Friday, 7 April 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Harold Pinter Theatre
1st April, 2017, matinee

In the last month I’ve seen for the first time three major plays from the 1960s: What the Butler Saw, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and now Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After reading so much about any ‘modern classic’ actually seeing the play means you have huge expectations. What’s staggering is how it was Albee’s first full length three act play: its language and wit alone is dazzling.

Having read Albee’s one act The American Dream, “Virginia Woolf” seems to be an extension of its ideas and characters (although I think the later A Delicate Balance is a more overt one). The American Dream has been called an anti-play, it has absurdist roots and even its mise en scène is similar to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. Partly a satire on marriage, the dialogue is rhythmic and cyclical and it seems that Mommy and Daddy’s marriage is kept together by their squabbling. The language is perhaps not as vitriolic as some of the jibes in “Virginia Woolf” but Daddy is still demeaned and emasculated, sometimes agreeing with Mommy for argument’s sake. He is literally emasculated as well, having had his ‘tubes’ replaces with artificial ‘tracts’. Their names are defined by their status as parents yet that becomes problematic when we discover that they couldn’t get the son that they want.

The idea of the North as a haven is explored in The Death of Bessie Smith (and partly in The Zoo Story). Here, we’re in the north of the US, more specifically in a small New England college town – which may or may not be called New Carthage – a, one would think, forward thinking, liberal place, full of the young blonde-haired optimism we can see in Honey and Nick when they first enter. Instead, we get the claustrophobic, drink-fuelled lives of George and Martha. George is a struggling associate history professor unable to have lived up to his father in law’s (and head of the college) expectations, something that Martha doesn’t let him forget. As the play progresses the reality of this academic and liberal reality becomes increasingly precarious. As Nick and Honey are toyed with, becoming embroiled in George and Martha's cruel 'games', we are similarly drawn into their trickery and backbiting, the rug repeatedly being pulled from under our feet. The twists are clever because they correspond so well with Albee's cyclical dialogue, after each revelation you think, hang on, I've heard this before...

The play starts with an impending sense of catastrophe with Adam Cork’s music evoking a quaking campus bell tower. Tom Pye’s heightened realist design creates Martha and George’s campus house with fascinating detail. The lodge style house, similar to Bunny Christie’s Connecticut farmhouse in Hare’s The Red Barn, is stylish and modern as are the costumes: I’m sure there was a gasp when Martha re-entered early on having changed into a shirt and trousers. The tiled hall extends to become the edge of the living room which leads down to a sunken main living area: sofa, arm chair and a coffee table strewn with papers all on a very tick shag carpet. It is a shrewd decision to have this extremely comfy-looking carpet be in a square boxing ring/ bear pit area, a suggestion of where Martha and George are most comfortable. The set is filled with curious details and I was left wondering about the actual layout of the house and why, for instance, George goes off in the opposite direction to the kitchen to get more ice?

Conleth Hill’s George is initially passive, seen crumpling in his chair, but he’s Martha’s perfect match. His dry wit is perfectly delivered, portraying his wife as an alcoholic Medusa, his razor sharpness something which she feeds off. Indeed, these games keep their marriage together, these slinging matches don’t stop them from embracing and passionately kissing. Later in the play, he becomes cold and brittle, a truth teller to Martha, snapping her out of the existence she’s been living. Imelda Staunton is captivating as Martha, monstrous, sleazy, shrill, yet still capable of evoking pity; there's a moment in act 3 when a shattered Martha lets rip an almighty wail (not dissimilar in performance, and reason for, to Zoe Wanamaker’s groan in All My Sons when realising her son is dead), Staunton was utterly raw and animalistic. The two leads are artfully supported by a nicely understated Luke Treadaway as Nick – all false modesty and quiet assurance – and Imogen Poots as his naïve country wife, Honey, who relishes in the comic cluelessness of the character, while being incredibly sympathetic at the same time.

There’s something about major London revivals of American 20th century classics which brings out the best in British theatre. The late Howard Davies’ production of Miller’s All My Sons with David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker remains one of the best things I’ve seen in a theatre and enthused my frequent theatregoing; Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic made us tense up at what was going to happen next; Benedict Andrew’s brilliantly lit and contemporary A Streetcar Named Desire, although it had its incongruities, stripped away any romanticism and nostalgia from the play; Yael Farber’s The Crucible was atmospheric (also in a literal sense from the haze) and kept the play’s allegorical power at its fore. James Macdonald’s faithful production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? elicits faultless performances and conveys well the desolation under the characters’ illusions in Albee’s masterpiece.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until 27th May.

The company of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photo: Johan Persson

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Fantastic Mr Fox

Curve, Leicester
5th April 2017

Continuing their popular run of Roald Dahl classics, Curve have teamed up with Nuffield Southampton and the Lyric Hammersmith to produce Sam Holcroft’s shiny new adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox, and it might just be one of the best Dahl adaptations I’ve seen. Sweet music composed by Arthur Darvill and bouncy and boundless direction from Maria Aberg complement the story’s moral while never straying into tweeness, and, appealing to children and adults alike, retains that vital element of candy coated macabre which has long been the key to Dahl’s success.

Mr Fox (Greg Barnett) is a fantastic raider; swift, smart and sly, for years he has taken it upon himself to provide for his family and subterranean community by taking a Robin Hood ‘steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor’ approach to the neighbouring farmers’ produce. However, he soon faces a crisis of confidence when his tail is shot off by the cruel farmer Bean (Richard Atwill), who has had enough of Mr Fox’s pilfering ways. Spurred on by his ramshackle team of furry friends, Mr Fox vows to reclaim his ‘Fantastic’ moniker by undertaking a raid to end all raids.

Holcroft and Aberg create strong characterisations, and while being (understandably) rather one-dimensional, each individual has their own unique and identifiable personality. A big hit with the children in the audience, Sandy Foster’s Rabbit is wildly goofy but endearingly enthusiastic, Jade Croot is feisty yet vulnerable as Mr Fox’s daughter and raiding apprentice, Kit, while Greg Barnett brings a level of charm to the egotistic Mr Fox. His hero complex is brought to the fore, as he tries and fails to complete his mission alone, leading to a satisfying message about embracing our own and others’ differences - Mr Fox’s lack of a tail, Mouse’s (Kelly Jackson) lack of height, Rabbit’s uncontainable energy – and uniting to get the job done, the phrase ‘stronger together’ has never been so relevant (making no allusions to certain political current events…).

Darvill’s songs (with lyrics by Holcroft, Darren Clark and Al Muriel) do a great job of enhancing, rather than overshadowing, the plot, and encompass a varied range of musical variety. From the rocky and earthy human songs, to the contrastingly airy and melodic tunes sung by the animal characters, there’s a real ‘Us vs Them’ thematic vibe which ebbs and flows as the show progresses. I especially enjoyed the opening number; a barbershop quartet of bluebirds begin their morning chorus only to be viciously shot down by the murderous farmers – an element of black humour I wouldn’t usually expect to find in children’s entertainment. This leads into a stomping musical introduction to the story’s villains; gluttonous layabout, Farmer Boggis (Raphael Bushay), the eccentric Farmer Bunce (Gruffudd Glyn), and ringleader, Farmer Bean, the meanest of them all. Richard Atwill particularly impresses, creating a fine balance between Bean’s steely corporate greed and maniacal rage, which contrasts nicely with his later appearance as the alcoholic, territorial Rat who traps Mr Fox when he fears having to share his abundance of cider.

One of the things I liked most about this production is its contemporaneity. Holcroft brilliantly infuses modern touches, such as iPods, with the classic fable quality of the source material. This is heightened by Tom Scutt’s sporty design, the set looks a gymnast’s paradise, all abstract foam boulders and multilevel revolves. The tracksuits and leotards worn by Mr Fox and Co. are also an effective way of suggesting the animal characters’ agility while anthropomorphising them without being too cutesy.

Issues including the importance of sharing, teamwork, individuality, and being eco-friendly form a strong moral crux to the show, but there are many moments of delightful surrealism – I doubt I’ll forget the image of a wrestling, leotard-clad Rooster being held in a headlock by a Badger, surrounded by strung-up rubber chickens any time soon! – and jokes appealing to all ages to balance the preachiness. While youngsters are kept amused by poo and wee jokes (who doesn’t love a bit of toilet humour?) and Rabbit and Mole’s slapstick routines, adults can enjoy sly gags and double-entendres that daringly crossed into risqué terrain. Thankfully these whizzed right over the kids’ heads, hilarious as they were!

It’s rare to find a ‘family’ show that truly lives up to its promise of cross-generational fun, but Fantastic Mr Fox is a triumph in its mass appeal as there’s something to enjoy for kids of all ages. Holcroft does a great job of crafting her own style while keeping Dahl’s original tone to the fore, and Aberg creates a colourful and action packed spectacle that doesn’t scrimp on character. This production is a great addition to the growing canon of Dahl stage adaptations, and is ideal for a pre-Easter theatrical treat. Fantastic by name, fantastic by nature.

Fantastic Mr Fox plays at Curve, Leicester until 9th April. For further UK tour dates please visit

The company of Fantastic Mr Fox. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Grapes of Wrath

Nottingham Playhouse
31st March, 2017, matinee

I’m on a bit of a mission to see or read all of the Tony nominees for Best Play so I was pleased to see that Nottingham Playhouse have teamed up with Nuffield Southampton, Northampton’s Royal & Derngate and the West Yorkshire Playhouse to stage Frank Galati’s 1988 adaptation (Tony Award 1990) of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Nottingham has good form for novel adaptations having previously co-produced Robert Icke’s production of 1984 and the recent West End transfer of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Although I don’t know Steinbeck’s 1939 novel I was watching the play with an intense awareness that it was a novel adaptation with all of the difficulties and decisions that come with that. Inevitably the detail of the novel is reduced, bits have to be cut, others condensed. Looking at recent examples, it’s interesting to consider different methods: Simon Stephens has discussed listing the events in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time followed by copying the novel’s dialogue to form an initial rough draft of a play. Sally Cookson has similarly described lifting the dialogue from Jane Eyre but then allowing the actors to put it into their own words. Nick Dear has also talked about the difficulty of finding a language for Frankenstein, making Shelley’s language more accessible for actors but making it seem like the words could have been said in Shelley’s original setting. The playwright’s job, then, seems to be to stay true to the author’s impulse but to find a modern vernacular through which to express the work dramatically.

Novel adaptations bring out the best methods of working in contemporary theatre: collaboration and pushing the boundaries of what theatre can achieve. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Frankenstein and Jane Eyre – admittedly all NT productions with the resources and budgets afforded to a national theatre – have all become hallmarks of 21st century theatre. They embrace the new by reinventing old texts and finding new ways of making theatre. However, I can’t help but feel that Abbey Wright’s production is strangely restricted by Galati’s adaptation and/or original production (which he also directed with his company at Chicago’s Steppenwolf). Reading Frank Rich’s review of the New York opening, there are similarities between then and now: an opening tableau of a lone spotlight on someone playing the handsaw to create the pastoral sound that is similarly evoked by the flute at the start of Miller’s Death of a Salesman; both productions aim for a stripped back, muscular yet elegant aesthetic (here in Laura Hopkins’ multi-purpose steel framed design) rather than gaudy, sentimental patriotism; camp fires scatter the stage in both.

Novel adaptations also offer the challenge of how the stage production can do justice to the novelist’s imagination and ambition of scope. Not all have to have the technical razzmatazz of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein. Simple lighting, puppets, choreography and movement can bring the novel to life. The Grapes of Wrath offers a great opportunity for an inventive production. It follows the Joad family’s journey from the Oklahoma dust bowl in the Depression, where the land and opportunities are dry, to California where work (like the grapes) is plentiful. Yet at times, Wright’s production is disappointingly static. People have lost their spirit, even the preacher, in Oklahoma and they’ve fallen in love with the idea of green land and fruit trees and little white houses. Like with Shepard’s True West it’s easy to recognise the rose tinted California Steinbeck portrays and how it offers hope for the disheartened. On the way, the family and extended community meet natural disasters, people out to make a quick buck, violence and heartache. Galati also poetically points up that the mountains and rocky land look like ‘the bones of a country’, lacking in colour.

The production is impressively underscored by Matt Regan’s affecting and evocative music. He and his band achieve a sound which is distinctly American: it’s a touch folksy but it also has inspirations of rock and maybe the Blues. It is played over bits of narration (presumably parts of Steinbeck’s prose) which also help to place us in the planes of Route 66. Wright has also assembled a strong, diverse cast. André Squire conveys Tom Joad’s supressed anger, his determination to turn his life around, and his strong family ties. Branden Charleson nicely suggests the preacher’s tired sense of belief. Julia Swift stands out as Ma: with a few American 20th century classics under her belt, she excellently conveys the matriarch’s undying hope that California will offer more for her family. She and the company nicely articulate what Rich described as ‘the existence of an indigenous American spirit that resides in inarticulate ordinary people’.

What livens up the production is the inclusion of a community cast at each theatre. It’s a decision that reminds us of the currency that this play holds in promoting the importance of (comm)unity. Both Grampa and Granma die on the way to the West coast, the former as soon as he leaves the Dust Bowl, with another character remarking that the old man and the old land were one. Another member of the family also parts from the Joads, preferring to stay in Colorado(?). However, there remains a sense of unfailing hope even if act 2 shows California not offering all of its promises (there’s still violence, floods, a shortage of work and heartache). Galati tries to show a wide snapshot of Steinbeck’s different characters, but this makes for a slightly uneven play despite Wright’s balanced production. Indeed it seems odd how we start the play with one protagonist (Tom) and end with another, Rose of Sharon, who is seen in grief over her lost baby trying to breastfeed a man. Molly Logan’s portrayal is tender but it doesn’t make up for the character being reduced to merely a growing bump in act 1 (although this is more of the adaptation’s fault and not Logan’s).

There are a few striking lines in the script, making it a ripe time for reviving the play. Brexit has split the country in what is a politically divisive time. Galati’s script and Steinbeck’s novel presents us with a population of people who appear to be moving en masse for a better life. The resonance is galvanised when the Joads meet someone who is moving back the other way, unimpressed with what California had to offer. Although I haven’t been fully won over by this adaptation/production, The Grapes of Wrath offers a powerful reminder of how we can see timely resonances in a story that is so dislocated from our time and place.

The Grapes of Wrath plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until 8th April and then tours.
The Company of The Grapes of Wrath. Credit: Marc Brennar

Wednesday, 29 March 2017


Curve, Leicester
28th March 2017

I’ve been a fan of RENT for a long time. For myself and, I imagine, many others, it’s a sort of ‘rites of passage’ show, introducing the teenage me/us to a world of more grown up, and serious musical theatre. I’ve practically worn out my DVD of the final Broadway performance. So it was thrilling to finally see a fully mounted professional production here in the UK in the shape of Bruce Guthrie’s tour, marking the 20th Anniversary of the musical’s premier, and the untimely death of writer Jonathan Larson, just one day before the first performance. Some may express concern over the impact Larson’s death had on the legacy of RENT; do people sentimentalise it? is it an example of posthumous acclaim that may have been more muted had he lived? – My answer to this is ‘no way!’, RENT has proved so popular because of the precocious, yet enduring way it promotes racial and sexual diversity (something which is, shamefully, yet to be equalled in 21st Century theatre), and its themes regarding difference, acceptance and creation. But most of all, in a world where ‘living in America at the end of the millennium, you’re what you own’, Larson instead highlights the vitality of Life and the gift that is Love.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème, RENT essentially charts a year in the life of a group of friends living in New York’s Bohemian Alphabet City as they struggle with love, art, poverty, drug addiction, and disease – all captured on camera by filmmaker, Mark (Billy Cullum). While catchy songs such as ‘La Vie Boheme’, ‘Seasons Of Love’ and ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’ (which, incidentally, I would absolutely savage if RENT Karaoke was a thing…) are the big crowd pleasers, for me it’s the more understated songs that resonate. The frankness of ‘Life Support’ – ‘Reason says I should have died three years ago’ – and the introspective ‘Will I’ – ‘Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?’ – expresses all the mental and physical anguish of living with HIV/AIDS.

Similarly, ‘On The Street’ brings to light the harshness of homelessness (concentrated further by the poignant contrast with the Christmas setting, the pinnacle of familial intimacy) – ‘No room at the Holiday Inn, oh no. And it’s beginning to snow’. Jenny O’Leary in particular makes an impact as a homeless woman, draped in a tattered American flag, who berates Mark, ‘My life’s not for you to make a name for yourself on!’, a line which perfectly summarises the tension between liberal art and liberal guilt – pertinent still in this age of debating the ethics of so-called ‘poverty porn’. Larson doesn’t create a one-dimensional, rose tinted portrayal of liberal creatives, he points out the contradictions and downfalls of ‘living for your art’, as the woman says, ‘This lot is full of motherfucking artists… You gotta dollar?... I thought not’. Just as liberal guilt gets a going over, Mark’s sensitive lament, ‘Halloween’, illuminates the problem for many people living during the AIDS epidemic, that of survivors guilt – ‘Why am I the witness?’. It is a credit to Larson’s skill that these lyrics (sorry for the abundance of quotes, but they really speak for themselves) perfectly capture a certain time and place, yet have completely stood the test of time. And coupled with the rocking anthems of the big set pieces, he really did create a musical masterpiece.

Changes for this production include a greater emphasis on choreography. Lee Proud enlivens ‘Tango: Maureen’ with bold staccato moves, and ‘On The Street’ features what I can only term ‘trolleyography’ (my apologies). I also ‘enjoyed’ (that is entirely the wrong word) the greater emphasis on the physical manifestation of Angel’s (Layton Williams) suffering. It’s crushing to see one so previously optimistic now frail and legion-spotted, Williams seemed to actually shrink as he’s carried, child-like by the steadfast Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) to his hospital bed. The medical, feverish spin on ‘Contact’ gives the scene an extra dimension as the pulsations of Angel’s waning heartbeat echo the beats of the rave music. A touching addition occurs when Collins gives his coat to Mimi (Philippa Stefani) during the final, the same coat stolen from him at the beginning and later recovered by Angel. It’s a lovely way to bring the narrative full circle – the coat being a motif of care, love and solidarity throughout.

Amongst the stellar cast, Williams, O’Gorman and Stefani truly excel. Williams is a very sweet yet feline Angel, and his backflips (in five inch heels, no less!) rightly issue a rapturous response, while O’Gorman is a mature and grounded Collins, his voice rich and deeply emotive. Stefani is utterly refreshing as the tragic, addicted Mimi, her shivers are palpable, her vulnerability blatant as she sways precariously during ‘Light My Candle’. While I am pretty much guaranteed to weep during Collins’ reprise of ‘I’ll Cover You’, in this instance Stefani elicited yet more tears from my normally bone-dry eyes during her tender renditions of ‘Without You’ and ‘Goodbye Love’. The cracking of her voice was almost too much for my already bruised heart to bear. I must also mention Lucie Jones in what seems like a breakout role (a far cry from Elle Woods and the naïve Cosette), her Maureen is brilliantly eccentric and insolent; she is infuriating and endearing all at once – a difficult task to achieve! To top off an altogether excellent production, Anna Fleischel is fast becoming one of my favourite set designers. More mobile than the Broadway original, the huge industrial framework spins about and evolves into bridges, staircases and tiny studio apartments.

Guthrie’s production is everything I want from RENT and more, he stays faithful to the original production which has seared its way into many a heart and mind, while inserting just enough twists to ensure the musical remains fresh. It’s a crying shame that Larson isn’t around to see the profound influence his work has had over the last 20 years, but the world of musical theatre will remain ever grateful for his progressive artistic insight and undeniable talent.

RENT plays at Curve, Leicester until 1st April. For all further tour dates please visit

Layton Williams (front centre) as Angel in RENT. Credit: Matt Crockett.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Miser

Garrick Theatre
25th March, 2017, matinee

“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” – Pierre Bourdieu

Director Sean Foley has assembled a group of comic actors of a high calibre for a reworking of Molière’s The Miser which aims to bombard the audience with laughs but skimps on the play’s social comment. I admire his approach: a bold adaptation which is in the style of Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow. It’s all very knowing, there are lots of in-jokes, and everyone looks like and acts like they’re in a Molière play from 100 years ago. Essentially, this production of The Miser is a big mugfest where theatre’s the joke. The result is a rather refreshing although not always first class comedy.

Foley’s and Phil Porter’s ‘free adaptation’ has remained quite faithful to the plot. The miserly Harpagon tips his staff with notes on elastic string, he frantically mops up spilt wine from the floor to pour it back into the bottle and his stinginess is so legendary that he once tried to sue a mouse for eating a bit of his cheese. Not wanting to have to pay for lavish weddings or expensive marriage dowries, he has a plan to marry his children off to people they don’t want to be with for financial gain. This includes marrying his son Cléante off to an elderly woman and planning to marry her daughter (whom Cléante really loves) himself. And although set in 17th century Paris, the script references Sports Direct, portrays Harpagon as having echoes of Philip Hammond, and uses French names Shia LaBeouf and Matt LeBlanc as expletives. It’s not as roguish or cynical as Martin Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope nor is it as playful as David Hirson’s Moliere-inspired La Bête because it does away with the verse. Yet there are some good visual gags and funny bits of wordplay (probably also in Molière’s original). But what’s so enjoyable about this production is its irreverence and its asides to the audience, mainly down to efforts of Lee Mack.

Lee Mack is very funny. Lee Mack is very funny. His years as a stand-up comedian and work on pun-heavy sitcom Not Going Out means he can deliver lines thick and fast, at a pace suitable for the production’s style. His Maître-Jacques has all the unwillingness of a comedian who has signed up to do a 12 week run in a West End play. But his performance as the butler cum harpsichordist cum chef cum horseman cum hangman cum gardener provides the most fun. At one point he confiscated the Daily Mail from an audience member and shouted that it lies, especially regarding its theatre reviews. He quotes Michael Billington’s 3 star review and calls Valère an everyday Don Juan in Soho (playing next door at the Wyndham’s). He misremembers lines (or appears to) then moans at the audience that he’s got to translate it from the French. Mack has the farceur’s knack of making it seem as if the wheels are about to fall off at any minute and he’s barely keeping it together.

Of course, not all actors can be as talented as Lee Mack(!).There are no inward, psychologically driven performances in this production; it’s all about exterior. However, Matthew Horne and Katy Wix are deliciously hammy as lovers Valère and Elise. Ryan Gage is also hilarious as her brother Cléante: a powdered spendthrift fop who skips around the stage and whose wig has a tendency to fall off. It is low humour to have the two of them have different speech impediments, but it allows their performances to go hysterically over the top. Wix in particular is on another level of haughty aristocracy.

Griff Rhys Jones as the titular Harpagon puts in a memorably physical performance: intense eyes, false teeth, shabby hair, frail gate and clearly having a lot of fun in the role. Furthermore, it is a drainpipe full of water collapsing on his head that makes him realise that the love of his life is his money, asking ‘what is a man without his money?’ Similar to the gulling scenes in some of productions of Much Ado About Nothing, and in the box tree scene in the National’s excellent Twelfth Night, it is perhaps astute of Foley to use water as a dramatic means of revelation. Stand-up Andi Osho and Ellie White (The Windsors) impressively complete the main players.

Part of what Foley has done is turn the play into a typical farce: animal heads fall off walls, doors bang into people, feet go through chairs. But what worked wonderfully in his production of The Ladykillers and what is exploited to dizzy comedic heights in The Play that Goes Wrong doesn’t quite meet the same standards here. For example, a physical sequence leading up to the end of act one where a deer head falls onto Griff Rhys Jones seems mechanical and formulaic. However, Foley’s efforts, for the demographic to which this will appeal, are mostly very satisfying.

The Miser runs at the Garrick Theatre until 3rd June.

The company of The Miser. Credit: Helen Maybanks

Wednesday, 22 March 2017


Curve, Leicester
21st March, 2017

I’ve so far avoided seeing and reading any of GB Shaw’s plays. Put off by their length and perceived (and literal in terms of the library’s bookshelf) dustiness, no amount of star casting and glowing reviews has tempted me to see a Shaw play yet. Pygmalion’s story of the common flower girl turned lady by an ambitious, hedonistic phonetics professor is widely known. Here, Headlong’s Sam Pritchard has pruned the text and that does away with all the conventional trappings of recent revivals – big costumes, big beards(?), fussy sets – which has resulted in a production that makes the play as fresh as a daisy.

We’re in a kind of contemporary London; Shaw’s references to specific parts of London such as Drury Lane are there and there are some impressive bits of film directed by Geej Ower set in London, in a black cab and in Eliza’s bedsit. It’s in this last setting where we see Eliza sat on her bed miming to Audrey Hepburn’s (actually Marni Nixon's!) version of Loverly from Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical adaptation My Fair Lady. The production also uses contemporary dress and there are a few additions to the text mainly for comedic effect - and they really are funny!
I’m reminded of Jamie Lloyd’s comment ‘treat every classic as a new play’. Pritchard strips away the reverences often given to classics. Indeed, Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design accentuates the play’s theme of ownership, and creates a theatre experience that is fun, captivating (especially technically but not exclusively) and, perhaps the biggest achievement, acknowledges the play’s status as Classic (with a capital C) yet makes it contemporary. Shaw’s dialogue does have its funny moments, helped by the freshness of the delivery by this cast and it’s exploration of how voice/accent is often intricately linked to someone’s morals, intelligence and class is still (bizarrely) relevant.

Pritchard’s input doesn’t swamp the play at all.  Updating old plays can seem jarring, a hurdle which Pritchard has cleared by embracing those contradictions. In fact, the beginning of the play brilliantly emphasises the production’s interest in Shaw’s text and plays with the play’s interest in the seemingly inseparable link between voice and person. As the lights go down we hear a recording of the beginning of a workshop where a group of volunteers read the play aloud. They are told not to over accentuate the lines and to, vitally, read the lines in their normal accents. This recording of the opening scene plays over actors on stage miming their words, apart from Eliza. They play multiple characters irrespective of age and gender, again apart from Eliza. This first scene is set outside a theatre with people looking for cabs in the rain. What would normally be one of those long exposition scenes is turned into something so absorbing: you’re not always sure whether someone is speaking or if it’s from the recording. Even when you can tell it’s a recorded voice, the dialogue is so well mimed that it creates a sense of dislocation, one that is echoed in different ways throughout the play.

In a scene where Eliza is in Higgins’ microphone booth, she insists that a drop of alcohol has never passed her lips. However, Higgins is messing with the sound controls and it makes her voice high-pitched. Higgins’ voice alteration thus undermines what she is saying and takes away the intent and denies her her self-respect behind the line, emphasised by the fact that she is at that moment locked in the booth. I think there’s a section in Dan Rebellato’s Theatre & Globalisation where he discusses the use of radio microphones used in West End ‘megamusicals’ and how they can diminish the liveness and immediacy of the work. In the last scene of Pygmalion, Eliza and Higgins take their radio mics off, their voices no longer distorted and amplified in surround sound. It is now clear to hear where the voices are coming from and who they belong to, Eliza now changing her accent.

There are rewards in cutting the text so much. The opening of Act Two is the party which I presume is usually a much longer scene. Here, it is reduced to a cycle of ‘How do you dos?’ and ‘Thanks awfullys’ (I don’t have the text to hand) and we only see a glimpse of the scene through a strip in the fourth wall. Yet, the minimal, ritualistic dialogue, champagne glasses and nice clothes are more than enough for us to understand the scene. However, some things are perhaps compensated. Eliza’s romance with fellow commoner Freddy is rushed but it’s typical of Pritchard’s production that he gives us exactly the amount we need with nothing superfluous.

But it’s not just the incisive directorial decisions that make this Pygmalion striking. In typical Headlong fashion, video mapping, projections, stark lighting and a contemporary design make the production so watchable and dynamic. There’s no risk in Alex Lowde’s design getting dusty. Simply stylish and devoid of all the fuss, it features a glass box which amplifies and intensifies what I imagine could otherwise be an impotent traditional drawing room scene.

Alex Beckett’s Professor Higgins is an obsessive, petulant, technologically-relaint phonetic professor, unlikable but not without vulnerability. He wipes down the microphone with sanitizer after Eliza’s used it and makes his closeness with his mother very believable. Towards the end of the play, he has a line about offering to adopt Eliza. I’m not sure if it specifies how it should be delivered in the text but Beckett does a very good job at saying a line which is eye-rollingly ridiculous today as if he realises that it’s a preposterous proposal. Furthermore, in a scene with his mother, Beckett makes what Higgins is complaining about so credible and contemporary, not at all from 1913. Equally impressive is Natalie Gavin. Her Eliza has a northern English (perhaps St Helens?) accent. This not only makes sense considering how the north and its accent is often perceived and represented but it also allows Gavin to build a very believable, feisty, yet still likeable, Eliza, moving away from the sometimes cutesy traditional cod Cockney portrayal. There are a host of other strong performances not least from Ian Burfield as Alfred Doolittle. His speech about 'who can blame him' for getting some money out of Higgins' proposal is addressed directly to the audience: doing so makes it highly political, allowing us to ask the same questions of ourselves.

Another success for Headlong, I could watch this production again and again. It makes a play which has got a bit of a reputation of being an old war horse relevant and fun and vital again.

Pygmalion plays at Curve, Leicester, until 25th March as part of a UK tour. Details can be found at

Credit: Manuel Harlan

The Murder At Haversham Manor*

Curve, Leicester
20th March, 2017

Following their less than successful productions of Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and James and the Giant Peach, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society have regrouped to present the classic whodunnit The Murder at Haversham Manor. I wish I could say their efforts were more rewarding this time, but, alas, this production was a catastrophe of wobbly sets, forgotten cues and nauseatingly amateurish acting.

It would be difficult to single out anyone in particular for praise as the entire company seemed to be involved in a contest of one-upmanship to decide who could deliver their lines in the most inappropriate, wildly erratic, or downright daft manner. However, Dennis Tyde was especially out of his depth in the role of loyal butler, Perkins, his mispronunciations and apparent lack of awareness of what was going on around him was astounding, while a gawping Max Bennet was equally clueless as Cecil Haversham (yet, inexplicably, seemed exceedingly pleased with himself). Director/Designer/Dramaturg/Voice Coach/Choreographer/Actor Chris Bean tried his best to hold the dismal proceedings together, but his desperation was palpable and I left feeling nothing but pity for the man who was but a twitch away from a full on nervous breakdown.

Yet all this pales in comparison to the shoddy production values. Collapsing furniture, forgotten music cues and flaming props ensured the play descended into chaos. A health and safety nightmare, the deathtrap of a set did its utmost to injure and inebriate the already floundering cast. The evening was nothing less than a hotchpotch of pandemonium, bloodshed (not of the fake kind) and confusion. The most, though faint, indeed, praise I can give the company is that their efforts to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ were commendable however unadvisable. 

*The Play That Goes Wrong is an absolute masterclass in farce. It delivers what it says on the tin, and then some. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and the result is one of the most hysterical nights out at the theatre I’ve had in a long time.

The play exemplifies perfect comic timing, expertly choreographed pitfalls (there is a skill in making something look so dangerous!), and a cast which are thoroughly dedicated in making you both root for and pity them (cheers and applause were almost as common occurrence as laughter). I don’t want to give away too much, as some of the stunts must be seen to be believed, but the precision that must be involved in creating such mayhem is astounding. While it might seem natural to focus on the slapstick elements of a farce, mention must also go to the superbly performed word play – circular scenes, unwitting puns, misread lines – all build the comedic momentum, and the play as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as each line brilliantly complements the physical action.

The cast are the epitome of ‘teamwork’ as they gel and feed off of each other so well. There is more than a slight resemblance to a young Peter Sellers in Patrick Warner’s gangly Chris Bean, his frustration and anger are kept bubbling just under the surface as his hopes and aspirations crumble before his eyes. Katie Bernstein is a gem as the naïve stage manager who overcomes her stage fright to upstage the leading lady (a hilariously overblown Meg Mortell), while Jason Callender (Jonathan/Charles Haversham) almost steals the show with his ‘playing dead’ act.

The Play That Goes Wrong is the most raucous, belly-laugh inducing show around and I defy anyone not to leave the theatre with a smile. Mischief Theatre made their name with this personification of Murphy’s Law and schadenfreude, and since then have gone from strength to strength, winning an Olivier award for Best Comedy, and making their debut on Broadway this week. Long may they reign in the realms of theatrical farce.

The Play That Goes Wrong plays at Curve until 25th March as part of a UK and Ireland tour. For all tour dates please visit
Credit: Helen Murray