The Winter’s Tale (RSC / BBC) – review

Stratford production lets Shakespeare speak for himself

★★★★

Production photo from the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter's Tale as seen on BBC
Joseph Kloska in RSC’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

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.

Production photo of Kemi-Bo Jacobs in The Winter's Tale
Kemi-Bo Jacobs in RSC’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

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

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

Richard Blackwood in Typical – review

Richard Blackwood exceptional in Typical


★★★★★

Porduction photo of Richard Blackwood in the film of the Soho Theatre production of Typical
Richard Blackwood in Typical. Photo: Franklyn Rogers

Typical offers us a day in the life of an ordinary man, a typical man, but the question is, is he a typical black man?

He gets up and gets dressed. He’s looking forward to the weekend, when he’ll see his boys. He fancies a night out so he goes to a disco. By the end he’s dying in a police station. Not so typical, but in Ryan Calais Cameron‘s play, ‘typical’ has many meanings and one is when they stereotype a black man .

It’s a one-man play and a huge burden is placed on the Richard Blackwood’s shoulders. There’s no set. He mimes, he mimics other characters, he speaks constantly in a stream of consciousness. The good news is that Mr Blackwood doesn’t give a typical performance, what he does is exceptional in the extreme.

Ryan Calais Cameron has written a poetic drama and Mr Blackwood is right on top of the rhythm of it. There’s a real love of language here, and there are joyful plays on words that he effortlessly gets his tongue round. For example, he talks of ‘sleep in the corner of the cornea’. He says, ‘Look here, I cook here, don’t need no damn book here’ and ‘I want to be inside the rave raving, instead of outside the rave, ranting and raving’.

There are many funny moments, especially when Richard Blackwood mimics the people he encounters. I laughed out loud as he confronted a police officer. The officer is saying, ‘Do you want to come to the station’. Our guy is saying ‘Do you want to take my statement’ and the two begin interrupting as each tries to have his say. Do you want to.. Do you.. in swift repartee,  as all the while the tension rises.

Anastasia Osei-Kuffour directed the original play at the Soho Theatre and this screen version is filmed there so it retains a sense of theatre while making good use of close ups and quick cutting to different camera angles.

Our protagonist is quite an ordinary man but also very likeable. He can look after himself but he avoids trouble.  When he experiences typical everyday racism, systemic racism if you like, he doesn’t rise to it, he even questions whether there is racist intent. Is the doorman making him wait because he’s black or simply because the place is full.

He still doesn’t avoid a serious racist attack. In the hospital a head injury has left him confused but the staff and police see what they want to see- a typical man- perhaps a typical black man- on drugs or drunk and frighteningly aggressive. The meaning of ‘typical’ moves from ‘everyday’ to ‘predictable’ to ‘expected’.

Once he’s arrested, the police beat him in the van. It is perhaps typical racist police behaviour or at least it’s nothing like as rare as it should be. The depictions of the beatings invite a visceral response, again all mimed by Mr Blackwood..

The police let him die. We see him die, before our eyes in deep close up, choking on his own blood,. It is shocking, horrific and deeply upsetting.

This is an imagined version of what happened, not to a typical black person but an actual man Christopher Alder in 1999. The last minutes of his life were recorded on CCTV at the police station. It led to a verdict of unlawful killing and an apology from the police force but no one was punished. It’s part of a pattern that sees a disproportionate number of black people stopped and searched, arrested, and dying in custody.

While that is important and Typical rightly brings attention to this outrage, it is important to say that this is a  well acted, well constructed drama that uses language, humour and emotional empathy, to make us feel the pain of one man’s tragic end.

Typical is available to stream on demand from sohotheatreondemand  

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

Good Grief with Sian Clifford – review

Subtle Performances in comedy about bereavement


★★★★

Promotional photo of Sian clifford and Nikesh Patel in Good Grief
Sian Clifford and Nikesh Patel

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

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

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

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

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

Nikesh Patel and Sian Clifford in Good Grief
Nikesh Patel and Sian Clifford in Good Grief

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

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

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

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

[Paul received a complimentary review ticket]

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

Click here to watch Paul’s review on YouTube

 

Theatre To Watch At Home

The Best Stage Shows Online or on TV

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

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

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

Hamilton

Publicity photo of 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

Frame from film of Sea Wall featuring Andrew Scott
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 reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
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

