Theatre To Watch At Home

The Best Stage Shows Online or on TV

Let’s face it, for many of us, the only way we’re going to get to see some theatre in the foreseeable future is on a screen, either online or on TV. So here are the best theatre shows that you can watch in your own home.

All my recommendations come with a health warning. This is because films of stage shows rarely convey what makes theatre unique. Film can offer highly realistic spectacle whereas spectacle in a theatre requires more imagination. On the other hand,  its physical reality in the form of a massive set or two dozen dancing feet can be eyepopping, and the physical presence of actors performing in front of you creates a tension that can’t be replicated in a film where things are re-filmed and edited to predictable perfection. Also, what seems totally natural when you’re watching it- the louder voice, the bigger gesture- looks totally unnatural when you see it on a screen because the language of film is about small facial expressions in close-up and words delivered at conversational levels.

Experienced theatre goers can of course allow for this but I worry that people new to theatre will simply think how ‘stagey’ it all is.

Hamilton

Hamilton. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Top of my list is Hamilton. It’s one of my favourite musicals so disappointment at a film version was almost inevitable but, against all my expectations, the film of the Broadway show is a triumph. It remains a theatrical show but the music and movement carry you along. As a bonus, you get to see the original cast including Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even if you’re not interested in Toy Story and Frozen, take a month’s subscription to Disney Plus, just for Hamilton.

Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya on BBC4

Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s classic play about getting old and wasted time and unrequited love, sensitively modernised by Conor McPherson, was having a phenomenally successful run at the Harold Pinter Theatre when Covid cut it short. So the producers decided to film it and what we get is not simply the play filmed but a stage play enhanced by film. In some ways, because the cast can speak normally and to camera, it’s better than the original and that’s saying something of a production that got pretty much universal five star reviews. The leads Toby Jones, Richard Armitage and Roger Allam live up to the epithet ‘stars’. It’s on BBC4 at 10pm on 30 December and then I assume on BBC iPlayer.

Sea Wall

Andrew Scott in Sea Wall

Sea Wall by Simon Stephens starring Andrew Scott is another stage play specially filmed without an audience. It’s a one man show in which the camera barely wavers from looking at Scott as he recounts a tragic event that engulfed him. It is devastating as a play and in no small part because of the visceral performance by Andrew Scott. and you can buy it for about £5.00. Find out more at seawallandrewscott.com

A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic

Andrew Lincoln in A Christmas Carol

One of the most anticipated Christmas shows in recent years has been the annual revival of the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol. This year’s Scrooge is Andrew Lincoln. I saw the show a couple of years and it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve spent in a theatre. I was a little worried when I heard that the Old Vic were streaming it because the production relies so much on being an immersive performance where actors and props are coming at you from all directions. However what the Old Vic are doing, even though the theatre is closed to the public, is to continue to stage live performances until Christmas Eve and stream them. Again, like Uncle Vanya, they can adapt it for the camera. Some of the best bits of immersion, such as all the food flowing from the circle to the stage, can’t be conveyed, and some of the use of Zoom is clunky, but it’s still an uplifting experience. Tickets are available from oldvictheatre.com

Pantomime

Lots of enterprising theatres have made their pantos available online including the National Theatre’s Dick Whittington. It’s radical, it’s politically correct and rather garish but an excellent production. You watch Dick Whittington for free on their YouTube channel from 3pm on Wednesday 23 December, then available on demand until midnight on Sunday 27 December. More details here on the National Theatre website.

Peter Duncan in Jack And The Beanstalk

For me the panto to watch with the family this Christmas is Peter Duncan’s traditional Jack And The Beanstalk. He understands panto and does everything you’d expect from a panto, including lots of audience participation. It may be old fashioned in many ways but I found that rather comforting in these troubled times, like a Christmas pudding- and its saving the planet theme is bang up to date.

I’ll mention a couple more children’s shows that the whole family can enjoy. The Wind in The Willows with a script by Julian fellowes and an hilarious performance as Mr Toad by Rufus Hound can be streamed for £4.99 from willowsmusical.com  And you can watch the delightful Timpson The Musical in which gigglemug Comedy imagine how the high street cobblers came also to cut keys by portraying the warring houses of Montashoes and Keypulets united by a pair of star-crossed lovers. And that’s free on YouTube.

Streaming

Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson

Lots of arts streaming services have been springing up this year, the biggest of which from a theatre goer’s point of view is NationalTheatreAtHome who are gradually making available their vast archive of productions. Right now you can watch Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, Helen Mirren’s Phedre, Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in Othello, and for one month only War Horse (in the UK only). There are many more National Theatre productions and some by other theatres including the Young Vic’s Yerma. This is one of the best stage productions I’ve seen but I’ve no idea how it will come across on film, since the set involved viewing through a glass careen with the rest of the audience opposite, giving the effect of a fish tank. Still, it should be worth seeing if only for Billie Piper’s performance of a lifetime as the anguished would-be mother.. You can rent individual shows or take a monthly subscription at just under £10.

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True

Other streaming services worth looking at are digitaltheatre.com which hosts the excellent Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, which I thoroughly enjoyed in the theatre) , Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet in All My Sons, Richard Armitage in The Crucible, the Regents Park Open Air production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods and Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True which is a funny but shocking dramatization of the trial of the man who raped painter Artemisia Gentileschi which turned into a trial of herself. That alone would be worth a month’s subscription of £9.99 but you can rent it as a single film for £7.99.

At Stage2View you can rent such treats as 42nd Street, Kinky Boots, An American in  Paris and Red starring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko. Each costs £5 or so.

Amazon & Netflix

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

Finally, if you subscribe to Netflix, check out Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film of August Wilson’s play which stars Viola Davis

Over on Amazon Prime, try Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over. Inspired by Waiting For Godot, it’s about two men who are trapped by being black and persecuted by the police. It was filmed by Spike Lee in front of a live audience and Mr Lee knows how to make theatre work on film.

View Theatre To Watch At Home on YouTube

Crave by Sarah Kane at Chichester – review

CFT production goes to the heart of Kane’s scream of despair


★★★★

Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Four actors are standing on four travelators which are in reverse so their characters are constantly having to move forward. While in constant motion, they face front and speak, usually in a staccato sound, often in short single sentences or phrases, some of them repeated. It sounds like a spray of bullets from a machine gun.

They seem to be talking to you but they may also be talking to each other or to no-one. The travelators keep them separate, even if they are communicating, so the effect is of isolation.

Is it all the stream of consciousness of one person? Are they all dead or on their deathbeds facing a form of judgement day? There is no plot, no clear relationships, not even clearly defined characters. As someone says at one point: ‘If this makes no sense, then you understood it perfectly’. So I think I must have understood it perfectly. No matter. I certainly found it engrossing.

Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Evans talked in his interview with me about seeing Crave in a new light because of the isolation we are all feeling at the moment. I’m sure this is true, but the director Tinuke Craig seems to have got beyond the lockdown resonance to the very heart of this play, because it’s not only about the loneliness but also the darkness of human existence.

When she wrote the play Sarah Kane offered no help in how to stage her text. It has been done in many ways, for example with the characters together in a room, but Tinuke Craig’s decision to stage Crave in this way, both in concept and the realisation in Alex Lowde’s set is genius, even if it may have triggered by the requirements of social distancing. These anonymous traumatised characters are truly isolated and stuck on their own relentless path – “Here I am in the darkness again,’ says one. ‘On the edge of nothing’ comes the liturgical response.

You wouldn’t be surprised if this was a play by Samuel Beckett except there is none of the hope and courage that his characters show in the face of their futile situations. Here there seems to be only despair at the human condition.

I found myself deeply disturbed by this bleak view of life but could perhaps have been more moved if Kane had made her characters more like real people that I could connect with. However, I hesitate to call this a failure on her part as I assume it was a deliberate decision to disconnect them emotionally from those watching, just as they have no names, only letters A, B, C and M .

So much of what they say you might generously call aphorisms , like ‘no-one

Erin Doherty in Crave. Photo: Marc Brenner

survives life’, and there are echoes of other works. That’s not a criticism. The borrowing reminded me of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. I think the poetry of this piece- and it is a poem- is not only in what is said but how it’s said. During the play someone describes poetry as ‘language for its own sake’ but the language of this poem has a kind of jagged beauty because, within its cadence, words about need and rejection constantly jab at you. And every so often a line really brings you up short, like: ‘What I sometimes mistake for ecstasy is the absence of grief.’

The actors were impressive. Neediness and desperation pervaded all that they did. Some of what they talked about was very upsetting. Erin Doherty‘s character referred in a sometimes strangulated voice to the rape and abuse she had received and talked about her poor self image. Jonathan Slinger’s character first announced he was a paedophile which then coloured a subsequent long and touching monologue about love which itself was later contradicted by his nasty cynicism. Alfred Enoch and Wendy Kweh as well, it was a bravura performance by all concerned.

‘A horror so deep only ritual can contain it’

The sound, composed by Anna Clock, comprised sawing, disjointed, low notes played on, I think, a cello. It was discomfiting but in just the right way. And Ravi Deepres’ back-projected film of images of the characters, sometimes negative or blurred, added rather than distracted. I was particularly struck by a close up of Erin Doherty’s face and the words ‘What have they done to me’ gradually appearing in writing on her skin.

When one character talked of ‘a horror so deep only ritual can contain it’, I thought of the horrors that were being contained on this occasion because they were being presented within the ritual of a play. And when I say contained, I mean only just. At the end, in quite biblical language, the characters embrace the freedom of death, and the play ends with a blackout. I was left totally wrung out.

About the transmission. The process of logging in to view the event was straightforward and I was pleased that I was able to sit back and watch it on my telly with good picture quality rather than on blurry Zoom or the small screen of my laptop. The live broadcast went without a hitch when I saw it. We had front views, side views and close ups but in a way that enhanced the performance. The way the production was done had the advantage that, although it was a theatre show, but it didn’t look like a film of a stage play because it could also be a movie about four people trapped in any empty space. Congratulations all round.

Performances of Crave are being live streamed until the 7th of November. Tickets from £10 at cft.org.uk

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

Erin Doherty is currently playing Princess Anne in the Netflix series The Crown.

Faith Healer at Old Vic – review

Great play, great cast but a strain on the eyes.


★★★★

Michael Sheen in Faith Healer. Photo: Manuel Harlan

First things first, Brian Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer is a masterpiece. The question is, did this production streamed live from the Old Vic via Zoom do it justice? Sadly, the answer is, no.

Not because the acting wasn’t good, it was great. Michael Sheen was charismatic as the touring faith healer Frank Hardy describing unreliably events from his hit-and-miss performances in village halls. Indira Varma as Grace his brittle depressed partner gave us a different and hugely poignant version of events including a lost baby. His agent Teddy, so much a showbiz cliché when described by Frank, seen in David Threlfall’s amusing portrayal as a sensitive, caring man beneath his convivial and somewhat seedy exterior. Both have given up a lot to support Frank and it is through them as much as by seeing Frank himself that we appreciate he has an inspiring gift despite his apparent cruelty.

At first glance, Faith Healer would seem ideal for our social distanced times comprising as it does of four monologues, bookended by Frank. However watching a small screen for nearly two-and-a-half hours without a break is too much. The Health and Safety Executive advises a break from a computer screen every hour.

In the theatre, out of the comfort zone of home, and with the actors physically in front of you, it’s much easier to concentrate. Zoom works wonderfully for shorter monologues such as the previous Three Kings with Andrew Scott that came in in under an hour.

Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall are a dream cast

Indira Varma in Faith Healer. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Sometimes the filming worked as when Michael Sheen emerged in silhouette from the darkness all shabby and funereal or when David Threlfall sat in his comfy chair in the middle of emptiness, but against that there was a use of close-ups which were so close up that they took away the sense of theatrical performance, and made it more like a TV drama.

The play is all about the words. And it’s a dream cast delivering them. Also, how great to see a play that doesn’t need a massive set or special effects to make its point. The poetic words prove to be as glittery and slippery as a live fish. They are whatever the speaker wants to believe or wants to make us believe. All teh characters are telling us stories but what is fact and what is fiction? The more we hear, the less we know.  Did healings take place or didn’t they? Is Grace Frank’s wife or mistress, from Yorkshire or Ireland? Who chose the music to play at the performances? Where did Frank’s mother die? Are they all ghosts?

Faith healing is itself a performance and we can see that it relates very much to art. Just as Frank is tortured by not knowing know where his gift comes from and whether it will manifest itself any particular evening, so the artist, be it a playwright, an actor or some other creative person, is uncertain about why sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. And when we go the theatre, we all have to have faith or to put a more familiar way, suspend disbelief.

So, a great play, great acting… just not the medium for it.

Faith Healer was performed at the Old Vic and streamed on Zoom from 17 – 20 September 2020

Click here to watch this review of Faith healer on YouTube

Sleepless with Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh – review

Sleepless Is A Romance About Musicals


★★★

Jay McGuiness & Kimberley Walsh in Sleepless. Photo: Alistair Muir

If you’re worried that a musical couldn’t do justice to the classic film Sleepless In Seattle, don’t be. Sleepless does pretty much all you would hope from it and more.

Okay, Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh are not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. However what makes Hollywood stars great is their ability to convey their thoughts and feelings through their faces in close up. The composer Alan Menken said songs in a musical substitute for close ups when it comes to revealing character. And the songs by Robert Scott and Brendon Cull are both charming and do the job.

Jay McGuinness and Kimberley Walsh perform well, especially the latter as Annie who is the full package of acting, singing and dancing. Jay McGuinness as Sam is also impressive and very likeable but I felt his inexperience as an actor showed a little bit in the more emotional moments.

Now, you’ll remember the plot but just in case… A widower in Seattle can’t sleep and his son gets him on a late night radio show to talk about his situation. He’s heard by a journalist in Baltimore and she is one of many thousands who are moved by what he said. He receives a letter from her. She invites him to meet her at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away the ending (and best not look at the production photo).

That subtitle A Musical Romance is interesting because this is not only a romantic musical, it’s a romance about musicals. Nora Ephron’s movie, although set in 1993, harks back to the films of the 1950s and in particular An Affair To Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (or it Carr, as the characters keep saying). So does this show. It is a tribute to the musicals of that time.  Just as the film has a soundtrack of songs from the swing jazz era, the songs here are a homage to the hits of that time- you can almost hear Frank Sinatra singing some of them. The costumes by Sue Simmerling are technicolored. There is a joy in language in Michael Burdette’s book.

You may be aware that I’ve been doing a podcast History of Stage Musicals for Box Office Radio so I’ve been steeped in the very best of the so-called Golden Age Of Musicals. While it may not plumb the depths of South Pacific or hit the heights of Gypsy, Sleepless is an uplifting musical and the creators’ love of that period really comes across.

Where Sleepless falls down is that it sticks too closely to the plot of the film. The first half is all about setting up for the second half. While that’s quite normal, Sam probably wouldn’t have had his problem with sleeplessness if he’d watched this first act late at night.  It really needed an additional subplot or at least some dancing to spice up the proceedings. I was probably naïve to expect the show to be sprinkled with dance numbers but it does star two Strictly Come Dancing alumni. Also, it’s a long time since I went to a musical that didn’t feature lots of dancing.

There’s plenty of smooth jazz style walking from the chorus and the odd moment of where emotion is expressed through movement. That includes a comedy duet between Sam’s son and his friend. The only ‘proper’ dance is during the curtain call when our two stars show that they still remember their Strictly moves.

There is good support from Daniel Casey as Annie’s dull fiancé Walter and the splendid Harriet Thorpe as her domineering mother. Tania Mathurin as her extrovert friend Becky and Cory English as Sam’s friend Rob (a new character) inject a healthy dose of comedy.

The set designed by Morgan Large evokes Sam’s job as an architect by using back projections of architectural drawings. In the same vein, the skeleton of a multi-purpose structure dominates centre stage with lots of vertical and horizontal lines.  Morgan Young directed this most enjoyable show.

Finally a word about the producers Michael Rose and Damien Sanders. I can’t praise them highly enough or indeed thank them enough for giving audiences starved of live theatre the chance to see this lovely musical, even though at 30% capacity because of social distancing they can’t possibly be making any money out of it. And well done to the Troubadour for their exemplary Covid-19 safety precautions.

Click here to see Paul’s YouTube video review of Sleepless

See Sleepless at the Troubadour Theatre until 27 September 2020. Click here for tickets.

This is the link to Paul’s podcast History of Stage Musicals in Ten Decades on mixcloud.com

Andrew Scott in Three Kings – review

Andrew Scott rules in monologue live streamed from Old Vic


★★★★

Andrew Scott in Three Kings. Photo: Manuel Harlan

So it’s back on the sofa to watch Three Kings with Andrew Scott streaming live on Zoom from the Old Vic stage. It wasn’t the same as being there but there was something exciting about knowing you’re watching Mr Scott perform right at that moment and, as in a visit to the theatre, especially for you.

The play was written by Stephen Beresford especially for Andrew Scott and it did bring out all his best qualities as an actor. Monologues really are nearly the best kind of theatre to show on TV, with that concentration on the face- and what a face. What that man can do with a raised eyebrow, a stifled giggle or an intense stare.

Andrew Scott is Patrick the narrator who tells the story of his relationship with his absentee father. He also plays many other characters and switches between them with dazzling virtuosity, in fact with the deftness of a bar trick known as the three kings.

This involves moving around three coins and we are introduced to it at the beginning and see the puzzle resolved at the end. Patrick is challenged to solve the riddle in exchange for seeing his absent father again. This unfeeling parent has no intention of returning and at the end, when Patrick shows how the trick is done, like all tricks revealed the magic has gone along with any illusions he had about his father. There only remains a question of whether the parent deserves forgiveness. (A question any self-aware parent might ask of themselves, no matter how kind and loving they’ve been.)

The three kings trick also represents three generations who inherit the unpleasant characteristics of the father much as the title of king passes from father to son, because the secret of the trick is that the force of one coin passes on the next and from that to the third.

On a set empty apart from a box that acts as a table and a chair, we meet Patrick as an 8 year old child seeing his absent father for the first time. He conjures up the child’s hope and anxiety beautifully. There is a moment when he betrays his mother to ingratiate himself with this charismatic figure and you see the sheepish look of a child’s face. You also experience the insouciance of this man who cannot love. We meet many other characters: sometimes it’s only a glimpse but all perfectly summed up in a turn of phrase or a gesture.

Patrick becomes a man, talking to his father’s oldest friend. The screen- and you’ve been wondering why it was presented in letterbox style- now splits in two, representing, I think, that Patrick has matured into the next generation, already taking on characteristics of his father, drinking too much, being unemotional, but perhaps more aware of his failings.

There is a further encounter between Patrick and his father. This time he discovers not only has the man remarried but has another son. His ‘longed-for son and heir’, as he puts it.  It’s such a blow. Andrew Scott shows us both the casual cruelty of the father’s action and almost simultaneously Patrick’s reaction, as if all the life has gone out of his face .

Patrick meets his half brother, another Patrick, again bringing life to both characters, now across three screens, because we’re learning that this brother is now himself an absentee father to a third generation.

As a director, Matthew Warchus clearly gets the best out of Andrew Scott but I didn’t feel the split screen worked. Admittedly it gave the chance to see him from different angles and created the sense of a conversation, but I found it distracted from that wonderfully expressive face. The thing is, Andrew Scott  isn’t separate people when he’s acting these characters, they all exist at once within him and he moves between them with quantum motion, often employing no more than a slow blink or a tightening smile.

If I’ve made it sound like this actor simply has a box of tools or tricks that he draws upon, then all I can say is it’s a very big box indeed and the tool he pulls out is always just right for the job.

Three Kings is a quietly effective look at the way a child attaches themself to a parent or parent figure and how their life can be devastated when they are let down by that person. With no disrespect to the richness of Stephen Beresford’s writing, it was all on one note, lacking lack any highs and lows or unexpected turns. It seemed to me Andrew Scott was lifting a good play into the realms of greatness by the quality of his acting.

Patrick meets his father for a final time when this self-centred man is dying, and hoping for God’s forgiveness. The camera focuses on Andrew Scott’s tearful face as the metaphorical curtain falls.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

The five performance run is over but I hope The Old Vic decides to offer the recording to a wider audience and raise some more much-needed income. Keep an eye out for future so-called In Camera productions from the Old Vic– the streaming quality is excellent and the price very reasonable. And if you want to see another monologue by Andrew Scott which is just as emotional and more tense than Three Kings, rent Sea Wall on Vimeo. (Here’s my review of Sea Wall)

Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil – review

Ralph Fiennes mouths David Hare’s righteous anger at Boris Johnson


★★★★

Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil. Photo: Manuel Harlan

After five months of being deprived of live theatre, I say all hail the Bridge Theatre for being, as far I’m aware, the first to put on an indoor show. How wonderful I thought not only to see Ralph Fiennes in the flesh but also to get away from the pandemic. Except David Hare’s new play Beat The Devil is about the pandemic.

Sir David caught the virus just before the lockdown and was seriously ill with it and, in this monologue through the medium of Ralph Fiennes, he talks about the progress of his illness and in parallel the actions of the government. As the virus went mad so did the government, he says, or words to that effect.

We’re all too familiar with the failings of our leaders in this crisis but it didn’t harm to be reminded of them. And he does tell both stories with righteous anger and a pleasing wit. On the personal level, there’s his puzzled response to finding that his signature dish tastes so much like sewage that he feels he must have made a  mistake in the cooking. Describing the government as ‘mediocre’, he sys, ‘does violence to the word’. Of course, if you feel the government has handled this crisis well or at least no worse than any other government would have done, I realise the polemic may lose some of its impact but it’s still fun.

It greatly helps that the lines trip off Ralph Fiennes‘ tongue so naturally, just as if he is having a conversation with us, albeit a conversation fueled by anger and bemusement. Bunny Christie’s set is admirably simple but effective, being appropriately a desk placed centre stage, which gives Mr Fiennes as the writer something to move round or sit at, under the direction of the incomparable Nicholas Hyntner.

David Hare has been writing plays for fifty years and by comparison with his best- Plenty, Skylight, Pravda, the Absence Of War– this 50 minute memoir may seem slight. It is fair to say that many elements of the public story of the pandemic will be familiar to anyone who follows the news but Sir David’s ability as a writer is undiminished. He can still coin a phrase: ‘it’s a sort of dirty bomb thrown into the body’, or be wryly detached in his descriptions of his illness thereby enabling us to see for ourselves the horror. For that reasons, it’s all the more startling when he lets out his pent up anger. ‘I don’t have survivor’s guilt, I have survivor’s rage,’ he says.

His concludes that what we need is ‘truth’. It seems incredibly potent in its simplicity.

Naturally because he was isolated during his illness, there’s no room for the renewed sense of community that many of us found during lockdown but there is a touching moment of love when he describes how his wife selflessly lay on him to keep him warm.

Ralph Fiennes at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If anyone doubted the need for the Bridge’s precautions, the vivid description of the disease would surely change their mind. Talking of which, I understand that you might still be hesitant to go to an indoor performance but let me tell you, the safety measures taken by the Bridge Theatre were exemplary- from the controlled entrance to the thermal imaging to the one way system, to having to wear a face mask throughout the visit, to the spaced out seats. I felt totally safe. What was interesting was the way the spacing had been managed. The less than one third capacity audience still produced the atmosphere of a much fuller house.

I hope that, in giving this show four stars, I’m not just intoxicated by finally seeing a live performance.  I think not. The proof is, I would happily see it again.

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Mike Bartlett’s Albion – review of BBC live recording

Victoria Hamilton blooms in Mike Bartlett’s play about loss

★★★★

Victoria Hamilton in Albion at the Almeida. Photo: Marc Brenner

Sometimes you watch the first act of a play and it’s just the setup and you really want to get it over with so you can move on to how it’s all going to work out. Not so with Mike Bartlett’s Albion, directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida Theatre, which is currently available as a live recording on BBC iPlayer. The first act is captivating and what follows, while good, never lives up to the promise.

Audrey has bought a house she knew as a child. It had a historic garden and she plans to renovate it. No matter that this involves uprooting her daughter, neglecting her business, upsetting the local community who have become used to using the huge outdoor space for their annual events.

It’s a good script but what you’re riveted by is Victoria Hamilton’s performance. From the start, she grabs you by the lapels, then she puts you down and walks away, then she picks you again. She is mesmerising as she paces back and forth and spits out her staccato sentences, like a neurotic sergeant major. For example, when she is pouring tea and says: ‘Let me be mother…since I am…’ followed by a false, stuttering laugh.

This is the sort of intimate theatre that works really well in a live recording. The Almeida is a small theatre and the cast occupy a three-sided stage. It’s like an oval island surrounded by the audience. Actually, although an island might symbolise its isolation from the rest of the world, it is in fact a garden with a solid tree at one end, giving a sense of history. The actors don’t have to shout and the cameras close in on a face much as you would if you were lucky enough to be sitting in one of the seats.

For me, nothing lived up to that first act. There’s plenty going on with many developments involving the other characters but they felt tacked on, no matter how good the acting was. Not so much multi-layered, as laid on thick. And the ending was way too melodramatic.

What I loved throughout the whole play was the dominating character of Audrey and the way Victoria Hamilton blooms as the wishful gardener. Grief has consumed her and the only way she can cope is to reject everyone and everything in favour of a retreat into an imagined golden age.

She has lost her soldier son in what she sees as defending his country but what is referred to a one point as a ‘folly’. As a way of honouring him, she is determined to recreate the original garden, even though it is now anachronistic. It’s pointed out that the climate has changed- and that ‘climate’ may refer to more than growing conditions, because there is an allegory here for the state of England and how we as a nation are coping with the loss of mythical past glories and with the need to move on.

Audrey wants to return to a bygone age but only within the boundaries of her world. So, she doesn’t care that she is trampling on the traditions of the local people; and she hires the more efficient Polish cleaner (and sacks the local woman who has done the job for years. It is fascinating, shocking even to see the insensitivity that can come from single-mindedness, and her gradual but inevitable disintegration.

Mike Bartlett’s Albion at The Almeida Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s also fascinating to see the garden change as flowers grow through the four acts, each of which is a different season, culminating with the ‘fall’. It’s a great design by Miriam Buether.

I glossed over the other characters earlier but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they were acted well. Audrey’s daughter Zara is played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, who recently made a breakthrough to stardom with her role in TV’s Normal People. She is perfect as a troubled twenty something. Helen Schlesinger makes you feel the pain as Katherine, a successful but shy novelist, forced to make a hard choice between a thirty year friendship and a rare opportunity for love.

In a play that is more amusing than funny, Nicholas Rowe as Audrey’s devoted husband Paul got the most laughs as a man so proudly laid back that he was almost horizontal.

It’s hard not to compare Albion with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Unfortrunately, on every count, this play comes out worse. Chekhov’s second half doesn’t peter out, his ending feels real and even his minor characters have depth.  So best not go there, better to simply enjoy Albion as a good if not great play with a mother of a leading role that, in future productions, actors will queue up to play.

For me, one of the tests of watching theatre at home is whether I wish I’d seen it in the theatre. In Albion’s case, despite some flaws, I would have loved to have been there. Especially to see that outstanding performance by Victoria Hamilton.

The live recording of Mike Bartlett’s Albion is currently available on BBC i-Player.

Watch the YouTube video of this review here.

Hamilton – film review

The best film of a live stage show I’ve seen

★★★★★

Broadway production of Hamilton. Photo ©: Joan Marcus

Hamilton was filmed during the initial Broadway run. The recording of the live show was meant to saved for later but with theatres dark, the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to make it available now. After some intense bidding, it was Disney+ who secured the rights.

So, these are the questions: If you’ve already seen Hamilton, is this film of the Broadway show worth watching? If you haven’t seen Hamilton, does the film do justice to the stage production? Finally, if you’re not interested in Frozen II and Star Wars, is it worth subscribing to the Disney+ streaming service just to see Hamilton?

The answers, in my opinion, are ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘oh yes’. I’ve been quite critical of live recordings of large scale stage shows as removing the excitement of theatre while being too theatrical for film but, if anything, this is better than the stage show. Of course, you can’t being ‘in the room’ with live actors but here you’re able to appreciate every aspect of this great musical.  You can watch a dance sequence from the best seat in the circle, then see the faces of the performers as if you’re in the front row of the stalls.

It doesn’t harm that you get to see the first and quite possibly the best cast, including the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. His character is driven to make a difference in the world at all cost to his personal life (“I’m not going to waste my shot”). He helps lead the American revolution, which is over before the end of act one, then is one of the founding fathers of the American republic. His single-mindedness makes him enemies leading to political fights that drive the second half. His flaws, as in any great tragedy, lead to his downfall. Thanks to the music, his story is told with excitement, passion, and humour.

There are two other characters who develop through the course of the show. Aaron Burr, beautifully sung and played by Leslie Odom Jr, is the narrator and ‘damn fool who shot him’ as he says of the end of his difficult friendship with Hamilton. He starts off uncommitted but, in a moment of tremendous excitement, realises that the important decisions are being made behind closed doors and he needs to be ‘in the room where it happens’.

Hamilton’s wife Eliza, played with poignancy and the sweetest voice by Phillipa Soo, changes from a love-struck girl through pain to a powerful woman.

There is an excellent supporting cast including Renee Elise Goldberry as Angelica, Eliza’s intelligent, sensual sister who is Hamilton’s love, if not lover. Daveed Diggs is the Marquis de Lafayette and later Thomas Jefferson, both larger than life and played to great comic effect.

The background is the birth of the United States and the midwives are immigrants or the offspring of immigrants. Hamilton himself is an immigrant from a poor background. To underline the point, a mainly non-white cast play the rebels and their musical numbers are Hip-hop, the music of the disadvantaged.

We’re always aware that we are looking back from today. This is emphasised by the use of a narrator and by other asides to the audience. ‘Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?’ is a question asked by the musical, because our view of history changes with each generation. Miranda has said that this is ‘the story of America then told by America now’. We notice the parallels with today. One song says: ‘Immigrants- we get the job done’ to a cheer from the audience.

Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s music is clever, subtle and catchy. It’s no wonder millions have bought the soundtrack who haven’t even seen the show. Hip-Hop dominates but he plunders other genres as needed. For example, when Jefferson returns from France, he sings a jazz song, thus showing that he not only missed the War Of Independenceshows but also a change in musical taste. The love songs exude the pain of love.

Hip-Hop is a terrific dance music and, in the poetic language of rap, Miranda has found the perfect form to tell a story and communicate the thoughts and feelings of his characters.

The original director of the Broadway production Thomas Kail directs the film which means he knows exactly what he wants to put across. Every change of shot, whether a close-up or the whole stage, seems to come at exactly the right moment. I never felt I wanted to be looking somewhere else.

The show looks great too, thanks to set designer David Korins and Paul Tazewell‘s costumes. What a clever idea to remove the female dancers’ voluminous dresses and show off their moves in 18th century underwear.

Well worth a month’s subscription to Disney+ and you get to see Frozen II as well.

Hamilton is streaming on Disney+. When theatres re-open, the British production can be seen at Victoria Palace Theatre, London.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Groomed by Patrick Sandford – review

An important play about the lasting damage of child abuse

★★★★★

Patrick Sandford in Groomed

‘The adult tries so hard to forget, but the child always remembers,’ says the protagonist in Groomed, written and acted by Patrick Sandford.  I am sure you will be as sad and angry as I was by the end of this 50-minute monologue about the abuse suffered by a 10-year-old child and the reverberating effect on the rest of his life. Its exceptional impact is a tribute to the former Artistic Director of the Nuffield Southampton.

Although written for the stage, this is a filmed version directed by Nancy Meckler. As with Andrew Scott in Sea Wall, having one person talking directly to you through the camera seems to me to come closest to the experience of theatre. The film also takes the opportunity to place our protagonist in a primary school classroom, the scene of the crime if you like.

Patrick Sandford takes us on a giddying ride. He tells us stories- stories from the ancient classics, a history of the saxophone, the story of the Japanese soldier who carried on fighting for 29 years after World War 2 ended, all providing metaphors for this protagonist’s experience and how it can be faced. He plays parts, even taking us a little way inside the mind of the abuser.

Most heartbreaking is the gradual revelation of the damage that the experience has inflicted on the adult. The fear, the shame, the guilt: ‘the bad done to me becomes the bad in me becomes the bad is me.’

It made me want to hug him

Like a tide that goes out and comes in again, we keep returning to the child and his awful experience at the hands of his teacher.  There are no details- he is very clear that this isn’t fodder for sensational tabloids. The shock is not in what happened but how it happened, and how the grooming was allowed to happen, and how there were apparently no consequences for the teacher.

It’s so upsetting that this should happen to a fellow human being that you almost want to block it out, just as you now might want to avoid seeing this play, but Patrick Sandford stares at you, defying you, both in his words and in his piercing eyes, to look away.

And there is hope in talking about it: ‘Rage that is heard transforms to mighty trees’ he says and talks of ‘the alchemy of anger into trust’.

I understand now much more now than I did about the way in which the experience of abuse is never something historical, but rather something ever present in the life of someone who was abused. So it is educational. However Groomed is so successful as a drama because Patrick understands the power of theatre as a cathartic experience and the way it can elicit empathy as well as sympathy. ‘Open my heart for me,’ he implores. Even in these times of social distancing, it made me want to hug him.

Groomed is available on sohotheatreondemand.com until the end of August 2020

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

 

This House – NTLive – review

Film fails to convey thrill of live theatre

★★★

Phil Daniels in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.

At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.

Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.

What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.

Photo: Johan Persson

We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.

Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason,  recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.

Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith

When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.

So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.

This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny,  as when they drag in a dying member to vote.

Charles Edwards in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.

Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.

I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.

This House is streaming on the YouTube channel National Theatre At Home until 3 June 2020.

Click here to watch the review of This House on YouTube