Exit the King is about how we come to terms with the shocking fact that we’re all going to die. As a character says in the play, ‘everyone is the first person ever to die.’
Patrick Marber has done a brilliant job both as director and as the adapter of Eugene Ionesco’s original play. It sounds contemporary and there are funny lines galore and there remains Ionesco’s intention that theatre itself with its exits and entrances should be a metaphor for life. The characters speak in a theatrical way and the King is told early on ‘you’re going to die at the end of the play.’
And as the King, Rhys Ifans is extraordinary. He goes through denial and anger and all the other emotions experienced by those who are dying. Physically he declines before our eyes. He sounds like one of those declamatory stage actors of old like Laurence Olivier and his physical comedy reminded me of Jerry Lewis.
He’s supported by Indira Varma as the cool first Queen, Amy Morgan as the not-so-dumb blonde second Queen and Debra Gillett hilarious as the irreverent servant. Adrian Scarborough and Derek Griffiths complete an all round superb cast.
My only disappointment was that the ending felt dragged out and momentum was lost.
Oh, and credit where it’s due to set designer Anthony Ward. So often designers are defeated by the size of the National Theatre’s Olivier stage but his solution is to have the small cast at the front for most of the play with a big crumbling palace wall behind them, then, in a gobsmacking ending, the set disappears and the whole grand canyon of the stage area opens up as the king dies and fades into eternity. It’s a theatrical moment of which one feels sure Ionesco would have approved.
Mad Padraic is an Irish terrorist in the time of The Troubles, he’s too violent and unpredictable even for the IRA. But he loves his cat. When the only thing he loves is killed, Padraic wants vengeance. So begins Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant Of Inishmore at the Noel Coward theatre in London.
If you’ve only seen Aidan Turner in Poldark, you’ll be amazed at how hilarious as well as threatening he is as this man of extremes, flipping from anger to tears to a twinkling smile in the space of a few seconds.
He’s well supported by Denis Conway as his father Donny, Chris Walley straight out of RADA but hitting it out of the auditorium as the hangdog youth Davey, Charlie Murphy as Padraic’s equally crazy love interest and, in fact, all the cast. Every character is as thick as two slices of peat- but maybe we all are when it comes to understanding terrorism.
Martin McDonagh’s play is the blackest of black comedies. Written nearly 25 years ago but more relevant than ever, it satirises terrorists and how their distorted idealism, in which violence breeds violence, leads to a blind pursuit of their goals at the expense of morality or even decent human behaviour.
Michael Grandage’s comical production
The first act has some great funny lines. I particularly liked a description of cats as ‘full of themselves’ but it mainly serves to introduce us to the characters and set up all the fastmoving action of the second act. That’s when it really takes off with one violent incident leading to another in a series of twists so ingenious that that every so often they got a round of applause from the audience.
And what violence! Michael Grandage’s triumphant production is so exaggerated that everything becomes comical but even so, it’s still quite a shock to see someone’s brains splattered across a wall, live on stage.
It’s so totally over the top, it goes down the other side and over another top.
The Lieutenant Of Inishmore with Aidan Turner is at the Noel Coward Theatre London until 8 September 2018.
Here’s the YouTube review of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore with Aidan Turner on One Minute Theatre Reviews-
Fun Home is a perfect musical- a joyous story driven by mystery and tragedy; songs with clever lyrics and catchy tunes that give an extra depth to the tale; characters you believe in and care about.
The musical is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. We meet Alison as she’s in the process of creating her book. It’s an attempt to look back and understand how she tackled coming out and how her closet gay father came to commit suicide. As a song from early on says, ‘I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then.’
Although there is a central tragic event, this does not stop it being an uplifting evening.
Two younger versions of Alison take us through episodes of her life as today’s Alison narrates and comments. All the cast are tremendous singers and actors- Kaisa Hammarlund as the nervous narrator Alison, Eleanor Kane as the gauche teenage Alison and on the occasion I saw it, Harriet Turnbull as the troubled small Alison, displaying a skill rare in an child actor.
Jenna Russell plays the suffering mother and Zubin Varla is tremendous as the complex father. There’s also great support from Ashley Samuels and Cherrelle Skeete.
The songs, composed by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Lisa Kron, are by turns humorous, heartbreaking and, most importantly, totally integrated into the story. Perhaps it helps that Lisa Kron also wrote the book.