Mike Bartlett’s Albion – review of BBC live recording

Victoria Hamilton blooms in Mike Bartlett’s play about loss

★★★★

Victoria Hamilton in Albion at the Almeida recorded live
Victoria Hamilton in Albion at the Almeida. Photo: Marc Brenner

Sometimes you watch the first act of a play and it’s just the setup and you really want to get it over with so you can move on to how it’s all going to work out. Not so with Mike Bartlett’s Albion, directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida Theatre, which is currently available as a live recording on BBC iPlayer. The first act is captivating and what follows, while good, never lives up to the promise.

Audrey has bought a house she knew as a child. It had a historic garden and she plans to renovate it. No matter that this involves uprooting her daughter, neglecting her business, upsetting the local community who have become used to using the huge outdoor space for their annual events.

It’s a good script but what you’re riveted by is Victoria Hamilton’s performance. From the start, she grabs you by the lapels, then she puts you down and walks away, then she picks you again. She is mesmerising as she paces back and forth and spits out her staccato sentences, like a neurotic sergeant major. For example, when she is pouring tea and says: ‘Let me be mother…since I am…’ followed by a false, stuttering laugh.

This is the sort of intimate theatre that works really well in a live recording. The Almeida is a small theatre and the cast occupy a three-sided stage. It’s like an oval island surrounded by the audience. Actually, although an island might symbolise its isolation from the rest of the world, it is in fact a garden with a solid tree at one end, giving a sense of history. The actors don’t have to shout and the cameras close in on a face much as you would if you were lucky enough to be sitting in one of the seats.

For me, nothing lived up to that first act. There’s plenty going on with many developments involving the other characters but they felt tacked on, no matter how good the acting was. Not so much multi-layered, as laid on thick. And the ending was way too melodramatic.

What I loved throughout the whole play was the dominating character of Audrey and the way Victoria Hamilton blooms as the wishful gardener. Grief has consumed her and the only way she can cope is to reject everyone and everything in favour of a retreat into an imagined golden age.

She has lost her soldier son in what she sees as defending his country but what is referred to a one point as a ‘folly’. As a way of honouring him, she is determined to recreate the original garden, even though it is now anachronistic. It’s pointed out that the climate has changed- and that ‘climate’ may refer to more than growing conditions, because there is an allegory here for the state of England and how we as a nation are coping with the loss of mythical past glories and with the need to move on.

Audrey wants to return to a bygone age but only within the boundaries of her world. So, she doesn’t care that she is trampling on the traditions of the local people; and she hires the more efficient Polish cleaner (and sacks the local woman who has done the job for years. It is fascinating, shocking even to see the insensitivity that can come from single-mindedness, and her gradual but inevitable disintegration.

Set of Albion at The Almeida Theatre London, designed by Miriam Buether. Photo: Marc Brenner
Mike Bartlett’s Albion at The Almeida Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s also fascinating to see the garden change as flowers grow through the four acts, each of which is a different season, culminating with the ‘fall’. It’s a great design by Miriam Buether.

I glossed over the other characters earlier but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they were acted well. Audrey’s daughter Zara is played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, who recently made a breakthrough to stardom with her role in TV’s Normal People. She is perfect as a troubled twenty something. Helen Schlesinger makes you feel the pain as Katherine, a successful but shy novelist, forced to make a hard choice between a thirty year friendship and a rare opportunity for love.

In a play that is more amusing than funny, Nicholas Rowe as Audrey’s devoted husband Paul got the most laughs as a man so proudly laid back that he was almost horizontal.

It’s hard not to compare Albion with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Unfortrunately, on every count, this play comes out worse. Chekhov’s second half doesn’t peter out, his ending feels real and even his minor characters have depth.  So best not go there, better to simply enjoy Albion as a good if not great play with a mother of a leading role that, in future productions, actors will queue up to play.

For me, one of the tests of watching theatre at home is whether I wish I’d seen it in the theatre. In Albion’s case, despite some flaws, I would have loved to have been there. Especially to see that outstanding performance by Victoria Hamilton.

The live recording of Mike Bartlett’s Albion is currently available on BBC i-Player.

Watch the YouTube video of this review here.

