Quiz at Minerva Theatre Chichester

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Click here to see my review of Quiz on YouTube

Paul Bazely, Gavin Spokes & Keir Charles in Quiz at Chichester Festival Theatre
Paul Bazely, Gavin Spokes & Keir Charles in Quiz at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

James Graham’s Comedy Puts The Media On Trial

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 given Millionaire 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 LoveDaniel Evans has put on a victorious first season at Chichester. Neither of them have hit the jackpot with Quiz, but that’s entertainment.

Quiz runs at the Minerva Theatre until 9 December 2017. It transfers to the Noël Coward Theatre on 31 March 2018 where it will run until 16 June

Further thoughts on Quiz

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.

King Lear with Ian McKellen

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Ian McKellen Gives The Best Lear I’ve Seen

Watch One Minute Theatre Review on YouTube here

Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre. Review by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews.
Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan

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.

Ian McKellen and Danny Webb in King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre
Ian McKellen & Danny Webb in King Lear at CFT. Photo Manuel Harlan

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 & Tamara Lawrance in King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre. Review by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews.
Ian McKellen & Tamara Lawrance in King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan

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-

Loot by Joe Orton – Review

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Joe Orton's Loot reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Sinead Matthews, Ian Redford, Sam Frenchum and Anah Ruddin’s leg in Joe Orton’s Loot

Loot- Still Outrageously Funny After 50 Years

Watch my YouTube review here
It’s 50 years since The Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Berkshire, opened its doors. So happy birthday to them and a big thank you for the birthday present they have given us in the form of Joe Orton’s Loot.

Orton died 50 years ago this year, so it’s appropriate that The Watermill have co-produced a brilliant production that presents us with the original uncensored version of the play for the first time ever.

The play is about two young bank robbers who try to hide their stolen money in a coffin. It may not be as shocking as it must have been to audiences in 1965 but it remains outrageous in its lack of morality and its depictions of the authorities as corrupt and hypocritical.

It’s always been a funny play but it’s all the more hilarious when you experience it as Orton intended without the censorship that was still in force at the time. This means that we can enjoy all of Orton’s intended references to homosexuality, blasphemy and S&M.

Possibly the greatest benefit of seeing Loot minus the blue pencil is that the coffin takes centre stage and the body is played by a real person rather than a dummy. Anah Ruddin‘s limpness as she is taken out of the coffin, placed upside down in a cupboard, stripped naked and wrapped up in a sheet is so funny, she deserves a special category of acting award for playing a corpse.

Among an all round excellent cast, Sinead Matthews is outstanding as the dead woman’s nurse in both her timing and delivery (“had euthanasia not been against my religion I would have practised it – instead I decided to murder her”).

The production does justice to this modern classic  

The excellent Christopher Fulford plays a corrupt and increasingly manic plod with no interest in justice. He delivers his comic lines with no shame nor even irony which of course makes them all the more amusing. When it is suggested to him that the police used to be ‘men of integrity’, he replies in  all seriousness, “That is a mistake which has been rectified.”

The production does justice to this modern classic. Michael Fentiman directs with a comic touch and keeps up the fast pace that a play with so many farcical elements needs. It’s a shame that its ‘tour’ has only taken in the two small producing venues Park Theatre and The Watermill. It deserves to be seen by everyone who enjoys good, irreverent comedy.

Loot continues at The Watermill in Newbury until 21 October.

 

Forty Years On with Richard Wilson at CFT

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Alan Bennett’s Play Not Ageing As Well As Richard Wilson

It was a pleasure to see Richard Wilson performing in Forty Years On by Alan Bennett at Chichester Festival Theatre. Age and illness have not diminished his rich voice, his comic timing or his arched eyebrow.

Richard Wilson in Forty Years On at CFT
Richard Wilson in Forty Years On at CFT

Sadly Alan Bennett’s play hasn’t aged as well as Mr Wilson. It’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of funny moments but it lacks the cohesion it may once have had when the mishmash of recalled events led to the present day. Now it seems more like random sketches from a random period in the past.

Even the concept of an old guard defending traditions against a new radical generation expressed in the form of a retiring headmaster versus his successor seems dated with the liberal hegemony now under attack by neoliberals.

On the plus side, it was a splendid set by Lez Brotherston replicating a school hall and the actors playing the main ‘boys’ were strong and funny.

An Enemy Of The People at Chichester Festival Theatre

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Hugh Bonneville Triumphs in Ibsen’s Classic Play

Hugh Bonneville in An Enemy Of The People at Chichester Festival Theatre
Hugh Bonneville in An Enemy Of The People at CFT

When a public vote chooses Boaty McBoatface as the name for a polar exploration ship, it’s easy to agree with the main character in Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People (Chichester Festival Theatre) that the majority is ‘stupid’. I’m don’t even want to talk about the EU referendum.

Dr Tomas Stockmann starts out believing the people will welcome his revelation that the town’s spa water is unhealthy. But when local people of influence realise the effect on business and the cost of putting it right, the townspeople are soon persuaded by them that Stockmann is their ‘enemy’.

His mistake is to think that truth cannot be denied. The reality is that most of us believe what we want to believe against the facts. And if the facts don’t fit, we blame a cover up or a conspiracy or make a leap of faith.

If our hopes and fears are exploited by ruthless politicians, advertisers or other people with an agenda, all the worse. The debate about ‘fake news’ and the behaviour of Donald Trump and some of our own politicians makes Ibsen’s play seem bang up-to-date. When you hear the outrageous statements made by our political elite during the EU referendum campaign and the level of ignorance among the electorate, even though the BBC’s Reality Check was freely available, you can sympathise with Stockmann.

He may believe the majority are stupid and society would be better run by an elite but we the audience can see that the majority are not stupid, merely uninformed, and the elite are the very ones who have undermined his truth.

A mountain range of a performance

An Enemy Of The People, directed by Howard Davies, offers a view of society in which nearly everybody operates out of self interest and those that don’t are crushed by those that do. Ibsen tells the truth as he sees it and it’s a view of human nature that may make him an enemy of the people but like all great artists he helps us understand humanity, if we are prepared to accept that life isn’t black and white. Our hero Stockmann isn’t spared from an honest depiction. He may be admirable as a whistleblower but he has flaws and suspect motives.

We see that he is driven by jealousy of his brother. We cringe at his hubris when he thinks he will be feted by his fellow citizens. We realise his ‘honesty’, at first attractive, is naive because he doesn’t see the need to engage and persuade people. We find him arrogant in thinking he is superior. We are shocked at his willingness to sacrifice his family.

All these swings from initial confidence through pride, bewilderment and anger to eventual collapse are conveyed in a brilliantly nuanced performance at Chichester by Hugh Bonneville. You may know him from TV’s Downton Abbey or W1A. I could feel every emotion his character was feeling. Even when I was laughing at his naive expectation of the honour he would receive, I still felt sorry for him. This is a mountain range of a performance.

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.