Andrew Scott in Three Kings – review

Andrew Scott rules in monologue live streamed from Old Vic


★★★★

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)

RSC’s Twelfth Night on Marquee TV

Adrian Edmonson’s comic turn stands out in Shakespearean farce

★★★★

Adrian Edmonson in Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

In case you get confused with Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is the one with a woman disguised as a man and much mistaken identity. That doesn’t narrow it down that much? Okay, it’s the one with the shipwreck at the beginning. Still too many to choose from? Well, this is the one where Malvolio is tricked into wearing yellow garters. Now, you’ve got it. That’s what we all remember. Which is a shame, in a way, because the main plot concerns quite a profound comedy about the meaning of love.

In this 2017 a moviueproduction, director Christopher Luscombe has chosen to go with the crowd and ramped up the farce. Olivia’s puritanical steward is played by Adrian Edmonson, still best known for The Young Ones. He has a wonderful comic range from displeasure (liked he’s sucked a lemon) to swaggering pomposity (bouncing around the stage like a demented rabbit) to abject misery.

He is a total delight (as he was in The Boyfriend) but so are the ageing delinquents who set him up for a fall. John Hodgkinson as Sir Toby Belch is a predatory con artist with some unpleasantly sneering looks. Michael Cochrane as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, while not as thin as you might expect, delivers his lines with a bright-eyed naivety and has an impressive sprightliness. (He plays Oliver in The Archers by the way.) Vivien Parry as the scheming Maria and Sarah Twomey as Fabia, traditionally a male part, also play their roles well.

Sir Toby’s very loud and long lasting flatulence sets the tone early on. In fact, like much of the plot, there are times when the physical comedy is ludicrous. As Malvolio reads the fake letter purportedly from Olivia, the conspirators get so close to him, it’s impossible he wouldn’t see them. It is, as I say, ludicrous, but also very funny.

Running alongside the farce is a comic love story woven around a woman disguised as a young man. Count Orsino, who seems in love with the idea of being in love, is infatuated with Viola (in male guise), whilst continuing to pursue the grieving Olivia who has sworn off men. Olivia then falls in love with the apparently male Viola who in turn lost her heart to Orsino. From then on, we’re just waiting for Viola’s twin brother Sebastian to turn up for typical Shakespearean mix ups and misunderstandings.

Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Here’s a difference between film and theatre. In a movie, we would expect Sebastian and Viola to be identical but in the theatre, we’re used to suspending disbelief. However, this filmed production with its close-ups makes the lack of similarity very obvious.

Needless to say, all’s well that ends well- oh no, that’s a different play. This production’s sing-song at the curtain call makes Shakespeare’s happy ending even happier. Possibly a little too happy, in that there’s little room for the undercurrent of pathos in Twelfth Night.

For any production to succeed, Viola must be lovable, because we must believe she can ignite feelings in both Orsino and Olivia, so crucial to the central plot. In Dinita Gohil the RSC production has such an actor. She is without question a delight to look at and listen to in her acting of this character.

I have some reservations about the people who fall in love with Viola. I’m not questioning the emphasis placed in this production on sexual ambiguity, which is there in the text. No, for me, the problem is, when Ms Gohil disguises herself as a male, she is more boy than man. This is partly a problem with the play itself:  reference is repeatedly made to the young man’s inability to grow a beard.

Nicholas Bishop as Orsino and Kara Tointon as Olivia are both, I think, in their early thirties. In any case, I found it a little discomforting to see these mature people desiring such a boyish young man. To be fair, Kara Tointon does carry it off by behaving skittishly and I did like the way she portayed Olivia’s confusion and infatuation. On the other hand, Nicholas Bishop’s Orsino – and this is not the fault of the actor- comes across as silly and a bit pervy.

Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Hanlan (c) RSC

This is a good looking production. Kara Tointon’s dresses, designed by Simon Higlett, are beautiful. As is his set. It’s hard to appreciate fully on a screen but you can see that it’s colourful and exotic and clearly shows the Victorian British fascination with India- another theme of this production.

I think the greatest tribute I can pay to this recording is that it really made me wish I had seen it live.

You can watch Twelfth Night on marquee.tv, where there are lots of other great RSC productions including Paapa Essendieu’s Hamlet, David Tennant’s Richard II and Anthony Sher’s King Lear. At the time of writing, Marquee TV are offering a 14 day free trial.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Fleabag stage show online – review

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting

★★★★★

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.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

One Man Two Guvnors – NTLive – review

James Corden’s finest moment on stage not quite captured on film

★★★★★ (National Theatre production) ★★★ (NTLive recording)

James Corden in One Man Two Guvnors. Photo: Johan Persson

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

One Man Two Guvnors. Photo: Johan Persson

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.

The NTLive recording of One Man Two Guvnors can be seen on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until 8 April 2020.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Cyprus Avenue starring Stephen Rea at Royal Court – review

Stephen Rea triumphs as psychotic bigot

★★★★

Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Ireland’s script sparks and fizzes

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch Cyprus Avenue online until 31 May:

Click here to view Cyprus Avenue on YouTube

Click here to watch Cyprus Avenue on the Royal Court website

Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury at the Young Vic – review

Fairview: Powerful comedy about race

★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

As if a brick wall has collapsed on you

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

WARNING: SPOILERS

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

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

An uncomfortable evening for those ‘identifying as white’

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

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

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

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

A subtle layered comedy

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch the review of Fairview on YouTube

Minor amendments made on 14 January 2020

Breaking The Code – Salisbury Playhouse

Turing play still packs a punch

★★★

Edward Bennett in Breaking The Code. Photo: Helen Murray

We know a lot more about Alan Turing, the subject of Breaking The Code, than we did when Hugh Whitemore wrote the play in the mid 1980s. His once secret work on breaking the Enigma code during World War Two, possibly saving millions of lives, is now well publicised. The government has apologised for the appalling treatment he received because of his homosexuality and he has been pardoned for his ‘crime’. He has been the subject of an excellent film The Imitation Game and his face will soon be appearing on the £50 note.

Unlike the aforementioned movie, Breaking The Code concentrates on the prejudice against homosexuals. It does cover the wartime code breaking but the code he is breaking in this play is society’s code which dictates how we are supposed to behave. And while homosexuality may now be legal in Britain and widely if not universally accepted as natural, there are always unfair rules imposed by the society we live in and the play is a plea for valuing those people- scientists, artists, whoever- who question and break those rules. The story of this brilliant mathematician adds up to a beautifully written play. 

Hugh Whitemore’s play is beautifully written

Joey Phillips & Edward Bennett in Breaking The Code. Photo: Helen Murray

Turing’s arrest for gross indecency, his prosecution and punishment run parallel with his life story. His school friend and love of his life Christopher who died young is constantly present in his mind as inspiration and is often on stage in the background. We get a glimpse of Turing’s genius when he talks about science. He explains that even mathematics that most logical of sciences may not always be right or wrong. This parallels with his personal life where he doesn’t see behaviour as right or wrong but a matter of choices based on one’s feelings. He enjoys gay sex. He doesn’t see it as wrong. He is open about it. In many ways, he is a man for today. But his honesty was his downfall in those days.

We are told in some detail about the horror of his treatment, punishment and subsequent suicide. It is as shocking as a punch in the guts and all the more so because in the course of the play we get to know the victim, not only the great scientist but the eccentric, humorous, compassionate human being. He could be describing himself when he says a computer could be ‘kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have a sense of humour, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, or enjoy strawberries and cream.’

Turing is on stage the whole time and must have as many lines as Hamlet. So the play stands or falls on the performance of the lead actor.

An enchanting portrayal by Edward Bennett 

Edward Bennet & Caroline Harker in Breaking The Code. Photo: Helen Murray

Edward Bennett is very good. I was enchanted by his portrayal of Alan Turing. If I have a reservation, it’s that he was too nice. After all, this is a person who chained his mug to the radiator pipe to prevent it being stolen or says in another prickly exchange: ‘Am I in for a lesson in morals?’ I would have liked to have seen a bit more of that spikiness in the interpretation.

This Salisbury Playhouse production directed by Christian Durham makes a good stab at telling a story once so revelatory but now so well known. It is presented in the round which give it intimacy. The lack of a set not only means the action can flow quickly and seamlessly between the past, present and memories, but also suggests the anonymity of Turing’s secret work. James Button’s excellent design uses coding sequences on the floor and boards with mathematical equations hanging above.

I particularly liked Louise Calf’s warm portrayal of Turing’s female colleague and friend Pat, and Ian Redford’s police officer Mick Ross, a subtle combination of sympathy and duty.

Breaking The Code runs at Salisbury Playhouse until 26 October 2019

Click here to watch Paul’s video review of Breaking The Code on YouTube

Paul Lewis was given free review tickets by Salisbury Playhouse 

10.10.19: Edited slightly to avoid repetition

 

Noises Off at The Garrick – review

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

★★★★★

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

When I saw the first production of Noises Off back in 1982, I laughed so much I was fighting for breath. If I didn’t laugh quite so uncontrollably on this occasion, it’s only because it’s the fifth time I’ve seen Michael Frayn‘s masterpiece, so it no longer has the element of surprise. I still laughed more than at any other play I’ve seen. If you’re lucky enough to watch it for the first time (and if you’ve never seen it, you really should), I’m sure you’ll be as out of control as I was 37 years ago.

Possibly the funniest farce ever written, Noises Off is about a touring theatre company who are performing an old fashioned bedroom farce full of the usual misunderstandings, deception and people ending up in a state of undress. We join the actors at the final rehearsal and find that unlike the one dimensional characters they’re playing, these are well observed rounded human beings with flaws, emotions and rocky relationships all destined to undermine the show.

The farce ends in farce

In act two we join the production on tour but this time we’re backstage. We know what’s happening or supposed to be happening on stage but see the chaos behind the scenes. This is the most hilarious act because the actors have to be quiet so they mime all their anger and bewilderment.
Lisa McGrillis, Lloyd Owen, Sarah Hadland & Meera Syal in Noises Off

There’s a priceless moment when one actor tries to attack another with an axe and others restrain him but they are still professional enough not to make a sound. In the final act we’re near the end of the tour and watching from the front as the farce falls apart and ends in, well, farce.

Confused and confounded, the actors carry on with heroic if misguided determination as they fall out with each other backstage and try to cope with plates of sardines rarely where they should be, contact lenses popping out, doors sticking and boxes disappearing and reappearing.

If you love theatre, you’ll love seeing it with its trousers down

So if you love theatre, you’ll love seeing it with its trousers down. Like the best comedy, it shows high ambitions brought down by human frailty. As the director of the show within the show says: ‘It’s farce; it’s theatre; it’s life.’
The characters are so well written by Michael Frayn, it’s tempting to think any decent actors could make a success of them. But it takes exceptional actors to make a success of farce. Nothing in theatre is more difficult than the timing and teamwork and sheer physical hard work required by this genre, not to mention truth to character.
In this Lyric Hammersmith production, we are blessed with just such a remarkable company. There is a moment where a bottle of whisky is passed from one to other all around the set with lightning dexterity. They go in and out of doors with exquisite mistiming. Each character is perfectly drawn so their reactions when things go wrong are always just right.
Daniel Rigby, Richard Henders, Meera Syal & Simon Rouse in Noises Off. Photo: Helen Maybanks

I’m going to credit all the actors. Meera Syal as a veteran actress Dotty, who can’t remember her lines, is wonderfully semidetached from the reality of what’s going on. Daniel Rigby excels as the inarticulate lovestruck Garry, his voice getting more and more strained and his movements more frantic as he tries to cope with the unexpected. Lloyd Owen makes an excellent  exasperated sarcastic director.

Lisa McGrillis as an actor more concerned with her nails than her lines is wonderful. So are Sarah Hadland and Richard Henders as the serenely smiling Belinda and the neurotic method actor Frederick. Anjli Mohindra and Adrian Richards as the acting stage management make good innocents unprepared for the brutishness of theatre life.  And finally there’s Simon Rouse who doesn’t put a foot wrong as a deaf alcoholic who constantly puts a foot wrong.
Director Jeremy Herrin sets the rollercoaster going and it doesn’t stop until the final curtain.
Noises Off continues its run at The Garrick Theatre until 4 January 2020
Paul Seven Lewis was given complimentary review tickets for this production

Assassins at The Watermill – review

Production of Sondheim’s musical hits the target

★★★★

Assassins at The Watermill. Photo: The Other Richard

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is one of his lesser known musicals. Having seen this production of it at The Watermill, I understand why. There’s no story, no engagement with the characters and, like the would be assassins, it’s hit and miss. On the plus side, you do get a fascinating look at men and women who attempted and sometimes succeeded in assassinating American presidents. You are also treated to some great music and amusing lyrics and, in the case of this Watermill production, an entertaining performance that hits the bullseye.

In this fantasy musical with a book by John  Weidman, all the would be assassins get together at a funfair where they are given their own special guns and cajoled into going for the big prize if they shoot a president dead. The musical is an exploration of what that prize is. The answer, and this is not a spoiler, is fame.

We learn something about each of these would be assassins, first John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln, finally Lee Harvey Oswald who shot John Kennedy. It’s by no means chronological and the various stories intertwine. We see them as failures, mentally unstable nobodies who have been let down by the American Dream which promises that everyone can succeed.

Although we never sympathise with this unhinged bunch of people, we do hear some great tunes. Peter Dukes as Leon Czolgosz (who killed President McKinley) sings one of the best- The Gun Song which describes the number of hands involved in the manufacturing process. Generally Stephen Sondheim’s score offers pastiches of various forms of traditional and popular American music. It carries us and the assassins along with the joy of America while contrasting with the grubby truth revealed before us and through his lyrics.

Another National Anthem sums it up: ‘There are those who keep forgetting That the country’s built on dreams.’ Or as another song says: ‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy.’

It’s a fast moving, slick production from Bill Buckhurst. The Watermill has a small stage but the 15 strong cast manage to fill and move round it with military precision, choreographed by Georgina Lamb. They also play instruments, so to say they are talented is an understatement.

Eddie Elliott in Assassins at The Watermill Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard

I don’t like to pick out individual performances from this excellent ensemble, but I’m going to. Eddie Elliott is the delusional but hyper confident Charles Guiteau who expects to become ambassador to France and shoots dead President McKinley. Mr Elliott plays him with great pizzazz, jumping around the stage and shaking hands with the audience and rushing to the scaffold with a joyful gospel I’m Going to The Lordy. Lillie Flynn as the Balladeer, a kind of narrator, has the strong punchy voice of a classic musical singer. Sara Poyzer’s neurotic Sara Jane Moore gets a lot of laughs as her mind and her gun fire in all directions.

Inevitably on a stage as small as The Watermill’s, the set is minimal but Simon Kenny has cleverly created a fun fair feel particularly by showing the presidents’ faces like targets in a shooting gallery.

When it comes to the climax- the assassination of JFK- the back of the set spins round to become the windows of the famous Book Depository. All previous assassins led by Wilkes Booth (a chilling portrayal by Alex Mugnaioni)  gather to nudge the suicidal Oswald to pick up the rifle.

The previously black comedy becomes serious and even sentimental which makes the end inconsistent with what leads up to it. Presumably Sondheim and Weidman decided this particular assassination was still too raw in their and our minds. Perhaps, unlike Oswald, they lost their nerve. 

Assassins is performing at The Watermill in Newbury until 26 October 2019 and then transfers to Nottingham Playhouse where it runs from 30 October to 16 November.

Click here to watch the YouTube video review of Assassins

Paul Seven Lewis was given tickets to see Assassins by The Watermill Theatre

This review was amended slightly on 7 October for consistency.

Evita at the Open Air Theatre

An Evita for today

★★★

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

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

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

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

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best score is movingly played

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

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

Evita at the Open Air Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

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

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

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

Frances Mayli McCann in Evita. Photo: Marc Brenner

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the YouTube version of this review here