First things first, Brian Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer is a masterpiece. The question is, did this production streamed live from the Old Vic via Zoom do it justice? Sadly, the answer is, no.
Not because the acting wasn’t good, it was great. Michael Sheen was charismatic as the touring faith healer Frank Hardy describing unreliably events from his hit-and-miss performances in village halls. Indira Varma as Grace his brittle depressed partner gave us a different and hugely poignant version of events including a lost baby. His agent Teddy, so much a showbiz cliché when described by Frank, seen in David Threlfall’s amusing portrayal as a sensitive, caring man beneath his convivial and somewhat seedy exterior. Both have given up a lot to support Frank and it is through them as much as by seeing Frank himself that we appreciate he has an inspiring gift despite his apparent cruelty.
At first glance, Faith Healer would seem ideal for our social distanced times comprising as it does of four monologues, bookended by Frank. However watching a small screen for nearly two-and-a-half hours without a break is too much. The Health and Safety Executive advises a break from a computer screen every hour.
In the theatre, out of the comfort zone of home, and with the actors physically in front of you, it’s much easier to concentrate. Zoom works wonderfully for shorter monologues such as the previous Three Kings with Andrew Scott that came in in under an hour.
Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall are a dream cast
Sometimes the filming worked as when Michael Sheen emerged in silhouette from the darkness all shabby and funereal or when David Threlfall sat in his comfy chair in the middle of emptiness, but against that there was a use of close-ups which were so close up that they took away the sense of theatrical performance, and made it more like a TV drama.
The play is all about the words. And it’s a dream cast delivering them. Also, how great to see a play that doesn’t need a massive set or special effects to make its point. The poetic words prove to be as glittery and slippery as a live fish. They are whatever the speaker wants to believe or wants to make us believe. All teh characters are telling us stories but what is fact and what is fiction? The more we hear, the less we know. Did healings take place or didn’t they? Is Grace Frank’s wife or mistress, from Yorkshire or Ireland? Who chose the music to play at the performances? Where did Frank’s mother die? Are they all ghosts?
Faith healing is itself a performance and we can see that it relates very much to art. Just as Frank is tortured by not knowing know where his gift comes from and whether it will manifest itself any particular evening, so the artist, be it a playwright, an actor or some other creative person, is uncertain about why sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. And when we go the theatre, we all have to have faith or to put a more familiar way, suspend disbelief.
So, a great play, great acting… just not the medium for it.
Faith Healer was performed at the Old Vic and streamed on Zoom from 17 – 20 September 2020
If you’re worried that a musical couldn’t do justice to the classic film Sleepless In Seattle, don’t be. Sleepless does pretty much all you would hope from it and more.
Okay, Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh are not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. However what makes Hollywood stars great is their ability to convey their thoughts and feelings through their faces in close up. The composer Alan Menken said songs in a musical substitute for close ups when it comes to revealing character. And the songs by Robert Scott and Brendon Cull are both charming and do the job.
Jay McGuinness and Kimberley Walsh perform well, especially the latter as Annie who is the full package of acting, singing and dancing. Jay McGuinness as Sam is also impressive and very likeable but I felt his inexperience as an actor showed a little bit in the more emotional moments.
Now, you’ll remember the plot but just in case… A widower in Seattle can’t sleep and his son gets him on a late night radio show to talk about his situation. He’s heard by a journalist in Baltimore and she is one of many thousands who are moved by what he said. He receives a letter from her. She invites him to meet her at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away the ending (and best not look at the production photo).
That subtitle A Musical Romance is interesting because this is not only a romantic musical, it’s a romance about musicals. Nora Ephron’s movie, although set in 1993, harks back to the films of the 1950s and in particular An Affair To Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (or it Carr, as the characters keep saying). So does this show. It is a tribute to the musicals of that time. Just as the film has a soundtrack of songs from the swing jazz era, the songs here are a homage to the hits of that time- you can almost hear Frank Sinatra singing some of them. The costumes by Sue Simmerling are technicolored. There is a joy in language in Michael Burdette’s book.
You may be aware that I’ve been doing a podcast History of Stage Musicals for Box Office Radio so I’ve been steeped in the very best of the so-called Golden Age Of Musicals. While it may not plumb the depths of South Pacific or hit the heights of Gypsy, Sleepless is an uplifting musical and the creators’ love of that period really comes across.