Hamilton – film review

The best film of a live stage show I’ve seen

★★★★★

Publicity photo of Hamilton
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

Groomed by Patrick Sandford – review

An important play about the lasting damage of child abuse

★★★★★

Still from Groomed by Patrick Sandford
Patrick Sandford in Groomed

‘The adult tries so hard to forget, but the child always remembers,’ says the protagonist in Groomed, written and acted by Patrick Sandford.  I am sure you will be as sad and angry as I was by the end of this 50-minute monologue about the abuse suffered by a 10-year-old child and the reverberating effect on the rest of his life. Its exceptional impact is a tribute to the former Artistic Director of the Nuffield Southampton.

Although written for the stage, this is a filmed version directed by Nancy Meckler. As with Andrew Scott in Sea Wall, having one person talking directly to you through the camera seems to me to come closest to the experience of theatre. The film also takes the opportunity to place our protagonist in a primary school classroom, the scene of the crime if you like.

Patrick Sandford takes us on a giddying ride. He tells us stories- stories from the ancient classics, a history of the saxophone, the story of the Japanese soldier who carried on fighting for 29 years after World War 2 ended, all providing metaphors for this protagonist’s experience and how it can be faced. He plays parts, even taking us a little way inside the mind of the abuser.

Most heartbreaking is the gradual revelation of the damage that the experience has inflicted on the adult. The fear, the shame, the guilt: ‘the bad done to me becomes the bad in me becomes the bad is me.’

It made me want to hug him

Like a tide that goes out and comes in again, we keep returning to the child and his awful experience at the hands of his teacher.  There are no details- he is very clear that this isn’t fodder for sensational tabloids. The shock is not in what happened but how it happened, and how the grooming was allowed to happen, and how there were apparently no consequences for the teacher.

It’s so upsetting that this should happen to a fellow human being that you almost want to block it out, just as you now might want to avoid seeing this play, but Patrick Sandford stares at you, defying you, both in his words and in his piercing eyes, to look away.

And there is hope in talking about it: ‘Rage that is heard transforms to mighty trees’ he says and talks of ‘the alchemy of anger into trust’.

I understand now much more now than I did about the way in which the experience of abuse is never something historical, but rather something ever present in the life of someone who was abused. So it is educational. However Groomed is so successful as a drama because Patrick understands the power of theatre as a cathartic experience and the way it can elicit empathy as well as sympathy. ‘Open my heart for me,’ he implores. Even in these times of social distancing, it made me want to hug him.

Groomed is available on sohotheatreondemand.com until the end of August 2020

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

 

This House – NTLive – review

Film fails to convey thrill of live theatre

★★★

Production shot of Phil Daniels in the National Theatre production of This House
Phil Daniels in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.

At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.

Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.

What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.

Prodcution shot from the National Theatre production of This house by James Graham
Photo: Johan Persson

We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.

Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason,  recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.

Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith

When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.

So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.

This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny,  as when they drag in a dying member to vote.

Production photo of Charles Edwards in the National Theatre production of This House
Charles Edwards in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.

Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.

I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.

This House is streaming on the YouTube channel National Theatre At Home until 3 June 2020.

Click here to watch the review of This House on YouTube

Andrew Scott in Sea Wall – film review

Andrew Scott unforgettable in Simon Stephens’ astounding play

★★★★★

If you’ve seen Andrew Scott as Moriarty in Sherlock or the hot priest in Fleabag or Hamlet or in Present Laughter, you know he’s a great actor. After seeing this, you may well think he is the greatest actor we have.

I don’t want to say too much about what the plot because I don’t want to spoil the impact. Let’s just say it’s a one-man play featuring a father called Alex telling us a story from his life. I can tell you that while it has its amusing moments, it is not a comedy. Alex says at one point “There’s a hole running through the centre of my stomach.”

I would like to talk about Andrew Scott. What you experience is acting of the purest kind. He hesitates. He doesn’t finish his sentences. There’s a moment when he’s about to say something and pauses- and as you wait for him to finish, time seems to be suspended.

His delivery is so natural, that it seems like he’s just talking to you. Yet it absolutely is acting because it has a poetic rhythm and his body language- the way he might giggle or cover his face or stare into space- all tell you what he’s not saying, tell you that this is more than a nice story about holidays in the south of France and the charms of his daughter and father-in-law.

Andrew Scott has the ability of a great actor to not only engage you but involve you. He draws you into his heart so you feel what he feels.

Great acting needs a great script and here every word, every phrase, every incident, every little detail- the colour of a dress, some athlete’s foot cream- seem precisely chosen by Simon Stephens to make a point about how life or even perhaps God mocks our love of it, because it is a story about life’s uncertainties, about not knowing what’s round the corner, like when he goes scuba diving and is suddenly plunged into the blackness beyond the sea wall.

The play lasts just over thirty minutes but every word and gesture counts so much that it concentrates into that half hour, as much emotional impact as a four hour epic.

This is not a film of a stage performance. Andrew Scott first performed Sea Wall in 2008 and has revived it in theatres a number of times, most recently at the Old Vic in 2018. This is a film made in a studio around 2012. But, despite being a film, nothing distracts from the acting. There are no cinematic tricks and no background music. There’s natural light. The camera is fixed and we always see his whole body. It appears to be done in one take.

I don’t want to give any more away, I may have said too much already. Please see it for yourself. You will never forget it.

You can watch it on YouTube for free until 25 May-ish and after that you can still pay to rent or download it from Vimeo. In fact I would recommend spending the £5 and download it because the more times you watch this you more you will get out of it. Full details can be found at seawallandrewscott.com

A Separate Peace with David Morrissey & Jenna Coleman – review

Live reading of Stoppard zooms off the page
★★★★

David Morrissey, Jenna Coleman & Ed Stoppard in A Separate Peace

The Remote Read is an exciting project born out of the coronavirus lockdown. The producers Curtain Call are intending to bring together actors in their own homes via Zoom for live performances of plays. The first was A Separate Peace which streamed on Sunday 2 May 2020.

Proceeds (you have to buy a ticket) go to The Felix Project, a charity which helps vulnerable people in need of food. Whether for this reason or simply that they’re glad of something to do, a top notch cast assembled for this half hour production, led by the wonderful David Morrissey, all soft-spoken and twinkly-eyed.

I didn’t know the play. It was written for television back in 1966, about the time of Tom Stoppard’s first theatrical hit Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. It owes something I think to Pinter and Beckett in that John Brown played by David Morrissey arrives at an anonymous nursing home. There’s nothing wrong with him but he has a suitcase of cash and just wants to stay there, being looked after and doing nothing. The nursing staff take him in but, even though he is no way sinister or even difficult, they cannot resist finding out who he is and trying to ‘help’ him.

So it’s about the right to privacy, our inability to leave someone alone without wanting to know more or do we think is best for them, and society’s discomfort with people who do nothing.

This is an absorbing play with some excellent dialogue. ‘It’s not good for you, what you’re doing,’ says one of the staff. ‘You mean it’s not good for you,’ says Brown.

The members of staff were played by Denise Gough as a Doctor, Ed Stoppard as the Matron, Maggie Service as a Nurse and Jenna Coleman as Nurse Maggie Coates (the only other character given a full name). She was the one who befriended John Brown. The subtle way she conveyed her liking of him and her wrestling with her conscience as she ultimately betrayed him was outstanding.

So how did it work on Zoom? Quite well, thanks to director Sam Yates. The actors might have been positioned sideways so they appeared to be talking to each other. Instead, they all faced the camera and this was curiously effective. With both actors looking at you while they talked to each other, it was as if you were invisible but standing in the middle of the conversations.

The actors in simple black tops were placed against white backgrounds which cut out any distractions from bookcases or trophies or whatever actors often have in their homes. Unfortunately Zoom works with some kind of facial recognition when you use a background so there can be distortion and blurring.

That’s a minor point. It was a nice touch that as John Brown painted a mural in his room that countryside scene gradually replaced his white background, indicating perhaps that he was receiving the calm of isolation that he craved. The editing was very smooth as actors appeared and disappeared very much like entrances and exits on a stage.

Actually it was more akin to a television programme than a stage show,  but it was very exciting that it was live and, as I understand it, unrecorded. This meant there was a real sense of being at a unique event.

A Separate Peace was billed as a reading but, apart from someone looking down occasionally, it came across as a well prepared and well-acted performance. I look forward to more from The Reading Room.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube