The Mirror And The Light – review

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

★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremy Herrin’s production feels Shakespearean

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

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

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

Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker head a well chosen cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

 

The Dumb Waiter at The Old Vic – review

Daniel Mays and David Thewlis impress in Pinter play but the streaming didn’t

Daniel Mays & David Thewlis in The Dumb Waiter. Photo: Manuel Harlan

When I heard that Daniel Mays and David Thewlis were to play the two bickering hitmen in Harold Pinter’s classic short play The Dumb Waiter, without hesitation I booked to see it. It didn’t hurt that Jeremy Herrin was directing.

Sadly for me, I decided to watch a live streamed performance via Zoom. So straightaway I lost that claustrophobic sense of these two men couped up in small basement room which I’m sure was conveyed in the studio setup at The Old Vic. Worse though was the quality of the transmission. There’s always a danger with a live feed through a medium like Zoom but on this occasion I found the action constantly jerked or even froze.

So I can’t offer a fair verdict on the production. From what I saw, Daniel Mays as the questioning Gus and David Thewlis as the rules obsessed Ben were perfect for the roles: Mays like a nervous rabbit, Thewliss a snarling fox. It confirmed to me what a great play this is- the way the two hit men are programmed to obey orders, even orders for food coming down the dumb waiter from what is, or appears to be, a nonexistent restaurant above.

There’s a constant sense of menace as they contemplate their previous and forthcoming work, killing anonymous victims, commissioned by a mysterious Mr Wilson, who could symbolise an authoritarian government or even God. And the humour in the arguments between these two contrasting characters is a delight. There’s a lovely row over their use of language – is it light the kettle or put the kettle on? Then there are the lurid extracts from the tabloid newspaper that Ben reads out, suggesting a frightening world out there.

And the grey stained set by Hyemi Shin looked good too, as far as I could tell, suggesting a prison cell or a torture chamber, as much as a basement in a closed down restaurant.

But, as I say, too poor a transmission to make a proper judgement, so for once I haven’t given this production a star rating, just a warning to avoid Zoom when you choose to watch a live stream.

The Dumb Waiter was performed at The Old Vic from 7 to 10 July 2021

 

 

This House – NTLive – review

Film fails to convey thrill of live theatre

★★★

Production shot of Phil Daniels in the National Theatre production of This House
Phil Daniels in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.

At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.

Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.

What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.

Prodcution shot from the National Theatre production of This house by James Graham
Photo: Johan Persson

We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.

Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason,  recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.

Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith

When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.

So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.

This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny,  as when they drag in a dying member to vote.

Production photo of Charles Edwards in the National Theatre production of This House
Charles Edwards in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.

Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.

I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.

This House is streaming on the YouTube channel National Theatre At Home until 3 June 2020.

Click here to watch the review of This House on YouTube

Noises Off at The Garrick – review

If you’ve never seen Noises Off, You Really Should

★★★★★

Noises Off by Michael Frayn at The Garrick Theatre 2019
Noises Off by Michael Frayn at The Garrick Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

When I saw the first production of Noises Off back in 1982, I laughed so much I was fighting for breath. If I didn’t laugh quite so uncontrollably on this occasion, it’s only because it’s the fifth time I’ve seen Michael Frayn‘s masterpiece, so it no longer has the element of surprise. I still laughed more than at any other play I’ve seen. If you’re lucky enough to watch it for the first time (and if you’ve never seen it, you really should), I’m sure you’ll be as out of control as I was 37 years ago.

Possibly the funniest farce ever written, Noises Off is about a touring theatre company who are performing an old fashioned bedroom farce full of the usual misunderstandings, deception and people ending up in a state of undress. We join the actors at the final rehearsal and find that unlike the one dimensional characters they’re playing, these are well observed rounded human beings with flaws, emotions and rocky relationships all destined to undermine the show.

The farce ends in farce

In act two we join the production on tour but this time we’re backstage. We know what’s happening or supposed to be happening on stage but see the chaos behind the scenes. This is the most hilarious act because the actors have to be quiet so they mime all their anger and bewilderment.
Production photo of Lisa McGrillis, Lloyd Owen, Sarah Hadland & Meera Syal in Noises Off The Garrick theatre 2020
Lisa McGrillis, Lloyd Owen, Sarah Hadland & Meera Syal in Noises Off

There’s a priceless moment when one actor tries to attack another with an axe and others restrain him but they are still professional enough not to make a sound. In the final act we’re near the end of the tour and watching from the front as the farce falls apart and ends in, well, farce.

Confused and confounded, the actors carry on with heroic if misguided determination as they fall out with each other backstage and try to cope with plates of sardines rarely where they should be, contact lenses popping out, doors sticking and boxes disappearing and reappearing.

If you love theatre, you’ll love seeing it with its trousers down

So if you love theatre, you’ll love seeing it with its trousers down. Like the best comedy, it shows high ambitions brought down by human frailty. As the director of the show within the show says: ‘It’s farce; it’s theatre; it’s life.’
The characters are so well written by Michael Frayn, it’s tempting to think any decent actors could make a success of them. But it takes exceptional actors to make a success of farce. Nothing in theatre is more difficult than the timing and teamwork and sheer physical hard work required by this genre, not to mention truth to character.
In this Lyric Hammersmith production, we are blessed with just such a remarkable company. There is a moment where a bottle of whisky is passed from one to other all around the set with lightning dexterity. They go in and out of doors with exquisite mistiming. Each character is perfectly drawn so their reactions when things go wrong are always just right.
Production photo of Daniel Rigby, Richard Henders, Meera Syal & Simon Rouse in Noises Off at the Garrick Theatre 2019
Daniel Rigby, Richard Henders, Meera Syal & Simon Rouse in Noises Off. Photo: Helen Maybanks

I’m going to credit all the actors. Meera Syal as a veteran actress Dotty, who can’t remember her lines, is wonderfully semidetached from the reality of what’s going on. Daniel Rigby excels as the inarticulate lovestruck Garry, his voice getting more and more strained and his movements more frantic as he tries to cope with the unexpected. Lloyd Owen makes an excellent  exasperated sarcastic director.

Lisa McGrillis as an actor more concerned with her nails than her lines is wonderful. So are Sarah Hadland and Richard Henders as the serenely smiling Belinda and the neurotic method actor Frederick. Anjli Mohindra and Adrian Richards as the acting stage management make good innocents unprepared for the brutishness of theatre life.  And finally there’s Simon Rouse who doesn’t put a foot wrong as a deaf alcoholic who constantly puts a foot wrong.
Director Jeremy Herrin sets the rollercoaster going and it doesn’t stop until the final curtain.
Noises Off continues its run at The Garrick Theatre until 4 January 2020
Paul Seven Lewis was given complimentary review tickets for this production

People Places And Things starring Denise Gough

Good Play With A Great Performance From Denise Gough

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People Places And Things by Duncan Macmillan reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
People Places And Things at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Sometimes a good play can be made great by a great actor. Sometimes a great play makes a good actor seem great.

Take the Headlong / National Theatre production of People Places And Things which is about to embark on a national tour. Duncan Macmillan‘s play is about Emma, an addict in rehab. She tells us plausible stories about her life and the people around her until a pattern emerges in which we discover she is deceiving everyone including herself. Is her name even Emma?

Although the play talks about an addict’s relationship with the world, it didn’t seem to me to give her that universal quality that makes a great play. On the other hand, it cleverly shows us what it’s like to be an addict and thus creates a great character. Other roles and group scenes don’t have the same depth, the latter even drag a little.

Powerful Agonising Performance

Denise Gough grasped this complex character with both hands and turned in one of the all-time great performances. It was all the more powerful and agonising because she underplayed what could easily have been an over-the-top portrayal.

Add Jeremy Herrin‘s direction, Bunny Christie‘s appropriately clinical set and an unnerving use of lighting and sound, and I felt I was inside Emma’s head.

The production is the same as the London one so it will be interesting to see what Lisa Dwyer Hogg, who takes over as Emma for the tour, makes of the part. I can imagine many great actors in the future choosing this play to showcase their talent.

Other roles and the group scenes in People Places And Things don’t have the same depth, the latter even drag a little.

There are many moments of humour alongside the desperation and self deception. When she’s off her head, Emma is comic as well as tragic. Her resistance to the group sessions and twelve steps to recovery are as funny as they are sad.

Between 22 September and 25 November 2017 the tour of People Places And Things will visit Manchester, Oxford, Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton, Liverpool and Cambridge. More information and booking details on the National Theatre website.

See my video review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews https://youtu.be/pTVFJHYVrQk
Or view here