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)

Click here to watch the video review on YouTube

The Unfriend by Steven Moffat, dir. Mark Gatiss, starring Reece Shearsmith – review

Triumphant comedy debut from Doctor Who & Sherlock writer


★★★★★

Production photo from The Unfriend at the Minerva Theatre in Chichestershowing Amanda Abbington Frances Barber and Reece Shearsmith May 2022
Amanda Abbington, Frances Barber & Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What connects Doctor Who, Sherlock, The League Of Gentleman and No 9? The answer is The Unfriend, a new laugh-a-minute comedy that’s just opened at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva. I’ll give you all the connections in a moment.

For now, let’s just say that Steven Moffat, writer and show runner for Doctor Who, and creator of Sherlock, has finally got round to writing a stage play, at the age of 60. It’s encouraging for we older folk to think it’s never too late, but I doubt there are many playwrights of any age who could make such a triumphant debut. It’s a long time since I laughed so much at the theatre. The man has comedy bones. He knows how to make old jokes sound fresh and natural. He understands how to give the actors the opportunity to use their faces and their bodies.

And what actors. Frances Barber is a loud confident American who turns out to be a serial poisoner, Reece Shearsmith and Amanda Abbington are the couple she befriends and who then can’t get rid of her, because they’re too polite. Although much of the praise should go to Frances Barber’s bravura performance, I loved Reece Shearsmith’s comic timing and panic-stricken face.

First the connections. Steven Moffat is probably best known as a writer and eventually showrunner for Doctor Who during the first decade or so of its new incarnation. He then created the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock which was co-written by Mark Gatiss who directs The Unfriend and we know him from The League Of Gentlemen, which also starred Reece Shearsmith, who cowrites Inside No.9, and stars in The Unfriend, which also stars Amanda Abbington who was Watson’s wife in Sherlock and Frances Barber who played Madame Kovarian in Doctor Who when Steven Moffat was the show runner. So they know one another and they work well together.

When Elsa arrives at Peter and Debbie’s suburban English house, you get a glimpse of their front door which has the number 9 on it. A little in-joke maybe, but it’s a hint that we shouldn’t be surprised that it turns out she’s no simple pain in the neck. They soon discover she’s a serial murderer- and they’re  still too polite to chuck her out. You might think this a stretch but it’s absolutely believable, not least because they’re aware of their own embarrassment. This is a comedy of manners, literally.

It’s non stop laughter with Frances Barber, Reece Shearsmith & Amanda Abbington

mandaI suspect how much you like it may depend on how much you identify with the self-defeating politeness and embarrassment of our suburban English couple. If you are happy to complain about the service in a restaurant, talk to your doctor about intimate infections, and barter with salespeople, you may well find this plot unbelievable.

You might also refuse to suspend your disbelief because the characters seem too much like stereotypes. The overly polite Brits who won’t say what they’re thinking; the brash American who makes jokes about a woman who is obese. But the thing is, the whole world is divided between people who are non-confrontational person and those who are blunt-to the-point-of-rudeness. But, there’s more than that, because Steven Moffat subverts each stereotype. Peter is actually quite rude but he doesn’t express it verbally- for example, he ignores his neighbour even when he’s in the room talking to him. And our call-a-spade-a bloody-shovel American may be a killer but she has a positive effect on this disfunctional family. The previously grunting son and negative daughter- two more stereotypes who turn out to have depth, and beautifully played by Gabriel Howell and Maddie Holliday, become happy chatty loving kids. ‘She’s Murder Poppins,’ says Debbie.

Production photo from The Unfriend at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester showing Maddie Holliday, Frances Barber & Gabriel Howell in May 2022
Maddie Holliday, Frances Barber & Gabriel Howell in The Unfriend. Photo: Manuel Harlan

By the way, the neighbour is a classic bore, but he too serves a more subtle function by reminding us of the claustrophobia of suburban life with its low level, passive-aggressive (as Elsa says) rankling about boundary walls and parking spaces, and therefore why residents of estates might need to be overly polite just to prevent all hell breaking loose. The neighbour is played to droning but sly-eyed perfection by Michael Simkins.

We also meet a police officer who is not a stereotype, not in the sense of the hard cops you so often see in TV dramas. He is another character subject to shyness and embarrassment, and given a scene-stealing performance by Marcus Onilude.

