A play within a play

A review of Edmond de Bergerac and some thoughts on playwright’s visiting their own milieu

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As I started to write my latest play review I began to reflect on just why so many writers tackled the subject of the business of putting on a piece of drama. Inevitably writers will gravitate to the world they most often inhabit and about which they can speak with a degree of authority whether that be professionally, publically or privately (sci-fi is perhaps an honourable exception which proves the general rule). I soon had a shortlist of such plays buzzing round my head – see below – and to which, after further consideration, I would now add Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval, Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Bennett’s The Habit of Art and Sheridan’s The Critic. Now apart from being all about the theatrical world, the other thing all the examples have in common is that they have been big successes. So I guess that just goes to prove the adage that good writers tend to write best about something they know or have experienced. Anyway, here’s the review:

Edmond

A play about the writing and staging of a play has always been part of a popular genre – Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Producers, A Chorus Line, The Dresser, All About Eve and (granddaddy of them all) Noises Off all visit this territory. So is there room for another? On the evidence of Alexis Michalik’s Edmond de Bergerac, currently playing at the Richmond Theatre, there certainly is.

Michalik’s play tells the tale of the gestation and first production of Edmond Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was written under intense pressure, rehearsed under less than ideal conditions and performed, against all the odds triumphantly on its opening night, and consistently ever since. Like Rostand’s original play, Michalik’s, in translation by Jeremy Sams, uses high comedy, low farce, pathos and real drama to tell its tale, though the emphasis is firmly on the former rather than the latter pair. The penurious poet Edmond Rostand (Freddie Fox) finds inspiration for his creation in the real life situations in which he finds himself – principally that of wooing Jeanne (Gina Bramhill) by proxy for his best friend Léo (Robin Morrissey). As Cyrano does with Roxanne, so Edmond falls for Jeanne – art imitates real life and the two begin to blur – hence the mash up of the play’s title.

As the harassed Rostand, Freddie Fox couldn’t have been better at conveying the nervous energy, the moments of penniless despair and, ultimately, the triumphant debut of his creation. Like the central figure of any good farce, events kept conspiring to undermine him and Fox’s reactions were a pleasure to watch. There were a couple of brief moments where his, otherwise, impeccable comic timing seemed to elude him, but his was generally a performance to savour.

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No such accusation could be levelled at Henry Goodman playing the renowned French actor and creator of the role of Cyrano, “Cocky” Coquelin. His comic timing and reactions were a pure masterclass and driven by his own desperations (money troubles, the compulsion to perform) Coquelin was comprehensively bought to life. Goodman is an actor who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything and never gives a poor performance. He was in his element here, especially towards the finale of the play when recreating some of the key moments of Cyrano. As far as I can see from the programme notes Goodman has not played the hero of Rostand’s play – he really should…casting directors take note!

Josie Lawrence’s turn as theatrical legend of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, was appropriately magisterial. She also played several other minor characters; these were carried out with comprehensive skill but in general I felt the production seriously underused her considerable talents. Chizzy Akudolu, however, was very good value as diva Maria who gets her comeuppance in a heavily telegraphed fall from grace allowing for that standard showbiz cliché of the understudy going on stage and winning the day.

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The ensemble was universally excellent playing a multitude of roles and pulling them off with aplomb. A special mention goes to Simon Gregor variously and hilariously playing a gangsterish financial backer, an extremely camp wardrobe master and best of all an outrageously “French” (shades of Clouseau) hotel receptionist. This latter scene, which started the second half, was one of the best as the action descended into pure door-slamming, trouser-dropping farce reminiscent of Feydeau; appropriate really as the master farceur himself turned up as a hotel guest. This was one of the incidental joys of the piece as various real life figures found themselves immersed in the action. Aside from the aforementioned, Bernhardt, Coquelin and Feydeau there were also appearances by Ravel, Lumière, Mèliès and even Anton Chekov.

Director Roxana Silbert, movement director Liam Steel and fight director John Sandeman kept the action cracking along at a swift pace. The whole piece used many physical theatre techniques which retained interest; particularly clever was the recreation of a Parisian steam train. There were lots of short scenes, changes of location and cutting reminiscent of film editing, necessitating a set which could be used fluidly and changed swiftly. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins comprehensively provided this, aided and abetted by excellent lighting and sound design (Rick Fisher and Dan Hoole respectively) and the inventive foley effects conjured up by Ruth Sullivan.

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This was a solid well-paced production, perhaps a little overlong and in the closing stages rather too reliant on the Rostand original. That aside it was lively, never less than engaging and a more than worthy addition to the genre of works about “the business we call show”. My only real surprise was that one essential element did not appear until about twenty minutes before the end – surely Cyrano’s (in)famous nose should have featured more prominently (!!)*

Maybe the other reason that plays about plays tend to be successful is because the cast and creatives can have such wonderful fun at the expense of their colleagues and this coveys itself to the audience. If as an actor you have met an overbearing director or a divaish actor or a misanthropic stage manager it must be hugely satisfying to take some revenge by portraying their foibles for all the world to see – even if you are actually the only one that knows what you are up to. I have to confess at this stage that some aspects of my Bottom from a few years ago were based on other amateur actors I had encountered over the years. Yes, it can now be told, the attention seeking desire to play all the roles, the refusal to accept direction, the bombastic delivery, the upstaging, the mugging – they were all somebody else – not me at all!

*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine
Production photos by Graeme Braidwood

Culture bound – April

A quieter month but still plenty of quality – with an amateur show taking top honours

Theatre

Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginoff (Hope Theatre, Islington)  Thrill Me, like Chicago, examines murder in 1920s America but is a very different beast. Two men, no chorus line, orchestra or “razzle dazzle” and the plot is a retelling of an actual murder. This gives the piece a very chilling resonance enhanced by the very intimate nature of the playing space and a good set. The music is nothing special but its performance on a single piano by was very impressive.  Both the actors were extremely good with strong singing voices; however, for me Bart Lambert as Nathan Leopold just edged the honours ****

Deposit by Matt Hartley (Tower Theatre, Stoke Newington) A play about millennial angst in the housing market. Full review here ***

Where Is Peter Rabbit? devised by Roger Glossop  (Theatre Royal, Haymarket) Beatrix Potter’s tales bought to life with superior puppetry. Full review here ****

BEST OF THE BUNCH

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett (Tower Theatre, Stoke Newington) I saw the dress rehearsal of this. It was a stunning account of a difficult but rewarding piece of theatre with a central performance of peerless control and delivery. Virtually a monologue, it was gripping, nuanced and beautifully designed and lit. A triumph all round *****

Toast by Henry Filloux-Bennett (The Other Palace) Based on Nigel Slater’s award winning memoir, this captured a number of childhood memories of the 60s and 70s  – butterscotch Angel Delight anyone and I don’t think I’ll ever look at Walnut Whips in quite the same way again. A small cast played multiple roles and bought the sensations of cooking to life. There were even sections where the audience got to taste items – an element usually missing from most cookery based shows. Settings were fluidly used and some dynamic staging whisked proceedings along.    ****

On stage events

Inside No 9 Goes Live (National Film Theatre) A bit of a curate’s egg. The evening started with a showing of the 2018 Halloween special … which I’d already watched the previous evening in preparation for the event. As neither viewing was live it didn’t have the same effect although it’s still one of the most intelligent and clever pieces of TV of recent years. There was then a discussion panel with Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and the director and producer. Interesting enough but all too brief to fully satisfy   ***** for the programme  ** for the event itself

Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live  Essentially an elongated chat show segment in which Brydon asked questions which allowed Humphries to riff on his younger days and tell some ribald anecdotes. This was interspersed with some (unnecessary) clips of Humphries’ top comedy moments (Pete and Dud, etc.) Unlike when he is Dame Edna/Sir Les it wasn’t quite so easy to get away with the non PC stuff. Humphries is always a joy but without his characters I think he is far less effective; on the other hand, he is 84! ***

The art of the inanimate object

In pursuit of puppets, puppetry and Peter Rabbit

Sounds a bit pretentious doesn’t it? Don’t worry, it’s just about puppets and puppetry. Say the word “puppet” and what readily springs to mind is one of two types. Either the gloved variety – Punch and Judy, Sooty and Sweep etc. – or, even more usually the stringed version or marionette – Andy Pandy, The Flower Pot Men et al. A subset of the latter was Supermariation invented by Sylvia and Gerry Anderson and employed in shows such as Fireball XL5, Stingray and, of course Thunderbirds. I remember all sorts of puppetry acts from my childhood – there was the extremely annoying Pinky and Perky, the weirdly makeshift Telegoons and does anyone remember Toppo Gigio? But then puppeteering seemed to fall into the doldrums for a time, or was it just that I’d got a bit older and couldn’t be bothered with it? Whatever the case there seems to have been a renaissance of the art form and a much more diversified way of working with these inanimate objects has become the norm. The Muppets aside, the charge, appropriately, was led by War Horse still one of the National Theatre’s highest grossing shows taking the art of puppetry to giddy new heights and setting a bar that is still be incredibly difficult to top.

