Magical production of Wicked composer’s first musical
It’ll be 50 years old next year but somehow I’ve never managed to see Pippin. I’m glad my first introduction to Stephen Schwartz’s earliest musical (with a book by Roger O. Hirson) was this production at the Charing Cross Theatre, first seen at the Garden Theatre in 2020. It may not be a behemoth like Shwartz’s Wicked, Godspell and The Prince of Egypt but director Steven Dexter has put together a joyous version of this uplifting, magical show.
Apparently, with eight actors, it’s much slimmed down from previous versions, yet, for me, this made it tight and intimate. All the more so because it’s being played in this lovely little basement theatre on a traverse stage. With the front rows at stage floor level.
Consequently, this story of a young medieval Prince who rejects the establishment and tries to find fulfillment in life is very easy to relate to when he’s right next to you. That he is a Prince is not really the point. Despite obvious comparisons with another Prince, who recently rejected his destiny to become an ordinary wealthy and privileged man, Pippin really is an Everyman. This is evidenced from the very beginning when members of the cast are supposedly chosen at random to play the parts, including Pippin. In other words, it could be anyone, and at various times during the proceedings, comparisons are made to previous Pippins.
The musical takes the form of a troupe of players telling the story of Pippin’s search so he can be said to reject one destiny only to be trapped by another. The question becomes will he finally reject the story planned for him?
Ryan Anderson is superb in the title role, sincere, naive, caring, angry and, annoyingly, never satisfied as he looks for this so-called fulfillment. And he tries many things- war, power, art, working the land. Through it all, he interacts with some wonderful characters: his grandmother played with great humour by Genevieve Nicole; the woman he appears to love, Catherine, played as confident and brittle by Natalie McQueen; and the Lead Player, a Mephistopheles-like character who directs the action, and leads Pippin to a much flagged up finale, which may not be what our hero was expecting.
Playing this role is Ian Carlyle who is the outstanding actor in this production with a strong personality, plaintive voice and brilliant dancing. In fact, the best moment in the show was the number Right Track which he and Ryan Anderson perform together in perfect unison.
Oh yes, the dancing. This is what makes this production such a winner. Nick Winston’s choreography is always entertaining and the cast dance with skill and enthusiasm.
The costumes and set by David Shields reflect the hippy time in which it was written and its hippy message that our lives are not pre-destined, and that looking for vainglory rather than finding fulfillment in the ordinary is the devil’s work. Oh, and the songs are heavenly.
Polly Creed’s clever play about an animal rights protest lifts you up then knocks you down
Polly Creed‘s audio play Humane lifts you up with a story about a local community’s animal rights protest before knocking you down with revelations about racism with the group.
Humane, written by Polly Creedand directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, is ostensibly a story based on the true events surrounding a ten month protest that took place back in the 1990s against the export of live animals through the small port of Brightlingsea. Mainly through the experiences of two made-up characters, we learn how a community can be brought together by a specific issue.
However, as the six-episode series progresses, we also come to realise that this is more than an inspiring story of a successful campaign in the face of powerful establishment figures and police brutality. We see that friendships formed through a common cause may prove brittle, and that a community may be united against animal cruelty but not against racism. It has been said that politics makes strange bedfellows and, following the death of one of the protestors, revelations lead to two of them falling out of bed.
A number of theatre companies have turned to the audio play as a means of continuing to create drama while theatres remained closed. What they don’t always realise is that an audio play isn’t simply a stage play with your eyes shut. It takes special skills to carry it off. Humane is a True Name production and, to the best of my knowledge, the co-founders of the company Polly Creed and Imy Wyatt Corner, have not previously ventured into audio plays, yet they do on the whole succeed.
Most fundamentally, an audio play relies on you the listener to fill in all the missing sensory information. Taking flight from what you’re told, you imagine what the characters and situations look like and sound like and smell like and feel like. Without the visual element of theatre or screen, any shortcoming in the dialogue or voices sabotages the imagination’s work. Which is why Humane is both excellent and flawed.
There are many excellent moments of drama and character development. Middle-class teacher Alice played by Marcia Lecky starts the campaign and, when she experiences problems with her teenage son, we see her gradual awakening to wider issues within the local community. She befriends Linda (Francesca Isherwood), another mother but this time of a constantly crying baby, trapped in a house with her mother-in-law while her soldier husband is in Bosnia. Linda finds the support of Alice a lifesaver and we see her grow in confidence as a result, in a triumph of both writing and acting.
