Oklahoma! with Arthur Darvill at Young Vic – review

The old songs still soar in this new look at Oklahoma!

★★★

Production photo from Oklahoma! at the Yougn Vic theatre in London featuring Arthur Darvill 2022
Arthur Darvill in Oklahoma! at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner
If the optimistic, can-do nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals grates on you a little, the new Broadway production of Oklahoma!, now the Young Vic, will be right up your Stetson.
Daniel Fish‘s production, co-directed at the London end by Jordan Fein, examines this 20th century classic from a 21st century perspective. It’s even been nicknamed ‘Wokelahoma’ by some wags. Curly is less heroic, Judd less of a villain, the previously admirable strength of the Oklahoma community more sinister.
Let’s start with Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher ‘s design. Most of the audience is on either side of the stage, traverse style. On the back wall is a painting of open plains with sketches of a couple of farm buildings. At the other end is a live band. The unraised stage is bordered by long trestle-style tables; the cast stays on stage most of the time. It feels and is meant to feel like a community hall, all the more so because the entire auditorium is evenly and brightly lit. The last time I experienced this kind of lighting was when I went to see my daughter in a school play. It’s as if we the audience are part of that community and that the community is commenting on their own story. Very Brechtian. But this does mean emotional involvement and dramatic tension are kept at a distance.
The famous opening song Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ is sung initially by Arthur Darvill accompanying himself on guitar before others join in. Straightaway you know that this is going to be a different kind of Curly because, although he’s an attractive guy, he’s nothing like the famous Curlys of the past, tall, well built men like Arthur Drake, Howard Keel and Hugh Jackman. Mr Darvill is small and wiry, and, unlike those rich baritones, he has a beautiful tenor voice,  with a nice falsetto.
There was a certain way in which romantic male leads were expected to behave in the mid 20th century when Oklahoma! was written. Even if sensitivity does actually figure in the finest male roles of the period, Hammerstein clearly admired the strong self-assured roll-up-your-sleeves type of hero: the common man who built America. Like Curly. He is even contrasted with weaker male figures like Ali Hakim and Will Parker, played for a great many laughs by Stavros Demetraki and James Davis. Now, we can and usually do choose to take Curly’s character as being of its time, but in this production, looking through 21st century eyes, his charm does lean over into smarm, his cockiness becomes arrogance, his laddishness seems awfully like harassment, and his possessive jealousy spouts toxic masculinity. So he’s not as obviously attractive as one would normally expect.
Then again, nor is Jud the hired help as nasty. Curly’s prospective spouse Laurey is frightened of Jud, which is why she doesn’t reject him and thus he’s encouraged in his pursuit of her. By making him less sinister and more misunderstood, this production undermines the basis of her fear. Patrick Vaill plays Jud with sad-eyed sensitivity showing that he’s awkward with women. There’s a hint of the ‘incel’ about him and, although he’s potentially violent, it does seem that he’s despised by everyone simply because he’s a loner. He’s considered a genuine outsider, not simply someone from outside like Ali Hakim, who’s been accepted into the community. People’s descriptions of this nicely coiffed clean boy as dirty seem to stem from simple prejudice.
When Curly talks with Jud and encourages him to think about suicide, which I guess was always weird, the talk becomes distinctly nasty because it takes place in pitch black. Normally exit signs or some sliver of light enable your eyes to pick up something, but here you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Then in the second act, when Curly is determined to outbid Jud in an auction, the humiliation of the outsider seems less like punishing him for his unpleasantness and more like simple malice.
Production photo from Oklahoma! at Young Vic theatre in London showing actora Anoushka Kucas and Arthur Darvill 2022
Anoushka Lucas and Arthur Darvill in Oklahoma! Photo: Marc Brenner

The lighting isn’t always bright or nonexistent. Sometimes Scott Zielinski’s design bathes the room in orange or green or shines spotlights, as befits the moment.

