Cyprus Avenue starring Stephen Rea at Royal Court – review

Stephen Rea triumphs as psychotic bigot

★★★★

Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Ireland’s script sparks and fizzes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to view Cyprus Avenue on YouTube

Click here to watch Cyprus Avenue on the Royal Court website

Poet In Da Corner at The Royal Court – review

Exciting drama from Grime poet Debris Stevenson ★★★★★

MC Jammz, Stacy Abalogun, Kirubel Belay and Debris Stevenson in Poet in da Corner. Photo: Helen Murray

Poet in Da Corner is the semi-autobiographical tale of Debris Stevenson and how she was inspired by grime music to become a poet.

Although the word ‘grime’ suggests ‘grim’, in fact it’s not. It’s an uplifting, exhilarating story of an adolescent woman struggling with her dyslexia, her sexuality and her strict Mormon mother. The teenage misfit makes friends with a young grime artist who encourages her to be real in the way grime artists are true to themselves and their background.

I really warmed to these two friends who love and respect each other and who are trying hard in difficult circumstances. Debris Stevenson plays herself and Jammz plays her friend and mentor.

It’s a show full of tempestuous relationships, lyrical language, and a lot of humour. There’s a moment both shocking and funny when her angry but nonviolent mother slowly pours a gallon of milk over her brother.

The title is a reference to the seminal Dizzee Rascal album Boy In Da Corner that was the spark that lit Debris Stevenson’s fire. The play uses an imaginary character SS Viper who represents grime artists and Debris’ best friend at school. He sees her as privileged because she’s white and her mum makes her sandwiches for school lunch. As an adult, he berates her for appropriating grime- and his work in particular- when she’s not from a black disadvantaged background.

But in the course of the play we see how she used grime as a pathway out of her own disadvantages.

Viper takes her to task for leaving the neighbourhood and losing contact with him. She responds: ‘Helped other people cause I couldn’t help you / took responsibility with privilege too. / But I ran away from me when I ran away from you.’ How she develops and whether the rift can be healed is the subject of the play.

Debris Stevenson in Poet in da Corner. Photo: Helen Murray

The set, designed by Jacob Hughes, is a bare stage that uses minimal furniture. In a Brechtian way, it is made clear the scenes from the past are being acted out for us and the present day adults comment on them. So we don’t get emotionally involved with the characters. But we do care about them and we see the world of disadvantaged working class kids from a sympathetic perspective- not the gangs, aggression and crude misogyny which is the tabloid image of grime.

The talented Stacy Abalogun and Kirubel Belay play the mother, brother and other parts in this exciting evening directed by Ola Ince. The evening ends with the audience dancing as Jammz performs his excellent song Lemonade Man.

I have heard songs by Dizzee Rascal and Stormzy but I couldn’t imagine listening to whole album or going to a concert because my ears find the 140 bpm and the heavy bass difficult. After seeing this show, I now have a new respect for grime and the artists who produce it and I appreciate the quality of the lyrics. There’s a singular quote from Dizzee Rascal that is used in the play: ‘The skies are all empty because the stars are on the ground.’

If you have the opportunity to see Poet In Da Corner as it tours, please do. Even if you think grime (or poetry for that matter) is not for you, do it anyway.

Poet In Da Corner continues at Royal Court Theatre until 22 February 2020 and on tour to The MAC Belfast 26 – 28 Feb, Leicester Curve 6 & 7 March, Birmingham Repertory Theatre 10 – 14 March, Nottingham Playhouse 19 – 21 March, HOME Manchester 24- 28 Mar, Hackney Empire London 31 March – 4 April.

Click here to watch the review of Poet In Da Corner on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel on YouTube

Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury at the Young Vic – review

Fairview: Powerful comedy about race

★★★★

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

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

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

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

There are peculiar moments in this first act that make you suspect there is more going on: the radio malfunctioning briefly, a tendency for the characters to break into dance, the daughter appearing in a spotlight to express her discomfort with the situation.

As if a brick wall has collapsed on you

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

WARNING: SPOILERS

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

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

An uncomfortable evening for those ‘identifying as white’

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

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

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

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

A subtle layered comedy

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch the review of Fairview on YouTube

Minor amendments made on 14 January 2020

& Juliet at Shaftesbury Theatre – review

Max Martin’s songs power a musical triumph ★★★★

Watch the review of & Juliet on YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam-Teak Lee: Stardom beckons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Seven Lewis was given complimentary review tickets.

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

Noises Off at The Garrick – review

If you’ve never seen Noises Off, You Really Should

★★★★★

Noises Off by Michael Frayn at The Garrick Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

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.
Lisa McGrillis, Lloyd Owen, Sarah Hadland & Meera Syal in Noises Off

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.
Daniel Rigby, Richard Henders, Meera Syal & Simon Rouse in Noises Off. Photo: Helen Maybanks

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
Paul Seven Lewis was given complimentary review tickets for this production

The Watsons at The Menier Chocolate Factory

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

★★★★★

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

The Watsons at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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

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

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

Quite mind-blowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

A head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade

The Watsons at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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

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

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

The Watsons is running at The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre until 16 November 2019 and will open at the Harold Pinter Theatre on 8 May 2020

Paul saw a preview performance of The Watsons. On 18 February 2020, Paul changed his rating of The Watsons to 5 stars

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

Evita at the Open Air Theatre

An Evita for today

★★★

I doubt whether Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Evita has ever looked or sounded better.

Samantha Pauly as Evita at the Open Air Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

As you enter the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, you’re presented with a set that looks like bleachers or maybe a staircase which rises from the front to the back of the stage. At the bottom of the staircase, appropriately, is Eva about to embark on her journey of sleeping her way out of poverty and climbing to the highest office of the land.

She is a showgirl. Like her colleagues, she wears a short skirt and sits with her legs apart, making it clear that she sees her body as a tool in her ruthless ambition. It’s not long before attaches herself to up-and-coming General Juan Peron and helps him to become President of Argentina. Then tragedy strikes as she contracts cancer and dies, the announcement of her death providing the opening of the musical.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best score is movingly played

I’m not a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music but I have to say the stirring swelling arrangements, the Latin American pastiches and the memorable tunes make this, for me, his best score. Coupled with Tim Rice’s clever, caustic lyrics, Evita is a pleasure to listen to and this production is musically excellent under Alan Williams.

Under the supervision of Alan Williams, the blockbusters Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (which I can’t get out of my head) and Another Suitcase in Another Hall are movingly performed, the former by Samantha Pauly, the latter by Frances Mayli McCann.

Evita at the Open Air Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Just as the musical is intended to be sung-through, director Jamie Lloyd has made a decision to have it danced-through. Fabian Aloise‘s choreography, picking up on the Latin American rhythms, works exceptionally well. The lack of a flat stage could have made life difficult for dancers but Mr Aloise turns it to advantage by having the performers move up and down and along the steps. At times, he uses Soutra Gilmour‘s tiered design to create a spectacular wall of dancers.

The leads are excellent. Eva is played by Samantha Pauly. In her slip dress and trainers, she seems very young , much younger than other Evitas you may have seen. This is appropriate because the musical takes her from age 15 to 33. She is a pleasure to watch and hear. You have no doubt of why she would be attractive to Peron and the Argentine people. My only reservation is that she didn’t show enough ruthlessness on her face.

I came out humming Lloyd Webber’s tunes but wasn’t engaged in the story

Frances Mayli McCann in Evita. Photo: Marc Brenner

The strength of this production which is the youthful energetic dancing is also its flaw because Peron should be older. Historically and in terms of this classic musical, it should be much clearer that Eva gave an unattractive older military man sex appeal, much in the way Lady Diana did for Prince Charles or Ginger Rogers for Fred Astaire. Excellent as Ektor Rivera is as a performer, he is too young and fit. 

Trent Saunders is powerful in the role of Che the narrator. He has a strong expressive voice. The narrator not only tells us what’s going on but comments cynically until even he falls under Eva’s spell. He is also her conscience, experiencing physically her rejection and her contrition.

The Brechtian device of a narrator is meant to be alienating but I don’t find it works in Evita. Yes, we step back from emotional engagement to think about Evita’s populist progress but the downside is, we don’t care about the protagonists. While the biting libretto goes one way, the music goes another, slapping on emotion with a trowel. It tries hard but Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s musical passion fails to attach itself to Tim Rice‘s characters.

I came out humming the tunes but I wasn’t engaged in Evita’s story.

Evita was performed at the Open Air Theatre until 21 September 2019

Watch the YouTube version of this review here

 

 

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre

Juliet Stevenson outstanding in Robert Icke’s exposure of populism

★★★

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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

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

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

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

The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance

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

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

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

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

A lack of respect for his audience?

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

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

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

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

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

Hansard starring Lindsay Duncan & Alex Jennings – review

Art on a human scale

★★★★★

Hansard in the Lyttelton Theatre of the National Theatre is what I love about theatre. Forget video screens, background music, special effects. This is 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.

Alex Jennings & Lindsay Duncan in Hansard. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings convince

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

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

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

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

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

Hansard is an excellent and an important play.

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

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Andrew Scott in Present Laughter – review

Comedy gold from Noël Coward and Andrew Scott

★★★★★

Andrew Scott in Present Laughter

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? First let me 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. Director Matthew Warchus proves once again he is a genius. After this and his previous Hamlet, Andrew Scott is now the leading contender for the best actor of his generation.

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

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

Present Laughter

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

Andrew Scott’s comic timing is superb

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

Andrew Scott & Indira Velma in Present Laughter

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch the review on YouTube