Daniel Mays and David Thewlis impress in Pinter play but the streaming didn’t
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
First things first, Brian Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer is a masterpiece. The question is, did this production streamed live from the Old Vic via Zoom do it justice? Sadly, the answer is, no.
Not because the acting wasn’t good, it was great. Michael Sheen was charismatic as the touring faith healer Frank Hardy describing unreliably events from his hit-and-miss performances in village halls. Indira Varma as Grace his brittle depressed partner gave us a different and hugely poignant version of events including a lost baby. His agent Teddy, so much a showbiz cliché when described by Frank, seen in David Threlfall’s amusing portrayal as a sensitive, caring man beneath his convivial and somewhat seedy exterior. Both have given up a lot to support Frank and it is through them as much as by seeing Frank himself that we appreciate he has an inspiring gift despite his apparent cruelty.
At first glance, Faith Healer would seem ideal for our social distanced times comprising as it does of four monologues, bookended by Frank. However watching a small screen for nearly two-and-a-half hours without a break is too much. The Health and Safety Executive advises a break from a computer screen every hour.
In the theatre, out of the comfort zone of home, and with the actors physically in front of you, it’s much easier to concentrate. Zoom works wonderfully for shorter monologues such as the previous Three Kings with Andrew Scott that came in in under an hour.
Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall are a dream cast
Sometimes the filming worked as when Michael Sheen emerged in silhouette from the darkness all shabby and funereal or when David Threlfall sat in his comfy chair in the middle of emptiness, but against that there was a use of close-ups which were so close up that they took away the sense of theatrical performance, and made it more like a TV drama.
The play is all about the words. And it’s a dream cast delivering them. Also, how great to see a play that doesn’t need a massive set or special effects to make its point. The poetic words prove to be as glittery and slippery as a live fish. They are whatever the speaker wants to believe or wants to make us believe. All teh characters are telling us stories but what is fact and what is fiction? The more we hear, the less we know. Did healings take place or didn’t they? Is Grace Frank’s wife or mistress, from Yorkshire or Ireland? Who chose the music to play at the performances? Where did Frank’s mother die? Are they all ghosts?
Faith healing is itself a performance and we can see that it relates very much to art. Just as Frank is tortured by not knowing know where his gift comes from and whether it will manifest itself any particular evening, so the artist, be it a playwright, an actor or some other creative person, is uncertain about why sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. And when we go the theatre, we all have to have faith or to put a more familiar way, suspend disbelief.
So, a great play, great acting… just not the medium for it.
Faith Healer was performed at the Old Vic and streamed on Zoom from 17 – 20 September 2020
Andrew Scott rules in monologue live streamed from Old Vic
So it’s back on the sofa to watch Three Kings with Andrew Scott streaming live on Zoom from the Old Vic stage. It wasn’t the same as being there but there was something exciting about knowing you’re watching Mr Scott perform right at that moment and, as in a visit to the theatre, especially for you.
The play was written by Stephen Beresford especially for Andrew Scott and it did bring out all his best qualities as an actor. Monologues really are nearly the best kind of theatre to show on TV, with that concentration on the face- and what a face. What that man can do with a raised eyebrow, a stifled giggle or an intense stare.
Andrew Scott is Patrick the narrator who tells the story of his relationship with his absentee father. He also plays many other characters and switches between them with dazzling virtuosity, in fact with the deftness of a bar trick known as the three kings.
This involves moving around three coins and we are introduced to it at the beginning and see the puzzle resolved at the end. Patrick is challenged to solve the riddle in exchange for seeing his absent father again. This unfeeling parent has no intention of returning and at the end, when Patrick shows how the trick is done, like all tricks revealed the magic has gone along with any illusions he had about his father. There only remains a question of whether the parent deserves forgiveness. (A question any self-aware parent might ask of themselves, no matter how kind and loving they’ve been.)
The three kings trick also represents three generations who inherit the unpleasant characteristics of the father much as the title of king passes from father to son, because the secret of the trick is that the force of one coin passes on the next and from that to the third.
On a set empty apart from a box that acts as a table and a chair, we meet Patrick as an 8 year old child seeing his absent father for the first time. He conjures up the child’s hope and anxiety beautifully. There is a moment when he betrays his mother to ingratiate himself with this charismatic figure and you see the sheepish look of a child’s face. You also experience the insouciance of this man who cannot love. We meet many other characters: sometimes it’s only a glimpse but all perfectly summed up in a turn of phrase or a gesture.
Patrick becomes a man, talking to his father’s oldest friend. The screen- and you’ve been wondering why it was presented in letterbox style- now splits in two, representing, I think, that Patrick has matured into the next generation, already taking on characteristics of his father, drinking too much, being unemotional, but perhaps more aware of his failings.
There is a further encounter between Patrick and his father. This time he discovers not only has the man remarried but has another son. His ‘longed-for son and heir’, as he puts it. It’s such a blow. Andrew Scott shows us both the casual cruelty of the father’s action and almost simultaneously Patrick’s reaction, as if all the life has gone out of his face .
Patrick meets his half brother, another Patrick, again bringing life to both characters, now across three screens, because we’re learning that this brother is now himself an absentee father to a third generation.
As a director, Matthew Warchus clearly gets the best out of Andrew Scott but I didn’t feel the split screen worked. Admittedly it gave the chance to see him from different angles and created the sense of a conversation, but I found it distracted from that wonderfully expressive face. The thing is, Andrew Scott isn’t separate people when he’s acting these characters, they all exist at once within him and he moves between them with quantum motion, often employing no more than a slow blink or a tightening smile.
If I’ve made it sound like this actor simply has a box of tools or tricks that he draws upon, then all I can say is it’s a very big box indeed and the tool he pulls out is always just right for the job.
Three Kings is a quietly effective look at the way a child attaches themself to a parent or parent figure and how their life can be devastated when they are let down by that person. With no disrespect to the richness of Stephen Beresford’s writing, it was all on one note, lacking lack any highs and lows or unexpected turns. It seemed to me Andrew Scott was lifting a good play into the realms of greatness by the quality of his acting.
Patrick meets his father for a final time when this self-centred man is dying, and hoping for God’s forgiveness. The camera focuses on Andrew Scott’s tearful face as the metaphorical curtain falls.
The five performance run is over but I hope The Old Vic decides to offer the recording to a wider audience and raise some more much-needed income. Keep an eye out for future so-called In Camera productions from the Old Vic– the streaming quality is excellent and the price very reasonable. And if you want to see another monologue by Andrew Scott which is just as emotional and more tense than Three Kings, rent Sea Wall on Vimeo. (Here’s my review of Sea Wall)
Present Laughter at The Old Vic is not only the best show I’ve seen this year, it is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen.
Why? First let me pay credit to Noël Coward. That man knew how to put together a stage play and he wrote fabulous dialogue. But it’s got to be directed and acted well. Director Matthew Warchus proves once again he is a genius. After this and his previous Hamlet, Andrew Scott is now the leading contender for the best actor of his generation.
Present Laughter is about a famous comic actor called Garry Essendine. He can’t stop acting even when he’s being serious. He’s surrounded by a team of people who rely on him and upon whom he relies. Everyone- his team and his fans- needs him and reacts to him but he needs them to maintain his celebrity. The achievement of this production is to bring out this neediness.
How does Andrew Scott do it? Not with the suave coolness or the drawling delivery we might expect from Noël Coward or any old fashioned actor but by behaving like a spoilt child. He is a lost boy in Peter Pan, as Kenneth Tynan famously described Coward. This seems to perfectly capture the nature of celebrity.
Garry is always performing and, from the moment Andrew Scott appears, about ten minutes in, he dominates the stage. Even when he’s not speaking his face is a constant picture of reactions. When he is speaking, his face continues to express shock, anger, amusement, the whole range of emotions. That might sound like it’s superficial or dumbshow, however the great achievement is that we are always aware that there are feelings inside that he is choosing to convey or hide through his acting. His reaction when accused of overacting is comedy gold- because of course his reaction is overacted. Scott is on stage nearly the whole time and the centre of attention for nearly all that time which means he keeps up this constantly changing expressions and cascade of lines for over two hours.
Andrew Scott’s comic timing is superb
His comic timing is superb. For example, there is a moment near the end when he is slapped by someone who then makes a big exit. Garry simply resumes the previous conversation as if nothing had happened. That much is in the script but Mr Scott makes us wait for his reaction, holds that anticipation how he will respond to the slap, so that when he carries on about a contract which is much more important to him, it says so much about his attitude to sex versus his career. And of course there are those deep eyes that can twinkle, pierce or panic.
In the programme, Matthew Warchus points out that Essendine is an anagram of ‘neediness’. The character seems shallow but hints at depths of self doubt and loneliness . Notably at the beginning of the final act, he is alone and, without an audience to bounce off, touchingly desperate.
In heaping all this praise on Andrew Scott, I don’t want to forget the other actors. They all support fantastically well- their comic timing also excellent. In particular Indira Varma as Garry’s separated wife Liz and Sophie Thompson as his secretary Monica provide touching performances as Gary’s calm support contrasting with his frenetic energy. They are not deceived by him and they care for him deeply, both managing to bring tears to their eyes at certain poignant moments.
Luke Thallon gives a bravura performance as the passionate aspiring playwright Roland Maule. Enzo Cilenti charms as the disruptive Joe who threatens to break up the team. Joshua Hill is the down-to-earth valet Fred. Liza Sadovy as Miss Erikson, Suzie Toase as Helen and Abdul Salis as Morris all contribute to the fun.
Congratulations to Rob Howell for designing beautiful costumes and an art deco set that seemed to radiate from and swirl round our central character. He also neatly accommodated doors left right and dead centre for the French farce elements of the play.
I loved this production of Present Laughter with Andrew Scott. I recommend you do all you can to get a ticket and if you can’t, then watch the film of a live show later in the year in the cinema.
Present Laughter runs at The Old Vic until 10 August 2019. For details of cinema screenings in January and February 2020 of a recording of the live show, go to NT Live
As you’d expect from writer Jack Thorne, who wrote Harry Potter And The Cursed Child and director Matthew Warchus who directed Matilda The Musical), their adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is both magical and totally theatrical. In fact, it could only be performed in a theatre.
From the moment you walk in to the Old Vic auditorium, you are immersed in the atmospheric production, designed by Rob Howell. Members of the cast wander around offering clementines and mince pies (courtesy of Waitrose- that’s what I call sponsorship). The ceiling is filled with glowing lanterns that shine more and less brightly in synch with the narrative and that’s only one of many bewitching lighting effects designed by Hugh Vanstone.
The stage has been placed in the centre with seating all around and on stage. So characters appear from all directions and even in the circle.
Simon Baker‘s sound is all around too but particularly noticeable when it comes in a sinister crescendo from under the stage in supernatural moments, so loud that you vibrate in your seat.
A perfect Christmas entertainment
It’s a terrific idea to intersperse the performance with Christmas carols, accompanied by bell ringing, because they are about redemption and hope, just as the story is. This production certainly is, in the way Jack Thorne tells it and Stephen Tompkinson acts it.
The story may be entirely familiar- the book has been around 175 years and there have been countless adaptations including one by The Muppets- but this production makes it feel as fresh as Waitrose mince pie.
Stephen Tompkinson‘s subtle Scrooge, unpleasant and misanthropic as he may be, retains a humanity that gives us hope that he can change. He has taken a wrong path and Jack Thorne’s script explores the reasons for this, primarily trying to avoid becoming like his cold, debt-ridden father. The father and Marley are both played by an excellent Michael Rouse.
We also see that Scrooge was capable of love, for his sister and for his first employer’s daughter Belle (a delightful performance from Francis MacNamee). We also see through the eyes of people like his nephew Fred (Eugene McCoy) and his employee Bob Cratchit (Peter Caulfield) who believe he has a good heart despite his treatment of them.
The ghosts are terrific. First Marley in his chains, then Past, Present and Future (all played by women) who are both spooky and funny as they show Scrooge the effect of his life on others. The mortality of Tiny Tim is key to his conversion. The part is played by four different actors during the run. I saw Lenny Rush who was very moving in the role.
When Scrooge finally realises that he has wasted his life and ruined that of others by becoming obsessed with making money and by ignoring the effect of his business on others, the liberation is joyous. You can feel the weight lifting from Stephen Tompkinson’s shoulders as he sees the possibilities in helping others.
Food pours onto the stage, there is dancing, more singing and bell ringing, even snow. It is glorious and I, for one, didn’t want it to end. The Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol is perfect Christmas entertainment.
A Christmas Carol starring Stephen Tompkinson is performing at The Old Vic until 19 January 2019
Watch below the review of A Christmas Carol on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews