10 Best Theatre Shows To Watch At Home

Top British theatre from your sofa

When a theatre production is filmed, you get the opportunity to see some great acting but you lose the very thing we love- theatricality. Something fundamental to theatre – people performing live in front of you- is lost when the fourth wall is replaced by a screen. In my experience, the best are those that enable you to concentrate on the acting, because the majesty of a big set filling your field of vision just doesn’t come across on film.

This is my choice of shows which have survived the transition best, either because you can still imagine being there at the performance, or because it has been filmed in a way that substitutes the qualities of film for those of theatre.

1. Hamilton (Disney+)

Publicity photo of Hamilton
Hamilton. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

It could have been a disaster but the Broadway production of Hamilton with original stars Lin Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Junior was expertly filmed over three performances and edited together to perfection. If you love this show as much as I do, you will not be disappointed with the way the vigour and emotion are caught by the camera. It shows what can be done with sufficient resources.

By contrast, AppleTV+ offers the stage musical Come From Away. I was excited to see this become available. It’s one of the best stage shows of the last decade ( as you can see from my review) but here it’s an example of what’s worst about filmed stage shows, namely that it seems very stagey.

2. Sea Wall (seawallandrewscott.com)

Frame from film of Sea Wall featuring Andrew Scott
Andrew Scott in Sea Wall

Sea Wall is very simple film of a one man show. In this case it has been specially staged in a studio, but, and perhaps because of this, it is devastating as Andrew Scott speaks to camera and tells his tragic story. For a small charge, you can see it at seawallandrewscott.com

3. Fleabag (Amazon Prime)

Production photo of Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the stage show of Fleabag at Wyndham's Theatre London
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo: Matt Humphrey

Not the Fleabag TV series but the original stage play performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The two TV series are superior to this monologue, but to see Phoebe Waller Bridge sitting on a chair with no props and no other actors, simply speaking her lines, miming taking a photo of her genitalia, doing impressions of other characters, and, just as important, pausing, gives an absolute masterclass.

It forms part of British Theatre. Season One. You’ll also find Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and the National Theatre‘s Frankenstein with Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, in which they took turns in playing the doctor and the monster. Amazon Prime has both versions.

No sign of Season 2

4. Beat The Devil (Sky Arts)

Production shot of Ralph Fiennes in David Hare's play Beat The Devil at the Bridge Theatre in London
Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil. Photo: Manuel Harlan

This November, Sky Arts are  launching a season of British Theatre starting with David Hare’s recent Beat The Devil, a funny angry monologue about his near fatal Covid illness starring Ralph Fiennes. I saw it at The Bridge Theatre and have every hope that, because it is basically one actor and an audience, it will come across well.

5. Hymn (Sky Arts)

Production photo of hymn at The Alemida London with Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani
Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani in Hymn. photo: Marc Brenner

Sky Arts have been quietly picking up some excellent shows including Hymn, Lolita Chakrabarti’s study in masculinity starring Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani. Other treats on this channel include a film of the stage show Billy Elliot The Musical, Funny Girl with Sheridan Smith, a New York production of Jesus Christ Superstar with John  Legend and Alice Cooper, the  25th Anniversary Concerts of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. You could spend your entire viewing time for many weeks dipping into the treasures therein. Sky Arts’ biggest fault is that everything is lumped into one huge catalogue with no categories, so you have to scroll through hundreds of programmes, unless you know what you’re looking for. On the plus side, it’s free on FreeView.

6. Romeo & Juliet with Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor (National Theatre At Home)

National Theatre At Home is a streaming service with a rolling selection of productions from the National Theatre and some other leading venues. The quality varies enormously but a rule of thumb is, the older it is the more likely it will be an uninspiring theatrical record rather than a proper film that uses cinematic techniques to convey the show. Even then, some come across better than others.

 

Production photo of Josh O'Connor and Jessie Buckley in the National Theatre's film of Romeo and Juliet
Jessie Buckley & Josh O’Connor in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Rob Youngson

Romeo And Juliet with Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor isn’t really a stage show, although it is treated as if it is. In reality, it was made as a movie, and, probably for that reason, although Shakespreare’s play is greatly cut, there is speed and passion in this version. By the way, you can watch it for free, just search for it on Sky Arts.

The less theatrical a production the easier it is to enjoy. So a straightforward play like the excellent Hansard or Under Milk Wood are better choices than, say, Amadeus which was brilliant to watch in the theatre with its orchestra on stage but not so interesting on screen.

There are some shows from the Young Vic, including two of the best plays I have seen in recent years: A View From The Bridge with Mark Strong and Nicola Walker and Yerma with Billie Piper, I was tempted to put them in my top 10 but neither can convey the purely theatrical elements which made them so good. In the case of Yerma, the production took place behind glass so the characters were like specimens and in A View From The Bridge, there was a sense of a family being trapped in a ring and an unforgettable coup de theatre at the end.

To try to persuade you to take a monthly subscription to National theatre At Home, the shows come and go. I suggest taking an initial month subscription and after that, pay for individual productions.

7. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True (digitaltheatre.com)

Digitaltheatre.com has a lot of good stuff. There are Royal Shakespeare Company productions aplenty, the Open Air Theatre production of Sondheim’s into The Woods with Hannah Waddingham as the Witch

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True

David Suchet in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Manchester Royal Exchange’s Hamlet with Maxine Peake, but I would start with It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Breach Theatre’s dramatisation of the 1612 trial of the rapist of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi. It uses a transcript of the trial to show her own ordeal in a way that is at times shocking, and, with three women taking all the parts, at other times it’s an amusing parody of male attitudes. You can take a subscription to this streaming service, starting with a free trial, or rent shows individually.

8. In The Heights (Amazon Prime)

Still from the movie In The Heights featuyring Anthiony Ramos and Melissa Barrera
Anthony Ramos & Melissa Barrera in In The Heights. Photo copyright Warner Bros Pictures

There are some good film versions of stage shows, as opposed to filmed stage shows. which have found their way onto streaming services. Lin Manuel’s In The Heights received mixed reviews but I thought it was a lot of fun. You miss the cinematic spectacle of the ensemble dance scenes when viewing on Amazon Prime, but it’s as uplifting as the stage show.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has also slipped quickly onto Amazon Prime. It’s a well-made film but the musical, which works really well on stage when you’re carried along by the emotion of the music, is appears as a wish-fulfilment fantasy when distanced by a screen. This is underlined by the additional scene that recreates the LGBTQ world of the 90s and has more impact than the rest of the film put together.

Netflix has Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which is a great play by August Wilson, but a classic  example of the way you can get away with melodrama in theatre but not on film.

9. An Ideal Husband (marquee.tv)

Photo of Frances Barber and Nathaniel Parker in An Ideal Husband
Frances Barber and Nathaniel Parker in An Ideal Husband

marquee.tv, a specialist arts streaming service, offers a set of four Oscar Wilde plays, of variable quality in terms of the filming, but very well acted. The is An Ideal Husband with Freddie Fox, Nathaniel Parker and Frances Barber. And, if you love Shakespeare, marquee.tv offers a number of Royal Shakespeare Company productions including David Tennant’s Richard II and Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet and an enjoyable Twelfth Night with Adrian Edmonson. You’ll also find Donmar Warehouse’s all female Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

If Shakespeare is your food of love, you can get excess of it by tuning in to globeplayer.tv where dozens of Globe Theatre productions nestle. They tend to be bland in the filming but it’s always a pleasure to hear good actors get their tongues round the great man’s lines.

Uncle Vanya (BBC i-Player)

Uncle Vanya on BBC iPlayer

The BBC, despite its excellent track record in showing stage plays, has surprisingly little in its library. Still available, at least for a few more weeks, is Uncle Vanya with Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, an excellent version of Chekov’s masterpiece originally seen at the Harold Pinter. The BBC filmed it specially without an audience and you may find the closeups of the players come across better than when viewing it in a theatre.

Happy viewing.

Click here to watch this review on our 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

South Pacific in Chichester – review

I’m In Love With A Wonderful Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s anti-racist musical


★★★★★

SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers, , Director - Daniel Evans, Set & Costume Designer - Peter McKintosh, Choreography and Movement - Ann Yea, Lighting - Howard Harrison, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson
Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific. Photo credit: Johan Persson

I don’t think it was simply my euphoria at being back in a theatre but this Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific filled me with joy.

South Pacific was written in 1949 before Rodgers and Hammerstein settled into their, and their audience’s, comfort zone. It has all the features of the best of their work, features they in fact pioneered. One being the use of songs that reveal character and feeling and move the story on- take the many different ways, and therefore implications, in which Some Enchanted Evening is sung at various points. As was their way, the composers packed this musical with the most wonderful songs: A Cockeyed Optimist, There Is Nothing Like A Dame, Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk– these songs are part of our DNA.

Another feature is realism, seen both in the characters’ behaviour and Hammerstein’s down-to-earth lyrics. Top marks to director Daniel Evans for keeping this production so grounded in reality.

But what makes South Pacific stand out is that Oscar Hammerstein II was determined to face racism head-on in this musical. You’ll remember that it’s set on a Pacific island during the second world war where American GIs and nurses interact with local people, a nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, a lieutenant with a local girl. There may be effervescent melodies from Rodgers that fill you with warmth but there is also a story that pits love against hate, love at first undermined by acquired racial prejudice before it finally triumphs. At a time, following England’s Euro final, when we have been reminded of the overt racism that still shames our country, it was uplifting to experience this powerful anti-racist musical.

I cannot fault this production. Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical’s ‘cock-eyed optimism’. It feels like the perfect tribute to the passionately anti-racist Oscar Hammerstein. Happy Talk is no throwaway comic song here but a poignant moment of desperation.

And the director is supported by an excellent cast and creative team.

The two leads Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb in voice and acting ability. Ovenden as Emile the plantation owner, conveys both an overflowing heart and a broken heart with equal conviction. Beck also runs a range of emotions as naive Nellie Forbush from Little Rock but is never better than in I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy which overflows with almost child-like exuberance.  (From August, Alex Young will be sharing and then taking over the role of Nellie, because Gina Beck is pregnant.)

Others also deserve a mention. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice which is more than a match for the soaring heights of Younger Than Springtime, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. One of the qualities of this musical is seeing the Americans’ wide-eyed confidence come up against the realities of racism and war.

Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific Photo Credit: Johan Persson
Gina Beck and cast in South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson

The choreography by Ann Yee is magnificent. Sometimes she fills the stage with exhilarating choruses- in a scene that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of, the women take to the showers while Washing That Man Right Outta their Hair. Then there are the quiet moments, like the beautiful solo ballet by Sera Maehara that opens and closes the show.

The see-through revolving wooden sets by Peter McKintosh set the mood of Pacific island life, while leaving the stage open for the big numbers.

And I can’t forget the superb orchestra led by Cat Beveridge featuring the original score with some new orchestration from David Cullen. The glimpses of repeated melodies throughout the show do exactly what a musical should do, evoke complex feelings that words can’t express.

A word of praise for Chichester Festival Theatre who were terrifically well organised and made us feel safe to be back in the theatre. And from the rousing cheer that greeted the first moments, I’d say we were all pretty pleased to be there.

South Pacific is performing at Chichester Festival Theatre from 5 July to 5 September 2021. Performances will be streamed on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August and 3 September.

Click here to watch Paul’s review on YouTube

The Dumb Waiter at The Old Vic – review

Daniel Mays and David Thewlis impress in Pinter play but the streaming didn’t

Daniel Mays & David Thewlis in The Dumb Waiter. Photo: Manuel Harlan

When I heard that Daniel Mays and David Thewlis were to play the two bickering hitmen in Harold Pinter’s classic short play The Dumb Waiter, without hesitation I booked to see it. It didn’t hurt that Jeremy Herrin was directing.

Sadly for me, I decided to watch a live streamed performance via Zoom. So straightaway I lost that claustrophobic sense of these two men couped up in small basement room which I’m sure was conveyed in the studio setup at The Old Vic. Worse though was the quality of the transmission. There’s always a danger with a live feed through a medium like Zoom but on this occasion I found the action constantly jerked or even froze.