Where Sleepless falls down is that it sticks too closely to the plot of the film. The first half is all about setting up for the second half. While that’s quite normal, Sam probably wouldn’t have had his problem with sleeplessness if he’d watched this first act late at night. It really needed an additional subplot or at least some dancing to spice up the proceedings. I was probably naïve to expect the show to be sprinkled with dance numbers but it does star two Strictly Come Dancing alumni. Also, it’s a long time since I went to a musical that didn’t feature lots of dancing.
There’s plenty of smooth jazz style walking from the chorus and the odd moment of where emotion is expressed through movement. That includes a comedy duet between Sam’s son and his friend. The only ‘proper’ dance is during the curtain call when our two stars show that they still remember their Strictly moves.
There is good support from Daniel Casey as Annie’s dull fiancé Walter and the splendid Harriet Thorpe as her domineering mother. Tania Mathurin as her extrovert friend Becky and Cory English as Sam’s friend Rob (a new character) inject a healthy dose of comedy.
The set designed by Morgan Large evokes Sam’s job as an architect by using back projections of architectural drawings. In the same vein, the skeleton of a multi-purpose structure dominates centre stage with lots of vertical and horizontal lines. Morgan Young directed this most enjoyable show.
Finally a word about the producers Michael Rose and Damien Sanders. I can’t praise them highly enough or indeed thank them enough for giving audiences starved of live theatre the chance to see this lovely musical, even though at 30% capacity because of social distancing they can’t possibly be making any money out of it. And well done to the Troubadour for their exemplary Covid-19 safety precautions.
Andrew Scott rules in monologue live streamed from Old Vic
So it’s back on the sofa to watch Three Kings with Andrew Scott streaming live on Zoom from the Old Vic stage. It wasn’t the same as being there but there was something exciting about knowing you’re watching Mr Scott perform right at that moment and, as in a visit to the theatre, especially for you.
The play was written by Stephen Beresford especially for Andrew Scott and it did bring out all his best qualities as an actor. Monologues really are nearly the best kind of theatre to show on TV, with that concentration on the face- and what a face. What that man can do with a raised eyebrow, a stifled giggle or an intense stare.
Andrew Scott is Patrick the narrator who tells the story of his relationship with his absentee father. He also plays many other characters and switches between them with dazzling virtuosity, in fact with the deftness of a bar trick known as the three kings.
This involves moving around three coins and we are introduced to it at the beginning and see the puzzle resolved at the end. Patrick is challenged to solve the riddle in exchange for seeing his absent father again. This unfeeling parent has no intention of returning and at the end, when Patrick shows how the trick is done, like all tricks revealed the magic has gone along with any illusions he had about his father. There only remains a question of whether the parent deserves forgiveness. (A question any self-aware parent might ask of themselves, no matter how kind and loving they’ve been.)
The three kings trick also represents three generations who inherit the unpleasant characteristics of the father much as the title of king passes from father to son, because the secret of the trick is that the force of one coin passes on the next and from that to the third.
On a set empty apart from a box that acts as a table and a chair, we meet Patrick as an 8 year old child seeing his absent father for the first time. He conjures up the child’s hope and anxiety beautifully. There is a moment when he betrays his mother to ingratiate himself with this charismatic figure and you see the sheepish look of a child’s face. You also experience the insouciance of this man who cannot love. We meet many other characters: sometimes it’s only a glimpse but all perfectly summed up in a turn of phrase or a gesture.
Patrick becomes a man, talking to his father’s oldest friend. The screen- and you’ve been wondering why it was presented in letterbox style- now splits in two, representing, I think, that Patrick has matured into the next generation, already taking on characteristics of his father, drinking too much, being unemotional, but perhaps more aware of his failings.
There is a further encounter between Patrick and his father. This time he discovers not only has the man remarried but has another son. His ‘longed-for son and heir’, as he puts it. It’s such a blow. Andrew Scott shows us both the casual cruelty of the father’s action and almost simultaneously Patrick’s reaction, as if all the life has gone out of his face .
Patrick meets his half brother, another Patrick, again bringing life to both characters, now across three screens, because we’re learning that this brother is now himself an absentee father to a third generation.
