Theatre/Opera/Dance reviews and news

Theatre

The Sunshine Boys

When the curtain rose at The Savoy, we were instantly met with the diminutive and unmistakable Danny Devito quietly sitting on his chair. I do realise that the words quiet and Danny Devito are not quite synonymous but do not fear, the brash and incandescent actor does eventually shine through.

From the opening few minutes, hushed whispers were heard around the auditorium from people remarking at how small he was and my instant (and internal) reaction was; please stifle your utterly dull truism. The remarkable thing however which is connected to his rather small appearance is that he has a truly towering presence which is felt even during his quiet moments although unsurprisingly, there isn’t too many of them.

This production of Neil Simon’s 1972 play, The Sunshine Boys, is nothing short of comic gold. The in-demand Thea Sharrock directs an excellent cast, led by Devito and Richard Griffiths, two wildly contrasting characters, both physically and psychologically. Together they play a venerable and embittered Vaudeville double act that split up after Griffiths’’ character, Al Lewis, decided it was time to retire from show business. They were once great friends but they became quarrelsome during the end and for the final year of their partnership, did not utter a single word to one another.

The play picks up 10 years since they last uttered a single word to each other and DeVito’s character, Willy Clark, is encouraged to reignite the old partnership for a television special by his agent and nephew.  Al Lewis is keen but the obstinate and immensely proud Clark needs some convincing as he has become quite churlish as time has passed and holds a significant grudge against Lewis.

The true magic from this production occurs when DeVito and Griffiths occupy the stage. DeVito is loud, brash; unafraid to speak his mind while Griffiths, in stark contrast, is insouciant, sophisticated and charming. Their stark dichotomy causes moments of hilarity as they inevitably struggle to avoid bringing up the past.

The play is beautifully written, full of long-running gags and it rarely relents in its humour, although it does have a few reflective moments that illustrate that even in the bitterest feuds amongst long-term companions and friends, there is always that comfort of simply enjoying being in one another’s company.

 

The Sunshine Boys runs at the Savoy Theatre until 28th July

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The Duchess of Malfi

In the poem ‘Whispers of Immortality’, TS Elliot says of the playwright John Webster, ’Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’. This rather pertinent couplet offers a microcosmic view of what to expect from the work of Webster. He was a man obsessed by the darker faculties of the human condition.  Perhaps his most famous play, The Duchess of Malfi, has been revived at the Old Vic by director Jamie Lloyd, whose most recent output was the brilliant Faith Machine at the Royal Court.

This Jacobean tragedy takes place in the court of Amalfi and is set upon a beautifully ornate backdrop of a labyrinth of intricately patterned walkways- a perfect place for a pernicious intelligencer to go unnoticed. The story centres on the eponymous Duchess, a recent widow, who has two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who want a significant part of her inheritance and are loath to allow her to marry again.

In order to prevent this from happening, Ferdinand hires Bosola, an intelligencer and former servant to the Cardinal, to spy on the Duchess and report back in the event of anything suspicious occurring. The fate of the Duchess takes an ominous turn when she falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, and embarks on a secret relationship with him, trying her utmost to keep her secret away from her psychopathic brothers.

The emotionally demanding role of the Duchess is delicately portrayed by actress Eve Best, most noted for her roles in The Kings Speech and American TV drama, Nurse Jackie. She is but the innocent party in a bevy of wolves that are made manifest by her brothers.

Ferdinand’s descent in to madness is also brilliantly realised by actor Jamie Lloyd with his rodent like features and slick black hair, he gives off the air of a deeply disturbed, conflicted and mercurial man, wildly confused in his feelings for his sister- from the very moment he enters stage and before he opens his mouth, you know already that you are watching one of the main villains of the piece.

This production is truly horrific at times as we see the extent people will go in order to get what they want. The contrasting villains of the calculated Cardinal with the hot blooded and belligerent Ferdinand are brilliantly realised as is the conflicted Bosola- even in his darkest moments, there is always a flicker of humanity and remorse for his actions and this makes him a truly fascinating character.

This production comes recommended although I do warn you, it isn’t for the faint hearted! Webster liked to explore the darkness of humanity and The Duchess of Malfi has it in spades.


The Summer House @ The Gate Theatre

The Summer House is an engaging and amusing conflation of Nordic mythology and a disastrous stag-do.

The main focus is on the experiences of three men attempting to execute the traditional, or perhaps clichéd, wild stag party weekend away. Scenes of Nordic Gods and honourable Vikings are interwoven between the chaotic moments of the stag party to reflect and consequently punctuate whatever manly issue is being addressed by the trio. It is this acknowledgement of the conundrums surrounding social
status and perceived masculinity that rescues The Summer House from descending into an overtly masculine farce reminiscent of a Nordic ‘Hangover’. These glimmers of substance and amusing juxtapositions of the quandaries of the stags, with portrayals of the equally flawed and insecure Norse Gods make The Summer House astute, as well as chuckle inducing.

Neil Haigh’s performance as troubled Neil, whose summer house the men are staying in, is understated and convincing. Similarly, Matthew Steer’s depiction of the meticulously organised, anxious Best Man Matthew is also thoroughly entertaining and believable, and at points quite subtle. The stag, Will, played by Will Adamsdale, was perhaps the least palatable as his character was almost excessively slapstick. Also, at points Adamsdale’s performance felt like a semi-professional actor (with a contrived booming semi-professional actor voice)playing Will, rather than Will Adamsdale being Will.

The set and use of props were clever – though quite typical of many contemporary plays – with a sparse set design (the stage was on two levels and contained a sofa and three chairs) and a creative use of everyday objects. One of the cleverest uses of the banal was cling film as it is used to depict; cloaks, mountains, water and a hot tub cover…! However, the most inspired element of the stage and prop design was a miniature version of the summerhouse that the men are staying in: literally, a tiny wooden summer house.  The diminutive representation is positioned at the front of the stage and whatever is occurring on the actual stage is echoed, only smaller. It is brilliant. It provides comedic value but also enhances some scenes of the play that are more challenging to convey on a limited set. The use of sound supports the visual aspect of the production almost to the extent of being pedantic, with each splosh of the hot tub, but nevertheless adds authenticity and comedy which are the main merits of the performance.

The script, a collaboration by Adamsdale, Haigh and Steer is realistic and amusing. This is aside of course from the scenes based in Scandinavian history to which alas, my expertise in masculine lexical choices does not extend.

In short, this production is worth watching as a comedy with a self-conscious centre as it rigorously and humorously examines man.

Holly Darling Freeman


13

Mike Bartlett is a promising new playwright. This is his second work to be produced at the National Theatre. The first being Earthquakes in London, and he is only 31 years of age. Impressive. The world premiere of any production is always exciting – there is no precedence other than reputations. It feels like a raw canvas upon which a myriad of projections may or may not appear.

At the beginning we do indeed see a myriad of images, of emotions, of situations blur across the stage.  This play comes out strong and sleek.  An entire city awakes after a night of a shared nightmare – the insinuations fly like shards of glass.  A bad dream, a society gripped by immorality and fear is portrayed through an expertly staged opening.  Scene changes are rendered seamless by advanced stage designs that turn in time with the story. These dozens of individual storylines are blended by the large, imposing set.  Talented designer Tom Scutt has designed a machine-like cube which rotates opens splits and can appear both solid and opaque due to the perforated material.  This really is the star of the show.

The story line begins by unifying a large, diverse cast of characters via a shared mutual dream. A cast full of recognisable thespians is promising.  The prime minister, the protestors, a seedy lawyer, and a mixed race family are all disrupted by this terrifying dream – perhaps a reflection of the current state of society, perhaps a shared subconscious or maybe even underlying fear. And here the story begins to falter – trying to compress too many views and subjects simultaneously.

Where the first half of the piece leaves us in jumbled anticipation as to how all of these intricately diverse characters and storylines will conglomerate into a breathing whole, the second half of the play cuts and discards so much of what it has been painstakingly created. Recurrent dream sequences disappear completely to be replaced with an almost comedic dance routine. Characters
suddenly become side-lined, and arguments, which should peak in, merely plateau or worse become hollow. This jumbled plot creates a sense of bombardment – similar to that which our media obsessed world creates on a daily basis. Twitter, facebook, news updates, cultural highlights, reading both right and left leaning papers, that overflow of information and then – suddenly instead of finding enlightenment, one simply feels overwhelmed and undereducated.  That is the sense this work conclusively portrays. The noticeable lack of focus and overarching plot leave the audience feeling empty rather than intellectually fulfilled.

In tackling politics, society, religion, and philosophy, 13 raises a number of thought provoking questions. However it fails to do this in any unique or conclusive manner. In the diverse cast of characters, there are a few weak performances, notably Kirsty Bushell and Genevieve O’Reilly who, despite having seen her in three diverse productions, always seems to play the same character. However this was the first public performance so I hope this improves.

In attempting to tackle so much, you clearly feel the playwright is overwhelmed after nearly two hours and suddenly thinks – oh no, I have to wrap all of this up in the last hour and does so in a hurry to the detriment of the work itself. In the final tableau, the audience even laughed at an Alzheimer’s patient suggesting she will take her own life shows how the play fails to hit the mark. If perhaps the science fiction like noise could be removed, the plot cleaned, and the arguments tightened, there is an excellent play hidden within. Unfortunately this draft, despite the imposing rotating cube, fails to reveal it.

13 runs at the National Theatre until the 8th of January 2012.


The Playboy of the Western World review

Upon it’s premier at the Abbey theatre in Dublin in 1907, John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was opened to riots owing to its perceived derisive and libelous perception of Irish people and was described as a ‘vile and inhuman story told in the vilest language ever listened to in a public forum’ with some authors calling for Synge to be killed. Nowadays, a reaction like that would undoubtedly fill the theatre to capacity with every attendee wanting to see what would cause such a vociferous response.
This play certainly does not pack the socially divisive punch of its 1907 premier but within the beautifully crafted and mellifluous words, therein lies a dark heart.

The production, currently at the Old Vic and directed by John Crowley, centres on the character of Christy Mohan, played by the impish Robert Sheehan who you may well be familiar with if you’ve had the opportunity to see channel 4’s angst-ridden-teen-superhero-drama-cum-comedy Misfits.

Sheehan’s Christy wanders meekly into a local tavern, and tells a tall-tale of murdering his father. This disingenuous story of patricide immediately transforms the cowardly Mohan in to a local celebrity and the object of affection from some of the local women. He takes a particular shine to Pegeen, played with sternness and vigour by Ruth Negga and charms his way, on the basis of his new-found tough reputation, to obtaining a job at the very tavern Pegeen earns her keep as a bar maid.

Christy, to the amusement of the audience, indulges in his new found fame by desperately trying to embody the gallant and murderous playboy by retelling ad nauseum, how the scene of his father’s murder played out, and subsequently impressing a bevy of  young women much to the irritation of Pegeen.

Sheehan’s performance  as the eponymous playboy is accomplished and at times very funny. He has a great, lank physicality that he uses to comedy effect as he portrays an idealised version of himself. His charm in deceit was worked to hilarious affect as he tries to cling to his fabrication and the characters around him become totally bewitched until a significant plot development seeks to scupper his plans.

This was however, far from being a perfect production. There were occasions, perhaps owing to my ominously early onset of depleted hearing, where I missed tracts of speech which was mainly owing to my ears taking a while to adapt to the rhythm and thickness of the Irish accent. I was also a little disappointed that the play’s dark theme of a young man lying about the murder of his own father and consequently becoming a local pariah and hero was not explored through Christy’s character. Christy undergoes a significant transformation and the climax is really meant to bring home the dramatic transition and embittered maturity of his character. The tone however remained the same; jovial and light, entertaining but, and I am reluctant to say this, largely forgettable.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the performance; the stagecraft was excellent and the language was of a beauty that was at times worthy of comparison with Shakespeare. But this is not a performance that will linger around in the memory for very long, which is saddening given the strength of the material.

The Playboy of the Western World runs until 26th November


Julian Sands in a Celebration of Harold Pinter

I was not quite sure what to expect when travelling to the Rose Theatre in Kingston to see Julian Sands in a Celebration of Harold Pinter. This past year I have attended three Pinter productions in London and been extremely moved by the playwright’s accurate portrayal the emotive layers of the human psyche, by his simplistic and direct conveyance of the chaotic through the medium of theatre. Pinter, when done well hums, vibrates through the air and hits a pitch that few others in his field can match. When done poorly, well lets just say you would rather stay at home for the evening.

So on to the stage walked Julian Sands, the British actor who first caught my attention in his portrayal of Liszt in the film “Chopin”. His figure was striking against the black stage as he entered. His cool crisp English accent cut through the still air as he breathed life into the written words of Pinter.

This one man show, which originated earlier this year at the Edinburgh fringe festival, is directed by John Maklovich. It is a piece I wish I could have experienced in rehearsal to witness the interaction between Malkovich and Sands. As it was, I tried to imagine the interplay between the two during parts of the piece. During deliberate pauses or ironic tilts of the head, I could sense Malkovich’s guidance.

It is argued that Pinter may be the greatest UK playwright of the 20th century. Yet in this production it is the poetry and the man that Sands focuses upon. Sands personal admiration and compassion for this stage legend come through in every breath of the performance. He admires both the weaknesses and the strengths of Pinter’s character. Through personal anecdotes, private stories, and reading of the written word, the audience feels as if they are presented with a rare glimpse behind the scenes of Pinter the public figure. His character comes alive through this three dimensional representation which this piece presents.

Pinter’s poem “I know the place. It is true. Everything we do corrects the space between me and you” stands as a corner piece of Pinter’s deceptively simplistic style. Sands recollects how the writer, upon a misreading, suggests that he should read it and that one day he may understand it’s meaning. And it is in this that we find the true essence of Pinter, his words, language, literature will represent different meanings at different stages in each of our lives. His work does not stagnate, but evolves with the reader’s development and understanding.

This production is a moving portrayal of the lesser-known works of Pinter by a talented and well-informed performer. It was a pure joy and intellectual challenge to experience this performance, just as all Pinter, I believe, is meant to be. I left the theatre and went straight to buy the book “Various Voices”. I challenge you not to do the same.


The Kitchen at The National

The frenetic, chaotic and, at times, balletic goings-on in a busy London- based kitchen is well realised in a revival of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, currently being staged at the Olivier theatre.
Wesker’s play, originally performed in 1959 at the Royal Court, is directed by Bijan Sheibani and the Olivier’s vast stage is maximised with meticulous detail to the typical bustling late 50’s kitchen aesthetic. The actors utilise the naturalistic milieu with grace and verve as I observed with delight the brilliant stagecraft as even the gas hobs on the ovens were fully functional.

The play is set within one day and has a plethora of characters that are touched upon in small but rich detail. The central focus is on the mercurial Peter, played with Teutonic swagger, by the excellent Tom Brooke, who was last seen in the acclaimed recent production of I Am the Wind at the Young Vic.

Peter is having an illicit affair with Monique, a waitress; and has aspirations to settle down with her, but owing to his belligerent nature, finds himself arguing with her and his colleagues on more than one occasion.

The play is rich in themes and ideas that, although performed more than 50 years ago, still remain salient to this day, which is perhaps the purpose of its well-timed revival. The themes, which include racial tensions, the pursuit of love and how a mechanized and habitual way of being is destructive to your imagination and dreams, are conveyed calculatedly within this busy setting.

The kitchen itself is made up of a whole range of different nationalities which boils over when one character tells Peter and his German compatriot, Hans, to ‘Speak bloody English!’

Peter is ultimately the fulcrum of the production, becoming increasingly more capricious as the play progresses and you learn the source of his discontent. There’s a wonderful scene after the chaotic lunch service, when Peter implores his peers to speak of their dreams and they all seem to struggle to respond, numbed by the cruel machinations of their current occupational predicament and unwillingness to play.

The beautifully choreographed scenes during the first half when lunch is served explore with humour and wonderful theatricality, the rhythmic and maddening chaos that occurs within the kitchen. The boss, Marango, enters during this time and acts as the conductor of his bevy of culinary craftsmen, waitresses and washers as they waltz their way around the kitchen.

The pace of the production does seem to slow in the second half as you join the characters in a moment of peace and reflection after the chaos of lunch.

This production is wonderfully served and at £12 for a ticket, is highly recommended.

The Kitchen at the National Theatre until the 9th November