The Taxidermist’s Daughter – Chichester – review

Kate Mosse’s first play provides a dramatic opening to new Chichester season

★★★

A production photo from The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse taken on 8th April 2022 at Chichetser Festival Theatre
The Taxidermist’s Daughter at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The opening of this year’s Chichester Festival Theatre season could not be more dramatic. I’ve rarely felt such goosebumps as when the lights went up on The Taxidermist’s Daughter began: an initial jump at the loud discordant sound and disturbing lighting, churchgoers frightened by hanging dead crows, a chilling recitation of Who Killed Cock Robin.

This play has Chichester running in its veins. It is written by Chichester resident and Festival Theatre stalwart Kate Mosse, and set in nearby Fishbourne. I don’t know how much of the credit goes to Kate Mosse and how much to director Roisin McBrinn, but this is a play designed for the Festival Theatre space and the production works perfectly there.

Unfortunately, the gothic horror story doesn’t quite live up to the production. The evocation of a bygone time and place, and the sense of the past contained in the present are excellent. However, Kate Mosse has made the decision to turn her original mystery story into a revenge play while retaining a question mark over the whys and wherefores of what’s going on. The belated explanation means that I for one found it hard to understand or sympathise with the revenge that a mystery woman is carrying out.

The play lacks the tension of the best thrillers: the killing spree doesn’t even begin until the end of act one. And the mystery doesn’t grip enough to justify the delay, despite raising many questions:  who are the women who have escaped from the local asylum, who has hung dead crows in the church, what happened all those years ago, why are people being killed, are these connected? Spoiler alert- yes they are!

Connie Gifford can’t remember the details of a traumatic event in her childhood.  She is trying to continue her drunken father’s tottering taxidermy business and is troubled by both the past and present. Daisy Prosper conveys well her sweet disposition and vulnerability.

We eventually learn that a group of leading men from the community committed crimes and, because of their position in society and because the crimes were against women, they have got away with it. ‘The men charged to protect us are the ones we must fear the most.’

The message is perennial. Inevitably we will think that not enough has changed a hundred years on, when powerful men like Jimmy Savile and Jeffrey Epstein get away with crimes against women and girls for years. But, for audiences of revenge fiction, taking the law into one’s own hands is a cathartic response to the failures of the system.

The stars of the show are the creative team

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is not as spooky as The Woman In Black nor as bloody and grand guignol as the recent production of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore which starred Aidan Turner. Nevertheless, it does a decent job in both those genres.

In this, the play is helped enormously by the creative team, who are the real stars of the show. Sinead Diskin’s frightening music and sound and the stark, flashing lighting designed by Prema Mehta. Paul Wills’ set design keeps the stage bare. Sinister black-and-white projections proliferate- on the back wall, the floor and on hanging screens. These often take the form of extraordinary videos by Andrzej Goulding, which show us fragments of faces, dark foliage, water- oh yes, the water. I’ve seen a lot of water on this stage over the years but this projection of splashing water onto the floor was more convincing than any real water I’ve seen.

And water is significant because Fishbourne is marshland and it’s 1912, the year of the great flood, and the action takes place as the deluge begins. So the mystery woman may be seen as washing out evil from the community.

The production uses every square inch of the stage. There are entrances from all directions, and pieces of set- often stuffed birds in display cabinets- rise from a multitude of holes in the floor. It does what theatre does best: it inspires the imagination. In fact, the scariest moment is probably when we finally see the crime, and that’s because we don’t actually see it, but are given all the information we need to imagine it.

Production photo of Pearl Chandra in The Taxisermist's Daughter by Kate Miosse at Chichester festival Theatre in 2022
Pearl Chandra in The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Many of the characters are sketched rather than detailed portraits. Pearl Chandra as the mystery murderer is passionate and energetic without going over the top.  Forbes Masson does well as Connie’s father Crowley Gifford, a man plagued with guilt about what happened in his past, who is now barely holding himself together.

We also meet a nice man: Harry, a gentle young artist, played by Taheen Modak. Although the play focuses on the position of women in early 20th ventury society, men too had to know their place, so it’s good to see at least one young man whois nice and gentle and breaks free from the chains of a professional career to become an artist. It’s not overtly stated in the play but it’s hard not to remember that this young man is only a couple of years away from being sent to the slaughter of the first world war, a victim of powerful old men, in a war that will change the village more than the flood.

But maybe that’s putting too much weight on what is in the end an enjoyable gothic horror story in a glorious production.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 30 April 2022. Click here for tickets and information.

The reviewer was given a press ticket by the producers.

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

 

Christina Bianco in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice – review

Shobna Gulati, Ian Kelsey and Christina Bianco delight in Jim Cartwright’s classic comedy

★★★★

Production photo of Christina Bianco, Ian Kelsey and Shoibna Gulati in the 2022 touring production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
Christina Bianco, Ian Kelsey and Shoibna Gulati in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Touring productions are the Cinderella of British theatre. Given the choice, actors will often prefer to work in one place, preferably London. So, when I saw that two former soap actors and a YouTube sensation were heading the cast of the new touring production of The Rise And Fall of Little Voice, I feared the worst. How wrong I was.

Jim Cartwright’s play about an introverted young woman mourning her father and badly treated by her mother, who finds escape in the music of classic female singers, has been revived many times. The challenge for all the actors in this show is that there has also been a film version that is imprinted on most of our brains. Brenda Blethyn as the horrendous mother Mari Hoff, Michael Caine as the smooth talking showbiz manager Ray Say, and of course Jane Horrocks as LV, or Little Voice. So the cast have to work very hard to make you forget those definitive performances. None more so than the person playing LV. In some ways, the challenge is not to mess it up.

With the part of Mari, Jim Cartwright created one of theatre’s great monsters: a selfish woman with no redeeming features whose only concern is her own love life, and who abuses not only her daughter but the English language. Shobna Gulati grabs the part with both hands and extracts every ounce of comedy out of it. She relishes the outrageous puns (“I did it my Ray’) and dishes out malapropisms with a perfect deadpan delivery. When criticising LV for her lack of politeness, ‘She can’t even be swivel’ or, referring to her age, ‘at my time of strife’. Visually, her bosoms are barely contained by her garish outfits, and she totters precariously in tight skirts and high heels. In fact, the dresses and makeup are so over the top that many drag acts would find it hard to compete. Her physical comedy is a joy, especially when she’s playing being drunk. She literally throws herself into the role and gives it, as her character would say, one hundred pesetas. I loved the moment when she pulled Ray onto the sofa, her legs flailing in the air.

Ian Kelsey gives us just the right mix of sleaziness and desperation. I last saw him thirty years ago as Danny Zuko in Grease. He’s still offering roguish allure but, here, as Ray attempts to exploit LV, he adds an underlying nastiness. Mr Kelsey conveys perfectly the ageing charm and sense of failure that make his character comically pathetic.

Christina Bianco creates a good impression

Production photo of Christina Bianco in the 2022 touring production of Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
Christina Bianco in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

I’d never heard of Christina Bianco until now, which is clearly my bad since she has 123,000 followers on YouTube and her impressions of singers have been viewed over 25 million times. So, how well can she sing?  We get glimpses as the first act progresses, then there are two nightclub performances, which LV is pushed into making. Not only does she sing beautifully but her impressions of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and many more are spot on. After all these years, very few in the audience will be taken by surprise when, after all the silence and whispers, LV reveals her diva singing voice, but the tingle down the back of the neck that Ms Bianco creates is still powerful enough to merit a round of appreciative applause.

If you want a taste of how good Christina Bianco is at impressions of singers, watch her on YouTube singing Let It Go (there’s a choice but I’d recommend the video from a year ago). As for her Lancashire accent, admittedly she’s an impressionist, but it’s spot on. You would never know she’s from New York.

She is uncannily like Jane Horrocks but it would be unfair to dismiss her performance as an impression because there is little leeway for playing the role differently. Jim Cartwright wrote the part of LV for Jane Horrocks and she played it both in its National Theatre premiere and on film, so that is how the part is meant to be played. The important point is, Christina Bianco is entirely convincing as someone traumatised by grief and parental abuse, who continues to be bullied until she finds her own voice.

Akshay Gulati is believable as the shy would-be boyfriend of LV and William Ilkley makes a cringe-worthy Mr Boo, the club owner and MC.

Fiona Mulvaney is excellent as Mari’s friend Sadie. I can’t help feeling the part of a stooge who says very little other than ‘Okay’ is reminiscent of the kind of one-dimensional character you’d find in an old fashioned sitcom. That’s just one of the ways this play is now showing its age. Also, this mainly pacey play seemed to me to be drawn out at the end.

The set designed by Sara Perks takes the form of a two up-two down house with the front and part of the roof torn off, as if giving us an unauthorised glimpse into what would normally go on behind closed doors. It’s crowded with furniture and other cheap objects, adding to a strong sense of the tastelessness of Mari’s tawdriness, and the claustrophobia of working class life.

Bronagh Lagan is the director responsible for a production that gives laughter, pathos and joy in equal measures.

[Edited 2 April 2022: extended description of Shobna Gulati’s performance.]

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

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice 2022 tour dates:
28 March – 2 April The Capitol, Horsham
4 – 9 April Exeter Northcott
11 – 16 April Malvern Theatres
18 – 23 April Theatre Clwyd
25 – 30 April Theatre Royal Brighton
3 May – 7 May Derby Theatre
9 – 14 May Salisbury Playhouse
16 – 21 May Liverpool Playhouse
23 – 28 May Wakefield Theatre Royal
30 May – 4 June Crewe Lyceum Theatre
6 – 11 June The Lowry, Salford
13 – 18 June Blackpool Grand
21 – 25 June Mercury Theatre, Colchester
27 June – 2 July Richmond Theatre
4 – 9 July York Theatre Royal
11 – 16 July Everyman Theatre Cheltenham

 

 

 

Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy – Bridge Theatre – review

Fiennes shines in David Hare’s play about a strong man

★★★

Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy at The Bridge Theatre London March 2022
Ralph Fiennes in Straight Line Crazy. Photo: Manuel Harlan

George Bernard Shaw said in his play Man And Superman: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

In Robert Moses, we have the quintessential ‘unreasonable man’. David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy begins in the 1920s when we meet Moses, an authoritarian figure with a vision of how New York State should develop. And, as he said himself, ‘when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe.’ Hack he did, running his straight roads through whatever got in the way.

The play is divided into two parts. In the first, we see the appeal of the strong man. He won’t compromise. He gets things done. He is non-partisan, he uses the law. We admire the way he won’t kowtow to politicians or rich elites. Almost by the sheer driving force of his personality, he gets his roads built: long straight roads to carry working class people (what we in the UK call the middle class), newly liberated by cars, to the countryside. He builds parks and pools and beaches for them to enjoy in their newfound leisure time. In many ways, he’s a hero.

In the second act, at the end of his career, we are presented with the case against his single-minded, big project approach to planning.

Ralph Fiennes is a perfect choice as the bombastic, heartless Moses. It is a privilege to watch him perform, as he strides across the floor and often planting himself downstage, isolated from the rest of the cast, eyes staring, speaking in that slightly English way that many American patricians had last century, in his case, stemming from his time at Oxford University. However, he is a one-dimensional character. We never really understand what makes him tick, he never expresses any doubts, any warmth or indeed any feelings.

In some ways, Straight Line Crazy is a history of the twentieth century. The love affair with strong men: the Picasso type of artist or the Mussolini style of politician (who supposedly ‘made the trains run on time’), followed by a reaction in favour of co-operation and collaboration. More recently, there’s been a return of interest in so-called strong leaders who get things done, so the play is timely.

If you’re unfamiliar with New York State, you may find it hard to follow what’s going on. In the first act, Robert Moses, a public official who dominated urban planning from the 1920s to the sixties, is pursuing his first great project: to open up the peninsula of Long Island that juts out to the east of New York City and houses Brooklyn and Queens at its beginning and the Hamptons at the other end- home to some of the richest people in America. He wanted to create not only roads but a public beach.

In the second act, he meets his nemesis when, at the end of his career, he seeks to extend Fifth Avenue through one of the city’s most beloved areas: Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

This first act spends a lot of time establishing Moses’ commanding personality, with some good dialogue but not a lot happening. Some of the best moments come when Moses interacts with Al Smith, the New York State governor from a poor community and a wily politician who smoothed the way for Moses’ early projects. The ever reliable Danny Webb gives Smith a warmth that enables you to see why he was so popular and persuasive.

Like others who know their own mind and are blinkered to other possibilities, Bob Moses can be a monster. From the start, we get hints that there is a dark side to his character. The people around him work for him, not with him. An employee alters a road design on the instruction of Governor Smith. Moses will have none of it. They are not there to have ideas, simply to carry out his vision.

Act Two is the case against Moses. Much more of his unsavoury side is revealed. He doesn’t change, but by the 1950s the world has. People power is growing. Jane Jacobs declares that cities are about people and communities,  talks about the tyranny of the motor car, and has a vision of revived (or gentrified, we might say) urban areas. The writing is on the wall for Moses but he still refuses to consult or compromise.

Bob Crowley’s thrusting set

It looks like David Hare is setting up a battle between Moses and Jacobs, but a clash between two strong leaders would have been counter to the theme of act two. So, although we meet Jacobs, acted with authority and humour by Helen Schlesinger, the play becomes a conflict between Moses and the people (significantly they’re represented by women), a battle between two ages. Speaking for the community is Shirley Hayes, forcefully played by Alana Maria.

So the rise and fall of Moses is interesting but the fundamental problem with the play is that Moses doesn’t change, except to get older. It is fascinating to see Ralph Fiennes change physically from the upright, vigorous young man to the slightly stooped and more ponderous old man. There is none of the guilt and fear that adds depth to the single-mindedness of Solness, the character Mr Fiennes played in Ibsen’s The Master Builder at the Old Vic in 2016 in an adaptation by David Hare.

Production photo of Samuel Barnett in StraighProdcution photo of Smauel Barnett in David Hare's Straight Line Crazy at the Bridge Theatre in London March 2022
Samuel Barnett in Straight Line Crazy. Photo: Manuel Harlan

There are similarities between the two plays but I’m afraid any comparison would be to the detriment of Straight Line Crazy. Unlike Solness, Moses’ downfall doesn’t come from fear or love or other ‘weakness’, but from a much more mundane cause: changing times and his refusal to change. However, by then, he had achieved so much of his vision, his place in history was assured, so it’s hard to have much sympathy.

The play leaves us pondering about strong leadership and people power, asking ourselves which in the end was more beneficial and which more damaging to the city.

Bob Crowley’s set underlines the debate by using a flat runway that goes from the back of the stage and thrusts out into the audience, like one of Moses’ straight roads. Whenever we meet the protesting community, a wall is flown in that symbolically cuts right through the middle of it, at the same time creating a less thrilling but more intimate space.

Siobhan Cullen and Samuel Barnett play Moses’ two assistants, the former extrovert and good humoured, the other more shy and self deprecating, but both, in their defence of him, giving us an insight into why charismatic leaders attract a following. The younger and less compliant generation is represented in the second act by a new employee, played with passion by Alisha Bailey.

Nicholas Hytner directs proceedings, as he seems to do most productions at The Bridge (we can look forward to him directing The Southbury Child in the summer, and John Gabriel Borkman in the autumn). It’s not only his choice of plays that make him missed at the National Theatre where he was once Artistic Director. His direction is unobtrusive and fuss-free: he puts the script and the actors centre stage. Not for him, distracting gimmicks or clutter; and he has the confidence of a modern strong man who doesn’t need the production to be about him.

Straight Line Crazy performs at The Bridge Theatre until 18 June 2022

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

Click here to read our review of Ralph Fiennes in David Hare’s Beat The Devil

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Bailey & Taron Egerton in Cock – review

Celebrity casting maybe, good acting definitely


★★★

Production photo from Mike Bartlett's comedy Cock at the Ambassadors Theatre in London showing Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey. March 2022
Taron Egerton & Jonathan Bailey in Cock. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Let me make clear from the start the ‘cock’ of the title does not refer to a penis, although there are quite a few references to penises in the play. So, no jokes about limp performances (there weren’t any), standing up at the end (they did) or Mike Bartlett’s Cock not being very long (it’s only 105 minutes).

The title alludes to a cock fight, because it’s about a love triangle in which two people are rivals for a third person’s love and he struggles to choose between them. It’s a play about an ostensibly gay couple one of whom finds himself attracted to a woman, and, although interesting questions are asked about how we define people’s sexuality, it’s primarily a comedy.

And since you ask, although sex is referred to regularly throughout the play, and it is quite erotic at times, the actors keep their clothes on and use stylised movements to indicate physical activity. I’m pretty sure no intimacy advisor was needed.

There are two star names in this play. So, let me start with their performances, and say that both earn their place on the stage, not because they’re celebrities but because they’re damn good actors.

Taron Egerton is best known for his performances in the films Rocketman and Kingsman, but he is RADA trained and has appeared at the National Theatre. Here he is the unnamed M (for Man, get it?). He gives a nuanced performance as what appears to be the dominant lover in a long term relationship. He plays to perfection this swaggering character who hides, in a very masculine way, his need for love. Mr Egerton has a wonderful ability to switch from a jaw jutting bully to soft and red-eyed with tears, and he delivers lines of waspish humour with a lashing tongue.

Jonathan Bailey is one of the many ridiculously attractive people from Bridgerton and destined to become the central character in the second series. He too has a good track record in theatre, including an Olivier Award. He plays M’s partner, the only character given a name, not that ‘John’ is much of an ID. His character is painfully indecisive. Mr Bailey provides many enjoyable moments of comedy, as he grimaces with his face and contorts his body in a child-like way, whilst avoiding making his mind up. If anything, there is just a little too much goofiness. We know he is suffering because there are moments outside of the action when he is alone and bathed in harsh light screaming silently, but in his interaction with the other characters, he doesn’t show quite enough of this angst.

Both are physically right for the parts, Mr Bailey thin and gangly, Mr Egerton stocky and muscular. Not quite Laurel and Hardy, but it would hard to imagine either playing the other role.

An impressive production

What you notice when you enter the auditorium is Merle Hensel’s impressive set. It’s chrome or some similar polished metal curved around the sides and back of the stage. There’s no escaping it. There are no distracting props and the one way in and out is a concealed revolving door. All that happens is reflected back on itself, conveying the way these characters are trapped in their relationships and unable to see beyond them. There are some hanging fluorescent strips which come down from time to time and these along with other lighting changes from dark to brilliantly bright, orchestrated by Paule Constable, match and enhance the mood changes.

First, we meet M and John. They’re relaxed in each other’s company. There’s a lot of affection. There’s also a lot of sniping and bickering, but anyone who’s been in a long term relationship will recognise how natural this is, because it is easy to get into negative ways of behaving.

However, there is a problem with this relationship. The cliché of a seven year itch perhaps. John has had sex with someone else. Shockingly for both of them, given that M is gay and until now John has thought of himself as gay, the other person is a woman. M’s dominating character and the way he resorts to unpleasantness hint at why John might have been tempted to stray. It has to be said that, while the insults may hurt John, they are funny for us to hear, for example when he launches into a string of offensive terms for someone who is attracted to women.

The cast of Cock. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

In the second act, we see how this other relationship began and developed. Jade Anouka (you may recognise her from His Dark Materials) is excellent as the woman with whom John has an affair and falls in love. Her character is called W (for woman). There isn’t so much potential for comedy in this part, but Ms Anouka exudes the love and need for love of her character. John shows nervousness but clear attraction, and there’s a gentleness and respect between them that wasn’t apparent in John’s relationship with M. But of course he is still attracted to M, and Mr Bailey is at his comic best when he is confused about what he wants, beyond wanting to please everybody. It is his indecisiveness that enables his lovers to mould him into what they need.

Stylised movement is moving

This is a good point to mention the way they first make love. As I said earlier, there is next to no physical intimacy beyond a kiss or a hug. They keep their clothes on. You’ll also remember I said the set is bare of any props. Throughout the play, body movement expresses thoughts and feelings without resorting to obvious mime. So much of the physical action is left to your imagination.  For example, a whole meal is served in the third act without any sign of a table a bowl or cutlery.

Going back to this first encounter between John and W, they indicate through the dialogue what they are doing, while staying physically separate on stage. She wants to see his naked body. He moves his hands to indicate the shedding of clothes without literally miming taking off each item.  Similarly, they describe him exploring her vagina but what we see, from memory, is him touching his leg and her using her body to express the excitement she is feeling inside. This exploration of each other’s bodies is highly erotic, proving perhaps that the best sex is in the brain. I congratulate director Marianne Elliott is for utilising this remarkably effective element, and the movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster for making it work so well.

This and the set and the lighting could only happen in a theatre and all contribute to a complete experience that enhances what’s said. Talking of which, Mike Bartlett has an excellent ear for dialogue- just the exchanges you would expect both from a long term relationship and a first meeting.

If I have a criticism of the production, it’s that it looks too good. It’s so stylish with its cold encompassing metal and its stylised movement that it takes away some of the raw feeling from these relationships.

The third act is the cock fight. M invites W to join him and John for dinner. It feels contrived but gives us the showdown we want. M brings along his father for good measure. He’s called F (of course) and is played by Phil Daniels, in a performance that shows a parent’s blinkered affection – he wants his son to be happy- and gives us insight into the limitations of both liberal tolerance and a view that defines people by their sexuality and gender.

M and W each think John has chosen them and is going to take the opportunity to reject the other. As the evening progresses, there’s verbal sparring, and increasingly desperate emotion as it becomes clear how much each of them needs John. He meanwhile continues to be pulled one way and another both by his feelings and by what box he should tick, with the possibility that it’s all ‘cock’, as in cock and bull.

Cock is funny a lot of the time, it lectures some of the time, and it’s not as deep as I suspect it thinks it is, but as a look at the way hearts break the rules set by our brains, it’s full of insight, especially in the hands of its starry cast.

Cock is running at the Ambassadors Theatre in London until 4 June 2022

Paul received a press ticket from the producer

Watch the review of Cock on YouTube

 

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

Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope light up this fascinating play

★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit their roles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Florian Zeller’s The Forest – review

Toby Stephens and Paul McGann share the honours as a man on the edge

★★★

Production photo of Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in Florian Zeller's The Forest at Hampstead Theatre in London 2022
Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in The Forest. Photo: The Other Richard

French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has become familiar to British audiences thanks to plays like The Truth, The Lie, The Height Of The Storm and the trilogy of The Mother, The Father and The Son. His new play The Forest is the first to receive its world premiere in the UK,  and comes on the back of the award-winning film of The Father with Anthony Hopkins.

So you probably know Florian Zeller’s approach to playwriting. It started as an innovative way of getting inside people’s minds. In The Father, it was a brain confused by dementia, in The Mother, a mid life crisis, in The Son a depressed teenager. He achieves this by having the characters act out their lies, self deception, false memories, fears and desires, often repeating scenes with variations of dialogue or even characters, and none of it is necessarily in a linear narrative. So it’s both exhilarating and exhausting. Throughout his plays, we are asking ourselves What is the truth? What actually happened? For which there may or may not be an answer.

As time has gone on, what was surprising and original has become a signature style. It may even be in danger of becoming a cliché- but not yet! Once again, Zeller brings alive a potentially mundane story.

In The Forest, the subject is a married hospital consultant who has been having an affair with a younger woman. As she demands that he legitimises their relationship, he is overtaken by fear about what that would do to his marriage and career (the two of which are tied together, at least in his head), not to mention guilt at betraying his wife.

From the start, we are in familiar Zeller territory. We are plunged into a confusing jigsaw of scenes in which we see the adulterer’s changing memories, fantasies and fears. The title refers to a story about a prince out hunting, who in pursuit of a stag that ultimately disappears, becomes lost in a forest.

Each of the three acts (there’s no interval by the way) begins with the same or at least a similar scene. The first scene sees Pierre, referred to in the cast of characters as Man 1, and played byToby Stephens, arriving home. His wife is clearly agitated. Their daughter’s long term boyfriend has been having an affair. Pierre talks to the girl about his indiscretion. ‘Don’t worry. Everything’ll work itself out’ he says. Pierre uses a conversation with the daughter to talk about his thoughts about a man having affair. Perhaps his memory is playing tricks because on the second occasion, the daughter isn’t there and he talks directly to his wife. This time he’s talking about their child’s reaction, indicating that he is concerned about his wife’s reaction to his own affair. The third time, the daughter barely gets a mention but the room has filled with flowers.

The no-strings affair is now tied up with his marriage and career

Then there’s scene two. A middle-aged man, referred to as Man 2 and played by Paul McGann, is in bed with a young woman. We’re not in doubt for very long that this is also Pierre. I’m guessing that, in his mind, Pierre has separated his affair from the rest of his life. In other words, he becomes a different person, a kind of alter ego. Before long, we are seeing the same or a similar scene but with Toby Stephens, just as Man 2 is Pierre in the third iteration of the opening scene. This indicates I think that the once no-strings affair is now tied up with this marriage and career.

Toby Stephens is brilliant as Man 1. His ready smile becomes a nervous grin. He leans back which at first seems relaxed but eventually looks like he’s reeling from blows. Paul McGann holds his own as Man2, showing a brittle harshness that soon collapses into panic.

Pierre’s character is complex and rounded. The other characters less so, perhaps because they’re part of his memory and imagination.

The treatment of the Girlfriend in the first bedroom scene is a case in point. When she gets out of bed and you see her partly naked before she puts on a shirt. Perfectly normal in real life of course but these days, you rarely see gratuitous nudity on stage, so we must assume there is a good reason for this. Actually, in the script, she is fully naked for the whole scene. I take it that this underlines that Pierre saw her as no more than someone he has sex with. She’s only given a name later as he starts to take her threat more seriously. Excellent as Angel Coulby’s acting is, there is little personality for her to get her teeth into.

Gina McKee makes the most of her limited role

Despite the limitations of the script, the glorious Gina McKee shows fine acting skill in managing to suggest there’s a lot going on the Wife’s head. Through a combination of strangled speech and sideways glances, she conveys a lack of passion that might have been a reason why Pierre strayed, insecurity, and the possibility that she suspects something.

Anna Fleischle‘s set is in three parts: a living room, a bedroom above the living room, and an office to the side. Each setting is invisible until the lights come up on it. The first two are built with tremendous attention to detail, and this naturalistic setting helps suggest that all that is going on in Pierre’s brain is happening while he continues to live out an everyday life.

The office is the exception. It’s pretty bare and seems to be where Pierre’s conversations with his conscience take place, or possibly interrogations by the police. He is being held in the room by a white faced man in black, chillingly played by Finbar Lynch. He looks like a character from an early horror film and wheedles Pierre with questions as he alternates between a good cop and bad cop style from a police procedural. The biggest question being ‘What happened?’

So what did happen? How did the affair end? What was the fate of the Girlfriend? Well, we can never be quite certain. There are some dramatic and shocking moments which turn this play into almost a thriller as well as a who-dun-it. Director Jonathan Kent is to be congratulated for the pace, and imbuing all that goes on with an almost Hitchcockian suspense, helped by Isobel Waller-Bridge‘s edgy sound design.

By the end, we have been given some explanations (or are they?). The problem for this and other Zeller plays is that the truth, if and when it’s discovered, may not be as interesting or exciting as the process that led to the revelation.

The Forest continues at Hampstead Theatre until 12 March 2022

Paul was given a complimentary review ticket by the producer

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

Spike by Ian Hislop & Nick Newman – review

An entertaining look at a comic genius but without his anarchic spirit

★★★

Production photo from Spike by Ian Hislop and nick Newman at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury UK
Spike at The Watermill Theatre. Photo: Pamela Raith

Spike by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop at The Watermill Theatre is a labour of love. Spike Milligan had a long association with Private Eye and the authors, both from the magazine, clearly feel great affection for him. However, they faced three challenges in conveying his comic genius, and weren’t entirely successful in overcoming them, despite devising an entertaining play

Firstly, I’m not sure that many people under 60 will know about Spike Milligan or remember The Goon Show. He was a brilliant comic writer and performer, best known as the writer of The Goon Show. Trouble is, the last Goon Show to be transmitted on what was then called the BBC Home Service was back in 1960, followed by a couple TV specials over the next decade or so.

It was Milligan’s surrealist and absurd humour that made The Goon Show a phenomenal hit. He was an acknowledged influence on future comedies and comics including Monty Python and Eddie Izzard.

After The Goons, Milligan continued to be a fountain of anarchic humour. He wrote poetry, plays, and books, and appeared in a number of TV programmes through the 70s and 80s. He died twenty years ago.

The Goon Show is still what he’s best known for and that’s what this play concentrates on. We see the early resistance from the BBC to the Spike’s revolutionary and rebellious style, through to the show becoming hugely popular. We also learn about Spike’s difficult personal life, his traumatic experience as a soldier in the second world war and his mental illness, and how the pressure of writing the Goon Show took its toll.

Secondly, the actors playing Milligan and his fellow Goons Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe cannot hope to recreate their genius: their voices, their timing, their understanding of each other, the way they perform as if they have just seen the script and are enjoying it as much as the audience.

Sensibly the cast don’t try to do impressions of the originals. Instead, they act out their own interpretation of these characters. Which makes it an interesting story about three friends but nothing like as funny as you might expect from a show about The Goons. The jokes are there, of course, particularly plays on words- a sign on Milligan’s door says ‘Do not disturb, I’m disturbed enough already’- but they cannot hope to deliver them with the power of the actual Goons. The voices can never be quite as ridiculous nor the irony as sharp.

Production photo of John Dagleish in Spike at The Wtermill Theatre in Newbury
John Dagleish in Spike. Photo: Pamela Raith

I’m not in any way denigrating the actors. John Dagleish as Milligan is an excellent comic actor with a great plasticine face and he plays his part with verve, giving a strong impression of a man on the edge. George Kemp as Sellers and Jeremy Lloyd as Secombe provide excellent support. Robert Mountford represents the stiff voice of authority very well. Margaret Cabourn-Smith, James Mack and Ellie Morris complete a talented cast.

The tortured comic genius is a familiar trope. Stories of artists rebelling against and being rejected by the establishment until they are finally embraced are familiar too. But, in the case of Milligan, it’s a tale still worth telling.

To beef up the laughs, the writers cleverly weave in an almost discrete story about the sound effects. Sound effects were an important part of The Goon Show. Spike Milligan set the challenge of producing surreal sound effects. Margaret Cabourn-Smith, in Joyce Grenfell mode, humorously explains how they were achieved. Perhaps because the audience has no ‘original’ to compare this with, she gets the most enthusiastic response of the evening.

Director Paul Hartwho is The Watermill’s Artistic Director, keeps up a good pace, so you won’t be bored.  Katie Lias helps with a set designed to change quickly from a recording studio to various offices, a battleground, a pub and Spike’s home. She uses the back of the stage well. Often there are Milligan-ish cartoons telling us the location of the scene, and projections high up suggest the state of Milligan’s mind.

Which brings me to the third challenge.  In a play mainly about Milligan’s mental state, how do you convey his exploding mind? Yes, John Dagleish sparks with happiness and crumples with despair, and yes, the story tells us how, in his mind, his battle with army officers becomes a battle with the BBC authorities. It’s an interesting observation of him but the play doesn’t get inside his head. It’s conventional in a way that Milligan would never have been.  In producing a tribute to Spike Milligan, maybe Nick Newman and Ian Hislop should have injected their play with more of their hero’s anarchic spirit.

Spike is at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury until 5 March 2022

Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.

Click here to watch this review of Spike on YouTube

 

 

Elizabeth McGovern in AVA The Secret Conversations – Riverside Studios

McGovern is terrific, shame about the script


★★★

Productyion photo of Anatol Yusef & Elizabeth McGovern in AVA The Secret Conversations
Anatol Yusef & Elizabeth McGovern in AVA The Secret Conversations (Photo: Marc Brenner)

It might have been best if the conversations in AVA The Secret Conversations (Riverside Studios) had stayed secret. Having said that, there is one major strength in this production: Elizabeth McGovern. She may never have been a sex goddess like her character Ava Gardner but she sure can act. Best known today as Lady Cora in Downton Abbey, she has been a regular on screen and stage for her whole adult life, and it shows. She conveys brilliantly a woman in later life struck down by illness, looking back in puzzlement, at what she had and what she still retains.

Elizabeth McGovern is also the writer. On the strength of this play, she might be better to stick to acting. It’s based on a book by Peter Evans in which he wrote about his experience as a ghostwriter working with Ava Gardner on a planned autobiography. That’s both its strength, in that we get insights into her character from the way she interacts with him, and its weakness, in that the interview format prevents a deeper look at what actually happened in her life.

I’m going to assume that a film star (even one of the sexiest in cinema history according to Empire magazine), who hit the heights in the 50s and 60s, isn’t going to be of that much interest to today’s audiences. Maybe lovers of old movies will have a soft spot for The Killers, The Barefoot Contessa or The Night Of The Iguana, but any new play about her has to excite because of the character created here and now on the stage.

The play, directed by Gaby Delial, does establish that Ava is (or was) an interesting woman. She came from a poor country background and stumbled into Hollywood almost by accident. She clearly had something that the camera loved. This quality goes beyond being physically attractive to conveying an image that suggests ‘sex’ to large numbers of people. Whatever it is, she had it, and the studios exploited it. It seems her many lovers were attracted to her image more than her. Her marriages to Mickey Rooney when she was still a virgin, bandleader Artie Shaw and most famously Frank Sinatra were crammed with sex, which she says she greatly enjoyed, but they were short-lived, suggesting that sex could only sustain her relationships for so long. Interestingly divorce or the end of a sexual relationship didn’t stop her from having long-lasting friendships with some of her lovers, Sinatra included.

I didn’t feel much wiser by the end as to what made Ava Gardner a sex symbol, whether her failed relationships were due to bad choices, whether her enjoyment of sex clouded her judgement of character, or why so many people became attached to her as a friend and she to them.

Peter’s publisher, whom we hear on the phone, is particularly, and repeatedly, keen to know the size of Frank Sinatra’s penis. Apparently Ava had alluded to it in a previous interview. We never find out, and that seems true in this play of so many of the questions we might ask about Ava.

Ava Gardner is the only rounded character

The problem I think is in the writing. Anatol Yusef is an excellent actor but I never felt he was at home in the role of Peter Evans, the would-be novelist who doesn’t really want to write a pot boiler biography. And when he enacts scenes as Ava’s various husbands, none came to life. The script didn’t seem to me to create a rounded picture of Peter Evans or the husbands, in the way that it did of Ava. Mickey Rooney is reduced to ‘child like’, Artie Shaw to ‘controlling’, Frank Sinatra to ‘a hot headed drunk’. It seems like Ms McGovern wanted to write a play about Ava Gardner but Peter Evans got in the way. However, since this whole edifice is built on Peter’s interpretation of his conversations with Ava, it might have useful to gain more insights into him. I couldn’t detect any chemistry and therefore I had no reason to believe they would develop a close relationship, which is important to understanding why and how she fell in love with other men in her life.

There is a dramatic climax but the structure of the play doesn’t really lead up to it. The curtain goes up on their first meeting and comes down with their last. In between, their relationship does develop and we do get to know Ava a bit, but mainly we are given a parade of tantalising glimpses into the life and career of a fascinating woman who as she puts it (and I paraphrase here) ‘made movies, made out, and made a mess of her life. But never made jam.’

What we most certainly do get is a poignant picture of a person in her twilight years, full of memories but unable to understand what they add up to. And that is thanks to an impressive performance by Elizabeth McGovern. She starts as something of a wreck, before gradually gaining confidence, until by the end she regains the glamour and power of old.

AVA The Secret Conversations. Photo: Marc Brenner

There is one other star of the show and that’s the set. It’s credited to 59 Productions who specialise in integrating projection into live performances, but it’s not so much the way clips of Ava Gardner’s films are layered into the show, it’s the actual use of the proscenium arch by their designer Hannah Rozenberg that caught my eye. It starts with a small aperture on the right revealing Peter Evans answering the phone to Ava in the middle of the night. To the left, a larger oblong opens to show Ava’s flat (and it is a flat in London, not a Los Angeles apartment). That pros arch opening varies in shape to match various cinema screen formats that she worked in. Eventually, as the star and her ghostwriter become closer, the two sections join into one large set. Almost worth seeing for the set alone.

AVA The Secret Conversations is running at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith London until 16 April 2022.

Click here to watch the review of SAVA The Secret Conversations on YouTube

 

 

 

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) – review

The Funniest Show in The West End


★★★★

Production shot featuring the cast of Pride asnd Prejudice Sort Of at the Criterion Theatre London
Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) at The Criterion

Some critics have acclaimed Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) as the funniest show currently in London’s West End. I was late seeing this little gem at The Criterion, but I can’t disagree.

It is an outstanding achievement by Isobel McArthur. She not only wrote it, with a little help from Jane Austen, she also co-directed it with Simon Harvey, and stars in it.

What’s particularly clever about her take on Pride & Prejudice is that, although it’s a spoof, it is extremely faithful to the story.  Much of the comedy derives from the same situations that are funny in the book, and it is, at key moments, quite moving. I was surprised at how touched I was by the ending.
So, she has paid homage to the qualities of the story and some of the dialogue, while extracting a great deal more lol.

It’s funny before it even starts, when we’re presented with the concept of five modern working class women playing early 19th century maids who recreate the story with makeshift costumes and props. So we have the bathos of this classic story and its characters being presented from today’s perspective. There’s 21st century language, including a lot of swearing: Darcy is described as a ’twat’ (and that’s one of the milder insults). Elizabeth tells Mr Collins exactly what he can do with his marriage proposal. So, there’s the shock of seeing Jane Austen’s reserved characters, who normally use sensitive language, mouthing expletives. But there’s also the anachronism of party food at a ball being Pringles and Wagon Wheels.

Is there no end to Isobel McArthur’s talents?

Of course, the basic material is great. Pride & Prejudice is not only Jane Austen’s most popular work but one of the most read novels written in the English language. That’s thanks in no small part to the character of Mr Darcy, played over the years on screen by Laurence Olivier, Colin Firth and Matthew McFadyen. To that pantheon, we can now add Isobel McArthur.

There have been many excellent takes on Pride & Prejudice, like Lost In Austen, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and a Bollywood musical Bride & Prejudice. It is without question a crowded market, but Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) manages to stand out.

To add to the enjoyment, it’s actually a musical comedy. The story is interspersed with moments when the characters grab a microphone and sing classic romantic pop songs like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Holding Out For A Hero, Young Hearts Run Free and You’re So Vain (about Darcy of course). And Lady in Red, a song by Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s relative Chris de Burgh! It’s tremendous fun, a bit like karaoke at a hen night.

The cast of five take on all the parts. Isobel McArthur is a wonderful Darcy. She conveys very well the stiff reserve that conceals a romantic heart. In addition, she plays an even more coarse than usual Mrs Bennet. Tori Burgess creates a truly obnoxious Mr Collins, Christina Gordon plays Lizzie’s sister Jane and the appalling Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

There were two understudies on the night I saw it, which is par for the course at the moment in theatre, mainly because of the Covid. I had been looking forward to seeing Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Meghan Tyler who are both highly experienced actors and were very well reviewed. However Annabel Gordon did well as quietly desperate Charlotte trapped in her hellish marriage, as well as playing the soppy Charles Bingley. Leah Jamieson acquited herself well as the strong-willed but annoyingly self-satisfied Elizabeth Bennet.

Sometimes the characters are too much of a caricature and I did expect, having set the idea in motion, that the play would give us more of the maids’ angle on events than it actually did. But it is rich in ideas and displays non-stop creativity.

I particularly liked the moment when Elizabeth looks at a painting of Darcy and Isobel McArthur slides behind the empty frame to pose as the portrait, whose eyes then follow Lizzie round the room.

There is one simple set, designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, that suggests a rich household, not dissimilar in décor to the lovely Criterion Theatre, using minimal props, and with books as a motif. It features a magnificent centrepiece of a wide staircase that winds all the way up to the flies, with steps supported by books.

