Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella – review

Ignore The Butcher Of Broadway, this is a winning show

★★★★

Production photo from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella featuring Carrie Hope Fletcher and others at the Gillian Lynne Theatre London
Carrie Hope Fletcher (left) in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella opened to largely positive reviews but more recently the production has been butchered by the New York Post’s Johnny Oleksinski, potentially scuppering a Broadway launch.

According to Britain’s leading showbiz reporter Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail, Milord Lloyd Webber is so concerned that he is considering revising the show. So what did the new Butcher of Broadway (Baz’s description)  say about Cinderella, and why do I disagree with him?

I don’t need to sum up Johnny’s opinion because he does it himself: ‘Bibbidi-bobbidi-cut 30 minutes! Bibbidi-bobbidi-scrap the set and costumes! Bibbidi-bobbidi-more jokes and dancing!’

The Butcher Of Broadway (Baz’s description) first buries his cleaver into the writer of the book and original story, Emerald Fennell:

‘Problem is this revisionist “Cinderella” isn’t dark and brooding like “The Phantom of the Opera.” With a book by Oscar-winning “Promising Young Woman” scribe Emerald Fennell, it fancies itself a musical comedy, like “Guys and Dolls” or “Hairspray.” But at the matinee I attended, the silent crowd might as well have been watching Ibsen.’

An audience can enhance or dampen your enjoyment, and I’ve sat through a few ‘dead’ matinees in my time. So, the ‘silent crowd’ could have affected Johnny’s appreciation of the show. At the performance I attended (which was a Sunday matinee, by the way) the audience laughed, cheered and clapped throughout, ending with an almost universal standing ovation. I can’t deny that the atmosphere added to the pleasure I got from the show.

The Transformation scene just before the interval did leave me feeling underwhelmed (it’s no Wicked or Phantom in that respect) but the Ball at the opening of act two more than made up for that.

Too long? I enjoyed every minute

‘For a straightforward tale, the show takes its sweet time — a good two hours, 45 minutes all told,’ continues Johnny.

First of all, that timing includes a 20 minute interval so it’s actually well under two-and-a-half hours, which is quite short for a musical. I guess any new show can be tightened up, once the audience’s reaction has been gauged, but I myself would be hard pressed to know what to cut since I enjoyed every minute.

So what is this apparently longwinded ‘revisionist’ story? You don’t need me to tell you that it concerns a ‘Bad Cinderella’, that earworm has been widely played. She lives in Belleville, a tourist destination whose attraction is based on the physical beauty of its citizens. Cinderella is a rebel whose activities undermine the town’s reputation. She’s in love with her best (and only) friend, the heir apparent Prince Sebastian. Not Prince Charming who has been lost, presumed dead, in a war. Sebastian loves her too but neither will admit it for fear of damaging their friendship.

She falls into the trap of believing he wants a glamorous beauty queen and undergoes a transformation at the hands of a nip-and-tuck Godmother. Inevitably her plan goes wrong and there are a few twists and turns before the happy ending.

The so-called ‘revisionist’ message is that you shouldn’t judge by appearances, and that character is more important. There is a wonderful moment when a macho male character reveals that he is gay and introduces us to his fiancé. There was a spontaneous roar of approval from the audience which made me feel delighted at the way in which public attitudes have changed since I was a lad, a feeling tempered only slightly after the show when I heard a woman say: ‘I didn’t know where to look when the two men kissed.’

So, for me, an interesting story, with plenty of twists and fun.

Scrap the set and costumes? This is a fairy tale, not a concert

‘Scrap the set and costumes… drab and forgettable,’ moans Johnny.  His recommendation seems to be a ‘bare stage’, or at least that’s when he says this production was at its best. I expect he’s looking forward to the concert version. There is a short time when the stage is bare but I totally disagree that this was an advantage. This is a fairy tale, even if it’s been turned on its head, and it needs a fairy tale look. And, for me, that’s what we get with Gabriela Tylesova’s set which is a mixture of the rococo style of 18th century France and Bavarian castles, reflecting the time when the version of Cinderella we know and love was written. At the same time, it is not done in icing cake colours and is surrounded by slightly sinister thorns, suggesting that all is not well in Belleville.

Production photo from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella featuring rebecca trehearne and other members of the cast at the Gillian lynne Theatre
Rebecca Trehearne and other members of the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Her costumes are clever too. We have bare-chested, muscular men in tight lederhosen, evoking the mid-European period setting while emphasising their macho narcissism. The women are given sumptuous, brightly coloured gowns but with sexually suggestive splits, underlining their shallow attitude to relationships. Except, of course, for the rebellious Cinderella , who is clothed like a Goth with a black dress and Doc Martins.

‘More jokes and dancing,’ pleads Johnny. It’s  hard to understand why he would want more jokes because Cinderella is full of innuendoes. Maybe he just doesn’t find that kind of joke funny.  Admittedly some hit the mark, some missed, and some were deliberately designed to make you cringe. For example, one of the hunky knights invites Cinderella to ‘polish my sceptre’.

Rival mothers Rebecca Trehearn as the Queen and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s stepmother got plenty of laughs for their Ab Fab haughtiness and sly bitchiness.

David Zippel‘s lyrics have wit and feeling. Take Bad Cinderella:

Yes I’m bad Cinderella, I will not say goodbye
You’ve been hateful since I met you
Barking mad Cinderella, flying high in the sky
And I hope I have upset you
Well, forget you!

As for dancing, they never stopped moving from the opening number of villagers going about their business- and admiring the baker’s buns (more innuendo)- to the Finale. Joann M Hunter‘s choreography is imaginative, energetic and stage-filling, and totally in tune with the varying moods.

The Butcher Of Broadway also takes the boning knife to the director Laurence Connor, declaring that his ‘plodding, one-note direction is the production’s biggest offender’. If you find a show dull, it’s likely the blame lies with the author, the director or the cast. These are not always easy to separate. I found the production had plenty of pace, and struck many different notes between energetic ensemble numbers, comic routines and the pathos of love gone wrong. I would attribute this to the director bringing out the best of the book, cast and music.

Johnny praises the cast but, as I said, it can be hard to separate direction and cast, so, if the show was plodding on the day Johnny attended, it is possible that some of the performers were having an off day.  It does happen that a cast, especially at a matinee, just don’t generate the energy needed for a show like this. Baz Bamigboye reported that Andrew Lloyd Webber had had a go at the cast, following Johnny Oleksinski‘s review, so maybe he thought some of their performances needed sharpening, rather than the direction. I obviously don’t know and I can only say the cast were full of energy and commitment when I saw them a few days later, and gave some excellent perofrmances.

Carrie Hope Fletcher leads an excellent cast

Carrie Hope Fletcher plays Cinderella.  She has such an open-faced smile and sweet, powerful voice that’s it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. However, her alternate Georgina Onuorah has had many favourable comments, and that’s who Johnny saw, and liked.

Ivano Turco as Prince Sebastian has a good singing voice and conveyed well this shy, sensitive, good-hearted lad.

And then there’s the music. Here Johnny and I agree. He praised Lloyd Webber’s ‘heart-racing ballads’. He’s right. Bad Cinderella is a stand-out song but the slower, plaintive, soaring ballads Only You, Lonely You sung by Prince Sebastian and Cinderella’s  I Know I Have A  Heart represent Andrew Lloyd Webber on top form. I’ve never been a big fan of his lush light operatic music but I freely acknowledge he can write a good tune. In this case, his traditional melodic style and big orchestral arrangements seem perfect for the subject matter.

Johnny Oleksinski feels ‘There is a satisfying musical buried somewhere in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella”. ‘ Once they’ve added more jokes and dancing, cut half an hour, and changed the story, script, sets, costumes, and director, presumably.

I wonder if there is a clue in the way Mr Oleksinski writes his review as to why he is critical of so much of the production. Right at the beginning, his reference point is the 1950 Disney film Cinderella. ‘Bibbety Bobbity’ he quotes. Could it be the British lord inadvertently trampled on an American child’s happy memory?

We British on the other hand have been brought up with Cinderella pantomimes in which subversion (and innuendo) are the norm. There’s no Buttons in this production, a character who traditionally loves Cinderella for what she is rather than her shoe size, even if his love is unrequited. However, that panto character prepares us nicely for Prince Sebastian’s attitude. Then there are the panto traditions, derived from 19th century music hall, of men playing female characters like the wicked stepmother and the ugly sisters, or women playing the so-called principal boy part of Prince Charming. We’re well used to a bit of rule-breaking, which is what this Cinderella celebrates.

To be clear, this is not a pantomime, it’s an excellent musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber on good form, a satisfying story and a scintillating production. I hope those involved don’t take too much notice of Johnny Oleksinski. After all, he didn’t like Caroline, Or Change with Sharon D Clarke either. And that was one of the best British productions of the last decade, winning her an Olivier Award.

Watch the video of this review on  our YouTube channel

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella is currently performing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in London. For more information and tickets, click here.

10 Best Theatre Shows To Watch At Home

Top British theatre from your sofa

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

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

1. Hamilton (Disney+)

Publicity photo of Hamilton
Hamilton. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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

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

2. Sea Wall (seawallandrewscott.com)

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

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

3. Fleabag (Amazon Prime)

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

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

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

No sign of Season 2

4. Beat The Devil (Sky Arts)

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

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

5. Hymn (Sky Arts)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True

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

8. In The Heights (Amazon Prime)

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

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

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

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

9. An Ideal Husband (marquee.tv)

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

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

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

Uncle Vanya (BBC i-Player)

Uncle Vanya on BBC iPlayer

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

Happy viewing.

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

 

Paul Nicholas: Musicals, Marigolds & Me – review

A story of an impressive showbiz career


★★★
Cover of book Musicals Marigolds And Me by Paul NicholasIf you’re fascinated by show business, you’ll definitely want Musicals, Marigolds & Me, the new autobiography by Paul Nicholas, in your Christmas stocking.

He’s already given us one slice of his life back in 1999, so his latest contribution concentrates on his career as opposed to his personal life, and in particular brings up to date with his 21st century life producing shows, touring in musicals, and his newfound stardom as one of the inhabitants of TV’s Real Marigold Hotel.

Since the latter is what many people now know him for, Paul sensibly starts with a few stories about his experiences on the programme, which I’m sure will amuse the show’s many fans. I haven’t seen the show but this did tempt me to watch it.

The most interesting part of the book, for me anyway, is the behind-the-scenes story of what it’s like to be a producer. In particular, his greatest successes Grease and Saturday Night Fever.