I’ve seen a number of shows recently which featured elements of puppetry, most notably the clever evocation of the fauna of the Galapagos in the Natural History Museum’s The Wider Earth. And it is, by and large, an art form used to bring animals to life on stage (cf The Lion King). The latest London show to do so is Where Is Peter Rabbit? Here’s my review:

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In a more cynical world weary age the tales of Beatrix Potter could easily be accused of being twee and irrelevant. And yet, worldwide, children (and I suspect quite a number of adults) continue to be delighted and enthralled by these anthropomorphic fictions from a bygone era. The stage of the Theatre Royal Haymarket is now playing host to dramatised versions of five of these well-known stories under the collective title of Where Is Peter Rabbit?

PR4Originally created for the Lake District attraction The World of Beatrix Potter, this hour long piece somewhat betrays its origins in its Disneyworld like staging. That said the set is based on Potter’s own drawings and is beautifully realised in 3D by deviser/designer Roger Glossop. A cast of six bring the yarns to life with help from voice overs by Miriam Margolyes and Griff Rhys Jones (both ideal). The show is knitted together by Potter herself (Joanna Brown) a prim yet twinkly young woman who quickly got the audience onside – even if one small child vocally confused her with Mary Poppins.

PR3But it is the puupetry and, indeed, the puppets themselves which steal the show. Here are Jemima Puddleduck, Tommy Brock, Jeremy Fisher, Mr Tod, and a number of other famous characters bought to life by their handlers who also supply the voices and they do this superbly. The puppets are a combination of full body puppets, as I believe they are known, and rod puppets – the handlers feet are attached to the puppets’ feet so they move simultaneously. This works extremely well so that the actors can remain in full view and yet soon it is as if they are not there. One of the most ingenious creations is Lucie – the little girl who meets the hedgehog laundress Mrs Tiggywinkle. It is one thing to convince us that bits of material are animals but a living child takes it to quite another dimension altogether.

PR1As far as I could tell/remember the tales seemed pretty complete – they evoke, of course, a world of long gone simplicity. These days rather than spending all day long angling for a fish with which to entertain his friends to supper, Jeremy Fisher would now be on his smartphone to Deliveroo. It struck me that although the most famous tale is that of Peter Rabbit’s it is actually less dramatic than some of the others – he’s really just a bit naughty but I suppose that’s why children identify with him. Peter’s nemesis and villain of the piece (if something as gentle as Potter can be said to have a villain) is nasty Mr McGregor who at one stage, and slightly confusingly, morphed into multiple clones of himself with wheelbarrows full of tasty vegetable treats – I wonder if there were any subliminal messages here about getting our kids to eat their greens.

Dance routines, such as this last one, sometimes seemed a little cramped but ultimately this was all in keeping with the miniature world which the Potter stories inhabit. Music by Steven Edis and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn, conjuring up a pastoral view of the Lake District, were effectively simple and direct without being particularly memorable. Sound and lighting were used cleverly to indicate locations and moods and the whole was directed and choreographed fluidly by Sheila Carter

PR2It’s difficult to say what age range is being targeted and the theatre website is rather coy on this point saying it is “aimed at families with children age 3+ who we feel are old enough to enjoy, understand and appreciate the production”. There was a bit of restlessness in the quieter passages but the joyful audience reaction to Peter’s eventual and perhaps rather over delayed appearance and the spontaneous clap along to the last song suggested that it had gone down well. However, the show does perhaps lack an element of audience participation/interaction which might have been expected in one aimed at a young audience. I guess it will all depend on when and, indeed, whether, youngsters are familiar with the tales. Even if full understanding is not there, there is still plenty to divert the eye and ear. This show can be summed up in one single word: charming.

I suppose the biggest and most notable change these days is having puppeteers in full and constant view. Once upon a time Punch and Judy men and marionette operators hid inside booths and behind screens to ensure the magic wasn’t spoiled for the viewer. TV shows went to great lengths to hide the strings from sight.  But now a virtue is made of having the handlers visible (War Horse did much to break down the barriers) and it has been realised that part of the magic is in being able to see these clever craftspeople demonstrating their skills – more power to their elbow…and feet ….and fingers!

Financial incapability?

A review of Deposit @towerhteatre and some thoughts on financial capability education

Since I left the chalkface nearly 15 years ago (15!!) my key pursuits have really revolved around the theatre and the world of financial capability education. Now it’s not often that those two milieux have found themselves directly aligned although there are any number of dramas where problems and issues with money are used as a backdrop to the wider drama. Shylock’s usurious money lending in the Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the inheritance squabbles of Tennesse Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or Willy Loman’s enforced redundancy in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman readily spring to mind. However, these are not specifically front and centre. Not so a relatively new play I saw last week called Deposit by Matt Hartley. Here’s my review:

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Matt Hartley is a name unfamiliar to me yet he has a small but growing body of work. Deposit is his play from 2015 and it seemed appropriate to be watching this revival in Stoke Newington which perhaps has more than a passing relationship with those people bracketed as millennials (i.e. born between 1980 and 2000). The problems that particular generation have had with getting (or rather not getting) themselves onto the housing ladder have been well documented and it is clear that funding such purchases is at the bottom of many problems. Indeed, according to online estate agent CBRE “Of those millennials who have moved out (of the parental home), 63% are currently in rented property due to financial circumstances – 75% of those surveyed)”

deposit5And so the play finds millennials and long-time partners Rachel and Ben in their tiny one bedroom flat which overlooks the Shard (well, it does if you stand in just the right position at the window and angle yourself just so) struggling to make ends meet. They are doing reasonably well paid responsible jobs in the public sector, saving every penny they can to scape enough together for a deposit on something better. They have the, apparently, bright but illegal idea of moving in friends Mel and Sam for a year. He’s a doctor and she works in advertising so they have a bit more disposable income but are also struggling to save for their joint future. The plan is that Mel and Sam will camp out on the sofa bed in the living room, split the household bills and more importantly share the rent with their hosts, ensuring that all four can save for the futures they earnestly desire.

Of course, it’s never going to be that straightforward. Rachel and Sam are friends from way back and, at first, look forward to flat sharing. However, the tensions soon begin to mount. The incoming couple have to literally live out of suitcases in case of a sudden appearance by the property owner. The walls are paper thin meaning there is little privacy for either pair. Petty arguments about who buys the toilet paper and bathroom rotas break out; these are more reminiscent of student life than that of young professional adults. Ben almost loses it completely when he and Rachel return early from a rare weekend away to find their bedroom being used as “a Chinese laundry”. So the situation provides the necessary dramatic conflict as the friendships are torn apart and nobody seems to be particularly satisfied by the outcomes.

deposit26I was quite taken by the highly appropriate set designed by Laurence Tuerk. Instead of walls we had the necessarily paper thin billboards from estate agents and the floor was cleverly laid out as the sort of scheme one might see on an agency spec. The kitchen area seemed a little cramped but was not in play very often so this scarcely mattered – anyway the fact that it was cramped may well have been intentional in showing the rabbit hutch nature of the property. At the back was a video screen ticking off the days on an animated calendar. A nice touch but I wish it had been rather more stable as movement behind the backing curtains caused it to “ripple” repeatedly which was a bit of a distraction. The lighting of Alan Wilkinson was a good complement to the design and Sheila Burbidge’s costumes caught the mood of the age very well.

deposit16The four actors had a strong command of the material and performed their roles with conviction and a great degree of empathy – though I sincerely hope none of them find themselves in the situation within the play. Chloe Ledger as Rachel was a convincing central character, at first trying to keep the peace but gradually coming to realise that it was every woman for herself. Ultimately she revealed a calculating even ruthless streak to her character and although I wasn’t totally convinced by the writing here, Ledger made a more than creditable job of the change in persona. As her rather more flighty and extrovert  best friend Mel, Sims Witherspoon was a good contrast yet at the same time it was easy to believe the two young women had been good friends. Her partner Sam, played by Iskander Javid making his Tower debut, was a nice study in passive-aggressiveness.  The most impressive of the four was Adam Hampton-Matthews who graduated his character Ben from an almost naïve everyman type to someone far more hardnosed as life (and his friends) repeatedly seemed to let him down. In one particular speech towards the end of the first half all of Ben’s frustrations came bubbling through in a Meldrewesque stream of complaints and this was masterfully done – perhaps turning 30 (unthinkable!) marked the end of the age of innocence.

The quartet of players was well drilled under the expert eyes of director Martin Mulgrew and stage manager Alison Liney and her team. The many transitions in time were very competently handled and the piece as a whole flowed well. That said I felt the end of the first half didn’t really build to anything. Later I discovered that the original play was meant to be played straight through so perhaps that was why – though I think 2 hours would have been a very long sit indeed so breaking the action was undoubtedly the correct call.

deposit13The play itself had many merits and deserved its revival. However, I think the company had rather a hard sell on its hands as the audience at the performance I saw (self included) was largely outside the age range and thus the experience of the generation under this particular microscope. I felt that although I could sympathise I couldn’t really empathise and I hope that the rest of the run draws in a slightly younger age range who will appreciate more fully the many nuances the piece contains. Originally the choice of Penny Tuerk, the play was performed as a fitting tribute to the memory of one who gave Tower Theatre unstintingly of her time and talents – I think she would have been pleased with the end result.

Now, of course, financial capability is more than just about saving and purchasing property but as the biggest acquisition most people will make in a lifetime it is a very important part of living in the modern world. There has been an ongoing debate for as long as I have been working in the field about students and pupils being giving comprehensive lessons in dealing with their finances when entering adulthood. Nobody I have ever spoken with has ever suggested that this would be anything other than a good thing – indeed the vast majority always tell me “I wish I’d been taught that when I was at school” And yet somehow it still hasn’t happened and a play like Deposit is on one level a stark warning about what is happening to our younger people. So let me finish this post with a call to arms – let’s get financial capability firmly onto the education curriculum for all and if you’re an educator/school governor/ parent reading this and would like to know more then please look at the work of organisations like Young Enterprise/Young Money and the Money Charity who can really help.

Production photography by Robert Piwko

Culture bound – March

March 2019  Plenty of good stuff although one or two disappointments too. The surprising highlight was actually a children’s show – perhaps I’m regressing!

March 2019

Theatre

Three Ayckbourn Plays by Alan Ayckbourn (OSO Community Arts Centre, Barnes) I think probably the less said about this the better. The amateur group performing these three one-acters (Mother Figure, A Cut In The Rates and No Knowing) had received a knock-out blow to the production just hours before curtain up but even so it was an object lesson in what not to do with Ayckbourn’s work. Amateurs often think they are making an easy choice by putting on his plays. They aren’t and this production was living proof of that *

Strike Up The Band by George and Ira Gershwin and George S. Kaufman (Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate) There can’t be many musicals where the main action takes place in a cheese factory. This was a thoroughly engaging fun evening with glorious Gershwin tunes and a seldom performed book by George S. Kaufman – thus quite a rarity. The set design was rather basic and sound balance was a little off – the, otherwise excellent, band unfortunately drowned out some of the lyrics in the more rousing numbers. There really wasn’t a weak link in the ten strong cast; particularly outstanding was Beth Burrows who played the romantic lead with panache ****

Talk Radio by Eric Bogosian (Tower Theatre, Stoke Newington) A very well realised and executed production with a monster (both senses) of a central part **** See full review here

The Life I Lead by James Kettle (Park Theatre, Finsbury park) A surprising and thoroughly delightful one man play about actor David Tomlinson **** See full review here

In Basildon by David Eldridge (Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch) A very good slice of life drama which went down extremely well with an audience drawn from the immediate locale of the play; I doubt it would have landed quite so well anywhere else in the country. It’s a revival of a Royal Court play from 2012 but still relevant in its look at the political landscape of the last 25 or so years. The dialogue crackles and fizzes and the characters (the vicar apart) were neatly drawn and expertly played. The set looked too small for the stage and its bare décor did not ring true ****

Berberian Sound Studios by  Joel Horwood (Donmar Warehouse) An adaptation of a film set in a 1970s Italian horror/sexploitation sound dubbing studio in the 1970s. Gilderoy (the dork from Dorking) travels to Italy to lend his expertise but gets caught up in his own chain of horror and violence. The ending was a complete mystery but the lead actor Tom Brooke and the main USP of the piece, the extraordinary aural soundscape, made the play a worthwhile watch – or perhaps that should be listen ***

Crown Dual by  Daniel Clarkson  (King’s Head, Islington) A pleasant 70 minute romp which was a parody of Netfix’s TV hit The Crown. It had just two very slick and committed performers (plus stooges taken from the audience) and a great deal of silliness thrown in. Not so much a play, more an entertainment; there was a script full of daft moments but everything was done to serve the jokes. Some of the best bits were the ad libs ***

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, adapted by Harry Gibson (Tower Theatre) As expected a forcefully pungent slice of life among the drug addicts of Edinburgh delivered with comic brio. Apparently first seen before the famous film version this was a no hold barred in your face immersive production … fortunately the infamous “worst toilet” segment wasn’t too immersive! Most of the cast played multiple roles switching between them with apparent ease; they all showed an impressive level of commitment to a tale full of tragedy with a throbbing soundtrack and an unapologetic demeanour ***

BEST OF THE BUNCH

The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens created by Jetse Batelaan (Unicorn Theatre) An absolute treat of a show which worked on a number of levels. Full review here *****

The Conductor adapted by Mark Wallington and Jared McNeill   (The Space, Tower Hamlets) A dramatic narrative blended with a piano recital concerning the composition of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony in Leningrad when the city was under siege by Nazi invaders. It’s first Leningrad conductor, Karl Eliasberg (Joe Skelton) both admires Shostakovich’s genius but also loathes him  – shades of Amadeus here, I thought, suggesting a lack of originality. Deborah Wastell played a range of female characters (with Welsh/Scottish etc. accents!!) and Shostakovich himself was the brilliant pianist Danny Wallington. Very simply staged it was an interesting “play” the drama element of which was eventually overpowered by the sublime music ***

 

TV Recording

Tonight With ….. This was a curious beast. A late night chat show hosted by Vladimir Putin interviewing June Sarpong. It also featured Meghan Markle answering questions from the audience. One of the celebrities was real – the other two were computer generated. See if you can guess which was which. Spitting Image did it better but it will be curious to see how it fares when it hits the screens. As an experience it was somewhat tedious **

QI  I always look forward to a recording of this show as it is invariably entertaining and very slickly done (there were no pick ups/retakes at the end which tells you something). Sandi Toksvig was joined by Alan Davies, Jason Manford, Sarah Millican and new face Loyiso Gola from South Africa. The theme was “Q for quirky” and, as ever, it certainly was ****

 

Books

The Beast by Alexander Starritt. Heavy handed satire which missed the mark ** Full review here

Rules For Living by Sam Holcroft. Manic play about coping strategies which I’ll be directing later this year **** Full review here

 

Exhibition

Dorothea Tanning (Tate Modern) Not as immediately famous as Dali or Magritte, or even her husband, Max Ernst, Tanning is often bracketed with the surrealist movement. Though this was true of her earlier work her long life was spent making art of increasing complexity and diversity. I did prefer the earlier part of the show (her Eine Kleine Nachmusik being a particular highlight) though some of her later works were a revelation especially the very spooky Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot an early example of what is now known as installation art. Not an extensive show but one which stimulated the mind ****

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Theatre going, existential crisis and a review of The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens @Unicorn_Theatre

Regular theatre going can provide moments of complete and utter contrast and yet there are often unexpected links too. Last week within the space of 24 hours I found myself watching a stage adaptation of a very adult oriented novel and then the following afternoon a highly unique children’s show. Not much to link together there you might be thinking.

Wednesday evening’s offering was Tower Theatre’s production of Trainspotting based on the famous novel by Irvine Welsh and the probably even more famous film by Danny Boyle. As expected this was a forcefully pungent slice of life among the drug addicts of Edinburgh delivered with comic brio. Billed as a no holds barred, in your face immersive production it was certainly that; though fortunately the infamous “worst toilet” segment wasn’t too immersive! The central figure Renton constantly questions if his life has meaning, purpose, or value – a full on existential crisis, if you will and this provided the link to the young people’s show the next day. Here’s my review:

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As we all know London is pretty much on full alert these days. However, I did find it a little worrying that there apparently needed to be a glowering security guard standing in the foyer of children’s theatre the Unicorn. I had gone there to see the interestingly titled The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens aimed at 6 – 12 year olds, so his presence seemed a little over the top. As it turned out I needn’t have been concerned for security guard Nigel Barrett was actually part of the performance. This turned out to be the first of many surprises this joyfully gleeful show had to offer; it was an absolute treat from start to finish.

Hopefully1It is a seemingly slow and tedious experience on the surface; the play starts with a three minute pause during which the audience sits and stares at a bare stage – Pinter would be proud. However the piece’s title is, of course, totally misleading. Actually the hour’s playing time is stuffed with more challenging ideas than the average adult drama. Theatrical notions about character, conflict, detail, entrances and exits, props, costumes, technical aspects and so on are rigorously yet hilariously examined. Repeatedly the audience are wrong footed and although it is difficult to describe what takes place, in the spirit of the show I’ll give it a whirl…

A performer, Riad Richie, attempts to carry out his assigned yet non-specified role which he finds very difficult as the only door on stage has been locked, bolted and alarmed. When he finally does gain access, following some prolonged DIY and setting off the alarm in the process, he meets the belligerent intransigence of jobsworth security guard Nigel who at first tries to prevent him from doing anything but then gradually finds himself sucked into proceedings. Soon Nigel is looking after a pet turtle, wearing bits of furniture on his back and a coffee pot on his head (don’t ask) and chasing around like a thing possessed. In one memorable sequence he even finds himself playing hide and seek with himself (no really, don’t ask).

hopefully3Meanwhile Riad is having an existential crisis as he mourns the passing of a dead “moment” and searches vainly for other key dramatic “moments”; one of these is also portrayed by Nigel (as I keep on saying, don’t ask). At this point the play develops a bizarre logic all of its own as matters spiral out of control and a “Groundhog Day” type scenario is repeatedly played out. We also get an interminably slow version of “The Flea Waltz” (yes, you DO know it) on a piano keyboard which ultimately falls apart, a mysteriously balanced pot plant, lessons in lettuce chewing, the use of power tools, trickery with lights and sound and a delightful procession of small paper mannequins (the “happenings”) with accompanying commentary. All of this is played out on an appropriately bare plywood covered stage with minimal props but high levels of imagination. The piece is clearly heavily influenced by the clowning tradition at which the Europeans are so good and which in the wrong hands can be very unfunny and even deathly – here it is anything but.

The show is devised and created by Dutch theatre wunderkind Jetse Batelaan and his company Artemis Theatre, though the two performers are from the UK. The duo’s deadpan delivery and timing is spot on as the manic metatheatrics increasingly twist and turn. The young audience – a shout out to Grange Primary School near Tower Bridge – loved every minute of it and joined in vociferously trying to solve the conundrums with which they were presented. Considering the complexity of some of the concepts they were faced with their level of connection was superb. I too was unexpectedly captivated by this piece, finding it by turns intellectually stimulating and hilarious. I highly recommend this production and can’t help thinking that Samuel Beckett would definitely have approved. *  

Waiting For Godot, Beckett’s existential masterpiece, famously begins with Estragon’s line “Nothing to be done” and this well might stand as a summation of the feelings of Renton, Nigel, Riad and no doubt many of the audience (children excepted). Drama has the power to sum up the human experience and both of these productions, in their varied ways, managed to achieve this for me …. I’m even beginning to question why I’m writing this blog!

42POSTSCRIPT In case you’re wondering what the title of this post has to do with anything, let me explain. This entry marks my 42nd post on this blog but also it is, of course, the answer to the ultimate existential question of life, the universe and everything.

* An edited version of this review first appeared on the LTR website
Production photos: Camilla Greenwell

One Man Band

A review of The Life I Lead starring Miles Jupp

Can there be anything more rewarding … and terrifying for an actor than the one person play? Basically a much extended monologue it is a genre of performance which gives the actor no place to hide, the only interaction being directly with the audience. Charles Dickens (clearly a frustrated actor) gave dynamic reading tours in the nineteenth century which were to all intents and purposes solo plays in which he took on all the parts thrilling his audiences and reportedly bringing himself near to death so draining were his efforts. Both Patrick Stewart and Simon Callow have repeated this feat with their solo renditions of A Christmas Carol. More recently the exquisite vignettes of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads have entertained both on TV and the stage. Of course, on the down side, if the audience fails to be taken by a solo performance it must be excruciating agony on both sides. I wondered which way things would fall recently when I attended a solo play which on paper didn’t sound too promising only to be faced with a pleasant surprise. Here’s my review:

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What a thoroughly delightful evening this turned out to be. I must admit that the thought of a one man performance about the life of reasonably well known film star David Tomlinson had not exactly set my pulse racing. How wrong I was! The Life I Lead at the Park Theatre turned out to be a completely engaging, at times affecting, well-written and superbly performed monologue which revealed more about this self-effacing personality than I could possibly have imagined.

David Tomlinson rose to fame playing upper class duffers and benevolent twits. His most well remembered role was as Mr Banks the rather stern but ultimately redeemed father figure in Disney’s Mary Poppins. As such he became the archetypal Edwardian parent for many generations (my own included) and it is this relationship between fathers and sons that playwright James Kettle cleverly makes the central theme. Tomlinson’s own relationship with his father was strained. Known not as daddy or even father to his son CTS, as the family styled him, was a grim forbidding man, slightly eccentric (his twin obsessions of Napoleon and the search for the perfect roast beef are hilariously conveyed) but with a hidden double life which produces a jaw dropping revelation in Act 2. Tomlinson went on to have four sons of his own; tragically one of these was diagnosed as severely autistic and sections of the play deal with the actor’s fight to have the condition recognised and his son treated. As if this wasn’t quite enough angst for anyone to bear, Tomlinson’s first marriage ended in murder and suicide, he was involved as a pilot in at least two potentially fatal air crashes and his brother was captured as a PoW in World War 2. At least this last incident ended happily.

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Interwoven into all this tragedy, however, Kettle has provided some gloriously sunny moments when Tomlinson recalls the trajectory of his acting career. Noel Coward once observed of him, “He looks like a very old baby” and the actor was clearly surprised to find himself hobnobbing with the big names in Hollywood. And they didn’t come much bigger than Walt Disney who was, if you will, a father figure to a whole generation. The play describes how Disney and Tomlinson became firm friends – as well as Poppins Tomlinson went on to star in The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks – and whose families shared good times around Disney’s California pool as well as revelatory confidences. When Tomlinson asked Disney why he hadn’t simply stuck to cartoons the latter twinklingly replied that actors were so much cheaper.

Tomlinson’s first and poorly paid stage job involved playing multiple characters in a busy street passing a window. This is superbly brought to life by Miles Jupp who gives us a multiple character gallery of his own. As well as playing Tomlinson, Jupp also portrays those who shared his life among others his second wife Audrey, CTS, a bogus theatrical agent, Walt Disney, a disapproving theatrical landlady, etc. Jupp is, after the eye-openers about Tomlinson, the evening’s second startling revelation. Known primarily as a stand-up comic and quiz panellist he is clearly also a superb actor blessed with exquisite timing, a wonderful physicality and an innate ability to get the audience on his side. He is equally good with the tragic, revelatory moments maintaining a stillness that leaves a profound mark on the audience – I clearly heard gasps of amazement when the bombshell about CTS was dropped. He even manages Mr Banks’s song from Mary Poppins (which gives the play its title) with aplomb. I do hope a director casts Jupp in some major Shakespeare role very soon.

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The play is quite rightly simply staged and directed by Didi Hopkins and Selina Cadell. Quite why a one person play should require two directors I’m not sure but, that said, they do a fine job. Matthew Eagland’s lighting was well utilised to suggest the public life with full on glare to the more subtle private revelations – more muted tones and spotlighting. The set by Lee Newby I thought was heavenly – pun intended. Using pastel colours appropriately redolent of a Disney film with some (symbolic?) clouds in the background I was forcibly reminded of the paintings of surrealist Rene Magritte. This notion was supported by the number of bowler hats (another key Magritte trope) which were dotted around and a further recurrent image from Magritte’s work, that of a closed door broken by a cut out silhouette of Tomlinson/Jupp. All this demonstrated amply how a set designer can contribute a whole extra level of meaning to a performance – after all Tomlinson’s life was (to him at least) quite surreal.

Eschewing the current trend for intervaless plays the evening still clocks in at less than two hours during which there are moments of supreme hilarity and deeply moving revelation. If the premise behind this piece seems at first a little prosaic I suggest that, like Mr Banks in Tomlinson’s key film, you take the plunge and “Fly A Kite” – you won’t be disappointed!*

So not quite what I might have anticipated but none the worse for that. I haven’t tried this genre myself nor, I think, am I likely to. The nearest I have come is directing someone else in Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, an interesting experience working out how to concentrate the audience’s attention on a lone figure. The biggest plus was that I could always count on 100% cast attendance at rehearsals.

*This review first appeared in Sardines Magazine
Photos: Piers Foley