There is one particularly clever use of audio when we discover something about a character’s appearance of which we were previously unaware and whereby the degree of our surprise says something about our own unconscious prejudices.
There are some flat notes. The facts about the campaign are presented in unbelievably detailed news reports. Particularly difficult to swallow are the occasions when the characters themselves churn out statistics as if they’re competing in a memory test.
A challenge in producing an audio play is ensuring that voices can be understood without the visual clues you get with a screen or stage performance. This means the actors are required to articulate even more than usual. In Humane, this is not a problem when we listen to Alice because she is an educated middle-class woman, whom you would expect to pronounce each word clearly. Linda on the other hand is a working-class woman with an Estuary accent to match. Francesca Isherwood is successful in speaking her lines clearly but at the expense of sounding natural. The result is ever so slightly stilted.
Despite these reservations, I found this episodic story a good listen that is not only a tribute to a campaign largely generated by local older people and mothers with children but also an interesting exploration of racism.
Humane is produced by True Name and is available as a podcast
I’m In Love With A Wonderful Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s anti-racist musical
I don’t think it was simply my euphoria at being back in a theatre but this Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific filled me with joy.
South Pacific was written in 1949 before Rodgers and Hammerstein settled into their, and their audience’s, comfort zone. It has all the features of the best of their work, features they in fact pioneered. One being the use of songs that reveal character and feeling and move the story on- take the many different ways, and therefore implications, in which Some Enchanted Evening is sung at various points. As was their way, the composers packed this musical with the most wonderful songs: A Cockeyed Optimist, There Is Nothing Like A Dame, Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk– these songs are part of our DNA.
Another feature is realism, seen both in the characters’ behaviour and Hammerstein’s down-to-earth lyrics. Top marks to director Daniel Evans for keeping this production so grounded in reality.
But what makes South Pacific stand out is that Oscar Hammerstein II was determined to face racism head-on in this musical. You’ll remember that it’s set on a Pacific island during the second world war where American GIs and nurses interact with local people, a nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, a lieutenant with a local girl. There may be effervescent melodies from Rodgers that fill you with warmth but there is also a story that pits love against hate, love at first undermined by acquired racial prejudice before it finally triumphs. At a time, following England’s Euro final, when we have been reminded of the overt racism that still shames our country, it was uplifting to experience this powerful anti-racist musical.
I cannot fault this production. Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical’s ‘cock-eyed optimism’. It feels like the perfect tribute to the passionately anti-racist Oscar Hammerstein. Happy Talk is no throwaway comic song here but a poignant moment of desperation.
And the director is supported by an excellent cast and creative team.
The two leads Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb in voice and acting ability. Ovenden as Emile the plantation owner, conveys both an overflowing heart and a broken heart with equal conviction. Beck also runs a range of emotions as naive Nellie Forbush from Little Rock but is never better than in I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy which overflows with almost child-like exuberance. (From August, Alex Young will be sharing and then taking over the role of Nellie, because Gina Beck is pregnant.)
Others also deserve a mention. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice which is more than a match for the soaring heights of Younger Than Springtime, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. One of the qualities of this musical is seeing the Americans’ wide-eyed confidence come up against the realities of racism and war.
The choreography by Ann Yee is magnificent. Sometimes she fills the stage with exhilarating choruses- in a scene that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of, the women take to the showers while Washing That Man Right Outta their Hair. Then there are the quiet moments, like the beautiful solo ballet by Sera Maehara that opens and closes the show.
The see-through revolving wooden sets by Peter McKintosh set the mood of Pacific island life, while leaving the stage open for the big numbers.
And I can’t forget the superb orchestra led by Cat Beveridge featuring the original score with some new orchestration from David Cullen. The glimpses of repeated melodies throughout the show do exactly what a musical should do, evoke complex feelings that words can’t express.
A word of praise for Chichester Festival Theatre who were terrifically well organised and made us feel safe to be back in the theatre. And from the rousing cheer that greeted the first moments, I’d say we were all pretty pleased to be there.
South Pacific is performing at Chichester Festival Theatre from 5 July to 5 September 2021. Performances will be streamed on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August and 3 September.
The Three Musketeers adapted by Sydney Stevenson and starring Robert Lindsay was promoted as an audio play but, if purchase a ticket, you’ll find it comes as a video with animated illustrations and glimpses of actors using Zoom. So there are three pillars to this comedy and unfortunately not one of them is strong enough to hold it up.
