Andrew Scott unforgettable in Simon Stephens’ astounding play
If you’ve seen Andrew Scott as Moriarty in Sherlock or the hot priest in Fleabag or Hamlet or in Present Laughter, you know he’s a great actor. After seeing this, you may well think he is the greatest actor we have.
I don’t want to say too much about what the plot because I don’t want to spoil the impact. Let’s just say it’s a one-man play featuring a father called Alex telling us a story from his life. I can tell you that while it has its amusing moments, it is not a comedy. Alex says at one point “There’s a hole running through the centre of my story, through the centre of me.”
I would like to talk about Andrew Scott. What you experience is acting of the purest kind. He hesitates. He doesn’t finish his sentences. There’s a moment when he’s about to say something and pauses- and as you wait for him to finish, time seems to be suspended.
His delivery is so natural, that it seems like he’s just talking to you. Yet it absolutely is acting because it has a poetic rhythm and his body language- the way he might giggle or cover his face or stare into space- all tell you what he’s not saying, tell you that this is more than a nice story about holidays in the south of France and the charms of his daughter and father-in-law.
Andrew Scott has the ability of a great actor to not only engage you but involve you. He draws you into his heart so you feel what he feels.
Great acting needs a great script and here every word, every phrase, every incident, every little detail- the colour of a dress, some athlete’s foot cream- seem precisely chosen by Simon Stephens to make a point about how life or even perhaps God mocks our love of it, because it is a story about life’s uncertainties, about not knowing what’s round the corner, like when he goes scuba diving and is suddenly plunged into the blackness beyond the sea wall.
The play lasts just over thirty minutes but every word and gesture counts so much that it concentrates into that half hour, as much emotional impact as a four hour epic.
This is not a film of a stage performance. Andrew Scott first performed Sea Wall in 2008 and has revived it in theatres a number of times, most recently at the Old Vic in 2018. This is a film made in a studio around 2012. But, despite being a film, nothing distracts from the acting. There are no cinematic tricks and no background music. There’s natural light. The camera is fixed and we always see his whole body. It appears to be done in one take.
I don’t want to give any more away, I may have said too much already. Please see it for yourself. You will never forget it.
You can watch it on YouTube for free until 25 May and after that you can still pay to rent or download it from Vimeo. In fact I would recommend spending the £5 and download it because the more times you watch this you more you will get out of it. Full details can be found at seawallandrewscott.com
The Remote Read is an exciting project born out of the coronavirus lockdown. The producers Curtain Call are intending to bring together actors in their own homes via Zoom for live performances of plays. The first was A Separate Peace which streamed on Sunday 2 May 2020.
Proceeds (you have to buy a ticket) go to The Felix Project, a charity which helps vulnerable people in need of food. Whether for this reason or simply that they’re glad of something to do, a top notch cast assembled for this half hour production, led by the wonderful David Morrissey, all soft-spoken and twinkly-eyed.
I didn’t know the play. It was written for television back in 1966, about the time of Tom Stoppard’s first theatrical hit Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. It owes something I think to Pinter and Beckett in that John Brown played by David Morrissey arrives at an anonymous nursing home. There’s nothing wrong with him but he has a suitcase of cash and just wants to stay there, being looked after and doing nothing. The nursing staff take him in but, even though he is no way sinister or even difficult, they cannot resist finding out who he is and trying to ‘help’ him.
So it’s about the right to privacy, our inability to leave someone alone without wanting to know more or do we think is best for them, and society’s discomfort with people who do nothing.
This is an absorbing play with some excellent dialogue. ‘It’s not good for you, what you’re doing,’ says one of the staff. ‘You mean it’s not good for you,’ says Brown.
The members of staff were played by Denise Gough as a Doctor, Ed Stoppard as the Matron, Maggie Service as a Nurse and Jenna Coleman as Nurse Maggie Coates (the only other character given a full name). She was the one who befriended John Brown. The subtle way she conveyed her liking of him and her wrestling with her conscience as she ultimately betrayed him was outstanding.
So how did it work on Zoom? Quite well, thanks to director Sam Yates. The actors might have been positioned sideways so they appeared to be talking to each other. Instead, they all faced the camera and this was curiously effective. With both actors looking at you while they talked to each other, it was as if you were invisible but standing in the middle of the conversations.
The actors in simple black tops were placed against white backgrounds which cut out any distractions from bookcases or trophies or whatever actors often have in their homes. Unfortunately Zoom works with some kind of facial recognition when you use a background so there can be distortion and blurring.
That’s a minor point. It was a nice touch that as John Brown painted a mural in his room that countryside scene gradually replaced his white background, indicating perhaps that he was receiving the calm of isolation that he craved. The editing was very smooth as actors appeared and disappeared very much like entrances and exits on a stage.
Actually it was more akin to a television programme than a stage show, but it was very exciting that it was live and, as I understand it, unrecorded. This meant there was a real sense of being at a unique event.
A Separate Peace was billed as a reading but, apart from someone looking down occasionally, it came across as a well prepared and well-acted performance. I look forward to more from The Reading Room.
I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth because it is great to have the opportunity to see all four of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedies in stage productions. Unfortunately, good as they are, these Classic Spring Theatre Company versions really don’t work that well on film, hence my three star rating.
I think it’s a lot to do with the difference between theatre and film. For a start, in a large auditorium like London’s Vaudeville Theatre, stage actors need to speak slowly and loudly to be understood at the back of the upper circle. To be fair, when we watch a large scale play on film, our brains usually allow for the slightly melodramatic way actors deliver speeches on stage. However, Oscar Wilde’s fast-moving, sharp-witted dialogue is really sabotaged by this approach. The strong element of melodrama in these plays becomes very obvious.
You also realise just how much of the content of most stage plays is verbal. When we’re watching a drama made for the cinema or TV, we’re used to lots of changes of scene, fast editing, and action. On stage, let’s be honest, in most plays most of the time, they stand around and talk. In the first halves of all of the first three plays, partly because of the pace, I was thinking ‘My goodness, they talk a lot’. This wouldn’t even occur to you if you were there in the theatre, hanging on every word. At least at home, you can press pause and make a cup of tea. Whatever you do, don’t pour a glass of alcohol!
Thank goodness they pick up the pace after the interval. By the way, each interval is spoiled by a silly music hall song, inappropriate to mood of high society that’s being portrayed.
The third acts follow the interval, and in the first three they are invariably the best, as all the plot setups of the first half come to an explosive fruition, the fourth act being how it all works out. These third acts are full of surprises and Wilde’s trademark epigrammatic wit.
Just to remind you, if you want to watch them in chronological order, the plays start with Lady Windermere’s Fan in which a woman thinks her husband is having a secret affair whereas, in fact, he’s hiding a very different secret. In A Woman Of No Importance, a single mother battles with the secret father to prevent her son falling under his influence. Then comes An Ideal Husband in which a secret mistake made early on his career threatens to derail a successful politician but more importantly ruin his marriage to his holier-than-thou wife. Finally, there’s Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest in which the two main male characters maintain secret lives causing much confusion, as well as upsetting a certain Lady Bracknell.
So they all concern secrets, which we now see as being very significant given what we know about Oscar Wilde’s own secret life. It’s hard not see some personal feeling in epigrams like ‘scandal is gossip made tedious by morality’ or ‘Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do’.
The first three play owe a debt to Ibsen even as Wilde blends in his legendary wit. So there’s quite a bit of serious talk about love and real goodness in a hypocritical society. ‘All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon,’ says one character.
The exception is The Importance of Being Earnest in which Wilde goes all out for comedy from the first line and never stops, even if there is an underlying satire of society’s hypocrisy.
The productions are well acted and the naturalistic, late Victorian settings are spot on. I particularly liked the lightness of Paul Wills’ designs for Lady Windermere’s Fan.
In the first three plays, women play major parts and the actors in these productions make the most of their meaty roles. Eve Best is particularly impressive in A Woman of No Importance. Her breathless shock as she reacts to a momentous decision that she makes at the end of the play is heart-grabbing.
You probably want to know about Lady Bracknell. Well, Sophie Thompson plays the part well, enunciating every vowel and consonant as if she wants to control each word she speaks, as well as controlling everything else. There are prototype Lady Bracknells in the earlier plays- typically snobbish matriarchs. Jennifer Saunders is excellent in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Susan Hampshire great in An Ideal Husband but the best is Anne Reid’s employment of a tiger smile as Lady Hunstanton in A Woman Of No Importance.
It’s difficult to make a proper judgement on the quality of the stage productions but the best is An Ideal Husband but then the material is very good. The director Jonathan Church (each production has a different director) has a lightness of touch. And there’s a stellar cast which includes Nathaniel Parker, Frances Barber, Edward Fox and the excellent Freddie Fox, all languid limbs and ironic smiles, as the louche Lord Goring who is, to quote a different Wilde play, ‘pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time’.
Marquee.tv is a subscription channel offering a range of recordings of live performances including many Royal Shakespeare Company productions.
Adrian Edmonson’s comic turn stands out in Shakespearean farce
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.
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.
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.
Theatre shows available online and where to find them
If you’re missing your trips to the theatre during this coronavirus lockdown, here’s a comprehensive guide to recordings of live theatre shows that you can watch at home from the comfort of your sofa. The list will be updated regularly. (Latest update: 20 May 2020)
Andrew Scott in Sea Wall
Andrew Scott first performed Simon Stephens‘ monologue Sea Wall back in 2008. Since then he has become a household name as Moriarty in Sherlock, the hot priest in Fleabag and for theatre hits like Hamlet and Present Laughter. He returned to the play at the Old Vic in 2018. This early film version of the Sea Wall (not an actual stage performance) is probably the best 34 minutes of acting currently available online. Catch it while you can on YouTube and at seawallandrewscott.com. It’s due to end its free showing on 25 May, after which you will still be able to buy or rent it on Vimeo.
Writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge has generously made available this sold-out 2019 revival of her original stage show. Find it on sohotheatreondemand.com and on Amazon Prime in the UK and US with all the proceeds going to various health and theatre charities.
Her one-woman performance alone deserves five stars but so does the production and the film of it.
It’ll cost you £4, so if you want to know more before watching, take a look at my YouTube review.
Also available on Soho Theatre’s on-demand channel is one of the funniest evenings I’ve had: Nick Mohammad’s Mr Swallow: Houdini plus, from 26 May, The Special Relationship, a darkly funny and biting verbatim satire by Hassan Abdulrazzak about the complex stories behind the deportation of ex-prisoners from the US; a specially filmed version of Patrick Sandford’s Groomed, a moving one-man play inspired by the writer/performer’s own life shot on location in a primary school (highly recommended); and Good Girl, the debut play by Soho Theatre Writers’ Lab alumna Naomi Sheldon, a comic and unflinching coming-of-age story which won critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017. All films will be available to rent for £4 each for 48 hours until August.
The Royal Court got the film of their production of David Ireland‘s play uploaded quickly onto their website and YouTube channel. It’s available for free and I thoroughly recommend a viewing before the run ends on 31 May. Watch my YouTube review to find out more about this funny, shocking play with the performance of a lifetime from Stephen Rea.
NTLive is offering free showings of recent hits from the National Theatre and other venues. From 21 May, you have the chance to see the fastest-selling production in the history of the Young Vic: Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire starred an unforgettable Gillian Anderson as Blanche, Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirby as Stella.
Tom Hiddleston plays Coriolanus in the Donmar Warehouse production staged by former Artistic Director Josie Rourke from 4 June.
By scheduling a specific evening time for the beginning of each streaming, NTLive are hoping to create events that people will comment on live during the performance to give that sense of a shared experience that you miss when viewing at home.
Royal Shakespeare Company
Twelfth Night with Ade Edmonson as Malvolio and Kara Tointon as Olivia can be found on Marquee TV along with 17 more of its recent productions. Click here for my review of Twelfth Night.
Notable are David Tennant’s Richard II, Anthony Sher’s King Lear and Paapa Essedieu’s Hamlet. A number of RSC productions are also available on BBC i-Player.
Other good stuff on Marquee TV includes Classic Spring’s Oscar Wilde season. These are fine productions but the necessary slowness of theatrical delivery is particularly obvious when you’re listening to Wilde’s scintillating dialogue.
You normally have to pay a subscription to the online channel but it’s currently available on a 14-day free trial.
Here are a couple of other subscription channels.
digitaltheatre.com has the Old Vic production of The Crucible with Richard Armitage, Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate on top form, the Open Air Theatre’s Into The Woods, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet and Sheridan Smith’s phenomenal performance in Funny Girl. All for £9.99 a month or rent individual shows for £7.99. Click here to read my rave review of Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. You can also watch Funny Girl on Sky Arts.
BroadwayHD.com has a number of American theatre productions available. It costs $8.99 a month but you can check it out with a 7 day free trial.
BBC TV’s Culture In Quarantine
The BBC is including some theatre shows in their Culture In Quarantine season including a number of Shakespeare productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe (Search ‘Culture In Quarantine’ on BBC iPlayer). Also available is Emma Rice’s Wise Children, a fantastical theatrical production that sadly doesn’t really work on TV. Mike Bartlett’s Albion from The Almeida and Battersea Arts Centre’s Frankenstein are in the pipeline. Find it all on BBC i-Player
Watch a huge number of productions from Shakespeare’s Globe on demand on their own channel globeplayer.tv for £5.99 each. Maybe start with the 2018 production of Hamlet with Michelle Terry as the troubled Danish Prince. There will be free showings on YouTube of six plays in rotation for a fortnight at a time. The Two Noble Kinsmen (2018) is streaming until 17 May, then The Winter’s Tale (2018) from 18 May at 7pm. The 2019 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is due after that.
Notting Hill Gate’s terrific fringe theatre has made two of its best productions available online. They’re ‘archive’ films, meaning they’re filmed from a fixed camera at some distance and never intended for public viewing, but still these two intimate plays from European writers are definitely worth a watch. Suzy Storck by Magali Mougel asks the question: what happens when you don’t want children – and you already have them? José Saramago’s Unknown Island takes us on journeys into the unknown. Both available until the end of June.
Diana Quick has recorded via webcam a one-woman play she originally performed at Donmar Warehouse. Midnight Your Time, specially written for her by Adam Brace, is the story of how once a week, Judy tries to talk to her daughter online. Judy calls from Islington; her daughter is in Palestine. Until 27 May.
Chichester Festival Theatre
CFT intend to offer free showings of a number of their past productions on their website. David Walliams’s The Midnight Gang (adapted by Byrony Lavery, with music and lyrics by Joe Stilgoe) can be seen on CFT’s website during May. The Chichester Festival Youth Theatre production of Beauty and the Beast (adapted by Anna Ledwich, music and lyrics by Richard Taylor) is streaming from 21 May.
The company go about their 2017 production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale with typically pared down sets and much physical contact, as well as a Russian version of Measure For Measure, both on available on their YouTube channel.
The Habit Of Art, Alan Bennett’s funny, profound play about WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. This exceptionally good production stars Matthew Kelly and David Yelland. You can watch it and The Croft, a thriller starring Gwen Taylor and Caroline Harker, at originaltheatrecompany.vhx.tv for £5.
One of the best theatre shows currently available online is this prize-winning play which was filmed live at the Orange Tree Theatre. Even though it was presented on a tiny empty stage in the round which is normally distracting on film, this brilliant play about anti-Semitism, the holocaust and a meeting of past and present is thrilling, both in the stream-of-thought writing and the machine gun production. It can be seen for free for a limited time on their YouTube channel.
Yet more top quality Shakespeare from Canada’s renowned Stratford Festival. It’s showing twelve productions (not all at the same time) including King Lear, directed by Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and starring Colm Feore and Robert Lepage‘s stupendous production of Coriolanus
The Curve Leicester
has made three of their productions available. Personally I would avoid the archive recording of comedies by two of our wittiest playwrights: Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest and Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw. I think the latter must have been particularly good to see on stage but both are filmed from a fixed camera somewhere in the circle, making it difficult to distinguish the actors, let alone their expressions. Much better is a directed and edited film of Memoirs Of An Asian Football Casual. Coming soon is My Beautiful Laundrette. Watch on curveonline.co.uk
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals
ALW’s new YouTube channel The Shows Must Go On is showing weekend viewings of a number of his musicals. Each one starts on Friday evening.
This original rock musical’s first outing at The Other Place garnered good reports. It’s still got some rough edges and this recording was never intended as a finished work but there’s a lot of potential for this to be a big hit when theatres re-open and it’s still a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Watch it on YouTube
Myth is a reworking of the musical 27. This semi-staged workshop version that was presented in 2018. It’s interesting to see because it has some exciting rock music in it. It makes you realise there must be a lot of good shows that never get beyond this stage. It’s a shame that much of the sound is so poor in this recording.
A great opportunity to see some productions from the renowned theatre company that uses British Sign Language. Currently showing on their YouTube channel is George Brant’s Grounded which was performed at Park Theatre. Free of dialogue, the former retells Shakespeare’s comedy in BSL and mime with the occasional sub-title to describe some of the action. The latter is a riveting monologue about a drone pilot, accompanied by a BSL interpreter. Still to come on Deafinitely Theatre’s YouTube channel is an adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions in June.
Filmed with a fixed camera, the recording of Chickenshed’s Waiting For The Ship To Sail could never hope to be as thrilling as being there, because the show highly dependent for its effect on the large number of people massed on the stage. Nevertheless this mixture of music, dance and dialogue still tells a highly effective story about individual and mass migration. Watch it on YouTube
Imitating The Dog are showing a selection of their past productions. Night of The Living Dead is a fascinating recreation on stage of the classic film. The live performance is shown behind them on video side-by-side with a showing of the film itself. The recording, edited from rehearsal footage, only gives a taste of the live experience but even so, it’s mesmerising. More productions will be released.
Breach Theatre‘s The Beanfield tells the story of the battle at Stonehenge between New Age Travellers and the Police back in 1985. It uses an effective mix of live action, archive footage and contemporary film. Watch it on Vimeo
Five Encounters on a Site called Craigslist is YesYesNoNo‘s one person show exploring funny and bleak moments when meeting people online. The sound is a bit ropey and the camera is fixed but it’s still worth a look.
For A Younger Audience
Apart from the Chichester Festival Theatre shows mentioned above, here are a few more shows young people will enjoy.
Gigglemug Theatre‘s amusing family show with much visual comedy, imagining the warring houses of Montashoe and Keypulet be united by a pair of star-crossed lovers.
Yes, really. This is RSC’s edited version of King Lear, aimed at young people and a good watch for the parents as well. Watch it on YouTube.
Although many of these home viewings are free or low priced, please make a donation to your favourite theatre or production company or a charity like Acting For Others that supports theatre workers in times of need to ensure that they will all be there when we are able once again to share the experience of live theatre.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
An entertaining evening full of fun and frightening facts but light on drama ★★★
The Time Machine offers an opportunity to tour the magnificent London Library. This 180-year-old private lending library is housed in a grade II listed building in Mayfair. It has had among its members Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Agatha Christie and of course HG Wells.
It’s his novel The Time Machine that inspired Creation Theatre’s entertainment. The audience is restricted to groups of twenty. We meet a time traveller in a lobby area. Ours is played by Leda Douglas. She’s charming towards us but she’s breathless and clearly on edge.
She takes us on a journey to various points in the future represented by the different rooms in the library. We don’t go many years ahead but far enough to be in the dystopian world that has terrified her.
Although it purports to be the true story of secretive time travel that has been going on for about forty years, The Time Machine is really a warning that what we do now affects the future, that our polluting the planet and our scientific tinkering is going to get us in trouble. Or should I say even more trouble?
Interestingly the show which was written last October predicts the current virus epidemic. Did they go back in time and alter the script I wonder?
Anyway, along the way, we meet an amusing computer (Graeme Rose) which is clearly where Alexa and Siri are heading if the backchat is anything to go by. We encounter a scared scientist played by Sarah Edwardson. And finally a chat show host played with gusto by Funlola Olufunwa. Other members of the creative team were Ryan Dawson Laight (designer) and Matt Eaton (Sound Designer).
The play seems to stick the blame for our apocalyptic future on rich capitalists and corporate greed rather than humanity in general. Any way you look at it, the message is bleak and there’s little hope.
This play about time is a timely warning
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of fun to be had in Jonathan Holloway’s witty script. This mainly stems from the notion that once people go back in time, they mess around with the future and ‘every effort might be rendered redundant at any second’. So familiar names are thrown about in totally unfamiliar contexts. Oliver Hardy marries Virginia Woolf and invents time travel. Events are not quite as we remember them: I’m pretty sure the first man on the moon wasn’t Japanese.
There is also a lot of delight taken in exploring the mind-blowing nature of time. Are there multiple universes? Is time a loop?
Amusing as the story of time travel was and frightening as the information was about the way the future is likely to turn out was too, the show’s weakness is that it promises more than it delivers.
We’re told by our guide to be careful, to stick to the walls because of the dangers we may encounter. People are liable to shift shape, or their socks might change colour, or the dreaded Morlocks might appear from under the ground. But actually, none of this happens.
I wasn’t expecting a Disney ride or Doctor Who effects but the odd scary or simply dramatic happening might have been expected following the introduction.
Not enough drama in this crisis
Here are a couple of examples. In order to travel in time, we hold up our arms and our guide holds a briefcase and says “Zoom!” I guess time travel could be as prosaic as that and maybe director Natasha Rickman wanted to avoid the clichés of strobe lighting and loud electronic noise but it did feel a bit flat.
On one occasion, we arrived in a book-lined room with leather armchairs, where we were told about the first time trip. It happened in the basement of Studio 54 New York to the soundtrack of Donna Summers’ I Feel Love. There was talk of the music being turned up and a prospect of disco dancing but, no, we stayed seated in our lovely leather armchairs.
So, although we’re told that the world has been turned upside down and inside out by the constant changing caused by people travelling back in time, nothing ever happens physically to disconcert us.
What is as disconcerting and frightening as a horror film are the many startling facts about the past, present and likely future. I assume these are accurate since The Wellcome Centre for Ethics And Humanities was involved in the production. In fact, there is the odd moment when it seems more like a lecture than a play.
Even if the production seems determined not to make a drama out of a crisis, The Time Machine offers an entertaining evening as well as being a timely wake-up call. And the setting is amazing.
The Time Machine can be seen at The London Library until 5 April 2020 and in summer 2020 at The Museum Of Natural History, Oxford. For more information about The Time Machine, visit www.creationtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/time-machine/
Wiltshire becomes a metaphor for today’s Britain in Barney Norris‘ retelling of Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury Playhouse. The blood feud of the original is replaced by laddish drunkenness and Mediterranean passion by English reticence in which ‘Sorry’ is the most used word.
That may sound like Lorca-lite but this is a good play in its own right. The characters are well drawn and the dialogue feels real. That’s partly because it is so strongly rooted in Wiltshire. There is longing, fate and disconnection in this story of an ill matched bride and groom whose tragic fate is sealed when another man stirs the bride’s heart.
What works particularly well in Alice Hamilton’s production is the feeling that these characters are trapped. They are limited by poverty. None has moved far over the years, yet they are all slightly displaced from their origins. This combination of roots and disconnection is a powerful parable for our times: England has one foot in the past while being uncertain how to step into the future; we still have bigotry but as it says in the play ‘bigot’ is now a pejorative term.
They are even trapped in an unchanging set- a beautifully constructed exterior of a once proud community hall now dilapidated. Sitting in Salisbury, watching a play so rooted in Wiltshire, adds to that feeling of being trapped.
The atmosphere of the Moonraker county is strong but the story of Lorca’s Blood Wedding is universal.
As in the original, we have a Bride and Groom. Georgie is about to marry Rob, for whom the title ‘lad’ might have been invented. He’s a four years younger than her but seems like a different generation, such is his childishness. He’s infatuated with her; she just wants to get married.
Georgie and Rob are played by very promising young actors. Reece Evans’ goofy expressions, loud jokes and wide-eyed innocence are just the right side of caricature. Lily Nichol conveys Georgie’s discomfort with the situation as if it were a physical burden.
When she meets her old flame Lee, whom she previously rejected because he’s an Irish traveller, her feeling that real love is missing from her current relationship is crystallised. Both feel, as he says, there must be more to life. After the interval, it’s time for the wedding reception and an inevitable catastrophe.
Lee too has a loveless marriage with Georgie’s old school friend Danni, now the mother of Lee’s child and pregnant again. There is a deeply moving moment when Danni, continually asking him whether he loves her, says with sadness, ‘If you did, I wouldn’t be talking now.’
An impressive look at the complex lives of ordinary people
Tensions mount until the situation explodes but, in keeping with the original, the ‘blood’ of the blood wedding is shed offstage. Although, at this point in the production, the use of a kind of one man Greek chorus high up is undoubtedly dramatic, I found it too histrionic for this tale of ordinary people. I would have preferred the description of what has happened and the explanation of its significance to have been contained within the natural conversations. In other words, show rather than tell.
The set, designed by James Perkins, is crowned by a huge moon, another Lorca reference, that underlines the feeling that there are greater forces that control the fate of mere humans.
The rest of the cast shine. Jeff Rawle plays the hall’s caretaker Brian with a white beard and a benign smile that give him a Father Christmas look as he dispenses sage advice. A perfect choice for the part. Teresa Banham is totally believable as Rob’s edgy, sensitive mother. Emmet Byrne convinces as the spirited but nervous traveller desperate to be free who sparks passion in Georgie. The confusion and desperation Eleanor Henderson beings to the role of Lee’s wife Danni is touching.
It may lack Lorca’s passion but Barney Norris‘ version of Blood Wedding is an impressive look at the complex lives of ordinary people in Britain today.
Lorca’s Blood Wedding is performing at Salisbury playhouse until 22 February 2020. Tickets from Salisbury Playhouse
[This review was edited on 15 February 2020: the order of some of the text was rearranged to make it more coherent.]
Paul was given a review ticket by Salisbury Playhouse.