Although it’s his theatrical writing debut, Steven Moffat hits the boards running. His understanding of the stage is impressive. The Unfriend has structure, varying pace, and flowing comedy.  You know how comedies sometimes crowbar the jokes or the situation or particular characters into the story? Not here. The jokes flow naturally (for example, Peter is so uptight, Elsa says he would sever a proctologist’s finger at the joint.) In fact, Mr Moffat doesn’t force anything. He gives room for Reece Shearsmith to contort his face with surprise or embarrassment, or Amanda Abbington to express purse-lipped annoyance.

The story doesn’t develop much in the second act, but the laughs keep coming, so I certainly didn’t worry about that. I assume a lot of credit should go to director Mark Gatiss for the comic timing and the exemplary way the stage is used by the actors.

The set by Robert Jones is a triumph. It can’t be easy to create a suburban middle-class home, when you have an audience on three sides. However, with wooden flooring, a staircase, an L-shaped sofa and see-through areas at the back for kitchen and lobby, combined with a projection of the exterior of the house, Mr Jones does just that.

In the second act, we continue on tenterhooks about whether Elsa will poison again. The funniest scene is triggered by the fact that Peter’s embarrassment inevitably extends to talking about toilet matters (I too am bending over backwards to be polite). So, there is an extended scene involving him trying to find a reason to examine the (what shall we say?) product of someone in the loo, in case they’ve been poisoned. Of course, our embarrassment as an audience is almost as acute as his.

If you do go to see The Unfriend, you might be anticipating the punchline long before it arrives, but you’re still likely to be applauding when it does.

The Unfriend is playing at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva until 9 July 2022. Tickets from cft.org.uk/whats-on

Paul received a complimentary press ticket from the producers.

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

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

 

South Pacific in Chichester – review

I’m In Love With A Wonderful Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s anti-racist musical


★★★★★

SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers, , Director - Daniel Evans, Set & Costume Designer - Peter McKintosh, Choreography and Movement - Ann Yea, Lighting - Howard Harrison, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson
Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific. Photo credit: Johan Persson

I don’t think it was simply my euphoria at being back in a theatre but this Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific filled me with joy.

South Pacific was written in 1949 before Rodgers and Hammerstein settled into their, and their audience’s, comfort zone. It has all the features of the best of their work, features they in fact pioneered. One being the use of songs that reveal character and feeling and move the story on- take the many different ways, and therefore implications, in which Some Enchanted Evening is sung at various points. As was their way, the composers packed this musical with the most wonderful songs: A Cockeyed Optimist, There Is Nothing Like A Dame, Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk– these songs are part of our DNA.

Another feature is realism, seen both in the characters’ behaviour and Hammerstein’s down-to-earth lyrics. Top marks to director Daniel Evans for keeping this production so grounded in reality.

But what makes South Pacific stand out is that Oscar Hammerstein II was determined to face racism head-on in this musical. You’ll remember that it’s set on a Pacific island during the second world war where American GIs and nurses interact with local people, a nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, a lieutenant with a local girl. There may be effervescent melodies from Rodgers that fill you with warmth but there is also a story that pits love against hate, love at first undermined by acquired racial prejudice before it finally triumphs. At a time, following England’s Euro final, when we have been reminded of the overt racism that still shames our country, it was uplifting to experience this powerful anti-racist musical.

I cannot fault this production. Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical’s ‘cock-eyed optimism’. It feels like the perfect tribute to the passionately anti-racist Oscar Hammerstein. Happy Talk is no throwaway comic song here but a poignant moment of desperation.

And the director is supported by an excellent cast and creative team.

The two leads Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb in voice and acting ability. Ovenden as Emile the plantation owner, conveys both an overflowing heart and a broken heart with equal conviction. Beck also runs a range of emotions as naive Nellie Forbush from Little Rock but is never better than in I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy which overflows with almost child-like exuberance.  (From August, Alex Young will be sharing and then taking over the role of Nellie, because Gina Beck is pregnant.)

Others also deserve a mention. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice which is more than a match for the soaring heights of Younger Than Springtime, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. One of the qualities of this musical is seeing the Americans’ wide-eyed confidence come up against the realities of racism and war.

Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific Photo Credit: Johan Persson
Gina Beck and cast in South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson

The choreography by Ann Yee is magnificent. Sometimes she fills the stage with exhilarating choruses- in a scene that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of, the women take to the showers while Washing That Man Right Outta their Hair. Then there are the quiet moments, like the beautiful solo ballet by Sera Maehara that opens and closes the show.

The see-through revolving wooden sets by Peter McKintosh set the mood of Pacific island life, while leaving the stage open for the big numbers.

And I can’t forget the superb orchestra led by Cat Beveridge featuring the original score with some new orchestration from David Cullen. The glimpses of repeated melodies throughout the show do exactly what a musical should do, evoke complex feelings that words can’t express.

A word of praise for Chichester Festival Theatre who were terrifically well organised and made us feel safe to be back in the theatre. And from the rousing cheer that greeted the first moments, I’d say we were all pretty pleased to be there.

South Pacific is performing at Chichester Festival Theatre from 5 July to 5 September 2021. Performances will be streamed on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August and 3 September.

Click here to watch Paul’s review on YouTube

This Is My Family – review

Sheila Hancock and James Nesbitt are the leading lights and Kirsty MacLaren shines


[usr=4]

Production photo of James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

There’s a lot to like in This Is My Family which is directed by Daniel Evans with a light comic touch.

This is the second of CFT Artistic Director Daniel Evans‘ ‘greatest hits’ from his days at the Sheffield Crucible to be revived at Chichester. I wasn’t so keen on Flowers For Mrs Harris but I’m delighted he brought this show south with him.

Nicky, our narrator and the daughter of the family in question, sees that her family is falling apart. Her mum and dad are hitting midlife crises, they bicker and don’t seem loving any more, her brother is moody and withdrawn, her grandmother is beginning to lose her mind. Nicky’s solution is a camping holiday back where mum and dad first met.

Put like that, it sounds quite predictable and in truth there’s not much to challenge the audience but Tim Firth has written a beautifully observed comedy about family relationships through the generations. There are some very witty lines, the best of which go to Grandma (‘Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and there’s the nut left’) and Mum’s libido driven sister Sian played by Rachel Lumberg. The latter part is, unlike the others, more of a cariacature but it’s all the more funny for that and her song comparing lovemaking to driving a car is hilarious.

Production photo of Sheila Hancock in This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
Sheila Hancock in This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

This is My Family is a musical play rather than a musical musical which may be why I didn’t find the songs memorable. There are no show stoppers or vocal stretching moments- they’re more like words accompanied by music, almost recitative, and this may be the point because Tim Firth‘s many lovely metaphors would be too poetic or emotional for spoken dialogue.

Kirsty MacLaren is magnificent as Nicky. She holds the show together and is one talented young woman, living up to the promise she showed in Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. Scott Folan as the lovestruck brother is good too and their antagonistic but loving sibling relationship feels spot on.

At the other end of the age scale, Sheila Hancock is fabulous as the grandma who’s frightened of what she’s losing but finds peace in the past.

James Nesbitt and Clare Burt are a pleasure to watch for their comic acting.

Production photo of This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

The set by Richard Kent is clever. This is the Minerva so mostly it’s three-sided space but at the back in act one there’s a kind of slice through the middle of a house, filled with domestic details, which then spins round to form a wood in act two.

In the end this is a hopeful view of the family that we can all recognise. As I said, there’s a lot to like about This Is My Family. It’s been a while since Chichester had a West End transfer, this feelgood musical deserves to be the one.

This Is My Family is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 15 June 2019. Click here for tickets

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Note: Minor changes made on 17 May 2019 to the order of the paragraphs and to the spelling of Clare Burt’s name and the title of Our Ladies OF Perpetual Succour.

Copenhagen – Chichester Festival Theatre

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at the Minerva is rich in possibilities

[usr=5]

Click here for the YouTube review of Copenhagen in Chichester on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production shot from michael Frayn's Copenhagen at Chichester Festival Theatre showing Paul Jesson, Patricia Hodge and Charles Edwards
Paul Jesson, Patricia Hodge and Charles Edwards in Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at Minerva Theatre. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

So what is Copenhagen about? Ostensibly it’s about what happened at a mysterious meeting that took place in the Danish capital during World War Two between two of the great quantum theorists- Heisenberg, he of the Uncertainty Principle, and Bohr, who united the two main theories of quantum mechanics. Yes, but what’s it really about?

