Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child – review

Powerful play by Stephen Beresford about tradition versus populism

★★★★

Production photo from The Southbury Child by Stephen Beresford at Chichester Festival Theatre and The Bridge Theatre London showing Alex Jennings June 2022
Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What timing! The Prime Minister’s ethics advisor resigns and here’s a new play about sticking to your principles. A child has died, a child with the surname Southbury. The mother wants the church to be festooned with Disney balloons; the vicar says this is inappropriate for a church service. It becomes an unlikely cause célèbre and a test of wills that involves the whole community. What follows is an interesting, funny, emotional play about a battle between tradition and modernity.

The stage is a place for conversation. Creators of TV and cinema feel the need to keep us interested by constantly adding action or changing shots or putting on loud music. In a theatre play, the main currency is talk. So Stephen Beresford‘s The Southbury Child has lots of conversation exploring conflicts within today’s society, and, of course, conflict is the basis of drama. Physical acts whether violent or loving have all the more power for being rare.

The play looks at the importance of the past versus the need for change, principles versus populism, minority religion versus a secular society, a patrician elite versus the masses. Such rich content. The obvious comparisons are with Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Chekhov‘s.. well, anything by Chekhov. I was also reminded of those drawing room plays of the mid 20th century that explored matters of morality, like T S Eliot’s The Cocktail Party or JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. In some ways, the dialogue could come from one of those plays. There’s an old fashioned feel to the way that the characters don’t mumble or pause or talk over one another, but it still sizzles. And there is a 21st century feel about the casual swearing and the popular references to Waitrose and Kerplunk.

The specific argument is over what a funeral is for. The vicar David Highland takes the high ground and says he won’t give the mother what she wants but what she needs. I’ve been to plenty of secular funeral services- I’m sure you have- where we’ve celebrated with lighthearted fun a life that has now ended, but, for those of faith, death is not an end but a beginning, and the funeral service offers hope of resurrection as well as a tried and tested way of dealing with grief. His decision throws up far more moral questions.

The vicar himself is far from moral. He’s had an affair, he drinks too much, he’s been in a drunken car crash. So is he a hypocrite? ‘You’re not exactly the poster boy for unshakable principles,’ says his curate. But do we expect too much of our leaders? After all, they’re only human, and isn’t it supposed to be what they represent that we respect, be it a spiritual post or a political position of power? Should we take their lead, even if we disagree with it, or should leaders follow the people?

There’s a lot of emotional conflict going on then, but the dialogue is full of humour. One character says, ‘These days you’re expected to be happy, like you’re expected to be hydrated’ or something like that. David imay be flawed but he seems kind, and well-meaning (which does make his stand against the balloon seem odd).

Alex Jennings gives a towering performance as the vicar. He employs a slightly higher voice than his usual rich voice which means he almost slips into an almost Alan Bennett impression, which is just right for some deliciously waspish sarcasm, like imagining heaven would have a branch of Waitrose. (He did play Alan Bennett in The Lady In The Van.) It’s not exaggerated so there is still warmth and authority in his impeccable middle-class speech.

Production photo from The Southbury Child y DStephen Beresford at Chichester Festival Theatre and The Bridge Theatre in London showing JackGreenlees and Jo Herbert June 2022 Greenless
Jack Greenlees and Jo Herbert in The SDouthbury child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

His is the only character given real depth. The others seem to be there to expose or test him. Nevertheless, the sketched outlines of these characters are clever enough to suggest that they have depth. His daughters are both following in his footsteps, in a way. Susannah is a teacher, and his verger, but not fitting well in the world. Her awkward but efficient character is played by Jo Herbert.

The other, Naomi, is an adopted black girl (providing an opportunity to criticise patronising white people). She’s become an actor and, by the way, much is made in the play of the way church services are like shows and priests like actors. David says that the annual blessing of the river is ‘the biggest house I play to’. Racheal Ofori gives a strong performance as the rebellious and somewhat wild young woman.

David’s wife Mary buttons up her feelings and finds it hard to cope with today’s touchy-feely world until it all comes spilling out in one tremendous moment. I did enjoy the way Phoebe Nicholls was able to hunch her body into a shy stiffness.

Craig, the new curate and the candidate for succeeding David, is played by Jack Greenlees. He may be holier than thou or indeed holier than David, but he is a gay man who is required by the church to deny his partner in order to pursue his vocation. Yet another cause and conflict thrown into the mix. As well as the interesting conversations- well, you might call them duels- with David, the other characters also have moments when they bounce off each other. There’s a lot going on.

One character David doesn’t spend much time with is the girl’s mother Tina, played by Sarah Twomey. She is the spark that started the fire but, to give more time to her grief would probably have unbalanced this largely sympathetic look at the way the vicar’s life spirals out of control.

The key opposition from the dead child’s family comes not from Tina but from the child’s young uncle Lee, played with a snarl by Josh Finan. I found myself shuddering every time he was on stage. Lee’s a nasty piece of work without any obvious redeeming feature, yet David as a Christian will not reject him. Lee returns again and again to challenge and needle the vicar.

The play takes place entirely in one room, maybe a drawing room. I don’t know much about the Church of England, however I do know that vicars are not well paid but they are often given a big house to live in. So there’s an appropriately shabby middle-class feel about Mark Thompson‘s set. There’s always a potential problem at Chichester, or any theatre using a thrust stage with an audience on three sides, iun that you can’t have much in the way of scenery. So, apart from a window and a few other pieces at the back, Mark Thompson‘s inspired main features are an image of the church at the back that towers over proceedings and a long wooden table that comes out towards the audience. Around it are 14 odd chairs, symbolic of the broad church perhaps.

Not that people sit down very often. This is a production showing the firm hand of director Nicholas Hytner in which people stand a lot, because that’s more aggressive than sitting, and stride around creating distance or nearness, as the conversation ebbs and flows.

You may find it hard to believe such a conflict could arise from something so trivial seeming, even though the play is apparently inspired by a real incident, but the beginning is nowhere near as contrived as the ending. Be that as it may, the grief at the loss of a child finally comes to the centre stage. And the final scene confirms that this is a play about loss of many kinds, both personal for many of the characters and for society, in terms of our traditions and heritage.

The Southbury Child can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 25 June 2022 (tickets cft.org.uk) then at the Bridge Theatre from 1 July – 27 August London SE1 (bridgetheatre.co.uk)

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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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ralph Fiennes in Beat The Devil – review

Ralph Fiennes mouths David Hare’s righteous anger at Boris Johnson


★★★★

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

After five months of being deprived of live theatre, I say all hail the Bridge Theatre for being, as far I’m aware, the first to put on an indoor show. How wonderful I thought not only to see Ralph Fiennes in the flesh but also to get away from the pandemic. Except David Hare’s new play Beat The Devil is about the pandemic.

Sir David caught the virus just before the lockdown and was seriously ill with it and, in this monologue through the medium of Ralph Fiennes, he talks about the progress of his illness and in parallel the actions of the government. As the virus went mad so did the government, he says, or words to that effect.

We’re all too familiar with the failings of our leaders in this crisis but it didn’t harm to be reminded of them. And he does tell both stories with righteous anger and a pleasing wit. On the personal level, there’s his puzzled response to finding that his signature dish tastes so much like sewage that he feels he must have made a  mistake in the cooking. Describing the government as ‘mediocre’, he sys, ‘does violence to the word’. Of course, if you feel the government has handled this crisis well or at least no worse than any other government would have done, I realise the polemic may lose some of its impact but it’s still fun.

It greatly helps that the lines trip off Ralph Fiennes‘ tongue so naturally, just as if he is having a conversation with us, albeit a conversation fueled by anger and bemusement. Bunny Christie’s set is admirably simple but effective, being appropriately a desk placed centre stage, which gives Mr Fiennes as the writer something to move round or sit at, under the direction of the incomparable Nicholas Hyntner.

David Hare has been writing plays for fifty years and by comparison with his best- Plenty, Skylight, Pravda, the Absence Of War– this 50 minute memoir may seem slight. It is fair to say that many elements of the public story of the pandemic will be familiar to anyone who follows the news but Sir David’s ability as a writer is undiminished. He can still coin a phrase: ‘it’s a sort of dirty bomb thrown into the body’, or be wryly detached in his descriptions of his illness thereby enabling us to see for ourselves the horror. For that reasons, it’s all the more startling when he lets out his pent up anger. ‘I don’t have survivor’s guilt, I have survivor’s rage,’ he says.

His concludes that what we need is ‘truth’. It seems incredibly potent in its simplicity.

Naturally because he was isolated during his illness, there’s no room for the renewed sense of community that many of us found during lockdown but there is a touching moment of love when he describes how his wife selflessly lay on him to keep him warm.

Photo of Ralph Fiennes facing the audience at the Bridge Theatre at the end of a peformance of David Hare's Beat The Devil
Ralph Fiennes at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If anyone doubted the need for the Bridge’s precautions, the vivid description of the disease would surely change their mind. Talking of which, I understand that you might still be hesitant to go to an indoor performance but let me tell you, the safety measures taken by the Bridge Theatre were exemplary- from the controlled entrance to the thermal imaging to the one way system, to having to wear a face mask throughout the visit, to the spaced out seats. I felt totally safe. What was interesting was the way the spacing had been managed. The less than one third capacity audience still produced the atmosphere of a much fuller house.

I hope that, in giving this show four stars, I’m not just intoxicated by finally seeing a live performance.  I think not. The proof is, I would happily see it again.

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Maggie Smith in A German Life – review

Downton Abbey star in clever one woman play by Christopher Hampton


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Production shot of Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre
Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The set comprises a small living room with an old lady sitting on a chair alone on a thrust stage talking to the audience. She never stands up. For 100 minutes we listen, I mean really listen.

The lady is Maggie Smith playing a real person called Brunhilde Pomsel who among other things was secretary to the monstrous Josef Goebbels, a top Nazi during World War Two. Apart from the light around her getting darker and focusing increasingly on this slight figure, Jonathan Kent’s production and Anna Fleischle‘s design are restrained, by which I mean, as gimmick-free as they can be.

The play is based on interviews Frau Pomsel gave in her old age. They may have been intended to show how ordinary Germans behaved during Nazi rule and pose the question, would you have behaved any differently: ‘I had no idea what was going on. Or very little. No more than most people.’ However Christopher Hampton’s play is much more nuanced.

A German Life is partly about the false memory of old age but also the deliberate rewriting of one’s history. And Hampton is brilliant at giving clues as to what the truth might be but leaving you to make your own mind up.

This woman says she was brought up to obey but she got her first job by going off to Berlin on her own initiative. She says she was quite distanced from the womanising Goebbels yet she describes with excitement how she sat next to him at a dinner in his house when his wife was away.

Production shot of Maggie smith in A German Life art the Bridge Theatre in London
Maggie Smith. Photo: Helen Maybanks

She clearly didn’t subscribe to the Nazi ideology- for example, she had nothing against jews, she had jewish friends and employers. In that sense she is only guilty of acquiescence, of not doing anything, like many ‘ordinary’ people. But she was not in an ordinary situation- and we are bound to question her claims that she was unaware of what was going on, when she was one of the people in Goebbels’ office.

So how does Maggie Smith do at conveying this? The answer is, in the main,  she plays Pomsel as a doddery old lady. Personally, I found the hesitations and repetitions grated a little but perhaps they were meant to. It’s as if Pomsel is acting, deliberately portraying herself in this way to emphasise how harmless and how naive she was. She fiddles with her glasses, puts her hands to her face. Then every so often, emotion, usually in the form of pride, causes her mask to slip: her face lights up with a vivid memory, her voice gains a steely confidence and her glasses stab the air. 

I accept that a portrayal of a normal person isn’t going to lead to a barnstorming performance but I have to say I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected to be. I think the problem was that this was an intimate play and, although I could hear her familiar nasal voice perfectly well at the back of the stalls, I could not see her piercing eyes and facial expressions.

This may have been a performance for people sitting in the first ten rows but it takes a great actor and a great play to hold an audience for an hour and 40 minutes.

A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11 May 2019

Watch the review of A German Life on YouTube