As a director, Matthew Warchus clearly gets the best out of Andrew Scott but I didn’t feel the split screen worked. Admittedly it gave the chance to see him from different angles and created the sense of a conversation, but I found it distracted from that wonderfully expressive face. The thing is, Andrew Scott isn’t separate people when he’s acting these characters, they all exist at once within him and he moves between them with quantum motion, often employing no more than a slow blink or a tightening smile.
If I’ve made it sound like this actor simply has a box of tools or tricks that he draws upon, then all I can say is it’s a very big box indeed and the tool he pulls out is always just right for the job.
Three Kings is a quietly effective look at the way a child attaches themself to a parent or parent figure and how their life can be devastated when they are let down by that person. With no disrespect to the richness of Stephen Beresford’s writing, it was all on one note, lacking lack any highs and lows or unexpected turns. It seemed to me Andrew Scott was lifting a good play into the realms of greatness by the quality of his acting.
Patrick meets his father for a final time when this self-centred man is dying, and hoping for God’s forgiveness. The camera focuses on Andrew Scott’s tearful face as the metaphorical curtain falls.
The five performance run is over but I hope The Old Vic decides to offer the recording to a wider audience and raise some more much-needed income. Keep an eye out for future so-called In Camera productions from the Old Vic– the streaming quality is excellent and the price very reasonable. And if you want to see another monologue by Andrew Scott which is just as emotional and more tense than Three Kings, rent Sea Wall on Vimeo. (Here’s my review of Sea Wall)
Ralph Fiennes mouths David Hare’s righteous anger at Boris Johnson
After five months of being deprived of live theatre, I say all hail the Bridge Theatre for being, as far I’m aware, the first to put on an indoor show. How wonderful I thought not only to see Ralph Fiennes in the flesh but also to get away from the pandemic. Except David Hare’s new play Beat The Devil is about the pandemic.
Sir David caught the virus just before the lockdown and was seriously ill with it and, in this monologue through the medium of Ralph Fiennes, he talks about the progress of his illness and in parallel the actions of the government. As the virus went mad so did the government, he says, or words to that effect.
We’re all too familiar with the failings of our leaders in this crisis but it didn’t harm to be reminded of them. And he does tell both stories with righteous anger and a pleasing wit. On the personal level, there’s his puzzled response to finding that his signature dish tastes so much like sewage that he feels he must have made a mistake in the cooking. Describing the government as ‘mediocre’, he sys, ‘does violence to the word’. Of course, if you feel the government has handled this crisis well or at least no worse than any other government would have done, I realise the polemic may lose some of its impact but it’s still fun.
It greatly helps that the lines trip off Ralph Fiennes‘ tongue so naturally, just as if he is having a conversation with us, albeit a conversation fueled by anger and bemusement. Bunny Christie’s set is admirably simple but effective, being appropriately a desk placed centre stage, which gives Mr Fiennes as the writer something to move round or sit at, under the direction of the incomparable Nicholas Hyntner.
David Hare has been writing plays for fifty years and by comparison with his best- Plenty, Skylight, Pravda, the Absence Of War– this 50 minute memoir may seem slight. It is fair to say that many elements of the public story of the pandemic will be familiar to anyone who follows the news but Sir David’s ability as a writer is undiminished. He can still coin a phrase: ‘it’s a sort of dirty bomb thrown into the body’, or be wryly detached in his descriptions of his illness thereby enabling us to see for ourselves the horror. For that reasons, it’s all the more startling when he lets out his pent up anger. ‘I don’t have survivor’s guilt, I have survivor’s rage,’ he says.
His concludes that what we need is ‘truth’. It seems incredibly potent in its simplicity.
Naturally because he was isolated during his illness, there’s no room for the renewed sense of community that many of us found during lockdown but there is a touching moment of love when he describes how his wife selflessly lay on him to keep him warm.
If anyone doubted the need for the Bridge’s precautions, the vivid description of the disease would surely change their mind. Talking of which, I understand that you might still be hesitant to go to an indoor performance but let me tell you, the safety measures taken by the Bridge Theatre were exemplary- from the controlled entrance to the thermal imaging to the one way system, to having to wear a face mask throughout the visit, to the spaced out seats. I felt totally safe. What was interesting was the way the spacing had been managed. The less than one third capacity audience still produced the atmosphere of a much fuller house.
I hope that, in giving this show four stars, I’m not just intoxicated by finally seeing a live performance. I think not. The proof is, I would happily see it again.
Victoria Hamilton blooms in Mike Bartlett’s play about loss
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.
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.
I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth because it is great to have the opportunity to see all four of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedies in stage productions. Unfortunately, good as they are, these Classic Spring Theatre Company versions really don’t work that well on film, hence my three star rating.
I think it’s a lot to do with the difference between theatre and film. For a start, in a large auditorium like London’s Vaudeville Theatre, stage actors need to speak slowly and loudly to be understood at the back of the upper circle. To be fair, when we watch a large scale play on film, our brains usually allow for the slightly melodramatic way actors deliver speeches on stage. However, Oscar Wilde’s fast-moving, sharp-witted dialogue is really sabotaged by this approach. The strong element of melodrama in these plays becomes very obvious.
You also realise just how much of the content of most stage plays is verbal. When we’re watching a drama made for the cinema or TV, we’re used to lots of changes of scene, fast editing, and action. On stage, let’s be honest, in most plays most of the time, they stand around and talk. In the first halves of all of the first three plays, partly because of the pace, I was thinking ‘My goodness, they talk a lot’. This wouldn’t even occur to you if you were there in the theatre, hanging on every word. At least at home, you can press pause and make a cup of tea. Whatever you do, don’t pour a glass of alcohol!
Thank goodness they pick up the pace after the interval. By the way, each interval is spoiled by a silly music hall song, inappropriate to mood of high society that’s being portrayed.
The third acts follow the interval, and in the first three they are invariably the best, as all the plot setups of the first half come to an explosive fruition, the fourth act being how it all works out. These third acts are full of surprises and Wilde’s trademark epigrammatic wit.
Just to remind you, if you want to watch them in chronological order, the plays start with Lady Windermere’s Fan in which a woman thinks her husband is having a secret affair whereas, in fact, he’s hiding a very different secret. In A Woman Of No Importance, a single mother battles with the secret father to prevent her son falling under his influence. Then comes An Ideal Husband in which a secret mistake made early on his career threatens to derail a successful politician but more importantly ruin his marriage to his holier-than-thou wife. Finally, there’s Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest in which the two main male characters maintain secret lives causing much confusion, as well as upsetting a certain Lady Bracknell.
So they all concern secrets, which we now see as being very significant given what we know about Oscar Wilde’s own secret life. It’s hard not see some personal feeling in epigrams like ‘scandal is gossip made tedious by morality’ or ‘Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do’.
The first three play owe a debt to Ibsen even as Wilde blends in his legendary wit. So there’s quite a bit of serious talk about love and real goodness in a hypocritical society. ‘All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon,’ says one character.
The exception is The Importance of Being Earnest in which Wilde goes all out for comedy from the first line and never stops, even if there is an underlying satire of society’s hypocrisy.
The productions are well acted and the naturalistic, late Victorian settings are spot on. I particularly liked the lightness of Paul Wills’ designs for Lady Windermere’s Fan.
In the first three plays, women play major parts and the actors in these productions make the most of their meaty roles. Eve Best is particularly impressive in A Woman of No Importance. Her breathless shock as she reacts to a momentous decision that she makes at the end of the play is heart-grabbing.
You probably want to know about Lady Bracknell. Well, Sophie Thompson plays the part well, enunciating every vowel and consonant as if she wants to control each word she speaks, as well as controlling everything else. There are prototype Lady Bracknells in the earlier plays- typically snobbish matriarchs. Jennifer Saunders is excellent in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Susan Hampshire great in An Ideal Husband but the best is Anne Reid’s employment of a tiger smile as Lady Hunstanton in A Woman Of No Importance.
It’s difficult to make a proper judgement on the quality of the stage productions but the best is An Ideal Husband but then the material is very good. The director Jonathan Church (each production has a different director) has a lightness of touch. And there’s a stellar cast which includes Nathaniel Parker, Frances Barber, Edward Fox and the excellent Freddie Fox, all languid limbs and ironic smiles, as the louche Lord Goring who is, to quote a different Wilde play, ‘pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time’.
Marquee.tv is a subscription channel offering a range of recordings of live performances including many Royal Shakespeare Company productions.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting
Last year Phoebe Waller-Bridge performed her original stage show Fleabag for the last time. Now she has generously made the NTLive recording available on demand online with the proceeds going to charity
This is the show that was first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and which led to the two incredibly successful TV series.