So I can’t offer a fair verdict on the production. From what I saw, Daniel Mays as the questioning Gus and David Thewlis as the rules obsessed Ben were perfect for the roles: Mays like a nervous rabbit, Thewliss a snarling fox. It confirmed to me what a great play this is- the way the two hit men are programmed to obey orders, even orders for food coming down the dumb waiter from what is, or appears to be, a nonexistent restaurant above.

There’s a constant sense of menace as they contemplate their previous and forthcoming work, killing anonymous victims, commissioned by a mysterious Mr Wilson, who could symbolise an authoritarian government or even God. And the humour in the arguments between these two contrasting characters is a delight. There’s a lovely row over their use of language – is it light the kettle or put the kettle on? Then there are the lurid extracts from the tabloid newspaper that Ben reads out, suggesting a frightening world out there.

And the grey stained set by Hyemi Shin looked good too, as far as I could tell, suggesting a prison cell or a torture chamber, as much as a basement in a closed down restaurant.

But, as I say, too poor a transmission to make a proper judgement, so for once I haven’t given this production a star rating, just a warning to avoid Zoom when you choose to watch a live stream.

The Dumb Waiter was performed at The Old Vic from 7 to 10 July 2021

 

 

Robert Lindsay in The Three Musketeers – review

Robert Lindsay comedy misses target

★★

Rehearsal photo of Robert Lindsay in The Three Musketeers
Robert Lindsay in The Three Musketeers. Rehearsal photo by Mark Senior

The Three Musketeers adapted by Sydney Stevenson and starring Robert Lindsay was promoted as an audio play but, if purchase a ticket, you’ll find it comes as a video with animated illustrations and glimpses of actors using Zoom. So there are three pillars to this comedy and unfortunately not one of them is strong enough to hold it up.

The show’s intention is to satirise both Zoom productions and amateur adaptations of classic books. But comedy is hard. The late comic Frankie Howerd once told me in an interview that comedy is more difficult to achieve than tragedy. I’m afraid this play proves his point.

There’s a lot that could be funny about Ms Stevenson’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas‘ story directed by Joseph O’Malley but it doesn’t quite come off. To work, it would need to be saying something new or at least saying something familiar but with a new twist. Instead, it’s all too familiar ground.

The main theme running through this adaptation is that it’s amateurish. So there are anachronisms such as a modern ferry port or an objective to end plastic pollution or a reference to the Eiffel Tower. Cobwebs are dusted off some old jokes. Does anyone find a reference to royal balls funny any more, outside of panto? And you may have heard before a character repeating what the narrator has just said. ‘On the road our travel weary hero stops at an inn.’ ‘I am travel weary and I am stopping at an inn.’ All of this can be very funny- take anything by the National Theatre Of Brent, or the Play That Goes Wrong series or plays like The 39 Steps or indeed Ernie Wise’s plays what I wrote. My point is, it’s been done before, and this adds nothing.

A further layer takes the form of a satire of the Zoom productions that we have both enjoyed and endured during lockdown. So, we have a child interrupting proceedings by calling for a biscuit, someone unwittingly letting people see that he’s in his underpants,  someone forgetting to mute… amusing and well done but we’ve seen it before. The trouble is zoom satire has already reached its pinnacle with the conversations between David Tennant and Michael Sheen

To avoid showing that it was actually mostly recorded not on Zoom but in a studio, visuals are provided in the form of a charming but low budget cartoon that has minimal animation, and no people. Sadly this only served to remind me that there was once a cartoon series Dogtanian and the 3 Muskehounds that told a simplified version of the Alexandre Dumas story in a most amusing and interesting way.

It’s all a bit of a shame because the idea has merit and the cast is very good. It’s led by Ms Stevenson’s father, the excellent Robert Lindsay, whose rich voice is a pleasure to listen to. His talent is such that even a familiar trope- the increasing exasperation of a classical actor with a production that he sees as below him- becomes very funny in his hands. I’ll also pick out Antony Eden who does well as a harassed, out-of-his-depth author and as a hapless D’Artagnan.