The show’s intention is to satirise both Zoom productions and amateur adaptations of classic books. But comedy is hard. The late comic Frankie Howerd once told me in an interview that comedy is more difficult to achieve than tragedy. I’m afraid this play proves his point.
There’s a lot that could be funny about Ms Stevenson’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas‘ story directed by Joseph O’Malley but it doesn’t quite come off. To work, it would need to be saying something new or at least saying something familiar but with a new twist. Instead, it’s all too familiar ground.
The main theme running through this adaptation is that it’s amateurish. So there are anachronisms such as a modern ferry port or an objective to end plastic pollution or a reference to the Eiffel Tower. Cobwebs are dusted off some old jokes. Does anyone find a reference to royal balls funny any more, outside of panto? And you may have heard before a character repeating what the narrator has just said. ‘On the road our travel weary hero stops at an inn.’ ‘I am travel weary and I am stopping at an inn.’ All of this can be very funny- take anything by the National Theatre Of Brent, or the Play That Goes Wrong series or plays like The 39 Steps or indeed Ernie Wise’s plays what I wrote. My point is, it’s been done before, and this adds nothing.
A further layer takes the form of a satire of the Zoom productions that we have both enjoyed and endured during lockdown. So, we have a child interrupting proceedings by calling for a biscuit, someone unwittingly letting people see that he’s in his underpants, someone forgetting to mute… amusing and well done but we’ve seen it before. The trouble is zoom satire has already reached its pinnacle with the conversations between David Tennant and Michael Sheen.
To avoid showing that it was actually mostly recorded not on Zoom but in a studio, visuals are provided in the form of a charming but low budget cartoon that has minimal animation, and no people. Sadly this only served to remind me that there was once a cartoon series Dogtanian and the 3 Muskehounds that told a simplified version of the Alexandre Dumas story in a most amusing and interesting way.
It’s all a bit of a shame because the idea has merit and the cast is very good. It’s led by Ms Stevenson’s father, the excellent Robert Lindsay, whose rich voice is a pleasure to listen to. His talent is such that even a familiar trope- the increasing exasperation of a classical actor with a production that he sees as below him- becomes very funny in his hands. I’ll also pick out Antony Eden who does well as a harassed, out-of-his-depth author and as a hapless D’Artagnan.
So, while The Three Musketeers would like to be one of those shows that are so awful, they’re funny, it doesn’t quite hit the target. About three quarters of the way through, Robert Lindsay interrupts to say, ‘This is the worst adaptation I have ever read. It’s like some silly amateur jaunty comedy. I’m ashamed to be involved. I’m better than this.’ Well, many a true word spoken in jest.
Stratford production lets Shakespeare speak for himself
The COVID-cancelled Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter’s Tale has returned as a play for TV, as part of BBC4’s Lights Up season of ‘lost’ plays.
It is set in, or at least starts in, the 1950s. We find ourselves in the court of the King of Sicily, Leontes. Within minutes the loving relationship between ruler and his queen Hermione is in tatters as Leontes succumbs to jealousy and the belief that his lifelong best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is having an affair with Hermione.
On the page, it seems hard to accept how easily this happens but William Shakespeare is the king of dramatists and the spoken word carries you along. The words in this play may not quite match those in the greatest Shakespeare plays, say Hamlet, but, tumbling out of mouths on stage, they provide image after image of the human condition and with a speed and style always matching the characters. The result, despite the implausibility of the plot at many points, is deep, believable characters caught up in a gripping drama.
Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale not as a book or a movie but as a play. So, thank goodness, the director Erica Whyman has confidence that Shakespeare knows what he’s doing. It is filmed as a stage play. Bridget Caldwell’s film direction is kept simple and that’s to its credit. There are close-ups of course but otherwise we’re left to see the actors on the large Swan Theatre stage, which itself is sparsely decorated by set designer Tom Piper. Any music, which is provided by the eclectic Isobel Waller-Bridge, is occasional and enhances rather than intrudes.
Although The Winter’s Tale is technically a comedy, the first half is pretty much a tragedy. Leontes presumes his new baby is by Polixenes and condemns it to death. He puts his wife on trial with disastrous consequences. In fact, the deaths and apparent deaths bring home to Leontes how wrong he has been. And don’t forget this is the play with the most famous stage direction in theatrical history- ‘exit pursued by a bear’. I can tell you that bear isn’t after a cuddle.
Some excellent actors to convey the script. Joseph Kloska plays Leontes as quite ordinary, somewhat pathetic. Even when he’s at his worst, he seems more mentally unstable than tyrannical which, I think, helps offset the tragic nature of this comedy. Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Hermione conveys her lines with regal authority and dignified passion. Ben Caplan playing Leontes’ right hand man Camillo makes every careful syllable suggest the conflict between loyalty and conscience. Amanda Hadingue as Hermione’s broken-hearted companion Paulina touches us with her uncontrolled anger.
So the first half, which is about 90 minutes and takes us to the end of act 3, is very dark.
And having set up the tragedy, Shakespeare changes the tone. It’s 16 years later, a time gap which itself is unusual for Shakespeare. To some extent, this is a play about the healing power of time. Leontes has been grieving and repenting all this time.
We begin the second half, now in the mid 1960s, with some rock’n’roll. It becomes much more like the Shakespearean comedies we are familiar with. There are people disguising their origins, there’s forbidden love, there’s a mischief-making rascal Autolycus played with a cheeky chappy style by Anne Odeke. All’s well that ends well, except for the ones that died.
There’s a romantic, pastoral theme to the second half, including young lovers, shepherds and a sheep shearing festival. This makes the sixties setting very appropriate, it being a time when pop culture embraced romanticism and nature. In fact, the concept of contrasting the austere fifties with the free sixties is an inspired way of representing the two halves of The Winter’s Tale. The beautiful costumes by Madeleine Girling are elegant in the first half, more flamboyant in the second.
So, it’s a bittersweet ending, a story of redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation, which doesn’t deny the ill that has gone before. It is clear that some things that have been lost will never be regained.
There are some nice touches in the production. To emphasise that Leontes is conducting a show trial of Hermione, we see it partly as being televised with early black-and-white TV cameras. And later on, a feast is shown being filmed on Super 8 or something kind of early home movie.
Those are really the only thing approaching a gimmick. Otherwise, it’s a joy to watch a production that allows actors to speak Shakespeare’s words at length and without distraction.
The Winter’s Tale was broadcast on BBC4 on 25 April and is available to watch on BBC iPlayer
Pam Ferris & Toby Jones perfect in audio play about a mother with dementia
I’ve listened to audio plays all my life, mainly on BBC radio, so, believe me, it means a lot when I say I have never heard a better audio play than Mark Ravenhill’s Angela. It works perfectly as audio because it’s about his mother who had dementia and it takes place almost entirely inside her head.
Why, in the throes of dementia, does she forget she has a son, why does she think her husband is trying to kill her, why does she become violent? In the course of the play, we hear what led her there: her memories of her unpleasant childhood, her ambitions to be an actor, her miscarriages and the profound effect of losing her first baby, a girl.
There is much about how her love of theatre and encouragement of her son Mark is at odds with her working class background and the cause of conflict with her husband and her sister. Central is a moment from Mark’s childhood, when we see how she copes and doesn’t cope with her son. Together they see the ballet film The Tales Of Beatrix Potter. Mark becomes obsessed with dancing the role of Jemima Puddleduck. Angela identifies with Jemima, someone who is threatened by the world and has her children killed or taken away.
It’s sad, painful even, but not depressing. It’s beautifully written and sensitively performed. We gain insights into dementia- the disorientation, the imagined world, the confusion of past and present- but what is fundamentally important is that Angela remains a person, a human being with thoughts and memories and feelings.
And there’s the gentleness with which her son- and her husband- interact with her is heartwarming.
The dialogue and the acting in Angela are pitch perfect. I can’t speak to the art of getting it right but I’ve heard many times when it’s been wrong, the dialogue stilted, the acting stagey. But here when the older Angela says, for example, ‘I bled the girl away. I was made all wrong’, it sounds natural and is spoken with understated passion by Pam Ferris.
The other cast members also get the balance of clarity and believability just right. Toby Jones as her gentle husband, Matti Houghton as the younger Angela gradually beaten down by life, Jackson Laing as the young Mark bright, loving but oblivious to his mother’s anguish even as she supports him, Joseph Millson as the adult Mark, caring, and understanding how her past shaped her and himself. ‘We’ve all got muddled, imagined things, got angry with each other,’ he says.
‘Natural’ is rarely achieved naturally, so Polly Thomas, a hugely experienced director of radio plays, deserves her share of the credit for making this one work.
The sound too is just right. The minimalist piano music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is dreamlike and ever so slightly disorientating, as befits a story that shows the effects of dementia.
There’s much more to Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly constructed play: Angela’s mother, a parent who undermines her child; her relationship with her sister who has two boys and is insensitive as to how that might make the (at that time) childless Angela feel; the attachment of blame; the devastating hole left by a miscarriage and the way it is unexpectedly filled by her love of acting when two people with dementia meet.
The play begins and ends with a middle aged man taking a ballet class. No prizes for guessing who this is.
I appreciate this play may mean more to those of us who have experienced at first hand the effects of dementia on a loved one but I can assure you that, even if you haven’t, you will be moved by this play and be thinking about it for a long time afterwards.
Angela is part of a new season of audio plays from Sound Stage, co-produced by Pitlochry festival theatre and the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in collaborartion with naked Productions. Still to come are new plays by John Byrne, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Roy Williams and more.
Joanna Lumley & Alfred Enoch add gloss to digital Oscar Wilde
Despite it being co-produced by five regional theatres with the involvement of many more, The Picture Of Dorian Gray is not theatre. It’s not filmed theatre. It’s not a theatrical film. It’s not a theatre-film hybrid. It’s a film. A bit of an avant-garde film maybe, but a film. So here’s my film review.
The adaptation by Henry Filloux-Bennett of Oscar Wilde’s novel brings us into the present day where Dorian Gray has been transformed into a social media star by a new digital filter that makes him incredibly attractive. He is corrupted by his obsession with fame and his number of followers. ‘Your followers meant more to you than I did,’ his girlfriend says, or, as he says himself, he chooses ‘aesthetics over ethics’. While the filter keeps his digital face in the bloom of youth, his actual face starts to deteriorate rapidly.
Recalling what they remember of him and of what happened to him are Joanna Lumley silky-voiced as ever as an amoral Lady Narborough and Alfred Enoch as a believably bad influence called Harry, both speaking to an Interviewer played by Stephen Fry.
Their performances are excellent, and also Russell Tovey as Basil the man who invents the filter, although he appears less than the story would seem to demand.
A great deal of the film is in the form of people in isolation giving interviews or making calls or posting online, but it’s not some fuzzy set of zoom calls, it’s beautifully filmed in proper settings and from varied angles. There are cleverly cut sequences when Flashbacks are required, the main one conveying a party atmosphere very well. In fact, I found the filming and the cutting hypnotic, thanks I assume to director Tamara Harvey.
So far so good but here’s where my enjoyment started to buffer. Because, pleasant looking and charming in demeanour as Fionn Whitehead is, and good actor as he undoubtedly is, I just couldn’t understand why the other characters feel in love with this Dorian Gray or why he would attract hundreds of thousands of followers. I admit this may indicate my lack of understanding of the kind of people who do attract a massive following on Instagram and the like.
Of course, I speak as someone who has hundreds rather than thousands of followers on social media- and I did take to heart Basil’s declaration that ‘youth is one thing worth having.’ I thought ‘Okay, let’s try a theatrical suspension of disbelief’, but the problem was that, whether he was talking to his followers or to his friends, what came out of his mouth was vacuous and spoken in a flat voice. It may have been meant to indicate the innocence of youth but to me it was just dull.
I could have written this off as my lack of appreciation of things youthful except that I did find Emma McDonald who played Sybil, another rising social media star, entirely convincing in her voice and looks, and that was as much to do with her expression as the basic tools she was working with.
As a warning against the dangers of social media, Henry Filloux-Bennett ’s script covers a well-clicked search, and has little new to say. The novelty of the way it says it soon wears off but the acting and filming make it worth a view.
Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani give an acting masterclass
Hymn, although it’s not spelled ‘him’, is a play about two men, two sons, and two brothers as it turns out. A bare stage with two actors provide possibly the best piece of streamed theatre I’ve seen.
It begins with a funeral. Gil, played by Adrian Lester, gives a eulogy to his late father, his hero. Now 50, he is the youngest child of four, the only boy, in the shadow of his older sisters and in awe of his late father. In the course of the play, we learn that his life has been shackled by following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman rather than being comfortable with being the kind but naive man he clearly is. And it seems his father was not the paragon he thought he was.
At the funeral, he meets Benny played by Danny Sapani. We soon discover he is an unacknowledged child of Gil’s father, born just a few weeks after him. Gil and Benny are drawn to one another. From then on, they are set on a road that starts with bonding and leads them hand-in-hand to disaster.
The two men satisfy a need in the other. Gil is pleased to have a younger brother, albeit by a few weeks, someone he can impress. Benny, who spent much of his childhood in care, has a connection with a dad and siblings for the first time. There’s a lot about the effect of dads on sons, or the lack of a dad.
Both have their demons and each boosts the other. They bond through music and dance. Lester and Sapani have fine voices and are good movers. The songs they sing pepper the story and, when they relive their 80s youth, it gives them a shared experience they never had at the time. The musically knowledgeable Benny calls it ‘sympathetic resonance’. The first song significantly is Bill Withers song that says ‘Lean on me when you’re not strong.’
In another scene Benny introduces Gil to a gym where he can unleash his frustration with his life.
For a while, it is wonderful to hear two men conversing about their lives and their feelings, relaxed and natural. But we know something must go wrong- the hints are there- and inevitably it does, but I won’t spoil anything by going into the details. Just to say, like any two people who blindly love each oither, they lead one another down this fatal path.
Adrian Lester takes us through many emotions as his character moves from confident to destroyed. His face, his voice, his eyes all transform— it’s a masterclass in acting. Danny Sapani too is excellent. I was touched by sensitivity and a puppy-like enthusiasm he conveyed, so apparently at odds with his bulky body.
The 90 minutes fly by. Lolita Chakrabarti’s script is so tight and so true. It’s interesting, I think, that, in a time when it is sometimes suggested that authors should not or cannot write about things outside their experience, a woman manages to make these men so believable.
It’s unfortunate that covid restrictions prevent the actors touching, because there are moments when they would have hugged or given one another a helping hand but the camerawork does well to suggest closeness.
In fact, this is a lesson in how to film a stage play, especially considering it is done live. It feels very like theatre- the bare stage designed by Miriam Buether tdoes just enough to suggest and leave the rest to our imagination, Prema Mehta‘s lighting and Blanche McIntyre‘s direction ensure we concentrate on the two characters and hardly notice that we are seeing it through a lens.
I was applauding at the end. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a recording will be made available.
Lorien Haynes’ play Good Grief lasts less than an hour but in that time it follows two people on an emotional rollercoaster as they suppress and express their feelings through various stages of grief.
The two, played by Sian Clifford (Claire in Fleabag) and Nikesh Patel, are mourning the death of his partner and her best friend. They have a deep affection for one another and, as they try to cope with the death of someone they both loved, they also attempt to support each other.
Good Grief is honest about the sadness and anger of bereavement, and if you have suffered the loss of a loved one, it is bound to hit home, but it isn’t depressing. It is a comedy with many amusing moments and much dark humour.
And it is a love story, or rather a love triangle. That’s because the question running through the play is how much should one respect the wishes of someone who has gone. I was going to say ‘who is no longer with us’ but she is ever present ,affecting what the two do and how they relate to each other.
Some people are calling this a play-film hybrid including Sian Clifford herself but I don’t think that’s a good description. For me, it is simply a play that’s been filmed. Yes, it’s not filmed in a theatre or with an audience, but the simple makeshift set is very clearly theatrical in that it lacks the realism that you would expect in a film.
What you do get and benefit from is close-ups. There’ are many emotions flitting across their faces, especially Sian Clifford’s. She has a great ability to convey the complexities of, say, a nervous laugh or a bemused empathy and to the change between the two in the blink of her eye. Nikesh Patel‘s character wears his mood changes on his sleeve, which is not to say his performance is any less impressive.
It’s a well written script with natural, rhythmic language. However it ‘s clearly intended for characters in their twenties, whereas these two excellent actors are in their thirties. While it’s relatively easy to act younger than you are on a stage, close-ups make age much harder to disguise on screen.
My only other reservation is the presence of the crew. You see them reflected in a shiny cycle helmet, you see them between scenes. I don’t what the point of that was. To remind us it’s a film? To remind us it’s theatre? I don’t think would be in any doubt about either. It seemed to be a form of alienation at odds with the intimate style of the play.
The play is sensitively directed by Natalie Abrahami, by which I mean there are no gimmicks and the actors are given space to express their emotions.
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.
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, 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 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.