First thing to say, the quality of this film is excellent, at least on the TV I saw it on. The performance takes place entirely centre stage where Phoebe Waller-Bridge sits on a chair, only occasionally standing up. She is picked out by lights and all around her is an inky blackness that fills three quarters of the screen.
It’s an apparently simple design by Holly Pigott but the suggestion of isolation and that this person is on the edge of a dark emptiness is hugely effective. And the film doesn’t mess with this. In fact, this has got to be as good as it gets if you’re not actually there, because it’s like a front row seat, it may even be better than being there.
What we get is the full impact of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent acting because she has to mime some of her past activities such as taking a photo in a toilet of her vagina and does impressions, for example imitating a guinea pig or pursing her lips like her rodent-mouthed lover. Her clipped plummy voice is gorgeous to listen to and offers a contrast to the earthy descriptions that come out of it, masturbating to Pornhub for example.
Because we’re all so familiar with the TV series, there is little to surprise or shock us now in the way that her explicit language and her casual even cynical attitude to sex must have done when this first hit the stage. The story contains many of the elements of the first series: the suicide of her best friend, her own guilt, her cold sister and her sister’s lecherous husband, the guinea pig-themed coffee shop and so on. But it’s different because it is a monologue and therefore incredibly intense.
I did notice that the Fleabag character is harder edged than on TV where she reveals more tenderness and good intentions even if they are usually misinterpreted.
Assuming you’ve seen the TV series, there isn’t the surprise revelation of why she is so depressed, why she has such a low sense of worth, and why she’s obsessed with sex, so often involving being abused, but the gradual revelation- in throwaway lines- still packs a ‘what did she say?’ punch. It is a master class in constructing and writing a script.
One of the great qualities of the writing in both this play and the subsequent TV series is the way it leads us into laughing at things that are quite shocking or reprehensible and then pulls the rug from under us for laughing- or vice versa. Because there is so much sadness in the midst of the comedy. ‘People make mistakes’ she says wistfully.
Although it’s a one-woman show, we shouldn’t underestimate the contribution of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s long time collaborator and in this case director Vicky Jones and the subtle mood lighting by Elliott Griggs and the often graphic sound effects by Isobel Waller-Bridge that accompany the monologue.
You can see Fleabag on the sohotheatreondemand.com website until the end of May 2020 and on Amazon Prime. It will also be available to audiences in some other countries as well as on Amazon Prime in the US from 10 April for two weeks. In the UK, it costs £4.00 to watch, although you can choose to pay more and all proceeds will go towards the National Emergencies Trust, NHS Charities Together and Acting for Others, which supports theatre workers in times of need, and also towards grants of £2,500 to freelancers working in the UK theatre industry.
I saw One Man Two Guvnors at the National Theatre back in 2011 and would have given it five stars if I’d been posting reviews back then. It is a love letter to theatrical comedy. So, how do you tackle recording on film a play that is all about the stage?
Richard Bean’s script and Nicholas Hytner’s production are a tribute to Commedia dell’Arte and its influence on subsequent comedy such as Music Hall, pantomime and farce. It’s a deliberately theatrical show- shouty and with over large gestures. It shouldn’t work on screen and, for a few minutes at the beginning, I did fear that it was going to be everything I hate about recordings of stage shows.
Then I realised NTLive had been very clever. They made hardly any concessions to film, barring the odd close-up. There are many views of the proscenium arch and of the whole stage. The actors weren’t miked, which they often are for live recordings, so the sound is echoey. What better way to film a self consciously theatrical show than by confronting its theatricality?
One Man Two Guvnors is probably best remembered as being James Corden’s finest moment on stage and this recording is worth seeing for his performance alone but it is a production of all-round excellence. Starting with the script.
Richard Bean‘s play is an adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. This 1746 classic comedy came directly out of the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, which is pretty much the earliest form of European theatre.
The playwright has stayed faithful to Goldoni’s original story, but relocated it to 1963, recent enough to feel contemporary but long ago enough to be able to get away with sexist stereotypes and language. James Corden as Francis Henshaw, in a checked outfit, a toned down version of the Commedia dell’Arte Harlequin character’s traditional chequered costume, decides to earn some extra money by working for two bosses and then gets into all manner of confusion trying to juggle those jobs.