During my time in theatre management, I worked with Paul on a number of occasions and his book is very like himself: he rarely boasts, he doesn’t upset anybody, and he keeps most of his life private. And this is where the book falls down a bit. You get very little sense of what it feels like to be a star or to be in the middle of the world of show business.

After many little stories about making the Marigold programmes, there are also very few anecdotes about the rest of his career. And when he does come up with a story, he doesn’t exaggerate or add comedy, as some would, to make them more memorable. He certainly doesn’t reveal any secrets, sticking religiously to the unwritten rule that what happens backstage stays backstage. I’m not saying I was looking for juicy scandals and salacious gossip, just some colourful stories about the people and things that happened behind the scenes.

We learn about his progress in the world of pop music which included some chart hits, and touring with the likes of Screamin’ Lord Sutch and Del Shannon and The Who. I mean, how can you tour with The Who and not have a colourful story or two? Has he really nothing to report on meeting David Bowie beyond ‘he didn’t strike me as a happy-go-lucky person’?

When he embarks on his lengthy career as a musicals performer which includes starring roles in the original London productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats. This section of the book reads like a Wikipedia entry: I did this, then I did that; I met this person then I met that person. Even though you may not get much feeling for what the life or even the people were like, you do see how show business works, and Paul shares some of what he has learned. For example, ‘ If you try and short-change the public, they will catch you out.’

When he gets into producing, the book goes up a gear. He is rightly proud of his achievement in this field, including two outstanding West End musicals Grease and Saturday Night Fever. It started in 1990, when he teamed up with David Ian to put together a touring production of the Joseph Papp version of The Pirates Of Penzance. There are many insights into the difficulties of raising money, casting and marketing (I never knew he was responsible for the iconic Grease logo).

When he had the idea of reviving Grease in 1993, he dumped the original theatre show and transformed it into a stage version of the film by incorporating new songs that featured in the movie. It proved immensely popular, especially with young people.

In 1998, he co-produced the first stage version of Saturday Night Fever. The details of his contribution to making the show the success it was, from the original idea to stage the show, the negotiations with Robert Stigwood who owned the rights, his rewriting of the script, his discovery and mentoring of the leading man Adam Garcia, the difficult decision to invest his own money, will fascinate anyone who is interested in the business side of show business.

But still no juicy gossip. After his huge success as a co-producer of Saturday Night Fever in the West End, it’s clear he was annoyed that Robert Stigwood went on to produce the show on Broadway without him. But he continues to talk well of him. I think part of the reason may be that Paul is a very nice man who genuinely doesn’t want to be unkind to anybody, even someone no longer with us.

One thing that emerges very clearly from his book is the basis of his success. He is of course talented, but so are many entertainers. He is certainly good looking and charming, and he has a good stage presence. He was a born singer but he had to learn to act, and to dance. Although he was never the greatest at any of these, what he did do was work hard. He is a supreme example of the saying that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. His work rate is hugely impressive. For Singin’ In The Rain, he had to learn to dance well enough to play a role made famous by Gene Kelly. When he starred as Barnum, he learned juggling, unicycling, trampolining and tightrope walking. He certainly deserves his success.

Paul displays his gentle sense of humour, as when he says that, even as an old man, he still has fans, including a stalker. ‘I just have to walk very slowly,’ he writes.

And that’s typical of Paul Nicholas. It is no surprise that he is growing old gracefully. By dint of talent, determination and hard work, he has had an impressive career, but all with good grace and self effacement. And that’s what you get in his latest autobiography.

Musicals, Marigolds & Me is published by Fantom Publishing

Paul was given a copy of the e-book to review

Watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

 

Brief Encounter – The Watermill – review

An enjoyably theatrical show based on Noel Coward’s iconic romance


★★★★

Production photo of Callum McIntyre & Laura Lake Abedisi in Brief Encounter at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury
Callum McIntyre & Laura Lake Abedisi in Brief Encounter at The Watermill. Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

If you’re expecting to see a straightforward stage adaptation of the film Brief Encounter, you may be disappointed. If you’re expecting to see Emma Rice’s legendary multimedia production of Brief Encounter, you may be disappointed.

If you go without ever having seen the film, or at least without any expectations, you should enjoy an evening of humour, passion, poignancy and great theatricality.

Let’s take the lack of similarity to the film first. Part of the issue here is that in writing this play, Emma Rice has combined elements of Noel Coward’s screenplay with his original short play Still Life on which the film was based. A great idea but this means it isn’t pure Brief Encounter.

As to Emma Rice‘s adaptation, the original Kneehigh production from ten or so years ago,included a big screen with a movie showing that imitated the David Lean version but featured the stage actors, who then interacted with it. In this production, the screen has gone.

The story of the chance meeting of two married people in a railway station buffet and their subsequent, hesitant, guilt-ridden affair is still centre stage in this production of Brief Encounter but, there is much more about the relationship between Myrtle the café manager and Albert the station guard than you see in the film.

This is especially true in the first act where their flirtatious and at times vulgar chatting up is given almost equal weight with the more reserved and cautious romance between Alec and Laura. There is a strong and, I suggest, elitist suggestion that middle class equals repressed and serious, while working class equals liberated and comic. Indeed Kate Milner-Evans and Charles Angiama are funny as Myrtle and Stanley, and the former is a particularly strong singer.

As well as those two couples, there is a third romance going on between a more innocent younger couple Beryl the waitress and Stanley who sells food from a tray on the platform. There are nicely judged performances by Hanna Khogali and Oliver Aston. Although the ‘compare and contrast’ is very interesting, this made the first act very bitty. It was quite a challenge to get to know Alec and Laura.

Although the screen has disappeared, much of Emma Rice’s inventive adaptation remains in this production directed by Robert Kirby. Songs and dance are used to dazzling effect, with all seven actors singing and several playing instruments as well. The songs are by Noël Coward, sometimes his music and lyrics, sometimes his lyrics with music by  Eamonn O’Dwyer. They are well chosen to reflect the mood of each moment. For example, Beryl sings an appropriate Mad About The Boy and, at the end, to match the poignancy of the parting, Alec (Callum McIntyre) sings A Room With A View with lines like ‘A room with a view / And you / And no one to worry us / No one to hurry us / Through this dream we found’. And beautifully sung.

There is also mime and dance. It is pure theatre, which I mean it couldn’t be done in any other medium and it is what we love about being at a live performance.

The Watermill stage is small so Harry Pizzey’s set design leaves it open and cleverly uses a few pieces of scenery to convey the locations. The café counter doubles as a piano; armchairs and tables roll smoothly on and off as the scene changes from the café to a flat to Laura’s home. Which is where we meet her husband Fred, also played by Charles Angiama. You can see why she might want someone less solid, a lot more exciting.

There may be no big screen but the production does use a nice and very amusing device to remind us of its cinematic connection, namely sound effects. As Myrtle mimes pouring tea, one of the cast in the corner pours water into a jug in front of a microphone.

The second act is much more focused on Laura and Alec, and the better for it. This is a classic love story and well told in this version. Their blossoming romance, their growing love that becomes increasingly reckless, the agonising over the rights and wrongs of their affair, the ecstasy and the heartbreak.

As Laura says at one point, their love has made her ‘a stranger in her own home’. The most interesting, because the most conflicted, character is Laura. Played by Laura Lake Abedisi, it is the more difficult role because she has to express herself from behind a mask of repressed feelings and the kind of strangulated accent that you will be familiar with from films of the 1930s and 40s, or  the Queen in The Crown. Ms Abedisi does a splendid job and, by the end, I was totally in tune with her anguish.

Callum McIntyre is excellent as Alec Harvey, combining charm, confidence, humour and profound feeling.

This may not be what you would expect if you love the film, but if you accept that it has been taken apart and reconstructed as a piece of theatre, I think you will have a great evening.

Brief Encounter continues at The Watermill in Newbury until 13 November 2021

One Minute Theatre Reviews was supplied with a press ticket by the producers

Watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel on YouTube

 

 

 

Is God Is – Royal Court – Review

Aleshea Harris’ bloodbath thriller is a bit anemic

★★★

Production photo of Cecilia Noble, Tamara Lawrence and Adelayo Adedayo in Is God Is at the Royal Court theatre in London
Cecilia Noble, Tamara Lawrence and Adelayo Adedayo in Is God Is. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Is God Is by up-and-coming American playwright Aleshea Harris is a revenge tragedy, or perhaps tragicomedy, in a tradition that dates back to the Old Testament and takes in Jacobean tragedy and Quentin Tarantino along the way. Perhaps it most resembles the plays of Martin McDonagh, but, in any comparison with them, I’m afraid Is God Is comes off worse.

17 year old twins find out that their mother, whom they thought had died in a fire when they were small children, is actually alive but finally succumbing to her injuries. The reunion is not entirely joyous because she wants them to kill the man responsible for her condition, her former abusive partner and their father. She wants him ‘dead. Real dead. And lots of blood is fine’. The young women, who were also scarred by the fire,  don’t really question whether this is moral or legal or even practical. As far as they are concerned this is a mission from God, since their mother created them. They are driven by the need for vengeance and so is the plot.

So begins a killing spree.

Aleshea Harris’ play won the Relentless Prize in the USA and the relentless speed is helped by the device of the characters introducing themselves in the third person, rather than reveal their characters through their words and deeds. The killing spree leaves no time for a pause for thought about morality, family, class and race, which are all touched on. And the play’s high speed drive straight down the highway gives no opportunity for a twist or a turn, like the sudden slamming on of brakes and or a hairpin bend, except perhaps at the very end when you might be left wondering whether vengeance is worth it. Compared with all the plays by Martin McDonagh that I have reviewed in the last couple of years, The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, Hangmen, A Very Very Very Dark Matter and his early work The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, seen recently in Chichester and at the Lyric Hammersmith, there are no shocking twists or unexpected revelations, of the kind which enrich his work.

No blood but real fire

The older more extrovert sister Racine acquires a rock- which is thought to be the weapon with which Cain killed Abel- and proceeds to use it against all she comes into contact with, even after the slightest offence.

Unlike, I believe, the original New York presentation of Is God Is, there is no blood splattering Ola Ince’s production. So much for ‘lots of blood is fine’. The violence, while plentiful, is so stylised that it neither shocks nor is any more convincing than the characters’ motives. The horrific scars become symbolic tattoos. Once you take both horror and nuance out of the equation, you’re not left with much.

There might not have been any blood but there was real fire in Chloe Lamford‘s design. I liked her simple cartoon-like sets, with the titles for each scene like Going West and Showdown from the script writ large, encouraging the sense that we were watching chapters of a pulp novel being acted out.

I also enjoyed the acting. Out of a uniformly strong cast, I’ll mention in particular Cecilia Noble as the mother or God or, as in the cast list, She. It was a chilling moment when she conjured up what happened to her on the fateful day of the fire, and her powerful command to ‘make him dead’ was like the word of God.