On the face of it, the play is about three dead people, ghosts if you like- Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr’s wife- trying to work out between them what happened back in 1942. They keep going over the same ground with different results, and reveal all sorts of interesting things along the way. Appropriately to a play involving Quantum Theory, there are possibilities, probabilities and, above all, uncertainty. In fact the fluid time and colliding dialogue of Michael Frayn‘s play and Michael Blakemore’s bare production which makes the characters seem like protons in the nucleu of an atom give us insights into Quantum Theory.

So here are my thoughts on the possibilities, probabilities and uncertainty of what I saw.

Looking at it one way, the play is about history and science and how the two interlink. Quantum Theory led to nuclear fission which led to the atomic bomb- and a race between Germany and the Allies to create it.

Looking at it another way, it’s about the moral dilemma felt by a theoretical scientist wanting to help win a war but working on a weapon of mass destruction to achieve that victory. Did the meeting affect the outcome of the war?

Then again, the play is about how time and memory work: what happened is always gone and replaced by an unreliable memory influenced by subsequent events. And the impossibility of seeing yourself and your life objectively because you are the centre of your universe.

 

 

Production shot from Copenhagen at CFT
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at CFT’s Minerva Theatre. Photo: Conrad Blakemore

 

You could say the play is about how people and relationships affect history and science. How jealousy, rivalry, fear, ambition and personal tragedy play their part. Charles Edwards as Heisenberg gives us a moving account of a life under the Nazis. Patricia Hodge and Paul Jesson are his equal in acting power.

You might come out thinking mainly about how impressive it is that an intelligent well written drama can put across all the above.

To go back to quantum theory, Copenhagen could be about how the act of observation changes what’s being observed. My experience might have been different on a different night but when I observed it, I thought Copenhagen at the Minerva Theatre deserved five stars.

Copenhagen is at the Minerva Theatre until 22 September 2018

This is my review of Copenhagen on YouTube

The Chalk Garden with Penelope Keith – Chichester

The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold at Chichester Festival Theatre directed by Alan Strachan with Penelope Keith

[usr=3]

Watch the review of The Chalk Garden on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Penelope Keith in The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre
Penelope Keith in The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

1956, the year Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden was first performed in Britain, was also the year in which Look Back In Anger exploded upon the British stage and made all those upper middle class drawing room comedies like The Chalk Garden with their standard formats and neat conclusions seem irredeemably old fashioned. On the strength of this Chichester Festival Theatre production, you can understand why.

Which is unfair on The Chalk Garden because it’s an intelligent mysterious drama about mothers and daughters, old age, death and the human need for love. There’s also much consideration of old age and death which should put it right on the wavelength of Chichester’s baby boomer audience.

There was no pace to the production which wasn’t helped by Simon Higlett‘s enormous, naturalistic set. It was impressive but the actors spent a considerable time getting from a to b. I did go early on in the run and it may be that once the actors bed down into their parts, the pace will improve.

There’s a lot of witty dialogue cloaking the deep sadness of some intriguing characters’ but on this occasion, for the first half at least, all I heard of this witty dialogue was blah blah blah.

The epigrams scattered throughout which should rival Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward just didn’t flow with the conversation and ended up sounding far too pleased with themselves. I suspect Bagnold aspired to be like Wilde and Coward but lacked their ability to incorporate bon mots into dramatic dialogue.

Photo of cast of The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre
The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

We’re presented with an unhappy mistress of the house Mrs St Maugham, played by Penelope Keith, who is directed or rather misdirected by a fearsome unseen dying butler (for which read ‘old testament god’?). She can’t control her granddaughter nor can she make anything grow in her garden. Dame Penelope captures the Lady Bracknell-like imperious entitlement wonderfully but much less so the emptiness at her heart. Emma Curtis plays her troubled granddaughter with energy.

Then there’s her mysterious new companion Miss Madrigal, whose contained passion was beautifully conveyed by Amanda Root, understands both the granddaughter and the garden but is hiding something devastating from her past.

After a somewhat monotonous first half, the second half with its revelations and resolutions was much more involving. Even so, there is far more to be got out of this play and its characters than Alan Strachan’s production managed.

The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre ends its run on 16 June 2018

Here’s the review on the youTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

This House – Touring – Review

[usr=4]

See my review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Promotional photo for This House at Chichester Festival Theatre showing Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker. Photo by Johan Persson
Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker in This House at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

I would never have thought day-to-day politics could be so tense. This House, which I saw at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva is set in the 1970s when Labour was running minority governments and ends at the moment the Tories returned to power. But it’s not about Wilson, Callaghan or Thatcher. The play is set in the Whips’ Offices, the people who organise their party members’ voting.

These are dramatic times as Labour struggles to maintain its majority and govern, a situation not dissimilar to Theresa May’s government. The tension mounts when ‘pairing’ is suspended. This is the agreement whereby members absent through government business or illness have their missing vote cancelled by someone from the opposition not voting. To go behind the scenes and see that our democracy can only work by co-operation and compromise is an eye-opener.

Phil Daniels & Steffan Rhodri in This House at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Phil Daniels & Steffan Rhodri in This House at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Many people- some of the Brexit voters and Trump supporters, for example- seem to be rebelling against the perceived cosiness of the establishment. James Graham, author of This House, shows that there is a purpose to this comity. We have only to look across the Atlantic to see how the extreme differences between Republicans and Democrats have brought government to a halt after decades of working together.

Politicians Are People

But more than the drama and the lesson in democracy, This House reveals the real people behind the parliamentary constituencies. Plays need characters and This House is packed with flawed human beings with feelings. They are sometimes bullies, sometimes desperate and, most movingly, they can be compassionate. We see that in many cases these are people who care passionately but still respect their opponents and act honourably.

Politicians often try to show their human side in PR exercises- a pint down the pub or an appearance on Have I Got News For You– but This House does a far better job at showing they are as funny, sad, triumphant and tragic as the rest of us.

This House can be seen on NTLive showings. Watch it on YouTube on the National theatre At Home channel from 28 May for a week.

Here’s my review on YouTube

Quiz at Minerva Theatre Chichester

[usr=3]

Click here to see my review of Quiz on YouTube

Paul Bazely, Gavin Spokes & Keir Charles in Quiz at Chichester Festival Theatre
Paul Bazely, Gavin Spokes & Keir Charles in Quiz at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

James Graham’s Comedy Puts The Media On Trial

When you watch one of my reviews on YouTube, is how I look the main thing you remember? Does my actual review only account for 7% of the impression I make on you?

According to Quiz, that’s what MPs were told when parliament was first televised. Television, it argues, blurs appearance and reality because it’s a visual medium and an entertainment medium. The assertion that in today’s world image is more important than facts runs through James Graham’s latest play which has opened in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and may well follow This House, Ink and Labour of Love into the West End.

In Quiz, we learn about the history of popular ITV quizzes and their connection to the commercial nature of the channel thence to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire via pub quizzes throwing in along the way the televising of parliament and the way the dangers of news becoming entertainment.

These many facts sprinkled throughout the evening distract from what is at heart an amusing, interesting story about the trial of Charles and Diana Ingram and one other for defrauding the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire of a million pounds.

The trial wasn’t televised but Quiz is a warning about what might happen if courts cases were on TV. Television is a visual medium that values appearance above facts and entertainment over reality. And, appearances are deceptive.

The quiz show gives the appearance of being fair but may not be. Major Ingram appears to have cheated but maybe he didn’t.

Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street are splendid

Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street as the Ingrams did a splendid job of keeping us guessing as to what was appearance and what was true. Were they more clever than they appeared to be or more stupid?

Keir Charles provided excellent impressions of an unctuous Chris Tarrant and numerous other game show hosts.

Just as politics and the news (and by extension, because of social media, many people’s whole lives) are said to have become entertainment, the trial is turned into a show.  It is presented as a two act theatrical entertainment with act one delivering the case for the prosecution and act two the defence. Laying it on thicker, Daniel Evans‘ production is also set in a TV quiz show studio. Nearly everything on stage is filmed and shown on monitors. We were even given Millionaire style voting buttons on which we can say whether we think the defendants are guilty or not guilty.

If placing much of the action inside a cubic frame that blocked one’s view was meant to have a Brecht-style alienating effect,  the production succeeded too well. I simply saw it as a gimmicky production that added to the bewilderment I was already feeling from being bombarded with so many facts (or fictions) about television.

As a result, it is hard to get involved in the characters as real people or the story or the interesting issue of television blurring image and reality.

James Graham has had a series of winners with Our House, Ink and Labour of LoveDaniel Evans has put on a victorious first season at Chichester. Neither of them have hit the jackpot with Quiz, but that’s entertainment.

Quiz runs at the Minerva Theatre until 9 December 2017. It transfers to the Noël Coward Theatre on 31 March 2018 where it will run until 16 June

Further thoughts on Quiz

Quiz is a warning against televising one of the last parts of public life that is still not filmed, arguing that the media will turn justice into entertainment. Whether it makes a convincing case, I am unsure.

The trial of the ‘coughing Major’ inevitably excited the media in the way that most don’t because it involved a hugely popular TV programme and massive amount of money. Making it carry the burden of showing that television turns everything into entertainment is asking too much of it.

Courts are already a form of theatre in which judges and advocates play to their audience. Juries have a tendency to decide verdicts on appearances rather than evidence whether cameras are present or not.

I don’t believe television has made as much difference to politics as James Graham thinks. It seems to me politicians were aware of the importance of image long before the televising of parliament: Harold Wilson put a pipe in his mouth for public appearances; President Roosevelt made sure he wasn’t seen in his wheelchair. In fact, leaders have been image conscious for centuries as evidenced by the work of Holbein, Van Dyck and others.

The news media have been inventing stories for most of their existence. Hollywood decided early on to encourage media interest in the lives of their actors, thus making their often fictional offscreen lives an extension of the onscreen entertainment.

King Lear with Ian McKellen

[usr=5]

Ian McKellen Gives The Best Lear I’ve Seen

Watch One Minute Theatre Review on YouTube here

Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre. Review by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews.
Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan

I’ve seen countless Lears over the years. Until now, the one I best remember is Ian Holm performing in the tiny Cottesloe (now Dorfmann) Theatre at the National. Therefore it may not be coincidence that Ian McKellen‘s Lear in the equally small Minerva Theatre at Chichester now ranks as the best I’ve seen.

The play describes the break up of a kingdom and the melodramatic villainy of various adult children and therefore may seem to require a grand scale. But the central story of a foolish father who prizes flattery above honesty is best told on an intimate stage.

Jonathan Munby‘s pared down production still manages to make a contemporary political point about powerful people destroying a country on a whim or for their own ends (and Lear cutting up the map of the UK is amusing). However the main fascination is that the great Ian McKellen is able to use his wonderful voice at an almost conversational level, bringing out all the subtlety and depth of Shakespeare’s language and revealing the humanity of the character.

Ian McKellen and Danny Webb in King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre
Ian McKellen & Danny Webb in King Lear at CFT. Photo Manuel Harlan

Never have I experienced Lear’s swinging moods from anger to defensiveness, his sudden insights into the horror of what he has done,  his fear of losing his mind, his awareness of approaching death and his ultimate anguish, as I did in this production.

The King becomes the Fool but as he does so, his vulnerability as a human being is heartbreaking. The scene that encapsulates this best comes when he meets the blinded Gloucester. His jokes collapse in a moment into almost whispered melancholy and as quickly into stream-of-consciousness musings (“When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.”)

A Powerful Performance by Sinead Cusack

Ian McKellen & Tamara Lawrance in King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre. Review by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews.
Ian McKellen & Tamara Lawrance in King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan

Ian McKellen understands that good theatre is more than having a star in the lead. For a production to work, it must be the joint effort of a company starting with the playwright and going through the director, the creatives and all the cast. The latter is especially good in the production.

Sinead Cusack knocks another brick out of the wall that says casting must be ruled by gender by giving a powerful performance as Kent.   The parallel story of father/child betrayal is played out strongly by Danny Webb as Gloucester, Damien Molony as Edmund and Jonathan Bailey as Edgar. A word too for Lear’s daughters- Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia is a star in the making, Dervla Kiran and Kirsty Bushell as Goneral and Regan filled the enclosed space with a suffocating evil.

That Ian McKellen sees himself as part of a company is just one mark of his greatness. His ability to vocalise the deep meaning of words is another. He has said that this will be the last time he plays a major Shakespearean role. If so, I feel privileged to have been there for it. As the final line of the play says, I “shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

The Chichester Festival Theatre production of  King Lear with Ian McKellen transferred to the Duke Of York’s Theatre in London from 11 July to 3 November 2018 and has now closed.

Here’s my review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-