Thursday, 14 December 2017

George's Marvellous Medicine

Curve, Leicester
13th December, 2017

The finale of David Wood’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic urges the audience to ‘Don’t try this at home’. A playful smile spread across my face during the poppy song warning of the dangers of chemical abuse, ‘what a great and responsible message’, I thought, while simultaneously remembering that I myself had already broken this most sacred of rules. As a child I spent many a weekend with my brother concocting ‘potions’ from various noxious substances before proclaiming them to be the miracle cure-all elixir of health and longevity. George’s Marvellous Medicine appeals to the wacky inventor in us all; the thrill of experimenting, creating and possibly even making a difference with our hair-brained inventions, and Julia Thomas’ production relishes in imagination, mess and magic.

As always with Dahl stories, beneath the high-jinx and humour lies a dark lesson; while George’s grandma gets her comeuppance the events leave a bitter taste which reminds us that meddling – for good or bad – can be disastrous. Let’s face it, George effectively kills his grandma, that’s a case for manslaughter right there! But it’s this kind of sting in the tale that sets apart Dahl’s work from his contemporaries, and while I wouldn’t necessarily be the first to visit a ‘family’ show, this is the kind of children’s story that adults can also get their teeth into and enjoy the humour in all its grotesqueness.

Thomas’ production successfully modernises the tale. Instead of the withered wind-bag one might expect (being familiar with Dahl’s original) Lisa Howard’s leopard print-clad glam granny is a welcome surprise, creating an edge to the character’s nastiness. She is vain, deluded and selfish, her very modern tastes making her more eccentric aspects (feasting on beetles and slugs, is she really a witch? Or is she just messing with George?) all the more bizarre. Tasha Taylor-Johnson’s music combines catchy fairytale motifs with modern rhythms to create a vibrant atmosphere, heightened by the use of actor-musicians, which is always an intimate and exuberant winner in my book.  

Morgan Large’s design is delightfully mad-cap with its topsy-turvy furniture and weird and wonderful contraptions. It reminded me of Caractacus Potts’ house in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; a menagerie of cogs, gears, whizzing and twirling devices, the perfect playground for a would-be inventor/magician. Some ingenious puppetry brings to life the animals of the Kranky farm in a way that manages to be simultaneously quaint and tongue-in-cheek – a chicken/remote control car hybrid was an unexpected crowd pleaser.

Thomas also struck just the right balance with the audience interaction. There was nothing too imposing or offensive to our British sensibilities (honestly, the thought of audience interaction normally makes me cringe) while being inclusive enough that the youngsters in the audience felt a part of the magic. We were encouraged to remind George of his potion ingredients (one child yelling out for ‘Gin!’ was priceless), and help heat up the potion when his stove broke down. Preston Nyman as George was particularly engaging and made all the kids feel as he were their best friend, the audience was having a ball and the show felt like a proper muck-in of the best sort.

Curve have proven once again that they are a deft hand at Dahl adaptations and George may just be the best one yet. A great alternative to the traditional Christmas Pantomime, Thomas has created a deliciously juvenile concoction of hocus-pocus, tricks and treats, and heartfelt family bonding that appeals to children and adults alike. With Scrooge still playing in the main theatre, Curve has a plethora of festive delights on offer that has ensured the theatre is ending 2017 with a bang.

George’s Marvellous Medicine plays at Curve, Leicester until 20th January 2018 before going on a UK tour. For more dates, please visit

L-R Catherine Morris (George's Mum), Preston Nyman (George) and Justin Wilman (George's Dad). Photography Credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday, 24 November 2017

Scrooge the Musical

Curve, Leicester
23rd November, 2017

I was brought up on The Muppet Christmas Carol, and my sister’s favourite winter watch is the 1999 TV movie with Patrick Stewart. My point is that A Christmas Carol has become synonymous with the festive period, a classic tale for which families worldwide flock together to watch and re-watch with yuletide glee every year, and like me and my sister, everyone has their favourite version. So what better way for Curve to kick off their winter season than with Leslie Bricusse’s 1992 adaptation, Scrooge the Musical? The story alone is a guaranteed family-friendly hit, and it’s lovely to see an annual Christmas show which is actually, you know, Christmassy (there’s snow and everything!).

I wasn’t previously familiar with Bricusse’s show (he’s responsible for the book, music and lyrics), and, with theatre credits including Victor/Victoria and Jekyll and Hyde, I’m going to guess that Scrooge perhaps isn’t the finest example of his work. The music is nice, but forgettable, and Bricusse’s lyrics leave a little to be desired. Lines such as ‘happiness is a high hill, will I find it? yes I will’ and ‘I like life, life likes me’ are reminiscent of the Barney & Friends ‘I love you’ song* in their mawkish simplicity (*for those who don’t know it: ‘I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family…’) and I can only assume the repetitiveness in the Fezziwig song is due to a lack of words that rhyme with ‘December the twenty-fifth’. Occasionally it seems as if Bricusse is partaking in a competition to find the most ways of saying ‘Christmas’ – with varying levels of success. In a hit-and-miss score, the undoubted showstopper is the Lionel Bart-esque ‘Thank You Very Much’, which is every bit the Dickensian knees-up you’d expect (including the obligatory tap dance break; the twist here being it is performed atop a coffin!) – although this morning when I try to hum the song all I can muster is its melodic resemblance to ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner’.