More than an adaptation of Goldoni, Richard Bean makes One Man Two Guvnors a tribute to Commedia dell’Arte’s influence on theatre. The standard characters and plots, so recognisable across all cultures and centuries, formed the basis of many of our comedies and comic traditions ever since. You’ll find it in everything from da Ponte’s libretti for Mozart’s operas to The Benny Hill Show.
So we get a Music Hall style production, with an emphasised proscenium arch and a skiffle band playing musical interludes between scenes. The set designed by Mark Thompson uses what appear to be traditional flats- pieces of flat wooden scenery- to add to the old fashioned feel.
We get pantomime elements- Pantomime itself being a direct descendant of – such as a slush scene where Francis serves dinner to both his guvnors while trying to keep them apart in separate rooms, and eating most of the meal himself. Doors open and shut, the two bosses appear and disappear, food and drink get mixed up and reduced as Francis tries to eat most of it, people are knocked over, all ending in a climax of flames and foam.
Talking to the audience and audience participation and the accompanying improvisation, familiar from both music hall and pantomime, are a key feature of this play and provide some of the funniest moments, whether they are really as spontaneous as they appear or not.
We get knockabout Farce: Francis falls over a chair trying to catch a nut in his mouth; Stanley, one of his guvnors, uses him as a punchbag; or, in one of the most laugh-out-loud moments, an elderly servant Alfie, played fearlessly by Tom Edden, is pushed headlong down some stairs.
Physical comedy, wordplay and first class acting
In fact, he has many of the funniest physical moments, from being hit by a cricket bat to having his pacemaker turned up so his shoots around the room like a pinball. These, for me, were the best bits of the evening and credit here goes to the associate director Cal McCrystal who was responsible for the physical comedy.
There is even a scene where two characters have their trousers down, reminding me at least of the inevitable moment in the legendary Whitehall farces where Brian Rix would lose his pants.
Just as Commedia dell’Arte benefited from the audiences’ familiarity with characters and plots, modern day comedy audiences like the comfort of a catchphrase. And there are catchphrases galore in One Man Two Guvnors.
Pauline played deadpan by Claire Lamb repeatedly says ‘I don’t understand’, the reformed villain Lionel’s most memorable experiences all seem to have happened at ‘Parkhurst’, a word weighted with significance by actor Trevor Laird’s glances at the audience. And there’s a running joke about a male and female twins being misdescribed as identical.
The script is also full of wonderful wordplay. There’s alliterative repartee involving the phrase ‘He was diagnosed with diarrhoea but died of diabetes in Dagenham’. There are non sequitors like ‘We had to put newspaper down because I’d had a banana’ or ‘You can’t trust a Spaniard alone with a Swiss Roll’. Hyperbolic metaphors proliferate: ‘a floral clock in the middle of winter, all the flowers dead, the hour hand pointlessly turning, the minute hand stuck on a long gone begonia’.
As to Nicholas Hytner’s production, you couldn’t ask for more variation of pace and tightly choreographed movement.
The acting is first class. James Corden has a great ability to connect with an audience, so important in a role that requires interaction with them, and a warmth that enables him to gain sympathy for the mess his deceptions have landed him in. Like other oversize comics- Oliver Hardy springs to mind- he also extracts humour from being unexpectedly delicate in his movements and surprisingly agile.
The rest of the cast extract everything they can of their largely two dimensional characters. Let’s look at the two guvnors who are also lovers- a further plot complication. Jemima Rooper is great at putting on a tough exterior while hiding a quivering heart. Oliver Chris is perfect as an upper class twit. Also gaining a lot of laughs from being serious while behaving ludicrously is Daniel Rigby as a pompous young actor.
Susie Toase is Francis’ love interest Dolly. She’s a bookkeeper and her seaside postcard body contrasts comically with her feminist ideas. The elders in this play, Fred Ridgeway as Pauline’s criminal Dad and the previously mentioned Trevor Laird, both add to the verbal comedy.
This recording of such a eulogy to theatre could never be as good as being there but in these days of being confined to home, I couldn’t be more grateful to the National Theatre for giving us this chance to see it.
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.
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.
Exciting drama from Grime poet Debris Stevenson ★★★★★
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.
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.