Chadwick Boseman gives towering performance in film of August Wilson’s play
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis is a film of a play written by August Wilson in 1984. Denzil Washington is one of the producers and he is known to be determined to bring all of the great playwright’s works to the screen. So how well did this play make the transition?
If you saw Fences which Denzil Washington himself starred in, you will have some idea of the style of this film, directed by George C Wolfe. It is more akin to a play being filmed, than a cinematic film, in that nearly everything happens on two sets. One is the recording studio, the other the green room in which the musicians chat and rehearse.
This needn’t be a bad thing. Film tells its story in pictures whereas theatre tells its story through people. And this is about people, two in particular. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is terrific. Ma Rainey is a successful blues singer in the Southern black community in the early 20th century. She knows where she stands and what she wants. She’s only in the recording studio because there is now interest in black music from northern white Americans and she can earn a buck from it.
‘They don’t care nothing about me, ‘ she says, ‘all they want is my voice’. If you know your musical history you’ll know that at that time people like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were starting to write ragtime jazz inspired by, or stolen from if you prefer, black music. By the way, the music is fabulous.
By contrast we have the late Chadwick Boseman’s horn player Levee. He’s a complex character, and for me the more interesting of the two. He is confident, indeed cocky, about his ability to play and compose music. Even though he would be outstanding purely on the grounds of his playing, he still feels the need to dress to stand out, from his sharp suit right down to his flashy shoes.
August Wilson shows us a time early in the twentieth century, when, although segregation was illegal in the north, racial prejudice and the sense that white people formed a superior class weren’t. There’s a moment when two of the black musicians step into a bar that’s full of white people. They turn around and leave.
Ma Rainey takes the lack of respect from white people in her stride, and just gets on with the job, and can’t wait to go home. Levee is more ambitious and sees opportunities in this new era where black music has a wider appeal – like the black bottom song and dance of the title.
The subtlety and authenticity of Mr Boseman’s performance reminds you of what a loss this man is to the world of acting. You see his brittle surface, but you soon find out about the trauma he suffered as a child as a result of white racism. So the actor conveys a tremendous feeling that there is a coiled spring just waiting to burst through the swaggering veneer. It leads to arguments in both the studio and the green room. And that tension runs throughout the play until its dramatic climax.
The only weakness is the one I mentioned earlier. This is a film of a play and whereas in the theatre you would be carried along by the sequence of events because you’re in the same room with the characters, those events seem a little melodramatic because of the separation of the screen.
So I don’t feel it’s quite a five star film but no question Chadwick Boseman gives a five star performance.
Typical offers us a day in the life of an ordinary man, a typical man, but the question is, is he a typical black man?
He gets up and gets dressed. He’s looking forward to the weekend, when he’ll see his boys. He fancies a night out so he goes to a disco. By the end he’s dying in a police station. Not so typical, but in Ryan Calais Cameron‘s play, ‘typical’ has many meanings and one is when they stereotype a black man .
It’s a one-man play and a huge burden is placed on the Richard Blackwood’s shoulders. There’s no set. He mimes, he mimics other characters, he speaks constantly in a stream of consciousness. The good news is that Mr Blackwood doesn’t give a typical performance, what he does is exceptional in the extreme.
Ryan Calais Cameron has written a poetic drama and Mr Blackwood is right on top of the rhythm of it. There’s a real love of language here, and there are joyful plays on words that he effortlessly gets his tongue round. For example, he talks of ‘sleep in the corner of the cornea’. He says, ‘Look here, I cook here, don’t need no damn book here’ and ‘I want to be inside the rave raving, instead of outside the rave, ranting and raving’.
There are many funny moments, especially when Richard Blackwood mimics the people he encounters. I laughed out loud as he confronted a police officer. The officer is saying, ‘Do you want to come to the station’. Our guy is saying ‘Do you want to take my statement’ and the two begin interrupting as each tries to have his say. Do you want to.. Do you.. in swift repartee, as all the while the tension rises.
Anastasia Osei-Kuffour directed the original play at the Soho Theatre and this screen version is filmed there so it retains a sense of theatre while making good use of close ups and quick cutting to different camera angles.
Our protagonist is quite an ordinary man but also very likeable. He can look after himself but he avoids trouble. When he experiences typical everyday racism, systemic racism if you like, he doesn’t rise to it, he even questions whether there is racist intent. Is the doorman making him wait because he’s black or simply because the place is full.