So, while The Three Musketeers would like to be one of those shows that are so awful, they’re funny, it doesn’t quite hit the target. About three quarters of the way through, Robert Lindsay interrupts to say, ‘This is the worst adaptation I have ever read. It’s like some silly amateur jaunty comedy. I’m ashamed to be involved. I’m better than this.’ Well, many a true word spoken in jest.

The Three Musketeers is streaming from 15 to 27 June 2021. Tickets from numerous local theatres or from thethreemusketeersonline.com

Paul received a complimentary ticket to review this production.

Click here to watch Paul’s review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

The Winter’s Tale (RSC / BBC) – review

Stratford production lets Shakespeare speak for himself

★★★★

Production photo from the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter's Tale as seen on BBC
Joseph Kloska in RSC’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The COVID-cancelled Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter’s Tale has returned as a play for TV, as part of BBC4’s Lights Up season of ‘lost’ plays.

It is set in, or at least starts in, the 1950s. We find ourselves in the court of the King of Sicily, Leontes. Within minutes the loving relationship between ruler and his queen Hermione is in tatters as Leontes succumbs to jealousy and the belief that his lifelong best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is having an affair with Hermione.

On the page, it seems hard to accept how easily this happens but William Shakespeare is the king of dramatists and the spoken word carries you along. The words in this play may not quite match those in the greatest Shakespeare plays, say Hamlet, but, tumbling out of mouths on stage, they provide image after image of the human condition and with a speed and style always matching the characters. The result, despite the implausibility of the plot at many points, is deep, believable characters caught up in a gripping drama.

Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale not as a book or a movie but as a play. So, thank goodness, the director Erica Whyman has confidence that Shakespeare knows what he’s doing.  It is filmed as a stage play. Bridget Caldwell’s film direction is kept simple and that’s to its credit. There are close-ups of course but otherwise we’re left to see the actors on the large Swan Theatre stage, which itself is sparsely decorated by set designer Tom Piper. Any music, which is provided by the eclectic Isobel Waller-Bridge, is occasional and enhances rather than intrudes.

Although The Winter’s Tale is technically a comedy, the first half is pretty much a tragedy. Leontes presumes his new baby is by Polixenes and condemns it to death. He puts his wife on trial with disastrous consequences. In fact, the deaths and apparent deaths bring home to Leontes how wrong he has been. And don’t forget this is the play with the most famous stage direction in theatrical history- ‘exit pursued by a bear’. I can tell you that bear isn’t after a cuddle.

Production photo of Kemi-Bo Jacobs in The Winter's Tale
Kemi-Bo Jacobs in RSC’s The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Some excellent actors to convey the script. Joseph Kloska plays Leontes as quite ordinary, somewhat pathetic. Even when he’s at his worst, he seems more mentally unstable than tyrannical which, I think, helps offset the tragic nature of this comedy. Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Hermione conveys her lines with regal authority and dignified passion. Ben Caplan playing Leontes’ right hand man Camillo makes every careful syllable suggest the conflict between loyalty and conscience.  Amanda Hadingue as Hermione’s broken-hearted companion Paulina touches us with her uncontrolled anger.

So the first half, which is about 90 minutes and takes us to the end of act 3, is very dark.

And having set up the tragedy, Shakespeare changes the tone. It’s 16 years later, a time gap which itself is unusual for Shakespeare. To some extent, this is a play about the healing power of time. Leontes has been grieving and repenting all this time.

We begin the second half, now in the mid 1960s, with some rock’n’roll. It becomes much more like the Shakespearean comedies we are familiar with. There are people disguising their origins, there’s forbidden love, there’s a mischief-making rascal Autolycus played with a cheeky chappy style by Anne Odeke. All’s well that ends well, except for the ones that died.

There’s a romantic, pastoral theme to the second half, including young lovers, shepherds and a sheep shearing festival. This makes the sixties setting very appropriate, it being a time when pop culture embraced romanticism and nature. In fact, the concept of contrasting the austere fifties with the free sixties is an inspired way of representing the two halves of The Winter’s Tale. The beautiful costumes by Madeleine Girling are elegant in the first half, more flamboyant in the second.

So, it’s a bittersweet ending, a story of redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation, which doesn’t deny the ill that has gone before. It is clear that some things that have been lost will never be regained.

There are some nice touches in the production. To emphasise that Leontes is conducting a show trial of Hermione, we see it partly as being televised with early black-and-white TV cameras. And later on, a feast is shown being filmed on Super 8 or something kind of early home movie.

Those are really the only thing approaching a gimmick. Otherwise, it’s a joy to watch a production that allows actors to speak Shakespeare’s words at length and without distraction.

The Winter’s Tale was broadcast on BBC4 on 25 April and is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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

Romeo & Juliet with Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley – review

Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley shine in fast-moving Shakespeare film

★★★

Production photo of Josh O'Connor and Jessie Buckley in the National Theatre's film of Romeo and Juliet
Jessie Buckley & Josh O’Connor in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Rob Youngson

The National Theatre‘s Romeo & Juliet is another of the hybrids of theatre and film that have emerged during lockdown. In this case, William Shakespeare‘s play, directed by Simon Godwin,  is a film but filmed in the Lyttleton Theatre and as if it’s a spontaneous development from the rehearsal room.

As film, it is beautiful. The backgrounds are nearly always plain , often grey or black. In fact the colours generally are blue or grey, with faces brightly lit from the side, appropriately like  17th century portraits. Credit for the design goes to Soutra Gilmour.

The two lovers are wild and rash, as they should be. Jessie Buckley is intense with passion, Josh O’Connor overwhelmed with emotion. They have great faces which is great for the close-ups. Their scenes together- the balcony, the wedding, the consummation (the film features a lengthy lovemaking only alluded to in the original play) are all believably romantic.

Thank goodness because this is a Romeo & Juliet that strips away all it can from the surrounding story of adults who should protect the youngsters but instead are misguided, self-centred and irresponsible. We also lose Shakespeare’s intention to emphasise the ultimate reconciliation of two warring factions as they acknowledge their part in the death of their young heirs.

Some of the most glorious poetry is filleted. There’s no ‘light from yonder window’  breaking in Emily Burns’ adaptation.  Rather than rely on the verse that remains, there is a great deal of music, as if the makers didn’t trust Shakespeare’s words to convey feeling. Having said that, the music, which includes Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is superb.

The editing of text and film means this Romeo & Juliet goes at a terrific pace which is good because, in this play, you need to be carried along by the speed with which the youngsters fall deeply in love, get married and (spoiler alert) commit suicide.

Of the older actors, I particularly liked Tamsin Greig, playing the part that was Lord Capulet in the original. She’s cold, calm, as softly spoken as a snake, verging on a pantomime villain.

Deborah Findlay as the Nurse and Lucian Msamati as Friar Laurence both convey the way the adults miscalculate the situation because of their own desire to meddle. The great Adrian Lester has so little to do as the Prince, because of the cuts, that a cynic might say he’s only there to provide a star name.

Romeo & Juliet can be seen on Sky Arts catch-up and on PBS on 23 April

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

Angela by Mark Ravenhill – review

Pam Ferris & Toby Jones perfect in audio play about a mother with dementia

★★★★★

Photo of Mark Ravenhill as a child with his parents
Mark Ravenhill as a child with his parents. Credit: Mark Ravenhill

I’ve listened to audio plays all my life, mainly on BBC radio, so, believe me, it means a lot when I say I have never heard a better audio play than Mark Ravenhill’s Angela. It works perfectly as audio because it’s about his mother who had dementia and it takes place almost entirely inside her head.

Why, in the throes of dementia, does she forget she has a son, why does she think her husband is trying to kill her, why does she become violent? In the course of the play, we hear what led her there: her memories of her unpleasant childhood, her ambitions to be an actor, her miscarriages and the profound effect of losing her first baby, a girl.

There is much about how her love of theatre and encouragement of her son Mark is at odds with her working class background and the cause of conflict with her husband and her sister. Central is a moment from Mark’s childhood, when we see how she copes and doesn’t cope with her son. Together they see the ballet film The Tales Of Beatrix Potter. Mark becomes obsessed with dancing the role of Jemima Puddleduck. Angela identifies with Jemima, someone who is threatened by the world and has her children killed or taken away.

It’s sad, painful even, but not depressing. It’s beautifully written and sensitively performed. We gain insights into dementia- the disorientation, the imagined world, the confusion of past and present- but what is fundamentally important is that Angela remains a person, a human being with thoughts and memories and feelings.

And there’s the gentleness with which her son- and her husband- interact with her is heartwarming.

The dialogue and the acting in Angela are pitch perfect. I can’t speak to the art of getting it right but I’ve heard many times when it’s been wrong, the dialogue stilted, the acting stagey. But here when the older Angela says, for example, ‘I bled the girl away. I was made all wrong’, it sounds natural and is spoken with understated passion by Pam Ferris.

The other cast members also get the balance of clarity and believability just right. Toby Jones as her gentle husband,  Matti Houghton as the younger Angela gradually beaten down by life, Jackson Laing as the young Mark bright, loving but oblivious to his mother’s anguish even as she supports him, Joseph Millson as the adult Mark, caring, and understanding how her past shaped her and himself. ‘We’ve all got muddled, imagined things, got angry with each other,’ he says.

‘Natural’ is rarely achieved naturally, so Polly Thomas, a hugely experienced director of radio plays, deserves her share of the credit for making this one work.

The sound too is just right. The minimalist piano music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is dreamlike and ever so slightly disorientating, as befits a story that shows the effects of dementia.

There’s much more to Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly constructed play: Angela’s mother, a parent who undermines her child; her relationship with her sister who has two boys and is insensitive as to how that might make the (at that time) childless Angela feel; the attachment of blame; the devastating hole left by a miscarriage and the way it is unexpectedly filled by her love of acting when two people with dementia meet.

The play begins and ends with a middle aged man taking a ballet class. No prizes for guessing who this is.

I appreciate this play may mean more to those of us who have experienced at first hand the effects of dementia on a loved one but I can assure you that, even if you haven’t, you will be moved by this play and be thinking about it for a long time afterwards.

Angela is part of a new season of audio plays from Sound Stage, co-produced by Pitlochry festival theatre and the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in collaborartion with naked Productions. Still to come are new plays by John Byrne, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Roy Williams and more. 

Angela was played on 2628 March and 1 & 2 April 2021 as part of pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com  It can be heard on BBC Sounds.

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

Paul received a free ticket from the producers to review Angela.

Amadeus at National Theatre – Review

Bold & Ambitious Production of Peter Shaffer’s Play

✭✭✭✭✭

Click here for my review on YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Adam Gillen & Lucian Msamati in Amadeus at National Theatre
Adam Gillen & Lucian Msamati in Amadeus at National Theatre Photo: Marc Brenner

National Theatre designers abhor a vacuum. Faced with the big space of the Olivier and Lyttleton auditoria, they feel the need to fill them with sets that dominate and slow down the plays.

Not so Amadeus. The stage is filled, but with people, mainly an orchestra. So Mozart‘s sublime works literally take centre stage, not to mention Simon Slater‘s wonderful additional music with its jangling jarring sounds conveying the states of mind of the two protagonists.

Chloe Langford keeps the sets simple and nothing distracts- appropriately a simple piano dominates every scene.

Brilliant acting by Lucian Msamati & Adam Gillen

The two central roles of Salieri and Mozart are acted brilliantly. Lucian Msamati is the wily member of the establishment. You can feel his anguish at understanding the greatness of Mozart’s music while being denied the talent to match it. You understand why he wants to bring his rival down.

It’s a difficult trick to pull off but Adam Gillen communicates the great composer’s annoying child-like innocence while still exuding the power of his genius.

There is so much in Peter Shaffer‘s play that a revival is more than merited: the frustration of recognising great art but being unable to create it oneself; the ease with which a cynical dissembler can destroy a naive open person; that Man tests God’s achievement rather than the other way round; that immortality can be obtained through evil or through association with the immortal; and much much more. All of which is brought out vividly in this bold production directed by Michael Longhurst.

Amadeus is streaming on the National Theatre  At Home website

This review, originally written on 21 February 2017, was revised on 19 January 2018. A version has appeared on the Southampton Daily Echo website.