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.