While I have reservations about the musical itself, I can’t fault Nikolai Foster’s production or the performance of the cast, who put their all into Stephen Mear’s lively, ensemble led choreography and sing their hearts out with gusto. Jasper Britton brings creditable gravitas to Ebenezer in a tour-de-force performance. Scrooge’s soulful transition from wicked miser into charitable do-gooder is marked in Britton’s wonderfully expressive face; the same eyes which once mercilessly penetrated his debtors glisten with tears of joy come the picture-postcard finale. Elsewhere, Danny-Boy Hatchard brings a satisfying dose of east end revelry to proceedings and is evidently having a ball during his big moment, ‘Thank You Very Much’. And if Anton Stephan’s Ghost of Christmas Present is a bit of a scattergun pantomime, then that just adds to the charm. I also had to smile at the little detail of Marley’s (Karen Mann) chain-smoking Phantom henchmen – the lesson? ‘don’t smoke, kids, or you’ll go straight to hell!’

Curve have really outdone themselves with this production, creating their biggest, most lavish show yet. Michael Taylor’s set transports us to Dickensian London, complete with laundry lines and greying odds and ends that wouldn’t look out of place in a rag-and-bone wagon. Scenes seamlessly shift from Scrooge’s office, to his bedroom, the local highstreet (there’s a lovely array of shops, from butchers, to bakers and toymakers), and even a graveyard. Taylor’s set is magnificent in being totally engrossing, filling the enormous stage admirably, while never appearing superfluous or imposing – everything has its place and use. Likewise, Ben Cracknell provides a masterclass in how lighting is integral to creating atmosphere. Scrooge’s loneliness is brought to the fore by secluding him from the surrounding darkness: creeping shadows are magnified around his bedroom, and silvery mists chill to the bone. Cracknell’s skillful design allows Scott Penrose’s illusions (vanishing spirits, dancing candles) to shine, bringing a little magic to these cold winter nights.

Foster and company have demonstrated the communal aspect of theatre making as Scrooge epitomises how the contributions of creatives, company, and crew all come together to produce something of celebratory proportions. Yes, the story is a little sanctimonious and sentimental, but even my icy heart melted when Tiny Tim finally got his toy carousel, and while the music is not the most striking of its genre, it’s perfectly pleasant and undeniably Christmassy. Children and adults alike cannot fail to exit the theatre without feeling a little extra festive cheer this year.

Scrooge the Musical plays at Curve until 7th January, 2018.
Jasper Britton as Ebenezer Scrooge and the cast of Scrooge the Musical. Credit: Pamela Raith

Tuesday, 21 November 2017


Almeida Theatre, London
18th November, 2017, matinee

This is our little piece of the world, and we’re allowed to do with it exactly as we like.

The second act of Mike Bartlett’s new play, Albion, is set at a murder mystery summer party. The characters gather in the garden, dressed in 1920s-inspired vintage garb and sipping martinis, all there to have a jolly good time with a select few invited guests in a sprawling country house. They are real and tangible, yet somehow it’s all a work of nostalgic fiction, not quite as true as some would like. This seems to typify the world that Bartlett and director Rupert Goold create in Albion, a sublime and (mostly) subtle new play that took me completely by surprise.

Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton) has just moved to the country with the aim of restoring the gardens of a country house back to its former glory and to the magnificence she remembers when she visited them as a kid. She’s brought in tow her second husband and her daughter, Zara, recently graduated and trying to break into the publishing world in London. Audrey’s son James died two years previously in battle and her relationship with her would-be daughter-in-law Anna is civil at best. Also in the mix is her old best friend (although they hardly see and know each other) Katherine Sanchez, a famous novelist who begins a relationship with Zara. Not long after moving in, we hear that Audrey has scattered James’ ashes in the garden (named the Red Garden as it was made in honour of all those who died in WWI) without discussing it with Anna. The play has a strong narrative, beneath which is an analysis of the shifting and divisive nature of contemporary Britain. It seems glib to call the garden and Audrey’s preservation of it a microcosm for the UK and its current political tensions because it’s shrewder than that. There’s an undercurrent of grief that drives Audrey with which I sympathised.

