Network with Bryan Cranston at National Theatre

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Towering performance by Cranston in unforgettable production from van Hove

Click here for my review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

A scene from Network at the National Theatre London with Bryan Cranston. Photo by Jan Versweyveld
Bryan Cranston in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Before Network even begins, the Lyttleton Theatre stage is full of things going on. There are diners to the right, a TV control room to the left, a big screen in the middle, a shiny reflective centre stage. For someone like me who loves a show that could only be done in a theatre, it’s a case of ‘you had me at hello’.

Jan Versweyveld’s set may be just a bit too fascinating for the good of Ivo van Hove’s production. Fortunately he has one great asset keeping Network focussed: Bryan Cranston. As the TV news anchor suffering a breakdown, he commands the stage even when he is one tiny component in a mass of activity. His authoritative voice, his physical presence and his warmth, as for example when he interacts with the audience, add up to a tour-de-force.

By contrast, the sub-plot about a relationship between two other characters, which are well acted by  Michelle Dockery and Douglas Henshall, tends to get lost in the sea of screens, reflections and general sense of pandemonium.

A scene from Network starring Bryan Cranston at National Theatre London. Photo by Jan Versweyveld
Bryan Cranston in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Like the film it is based on, Network is set in the 1970s when TV news was newer and more dominant than today, so its warnings about the dire effects of treating news as entertainment (echoed by Quiz which opens soon in London) seem overly familiar to nearly all of us who have grown up with a TV in the corner and come to regard it not as a window on the world but more a gogglebox.

The play moves on to ‘expose’ global capitalism before putting in a plea for the humanity of the life we actually live. Lee Hall’s play, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s film script, is preaching to the converted- we are after all an audience of physically present people watching real humans on stage) and I emphasise ‘preaching’. Nevertheless it’s an unforgettable production and a towering performance from Bryan Cranston.

Network runs at the National Theatre until 24 March 2018. 

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

Amadeus at National Theatre – Review

Bold & Ambitious Production of Peter Shaffer’s Play

✭✭✭✭✭

Click here for my review on YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Adam Gillen & Lucian Msamati in Amadeus at National Theatre
Adam Gillen & Lucian Msamati in Amadeus at National Theatre Photo: Marc Brenner

National Theatre designers abhor a vacuum. Faced with the big space of the Olivier and Lyttleton auditoria, they feel the need to fill them with sets that dominate and slow down the plays.

Not so Amadeus. The stage is filled, but with people, mainly an orchestra. So Mozart‘s sublime works literally take centre stage, not to mention Simon Slater‘s wonderful additional music with its jangling jarring sounds conveying the states of mind of the two protagonists.

Chloe Langford keeps the sets simple and nothing distracts- appropriately a simple piano dominates every scene.

Brilliant acting by Lucian Msamati & Adam Gillen

The two central roles of Salieri and Mozart are acted brilliantly. Lucian Msamati is the wily member of the establishment. You can feel his anguish at understanding the greatness of Mozart’s music while being denied the talent to match it. You understand why he wants to bring his rival down.

It’s a difficult trick to pull off but Adam Gillen communicates the great composer’s annoying child-like innocence while still exuding the power of his genius.

There is so much in Peter Shaffer‘s play that a revival is more than merited: the frustration of recognising great art but being unable to create it oneself; the ease with which a cynical dissembler can destroy a naive open person; that Man tests God’s achievement rather than the other way round; that immortality can be obtained through evil or through association with the immortal; and much much more. All of which is brought out vividly in this bold production directed by Michael Longhurst.

Amadeus is streaming on the National Theatre  At Home website

This review, originally written on 21 February 2017, was revised on 19 January 2018. A version has appeared on the Southampton Daily Echo website.

Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre

Superb Cast Make Follies A Night To Treasure

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Follies at the National Theatre reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Follies at the National Theatre. Photo Johan Persson

Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is a difficult musical. To carry it off, you need an extraordinarily good cast. Fortunately the National Theatre production has one.

Imelda Staunton is now the preeminent West End musical star, certainly for the more mature roles. Her performance as Sally consolidates her reputation by offering a perfect, beautifully acted and sung portrayal of sadness and illusion. That would be joy enough but just as perfect is Janie Dee. In the role of the cynical but brittle Phyllis, her voice, her acting and her dancing reminded me that she belongs in the highest ranks of musical performers.

Dee gets the most laughs with her songs Could I Leave You? and The Story Of Lucy And Jessie. When she finally crumbles, her performance is every bit as poignant as Staunton’s, who expresses her damaged character through the songs Don’t Look At Me, Too Many Mornings and Losing My Mind.

The musical is set in 1971 in a condemned theatre where former showgirls from Weismann’s Follies, a series of Ziegfeld-style musical reviews from the inter-War years, are gathering for a reunion. Attention centres on two of the women and their husbands. We discover that both couples have relationship problems which date back to their Follies days. This is cleverly told by showing us the ‘ghosts’ of their younger selves.

Other women reveal their illusions about their lives and relive their glory moments, again accompanied by their younger selves. More top class performances include those of Josephine Barstow, Dawn Hope and Tracie Bennett.

Imelda Staunton & Janie Dee in Follies reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Imelda Staunton & Janie Dee in Follies. Photo Johan Persson

Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton are magnificent

Why do I say Follies is a ‘difficult’ musical?  There is very little in the way of plot. The exploration of the main characters’ unhappy present relationships and past regrets is told for a substantial part of it as a series of book or character songs.

Sondheim’s music is complex and deep with emotion but, knowing that I was watching a production that runs for two hours and ten minutes without an interval, there was a moment when I wondered whether it was ever going to move along.

Just when it seemed Follies was getting nowhere, we were treated to impressive song-and-dance numbers like Who’s That Woman and a series of pastiches of pre-war Broadway musical songs, excellently choreographed by Bill Deamer. They provided some much needed fun and spectacle.

Follies comes to a climax with Loveland, a collection of Broadway parodies in which each of the main characters sings about their ‘folly’, whether of youth or maturity.

The production, directed by Dominic Cooke, does the musical proud with its 37 strong cast and 21 piece orchestra. The large Olivier stage is used well by designer Vicki Mortimer to create the crumbling theatre complete with a flickering neon sign and, when it provides the setting for the more glitzy Broadway numbers, it gives an apt visual representation of the contrast between past and present. The space is great for the song-and-dance numbers but too big for the book songs but that is the paradox of this brilliant, broken musical.

Click on this link to watch my YouTube review at One Minute Theatre Reviews or watch it below

Stephen Sondheim’s Follies runs until 3 January 2018 at the National Theatre.

A Kendall commented on my YouTube review: “The criticisms of James Goldman’s book as having little ‘plot’ are shown to be irrelevant when you have this good a production, because what it becomes is, in effect, a meditation on ageing, the death of dreams, the sense of regret, guilt and much more. That is why it draws people in so very deeply to it. And in that sense, it is to musical theatre what some of Wagner’s mature works are to opera.”

It’s a good point. Maybe we can too hung up on stories in musicals and should sometimes just enjoy the mood of the work.

Common with Anne-Marie Duff at National Theatre

DC Moore’s Common- I liked this ‘dud’

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Common at National Theatre with Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo
Common at National Theatre with Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo. Photo:Johan Persson

How much notice do you take of theatre critics? These days there are not only the heavy guns of the professionals but also the hundreds of bows and arrows of amateur reviewers. So, it is possible to get a good consensus of what a theatre show is like and whether it is well or badly done, especially if there is a consensus.

Given the price of West End tickets, it’s probably sensible to do some research but in the end you must use your own judgement on whether the critic’s reasons for loving or hating a show stack up and whether they match your reasons for making a decision.

Theatres try to get you to book in advance so you’re committed before you ee the reviews. Star names, a ‘limited’ run, a special offer are all part of the incentive. For me, Common at the National Theatre is a case in point. I bought tickets in advance as soon as it was announced. I thought a new play by DC Moore was likely to be good, I wanted to see Anne-Marie Duff, an actor I admire, and the director Jeremy Herrin was responsible for the brilliant People, Places And Things and This House.

You can imagine how disappointed I was to see so many one star reviews, the worst of which said, ‘It has been cut from 3 hours to 2 hours 20 minutes, which is exactly 2 hours 20 minutes too long.’ The critics said the language was obscure and the story incoherent.

My experience over many years of theatre going is that I don’t always agree with the critics. They see a lot of theatre and get jaded. They have their prejudices. I never forget that the critics didn’t like one of my favourite musicals Les Miserables when it opened.

Common was a hit for me

It was a few weeks after the press night by the time I saw Common so the director may possibly have done some work on it. All I can say is, this didn’t seem like the ‘dud’ that I’d read about. I found the language easy to understand. It’s undoubtedly strange the way words and phrases are mashed up but I found it poetic and evocative.

I have some sympathy with the suggestion that the plot was hard to follow. Ostensibly it was about the enclosing of common land at the beginning of the 19th century to allow it to be owned and exploited by the few rather than the many. It also touched on the use of immigrant labour from the North and Ireland to carry this out on behalf of the landowners. The huge scale of the Olivier auditorium suggested that there were ‘big issues’ of capitalism and communism being explored.

Excellent acting by Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo

At its centre is an intimate story of a woman from a poor agricultural community struggling to make a success of herself in the sinful big city so that she could return to her first love. This did make the narrative confusing at times because all the contradictory things she did, whether in support of or undermining the enclosure of land, was to the end of winning the woman she loved.

Even so, it was not ‘incoherent’ and there were some outstanding theatrical moments of affection, manipulation and explicit violence. I found it a good evening of theatre helped by excellent acting by Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo.

So, my bow and arrow gives Common three stars and the thought that if it’s ever revived in the Dorfmann or another more suitable small scale venue, it could be earn more.

A version of this review appeared on the Seven Experience website

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube

Yerma starring Billie Piper at Young Vic – Review

Billie Piper’s Performance Of A Lifetime

★★★★★

Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson

I was worried that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting. Fortunately there was no chance of that in the Young Vic production of Yerma, thanks to a riveting script by Simon Stone and a visceral performance by Billie Piper.

The traverse stage not only puts the audiences on two sides of the stage but designer Lizzie Clachan encases the acting area in glass. This means you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching performers, as if in a goldfish bowl or on a catwalk fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.

Simon Stone’s brilliant production

Before the play began, for a few moments it was difficult to tell whether you were seeing a reflection of yourself or different but very similar people in very similar seats. I fully expected the glass to fly out but it stayed in place. As a result, I felt I was looking at fish or lizards or some other animal trapped in a tank. This was enhanced by there being no exits for most of the performance (actors entered and exited between scenes under cover of darkness). Not to mention moments when Billie Piper fell against the glass and more.

Director and writer Simon Stone has updated the classic Lorca story cleverly. The central character is still a woman who wants a child but the emphasis has changed from her being pressured by Catholic society to her inability to fulfil her desire driving her to destruction. Billie Piper’s portrayal of a gradual descent from an intelligent, fun woman to someone driven mad by her inability to conceive left me shaking.

This is theatre at its best: a brilliant production serving the acting performance of a lifetime.

A version of this review has appeared on my website seven experience.co.uk

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube