Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin at Charing Cross Theatre – review

Magical production of Wicked composer’s first musical

★★★★

Pippin at Charing Cross Theatre. Photo: Edward Johnson

It’ll be 50 years old next year but somehow I’ve never managed to see Pippin. I’m glad my first introduction to Stephen Schwartz’s earliest musical (with a book by Roger O. Hirson) was this production at the Charing Cross Theatre, first seen at the Garden Theatre in 2020. It may not be a behemoth like Shwartz’s Wicked, Godspell and The Prince of Egypt but director Steven Dexter has put together a joyous version of this uplifting, magical show.

Apparently, with eight actors, it’s much slimmed down from previous versions, yet, for me, this made it tight and intimate. All the more so because it’s being played in this lovely little basement theatre on a traverse stage. With the front rows at stage floor level.

Consequently, this story of a young medieval Prince who rejects the establishment and tries to find fulfillment in life is very easy to relate to when he’s right next to you. That he is a Prince is not really the point. Despite obvious comparisons with another Prince, who recently rejected his destiny to become an ordinary wealthy and privileged man, Pippin really is an Everyman. This is evidenced from the very beginning when members of the cast are supposedly chosen at random to play the parts, including Pippin. In other words, it could be anyone, and at various times during the proceedings, comparisons are made to previous Pippins.

The musical takes the form of a troupe of players telling the story of Pippin’s search so he can be said to reject one destiny only to be trapped by another. The question becomes will he finally reject the story planned for him?

Production photo of Ryan Anderson and Ian Carlyle in Pippin at Charing Cross Theatre London
Ryan Anderson and Ian Carlyle in Pippin. Photo: Edward Johnson

Ryan Anderson is superb in the title role, sincere, naive, caring, angry and, annoyingly, never satisfied as he looks for this so-called fulfillment.
And he tries many things- war, power, art, working the land. Through it all, he interacts with some wonderful characters: his grandmother played with great humour by Genevieve Nicole; the woman he appears to love, Catherine, played as confident and brittle by Natalie McQueen; and the Lead Player, a Mephistopheles-like character who directs the action, and leads Pippin to a much flagged up finale, which may not be what our hero was expecting.

Playing this role is Ian Carlyle who is the outstanding actor in this production with a strong personality, plaintive voice and brilliant dancing. In fact, the best moment in the show was the number Right Track which he and Ryan Anderson perform together in perfect unison.

Oh yes, the dancing. This is what makes this production such a winner. Nick Winston’s choreography is always entertaining and the cast dance with skill and enthusiasm.

The costumes and set by David Shields reflect the hippy time in which it was written and its hippy message that our lives are not pre-destined, and that looking for vainglory rather than finding fulfillment in the ordinary is the devil’s work. Oh, and the songs are heavenly.

Pippin can be seen at Charing Cross Theatre until 5 September 2021

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

The Dumb Waiter at The Old Vic – review

Daniel Mays and David Thewlis impress in Pinter play but the streaming didn’t

Daniel Mays & David Thewlis in The Dumb Waiter. Photo: Manuel Harlan

When I heard that Daniel Mays and David Thewlis were to play the two bickering hitmen in Harold Pinter’s classic short play The Dumb Waiter, without hesitation I booked to see it. It didn’t hurt that Jeremy Herrin was directing.

Sadly for me, I decided to watch a live streamed performance via Zoom. So straightaway I lost that claustrophobic sense of these two men couped up in small basement room which I’m sure was conveyed in the studio setup at The Old Vic. Worse though was the quality of the transmission. There’s always a danger with a live feed through a medium like Zoom but on this occasion I found the action constantly jerked or even froze.

So I can’t offer a fair verdict on the production. From what I saw, Daniel Mays as the questioning Gus and David Thewlis as the rules obsessed Ben were perfect for the roles: Mays like a nervous rabbit, Thewliss a snarling fox. It confirmed to me what a great play this is- the way the two hit men are programmed to obey orders, even orders for food coming down the dumb waiter from what is, or appears to be, a nonexistent restaurant above.

There’s a constant sense of menace as they contemplate their previous and forthcoming work, killing anonymous victims, commissioned by a mysterious Mr Wilson, who could symbolise an authoritarian government or even God. And the humour in the arguments between these two contrasting characters is a delight. There’s a lovely row over their use of language – is it light the kettle or put the kettle on? Then there are the lurid extracts from the tabloid newspaper that Ben reads out, suggesting a frightening world out there.

And the grey stained set by Hyemi Shin looked good too, as far as I could tell, suggesting a prison cell or a torture chamber, as much as a basement in a closed down restaurant.

But, as I say, too poor a transmission to make a proper judgement, so for once I haven’t given this production a star rating, just a warning to avoid Zoom when you choose to watch a live stream.

The Dumb Waiter was performed at The Old Vic from 7 to 10 July 2021

 

 

Hymn starring Adrian Lester – review

Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani give an acting masterclass

★★★★★

Production photo from Hymn at The Almeida Theatre in London featuring Danny Sapani and Adrian Lester
Danny Sapani & Adrian Lester in Hymn. Photo: Marc Brenner

Hymn, although it’s not spelled ‘him’, is a play about two men, two sons, and two brothers as it turns out. A bare stage with two actors provide possibly the best piece of streamed theatre I’ve seen.