Rather than the country music you might associate with a southern state like Oklahoma, the band plays bluegrass style: in other words, lots of stringed instruments. And, under Musical Director Tom Brady, what a marvellous sound they make. That most romantic of songs People will say we’re in love is as beautiful as it could be.

Three women dominate this production

Anoushka Lucas plays Laurey as confused, vulnerable and passionate in equal measures. She’s not only a fine actor, she’s another fantastic singer.
Lisa Sadovy plays Aunt Eller with a twinkle in her eye, but harder and more cynical than you might expect. And all the better for that. The women definitely hold their own in this production.
The plot is unchanged, at least until the end. Curly makes clear he likes Laurie but plays it down a bit. Laurie feels the same about Curly but won’t admit it. The suppressed sexual desire rises like steam. When you think about it, an awful lot of this musical concerns young people desiring one another.
The surrey with a fringe on top is not the familiar jaunty tune that matches the rhythm of a horse and carriage. Instead, it’s slow and sensuous. The line ‘Don’t you wish it could go on forever and you’d never stop’ is delivered with a lascivious smile. It’s clear it’s another kind of ride Curly’s thinking about. 
Production photo from Oklahoma! at Young Vic in London showing actor Marisha Wallace 2022
Marisha Wallace in Oklahoma!

The emphasis on sex continues when we meet Ado Annie and her big number. I cain’t say no. She’s not portrayed as an amusingly silly girl but as a woman confident in her sexuality. Marisha Wallace is not only hilarious., she also has a tremendous voice that blasts the song into the category of showstopper.

Oklahoma! is famous for being one of the first, if not the first, musical to be led by the book, or story. So the songs serve the book, which was written by Oscar Hammerstein II, by revealing character and driving the narrative forward. It may also be the first to fully integrate dance. In fact, Agnes de Mille‘s choreographed dream sequence is one of the iconic moments in the original and her name still appears in the credits, even though her choreography has disappeared.
Now Laurey’s dream is a contemporary dance, choreographed by John Heginbotham. It starts with an electric guitar screaming a stretched out version of Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ that generated the same startled surprise in me as when I first heard Jimi Hendrix playing another classic, The Star Spangled Banner. This is the moment when Laurey is supposed to see clearly that she should choose Curly but it’s less explicit than Agnes de Mille‘s ballet so it confuses more than clarifies.
This production isn’t the only one recently to try to update Rodgers and Hammerstein. Chichester Festival Theatre‘s South Pacific, which is due a London run, dampened down the sexism and bolstered the anti-racism. The Open Air Theatre‘s Carousel faced its domestic violence head on. And I think this is right if we’re to continue to enjoy the positive qualities of their musicals.
However, the ending of this reimagining of Oklahoma! left me disappointed. Not a word has been changed., remember, but the actions have. For me, the reassessment of Curly’s character is pushed too far. I don’t want to give you a spoiler, but I’ll just say that the sham trial now seems like a real miscarriage of justice brought about by a community that sticks together against outsiders. And it makes the ending considerably downbeat.
While I love the new arrangement of the songs, the comedy, the sexiness, and the examination of maleness, I did hope to leave with a smile on my face. It felt like Daniel Fish had tried too hard to shoehorn the actual Oklahoma! into his vision of it.
Oklahoma! is performing at the Young Vic in London until 25 June 2022.

Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration – Young Vic – review

Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope light up this fascinating play

★★★★

Production photo of Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany in The Collaboration at Young Vic theatre in London 2022
Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Collaboration at The Young Vic is a special occasion. The two stars are Paul Bettany – Vision no less from the Marvel Universe, and the very unpleasant Duke of Argyll in A Very British Scandal – and Hollywood rising star Jeremy Pope.

The play is written by Anthony MacCarten, best known for his screenplays The Theory Of Everything, The Two Popes and Bohemian Rhapsody.

It’s about two of the great American artists of the late 20th century- Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat– who worked together on a number of paintings. As you enter the Young Vic, you see scattered examples of their work scattered throughout the building.

When you walk into the auditorium, before the play even begins, there are flashing lights and the loud beat of a DJ – Xana – live mixing music and videos from 1980s New York project onto the set. There’s more. The director is Kwame Kwei-Armah, your actual artistic director of the Young Vic. And for good measure, the set is designed by  Anna Fleischle, who triumphed just last week with The Forest at Hampstead Theatre, one of a long line of amazing productions, and now conjures up the two artists’ studios, both versions of the same white-painted brick walls, skylights and paint splattered floor, but each quite different in the details that represent the artists’ very different personalities. It is, as I said, an occasion.

In real life, when Warhol and Basquiat collaborated, the critics’ response was lukewarm, so was this collaboration of theatrical talent a similar damp squib? Quite the opposite. It’s an explosion of heat and light.

Production photo of Paul Bettany in The Collaboration at the Young Vic theatre in London 2022
Paul Bettany in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner

You can see why a play about this famous collaboration seemed like a good idea. You couldn’t get more different people. Warhol the established king of Pop Art, and Basquiat the young pretender whose neo-expressionist work went from street art to multi-million dollar sales at auction. Warhol old and in decline, Basquiat young and on the rise. Warhol the reserved germophobe who hid his heart, Basquiat, messy, prolific, spontaneous and wearing his heart on his sleeve.

They are The Odd Couple, as portrayed in the film of that name, or they could be a comedy duo like Morecambe and Wise, one that depends on a straight man and an anarchist. The conflict is the grit that creates this pearl of a story.

And what a great story. There are comparisons to be made with John Logan’s superb play Red which also features conversations about art, in that case between Mark Rothko and his young, critical assistant. Here, though, the two protagonists are shown as equals. Initially, they hate each other’s work. “So ugly’ says Warhol. ‘Old hat’ says Basquiat. So not exactly Elton John and Dua Lipa.

Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit their roles

Then they meet and in the first act they explore one another’s ideas of art. Warhol sees himself as taking out the feeling by repetitive reproduction so that surface becomes all that matters, deliberately turning art into a commodity. ‘Trash. Trash. But we have to celebrate something’ says Warhol, (he might possibly have said that in the second act, I’m not sure). Basquiat passionately believes that art means something and can be an instrument for change. ‘Art disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed’ he says. In this play of natural conversation, even the aphorisms sound spontaneous. There are times in the first act when you may wonder, interesting and enjoyable as the conversation is, whether it’s getting anywhere.

The second act dispels all doubt. It takes place when they have been working together for a couple of years, and starts with a splendid moment when Warhol unhappy with the standard of cleaning in Basquiat’s studio starts vacuuming. The two have got to know one another well and, while they remain very different artists, they have come to feel a kind of love for each other. And it’s heartwarming in this current era of echo chambers and cancel culture, to see two people with very different views, not shutting each other out, but listening, and talking, and eventually respecting one another.

The intimacy the artists now have means that we find out a lot more about their inner selves: Warhol opens up emotionally in ways you would never have imagined, and we learn about Basquiat’s demons too. In some ways, the collaboration has reinvigorated Warhol. There’s a wonderful moment in the first act when he first picks up a brush for the first time in 25 years and seems to marvel at its feel in his hand. He has become a kind of father figure to Basquiat who seems to be on a downward spiral of paranoia and drug addiction.

This all works so well, partly because of the strength of the dialogue, partly because of the way director Kwame Kwei-Armah drives the play towards a dramatic climax. Most of all it’s because of the acting. Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit the roles of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mr Bettany looks the part with his gangly body, his nervous tics and his pale skin and white wig. When he talks with Warhol’s superficial ‘gosh, gee’ way of speaking, his controlled body language conveys that this is a way of hiding his true self, just as he hides behind a camera.

Mr Pope with hair like a crown of thorns is all bouncy and Tigger-like then suddenly switches to anger, both moods concealing a pain that can be seen in the way he physically slumps or has a watery look in his eyes.

These two outstanding performances turn this theatrical collaboration into a momentous occasion.

The Collaboration can be seen at the Young Vic until 2 April 2022.

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

 

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

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

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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