He still doesn’t avoid a serious racist attack. In the hospital a head injury has left him confused but the staff and police see what they want to see- a typical man- perhaps a typical black man- on drugs or drunk and frighteningly aggressive. The meaning of ‘typical’ moves from ‘everyday’ to ‘predictable’ to ‘expected’.
Once he’s arrested, the police beat him in the van. It is perhaps typical racist police behaviour or at least it’s nothing like as rare as it should be. The depictions of the beatings invite a visceral response, again all mimed by Mr Blackwood..
The police let him die. We see him die, before our eyes in deep close up, choking on his own blood,. It is shocking, horrific and deeply upsetting.
This is an imagined version of what happened, not to a typical black person but an actual man Christopher Alder in 1999. The last minutes of his life were recorded on CCTV at the police station. It led to a verdict of unlawful killing and an apology from the police force but no one was punished. It’s part of a pattern that sees a disproportionate number of black people stopped and searched, arrested, and dying in custody.
While that is important and Typical rightly brings attention to this outrage, it is important to say that this is a well acted, well constructed drama that uses language, humour and emotional empathy, to make us feel the pain of one man’s tragic end.
Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani give an acting masterclass
Hymn, although it’s not spelled ‘him’, is a play about two men, two sons, and two brothers as it turns out. A bare stage with two actors provide possibly the best piece of streamed theatre I’ve seen.
It begins with a funeral. Gil, played by Adrian Lester, gives a eulogy to his late father, his hero. Now 50, he is the youngest child of four, the only boy, in the shadow of his older sisters and in awe of his late father. In the course of the play, we learn that his life has been shackled by following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman rather than being comfortable with being the kind but naive man he clearly is. And it seems his father was not the paragon he thought he was.
At the funeral, he meets Benny played by Danny Sapani. We soon discover he is an unacknowledged child of Gil’s father, born just a few weeks after him. Gil and Benny are drawn to one another. From then on, they are set on a road that starts with bonding and leads them hand-in-hand to disaster.
The two men satisfy a need in the other. Gil is pleased to have a younger brother, albeit by a few weeks, someone he can impress. Benny, who spent much of his childhood in care, has a connection with a dad and siblings for the first time. There’s a lot about the effect of dads on sons, or the lack of a dad.
Both have their demons and each boosts the other. They bond through music and dance. Lester and Sapani have fine voices and are good movers. The songs they sing pepper the story and, when they relive their 80s youth, it gives them a shared experience they never had at the time. The musically knowledgeable Benny calls it ‘sympathetic resonance’. The first song significantly is Bill Withers song that says ‘Lean on me when you’re not strong.’
In another scene Benny introduces Gil to a gym where he can unleash his frustration with his life.
For a while, it is wonderful to hear two men conversing about their lives and their feelings, relaxed and natural. But we know something must go wrong- the hints are there- and inevitably it does, but I won’t spoil anything by going into the details. Just to say, like any two people who blindly love each oither, they lead one another down this fatal path.
Adrian Lester takes us through many emotions as his character moves from confident to destroyed. His face, his voice, his eyes all transform— it’s a masterclass in acting. Danny Sapani too is excellent. I was touched by sensitivity and a puppy-like enthusiasm he conveyed, so apparently at odds with his bulky body.
The 90 minutes fly by. Lolita Chakrabarti’s script is so tight and so true. It’s interesting, I think, that, in a time when it is sometimes suggested that authors should not or cannot write about things outside their experience, a woman manages to make these men so believable.
It’s unfortunate that covid restrictions prevent the actors touching, because there are moments when they would have hugged or given one another a helping hand but the camerawork does well to suggest closeness.
In fact, this is a lesson in how to film a stage play, especially considering it is done live. It feels very like theatre- the bare stage designed by Miriam Buether tdoes just enough to suggest and leave the rest to our imagination, Prema Mehta‘s lighting and Blanche McIntyre‘s direction ensure we concentrate on the two characters and hardly notice that we are seeing it through a lens.
I was applauding at the end. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a recording will be made available.
Lorien Haynes’ play Good Grief lasts less than an hour but in that time it follows two people on an emotional rollercoaster as they suppress and express their feelings through various stages of grief.
The two, played by Sian Clifford (Claire in Fleabag) and Nikesh Patel, are mourning the death of his partner and her best friend. They have a deep affection for one another and, as they try to cope with the death of someone they both loved, they also attempt to support each other.
Good Grief is honest about the sadness and anger of bereavement, and if you have suffered the loss of a loved one, it is bound to hit home, but it isn’t depressing. It is a comedy with many amusing moments and much dark humour.
And it is a love story, or rather a love triangle. That’s because the question running through the play is how much should one respect the wishes of someone who has gone. I was going to say ‘who is no longer with us’ but she is ever present ,affecting what the two do and how they relate to each other.
Some people are calling this a play-film hybrid including Sian Clifford herself but I don’t think that’s a good description. For me, it is simply a play that’s been filmed. Yes, it’s not filmed in a theatre or with an audience, but the simple makeshift set is very clearly theatrical in that it lacks the realism that you would expect in a film.
What you do get and benefit from is close-ups. There’ are many emotions flitting across their faces, especially Sian Clifford’s. She has a great ability to convey the complexities of, say, a nervous laugh or a bemused empathy and to the change between the two in the blink of her eye. Nikesh Patel‘s character wears his mood changes on his sleeve, which is not to say his performance is any less impressive.
It’s a well written script with natural, rhythmic language. However it ‘s clearly intended for characters in their twenties, whereas these two excellent actors are in their thirties. While it’s relatively easy to act younger than you are on a stage, close-ups make age much harder to disguise on screen.
My only other reservation is the presence of the crew. You see them reflected in a shiny cycle helmet, you see them between scenes. I don’t what the point of that was. To remind us it’s a film? To remind us it’s theatre? I don’t think would be in any doubt about either. It seemed to be a form of alienation at odds with the intimate style of the play.
The play is sensitively directed by Natalie Abrahami, by which I mean there are no gimmicks and the actors are given space to express their emotions.
The Top Ten Bestselling Stage Musicals as featured on Box Office Radio
This top ten doesn’t go by the money the productions have taken at the box office or length of run or all the different productions added together. This list is based on the number of tickets sold worldwide by the same production. TIt’s not completely reliable because the figures tend to be supplied by the producer. All the entries date from the 1980s onwards because very long runs are a relatively modern phenomenon, starting really with the megamusicals of Lloyd Webber and Cameron mackintosh. To give you an idea, one of the greatest musicals of all time, Oklahoma! which back in the 1940s held the title of the longest-running Broadway musical had a mere 2212 performances. By contrast, the first megamusical Cats had 8949.
10= Starlight Express (25 million tickets worldwide)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express would have been much higher but for its relatively short run on Broadway. On the other hand, it’s been greatly helped by its run at the Starlight Express Theatre in Bochum Germany where it’s been seen by 17 million people. A romance featuring railway trains may seem a strange subject for a musical but behind that and the roller skating spectacular, there are some great songs.
10= Jersey Boys (25 million tickets worldwide)
Jersey Boys is the second most successful jukebox musical ever. It’s based on the story of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons and it’s a cut above the typical musical biography with each of the four band members telling a section of their story from their point of view.
9 Chicago – 1996 revival (31 million tickets worldwide)
Chicago made little impact when it premiered in 1975 but when it was revived in 1996 it became a huge hit. It is not only the longest-running revival in Broadway history but its longest-running American musical. (Incidentally, there are only 4 American musicals in this top 11.) The revival while still using the basic Bob Fosse choreography stripped down the design- and the women. So while the original female performers wore showgirl and flapper outfits, now they were in what was essentially sexy underwear. And it was marketed with striking black and white images that emphasised its erotic qualities. Souvenir programmes were snapped up by theatregoers who clearly appreciated the quality of the photography.
7= Miss Saigon (35 million tickets worldwide)
Miss Saigon is the first of two entries from writers Alain Boublil and Claud-Michel Schoenberg. No prizes for guessing what the other is. Based on Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, Miss Saigon is the story of a mother’s love and sacrifice.
7= Disney’s Beauty And The Beast (35 million tickets worldwide)
Beauty And The Beast marked Disney’s first foray into live musicals, apart that is from the mini shows they would put on in their theme parks. In fact the director Robert Jess Roth came from the theme parks but he stepped up to Broadway as if born to it and his production was both faithful to film and a proper stage musical. Linda Woolverton who had been the first woman to write a Disney animated feature screenplay, adapted and expanded her script for the stage show. Tim Rice added lyrics to six new songs composed by Alan Menken who had written the songs for the original film with the late Howard Ashman. Then the stage musical became a movie.
6 Wicked (55 million tickets sold worldwide)
Wicked by Stephen Schwartz is based on a book called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which was both a prequel and a sequel to The Wizard Of Oz. The main character is Elphaba and, if you haven’t twigged, L F B are the initials of L Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard Of Oz. The story of a young woman who rebels against the system and is labelled a wicked witch was immediately popular with the teenage girl market but there was a much wider appeal to anyone who identifies with an outsider fighting for truth and defending liberty (and who doesn’t?).
Before I move on to my top 5 best selling stage musicals, I’d just like to mention a couple of other contenders who didn’t make the list.
5 Mamma Mia! (65 million tickets worldwide)
Mamma Mia! is the best selling jukebox musical of all time. Unlike Jersey boys, it’s not a biography but the kind of jukebox musical that takes a songbook and turns it into a story. In this case, it no doubt helped that the songbook belonged to ABBA but much of the credit goes to writer Catherine Johnson. She made the songs seem like they’d been written for this fun tale of a girl who is getting married and wants to meet the three men who could be her father.
4 Les Miserables (70 million tickets worldwide)
It’s back to Cameron Mackintosh and Boublil and Schoenberg with help from English translator Herbert Kretzmer for our number 4 best selling stage musical Les Miserables. This story of atonement is the West End’s longest running musical ever with over 14,000 performances.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is the musical that led the British invasion of Broadway in the 80s. It began as a song cycle before Cameron Macintosh took it by the scruff of the neck and helped transform it into a fully fledged musical. It’s the ultimate tourist attraction, offering spectacle and memorable songs without much of a plot. That’s not to put it down, it did win both Tony and Olivier Awards for Best musical. And the spectacle was impressive. It was not only the first megamusical, it began the phenomenon of identical productions playing throughout the world. In Germany, it had over 6000 performances and in Japan over 10,000.
It’s interesting that back in the 70s and 80s the Arts Council of Great Britain undertook a ‘housing the arts’ programme that involved large sums of money being spent on building or refurbishing large scale theatres to enable the country to see the very best opera and ballet. But it wasn’t long before commercial theatre companies saw the opportunity to recreate their magnificent London productions before very large regional audiences.
2 Disney’s The Lion King (100 million tickets sold worldwide)
The Lion King is the only non-British musical in the top 5. Disney had seen the success of the megamusicals and decided to pull out all the stops when they mounted their second stage musical. The Lion King by Elton John and Tim Rice was already Disney’s most successful animated feature. The company made the bold move of employing a director whose previous experience was mainly in shows involving puppetry. Julie Taymor put on what amounted to a huge puppet show but the gamble paid off. Taymor won Tony Awards for both her direction and her costume design. The show is still running both on Broadway and in the West End and it is the number one musical for worldwide box office income- an extraordinary eight and a quarter billion dollars.
1 The Phantom Of The Opera (130 million tickets worldwide)
What has made Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera so popular? For a start, whereas his earlier shows used songs which are often pastiches of various musical genres, in Phantom Lloyd Webber went into full operatic mode. It’s sung-through so it is the music that really tells this melodramatic story. You feel the disfigured opera lover’s obsession with Christine, and the romantic young love between Christine and Raoul. And all the while, there is a real sense of danger, with Lloyd Webber using that dramatic Phantom motif of the descending notes Dah – da da da da dah at key moments to send a shiver down your spine, very much like the dum-dum-dum- dum signalling the arrival of Jaws. Lloyd Webber has never done better, nor indeed has anyone else. Of course, we can’t rule out the chandelier as an element of its success. It occupies centre stage as the show opens and famously crashes down at the end of the first act. It is probably the all-time greatest coup-de-theatre.
Oh Calcutta! clocked up 5959 performances on Broadway which puts it in at number 8 in the top ten longest running Broadway musicals. It’s interesting that this British show which was staged to celebrate the end of theatre censorship in Britain should have proved so popular with the Americans. It was described as an erotic revue and, as well as songs, featured sketches by among others Samuel Beckett and John Lennon, plus a lot of nudity.
Blood Brothers didn’t make the worldwide top ten of best selling musicals but it did notch up over 10,000 performances in the West End, making it the third longest-running musical in West End history. Blood Brothers had had one run in the West End before Bill Kenwright relaunched it, after which Willy Russell’s story of twins separated at birth ran for 24 years. Which is why Blood Brothers is also the longest-running West End revival.
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.
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, 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 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
CFT production goes to the heart of Kane’s scream of despair
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 been 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
survives life’, and there are echoes of other works, which is 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, telling 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. A mentiuion too for Alfred Enoch and Wendy Kweh. 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 screening. 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, 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 was live streamed in November 2021. cft.org.uk
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
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
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.
Andrew Scott rules in monologue live streamed from Old Vic
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.
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)