This is a light hearted and lightweight play. It doesn’t have the depth of Laura Wade’s Austen inspired comedy The Watsons, which I saw at The Menier, and which was due a West End transfer before Covid struck. Nevertheless, it’s just what you need to cheer you up in a year that has started as depressingly as the last one ended.

Covid is scaring audiences away from theatres, which is a shame, because this is a show that should be selling out, and looking forward to a long run, rather than closing prematurely. I recommend you to see it while you can.

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is performing at the Criterion Theatre in London until 6 February. An autumn 2022 tour is planned with a possible return to London in 2023.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

Best Of Enemies at Young Vic – review

The best new play I’ve seen this year

★★★★★

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best Of Enemies by James Graham at the Young Vic in London.
David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best Of Enemies at the Young Vic. Photo (c): Wasi Daniju

Best Of Enemies at the Young Vic is the best new play I’ve seen this year. James Graham’s writing is vivid, funny, and shocking. There are towring performances by the two leads David Harewood and Charles Edwards. And the production directed by Jeremy Herrin with a set by Bunny Christie is perfect.

Given the subject matter – the 1968 presidential election and in particular some televised debates between the influential conservative thinker William F Buckley and the liberal writer Gore Vidal – you might think Best Of Enemies is not for you, but you’d almost certainly be wrong. I know it sounds boring but believe me, in the hands of writer James Graham and director Jeremy Herrin, it becomes electrifying theatre.

Best Of Enemies may tell us a lot about the polarised society we live in today, but it does so in the form of a gripping entertainment that takes us inside the heads of two protagonists, narcissistic to the point of recklessness.

The play begins with the immediate aftermath of one of the later debates. There is anger and shock at language that has been used, although at that point we don’t know what’s been said or how it’s come to this. We then go back and see that the story began with ABC TV News, in a race for ratings, deciding to have well known intellectuals talking about the Presidential conventions, at which the Republican and Democratic candidates are elected.

This is about the corrupting influence of TV and there are three big screens high up at the back of the stage to remind what viewers are seeing, as well as showing us the studio control area. We see how the participants both take part because they see it as a way of promoting themselves. We then see over a series of debates how the confrontational format generates more heat than light.

We and they realise that how they come across is more important than what they say. Buckley’s wife Pat says: “That’s all this is. Who do I like the most?’ At the end, Vidal prophesies that this means that one day a candidate could get elected because he was more likeable rather than having the best policies. Don’t we know it?

Okay, that’s the bones of it but what James Graham has done is flesh that skeleton with bits of verbatim speech from the debates and lots of fictional dialogue that brings to life the two protagonists.

Electrifying performances by David Harewood and Charles Edwards

The two leads charge the production with electricity. David Harewood plays William F Buckley. You might be surprised that a Black actor is playing a right-winger whose whiteness was part of who he was, but a good actor inhabits the role. In this case, the role is of a man not comfortable in his own skin. Mr Harewood relishes the part, not only the external mannerisms, tics and lip licking and other nervous affectations, but also the inner person- the loneliness of the outsider, the devoted husband, the foundation of his beliefs, and the desperation to win. He does a remarkable job of making us feel sympathy for someone who could so easily be the villain, because of his racism and homophobia. When the first debates go badly for him under an onslaught from Vidal, I actually felt sorry for him. Then we see him planning to raise his game.

Charles Edwards conveys the smooth charm, razor wit, the insufferable superiority, obsession with power, and the vulnerability of Vidal. He was a patrician and his sense of superiority, while insufferable, helps him dominate those early debates. Then Buckley prepares better and starts to score points, and as Vidal squirms, so do we.

They are both intellectuals and they’re both narcissists. They want to win the debate so they can be more influential in the world of politics. Each of them is delighted when they’re recognised by leading politicians. They’re not portrayed as bad people, their extreme views seem to be more like an academic exercise than something from the heart, but they do have hearts and it’s their pride, and above all their desire to win that drives them from civilised conversation to conflict to playground name calling. Both seek out each other’s weaknesses, initially of their arguments but eventually personal ones, and you find yourself not wanting to look, as their feelings are exposed.

They live in ivory towers, not what most of the electorate would recognise as the real world. Obsessed by their personal dislike of each other, they don’t even anticipate the effect of their clashes on the world of politics, which is moving from compromise to polarisation. In the real world things fall apart.

Justina Kehinde in Best Of Enemies

We are shown something of what’s going on in that real world of 1968: Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are assassinated; an extreme feminist shoots Andy Warhol; there are protests about the Vietnam War. Looking back, we see that this was the beginning of the end of consensus politics and the start of polarisation: Left v right, young v old, plus conflicts of gender, race and sexuality. And on the other hand, there’s the so-called silent majority which Presidential candidate Richard Nixon appealed to. So tempers are rising, creating a sense of a pressure cooker.

The set itself is a small open stage surrounded on three sides by audience, turning the protagonists into gladiators in an arena.

All the other actors are first class. Among them, there’s Clare Foster as Buckley’s cheerful wife Patricia, Syrus Lowe as the angry but expressive James Baldwin and John Hodgkinson who plays the chair of the debates, revelling in the viewing figures but out of control of the wild horse he is riding. It’s only a cast of ten but they take on many characters, all well delineated, so you might think there were twice as many actors. It seems like every one of the characters has a contribution to make and every line has something to say.

Under the direction of Jeremy Herrin, this production zings along. As with the Wolf Hall trilogy or James Graham’s This House, which he also directed, he uses movement to add a physical excitement to the dialogue. I like the way he and James Graham make politics exciting. Because politicians shape our country and it’s a crying shame we find them boring or see them reduced to personalities.

Why were they the ‘best’ of enemies? They needed one another and they’re really quite similar.

Best Of Enemies is performing at the Young Vic until 22 January 2022.  Performances will be streamed live on 20, 21, 22 January, 7.30pm, and 22 January 2.30pm GMT. Tickets from youngvic.org

Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube