent – Olympian talent.’
Her children are indeed embarrassed by her but they expect to be. But it’s the red parents who seem red faced because their children are not turning out to be radical socialists. A bust up ensues.
We move on ten years. The parents, true to their socialist ideals, take a decision that makes their children feel they have been judged to have betrayed the cause. Leading to another bust up.
All the children are much more their own people now. In fact, one of the joys of this play is how the children mature but are recognisably the same characters. Kate O’Flynn is the hard-edged Polly with a surly bottom lip like a snow plough. Always the best at winning arguments, she has become a cynical corporate lawyer. The less confident Carl, played by Sam Swainsbury, is married to Harriet (Zoe Ball), but not that happily. He has joined the family business. The highly strung youngest Tom, played by Laurie Davidson, remains a misfit with an inferiority complex and is yet to find his way. None of the children have the certainties that characterise their parents.
By the end of act two, having experienced a wonderfully funny performance from Lesley Sharp as the mother, I was wondering why an actor of the quality of David Morrissey had been employed to provide a fairly standard dour northern dad. Then came the third act, ten more years on, and he delivered the most moving emotional monologue that explained so much of what formed the parents’ characters and relationship. ‘I thought she was astonishing, she thought I’d do,’ he says.
And the children at something like the halfway stage in their lives see their parents with a new perspective. Not the familiar ‘we just wanted you to be happy’ but something more appropriate to their intellectual rigour.
I don’t want to make this sound too political or philosophical because it is ultimately the story of a family, a believable family. They are loving but they’re not tactile and they’re not sentimental- and neither is Jack Thorne’s script. His dialogue conveys the relaxed banter and the rows of people who love and know one another. The children’s attachment to their parents and its effect on their lives is tangible.
John Tiffany directs with precision. The beautiful design by Grace Smart presents us with a simple family kitchen but with holes in the walls, perhaps suggesting the uncertainties of their lives.
A word of warning. In the middle of one argument, Sal says, ‘I’m going to the toilet. It’s an a political act.’ This is a particularly cruel thing to say in front of an audience who have to sit with their legs crossed through one hour fifty minutes without an interval.
Bitter reviews for David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat at The Garrick
Even recruiting John Malkovich, one of the finest stage actors of his generation to make a rare West End appearance couldn’t sweeten the critics’ reactions to David Mamet‘s Bitter Wheat:
“a flabby, cynical and pointless effort” cried Tim Bano in The Stage
“lazy, crude and empty” railed Henry Hitchins in the Evening Standard
Michael Billington of The Guardian called it “ineffectual” which is quite restrained compared with “a hot mess of gauche plotting, unfinished ideas and sheer wrongheadedness… It might just be the most pointless play of the year” That from Alice Jones writing in The i
“Politically, it’s tiresome; theatrically, it’s loopy” said Holly Williams in Time Out
“(It) manages to spend two hours saying very little at all” moaned Greg Stewart in Theatre Weekly.
“as flaccid as a deflated balloon” lamented Matt Trueman in Variety
“Implausible, daft and irritating” said Aleks Sierz on The Arts Desk, sounding a little irritated.
For Debbie Gilpin on the BroadwayWorld website, it “lacks clarity and intent”
Dominic Maxwell of The Times called it “a wonky piece of theatre”
“Bitter Wheat is a bitter disappointment” said Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph. (You see what he did there?)
Distasteful and misjudged don’t begin to describe it,” said Mark Shenton in londontheatre.co.uk. Okay, Mark, so what would describe it? “stupefyingly silly and frequently offensive.” Well I did ask.
The star ratings tell it all.
(1 / 5) The Stage (1 / 5) WhatsOnStage (1 / 5) londontheatre.co.uk (1 / 5)The Arts Desk (2 / 5) The Daily Telegraph (2 / 5) The Guardian (2 / 5)The Times (2 / 5) Time Out (2 / 5) The i (2 / 5) Evening Standard (2 / 5) Theatre Weekly (2 / 5) Broadway World
I’ve only found one of the overnight reviews that gave more than two stars. That was a 3 star review from David Lister in The Independent and even he said: “Malkovich deserved a more rounded and thought-provoking play”.
So what was it that they were bitter about? Five themes emerge from the reviews.
Not much in the way of plot
First there was the thin to non-existent story. The character is Barney Fein which sounds like Harvey Weinstein. And that’s because it’s a satire about a movie mogul who abuses his position.
“It feels like a first draft, its silly and unsatisfactory second half needs rewriting,” said The Times bluntly, and went on: “Can you make high comedy about something so blatantly inspired by the Harvey Weinstein story? Not without a more evolved storyline than Mamet manages here.”
“Mamet’s play lurches from set piece to set piece and tone to tone in search of a good-enough counterpoint to its awful antihero…” complained WhatsOnStage, continuing “(it) is not really a play at all but an unfocused and tawdry howl of anger”
“a classic of lazy playwriting” said the Arts Desk, explaining: “Mamet follows a simple recipe, writing by numbers. And you could do this too. Here’s how: 1) Select a current controversy; 2) Read a couple of Sunday supplement articles about it; 3) Dredge your memory for some Tinseltown anecdotes; 3) Write a monologue. Add jokes.”
The New York Times weighed in with “‘Bitter Wheat’, bilious to a fault, also feels scattershot and lazy”.
Time Out seemed to enjoy the first act but not the second: “typical Mamet fast-paced, sarcastic exchanges with some zinging insults, revealing the hollow nature of Hollywood and ultimately pitting a smart young woman against the sleazy older man” but “the extremely brief and sketchy second half is just bizarre”
It sounds like it might be a good idea to leave at the interval. Here’s Variety: “the plot creaks with convenient fire alarms and useful idiots. It’s lazy and that’s before Mamet gives up on a short second half that piles on a bonfire of improbabilities.” And that’s the fourth time the word ‘lazy’ has been used.
“Mamet doesn’t even bother to give his play a proper ending” gasped The i.
The play clearly has its moments. The Times describes a scene that “depicts a moment of sexual threat with such horrible ordinariness that you feel as if you are locked in the room with its characters yourself. It’s an unforgettable, unhysterical scene.”
Secondly, there’s the disappointing dialogue.
“Given Mamet’s expertise and the sensitivity of the subject-matter, what’s surprising is just how dashed-off the dialogue seems” said the Daily Telegraph, continuing: “Where once Mamet’s lines zinged, too often they wheeze on Zimmers; there’s more chaff than wheat here.” Dominic Cavendish’s previous “bitter disappointment” inspiring another pun on the title. “Some jokes land. Others go thud.” said The Times, not referring to his fellow critic.
The Stage quite liked the “Entertaining dialogue” but found it “empty of revelation”. For Theatre Weekly, “It’s not the story being told, or even the person telling the story that’s the issue, it’s that it lacks any kind of challenge to the audience, and the instances of clever writing are drowned out.”
No depth to the main character
The critics found the main character just as lacking in depth as the plot.
“this is a vehicle for pithy lines that don’t amount to a character” said The Stage. The Evening Standard made the same point: “The role lacks psychological depth: Fein is a profane, abusive, creepy figure, but essentially he’s just a conduit for Mamet’s vitriolic lines.”
“Bitter Wheatnever fully reveals the psychological depths of this depraved character” agreed The Independent. “The sorry fact is that Fein never deepens or darkens” said the New York Times. “the hero is unrelievedly vicious” cried The Guardian. For WhatsOnStage “Fein is a pantomime villain, a buffoon rather than a real threat”
Other characters thinly drawn
Did the other characters make up for the failure to create a believable central character? I’m afraid not.
“The rest of the cast are merely decoration around him, treated in various shades of contempt and dismissal” said Theatre Weekly.
“none of his characters are psychologically credible” noted Variety. They were, said WhatsOnStage: “virtually unplayable and criminally under-written roles”.
“at least put a teeny bit of effort into any of the other characters” pleaded The Stage.
Damning with faint praise, Time Out declared: “the best things about ‘Bitter Wheat’ really are the women, even though their parts are thin”.
The male viewpoint
Finally the critics didn’t like the viewpoint. Where angels fear to tread in the aftermath of #MeToo, Mamet appears to have jumped in with both hobnail booted feet.
“we really didn’t need a Harvey Weinstein play, written by a man and from a male perspective. The whole thing leaves you feeling… grubby” shuddered Time Out.
Variety summed up: “he ends up exploiting the experiences of assault survivors for entertainment”. BroadwayWorld felt the same: “It does ask that we re-hash all those harrowing #MeToo revelations for entertainment… but hardly shedding any new light” Furthermore “women’s voices are once again being drowned out by that of a man”
The i got the same impression: “the victim is relegated to literally watching men talk to each other from the sidelines.” The i continues: “It’s as if he wants to write about anything except the effects of sexual assault and what should happen to the perpetrators”
What about John Malkovich?
So those are five major reasons the critics didn’t like Bitter Wheat. But what about John Malkovich? Surely he offered some compensation? Not according to The Stage: “Malkovich – obviously a brilliant actor – isn’t brilliant here. He delivers everything in an unceasing monotone, like someone is doing some drilling next door”
Time Out found “he plays Fein as wholly unpleasant, he’s not nuanced.” WhatsOnStage starts by describing Malkovich as “one of the most charismatic and dangerous actors of his generation” before saying “even his light seems dulled.”
“Fine actor though he is, Malkovich has to work overtime to invest a character who claims ‘people are animals’ with any light and shade” said The Guardian. “At times his performance is fun; at times it’s funny; over time, it’s a bore” concluded The Arts Desk.
“A passable performance from Malkovich cannot save this play, or make it into something it’s not” said BroadwayWorld. It’s hard to believe that a word like ‘passable’ is being used about the great John Malkovich but I guess you can’t make bricks without straw.
Others were more impressed by him.
The Daily Telegraph praised: “Malkovich’s ability to hold our attention” continuing “Malkovich re-affirms his idiosyncratic charm and nonchalant aura. It’s great to see him” before concluding on a downbeat note: “he’s not enough to tip the balance fully in the evening’s favour”
The Independent had no doubts about his quality- and perhaps this was what swung the three star review: “John Malkovich, prowling the stage like a bloated, warped colossus,… is present on stage throughout and dominates it with a towering performance that conveys not just the vulgarity, the bullying, and the predatory nature of the movie mogul, but also the paranoia that helped to define Weinstein.”
One word noticeably crops up twice in the reviews.
It was, said The i: “The theatrical equivalent of clickbait.” The Evening Standard suspected the same: “instead of prompting nuanced discussion, it has the rancid smell of clickbait.”
Personally I think it might be going a bit far to suggest that somehow Bitter Wheat was written purely with ticket sales in mind. But certainly we can conclude from the reviews that while much was promised in this comedy by David Mamet starring John Malkovich about one of today’s important issues, little was delivered.
Not everyone who’s seen it agreed. An actual movie star Rupert Grint, who should know whereof he speaks, said it showed the reality of behind the scenes in the entertainment world. And, even if this is not Mamet’s finest hour, it is still a rare opportunity to see John Malkovich on stage. You can see Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre in London until 21 September 2019.
Reviews that arrived later weren’t much kinder. Susannah Clapp awarded Bitter wheat one star in her Observer review, calling it “a feeble fizzle”. Ben Croll in Vanity Fair called it “a tired play on autopilot, courting scandal by inertia and grabbing whatever low-hanging fruit it can.”
Johnny Oleksinski in The New York Post used a quote from the play against it: “Bitter Wheat begins … when a young screenwriter pitches his script to Fein. “Your script is a piece of s–t,” he says. If only someone had told Mamet the same.”
There were exceptions. Two positive reviews came from Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times and Lloyd Evans in The Spectator- both are often contrarians. Mr Letts gave Bitter Wheat 4 stars but unfortunately his review is trapped behind a paywall. And Mr Evans “could have watched this captivating freak-show until midnight and beyond. It’s a fine play, rather creakily structured…”