Having quickly flicked through the text, the dialogue doesn’t appear to be as sparse as other Bartlett plays such as My Child and Bull where, in the latter of which especially, every word serves a purpose and the stage directions are stripped to a minimum. In Albion, the dialogue seems fuller, characters are given time to develop (the play’s running time is over 3 hours), and Goold’s production is teeming with life, all of which creates a meaty drama with a rich cast of characters superbly played by the whole cast. Hamilton, for example, makes some extraordinary performance choices as Audrey. She is a designer and owner of a boutique range in London. She is independent, successful and wealthy but, above all else and for all the flaws that come with it, she is strong-willed. She has a strong focus and doesn’t sentimentalise outside of that; like in her company she likes the transaction of money for services, preferring the more business-minded cleaner Krystyna to the elderly Cheryl. At times, Hamilton is constantly moving about the lawn in purposeful strides; clapping her hands to dismiss something or someone that she is too busy to be involving herself with; being sarcastic but with enough of an air of politeness that she gets away with it. She plays the role of host and matriarch perfectly. Yet she is also hugely in denial. Her aim is unrealistic. Restoring the gardens will be expensive and the climate is different now to what it was when Weatherbury designed it in the 1920s, so the flowers that may have been there might not be possible to grow now. It is also solely her dream; her daughter and husband don’t want to be there. At other times, Hamilton is frozen with anguish like when she sees James and yet can’t quite look at him.

Bartlett really puts the effort in with all of his characters. If they do ever feel excessive to the main action, it’s because Audrey overpowers them all. Helen Schlesinger beautifully plays Katherine. In the third act, the two of them row over not being there for each other, and Katherine perfectly articulates that she’s just been a supporting role in Audrey’s story. Yet the cast have invested so much into their characters that they all feel real. From the hapless young neighbour with an ambition for short story writing and a crush on Zara, to the elderly couple who need the money by pottering around the house sometimes to Audrey’s dismay, to the Polish cleaner. I felt that I cared for them all. Goold gets the best performances out of the cast but he also brings his characteristic panache to the play, no more so than at the end of the second act when Anna is enraptured by the need to feel close to James again. As she reveals to Audrey that she is pregnant with James’ son (they had his sperm frozen), contemporary music blasts into the theatre, rain comes hammering down and Neil Austin’s lighting shines through the tree that dominates the back of Miriam Buether’s stunning English garden design. Yet on the other end of the scale, Goold can orchestrate an equal theatrical delight through a moment of pause when the birdsong stops during Audrey’s paean to her garden: ‘Never still, never ending, always in flux’.

On a personal note, I really connected with Zara’s and Gabriel’s positions in the play. Not sure what to study, how to pursue their career ambitions and feeling like they are working against the tide, their story lines reflect how well drawn Albion’s characters are.

For most of the play, the Brexit parallels are played to an effective minimum. You occasionally can see Audrey morph into a Brexit negotiator, delivering Churchillian speeches about how ‘we’ll find a solution. We need optimism. Fighting talk. More hours. Harder work. That’s the way forward. Spirit!’ Frustratingly, the play’s control is slightly dashed at the end when Matthew (the gardener and only other one who really cared for the garden but who is now in the early stages of dementia) tells Audrey that she must look after an impeccable rose that survived the war. As the lights go down on her cradling it like a baby, I felt that the pudding had been over-egged. Yet for the most part, Albion sees writing, direction and performances come together to create a striking, elegiac and spectral vision of an England gripping onto something that perhaps only existed in works of fiction.

Albion plays at the Almeida until 24th November, 2017.

Victoria Hamilton in Mike Bartlett's Albion. Photo: Marc Brenner

Monday, 13 November 2017


National Theatre, Lyttelton
11th November, 2017, matinee
*Please note that this was a preview performance.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’

There’s a convincing article by Michael Harris in the programme for Network on the sensationalist media equivalent of fast food. Twitter, he uses as an example, is a culture where we melt sentiments into slogans, aim for Retweets and Favourites, and ‘consume “anger” as entertainment and each instance of “outrage” as an effective eye-grab’. We look out for our favourite commentators, or those we love to loathe, either agreeing or abhorring and sometimes not entirely sure why. We retweet the liberal elite as a badge of moral capital or, at most, to campaign and promote but to an audience probably already converted in a vacuum of anger. You see how easy it is to be cynical.

Network brings together artists from three very different areas of the arts: Lee Hall (writer of the screenplay for Billy Elliot and the plays The Pitmen Painters and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour) constantly shows in his work that theatre ‘should not be the exclusive property of a privileged elite’ (Hytner 2017, p.96); Ivo Van Hove is the one of the leading names of European theatre in his aesthetics and practices; and Bryan Cranston is from the world of Hollywood and, perhaps more notably, multi-award winning TV drama Breaking Bad. Together, in this adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, they bring together different and new audiences to see one of the most theatrical and technical coups of this year. To summarise the plot quickly, when UBS news anchor-man Howard Beale loses his job because of poor ratings he goes on air and promises that he’ll blow his brains out on live TV. After briefly dragging him off air, the network decide that Beale madly ranting about what grinds his gears will boost ratings, crucial now that the news branch has merged with the rest of the network and must make a profit. But when he starts calling bullshit over matters which could jeopardise the network and its ratings, the TV executives lock horns over whether to keep him on the air.

Jan Versweyveld’s design makes the Lyttelton’s stage look as vast as did for Angels in America. As the audience take their seats, to the right of the stage we see the onstage diners, the waiting staff and the kitchen pass. The centre of the stage is taken up with the studio floor and a screen with live feeds from roaming camera operators. On the left is a dressing area space and a glass box which contains the gallery. There’s a ubiquity of bright lights, shiny floors and screens, apart from in the Foodwork restaurant which is all about dimly lit tables and cosy benches.

Van Hove creates the well-ordered chaos and buzz of a TV newsroom moments before going live to the nation. Producers, cameramen, secretaries, voice over artists, directors and Beale can be seen wandering about, preparing for the broadcast which is being marked by a countdown at the top of the set. As the final minute to live counts down, the buzz of the newsroom is like mission control, and Bryan Cranston’s Howard Beale is like the astronaut about to take off in the shuttle, or a calm in the centre of the storm. He coolly sits down at his desk, a whirlwind of makeup artists, soundmen and crew members surrounding him, adjusts his papers and looks up at the camera. This is testament to Van Hove’s control over all aspects of his production. I found myself occasionally watching Cranston a few meters away do his pieces to camera before looking at the screen. I looked back and Cranston wasn’t on the stage anymore. There are couple of bits of simple stage trickery like this which are effectively used, particularly at the play’s bloody end. Elsewhere, the live video editing is timed to a tee. From Howard to the gallery and back again, the opening scenes are perfectly orchestrated.

Cranston is genius casting. He’s an actor who is more than comfortable and experienced in front of the camera but who can also act to the back of the Lyttelton without feeling like his performance is being compromising. To camera, he carries a deadpan expression, a serious voice, the occasional twitch or frown, and utter professionalism (to begin with). Later, he turns into a showman, confidently playing to and amongst the audience to share the prophecies with which he is apparently imbued. We feel it too. A warm up man encourages us to join in with the mantra ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ and applaud rapturously. Although the rant seems like easy, naïve, bubble-gum politics, I couldn’t deny the sheer feeling of excitement when Beale and the station crew were chanting the slogan. Elsewhere, Michelle Dockery gets the best lines as young TV exec Diana Christensen. Her rhetoric is mostly made up of soundbite-like gobbets and alliteration: she eventually comes to berate Beale’s spew of ‘dehumanisation and dying democracy’. She matches the sharp witted sassiness and ruthlessness of Faye Dunaway in the film and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler (2014) but she never overplays her role and you can fully see why Max Schumaker would find her so beguiling despite her seeming unfeeling.

Hall has remained faithful to the screenplay. In fact if he has made additions to the script, all the memorable lines come from Chayefsky’s film. I suppose what he has done is streamlined the screenplay into a text which efficiently keeps all the best bits of the film’s dialogue. By giving some of Max Schumaker’s (Howard’s best friend and director) lines to Howard, Hall has made Howard more the protagonist, rather than the oddball plaything of the TV executives’ conflict. The meta bits work best: a secretary going through some script pitches that all have the same stock characters in different job titles (the bolshie, intelligent, beautiful young woman versus the maverick older mentor figure, etcetera) still probably rings true for a lot of TV dramas today. Douglas Henshall’s Schumaker, who has a fling with Christensen, is also very good. I thought that his and his wife’s (Caroline Faber) frankness over his mid-life crisis was quite affecting:

Here we are going through the obligatory middle-of-Act-Two scorned wife throws peccant husband out scene. But, no fear, I'll come back home in the end.  All [Christensen’s] plot outlines have me leaving her and returning to you because the audience won't buy a rejection of the happy American family.

They recognise that, to Christensen, there is an overarching obsession with plot arcs, happy endings and audience ratings that extend into real life.

Technically it’s an amazingly smooth production, thanks to the unswerving company and Tal Yarden’s video design. A particular coup is where Dockery and Henshall start a scene live on the South Bank, the camera following them walking from the river, into the National and onto the Lyttelton stage. Some of the production, perhaps including this bit, feels excessive. The onstage restaurant might add to the idea that we feed on such tabloid TV. Spatially it also adds an interesting dynamic during the restaurant scenes because the diners become background artists as well as simply spectators (although they’re always more than simply audience members as our gaze occasionally falls on what they’re being served or what the kitchen staff are doing). Yet the main thought I had regarding Foodwork was that it’s a nice little side earner. The post-encore video compilation of the swearing-in from US Presidents’ inaugurations from the 1970s onwards also feels tagged on, although it’s worth it for the audience reactions to Obama and Trump.

Through this 1970s’ American stage world which channels a lot of contemporary anger, we can draw parallels to a culture of binary politics and holier-than-thou, eye-grabbing, satiating headlines in digestible 140 (nay, 280) characters. And at its heart Network features a superbly pitched performance with the weight of a Shakespearean tragic hero from Bryan Cranston, delivering one of the most watchable performances of the year.

Network plays at the National Theatre until 24th March, 2018

A scene from Network. Bryan Cranston (centre) and company. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Young Marx

Bridge Theatre, London
5th November, 2017, matinee

'Take a seat'

I’m reading Nicholas Hynter’s Balancing Acts at the moment. It is immensely readable, not only as an account of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre but also his time as Associate Director of the National, working on Shakespeare, his ebullience for new plays and why he wanted to be AD in the first place. He believes in the importance of theatre and that is conveyed persuasively in this book. This new venture with Nick Starr (with whom he worked alongside at the National) is a commercial one, yet it’s hard to stop comparing the Bridge with their old stomping ground. First impressions of the new Bridge Theatre? It’s in a lovely area which we haven’t really wandered around before: Dickensian streets meet modern architecture. The foyer is welcoming (as are the front of house staff) and light but the end of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art comes to mind: it needs to be ‘purged of culture’ and all the pretension beaten out of it. The artisan bakery looked nice and was very tempting but it was amusing seeing most of the audience walking around with plastic cups full of little cakes with a name I’m not sure I’ve heard of before. The pretty lights, free water and sea kelp soap are all marvellous, but is it the sort of place where we can get our sandwiches out without being told off? The auditorium is fantastic and I’m not sure enough noise has been made over it. Perhaps it’s because London is spoilt for choice for theatres but imagine another city getting a new theatre like this. It has the intimacy of the Dorfman or Royal Shakespeare Theatre but the stage has the vastness of the Olivier and impressive technical facilities to boot. From the back row of the top tier, sight lines and acoustics were both good and I’m intrigued to see how it’ll look when the configuration isn’t end-on.

So what of Richard Bean’s and Clive Coleman’s new play? While his previous comedies have had substantial satirical bite, Young Marx plays out much like an extended sitcom episode involving stolen silverware, a botched duel, and love triangles aplenty. There’s a great scene in the second act where Marx tries to convince his wife that Engels and their maid, Nym, are having an affair which is pure farce and an absolute hoot.

Any tragedy is swiftly brushed aside and come the final curtain we’re left with a feeling that all ends well (whether history agrees or not). While this is enjoyable and non-taxing entertainment, the occasions where Bean does attempt more serious drama, such as the death of Marx’s young son, the tonal shift doesn’t come naturally and leaves the play feeling a little uneven. One minute we’re laughing at some scrape Marx has got himself into, the next we’re meant to be weeping at the untimely demise of a child. Such combinations of tragedy and comedy can often be the most acclaimed of both genres, the final episode of Blackadder Goes Fourth being a prime example. Perhaps it doesn’t quite work here because there hasn’t previously been any sense of true threat or jeopardy, and the ending is a little rushed with too many revelations occurring in quick succession, meaning we don’t have time to properly process Marx’s grief.

One of the more successful ‘serious’ aspects lies in the political underpinning of Marx and Engels; the script is peppered with jibes against Capitalism and frustrations over the reluctant and immobile proletariat (with the irony that we’re in a new commercial theatre which sits opposite the river from The City). Perhaps the most resonant of these political arguments comes when Engels chastises Marx for claiming he is ‘brutalised’ by poverty, Prussian spies, and a dogmatic and newly-founded local police force. Engels puts him in his place, reminding him what it really means to be ‘brutalised’ as part of a social class which is battered, broken and worked to the bone. But this seriousness doesn’t last too long, soon enough we’re back to toilet humour and innuendoes galore.

So far, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bean’s play is all ‘Carry On Marx’ but if I were forced to make a comparison I’d say it bears more resemblance, tonally and thematically, to the recent BBC comedy Quacks (coincidentally also starring Rory Kinnear), which similarly follows a group of pioneers and their attempts to revolutionise a stuck-in-their-ways society. Both comedies successfully juxtapose ‘true’ history with deliciously silly humour and a cast of likably caddish characters. Even Grant Olding’s anachronistically rocky soundtrack strikes a chord with the music featured in James Woods’ sitcom.

So, Bean has produced a genuinely funny and interesting romp. Hytner has shown off his shiny new theatre to a classy standard in his production. There’s nothing ground-breaking, but it’s all very watchable nonetheless, and a near guaranteed crowd pleaser. But I’m still left with the niggling question ‘what is it all for?’ It’s pretty clear that the play doesn’t offer anything new to say politically, socially or in any way that overtly resonates with today’s audiences. People might think that’s often the case with Bean but I’ve long been fascinated in his provocative humour and interest in national identity and northern working class settings. However, Young Marx isn’t the type of play I could see upon the National’s Olivier stage, despite the production being on a similar scale, because of the apparent lack of ‘motive’. But then I remember, this isn’t the National Theatre, and I am quite rightly reprimanded for any expectations that with the Bridge Hytner would be trying to emulate his tenure as AD at the NT. A lesson to be learned here in taking things upon their own merit.

So, if there is no political or social ‘stance’ (which seems pretty ironic given the source material), what does Young Marx do? For me it humanises a figure that has become abstracted to the point of obscurity through his philosophical legacy. Banish from your mind the perennial image of Karl Marx as an old, bearded man, here, as played by a breeched and bewigged Rory Kinnear, he is a young bohemian rogue; he boozes, he swears, he womanises, he fights, and by all accounts he is a bit of a layabout. The Yin to his Yang, Friedrich Engels, acts as his minder, paying his way, bailing him out on numerous occasions, and, aware that Marx is the genius of the partnership, his main duty is to chivvy him into knuckling down with his work. Bean has lifted the lid on the man (men) behind the theory, and by putting a face to it, an empathetic and entertaining one at that, it demystifies what, for some, is a rather stuffy and complicated political model. And that can’t be a bad thing!

Kinnear is by turns charming, grouchy, sly and infuriating, demonstrating that his clout as a comedic actor is just as mighty as his more dramatic side. He’s a true all-rounder, he even plays the piano! Matching him in wits, Oliver Chris is a scream as Engels. The two bounce off each other with easy camaraderie and much of the play’s warmth and humour stems from this partnership in which a great deal of mutual respect lies behind the blokey banter. In fact, I’d argue that the play would be better off titled ‘Young Marx and Engels’, so much is the play devoted to their friendship. Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife, Jenny, and Laura Elphinstone’s Nym are solid, but as they are typically situated as the straight men to Kinnear and Chris’s double act they feel a tad underused.

The other undoubted star of the show is Mark Thompson’s ingenious and gleeful set. A London skyline is dominated by a huge revolving cube, which twirls, slides and magically configures itself into, by turns, a pawnbroker’s, a pub, the Marx residence, Hampstead Heath, a Churchyard and the British Library. Thompson has created an actor’s playground (although I imagine it’s a techie’s nightmare!), and Kinnear climbs, runs and jumps all over it, finding every nook and cranny to hide in and exploit for its comic potential.

While Young Marx isn’t going to set the world alight, it’s an assured and pleasing work to debut in the new theatre, ensuring that audiences’ first impressions of the space are, on the whole, very positive. It’s too early to say whether The Bridge will be a place for Hytner to produce hits as big as The History Boys and One Man, Two Guvnors, but let Young Marx be the first of many ‘Plays plump, plays radiant, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten – plays persistent’… and apparently the occasional musical!

Young Marx runs at The Bridge Theatre until 31st December and is broadcast as part of NT Live on 7th December.
Rory Kinnear (Karl Marx), Oliver Chris (Friedrich Engels), Harriet & Rupert Turnbull (Marx Children) & Nancy Carroll (Jenny von Westphalen), photo by Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Saint George and the Dragon

National Theatre
21st October, 2017, matinee

‘Where do we begin?’

Building and rebuilding society, righting the wrongs of the past, moving ever forward to that utopian idyll. But how do we, as individuals, as a community, ‘begin’ to change and reform? This question (I may not have recalled the exact wording) is oft asked by the residents of ‘a country a lot like our own’ after slaying the almighty Dragon (be it literal or metaphorical) in Rory Mullarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon. The Olivier stage has had what some would call a ‘difficult year’, with Rufus Norris’ programme of new works receiving a decidedly underwhelming response. So is Saint George destined to be used as further damning proof by the NT’s and Norris’ critics that the theatre is cursed, or, more prosaically, losing its touch? My answer is no, not quite. There is much to admire and enjoy in Mullarkey’s play – it’s a big, bold slice of English folklore, suitably epic in scale and it boasts some very nice performances, not least by John Heffernan (and his lovely, lustrous wig) as the titular warrior.

The play is episodic, split into three acts, but with a continuity brought by returning characters and themes. We begin in a sort of medieval, fantasy world in which the local community is enslaved by a three-headed dragon – which in his human form is embodied by a deliciously showy Julian Bleach. Into the fray steps George, a failed dragon-slayer in search of heroic deeds in which to redeem his name. 

While populated by traditional fairytale tropes – the damsel in distress, the orphan lost in the woods, etc. – this first act feels original and is the best, or certainly the most entertaining of the three settings. Yes the characters are rough-hewn and stereotypical and the jokes have all the subtlety of a studio sitcom, but it’s funny – I particularly enjoyed the visual joke about the origins of the St George flag and the satirical sentiment behind the Dragon’s claim that losing two of his three heads will, in fact, help him win the fight – and very, very theatrical. As with Common, Saint George also revels in an imaginative use of language, Mullarkey has great fun creating a Shakespearean-verse-cum-ye-olde-England pastiche patter. The theatricality and thrills get ramped up in Lyndsey Turner’s fun and exciting direction of the fight between George and the Dragon. Explosions abound and what I imagine is a deceptively simple sword trick really light up the stage in what is probably the highlight of the play.

Unfortunately, acts two and three, respectively set during the Industrial Revolution and a contemporary urban neighbourhood, lack drama and wit in comparison. The Dragon is no longer a physical entity that must be vanquished, but an altogether more tricky menace, residing in unjust social systems, the selfishness of individuals and a lack of community spirit. While this is an obvious, but truthful analogy, it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting theatre. Bleach gets little to do in acts two and three, despite his scenery chewing antics being a rollicking highlight of earlier scenes.

An over-eagerness to become a ‘state of the nation’ play makes for earnest moralising and a scramble to diagnose contemporary Britain’s problems, whether they be capitalist greed, the all-consuming rise of technology, people being too quick to take offence, or everyday violence. At the end of each act the characters, and the audience, are invited to ‘close your eyes’ and imagine a better future. This should be inspiring and moving, yet in its final utterance this motif seems tired and, frankly, a bit of a cop out. The question ‘where do we begin?’ seems more pertinent. If George is an emblem of traditional England, then what does his death signify (other than a neat rounding off of an earlier plot point)? If Mullarkey’s message is that we live in a constantly evolving world in which relics of the past don’t always belong, then sure, that seems pretty sensible, but there remains a muddled mix of nostalgia and a resistance to the past that don’t sit well together, and I’m confused as to where the play stands on such issues. The truth is that, while I enjoy plays about England and all the problems that they encompass, Mullarkey and Turner’s ideas – the transformation of a green and pleasant landscape into one of smoking rooftops and dark, satanic mills and then into the ‘broken’ Britain of microwave meals for one and bar room bust-ups – are nothing new. There is a façade of political and social relevance, but in reality, the play offers no answers and doesn’t really pose any questions.

While I’m unsure on the progression of the play, Mullarkey and Turner’s aesthetic vision is wonderfully realised in Rae Smith’s design. A sprawling English countryside stretches as far as the eye can see (literally – it spreads up the back wall and into the rafters) and is peppered with simple block houses with sketchy details. These storybook illustrations made 3D are both quaint and wry in design, echoing another of the NT’s nation plays, Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, in the pantomime-esque use of flats and fluid stage space.

John Heffernan is a joy as George. A cross between genuine heroicness, with a sense of the almighty akin to Henry VII in Richard Goold’s Richard III at the Almeida last year, and a silly yet likeable ‘nice but dim’ character. As George becomes more alienated from the changing world we see this manifest in his increasing naivety and incongruous appearance and manner, emphasised in the last act where he gleefully attires himself in a mish-mash of charity bin clothes and orders ‘another glass of pint’ from the local pub. There’s a lovely communal feel to the ensemble cast, and Turner’s done an admirable job of staging a variety of English voices (I heard west country, North East, and Liverpudlian accents, to name but a few). Stand outs include Gawn Grainger’s sweet grandfatherly turn, Amaka Okafor as the not-so-subservient damsel in distress, and, in a rather touching side plot, Richard Goulding has a lovely redemption arc which sees the villainous Henry redeem himself over the years.

While Saint George and the Dragon is not a great play, it is enjoyable and feels very much like a National Theatre commission in a commendable, chancy way. It doesn’t appear to be selling well (the theatre was about two thirds full when we saw it), but I predict that it will become a staple of university libraries, alongside other Britain/England/Nation plays staged by the National such as much of Richard Bean’s oeuvre and Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. Mullarkey’s play is messy, but ambitious, and is by no means the disaster that naysayers would have you believe.

Saint George and the Dragon plays at the National Theatre until 2nd December.

The company of Saint George and the Dragon.
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Hedda Gabler

23rd October, 2017

‘all I’ve ever learned from love
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you’

As we near the climax of Ivo van Hove’s uber-contemporary production of Hedda Gabler the angelically anguished tones of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ echo around the auditorium. While the above lyric is cut from this musical interlude I can’t help but think it sums up Ibsen’s play (in a new fresh and frank adaptation by Patrick Marber) and the titular character pretty well.

