Brief Encounter – The Watermill – review

An enjoyably theatrical show based on Noel Coward’s iconic romance


★★★★

Production photo of Callum McIntyre & Laura Lake Abedisi in Brief Encounter at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury
Callum McIntyre & Laura Lake Abedisi in Brief Encounter at The Watermill. Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

If you’re expecting to see a straightforward stage adaptation of the film Brief Encounter, you may be disappointed. If you’re expecting to see Emma Rice’s legendary multimedia production of Brief Encounter, you may be disappointed.

If you go without ever having seen the film, or at least without any expectations, you should enjoy an evening of humour, passion, poignancy and great theatricality.

Let’s take the lack of similarity to the film first. Part of the issue here is that in writing this play, Emma Rice has combined elements of Noel Coward’s screenplay with his original short play Still Life on which the film was based. A great idea but this means it isn’t pure Brief Encounter.

As to Emma Rice‘s adaptation, the original Kneehigh production from ten or so years ago,included a big screen with a movie showing that imitated the David Lean version but featured the stage actors, who then interacted with it. In this production, the screen has gone.

The story of the chance meeting of two married people in a railway station buffet and their subsequent, hesitant, guilt-ridden affair is still centre stage in this production of Brief Encounter but, there is much more about the relationship between Myrtle the café manager and Albert the station guard than you see in the film.

This is especially true in the first act where their flirtatious and at times vulgar chatting up is given almost equal weight with the more reserved and cautious romance between Alec and Laura. There is a strong and, I suggest, elitist suggestion that middle class equals repressed and serious, while working class equals liberated and comic. Indeed Kate Milner-Evans and Charles Angiama are funny as Myrtle and Stanley, and the former is a particularly strong singer.

As well as those two couples, there is a third romance going on between a more innocent younger couple Beryl the waitress and Stanley who sells food from a tray on the platform. There are nicely judged performances by Hanna Khogali and Oliver Aston. Although the ‘compare and contrast’ is very interesting, this made the first act very bitty. It was quite a challenge to get to know Alec and Laura.

Although the screen has disappeared, much of Emma Rice’s inventive adaptation remains in this production directed by Robert Kirby. Songs and dance are used to dazzling effect, with all seven actors singing and several playing instruments as well. The songs are by Noël Coward, sometimes his music and lyrics, sometimes his lyrics with music by  Eamonn O’Dwyer. They are well chosen to reflect the mood of each moment. For example, Beryl sings an appropriate Mad About The Boy and, at the end, to match the poignancy of the parting, Alec (Callum McIntyre) sings A Room With A View with lines like ‘A room with a view / And you / And no one to worry us / No one to hurry us / Through this dream we found’. And beautifully sung.

There is also mime and dance. It is pure theatre, which I mean it couldn’t be done in any other medium and it is what we love about being at a live performance.

The Watermill stage is small so Harry Pizzey’s set design leaves it open and cleverly uses a few pieces of scenery to convey the locations. The café counter doubles as a piano; armchairs and tables roll smoothly on and off as the scene changes from the café to a flat to Laura’s home. Which is where we meet her husband Fred, also played by Charles Angiama. You can see why she might want someone less solid, a lot more exciting.

There may be no big screen but the production does use a nice and very amusing device to remind us of its cinematic connection, namely sound effects. As Myrtle mimes pouring tea, one of the cast in the corner pours water into a jug in front of a microphone.

The second act is much more focused on Laura and Alec, and the better for it. This is a classic love story and well told in this version. Their blossoming romance, their growing love that becomes increasingly reckless, the agonising over the rights and wrongs of their affair, the ecstasy and the heartbreak.

As Laura says at one point, their love has made her ‘a stranger in her own home’. The most interesting, because the most conflicted, character is Laura. Played by Laura Lake Abedisi, it is the more difficult role because she has to express herself from behind a mask of repressed feelings and the kind of strangulated accent that you will be familiar with from films of the 1930s and 40s, or  the Queen in The Crown. Ms Abedisi does a splendid job and, by the end, I was totally in tune with her anguish.

Callum McIntyre is excellent as Alec Harvey, combining charm, confidence, humour and profound feeling.

This may not be what you would expect if you love the film, but if you accept that it has been taken apart and reconstructed as a piece of theatre, I think you will have a great evening.

Brief Encounter continues at The Watermill in Newbury until 13 November 2021

One Minute Theatre Reviews was supplied with a press ticket by the producers

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Is God Is – Royal Court – Review

Aleshea Harris’ bloodbath thriller is a bit anemic

★★★

Production photo of Cecilia Noble, Tamara Lawrence and Adelayo Adedayo in Is God Is at the Royal Court theatre in London
Cecilia Noble, Tamara Lawrence and Adelayo Adedayo in Is God Is. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Is God Is by up-and-coming American playwright Aleshea Harris is a revenge tragedy, or perhaps tragicomedy, in a tradition that dates back to the Old Testament and takes in Jacobean tragedy and Quentin Tarantino along the way. Perhaps it most resembles the plays of Martin McDonagh, but, in any comparison with them, I’m afraid Is God Is comes off worse.

17 year old twins find out that their mother, whom they thought had died in a fire when they were small children, is actually alive but finally succumbing to her injuries. The reunion is not entirely joyous because she wants them to kill the man responsible for her condition, her former abusive partner and their father. She wants him ‘dead. Real dead. And lots of blood is fine’. The young women, who were also scarred by the fire,  don’t really question whether this is moral or legal or even practical. As far as they are concerned this is a mission from God, since their mother created them. They are driven by the need for vengeance and so is the plot.

So begins a killing spree.

Aleshea Harris’ play won the Relentless Prize in the USA and the relentless speed is helped by the device of the characters introducing themselves in the third person, rather than reveal their characters through their words and deeds. The killing spree leaves no time for a pause for thought about morality, family, class and race, which are all touched on. And the play’s high speed drive straight down the highway gives no opportunity for a twist or a turn, like the sudden slamming on of brakes and or a hairpin bend, except perhaps at the very end when you might be left wondering whether vengeance is worth it. Compared with all the plays by Martin McDonagh that I have reviewed in the last couple of years, The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, Hangmen, A Very Very Very Dark Matter and his early work The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, seen recently in Chichester and at the Lyric Hammersmith, there are no shocking twists or unexpected revelations, of the kind which enrich his work.

No blood but real fire

The older more extrovert sister Racine acquires a rock- which is thought to be the weapon with which Cain killed Abel- and proceeds to use it against all she comes into contact with, even after the slightest offence.

Unlike, I believe, the original New York presentation of Is God Is, there is no blood splattering Ola Ince’s production. So much for ‘lots of blood is fine’. The violence, while plentiful, is so stylised that it neither shocks nor is any more convincing than the characters’ motives. The horrific scars become symbolic tattoos. Once you take both horror and nuance out of the equation, you’re not left with much.

There might not have been any blood but there was real fire in Chloe Lamford‘s design. I liked her simple cartoon-like sets, with the titles for each scene like Going West and Showdown from the script writ large, encouraging the sense that we were watching chapters of a pulp novel being acted out.

I also enjoyed the acting. Out of a uniformly strong cast, I’ll mention in particular Cecilia Noble as the mother or God or, as in the cast list, She. It was a chilling moment when she conjured up what happened to her on the fateful day of the fire, and her powerful command to ‘make him dead’ was like the word of God.

Her two twins, the older Racine played by Tamara Lawrence and younger Anaia played by Adelayo Adedayo were a great double act. Their repartee was sharp and funny, made more so by the use of the Southern States vernacular and rhythms of speech.

It’s clear that Aleshea Harris is a writer to watch. She has a poet’s ear for dialogue. She is also able to make subtle homages to past masterpieces of the vengeance genre without laying it on thick. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more from her but I don’t think she’s quite there yet.

Is God Is runs at the Royal Court Theatre until 23 October 2021

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What If If Only by Caryl Churchill – review

A surprisingly funny play about loss and grief

★★★★

Production photo showing Linda Bassett and John Heffernan in What If If Only at the Royal Court Theatre in London
Linda Bassett & John Heffernan in What If If Only at the Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

At the beginning of What If If Only, we meet a man referred to in the cast list as ‘someone’. He’s sitting at a table in a small room talking to himself or rather to someone who isn’t actually there.

His first words are about a man who spent ten years trying to paint an apple so that it looked just like an apple, then seven years trying to paint an apple so that it looked nothing like an apple. Given that Caryl Churchill’s new play is less than 20 minutes in length, I assume she wouldn’t waste words. So what’s the significance of the apple fable? I’ll come back to that.

We immediately discover that his partner has died but that he still likes to talk to his beloved and wishes he could get in touch with them, beyond the grave, as it were. John Heffernan’s portrait of grief is touching, it’s so quietly sad. A bit too quiet actually in terms of being heard at the back which is a shame because James Macdonald’s production savours every word.

Our ‘someone’ wonders ‘what if’ his loved one had lived, and wishes ‘if only’ they had lived. He longs to see a ghost. Designer Miriam Buether’s cube-shaped room, which is a metaphor for being contained by the present, rises to let in a ghost from outside the present moment.

Thought provoking and cleverly told

What follows in this short comedy about loss is both thought provoking and unexpectedly funny. Much to our surprise, and that of the protagonist, the ghost that appears is not wished-for dead figure from the past but a ghost from the future, then more futures. All are represented by a smiling and occasionally stern Linda Bassett who has great fun switching between characters in some packed monologues.

Actually, we do meet one more character- a child who could be part of this man’s future. ‘Child Future’ was confidently played on the occasion I saw it by Samir Simon-Keegan who may well be part of the future of acting.

It’s a play about dealing with grief and the theme that emerges is that you can’t bring back the past, only take one of many possible routes into a future that is certain to be different from the past. Not a hugely original idea, but cleverly told.

So what about the apple? Is the apple a metaphor for the present? While his loved one was alive, each new moment resembled the previous moments in his memory, so was he at that time painting an apple that looked like an apple, but when his loved one died, the present was no longer matched his memories, so he was trying to paint an apple that looked nothing like an apple.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the apple. What if I hadn’t tried to analyse the meaning of the apple story? If only I hadn’t mentioned the apple.

What If If Only continues at the Royal Court Theatre until 23 October 2021

Click here to watch the video of this review of What If If Only on YouTube

The Mirror And The Light – review

Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles provide a fitting end to a great theatrical trilogy.

★★★★

Production photo of Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker in The Mirro And The Light at the Gielgud Theatre London
Nathaniel Parker and Ben Miles in The Mirror And The Light

It’s a few years since the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s outstanding stage versions of the first two books in Hilary Mantel‘s trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell.  At last, we arrive at the final volume The Mirror And The Light. So did episode three reach new heights or fall from grace?

Just in case you don’t know your history or haven’t read the book, we begin with Cromwell in prison, his fate already sealed. We see who his enemies are and who among his allies has betrayed him.

The prison set is dark and foreboding with high steely grey walls, designed by Christopher Oram. Then we go back in time to when Cromwell was still riding high, and, with a jolt, we realise the court is almost identical to the prison.
Even the King is trapped by what is required of his position but the rest are prisoners to his whims, as well as constantly vulnerable to enemies in the court.

The story of Cromwell’s fall then plays out and is more, not less, tense for our knowing the fate that awaits him. This is not a simple adaptation of a novel. It is a gripping piece of theatre, as if writers Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles have taken the story of Cromwell and written a play about it from scratch.

So we’re not inside Cromwell’s head, as in the book, but rather witnessing this central character’s interaction with those around him, showing how others see him and how he works the court. We see the fragility of his power and his own awareness of his vulnerability.

Jeremy Herrin’s production feels Shakespearean

The play feels Shakespearean, and under Jeremy Herrin’s direction, it looks like a traditional production of one of the history plays, with everyone looking like they’ve stepped out of a painting by Hans Holbein. The language while not as poetic has an Elizabethan style, but also pace and a natural flow. The resemblance to modern day politics or even office politics is striking.

Cromwell, hated by his fellow councillors and by the people, is dependent on the goodwill of the King. British prime minister Harold Macmillan said the greatest challenge for politicians was ‘events, dear boy, events.’ So it proves for Cromwell. A mishandled northern rebellion, the death of Jane Seymour, a disastrous marriage to Anna of Cleves and the king begins to have less faith in his right-hand man. It’s all his enemies need, chief of which is the Duke of Norfolk, played by Nicholas Woodeson as a little weasel of a man, who resents the rise of a blacksmith’s boy above his ancient aristocratic family, and takes every opportunity to bring about his downfall.

Cromwell is always either on stage or being discussed. He is not exactly a good man, actually he’s a greedy manipulator, but he comes across as honourable, at least by the standards of the day, and compassionate, for example to Princess Mary, in a way that few of the others do.

Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker head a well chosen cast

Ben Miles‘ performance as this complex man- laughing, worrying, macho, submissive- his eyes constantly flicking round the room- is a tour de force.
Both he and the King are lonely at the top. Nathaniel Parker’s Henry, the mirror and the light of the title, is a capricious child in an oversized man’s body, self indulgent, self pitying, isolated. A telling moment sees him by alone, feeling the cold, desperate for the warmth of the fire.

With a cast of 24, this Royal Shakespeare Company production has an epic feel. And it is a well chosen, diverse cast, who are a compliment to the RSC’s casting director Helena Palmer.

Melissa Allan reveals the steel in Mary Tudor. You can see Bloody Mary waiting to emerge. Geoffrey Lumb as Thomas Wriothesley and Leo Wan as Richard Riche make you recoil at their sliminess. Terrique Jarrett as Cromwell’s son Gregory adds a bright presence, and Jordan Kouamé was moving as Cromwell’s ally Rafe Sadler, desperate to save him without offending the King. Matthew Pidgeon’s double act as the friendly ambassador Eustache and the vicious Bishop Gardiner was impressive.

Inevitably death hangs over this evening. The two most influential people in Cromwell’s life appear as ghosts:  his old mentor Cardinal Wolseley, played by a jolly Tony Turner, and his father, played with a spitting nastiness by Liam Smith.

I’m sorry if I’ve made the evening sound grim, it’s actually leavened with a great deal of humour. Paul Adeyefa brings much comedy as Cromwell’s faithful French servant Christophe. Nicholas Boulton is a Tigger-like Duke Of Suffolk, a friend to Cromwell in the sense of ‘with friends like these who needs enemies’. Jo Herbert is a cynical Lady Rochford. One of the funniest moments of the evening is when the new queen Jane Seymour, played as a likeable young woman by Olivia Marcus, complains to Cromwell about Henry’s unreasonable demands. An embarrassed Thomas, assuming them to be sexual, tries to coax more detail out of her, only to discover she is referring to the King wanting her to ride with him to inspect the fortifications at Dover.

After the rollercoaster of events leading to Cromwell’s arrest, the ending is downbeat. This is partly because Cromwell accepts his fate with dignity. Despite a dramatic beheading orchestrated by illusionist Ben Hart, it’s a  climax that didn’t leave me quite as shocked or drained as I expected. Nevertheless the play is a fitting conclusion to a fine trilogy.

The Mirror And The Light is due to run at the Gielgud Theatre until 23 January 2022. Tickets from delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

 

The Normal Heart at The National Theatre – review

Larry Kramer’s  blistering attack on prejudice and complacency in the early days of AIDS epidemic

★★★★

Production photo from The Normal Heart at the National Theatre
Ben Daniels & Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The Normal Heart, written in 1985 as the AIDS epidemic was finally beginning to be acknowledged, is based on author Larry Kramer’s own experience of this period. It’s a play that highlights prejudice and ignorance, fighting for what is right, and what it’s like to live in a time of plague.

The lead character Ned is semi-autobiographical and it’s great to see Ben Daniels given the starring role. He’s an excellent actor who always delivers on stage or screen. These days is probably best known for playing Princess Margaret’s husband in The Crown but in this production, directed by Dominic Cooke, he shows how he can carry a whole show.

This production was stopped in its tracks by the COVID -19 pandemic. So, inevitably, now that it’s finally made it onto the Olivier stage, we view it in the light of our experience of what’s happened over the last year and a half. We recognise the authorities’ slowness to respond to what was going on, albeit nothing like the fatal head-in-the-sand attitude to the early deaths within New York’s gay community. In the unwillingness of people to do what’s necessary to save lives, we can see a parallel with some gay men back then refusing to modify their sex lives. We are also familiar with wide-ranging and sometimes wild theories about causes and cures that have since gone by the wayside. In the play, you get the sense of bewilderment and panic about where this so-called ‘gay plague’ has come from and how it’s being spread.

What’s also happened between the postponement of this production and now is the joyous but devastating TV series It’s A Sin by Russell T Davies. That was set in the UK rather than New York and took us into the 90s but anyone who has seen it will recognise the way some newly liberated gay men became highly promiscuous during the 70s and 80s, and again the slowness to react, and the crushing sadness of friends dying all around, and the reconciliation between some parents, especially mothers, and their dying sons.

The Normal Heart is much more overtly political than It’s A Sin. It might be better compared with Albert CamusThe Plague, in which an outbreak of bubonic plague follows a similar trajectory and is intended as an analogy for the rise of Nazism.

The Normal Heart follows closely the developments in early 1980s New York: the early deaths, the uncertainties, one doctor flagging up the concern, and the forming of an organisation intended to warn gay men of the danger, help those that contracted AIDs, and pursue the authorities for support.

It’s hard to know what’s more depressing: people faced with the possibility of contracting a fatal disease still carrying on with a reckless lifestyle, or the authorities and media trying to pretend it wasn’t happening because this seemed to be only to do with gay men, and not something they wanted to be associated with. So both familiar and yet still shocking.

Ned is instantly at odds with his fellow campaigners. He is all for directness and shouting from the rooftops in order to pressurise those in power into action, and his fellow gay men to refrain from sex. I guess he’s the kind of person who these days would be gluing himself to the motorway. Others, some still in the closet, argue for a more softly softly approach.

Humour, pain, anger and compassion

Because the abrasive Ned is never afraid to tell it like it is, he has some barnstorming moments, but the other actors in Ned’s circle including Luke Norris, Dino Fetscher, Daniel Monks and Danny Lee Wynter, take hold of their well drawn, varied characters and fill this evening with humour, pain, anger and compassion.

Production photo by Helen Maybanks showin Liz Carr in The Normal Heart at the Ntional Theatre London in 2021
Liz Carr in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Liz Carr plays Doctor Brookner who first notices the increase in this distinctive illness and goes from compassionate but objective medic to militant campaigner, with a blistering speech in the second act. ‘How does it always happen that all of the idiots are always on your team?’ she asks her opponents.

Ned is also in conflict with his straight brother Ben, given a nicely nuanced performance by Robert Bowman, who shows the love he feels for his brother while barely able to disguise his homophobia.

Not only does Kramer give the various members of the group the space to express their differing feelings and opinions, he digs deep into his main protagonist’s character. Despite all the risks of intimacy, the previously lonely Ned falls in love and suddenly the story of this epidemic becomes very personal. Love is what makes Ned a human  ding rather than a simple polemicist

The end is heartbreaking, compounded by the misery of the latter stages of the disease and, even after their death, the continuing prejudice in the treatment of their bodies. If you are not in tears by the end, I would question whether you have a heart.

Although the setting is specifically the gay community of New York in the early 80s, the behaviour it shows can be seen again and again in many other situations. We’re reminded by Ned in the play how governments turned a blind eye to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. And if we look around today, we could take the example of the way a male-dominated, misogynistic judicial system consistently fails to take effective action against the number of rapes and other violence against women. Or the way elderly people in care homes were treated during the COVID -19 outbreak (see Help by Jack Thorne on All4). Or the daily discrimination against black people (see my review of Typical).

A word about the set. The Olivier at the National Theatre has been converted into a theatre-in-the round. The stage is a circle with a thin light all the way round the circumference, perhaps suggesting the way gay men were seen at that time as separate from the rest of society. It’s pretty much bare apart from a few benches so this production is all about the acting, and that to be frank is a relief after many productions I’ve seen in this large space where the set design has dwarfed the play. The set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, also has a flame burning high up throughout. I took this to represent the kind of eternal flame you find at a tomb of the unknown soldier, as if to say these thousands who died through the prejudice and ignorance should not be forgotten.

To make this truly in-the-round, there are seats on what would normally be the stage, though it was my impression, sitting in the circle that the actors faced to the traditional front the majority of the time. A word of warning: there are lighting towers positioned around edge of the circular stage. These will inevitably give you a restricted view if you sit in the right or left stalls and circle. I know this to be true because a delayed train caused me to arrive at the last moment, so I was sitting to the side for the first act before I was able to take my central seat.

The Normal Heart is a deeply moving play, with scintillating, witty, powerful dialogue that deserves this well acted revival.

Revision made on 1 October 2021 to add more about the significance of love and the universality of the message

The Normal Heart is performing at the National Theatre until 6 November 2021.

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

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – film review

Star debut by Max Harwood in a joyous fantasy film musical

★★★★

Still from film of Everybody's Talking ASbout Jamie showing Max Harwood
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Everybody should be talking about the film of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie but I suspect they won’t because it slipped through the cinemas and is now behind the firewall of Amazon Prime.

First thing to say, this is a movie in its own right, not simply a film of the stage show. It’s the story of a gay teenager verbally bullied at school and rejected by his homophobic father, but who finds liberation in dressing up in glamorous women’s clothing. The central message is a familiar one of allowing people- young people- to be themselves and fulfill their potential.

Like the stage show, it fetures the fabulous songs composed by Dan Gillespie Sells from The Feeling with lyrics from Jamie writer Tim MacRae. They’re energetic, liberating and someones melancholic, although some of the songs from the stage show failed to make the transition to celluloid.

The film is an impressive directorial debut for Jonathan Butterell who tells the story confidently and seamlessly switches from the mundane classroom and other day-to-day situations to the glorious fantasies of the songs in which Jamie imagines the life he should lead.

This is not about someone being ashamed of being gay. Jamie is confident in his sexuality, which is a sign of the progress that’s been made in the 50 years since same-sex relationships became legal. He even stands up to the homophobic class bully. No, his secret desire is to be a drag queen, or more immediately to wear a dress at the forthcoming prom.

It’s not entirely secret. His mother supports him and even buys him ruby encrusted shoes which must surely make us think of The Wizard Of Oz and that old euphemism for gay men, namely friends of Dorothy. His father too is aware but is ashamed of him, which has led to Jamie having a poor self image.

For me the most moving moment was a scene that’s not in the stage show. Jamie has met Hugo Battersby, an older drag queen, played by the great Richard E Grant as someone ‘battered’ by the past but still flamboyantly extrovert. He becomes Jamie’s mentor and shows him a VHS video from the late 80s. This wonderfully convincing, slightly blurry pastiche – complete with a new song- shows the protests against the Thatcher government’s discrimination against gay people, all in the midst of the horrors of the AIDS epidemic.

In a nice touch, the transfixed Jamie and Hugo, at first reflected on the TV screen, become part of the video. It powerfully reminds us- and Jamie- that there were many battles fought by lesbian and gay people and much bravery in being ‘out’. It puts today’s problems in perspective. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants  Short as the scene is, the power of the song This Was Me and the sadness and defiance shown in the video moved me more than anything else in the film.

Max Harwood gives an outstanding performance as Jamie, the self deprecating, likeable  youngster who gradually gains the confidence to express himself. Also making an impressive feature film debut is Lauren Patel who plays his studious but vocal Muslim friend Priti.

They are well supported by some great veteran actors.  Sharon Horgan, seen recently on Channel 4 in the extraordinarily good This Way Up, is magnificent as the teacher who squashes the ambitions of her working class  students. There are two alumni from Coronation Street. Sarah Lancashire plays Jamie’s devoted mother with great warmth and sings the stand-out song – a kind of torch song- He’s My Boy, with depth and passion. The excellent Shobna Gulati plays her comic but forceful friend Ray. Ms Gulati is, I think, the only member of the  West End stage show to reprise a role in the film and incidentally she’s playing Ray in the current UK tour.

The story is predictable in both its course and outcome. In many ways you could describe it as a fairy tale and, in saying that, I’m not attempting a crass joke. What I mean is that everything works out just a little too well. The implausibility matters more in this film than it does in the original stage show where you are carried along by your emotional response to the songs and performances. Even so, this is a well-made and uplifting film, right up to the tear-in-the-eye ending.

And if you can’t see it in all its wide screen glory at the cinema, you can catch it streaming on Amazon Prime.

Watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane – review

Martin McDonagh’s early work hints at greatness to come.

★★★

Production photo of The BEauty Queen Of Leenane at The Minerva Thetare Chichester showng Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie
Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

We’ve come to know Martin McDonagh very well over the last 25 years. Revivals of his plays The Cripple Of Inishmaan with Daniel Radcliffe and The Lieutenant of Inishmore with Aidan Turner were West End triumphs and confirmed his status as a leading playwright.

He continues to dazzle with hits like Hangmen and A Very Very Very Dark Matter. Then there are his films In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and more.

His work is notable for unpredictable storytelling, humorous dialogue and sudden violent shocks. And that’s all here in his first play The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, revived in a co-production by Chichester Festival Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith.

The play centres on the relationship between 70 year old Mag, played by Ingrid Craigie,  and her 40 year old daughter and carer Maureen (Orla Fitzgerald). The pair are isolated in a run-down Irish village in the mid-1990s. They only have each other, and this dependency has led to a toxic, indeed abusive relationship in which each torments the other in petty, or occasionally significant, ways.

Mag empties her chamber pot into the kitchen sink each morning to the annoyance of her daughter, Maureen only buys biscuits her mother dislikes. It reminded me of the co-dependent parent-child relationship that formed the heart of the classic TV sitcom Steptoe And Son.

Mag schemes to undermine Maureen in order to keep her at home. She destroys important notes and letters. The mentally unstable daughter, having apparently sacrificed her life to perform her filial duty, crosses from care to cruelty. The relationship is dark, sinister even, but the interplay between them is also amusing.

Both actors convince in the ease of their conversation, which sounds like they have been having the same exchanges for the last 20 years, much like a Becket or Pinter play. I particularly enjoyed the animation and barely contained look of triumph that Ingrid Craigie gave when her character had secret knowledge about the truth of a situation, and mischievously led Maureen on in her lie about it. Orla Fitzgerald was tremendous whenever she tried to lord it over her mother, stepping out with hips swaying.

An absorbing look at a toxic relationship

The co-dependency is threatened when Pato appears on the scene. Although a local, he is also an outsider, having emigrated to London. England is always seen as a malign influence in this play. The country that has destroyed Ireland and continues to ruin this village. It’s a relationship perhaps not dissimilar to that of Mag and Maureen.

Pato forms a liaison with Maureen, whom he calls his beauty queen, and threatens to take her away to the promised land of America. Not if Mag has anything to do with it.  A violent and unhappy end seems inevitable.

Production photo ffrom The Beauty Queen Of Leenane at The Minerva Chichester showing Orla Fitzgerald and Adam Best
Adam Best and Orla Fitzgerald in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Adam Best is moving as Pato, a sad lonely man set apart from the English by his Irish village origins and by the prejudice and dangers of London’s building sites. At the beginning of act two, he writes a letter to Maureen about his life and wishes that is truly heartbreaking.

The fourth member of the cast is Kwaku Fortune who portrays Pato’s brother Ray. His main role is that of a miserable messenger but in his short scenes he convincingly illustrates the dead end nature of life in Leenane, which for him lies mainly in an obsession with Australian soaps and a surly attitude.

The set by Good Teeth Theatre was so dingy you could almost smell the urine. The rainy monotone backwall projection was appropriately bleak. The set was spread out with Mag’s armchair and a stove on one side and Maureen’s chair and kitchen area on the other. This suggested a boxing ring in which each protagonist had their corner. The sound by Anna Clock that accompanies the scenes breaks was equally desolate.

Martin McDonagh certainly has a way with words, and if The Beauty Queen Of Leenane isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny nor as original in its subject matter as his later work, it is still absorbing. Rachel O’Riordan’s production does it proud.

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is performing in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until 2 October and then at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from 6 October to 9 November 2021

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube 

5 Reasons Sutton Foster Triumphs in Anything Goes – review

Sutton Foster’s West End debut is the top


★★★★★

Production photo of Sutton Foster in Anything Goes at The Barbican Theatre London
Sutton Foster in Anything Goes. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Cole Porter’s Anything Goes at The Barbican is the best musical performance I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. And it’s thanks to one person- Sutton Foster.

This is Sutton Foster’s first London appearance. I guess Broadway audiences know all about her qualities but in this review I’m going pick out the five key moments in which she showed she has what it takes to launch this show into the musical stratosphere. That’s not to play down the importance of Kathleen Marshall who directed and choreographed the original Broadway production and gave Sutton Foster the vehicle to show off her talent. Nor am I underestimating the support she receives from Robert Lindsay and others. And we can never forget the foundation stone of Cole Porter’s songs.

Sutton Foster very nearly didn’t appear. The part of nightclub singer Reno Sweeney was due to be played by Megan Mullally, but after she dropped out with an injury, Ms Foster- the original Tony Award-winning Reno- was drafted in. Well, Megan Mullally’s bad luck is our good fortune.

Let me set the scene. Nearly all the action takes place on the deck of a ship with interior scenes rolled on or dropped in as needed, so we nearly always have in view Derek McLane’s phallic funnels and vaginal doors and portholes, never letting us forget that this is a musical that’s at least as much about sex as romance. Then there are the parallel lines of those smokestacks which prepare us for the precision of the chorus lines.

1 She Acts

After a jolly overture in which the conductor Stephen Ridley wears a naval officer’s white hat, the top of which is picked out by  a spotlight, and a short scene that kicks off the ludicrous and frankly irrelevant plot, we meet Reno Sweeney for the first time. She sings I Get A Kick Out Of You.

In modern musicals, which is to say mainly those written after Rodgers And Hammerstein changed everything, the songs are led by and enhance the story. In Cole Porter’s hey day, the 1930s, it was more a case of the story being built around the songs. So we have this classic love song, sung by Reno about young Billy Crocker. She says she’s in love with him but in no time at all she’s helping him snare the love of his life Hope Harcourt.

Even though it seems like her feelings for Billy are invented simply so she can sing this song, and even though we’ve heard it a thousand times, you very quickly realise that something extraordinary is happening here. Sutton Foster is putting in phrasing- pauses, emphases- making it personal. She’s singing like she really doesn’t understand why she has feelings for this young man. She forces this and every other song she sings (and she does have all the best songs) to mean something in the context of the show. It’s like hearing the song for the first time. Because she is acting the song.

2 She’s Funny

After Billy decides to stow away on an ocean liner bound for Britain so that he can court Hope, only to discover she is engaged to an aristocratic Englishman, Reno gives him a confidence boost. While they dance what from memory was an American Smooth, she tells him You’re The Top. It may start as Reno trying to cheer up Billy but it ends as a competition between them to find ever more bizarre compliments. So we begin with the over-the-top

‘You’re the Nile
You’re the Tow’r of Pisa
You’re the smile
On the Mona Lisa’

but end with ‘You’re Pepsodent.’ Now, this is a comic song but Sutton Foster takes the comedy to a new height thanks to her facial expressions: puzzlement at some of the comparisons, triumph when she finds yet another rhyme. She is indeed ‘the nose on the great Durante’.

3 She’s A Team Player

Prtoduction photo of Robert Lindsay and Sutton Foster in Anything Goes at The Barbican Theatre in London
Robert Lindsay and Sutton Foster in Anything Goes. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Billy and Hope, played by Samuel Edwards and Nicole-Lily Baisden, have a moment, as does Gary Wilmot, who doesn’t have a lot to do but what he does is reliably comic. Then Sutton Foster and Robert Lindsay have their only number together, Friendship. Usually, the part of Moonface Martin, a gangster disguised as a priest, is a relatively minor character in a subplot but in this production- and all credit here to the director Kathleen Marshall– he becomes a lead.

On Broadway, the great Joel Grey took the part. In London, we, and Sutton Foster, are blessed with Robert Lindsay. It sometimes seems Mr Lindsay can do anything. I last saw him extracting tears as a legendary Hollywood cameraman suffering from dementia in Prism. But of course, he is a skilled comic actor as he showed as the star of the revival of Me And My Girl. His greatest quality is his understanding of how to work an audience.

So his patter as he breaks off from the duet is pure vaudeville and transforms a comic song into comedy genius, with jokes about it being a shame Sutton Foster’s London debut is in the City of London, not the West End. And if you’re not familiar with this in-joke, it’s true that while the size of the venue and the show are ‘West End’, it is geographically speaking somewhat to the east. And what’s great about Sutton Foster is that she sails with him on this almost stream of consciousness, so that they really do seem like friends.

4 She Can Dance

The climax to the first act is the song Anything Goes. If there’s a serious theme to this musical (and there probably isn’t), it’s that standards of good and bad and right and wrong have been swept away in contemporary society, and that anyone can become a celebrity, including gangsters like Moonface Martin and Public Enemy Number One Snake Eyes Johnson, whom Billy Crocker is mistaken for, just as we find in today’s celebrity culture. This suits Cole Porter’s cynicism and gives us the song and show title.

By now, we’ve already tasted the quality of Kathleen Marshall’s choreography but this number goes up a gear. The company generates enough energy for a power station. Sutton Foster’s energy is nuclear. And so is her dancing, as she leads the synchronised stage-filling chorus through a tap routine that just builds and builds. I can’t remember when I last saw a standing ovation at the end of act one.

5 She has limitless energy

So act two opens with Reno singing Blow Gabriel Blow, a song that absolutely doesn’t fit. Why on earth would a nightclub singer sing a gospel song? Apparently, it’s because she was once an evangelist. Okay, why not? For quality of choreography and performance, it takes up where Anything Goes left off. The number starts with Sutton Foster in a preacher’s outfit but before long she and her troupe have shed their white robes to reveal red, devilishly skimpy showgirl dresses that show she also has a fantastic figure. When the dancers sway rhythmically in a close group it’s like a cauldron and again Sutton Foster, who must have been exhausted as the end of act one, is right at the centre of it, setting the stage on fire.

It’s worth remembering that the part of Reno was written for Ethel Merman and has been played in the past by luminaries such as Patti Lupone and Elaine Paige. We can add Sutton Foster to that pantheon of musical stars. Her next role is alongside Hugh Jackman in The Music Man on Broadway. I  hope, after this success, we’ll be seeing more of her on this side of the Atlantic.

Those were my five moments to remember but there’s a lot more to enjoy in the production, of course. A delightful version of The Gypsy in Me in which the English Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, played by Haydn Oakley, reveals a previously unexpected passionate side leading to a comic tango with Sutton Foster, which includes an impressive vertical split from her. There’s the comedy song Be Like The Bluebird which gives Robert Lindsay a brilliant solo moment; and Carly Mercedes Dyer who recently acted everyone else off the stage as Shug Avery in the Leicester Curve production of The Color Purple gives the raunchiest version imaginable of Buddie, Beware.

Without Sutton Foster, and Robert Lindsay in support, this production would still be amusing, energetic and visually impressive but, with them, it’s the top.

Anything Goes continues at The Barbican until 31st October 2021. (Sutton Foster’s final performance will be on 10 October.) anythinggoesmusical.co.uk

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

 

Anna Maxwell Martin & Chris O’Dowd – Constellations – review

Laughter and tears looking at the role of choice and chance in love

★★★★★

Production photo of Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd in the Donmar Warehouse production of Constellations by Nick Payne directed by Michael Longhurst at the Vaudeville Theatre London
Anna Maxwell Martin & Chris O’Dowd in Constellations. Photo: Marc Brenner

Constellations by Nick Payne at the Vaudeville Theatre is about the ups and downs of a relationship but it’s also about the choices the couple make, depending on the circumstances they are in at any given time or sometimes the mood they are in. So we see the same scenes again with different outcomes, and the potential to be very funny or desperately sad.

Throughout the multiverse of scenarios of false starts and alternative scenarios, and returning to earlier moments, there is a string that connects a linear story of a couple (played in the version I saw by Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd). They meet, form a relationship, split up after an affair, meet again and marry.

In one repeated scene, the man proposes using an analogy of bees. He first delivers his proposal in a stilted fashion, then stumbling, then smoothly.

The format is set from the start when, in a series of very short scenes, the relationship ends before it begins time after time, as each reveals a reason why they can’t get together, followed by a black out, until you are anticipating what the next obstacle will be. The funniest is probably when Chris O’Dowd ‘s previously single character says: ‘My wife’s getting me drink.’

It sounds confusing but it isn’t at all. It’s hard to praise the author enough such an ingenious construction that nevertheless remains watchable and funny.

The play is underpinned by the quantum mechanics-inspired theory that every time we do or don’t do something, a different version of the universe is triggered leading to an infinite number of parallel universes. This is illustrated by the love story between Marianne, a university researcher into quantum theory, and Roland a beekeeper, with indications throughout of how it could have gone differently. But what didn’t happen still informs our understanding of these characters and of what did happen in this particular story of two people who love one another but whose relationship also generates sparks.

And, in being made aware of the many possible outcomes, we inevitably ask how much if any free will is involved in our decisions? In this case, Nick Payne has made the decision to show us what happened when they stayed together, at least until a final choice of paths where, similar to Schrodinger’s cat being alive or dead, there is a one third likelihood of it going one way and two thirds the other. And, since the end is so sad, you also ask yourself whether one of the other paths we didn’t follow would have had a happier outcome.

So the play calls for two excellent actors, who can instantly change mood, and even situation, saying the lines with different intonation or swapping lines, and Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd are both actors of the highest order, with a great rapport, which is very important in linking the multiverse of outcomes we are presented with. They are also great comic actors to boot, which is important because there is much comedy.

In this revival by the Donmar Warehouse, being presented at the Vaudeville Theatre, there are four sets of couples playing the roles. It’s such a good idea to show how different actors of different ages and sexuality enhance the proposition that the characters’ story can be told in many different ways.

I wish I could have seen the others but I’m more than happy that I saw this pairing. Chris O’Dowd is not a regular on stage but he seemed so natural in his role as Roland. As we know, acting ‘natural’ is the hardest thing in the unnatural environment of a stage. He made his character laid back in a type familiar from his screen roles, but he could also be angry and upset as required, and he has a comic timing that any stage actor would be proud of.

Anna Maxwell Martin is a regular performer on stage and, while many of her roles have required her to be serious, she has a terrific comic streak. She can smile or be offhand, trot off an amusing line and hold just the right length of pause for laughter, and use terrific verbal dexterity then move on to a heartbreaking loss of the ability to speak properly. I am in awe of her acting skill.

This is the same production that originated at the Royal Court back in 2012 with the same director Michael Longhurst (Amadeus, Caroline Or Change). He must be credited with some of its success, not least the simplicity of the presentation, just the two actors at the front of the stage, with a background of balloons, representing perhaps a constellation of memories or even universes.

So space is apparently crowded by multiple universes but what about time? Well, that may not exist. The flitting back and forth through time- and (spoiler alert!)  the play having visited the end of their story actually ends with a jump back to the middle. This, it’s pointed out, is how our own stories exist in our minds: not a linear cradle to grave, but little fragments from all over the years. All of our lifetime in our head. That includes false memories. For example, Roland remembers them meeting at a wedding when we know it was a barbecue.

And talking of time, so packed is Constellations with these short meaningful fragments, and the concentration required is so intense, that the play seems much longer than 70 minutes. Which is a tribute to the author and the actors.

The Donmar Warehouse production of Constellations, with performances by Anna Maxwell Martin & Chris O’Dowd alternating with Omari Douglas & Russell Tovey, continues at the Vaudeville Theatre until 21st September

Click here to watch this review on the One MInute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

 

Michael Ball in Hairspray – review

Michael Ball floods Hairspray with sunshine

★★★★★

Michael Ball and cast in Hairspray. Photo:Tristram Kenton

The musical Hairspray opened on Broadway in 2002 and hasn’t changed much since. The current production at the London Coliseum, normally home to English National Opera, and the forthcoming UK tour replicate the original, as directed by Jack O’Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. And why not? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And Hairspray is not only not broke, it’s as strong as Emily Campbell.

Maybe they were just glad to be back in a theatre but the roar of the audience when the curtain went up said to me that this is a musical people love and you would mess with it at your peril.

I’m sure you know the story, set in the early sixties, about a young woman called Tracy.  She is determined to dance on a local TV show, despite some people thinking she isn’t thin enough. In the course of that battle, she also fights segregation and liberates her previously embarrassed plus-size mother.

The familiar songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are an ebullient stream of jaunty tunes and fun lyrics from the opening Good Morning Baltimore to the closing You Can’t Stop The Beat.

The original 2002 production is still as fresh as a Baltimore crab cake. David Rockwell‘s set design is cartoonish and colourful, within a proscenium arch shaped like a 1960s television. There are many clever touches- the moment three different households sing Mamma I’m A Big Girl Now (a scene you won’t find in the film of the musical), the way the Dynamites girl group walk out of a poster, and the walkdown finale, crowned by a giant can of hairspray. And there are the over-the-top costumes with the outrageous hairstyles (of course) by William Ivey Long. You really wouldn’t want to change any of that.Fierstein

The show is so well known that, as a reviewer, I’m left with the cast, who are different from the original production- and can make a difference. The producers just need to make sure the cast do what’s required of them. I’m pleased to report they exceed expectations.

The part of Tracy’s mother has always been played by a man. Harvey Fierstein was the first stage Edna Turnblad. When the production opened in London in 2007, Michael Ball took on the role, and he’s reprised it for this revival at the London Coliseum.

The part of Edna Turnblad doesn’t give us the chance to enjoy his beautiful voice to the full nor even the complete range of his acting skills, but we do get to appreciate his ability as a stage performer. Through his dimpled smile, his twinkling eye contact, the sense that you are getting 100%, this man has an incredible rapport with his audience. It’s as if he has bottled up sunshine and is releasing it into the auditorium. His Edna Turnblad, transforming from downtrodden domestic to dazzling diva, is a joy.

Les Dennis gets big billing as a well known name, and his performance as Edna’s warm-hearted, ever optimistic husband Wilbur doesn’t disappoint. His duet with Michael Ball in the poignant Timeless To Me, complete with suggestive repartee and convincing corpsing, is hilarious.

Lizzie Bea and Jonny Amies in Hairspray. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Michael Ball apart, the star of the show is Lizzie Bea as Tracy Turnblad, the only fully developed character. She convinces throughout, whether swooning over heartthrob Link Larkin (Jonny Amies), standing up forcefully for equal rights, or ignoring obstacles and confidently dancing to the music she loves. One of the best aspects of this musical is the way insults and barriers are water off a duck’s back for Tracy (even when she is left alone in prison- something else that’s not in the movie). So, you are not only on her side but never- or rarely- feel sorry for her. She is an advertisement for the power of positive thinking, as is this whole musical.

Rita Simons and Georgia Anderson are the nasty Van Tussle mother and daughter, with an unpleasant line in racism and sizeism. Mary McGinlay, making her West End debut, impresses as Tracy’s gawky friend Penny Pingleton.

For a musical about equality of opportunity and opposing racial discrimination, the black characters rarely take centre stage, but Motormouth Maybelle played by Marisha Wallace is as sassy a mother and as powerful a singer as she should be. This is after all a show that turns the spotlight on the role of mothers.

Ashley Samuels makes the most of the part of her likeable son Seaweed Stubbs, Penny’s love interest. Holly Liburd, Mireia Mambo and Robyn Rose sing impressively as the Dynamites.

As I was leaving, I heard a little boy say I’m glad Lion King was cancelled or else I wouldn’t have seen this. Well, I wouldn’t want to wish any show cancelled because of Covid isolation rules, and of course The Lion King is a great show, but I do think it was that little boy’s lucky day.

Hairspray is performing at the London Coliseum until 29 September 202. A production with a different cast is touring the UK from 16 August 2021. Click here for the dates and other details.

Click here to watch the video of this review of Hairspray on YouTube