A quick word of praise for David Zinn’s clever set which is like an extension to the father’s character. It’s detailed when it needs to be, spins round as scenes change, and is bleak and blank at appropriate times. And there is a wow moment late on.
There’s a lightness and movement in director Sam Gold’s tender, funny production that give the still moments huge impact.
Fun Home is a touching look at the relationship between parent and child and a wonderful celebration of being true to yourself. It’s the kind of evening I always hope for when I go to the theatre.
On the face of it Miss Littlewood at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon is a celebration of the theatrical revolutionary Joan Littlewood. Actually Sam Kenyon‘s marvellous musical is a celebration of theatre, or at least of the kind of theatre that she pioneered with shows like Oh What A Lovely War and which is now long established.
Miss Littlewood imagines Joan putting on a production of her own life story. In her now well established theatre workshop style, there is no set, only a few props and an open stage. The storytelling is episodic. There’s a narrator in the form of Joan. It’s always clear this a play, being directed- by Joan. The actors take on many parts in a very egalitarian way.
In a touch which I’m sure Joan would have loved and which is still a little revolutionary, the casting in Erica Whyman‘s production is colour blind and gender blind. So while the story is set in a past age dominated by white men, the cast reflect today’s society: which means women play some of the male parts and black people play what were historically white people.
I suspect some won’t like it but it works, because good stage actors seize your imagination and take you beyond the literal facts of appearance, as happened in Joan’s productions.
There are some vivid characters, although we don’t get to know many of them in depth. Even Miss Littlewood herself remains enigmatic, although the narrator Joan played by the splendid Clare Burt displays charm, humour, emotion and ruthlessness (she changes the person playing herself six times).
Central to her story is the grand love affair between herself and Gerry Raffles, the man who made a lot happen on the practical level. Unfortunately there seemed little spark between them, charming as Solomon Israel’s Gerry is.
It’s not a full stage musical in that there is very little dancing and the musical numbers advance the plot with witty lyrics rather than moving melodies. However there is one showstopper magnificently led by Sophia Nomvete.
If you love theatre, by which I mean the whole art of theatre, you really must see Miss Littlewood.
Miss Littlewood is at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 4 August 2018. To book, click here.
Here’s Miss Littlewood reviewed on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews–
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.
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.
‘all consuming enchantment’ New York Times ‘it leaves its audience awestruck, spellbound and deeply satisfied’ Time Out ‘every bit as spellbinding as promised’ The Hollywood Reporter ‘Must-see’ Chicago Tribune ‘a theatrical marvel’ Entertainment Weekly ‘a wildly theatrical and thrilling Broadway spectacle’ Daily News ‘It’s some kind of miracle’ Rolling Stone ‘Hooray!’ Variety
We knew the London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had entranced the British critics, the question was would the Broadway version cast the same spell over American reviewers? The answer clearly was ‘yes’.
So what was it that bewitched them?
There were five spells that the show cast. First, no matter how much we theatregoers might want to judge Harry Potter And The Cursed Child purely as a stage play, we can’t avoid the legacy of seven novels and eight films.
The Harry Potter Legacy
‘The story begins where the final novel in the Potter series… ended’ pointed out the NYT. Chicago Tribune described it as ‘an immersive coda to the most powerful literary brand of a generation’. And many of the critics were happy with this: ‘the show has a plot that really works as an extension of the Potter saga’ said Variety. ‘an unprecedented extension of a beloved world is making something so impossible feel so much realer than it ever could be’ said Entertainment Weekly. Some were worried that only those familiar with what had gone before would enjoy the play. The Guardian said it ‘will deeply perplex anyone who hasn’t read the delightful books or seen the so-so movies’. But others were confident you didn’t have to be a Potterhead. Hollywood reporter pointed out: ‘there’s … a universal dimension to the human drama here – the challenges of parenting, the conflict between fathers and teenage sons burdened by intimidating legacies, the sustaining force of love and friendship, the eternal grip of the past – that will prove poignant and meaningful even to audiences unversed in the wizarding wars.’ amNY went so far as to say, ‘a theatergoer with no prior “wizarding” experience should still be able to have a great time – and may even find the show more enthralling than would a longtime fan who already knows the “Harry Potter” universe inside and out.’
Secondly, there was the story, which came from JK Rowling and director John Tiffany and was scripted by one of my favourite playwrights Jack Thorne. ‘The script has more variations on father issues than the entire canon of Greek tragedy’ said the daddy of theatre critics the New York Times’ Ben Brantley. The Hollywood Reporter was impressed by the ‘pulse-pounding storytelling vitality and … unexpected emotional richness’. The Chicago Tribune said ‘it was a must-see, totally enveloping, thoroughly thrilling chance to experience the global power of shared storytelling at its most robust.’ Entertainment Weekly found that it ‘unlocks new points of view, particularly in the show’s climax, that are wholly unique to this play, unable to be replicated no matter how countless one’s consumption of the books or movies’. New York Stage Review reckoned ‘they might as well send out the 2018 Best Play Tony Award for engraving already’. Variety described it as ‘theater that shows us the true magic of great storytelling’.
It’s proper theatre
And that’s another thing that the theatre critics loved about Harry Potter & The Cursed Child. It’s proper theatre. As the New York Times put it: ‘By contrast, most of the family-courting stage versions of animated films that have ruled the theater district for so long look as stiff and artificial as parades of windup toys.’
Similarly The Wrap contrasted it with ‘the stage versions of “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (which) dumbed the imagination with their literal interpretations.’
Variety summed it up by saying ‘the theater has brought its own brand of wizardry to the material’. The Hollywood Reporter loved its ‘Thrilling theatricality’. It was, in the Chicago Tribune’s eyes, ‘a feast of epic theatricality in celebration of the imagination (that) manages to be both extraordinary and old-fashioned theatrical fun’. The Daily News went on a similar tack: ‘What’s so wondrous is how low-tech stagecraft brings such high-definition delight.’ The Hollywood Reporter agreed: ‘The ingenuity on display, often using the simplest means, is dazzling.’ Time Out said, ‘Great care has gone into creating each moment of this state-of-the-art adventure. It leaves its audience awestruck, spellbound and deeply satisfied.’
Many critics name checked the entire creative team. Here’s The Washington Post: ‘Director John Tiffany and his longtime maestro of movement, Steven Hoggett … have created a dynamic pair of evenings replete with ahhhh-inspiring tricks and illusions overseen by the ingenious Jamie Harrison. (Christine Jones’s swirling breakapart set pieces and Neil Austin’s lighting effects are marvels, too.)’
‘Given what Cursed Child’s design team has accomplished on a technical level,’ said Entertainment Weekly, ‘Broadway will never be the same.’ And while that publication went all apocalyptic, The New York Times went all philosophical: ‘”I am paint and memory,” a talking portrait of the long-dead wizard Dumbledore says […] Well, that’s art, isn’t it? Substitute theatrical showmanship for paint, and you have this remarkable production’s elemental recipe for all-consuming enchantment.’ ‘The stagecraft on display is unlike anything I’ve seen, with magical moments taking your breath away at every turn,’ said Newsday breathlessly.
Time Out joined the chorus of approval with a concise phrase surely destined for the posters: ‘A triumph of theatrical magic’
Magic. That’s the word that- inevitably you might say- comes up again and again. The Hollywood Reporter called it ‘sheer magic’. ‘It contained’, said the New York Times, ‘some of the most eye-boggling illusions you’ll ever witness’. The review goes on to say it sets ‘the new gold standard for fantasy franchise entertainment on Broadway’. (Maybe, like me, you didn’t know ‘fantasy franchise entertainment’ was a separate genre but you do now.) Entertainment Weekly named the wizards responsible: ‘The show’s illusion and magic designer Jamie Harrison and special effects chief Jeremy Chernick are certain geniuses.’
The fifth and final spell was cast by the cast.
‘The leading actors are jolly good,’ said the Washington Post, subtly referring to the fact that many of the cast are from the original English production.
Coming in for particular praise was Anthony Boyle as Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius who, said the New York Times, gave ‘a show stealing performance’. Variety called him ‘brilliant’. The Chicago Tribune said he was ‘fabulous’, adding that his ’emotional energy empowers the production’. Entertainment Weekly along with many others was impressed by Jamie Parker as the grown up Harry: ‘the actor excels at showing this grown-up Gryffindor as a brave but stunted man, outwardly successful but inwardly tormented’. It was, said The Hollywood reporter, ‘A finely nuanced performance, with gravitas and heart’. Noma Dumezweni wowed the American critics as much as she previously impressed the Brits in London. Entertainment Weekly said she ‘stuns as a Hermione who is both cold and warm, hardened by politics, softened by parenthood, a brilliant enigma dealing with the frustration of a problem she cannot solve’.
The power and limits of love
So there you have it. A show that, thanks to its story, its theatricality, its magic and its cast, transcends its literary and cinematic origins to become a classic piece of theatre in its own right, and that, in the words of the Washington Post, ‘will be inducing swoons in Times Square for years to come’.
I’d like to end with a quote from the Chicago Tribune that seems to me to get to the very heart of why this is so much more than a mere Harry Potter spinoff: ‘you’re struck by the great beauty of both the theater and the people inside, all thinking and feeling as one about the power and limits of love’.
If there were instructions for the correct assembly of a stage play, how would they read? First, get a good theme. In Thomas Eccleshare‘s Instructions For Correct Assembly, we have at least two: dealing with grief;and when we create something how much responsibility and control do we have.
Then you need a plot. Again we have two. We start with a married couple, who enjoy DIY, constructing a human robot. It becomes apparent that they are trying to create an improved version of their young adult son who died. The second story- of what happened to their son- is told in parallel.
The two stories don’t always fit easily together. The sci-fi story leads to some hilarious moments as the robot tries to please but reveals his essential amorality. There’s a scene at dinner with friends where his inability to filter leads to sexual remarks so rude I can’t repeat them here. On the same occasion, he states his ambition to sell junk food outside secondary schools before responding to the shocked reaction and eventually muting it to organic healthy food. The other story is a poignant sometimes brutal portrayal of what it’s like when your child is an addict.
Then you need good characters and you need to assemble a cast of good actors to play them. Jane Horrocks as Max and Mark Bonnar as Harry are excellent as the fragile but positive parents. They make a believable loving couple. Michele Austin and Jason Barnett are exactly right as their friends- the Joneses, as it were, with whose child Harry and Max can only wish theirs could keep up with.
Brian Vernel is brilliant both as the son and, especially, as his fast talking robot replacement. Alike but subtly different, both try to impress and both lie. Neither ‘son’ turns out how the parents plan- and this is the glue that holds the play together.
A good production also needs a good designer. Cai Dyfan’s superb set starting as a tight aperture through which we view the action gradually opens up to show that the world cannot be controlled.
As with many assembly packs, there is one piece missing. A heart. Perhaps this is deliberate on the part of the author but, funny and interesting as it was, I didn’t find the play emotionally involving.
Instructions For Correct Assembly performs at the Royal Court‘s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 19 May.
See below the review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews
The first thing to say about Macbeth at the National Theatre is that Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff as the murderous couple do full justice to Shakespeare’s magnificent poetry and his insights into human nature.
Director Rufus Norris places Macbeth in some post-apocalyptic version of today’s world. Rei Smith’s design is a disaster but not in the way some critics meant. The striking black and broken set underlines that something terrible has happened. Society has broken down into low tech tribes fighting for turf. They exist in ruined buildings, wearing cobbled together clothes and sitting on what looks like furniture salvaged from the tip. The characters’ many different accents take the setting well away from Scotland into what could be any modern war zone.
Beautifully acted by Rory Kinnear & Anne-Marie Duff
Macbeth is an ordinary person who finds himself in this extraordinary situation- and no-one does the complexities that lie beneath ordinary people better than Rory Kinnear. You feel that in peaceful times, his Macbeth could have been the guy from accounts, so low key and sensitive and humorous is his portrayal. Yet, in this time of war, he’s become a successful soldier.
Once his ambition to become the top man is sparked by the witches and his wife, even though he clearly isn’t a leader and despite his conscience and all the horrors, he heroically follows through what he started. Unlike Anne-Marie Duff’s wonderfully agitated Lady Macbeth, who, when tested, can’t cope. Rory Kinnear’s everyman Macbeth does dreadful deeds but makes us wonder what we could be capable of in such violent, anarchic times.
The production is a little lacking in tension at times, especially at the end, which I put down to this grubby small scale war needing to be played out in more confined space than the Olivier. Then again, a smaller theatre would have meant less people getting to see this dystopian, beautifully acted production.
Here’s the review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-
March 2018: Reviews of Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory with Anita Dobson at the new Nuffield Southampton Theatres city centre space and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre London. Plus my selection of the best theatre shows opening or going on sale in March.
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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.