It begins with a funeral. Gil, played by Adrian Lester, gives a eulogy to his late father, his hero. Now 50, he is the youngest child of four, the only boy, in the shadow of his older sisters and in awe of his late father. In the course of the play, we learn that his life has been shackled by following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman rather than being comfortable with being the kind but naive man he clearly is. And it seems his father was not the paragon he thought he was.

At the funeral, he meets Benny played by Danny Sapani. We soon discover he is an unacknowledged child of Gil’s father, born just a few weeks after him. Gil and Benny are drawn to one another. From then on, they are set on a road that starts with bonding and leads them hand-in-hand to disaster.

The two men satisfy a need in the other. Gil is pleased to have a younger brother, albeit by a few weeks, someone he can impress. Benny, who spent much of his childhood in care, has a connection with a dad and siblings for the first time. There’s a lot about the effect of dads on sons, or the lack of a dad.

Production photo of hymn at The Alemida London with Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani
Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani in Hymn. Photo: Marc Brenner

Both have their demons and each boosts the other. They bond through music and dance. Lester and Sapani have fine voices and are good movers. The songs they sing pepper the story and, when they relive their 80s youth, it gives them a shared experience they never had at the time. The musically knowledgeable Benny calls it ‘sympathetic resonance’. The first song significantly is Bill Withers song that says ‘Lean on me when you’re not strong.’

In another scene Benny introduces Gil to a gym where he can unleash his frustration with his life.

For a while, it is wonderful to hear two men conversing about their lives and their feelings, relaxed and natural. But we know something must go wrong- the hints are there- and inevitably it does, but I won’t spoil anything by going into the details. Just to say, like any two people who blindly love each oither, they lead one another down this fatal path.

Adrian Lester takes us through many emotions as his character moves from confident to destroyed. His face, his voice, his eyes all transform— it’s a masterclass in acting. Danny Sapani too is excellent.  I was touched by sensitivity and a puppy-like enthusiasm he conveyed, so apparently at odds with his bulky body.

The 90 minutes fly by. Lolita Chakrabarti’s script is so tight and so true. It’s interesting, I think, that, in a time when it is sometimes suggested that authors should not or cannot write about things outside their experience, a woman manages to make these men so believable.

It’s unfortunate that covid restrictions prevent the actors touching, because there are moments when they would have hugged or given one another a helping hand but the camerawork does well to suggest closeness.

In fact, this is a lesson in how to film a stage play, especially considering it is done live. It feels very like theatre- the bare stage designed by Miriam Buether tdoes just enough to suggest and leave the rest to our imagination, Prema Mehta‘s lighting and Blanche McIntyre‘s direction ensure we concentrate on the two characters and hardly notice that we are seeing it through a lens.

I was applauding at the end. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a recording will be made available.

Hymn is streaming nightly until Sunday 21 February 2021. Tickets available from https://almeida.co.uk

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

 

Faith Healer at Old Vic – review

Great play, great cast but a strain on the eyes.


★★★★

Production photo of Michael Sheen in Faith Healer at the Old Vic theatre in London
Michael Sheen in Faith Healer. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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

Photo of Indira Varma in Faith Healer at the Old Vic in London
Indira Varma in Faith Healer. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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

Click here to watch this review of Faith healer on YouTube

Sleepless with Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh – review

Sleepless Is A Romance About Musicals


★★★

Production photo of Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh in Sleepless A Musical Romance at the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park London
Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh in Sleepless. Photo: Alistair Muir

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.

Click here to see Paul’s YouTube video review of Sleepless

See Sleepless at the Troubadour Theatre until 27 September 2020. Click here for tickets.

This is the link to Paul’s podcast History of Stage Musicals in Ten Decades on mixcloud.com

Andrew Scott in Three Kings – review

Andrew Scott rules in monologue live streamed from Old Vic


★★★★

Production shot of Andrew Scott in Three Kings at the Old Vic Theatre
Andrew Scott in Three Kings. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

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 in Beat The Devil – review

Ralph Fiennes mouths David Hare’s righteous anger at Boris Johnson


★★★★

Production shot of Ralph Fiennes in David Hare's play Beat The Devil at the Bridge Theatre in London
Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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.

Photo of Ralph Fiennes facing the audience at the Bridge Theatre at the end of a peformance of David Hare's Beat The Devil
Ralph Fiennes at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

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.

Click here to watch the review 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.

Oscar Wilde Season on Marquee TV – review

★★★

Production photo of The Importance Of Being Earnest from Classic Spring Theatre
The Importance Of Being Earnest

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.

Production photo of Eve Best in Classic Spring Theatre's A Woman Of No Importance
Eve Best in A Woman Of No Importance

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.

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Fleabag stage show online – review

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting

★★★★★

Production photo of Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the stage show of Fleabag at Wyndham's Theatre London
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo: Matt Humphrey

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.

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