Yerma starring Billie Piper at Young Vic – Review

Billie Piper’s Performance Of A Lifetime

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson

I was worried that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting. Fortunately there was no chance of that in the Young Vic production of Yerma, thanks to a riveting script by Simon Stone and a visceral performance by Billie Piper.

The traverse stage not only puts the audiences on two sides of the stage but designer Lizzie Clachan encases the acting area in glass. This means you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching performers, as if in a goldfish bowl or on a catwalk fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.

Simon Stone’s brilliant production

Before the play began, for a few moments it was difficult to tell whether you were seeing a reflection of yourself or different but very similar people in very similar seats. I fully expected the glass to fly out but it stayed in place. As a result, I felt I was looking at fish or lizards or some other animal trapped in a tank. This was enhanced by there being no exits for most of the performance (actors entered and exited between scenes under cover of darkness). Not to mention moments when Billie Piper fell against the glass and more.

Director and writer Simon Stone has updated the classic Lorca story cleverly. The central character is still a woman who wants a child but the emphasis has changed from her being pressured by Catholic society to her inability to fulfil her desire driving her to destruction. Billie Piper’s portrayal of a gradual descent from an intelligent, fun woman to someone driven mad by her inability to conceive left me shaking.

This is theatre at its best: a brilliant production serving the acting performance of a lifetime.

A version of this review has appeared on my website seven experience.co.uk

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube

Touch by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre

Amy Morgan and Edward Bluemel in Touch, written and directed by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre
Amy Morgan and Edward Bluemel in Touch, written and directed by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton

Funny Bone Not Touched by Touch

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Touch is said to be a sex comedy from the creators of Fleabag. There’s not much sex, it’s not that funny and it’s no Fleabag.

People often find turning thirty difficult. Touch written and directed by Vicky Jones is about Dee, a woman who’s reached that dangerous age and has found her provincial life so restricted that she has moved to the anonymity of London and embarked on a voyage of sexual libertion.

For a play ostensibly about sex, there is very little actual sex: no nudity, hardly any simulated sex and not even descriptions. Take spanking. Our protagonist wants to try it but we never see the act and later when she says she enjoyed it, we get no detail of what she felt.  Clearly not a play for the prurient then.

The much publicised association with Fleabag (“From the creators of the international cult hit Fleabag”) made me long for the kind of detail that made that TV show so real. Who can forget the opening of the first episode when her willingness to take part in a ‘taboo’ act and then her concern about the implications made it one of the funniest and at the same time filthiest three minutes in TV sitcom history?

Writer Vicky Jones is an excellent director

Much of the dialogue with Dee’s lovers is instead about relationships and an analysis of her motives, leading me to think this play is using sex and potentially ‘shocking’ references to sexual practices to smuggle in a story about a woman seeking liberation, a liberation that is ultimately gained not by using people for sex but by being loved.

Vicky Jones also directs and here she is on more solid ground. The messy bedsit with its broken toilet reflects the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of her life and there’s considerable humour in the cast constantly reacting to and navigating around it. The timing and physical comedy are excellent.

The problem is, the script isn’t funny enough. Amusing, yes, but sex and relationships are such fertile ground for comedy. Despite some laugh-out-loud moments, I was surprised to find there were long periods when I didn’t even smile.

Fine acting from Amy Morgan

I think Vicky Jones should have taken more time to develop her main character who for me remained too one dimensional. Perhaps the link with Fleabag, which started as a play, made me think I was was being used as an audience for a pilot for TV sitcom. I did feel that Touch would have worked much better if each encounter were a half hour episode in which we could really get to know and understand our hero.

That said, Amy Morgan is a fine comic actor and all the others gave good support. Edward Bluemel in particular excelled as an overconfident teenager and James Clyde was very droll as the older roué.

It’s good to see a play about a youngish woman who is defining herself rather than allowing herself to be defined by others, I just wish Touch had touched me more.

A version of this review has appeared on Paul’s marketing website Seven Experience and on the Daily Echo website

Unfaithful at Found111 – review

Powerful acting from Niamh Cusack and Sean Campion

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Sean Campion & Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111, reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Sean Campion & Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s a long time since I’ve seen a play on a traverse stage. Unfaithful at Found111 reminded me just how powerful it can be compared to the usual proscenium arch. As you know, a traverse stage runs the full width of the auditorium with the audience on two sides. Unfaithful at the temporary Found111 space was in a small room with barely 60 people facing the same number across the stage.

You might think that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting and I guess it could be if the action were not riveting. Fortunately there was no chance of that. Instead you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching a performance. In this respect, the arrangement is the same as the catwalk in a fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.

This feeling that you were examining the characters was what made Unfaithful so powerful. This story about an older couple who, bored with their years of marriage and pushed by mid life crises, have liaisions with younger people who themselves are struggling to separate sex and love.

Ruta Gedmintas and Matthew Lewis complete a strong cast

Intimacy is the other characteristic of the traverse stage. With the audience divided in half, we’re all close to the action. Every twitch, every blink is visible. There’s no possibility of an actor taking a rest. Any lack of concentration will be noticed. The kind of actor that says acting is about learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture doesn’t stand a chance in this arena. The good actor who inhabits the part physically and mentally can form the strongest of bonds with the audience, as did the four actors in Unfaithful- Niamh CusackSean CampionRuta Gedmintas and my cousin Matthew Lewis.

Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111. Reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful. Photo: Marc Brenner

There is a moment when the husband of Niamh Cusack’s character makes a surprising revelation. We’re as shocked as she is. We know she can’t let her husband realise the full effect on her of what he’s said but we can see the slight widening of the eyes and ripple that goes through her body as she stiffens. On another occasion, Sean Campion rubs his nose. It’s a small gesture easily missed in a large auditorium but it matters because of what was said earlier about him.

Under the magnifying glass of a traverse stage the script and direction also have to be spot on. So full marks to Unfaithful’s Owen McCafferty for a script without a wasted word and Adam Penford‘s direction that ensured every moment was filled wherever you looked.

And a special word for Emily Hobbs for finding and adapting this temporary theatrical space and putting on a tremendous season.

Matthew Lewis and Ruta Gedmintas in Unfaithful
Matthew Lewis & Ruta Gedmintas in rehearsal

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl – Review

Performance of a lifetime from Sheridan Smith

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre.
Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. Photo: Johan Persson

For many actors, there’s a role they’ll always be remembered for no matter what else they do. Sean Connery as James Bond, Mark Rylance as Rooster Byron in Jerusalem, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien.

I suspect, when the day comes to present Sheridan Smith with her lifetime BAFTA, her role as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl will be seen as the moment she achieved greatness.

The production, originally staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory and then the Savoy Theatre,  would be worth seeing as an excellent musical but what makes it exceptional is Smith’s performance.  I saw her before on stage in Legally Blonde, on film in Tower Block and in various TV appearances including Cilla and Gavin And Stacey so I knew she was good but I never appreciated just how funny she is and just how deeply she can occupy a role.

She makes Fanny Brice seem real, a genuinely complicated human being. But there’s more to it than that. I don’t doubt that the original Fanny was uniquely great but Smith’s acting makes you believe you are seeing one of the finest stage performers of all time.

Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus – Review

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Game Of Thrones Star Displays His Acting Skills (and his body)

Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus at Duke Of Yorks Theatre - reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis
Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus

Kit Harington stars in a modernised in-your-face version of Doctor Faustus at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, in which he sells his soul for celebrity. Yes, the blood was sometimes over the top but this production is an engaging, contemporary take on the Christopher Marlowe play.

Making the protagonist want to be a celebrity magician may have been designed to appeal to a younger crowd, although it did seem a trivial ambition to me, given the price he has to pay. There was another price, the cost of a coherent plot. Then again, perhaps the young brains coped better than mine.

Jamie Lloyd‘s production was gory, sexual, violent, disgusting and many other things designed to shock but much of it worked. What I liked best was that the Devil and his disciples were so lacking in glamour or sexiness. Some had saggy bodies and all were dressed in grubby underwear. Their dancing would shame dads at a party. It made Faustus’ blindness to any consequences of his deal with the Devil even more clear.

Soutra Gilmour‘s grey set, revealing the drab backstage of the theatre, reinforced this sense of the hellish emptiness of celebrity.

Kit Gets Most Of His Kit Off

Anyone expecting to be titillated by the nudity is likely to be disappointed. Early on we see full frontal nudity but, as it suggests Adam and Eve and the original sin of the first human beings to be tempted by the Devil, it is the opposite of sexual. The only other flesh revealed in any quantity is Harington’s when Kit gets most of his kit off in the second act. He has a great body but the naked flesh reminds us of the earlier scene and suggests vulnerability rather than sexuality.

Some people have suggested Kit Harington only got the lead because of his success on TV as Jon Snow in Game Of Thrones. That’s as may be but he was actually very good. He spoke the Elizabethan poetry well and offered a convincing portrayal of Faustus’ ego and anguish, although I have to say I wasn’t ultimately moved by it.

Jenna Russell damn near stole the show as Mephistopheles. She was world weary and sarcastic and exuded an inner sadness- and she’s a good singer, as people who stayed in their seats during the interval discovered.

The Painkiller with Kenneth Branagh & Rob Brydon

Branagh & Brydon excel in bedroom farce

Kenneth Branagh & Rob Brydon in The Painkiller
Kenneth Branagh & Rob Brydon in The Painkiller

For the second time in six months, a star known for his serious acting has amazed me with his skill at comedy. Just as when I saw David Morrissey in The Hangmen, I was surprised and delighted to find that Kenneth Branagh’s talent for farce was the outstanding feature of The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre.

He plays a hired killer who gets drawn into helping a suicidal photographer. This being a farce, he ends up the victim of many misfortunes including suffering from the effects of a tranquilliser. Branagh’s portrayal of exasperation, his slurred and mixed up words, his comedy walk were a revelation from an actor I had previously known and admired in Shakespeare and Chekhov.

It helped that his opposite number was Rob Brydon, who was every bit as funny as you would hope. Thanks to them and the rest of an excellent cast, there were times when I, along with most of the audience, was crying with laughter.

Sean Foley adapts & directs top class comedy

Considerable credit should go to the French writer Francis Veber and Sean Foley who adapted and directs this now vintage play. Like all good farces, it is built on step-by-step misunderstandings that lead logically to a ridiculous conclusion.  Any moments when you might question the likelihood of something happening are lost in the sheer speed, another vital element in farce.

Taking the whole thing seriously, in other words not being deliberately funny, is another key factor in successful farce. In this respect, I couldn’t fault any member of the cast. Mark Hadley was brilliant as the confused Hotel Porter attempting to carry out his job in the face of an increasingly bizarre situation deserves a special mention.

Alice Power’s clever set was as crucial to making the farce work as any of the characters. Two identical hotel rooms with an adjoining door and an imaginary wall split the stage into two halves. We the audience could see what was going on in each room but the participants couldn’t.

 

Hangmen with David Morrissey at Royal Court

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Martin McDonagh’s Play Feels Like A Classic Farce

David Morrissey in Hangmen
David Morrissey in Hangmen

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh already feels like a classic. The pompous, arrogant man brought down by jealousy is the stuff of many great comedies. The sharp dialogue and the fast moving farce would be a gift to any actors but in the hands of David Morrissey and his fellow cast, they became comedy gold.

I never realised Morrissey is such a great comic actor. He starts off strutting the stage like a bantam cock as the second best hangman in Britain, newly redundant with the abolition of hanging and relishing the attention. Then comes an amazing moment when he seems to deflate before your eyes.

The second act in which one misunderstanding leads to another and disaster looms had me in stitches. Every line, every action counts. Together they make this one of the finest plays I have seen.

The Father with Kenneth Cranham at Wyndham’s Theatre

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

An Acting Tour-de-Force By Kenneth Cranham

Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham in The Father
Claire Skinner & Kenneth Cranham in The Father

When The Father opens, it appears to be straightforward comedy about Alzheimers. In other words, easy laughs at the way the old man can’t remember things.

By scene two, when one woman goes into the kitchen and a new actor comes back out, it’s clear we are in a very different play, a drama in which we are inside the father’s head and are as confused by what’s going on as he is. By the end, I was as emotionally wrung out as him.

My mother had Alzheimers, which may have made me recognise the grief more, but experiencing the man’s desperate retreat into second childhood at the end had me in tears. It was an acting tour-de-force by Kenneth Cranham.

The Father, directed by James McDonald, is a French play written by Florian Zeller, who is clearly a huge talent, and translated by Christopher Hampton, whose credits include the hit translation of Art. Claire Skinner provided excellent support.

Dinner With Saddam at Menier Chocolate Factory

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The first course Anthony Horowitz’s witty play is better than the second

Sanjeev Bhaskar in Dinner With Saddam at Menier Chocolate Factory, reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis
Dinner with Saddam

Dinner With Saddam by Anthony Horowitz has a winning way with witty dialogue and farce.

As the harassed head of the household in war torn Iraq, Sanjeev Bhaskar’s reactions both facial and verbal are very funny and his comic timing is perfect. It should be said that the whole cast was good.

You could say the first course of Dinner with Saddam is better than the second. The second act loses impetus with the arrival of Saddam Hussein (Steven Berkoff) and a massive dose of politics. It’s not that I didn’t find the analysis of the West’s position on Iraq interesting but it simply wasn’t that funny.

The Menier Chocolate Factory is a wonderful place for a theatre, intimate and exciting. This was my first visit. It won’t be my last.

A View From The Bridge at Young Vic

Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic
Mark Strong & Nicola Walker in A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic

This Is Why I Love Theatre

I fell in love with theatre as a child and have been going now for over fifty years. I’ve seen hundreds of performances and I nearly always enjoy the experience but it’s very rare that I recapture the excitement I felt when I first sat in a theatre and the lights went down and actors came on stage to tell a story.

But it happened when I saw Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic back in 2014. It is a brilliantly written play about a man’s obsession with his wife’s teenage niece but this was all about the production and the acting.

Mark Strong, Nicola Walker and Phoebe Fox played the three central characters- a husband, wife and the niece whom they had raised. The stage, with the audience on three sides, was completely bare. The actors were in bare feet. Everything in Ivo Van Hove’s production was was focused on the words and the acting. And what acting.

Having great dialogue helps but you still need to be able to speak it with conviction. This company’s deep understanding- of the words, the rhythms, the nuances, the silences, the looks- drew me into their world totally.

Everything That Is Best In Theatre

At the Young Vic, I was completely absorbed in the underlying sexual tension between the husband and his surrogate daughter, the self deception and the looming inevitable tragedy. The only ‘prop’ was music, an emotional extension of the human voice, used to great effect.

When the end came, there was one coup de theatre that made my jaw drop. As all the characters drew into a huddle in the middle of which a fatal fight was taking place, what I first thought was water (like tears) began pouring on them from above. Then I realised it was red and soon the actors and the stage were soaked in blood.

It was a simple enough effect and may even sound over the top, but coming at the culmination of such a tense two hours, it was stunning. It was a moment when time stood still.  It was everything that is best in theatre and why I have had a love affair with the stage for over fifty years.