Her two twins, the older Racine played by Tamara Lawrence and younger Anaia played by Adelayo Adedayo were a great double act. Their repartee was sharp and funny, made more so by the use of the Southern States vernacular and rhythms of speech.

It’s clear that Aleshea Harris is a writer to watch. She has a poet’s ear for dialogue. She is also able to make subtle homages to past masterpieces of the vengeance genre without laying it on thick. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more from her but I don’t think she’s quite there yet.

Is God Is runs at the Royal Court Theatre until 23 October 2021

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

 

What If If Only by Caryl Churchill – review

A surprisingly funny play about loss and grief

★★★★

Production photo showing Linda Bassett and John Heffernan in What If If Only at the Royal Court Theatre in London
Linda Bassett & John Heffernan in What If If Only at the Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

At the beginning of What If If Only, we meet a man referred to in the cast list as ‘someone’. He’s sitting at a table in a small room talking to himself or rather to someone who isn’t actually there.

His first words are about a man who spent ten years trying to paint an apple so that it looked just like an apple, then seven years trying to paint an apple so that it looked nothing like an apple. Given that Caryl Churchill’s new play is less than 20 minutes in length, I assume she wouldn’t waste words. So what’s the significance of the apple fable? I’ll come back to that.

We immediately discover that his partner has died but that he still likes to talk to his beloved and wishes he could get in touch with them, beyond the grave, as it were. John Heffernan’s portrait of grief is touching, it’s so quietly sad. A bit too quiet actually in terms of being heard at the back which is a shame because James Macdonald’s production savours every word.

Our ‘someone’ wonders ‘what if’ his loved one had lived, and wishes ‘if only’ they had lived. He longs to see a ghost. Designer Miriam Buether’s cube-shaped room, which is a metaphor for being contained by the present, rises to let in a ghost from outside the present moment.

Thought provoking and cleverly told

What follows in this short comedy about loss is both thought provoking and unexpectedly funny. Much to our surprise, and that of the protagonist, the ghost that appears is not wished-for dead figure from the past but a ghost from the future, then more futures. All are represented by a smiling and occasionally stern Linda Bassett who has great fun switching between characters in some packed monologues.

Actually, we do meet one more character- a child who could be part of this man’s future. ‘Child Future’ was confidently played on the occasion I saw it by Samir Simon-Keegan who may well be part of the future of acting.

It’s a play about dealing with grief and the theme that emerges is that you can’t bring back the past, only take one of many possible routes into a future that is certain to be different from the past. Not a hugely original idea, but cleverly told.

So what about the apple? Is the apple a metaphor for the present? While his loved one was alive, each new moment resembled the previous moments in his memory, so was he at that time painting an apple that looked like an apple, but when his loved one died, the present was no longer matched his memories, so he was trying to paint an apple that looked nothing like an apple.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the apple. What if I hadn’t tried to analyse the meaning of the apple story? If only I hadn’t mentioned the apple.

What If If Only continues at the Royal Court Theatre until 23 October 2021

Click here to watch the video of this review of What If If Only on YouTube

The Mirror And The Light – review

Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles provide a fitting end to a great theatrical trilogy.

★★★★

Production photo of Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker in The Mirro And The Light at the Gielgud Theatre London
Nathaniel Parker and Ben Miles in The Mirror And The Light

It’s a few years since the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s outstanding stage versions of the first two books in Hilary Mantel‘s trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell.  At last, we arrive at the final volume The Mirror And The Light. So did episode three reach new heights or fall from grace?

Just in case you don’t know your history or haven’t read the book, we begin with Cromwell in prison, his fate already sealed. We see who his enemies are and who among his allies has betrayed him.

The prison set is dark and foreboding with high steely grey walls, designed by Christopher Oram. Then we go back in time to when Cromwell was still riding high, and, with a jolt, we realise the court is almost identical to the prison.
Even the King is trapped by what is required of his position but the rest are prisoners to his whims, as well as constantly vulnerable to enemies in the court.

The story of Cromwell’s fall then plays out and is more, not less, tense for our knowing the fate that awaits him. This is not a simple adaptation of a novel. It is a gripping piece of theatre, as if writers Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles have taken the story of Cromwell and written a play about it from scratch.

So we’re not inside Cromwell’s head, as in the book, but rather witnessing this central character’s interaction with those around him, showing how others see him and how he works the court. We see the fragility of his power and his own awareness of his vulnerability.

Jeremy Herrin’s production feels Shakespearean

The play feels Shakespearean, and under Jeremy Herrin’s direction, it looks like a traditional production of one of the history plays, with everyone looking like they’ve stepped out of a painting by Hans Holbein. The language while not as poetic has an Elizabethan style, but also pace and a natural flow. The resemblance to modern day politics or even office politics is striking.

Cromwell, hated by his fellow councillors and by the people, is dependent on the goodwill of the King. British prime minister Harold Macmillan said the greatest challenge for politicians was ‘events, dear boy, events.’ So it proves for Cromwell. A mishandled northern rebellion, the death of Jane Seymour, a disastrous marriage to Anna of Cleves and the king begins to have less faith in his right-hand man. It’s all his enemies need, chief of which is the Duke of Norfolk, played by Nicholas Woodeson as a little weasel of a man, who resents the rise of a blacksmith’s boy above his ancient aristocratic family, and takes every opportunity to bring about his downfall.