Disconnected and bored, Hedda longs for excitement, for purpose, for ‘control’ from within a society in which her main duty is to be a wife and mother, both roles which she actively denies – her maiden name gives the play its title and she burns with relish the manuscript, or ‘child’ of Lovborg and Thea. She is pushed and pulled by the men in her life, her academic husband, Tesman (who’s worst crime is being dull), the roguish Judge Brack, and fellow academic and recovered alcoholic, Eilert Lovborg. But Hedda pushes back. She regains a perverse power through her influence over these men, she is neither here nor there, her life neither real nor fantasy. Living vicariously through others, having ‘control’ through her cruel manipulation of Lovborg and the naïve Thea Elvsted is a means of creation, a means of being. To have ‘control’ is to have a purpose and a lasting proof of one’s existence. Yet, ultimately, inevitably, Hedda sees life as a mere farce and the greatest accomplishment one can achieve is to end it, to make that final conscious, autonomous decision.

… so Leonard Cohen’s haunting lyrics (piercingly conveyed by Buckley’s ethereal voice – the best version of the song, in my opinion) can here refer to Hedda’s craving for beauty, excitement and thrills, for sensuality and scandal, but also her disconnection from reality and her incredibly nihilistic response.

A few years ago Van Hove was very much flavour of the month (I say this as someone who adored his A View From The Bridge), yet with this success came the inevitable backlash. His work has been criticised for being overly stylised, more concerned with aesthetics than a dramaturgical response to a play, and while I wouldn’t refute those claims completely, I think Hedda is a case in which he gets the balance right. The set up – newlyweds, Hedda and Tesman, have recently moved into a grand, yet sparse house – lends itself well to van Hove’s style. White expanses of plasterboard walls are broken only by the most minimal furniture; a lamp, a blind, a (rather grubby) sofa. There is a sense of the opulence that could be, but is as yet unrealised – in my mind the house wouldn’t look out of place in one of those fashionable Scandi Noir political dramas. Hence we are treated to the spare, spiny visuals we associate with this director’s work without it feeling incongruous.

In fact, Jan Versweyveld’s set has a subtlety and ghostliness which creeps up on you. Something about the room feels off from the outset, but it wasn’t until the second half of the play when I figured out what it was. The industrial-chic stainless steel fireplace sits slightly off centre, and the twin glass cabinets (one containing two pistols, the other a fire extinguisher) either side of the fireplace are not level with each other. Within an interior design aesthetic that I associate heavily with neatness there is a distinct lack of symmetry. Everything is off kilter. These small details are a brilliant way of imbuing the production with a sense of the uncanny, we know something is not right, but we can’t quite put our finger on what or why.

I also liked that the stage contained no visible exits. The cast come and go through the auditorium, and consequently we are situated – trapped – with Hedda in that room. The boarding up of the single window and source of natural light towards the play’s closing moments is (pardon the pun) ‘the final nail in the coffin’.

Lizzy Watts naturally stands out as a desensitised Hedda, her monotone voice biting through the more emotional histrionics of characters such as Lovborg (Richard Pyros) and Thea (Annabel Bates). If Watts’ performance seems isolating and alienating, this only heightens Hedda’s increasing dissociation with the world around her. Also impressive is Adam Best’s Brack, while initially appearing caddish he grows into a threatening and imposing figure as the play progresses. If his blackmailing and thuggish manhandling of Hedda isn’t shocking enough, his disturbing promise to ‘occupy her fully’ is chilling.

I confess that at the interval I was unsure – about both Ibsen’s play and van Hove’s production. To be fair, the first half of the play is heavy on exposition and is mainly a set up for the more dramatic second half. Yet I found myself inwardly eye-rolling at a couple of overly pretentious bits of direction, namely the repetitive use of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ (I enjoyed it the first time, but by the third or fourth time I was longing for silence instead – conversely, Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ makes a memorable finale) and Hedda’s manic decoration of the house by stapling discarded flowers to the walls. I get the impulsiveness, but it comes across as rather twee in its faux bohemian depiction of feminine ‘hysteria’. All the van Hove trademarks are present: the stripping back of excess, the long silences, the pulsing rhythms which underscore moments of tension – there’s even a taste of the red gunge (I don’t know what else to call it) which so searingly coloured his AVFTB – and to be fair, I’d have felt short-changed had they not been. By the second half I was thoroughly engrossed. The tension is ratchetted up ten-fold and the final scenes are truly thrilling despite the knowledge of what’s coming.

Despite any initial misgivings, van Hove and Watts had me gripped, and there remains plenty of food for thought regarding the play’s characters, themes, and the distinctly stylised manifestation of these in this production. I’d be interested to see a more traditional interpretation with which to compare - Would it be as tense? Would it be as simultaneously involving and alienating? Would it be as claustrophobic? Would the characters become more or less sympathetic? Etc. Hedda is an enigma, but one I’m more than willing to puzzle over for weeks, months, and even years to come.

Hedda Gabler plays at Curve until 28th October.

Lizzy Watts and Adam Best in Hedda Gabler.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg