On the face of it Miss Littlewood at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon is a celebration of the theatrical revolutionary Joan Littlewood. Actually Sam Kenyon‘s marvellous musical is a celebration of theatre, or at least of the kind of theatre that she pioneered with shows like Oh What A Lovely War and which is now long established.
Miss Littlewood imagines Joan putting on a production of her own life story. In her now well established theatre workshop style, there is no set, only a few props and an open stage. The storytelling is episodic. There’s a narrator in the form of Joan. It’s always clear this a play, being directed- by Joan. The actors take on many parts in a very egalitarian way.
In a touch which I’m sure Joan would have loved and which is still a little revolutionary, the casting in Erica Whyman‘s production is colour blind and gender blind. So while the story is set in a past age dominated by white men, the cast reflect today’s society: which means women play some of the male parts and black people play what were historically white people.
I suspect some won’t like it but it works, because good stage actors seize your imagination and take you beyond the literal facts of appearance, as happened in Joan’s productions.
There are some vivid characters, although we don’t get to know many of them in depth. Even Miss Littlewood herself remains enigmatic, although the narrator Joan played by the splendid Clare Burt displays charm, humour, emotion and ruthlessness (she changes the person playing herself six times).
Central to her story is the grand love affair between herself and Gerry Raffles, the man who made a lot happen on the practical level. Unfortunately there seemed little spark between them, charming as Solomon Israel’s Gerry is.
It’s not a full stage musical in that there is very little dancing and the musical numbers advance the plot with witty lyrics rather than moving melodies. However there is one showstopper magnificently led by Sophia Nomvete.
If you love theatre, by which I mean the whole art of theatre, you really must see Miss Littlewood.
Miss Littlewood is at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 4 August 2018. To book, click here.
Here’s Miss Littlewood reviewed on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews–
Some of London’s high class women want sex but not with their unattractive, sometimes abusive husbands. A young man wants sex without commitment so targets married women. How to get the two together while keeping up the image of respectability? The answer: He pretends to be impotent.
The shock caused by the open and judgement-free discussion of sex, particularly by women, when it was first performed, is different to the shock The Country Wife causes today.
The play was first performed in 1675 but many of its elements could form the plot of a play for today, which may be why director Jonathan Munby has shifted the action to modern London.
However I can’t help feeling it would have been better to leave it in the context of its own time because the problem with updating the setting to modern London is not that people’s behaviour has changed- it’s that attitudes have changed. Men patronizing or abusing women doesn’t sit well today as a subject for a jolly romp.
Setting it in the time of the #metoo movement means it’s inevitable that we will question the sexist, controlling, even abusive, men more than we would if it was simply of its time. A production set in the modern day could still be funny but it would need to be darker than this in order to give us some acknowledgement that we are looking at these people through 21st century eyes. Instead, the production remains in Carry On mode, except for a hint that commitment-free sex may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Also, the plot struggles to work in a mode setting. Today’s well off women, if they want to cuckold their husbands, are usually independent enough financially and in lifestyle to be able to do it. Men or women who want sex without commitment only have to visit Ashley Madison or swipe on Tinder.
A lot of the verbal humour hasn’t aged well either but the cast throw themselves into it, especially Scott Karim as Sparkish, a would-be one-of-the-lads who thinks he’s much wittier than he is, and Susannah Fielding, hilarious as the naïve wife of the title. All the cast are excellent but Lex Shrapnel in the central role of Horner and John Hodgkinson as the vicious but foolish cuckold Pinchwife deserve a special mention. The laughter quota is helped by a lot of French farce style going in and out of doors.
Although I’m dubious about modernising the setting, I did like Soutra Gilmour’s black-and-white set and costumes- the kind of exaggerated outfits that you wouldn’t normally see outside of a fashion designer’s catwalk contrast cleverly with the naive country woman’s colourful everyday clothes.
It’s worth saying that, lthough The Country Wife seems like a celebration of sexual liberation, two of the characters, Alithea played by a pitch perfect Jo Herbert and Harcourt played by a very amusing Ashley Zhangazha, are driven by romantic love, suggesting that Wycherley didn’t think all men and women were thinking only of sex.
It was an enjoyable enough evening but I can’t see this production lingering in my memory.
1956, the year Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden was first performed in Britain, was also the year in which Look Back In Anger exploded upon the British stage and made all those upper middle class drawing room comedies like The Chalk Garden with their standard formats and neat conclusions seem irredeemably old fashioned. On the strength of this Chichester Festival Theatre production, you can understand why.
Which is unfair on The Chalk Garden because it’s an intelligent mysterious drama about mothers and daughters, old age, death and the human need for love. There’s also much consideration of old age and death which should put it right on the wavelength of Chichester’s baby boomer audience.
There was no pace to the production which wasn’t helped by Simon Higlett‘s enormous, naturalistic set. It was impressive but the actors spent a considerable time getting from a to b. I did go early on in the run and it may be that once the actors bed down into their parts, the pace will improve.
There’s a lot of witty dialogue cloaking the deep sadness of some intriguing characters’ but on this occasion, for the first half at least, all I heard of this witty dialogue was blah blah blah.
The epigrams scattered throughout which should rival Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward just didn’t flow with the conversation and ended up sounding far too pleased with themselves. I suspect Bagnold aspired to be like Wilde and Coward but lacked their ability to incorporate bon mots into dramatic dialogue.
We’re presented with an unhappy mistress of the house Mrs St Maugham, played by Penelope Keith, who is directed or rather misdirected by a fearsome unseen dying butler (for which read ‘old testament god’?). She can’t control her granddaughter nor can she make anything grow in her garden. Dame Penelope captures the Lady Bracknell-like imperious entitlement wonderfully but much less so the emptiness at her heart. Emma Curtis plays her troubled granddaughter with energy.
Then there’s her mysterious new companion Miss Madrigal, whose contained passion was beautifully conveyed by Amanda Root, understands both the granddaughter and the garden but is hiding something devastating from her past.
After a somewhat monotonous first half, the second half with its revelations and resolutions was much more involving. Even so, there is far more to be got out of this play and its characters than Alan Strachan’s production managed.
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. Chelsea Walker’s production at Nuffield Theatre’s City venue does it justice in many respects.
The cast convey the unspoken as well as spoken relationships very well. Kelly Gough gives a visceral performance as the central character Blanche Dubois who comes to stay with her physically abused sister Stella and macho brother-in-law Stanley, and whose superior behaviour and secret past create a charged atmosphere destined to explode. She’s hyperactive, nervous, fragile. You feel at any moment she could break into a thousand pieces, like the various objects during the production which do just that. A watermelon being one example.
Chelsea Walker has added many more visual metaphors, including some nicely done dance sequences, to underline what’s happening in the characters’ heads. One metaphor at the end by which the set becomes symbolic of Blanche’s state of mind and her separation from the other characters works really well.
There is a realistic lovemaking scene in which Stanley pleasures Stella. This has the effect of heightening the strong sexual atmosphere, as well as showing explicitly what the text only suggests, that one reason why she stays with this bully is that he satisfies her physically.
Chelsea Walker’s production sizzles with ideas
The production sizzles with ideas but there were times when I felt this talented director was trying too hard. For example, she’s given the play a contemporary setting. It’s true that the themes of being an outsider, domestic violence, masculinity and power, and more remain relevant to our times but by moving it to our times, many anachronisms are created.
For example, talk of sending a wire when one would send a text or of workclothes when a character is wearing a leisure outfit. This wouldn’t matter if the modern setting provided new insights but I’m not convinced it did.
Patrick Knowles resisted the temptation to overplay Stanley, allowing Blanche’s character to dominate the play, as she should. He managed to convey the arrogance and insecurity of a macho man who imagines himself a ‘king’. He could perhaps have displayed more sexual swagger for a man who defines himself by his masculinity.
One thing missing was the oppressive atmosphere we expect in A Streetcar Named Desire. Georgina Lowe’s clever set, although appropriately restricted in its dimensions, has an open frame-like structure made more open by all the space of the Nuffield’s new auditorium around it. (I suspect it will work better in more intimate venues.)
The actors rarely behaved like they were weighed down by the heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer.
These caveats aside, I thoroughly recommend A Streetcar Named Desire either at the Nuffield or during its tour.
A Streetcar Named Desire performs at the Nuffield Theatres Southampton City until 31 March 2018 then tours to Keswick (3 – 7 Apr), Malvern (10 – 14 Apr), Bristol (17 – 21), Ipswich (24 – 28 Apr), Cambridge (1 – 5 May), Oxford (8 – 12 May) and Mold (15 May – 2 June), returning to the Nuffield 5 – 16 June.
Howard Brenton is an inspired choice to launch the Nuffield Southampton’s new theatre. His latest play The Shadow Factory is not only about the city in the second world war, it fills the large space.
The imaginative set has been created by the group of artists called 59 Productions whose impressive pedigree includes video work on War Horse and An American In Paris. Virtually the only elements of the set are tubular lights above that bend and move to recreate brilliantly the sense of planes overhead and maps projected on the floor of the thrust stage to show not only scene locations but the targets of German bombs. Combined with amazing surround sound, the feeling of being under air attack made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
One of Luftwaffe’s targets is Woolston, Southampton, home of the main factory producing Spitfires. After this is blown up, production switches to multiple locations around the area- the shadow factory of the title.
And this is where it gets interesting. The British government, once at war, committed itself to full-on war without mercy or conscience. In The Shadow Factory, we see them requisitioning property, specifically a local laundry business and a country house, with no care for the owners.
Anita Dobson & David Birrell lead an excellent cast
The central characters are there to give a human face to the story but, I suspect, not meant to distract us from it by tugging at the heartstrings. Even so, the excellent cast do bring them to life. Special mention here for Anita Dobson and David Birrell playing two vivid characters each.
Dobson is both the laid back, generous aristocratic American Lady Cooper and the indefatigable, humorous grandmother Ma. Both of Birrell’s characters oppose the government in their different ways: Fred Dimmock, the rebellious laundry owner, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding who is too gentlemanly for modern warfare.
The cast are uniformly good. Catherine Cusack also doubles up: Lil Dimmock is on the edge of a breakdown and Sylvia Meinster whose propriety isn’t enough to overcome a foreign name. Lorna Fitzgerald (Jackie) and Shala Nyx (Polly) played two of the numerous strong women in this play who face up to the horrors of war and make their mark. It was a pleasure to see Hilton McCrae take the part of the ruthless charmer Beaverbrook. Daniel York is splendid as the conflicted Len Gooch, likeable local factory manager and reluctant tool of the government.
A chorus of local people appear regularly and, by the device of singing together, create a strong sense of community in the face of German bombardment and government dictatorship.
Sam Hodges’ production of The Shadow Factory hits the target.
The Shadow Factory was originally performed in early 2018. It returns to Nuffield Theatre Southampton from 30 January, 2019 to 2 March, 2019
Here’s my review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-
I love a good musical and, while Strictly Ballroom at the West Yorkshire Playhouse might not reach the heights of a Sondheim or a Rodgers & Hammerstein for character and depth of feeling, there is an enjoyable love story and some excellent dancing. The good news is, it can be seen in London in 2018.
Anyone who liked Dirty Dancing or Footloose should love this. If you don’t know Baz Luhrmann‘s film, it’s the story of a pair of ballroom dancers determined to express themselves their way, even if that means breaking the rules. Freedom versus the establishment is always a good story. Along the way they inevitably fall in love and equally inevitably face bumps in the road to finally getting together.
If that sounds like a formulaic show, I don’t mean it to. It’s lively, inventive, often funny and sometimes moving. In any case, we don’t need the most original story for a musical to work. What’s most important is the terrific choreography by Drew McOnie (his work includes last year’s brilliant On The Town at the Open Air Theatre). The dancing and the singing are impressive throughout.
Strictly Ballroom The Musical is playing at the Piccadilly Theatre from 29 March 2018. Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen will perform the lead roles with Will Young playing the newly created role of band leader Wally Strand. Drew McOnie again directs and choreographs.
Here’s my YouTube review of the original West Yorkshire Playhouse production-
I would never have thought day-to-day politics could be so tense. This House, which I saw at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva is set in the 1970s when Labour was running minority governments and ends at the moment the Tories returned to power. But it’s not about Wilson, Callaghan or Thatcher. The play is set in the Whips’ Offices, the people who organise their party members’ voting.
These are dramatic times as Labour struggles to maintain its majority and govern, a situation not dissimilar to Theresa May’s government. The tension mounts when ‘pairing’ is suspended. This is the agreement whereby members absent through government business or illness have their missing vote cancelled by someone from the opposition not voting. To go behind the scenes and see that our democracy can only work by co-operation and compromise is an eye-opener.
Many people- some of the Brexit voters and Trump supporters, for example- seem to be rebelling against the perceived cosiness of the establishment. James Graham, author of This House, shows that there is a purpose to this comity. We have only to look across the Atlantic to see how the extreme differences between Republicans and Democrats have brought government to a halt after decades of working together.
Politicians Are People
But more than the drama and the lesson in democracy, This House reveals the real people behind the parliamentary constituencies. Plays need characters and This House is packed with flawed human beings with feelings. They are sometimes bullies, sometimes desperate and, most movingly, they can be compassionate. We see that in many cases these are people who care passionately but still respect their opponents and act honourably.
Politicians often try to show their human side in PR exercises- a pint down the pub or an appearance on Have I Got News For You– but This House does a far better job at showing they are as funny, sad, triumphant and tragic as the rest of us.
Nativity! is already one of the nation’s favourite Christmas films, now Nativity! The Musical is destined to become a fixture on theatres’ advent calendars for many years to come.
For this, we have to thank writer and director Debbie Isitt. She did the same jobs on the Nativity films but, before she went into moviemaking, she was a renowned theatre writer and director. And it shows. Ms Isitt knows what works on stage.
So she has taken all the elements that made her film such a hit: the story of the disadvantaged schoolchildren attempting to put on a five star nativity show against all the odds, the memorable characters, the upbeat songs like Sparkle And Shine and Nazareth. Then she’s added many more songs (co-written with Nicky Ager) and some scenes that are pure theatre, such as a satirical number about Hollywood and the nativity show itself, and turned it all into perfect theatrical entertainment.
You smile all the way through and come out beaming like a red nosed reindeer.
Debbie Isitt knows how to create a hit
This touring production, which I saw at Leeds Grand Theatre, is also blessed with an excellent cast. Simon Lipkin is very funny as the wildly enthusiastic man-child Mr Poppy. Daniel Boys as Mr Maddens finds the same combination of inner sadness, quiet determination and basic niceness that Martin Freeman found before him.
And the children, on whom the show stands or falls, are disciplined, well rehearsed and a total delight- the icing on the Christmas cake.
A bit of sentimental light entertainment is just what you need in the deep midwinter but there’s more to Nativity! The Musical than that. It has something to say about the importance of inspirational teachers, it captures the spirit of Christmas and it’s faultless theatre. Only a Scrooge wouldn’t love it.
Nativity! The Musical is performing at the Eventim Apollo London for Christmas 2018. In autumn 2019, the production will visit Wolverhampton Grand, Aylesbury Waterside, Canterbury Marlowe, Wales Millennium, Theatre Royal Plymouth & Southampton Mayflower.
When you watch one of my reviews on YouTube, is how I look the main thing you remember? Does my actual review only account for 7% of the impression I make on you?
According to Quiz, that’s what MPs were told when parliament was first televised. Television, it argues, blurs appearance and reality because it’s a visual medium and an entertainment medium. The assertion that in today’s world image is more important than facts runs through James Graham’s latest play which has opened in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and may well follow This House, Ink and Labour of Love into the West End.
In Quiz, we learn about the history of popular ITV quizzes and their connection to the commercial nature of the channel thence to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire via pub quizzes throwing in along the way the televising of parliament and the way the dangers of news becoming entertainment.
These many facts sprinkled throughout the evening distract from what is at heart an amusing, interesting story about the trial of Charles and Diana Ingram and one other for defrauding the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire of a million pounds.
The trial wasn’t televised but Quiz is a warning about what might happen if courts cases were on TV. Television is a visual medium that values appearance above facts and entertainment over reality. And, appearances are deceptive.
The quiz show gives the appearance of being fair but may not be. Major Ingram appears to have cheated but maybe he didn’t.
Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street are splendid
Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street as the Ingrams did a splendid job of keeping us guessing as to what was appearance and what was true. Were they more clever than they appeared to be or more stupid?
Keir Charles provided excellent impressions of an unctuous Chris Tarrant and numerous other game show hosts.
Just as politics and the news (and by extension, because of social media, many people’s whole lives) are said to have become entertainment, the trial is turned into a show. It is presented as a two act theatrical entertainment with act one delivering the case for the prosecution and act two the defence. Laying it on thicker, Daniel Evans‘ production is also set in a TV quiz show studio. Nearly everything on stage is filmed and shown on monitors. We were even givenMillionaire style voting buttons on which we can say whether we think the defendants are guilty or not guilty.
If placing much of the action inside a cubic frame that blocked one’s view was meant to have a Brecht-style alienating effect, the production succeeded too well. I simply saw it as a gimmicky production that added to the bewilderment I was already feeling from being bombarded with so many facts (or fictions) about television.
As a result, it is hard to get involved in the characters as real people or the story or the interesting issue of television blurring image and reality.
James Graham has had a series of winners with Our House, Ink and Labour of Love. Daniel Evans has put on a victorious first season at Chichester. Neither of them have hit the jackpot with Quiz, but that’s entertainment.
Quiz is a warning against televising one of the last parts of public life that is still not filmed, arguing that the media will turn justice into entertainment. Whether it makes a convincing case, I am unsure.
The trial of the ‘coughing Major’ inevitably excited the media in the way that most don’t because it involved a hugely popular TV programme and massive amount of money. Making it carry the burden of showing that television turns everything into entertainment is asking too much of it.
Courts are already a form of theatre in which judges and advocates play to their audience. Juries have a tendency to decide verdicts on appearances rather than evidence whether cameras are present or not.
I don’t believe television has made as much difference to politics as James Graham thinks. It seems to me politicians were aware of the importance of image long before the televising of parliament: Harold Wilson put a pipe in his mouth for public appearances; President Roosevelt made sure he wasn’t seen in his wheelchair. In fact, leaders have been image conscious for centuries as evidenced by the work of Holbein, Van Dyck and others.
The news media have been inventing stories for most of their existence. Hollywood decided early on to encourage media interest in the lives of their actors, thus making their often fictional offscreen lives an extension of the onscreen entertainment.
I’ve seen countless Lears over the years. Until now, the one I best remember is Ian Holm performing in the tiny Cottesloe (now Dorfmann) Theatre at the National. Therefore it may not be coincidence that Ian McKellen‘s Lear in the equally small Minerva Theatre at Chichester now ranks as the best I’ve seen.
The play describes the break up of a kingdom and the melodramatic villainy of various adult children and therefore may seem to require a grand scale. But the central story of a foolish father who prizes flattery above honesty is best told on an intimate stage.
Jonathan Munby‘s pared down production still manages to make a contemporary political point about powerful people destroying a country on a whim or for their own ends (and Lear cutting up the map of the UK is amusing). However the main fascination is that the great Ian McKellen is able to use his wonderful voice at an almost conversational level, bringing out all the subtlety and depth of Shakespeare’s language and revealing the humanity of the character.
Never have I experienced Lear’s swinging moods from anger to defensiveness, his sudden insights into the horror of what he has done, his fear of losing his mind, his awareness of approaching death and his ultimate anguish, as I did in this production.
The King becomes the Fool but as he does so, his vulnerability as a human being is heartbreaking. The scene that encapsulates this best comes when he meets the blinded Gloucester. His jokes collapse in a moment into almost whispered melancholy and as quickly into stream-of-consciousness musings (“When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.”)
A Powerful Performance by Sinead Cusack
Ian McKellen understands that good theatre is more than having a star in the lead. For a production to work, it must be the joint effort of a company starting with the playwright and going through the director, the creatives and all the cast. The latter is especially good in the production.
Sinead Cusack knocks another brick out of the wall that says casting must be ruled by gender by giving a powerful performance as Kent. The parallel story of father/child betrayal is played out strongly by Danny Webb as Gloucester, Damien Molony as Edmund and Jonathan Bailey as Edgar. A word too for Lear’s daughters- Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia is a star in the making, Dervla Kiran and Kirsty Bushell as Goneral and Regan filled the enclosed space with a suffocating evil.
That Ian McKellen sees himself as part of a company is just one mark of his greatness. His ability to vocalise the deep meaning of words is another. He has said that this will be the last time he plays a major Shakespearean role. If so, I feel privileged to have been there for it. As the final line of the play says, I “shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
The Chichester Festival Theatre production of King Lear with Ian McKellen transferred to the Duke Of York’s Theatre in London from 11 July to 3 November 2018 and has now closed.
Here’s my review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-