Cromwell is always either on stage or being discussed. He is not exactly a good man, actually he’s a greedy manipulator, but he comes across as honourable, at least by the standards of the day, and compassionate, for example to Princess Mary, in a way that few of the others do.

Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker head a well chosen cast

Ben Miles‘ performance as this complex man- laughing, worrying, macho, submissive- his eyes constantly flicking round the room- is a tour de force.
Both he and the King are lonely at the top. Nathaniel Parker’s Henry, the mirror and the light of the title, is a capricious child in an oversized man’s body, self indulgent, self pitying, isolated. A telling moment sees him by alone, feeling the cold, desperate for the warmth of the fire.

With a cast of 24, this Royal Shakespeare Company production has an epic feel. And it is a well chosen, diverse cast, who are a compliment to the RSC’s casting director Helena Palmer.

Melissa Allan reveals the steel in Mary Tudor. You can see Bloody Mary waiting to emerge. Geoffrey Lumb as Thomas Wriothesley and Leo Wan as Richard Riche make you recoil at their sliminess. Terrique Jarrett as Cromwell’s son Gregory adds a bright presence, and Jordan Kouamé was moving as Cromwell’s ally Rafe Sadler, desperate to save him without offending the King. Matthew Pidgeon’s double act as the friendly ambassador Eustache and the vicious Bishop Gardiner was impressive.

Inevitably death hangs over this evening. The two most influential people in Cromwell’s life appear as ghosts:  his old mentor Cardinal Wolseley, played by a jolly Tony Turner, and his father, played with a spitting nastiness by Liam Smith.

I’m sorry if I’ve made the evening sound grim, it’s actually leavened with a great deal of humour. Paul Adeyefa brings much comedy as Cromwell’s faithful French servant Christophe. Nicholas Boulton is a Tigger-like Duke Of Suffolk, a friend to Cromwell in the sense of ‘with friends like these who needs enemies’. Jo Herbert is a cynical Lady Rochford. One of the funniest moments of the evening is when the new queen Jane Seymour, played as a likeable young woman by Olivia Marcus, complains to Cromwell about Henry’s unreasonable demands. An embarrassed Thomas, assuming them to be sexual, tries to coax more detail out of her, only to discover she is referring to the King wanting her to ride with him to inspect the fortifications at Dover.

After the rollercoaster of events leading to Cromwell’s arrest, the ending is downbeat. This is partly because Cromwell accepts his fate with dignity. Despite a dramatic beheading orchestrated by illusionist Ben Hart, it’s a  climax that didn’t leave me quite as shocked or drained as I expected. Nevertheless the play is a fitting conclusion to a fine trilogy.

The Mirror And The Light is due to run at the Gielgud Theatre until 23 January 2022. Tickets from delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

 

The Normal Heart at The National Theatre – review

Larry Kramer’s  blistering attack on prejudice and complacency in the early days of AIDS epidemic

★★★★

Production photo from The Normal Heart at the National Theatre
Ben Daniels & Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The Normal Heart, written in 1985 as the AIDS epidemic was finally beginning to be acknowledged, is based on author Larry Kramer’s own experience of this period. It’s a play that highlights prejudice and ignorance, fighting for what is right, and what it’s like to live in a time of plague.

The lead character Ned is semi-autobiographical and it’s great to see Ben Daniels given the starring role. He’s an excellent actor who always delivers on stage or screen. These days is probably best known for playing Princess Margaret’s husband in The Crown but in this production, directed by Dominic Cooke, he shows how he can carry a whole show.

This production was stopped in its tracks by the COVID -19 pandemic. So, inevitably, now that it’s finally made it onto the Olivier stage, we view it in the light of our experience of what’s happened over the last year and a half. We recognise the authorities’ slowness to respond to what was going on, albeit nothing like the fatal head-in-the-sand attitude to the early deaths within New York’s gay community. In the unwillingness of people to do what’s necessary to save lives, we can see a parallel with some gay men back then refusing to modify their sex lives. We are also familiar with wide-ranging and sometimes wild theories about causes and cures that have since gone by the wayside. In the play, you get the sense of bewilderment and panic about where this so-called ‘gay plague’ has come from and how it’s being spread.

What’s also happened between the postponement of this production and now is the joyous but devastating TV series It’s A Sin by Russell T Davies. That was set in the UK rather than New York and took us into the 90s but anyone who has seen it will recognise the way some newly liberated gay men became highly promiscuous during the 70s and 80s, and again the slowness to react, and the crushing sadness of friends dying all around, and the reconciliation between some parents, especially mothers, and their dying sons.

The Normal Heart is much more overtly political than It’s A Sin. It might be better compared with Albert CamusThe Plague, in which an outbreak of bubonic plague follows a similar trajectory and is intended as an analogy for the rise of Nazism.

The Normal Heart follows closely the developments in early 1980s New York: the early deaths, the uncertainties, one doctor flagging up the concern, and the forming of an organisation intended to warn gay men of the danger, help those that contracted AIDs, and pursue the authorities for support.

It’s hard to know what’s more depressing: people faced with the possibility of contracting a fatal disease still carrying on with a reckless lifestyle, or the authorities and media trying to pretend it wasn’t happening because this seemed to be only to do with gay men, and not something they wanted to be associated with. So both familiar and yet still shocking.

Ned is instantly at odds with his fellow campaigners. He is all for directness and shouting from the rooftops in order to pressurise those in power into action, and his fellow gay men to refrain from sex. I guess he’s the kind of person who these days would be gluing himself to the motorway. Others, some still in the closet, argue for a more softly softly approach.

Humour, pain, anger and compassion

Because the abrasive Ned is never afraid to tell it like it is, he has some barnstorming moments, but the other actors in Ned’s circle including Luke Norris, Dino Fetscher, Daniel Monks and Danny Lee Wynter, take hold of their well drawn, varied characters and fill this evening with humour, pain, anger and compassion.

Production photo by Helen Maybanks showin Liz Carr in The Normal Heart at the Ntional Theatre London in 2021
Liz Carr in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Liz Carr plays Doctor Brookner who first notices the increase in this distinctive illness and goes from compassionate but objective medic to militant campaigner, with a blistering speech in the second act. ‘How does it always happen that all of the idiots are always on your team?’ she asks her opponents.

Ned is also in conflict with his straight brother Ben, given a nicely nuanced performance by Robert Bowman, who shows the love he feels for his brother while barely able to disguise his homophobia.

Not only does Kramer give the various members of the group the space to express their differing feelings and opinions, he digs deep into his main protagonist’s character. Despite all the risks of intimacy, the previously lonely Ned falls in love and suddenly the story of this epidemic becomes very personal. Love is what makes Ned a human  ding rather than a simple polemicist

The end is heartbreaking, compounded by the misery of the latter stages of the disease and, even after their death, the continuing prejudice in the treatment of their bodies. If you are not in tears by the end, I would question whether you have a heart.

Although the setting is specifically the gay community of New York in the early 80s, the behaviour it shows can be seen again and again in many other situations. We’re reminded by Ned in the play how governments turned a blind eye to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. And if we look around today, we could take the example of the way a male-dominated, misogynistic judicial system consistently fails to take effective action against the number of rapes and other violence against women. Or the way elderly people in care homes were treated during the COVID -19 outbreak (see Help by Jack Thorne on All4). Or the daily discrimination against black people (see my review of Typical).

A word about the set. The Olivier at the National Theatre has been converted into a theatre-in-the round. The stage is a circle with a thin light all the way round the circumference, perhaps suggesting the way gay men were seen at that time as separate from the rest of society. It’s pretty much bare apart from a few benches so this production is all about the acting, and that to be frank is a relief after many productions I’ve seen in this large space where the set design has dwarfed the play. The set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, also has a flame burning high up throughout. I took this to represent the kind of eternal flame you find at a tomb of the unknown soldier, as if to say these thousands who died through the prejudice and ignorance should not be forgotten.

To make this truly in-the-round, there are seats on what would normally be the stage, though it was my impression, sitting in the circle that the actors faced to the traditional front the majority of the time. A word of warning: there are lighting towers positioned around edge of the circular stage. These will inevitably give you a restricted view if you sit in the right or left stalls and circle. I know this to be true because a delayed train caused me to arrive at the last moment, so I was sitting to the side for the first act before I was able to take my central seat.

The Normal Heart is a deeply moving play, with scintillating, witty, powerful dialogue that deserves this well acted revival.

Revision made on 1 October 2021 to add more about the significance of love and the universality of the message

The Normal Heart is performing at the National Theatre until 6 November 2021.

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

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – film review

Star debut by Max Harwood in a joyous fantasy film musical

★★★★

Still from film of Everybody's Talking ASbout Jamie showing Max Harwood
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Everybody should be talking about the film of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie but I suspect they won’t because it slipped through the cinemas and is now behind the firewall of Amazon Prime.

First thing to say, this is a movie in its own right, not simply a film of the stage show. It’s the story of a gay teenager verbally bullied at school and rejected by his homophobic father, but who finds liberation in dressing up in glamorous women’s clothing. The central message is a familiar one of allowing people- young people- to be themselves and fulfill their potential.

Like the stage show, it fetures the fabulous songs composed by Dan Gillespie Sells from The Feeling with lyrics from Jamie writer Tim MacRae. They’re energetic, liberating and someones melancholic, although some of the songs from the stage show failed to make the transition to celluloid.

The film is an impressive directorial debut for Jonathan Butterell who tells the story confidently and seamlessly switches from the mundane classroom and other day-to-day situations to the glorious fantasies of the songs in which Jamie imagines the life he should lead.

This is not about someone being ashamed of being gay. Jamie is confident in his sexuality, which is a sign of the progress that’s been made in the 50 years since same-sex relationships became legal. He even stands up to the homophobic class bully. No, his secret desire is to be a drag queen, or more immediately to wear a dress at the forthcoming prom.

It’s not entirely secret. His mother supports him and even buys him ruby encrusted shoes which must surely make us think of The Wizard Of Oz and that old euphemism for gay men, namely friends of Dorothy. His father too is aware but is ashamed of him, which has led to Jamie having a poor self image.

For me the most moving moment was a scene that’s not in the stage show. Jamie has met Hugo Battersby, an older drag queen, played by the great Richard E Grant as someone ‘battered’ by the past but still flamboyantly extrovert. He becomes Jamie’s mentor and shows him a VHS video from the late 80s. This wonderfully convincing, slightly blurry pastiche – complete with a new song- shows the protests against the Thatcher government’s discrimination against gay people, all in the midst of the horrors of the AIDS epidemic.

In a nice touch, the transfixed Jamie and Hugo, at first reflected on the TV screen, become part of the video. It powerfully reminds us- and Jamie- that there were many battles fought by lesbian and gay people and much bravery in being ‘out’. It puts today’s problems in perspective. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants  Short as the scene is, the power of the song This Was Me and the sadness and defiance shown in the video moved me more than anything else in the film.

Max Harwood gives an outstanding performance as Jamie, the self deprecating, likeable  youngster who gradually gains the confidence to express himself. Also making an impressive feature film debut is Lauren Patel who plays his studious but vocal Muslim friend Priti.

They are well supported by some great veteran actors.  Sharon Horgan, seen recently on Channel 4 in the extraordinarily good This Way Up, is magnificent as the teacher who squashes the ambitions of her working class  students. There are two alumni from Coronation Street. Sarah Lancashire plays Jamie’s devoted mother with great warmth and sings the stand-out song – a kind of torch song- He’s My Boy, with depth and passion. The excellent Shobna Gulati plays her comic but forceful friend Ray. Ms Gulati is, I think, the only member of the  West End stage show to reprise a role in the film and incidentally she’s playing Ray in the current UK tour.

The story is predictable in both its course and outcome. In many ways you could describe it as a fairy tale and, in saying that, I’m not attempting a crass joke. What I mean is that everything works out just a little too well. The implausibility matters more in this film than it does in the original stage show where you are carried along by your emotional response to the songs and performances. Even so, this is a well-made and uplifting film, right up to the tear-in-the-eye ending.

And if you can’t see it in all its wide screen glory at the cinema, you can catch it streaming on Amazon Prime.

Watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane – review

Martin McDonagh’s early work hints at greatness to come.

★★★

Production photo of The BEauty Queen Of Leenane at The Minerva Thetare Chichester showng Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie
Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

We’ve come to know Martin McDonagh very well over the last 25 years. Revivals of his plays The Cripple Of Inishmaan with Daniel Radcliffe and The Lieutenant of Inishmore with Aidan Turner were West End triumphs and confirmed his status as a leading playwright.

He continues to dazzle with hits like Hangmen and A Very Very Very Dark Matter. Then there are his films In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and more.

His work is notable for unpredictable storytelling, humorous dialogue and sudden violent shocks. And that’s all here in his first play The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, revived in a co-production by Chichester Festival Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith.

The play centres on the relationship between 70 year old Mag, played by Ingrid Craigie,  and her 40 year old daughter and carer Maureen (Orla Fitzgerald). The pair are isolated in a run-down Irish village in the mid-1990s. They only have each other, and this dependency has led to a toxic, indeed abusive relationship in which each torments the other in petty, or occasionally significant, ways.

Mag empties her chamber pot into the kitchen sink each morning to the annoyance of her daughter, Maureen only buys biscuits her mother dislikes. It reminded me of the co-dependent parent-child relationship that formed the heart of the classic TV sitcom Steptoe And Son.

Mag schemes to undermine Maureen in order to keep her at home. She destroys important notes and letters. The mentally unstable daughter, having apparently sacrificed her life to perform her filial duty, crosses from care to cruelty. The relationship is dark, sinister even, but the interplay between them is also amusing.

Both actors convince in the ease of their conversation, which sounds like they have been having the same exchanges for the last 20 years, much like a Becket or Pinter play. I particularly enjoyed the animation and barely contained look of triumph that Ingrid Craigie gave when her character had secret knowledge about the truth of a situation, and mischievously led Maureen on in her lie about it. Orla Fitzgerald was tremendous whenever she tried to lord it over her mother, stepping out with hips swaying.

An absorbing look at a toxic relationship

The co-dependency is threatened when Pato appears on the scene. Although a local, he is also an outsider, having emigrated to London. England is always seen as a malign influence in this play. The country that has destroyed Ireland and continues to ruin this village. It’s a relationship perhaps not dissimilar to that of Mag and Maureen.

Pato forms a liaison with Maureen, whom he calls his beauty queen, and threatens to take her away to the promised land of America. Not if Mag has anything to do with it.  A violent and unhappy end seems inevitable.

Production photo ffrom The Beauty Queen Of Leenane at The Minerva Chichester showing Orla Fitzgerald and Adam Best
Adam Best and Orla Fitzgerald in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Adam Best is moving as Pato, a sad lonely man set apart from the English by his Irish village origins and by the prejudice and dangers of London’s building sites. At the beginning of act two, he writes a letter to Maureen about his life and wishes that is truly heartbreaking.

The fourth member of the cast is Kwaku Fortune who portrays Pato’s brother Ray. His main role is that of a miserable messenger but in his short scenes he convincingly illustrates the dead end nature of life in Leenane, which for him lies mainly in an obsession with Australian soaps and a surly attitude.

The set by Good Teeth Theatre was so dingy you could almost smell the urine. The rainy monotone backwall projection was appropriately bleak. The set was spread out with Mag’s armchair and a stove on one side and Maureen’s chair and kitchen area on the other. This suggested a boxing ring in which each protagonist had their corner. The sound by Anna Clock that accompanies the scenes breaks was equally desolate.

Martin McDonagh certainly has a way with words, and if The Beauty Queen Of Leenane isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny nor as original in its subject matter as his later work, it is still absorbing. Rachel O’Riordan’s production does it proud.

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is performing in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until 2 October and then at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from 6 October to 9 November 2021

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube