Monday, 30 March 2015

Death of a Salesman



Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
28th March, 2015*
*Please note that this was a preview performance

Following the success of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge and the Old Vic’s The Crucible last year, Gregory Doran marks Arthur Miller’s centenary with his staging of, arguably, the playwright’s most celebrated play. This absorbing production plays with space and time, paying tribute to Miller’s original, fastidious directorial notes.

Salesman is remarkable for Miller’s strict stage directions, specifically the use of space in locating time and reality which is central to the understanding of Willy Loman’s tragedy. The trajectory through Willy’s idealised past and disillusioned present is fluid and greatly facilitated by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design and Tim Mitchell’s lighting. The contrast between the romanticised past and the suffocating present of the up-built city is spatially conveyed by vast billboard style apartment blocks, dwarfing the Loman’s tiny wooden house. The set changes giving an added sense of the bustling city as the running crew, dressed as city-dwellers, swiftly move pieces around amidst a heady steam issuing from subway grates. Constructed from translucent materials, the set works alongside subtle lighting changes in which the once solid presence of the surrounding tower blocks are transformed by a sun-dappled hue, almost disappearing as Willy transgresses, moving downstage into the free space accompanied by the symbolic pastoral flute leitmotif – the live music contributing a vibrancy that recordings cannot reproduce. Interactions and dialogue run seamlessly into one another just as the boundaries of the playing space are discarded during Willy’s transgressions. Distinctions between time and space are simultaneously hazy and clear; blurring the lines between time and space, a contradiction which highlights the melancholy and ultimately maddening contradictory and illusive nature of memory.

The performances are generally good; Harriet Walter as the loving, put-upon Linda, and Alex Hassell’s lost and conflicted Biff are among the standouts. Antony Sher gives an all encompassing performance as Willy, fluctuating between humour and pathos with ease, the measured rhythm of his speech allowing every syllable to be heard and considered. This is a play where no line or moment is superfluous, despite the apparent superfluity of the modern American salesman. The scenes within the Loman house are particularly absorbing in their intimacy, creating a feeling of being in the room with the characters, no mean feat in a large theatre. Moments where direction, performance, lighting and music all work beautifully together create points of lucidity, particularly towards the end of the play and the build up to the climax, proving that a decades old play, performed countless times over the years, still has the ability to move audiences.

Miller’s Salesman seems to be ingrained in the minds of many not only as a pinnacle of the modern tragic genre, but as a piece of contemporary American social commentary and, consequently, Doran’s production plays out exactly as one would expect, and want, such a classic to do so. Doran takes no risks with the material, save a slight shift in staging which the RST thrust stage needs must accommodate. The placing of Miller’s text at heart, being performed well by a reliable cast, is a very solid and respectable way to celebrate one hundred years of one of the great American dramatists.

Death of a Salesman plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 2nd May, 2015.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ - The Musical




Curve, Leicester

6th March, 2015. Please note that this performance was a Public Dress Rehearsal.

I must admit I was dubious when it was first announced last year that a new musical based on Sue Townsend’s much loved novel was to be produced at Leicester’s Curve theatre. The structure of the novel seemed as if it would be less than easy to translate to the stage and the prospect of the more hormonal (ahem) aspects of the story possibly being diluted for a family audience gave pause for thought. However, I need not have worried, because Adrian Mole, it turns out, makes for a rather sweet and touchingly humorous musical.

Jake Brunger’s book recalls the spirit of the late Townsend’s novel as Adrian and Pandora come to life in all their adolescent glory . The nature of the source material dictates that the show takes an episodic form, charting a year through the diary entries and observances of young Adrian. The story of first love, family upset, and the minutiae of suburban life is heartfelt in its identifiable simplicity, with humour deriving from everyday oddities and empathetic, if caricatured, characters. The memory of the novel pervades the production – something drawn upon in Tom Rogers’ innovative set, Adrian’s scribbled writings ever present in the textbook style houses and proscenium fashioned after torn out diary entries.

Pippa Cleary’s music lends itself well to the British musical cannon with its tuneful melodies that never stray into the brashness of the more showy American compositions, perfect for an intimate show about British idiosyncrasies. Tickling lyrics also make the most of Townsend’s writing – a memorable example being the song ‘My Lost Love’, Adrian’s rhyming of ‘Pandora, I adore ya, I implore ya…’ referencing the novel before progressing into something more complex as various characters fill the stage, pouring their hearts out to different melodies, melding into one. The song makes for a striking moment, as does Adrian’s mum, Pauline (Kirsty Hoiles) having a heart-to-heart with her son about her failing marriage in ‘Perfect Mother’. At the opposite end of the spectrum, act two delivers some fine comedy scenes in Adrian’s hospital nightmare ‘If You’d Lived’ and the hysterical nativity scene, the latter being a true highlight and gaining a rapturous response from the audience.

The show is rounded out by a hard-working cast of six adults and four young actors (of which there are three rotating teams), often doubling in roles. Hoiles is a standout as Pauline, balancing humour with pathos, yet the show ultimately, and inevitably, belongs to Adrian – at this performance played by Sebastian Croft. He leads the show with charismatic skill, portraying both Adrian’s irritating pretentiousness and naïve sweetness equally well. He makes for a likeable lead while being believable as an endearingly flawed, yet optimistic, teenager.

Cleary, Brunger and director Luke Sheppard have created an intimate and appealingly British musical comedy which pays tribute to one of Leicestershire’s most celebrated writers and its premier at Curve feels like the perfect celebration of the midlands county.


The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ - The Musical plays at Leicester’s Curve until 4th April 2015


Monday, 9 March 2015

Our Country's Good rehearsal blog 1

[Ahead of Nikolai Foster’s first production at Leicester’s Curve as Artistic Director, one of the assistant directors/ stage managers gives an insight into rehearsals for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good]


‘It’s a theatrical custom, the company is formally introduced to each other’
(Our Country’s Good: Act One, Scene Eleven)

The first week of rehearsals for Our Country’s Good began in the studio at Curve. Although not all rehearsals will take place in here and the room currently looks different to what it will look like for the performances, it gave the cast a feel for the size of the space. After initial introductions were made, the company sat down for a readthrough of the script, giving the opportunity to hear Wertenbaker’s words read aloud for the first time and in the voices that will inhabit each character. After each scene, Nikolai and the cast discussed the text, getting to grips with unfamiliar terminology and bringing in points picked up from prior research. For instance, we talked about the famous actors of the 18th century such as Garrick and Kemble who are mentioned in one scene and how knowing more about them informs the cast’s interpretation of their characters. The day ended with the cast being measured for their costumes.

Over the next two days, the company started to put the play on its feet, starting with making a ship for the first scene. The production is going for a stripped back feel, which this scene epitomises. In a simple, yet very theatrical and poetic way, Nikolai and the cast have begun to explore ways to evoke the barbarity and longing that exist amongst the fleet of English convicts.  It looks to be a powerful opening tableau. Another scene which was focused on was Scene 3 where the officers are shooting birds whilst discussing the convicts. As this production will be staged in the round, the company are discovering the power of diagonals, and so it has been especially interesting to see how characters make their entrances and where they look up to shoot. The cast were also encouraged to be specific with the play’s use of Wertenbaker’s language and how punctuation helps to give a stronger sense of narrative and informs character motivation. Furthermore, in looking at the officers’ physicality and how they might carry their guns, the actors have started to build a level of detail which will help solidify the world of the play.

Although we have just begun the rehearsal process, we have started to thoroughly explore the play which will further our ability to tell its story well. The cast now has a week off to individually work through their scripts and are looking forward to returning to rehearsals to continue working through this exciting play which acts as an affirmation of theatre and its value in society.


Our Country’s Good, directed by Nikolai Foster, plays at Curve, Leicester 16th-18th April, 2015. It is a co-production with De Montfort University students.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Assassins





24th January, 2015, matinee

Menier Chocolate Factory

Assassins has been top of my 'to-see Sondheim' list for a while now and this production really does not disappoint. On stepping into the auditorium through the garish clown entrance the atmosphere is all-encompassingly creepy and Jamie Parker's banjo playing sets an eerily melancholy tone.

Rejecting the limitations of classic plot structured musicals, Assassins works as an overview of Western political failings and a sharp criticism of the American Dream through a series of interconnected vignettes. Faultless staging and direction from Jamie Lloyd, choreography by Chris Bailey, and committed performances from the whole ensemble means that the slight issues one might have with the – admittedly scattergun - structure of the piece are silenced. Sympathy, humour, tragedy and horror are all produced simultaneously to dizzying effect, and by the closing reprise of ‘Everybody’s Got The Right’ the tension is overwhelming as the assassins set their sights (and weapons) on the audience.

The purgatorial setting of an abandoned fairground heightens the sense of displacement and loss while also representing the assassins within the realm of the misfit communities of classic American travelling carnivals. Soutra Gilmour’s design and Neil Austin’s lighting captures the razzmatazz of the fair - a canopy of tangled lights and bright flashing ‘hit’ and ‘miss’ signs - which secretes the seedy corruption of both the killers and the systems they wish to annihilate. This concept leads to a thrilling climax as Lee Harvey Oswald takes aim and with an earth-shattering eruption the auditorium is illuminated and a cascade of red confetti smothers the stage representing the blood of the nation and a sense of the death of America itself.

Sondheim's score cleverly adopts and satirises classic American music genres from the wistful harmonies of the barbershop quartet to cheesy 70’s pop ballads to an ingenious piece of self-referential intertextuality in the use of Sondheim and Bernstein’s ‘America’ from West Side Story. My only slight issue concerns the presence of ‘Something Just Broke’ – an additional number incorporated into the 1992 London premier, and remaining controversial within fan communities – I somewhat agree that the presence of the song, focussing on American citizens and their reactions in the aftermath of the assassination of JFK, detracts from the focus of the show – the assassins themselves – and dampens any uneasy feelings of sympathy the audience feels for the disenfranchised group.

The entire cast works together brilliantly, vital in what is a truly ensemble piece. Catherine Tate is well cast as dippy frustrated housewife Sara Jane Moore, making the most of the comedic moments and proving capable in her few songs. Also particularly impressive are Simon Lipkin as the versatile Proprietor, holding the show together impeccably, Aaron Tviet, exuding charisma as John Wilkes Booth, and Jamie Parker in dual roles, skilfully transforming from his country bumpkin take on the Balladeer to the desperate frustration of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mike McShane also has ample opportunity to shine as Samuel Byck, relishing the juiciest monologues of John Weidman’s book.

The Menier has succeeded in staging a near-faultless production of one of Sondheim’s more divisive pieces; the powerful visuals linger, and the critique of American, and by extension Western, politics and culture and the seemingly inevitable disillusionment that many citizens experience ensures that audiences are invited to meditate further on these themes long after the curtain call.


Assassins plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th March 2015


Sunday, 15 February 2015

What's On Stage awards 2015 - the predictions.

Here is the shortlist for 2015's What's On Stage awards, which are being held tonight.

Here are my predictions in bold and underlined based on performance and, of course, fan base. In red is who I'd like to win. Enjoy!

THE SHORTLIST

Best Actor in a Play sponsored by Radisson Blu Edwardian:
• David Tennant, Richard II
• Mark Strong, A View From the Bridge
Richard Armitage, The Crucible
• Tom Bateman, Shakespeare in Love
• Tom Hiddleston, Coriolanus
However, I'm also told not to undermine Hiddleston's fanbase.
Best Actress in a Play:
• Billie Piper, Great Britain
Gillian Anderson, A Streetcar Named Desire
• Helen McCrory, Medea
• Imelda Staunton, Good People
• Lucy Briggs-Owen, Shakespeare in Love
Best Actor in a Musical:
• Alistair Brammer, Miss Saigon
• Jon Jon Briones, Miss Saigon
Killian Donnelly, Memphis the Musical
• Marti Pellow, Evita
Robert Lindsay, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Best Actress in a Musical sponsored by STAR:
• Beverley Knight, Memphis the Musical
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon
• Gemma Arterton, Made in Dagenham
• Jenna Russell, Urinetown the Musical
• Madalena Alberto, Evita
'Best Supporting Actor in a Play:
Adrian Schiller, The Crucible
• David Oakes, Shakespeare in Love
• Hadley Fraser, Coriolanus
Mark Gatiss, Coriolanus
• Nathaniel Parker, Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies
Best Supporting Actress in a Play:
• Anna Madeley, The Crucible
• Deborah Findlay, Coriolanus
Nicola Walker, A View From the Bridge
Samantha Colley, The Crucible
Vanessa Kirby, A Streetcar Named Desire
Best Supporting Actor in a Musical:
• Ben Forster, Evita
• George Maguire, Sunny Afternoon
Hugh Maynard, Miss Saigon
• Kwang-Ho Hong, Miss Saigon
• Rolan Bell, Memphis the Musical
Best Supporting Actress in a Musical:
• Claire Machin, Memphis the Musical
• Karis Jack, Urinetown the Musical
Katherine Kingsley, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
• Rachelle Ann Go, Miss Saigon
• Samantha Bond, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Best New Play:
• Great Britain
King Charles III
• The Nether
• Shakespeare in Love
• Wolf Hall
Best New Musical sponsored by Autograph:
• Here Lies Love
• Made in Dagenham
Memphis the Musical
• Sunny Afternoon
• Urinetown the Musical
Best Play Revival:
• Blithe Spirit
• Coriolanus
The Crucible
• Richard II
• A Streetcar Named Desire
Best Musical Revival sponsored by R&H Theatricals Europe:
• Evita
Miss Saigon
• The Pajama Game
• Porgy and Bess
• Sweeney Todd
Best Direction sponsored by Managed Networks:
• Christopher Ashley, Memphis the Musical
• Gregory Doran, Richard II
• Jamie Lloyd, Urinetown the Musical
Laurence Connor, Miss Saigon
Yaël Farber, The Crucible
Best Choreography sponsored by Capezio:
• Ann Yee, Urinetown the Musical
Bob Avian & Geoffrey Garratt, Miss Saigon
• Drew McOnie, In the Heights
Jerry Mitchell, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
• Sergio Trujillo, Memphis the Musical
Best Set Design sponsored by Feast Creative:
• Bunny Christie, Made in Dagenham
• David Gallo, Memphis the Musical
• Nick Ormerod, Shakespeare in Love
• Soutra Gilmour, Urinetown the Musical
Totie Driver & Matt Kinley, Miss Saigon
Best Lighting Design sponsored by White Light:
• Adam Silverman, Urinetown the Musical
• Bruno Poet, Miss Saigon
• Howell Binkley, Memphis the Musical
• Jon Clark, Made in Dagenham
Mark Henderson, Coriolanus
Best Off-West End Production:
Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse
• Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory
• In the Heights, Southwark Playhouse
• Oh, the Humanity and Other Good Intentions, Tabard Theatre
• Sweeney Todd, Twickenham Theatre
Best Regional Production sponsored by Travelzoo:
• Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre
Gypsy, Chichester Festival Theatre
• The Kite Runner, Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse
• Oliver!, Sheffield Crucible
• Water Babies, Curve Leicester
Best Takeover in a Role sponsored by Equity:
• Craige Els, Matilda the Musical
David Hunter, Once
• Jennifer DiNoia, Wicked
Kerry Ellis, Wicked
• Michael Watson, Jersey Boys
Best West End Show sponsored by Tiger Films:
Les Misérables
• Matilda the Musical
• Memphis the Musical
• Miss Saigon
Wicked

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Sound of Music



Curve, Leicester
30th December, 2014

One of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most popular musicals gets a glorious outing at Curve to say ‘so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye’ to director Paul Kerryson, who’s been artistic director of Leicester’s main theatres for over 20 years.

From Broadway hit to Bank Holiday standard, The Sound of Music may be sweet but its background of impending war is as dark as the Austrian hills are a luscious green. For those who don’t know the story, it sees peppy, joyous wannabe nun Maria (beautifully played by Laura Pitt-Pulford) asked to leave the abbey as her behaviour is unsuitable and she is in the habit of singing too much (yes, that was a habit pun). She joins the strictly-raised Von Trapp children, and after a gay old time and falling in love with the Captain, has to escape the country with her new family to flee from the Nazis. It’s entertaining, if perhaps too syrupy for some. But it is successful in its triumphing of freedom of expression over the repressing forces of war, near-military family routines and the restrictions of an abbey.

Paul Kerryson’s fine production fills Curve’s vast stage to extraordinary effect. It’s the biggest stage outside London apparently and Al Parkinson’s design is effective: the mountain at the back evokes considerable awe, the religious imagery conveys the forces and atmosphere of the abbey, and the Von Trapp house is cleverly used. Michael French has now pulled out of the production due to personal reasons but his understudy Mark Inscoe was impressive as was Susannah Van den Berg as the understudy Mother Abbess. The whole cast though excel. Some of the dialogue scenes and lesser-known songs occasionally slow down the pace but this is highly enjoyable.

And, once more, there is considerable praise for Curve: artistically and aesthetically, especially the latter, this regional theatre impresses from the moment you walk up to the front door. Incoming AD Nikolai Foster has big boots to fill but I’m sure he’ll deliver.

It may be kitsch, but it has superb performances and sets and some great songs, and as a Christmas treat with the family in a packed theatre, kitsch is no bad thing.


The Sound of Music runs at Curve, Leicester until 17th January, 2015.


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

#ReadaPlayaWeek 2014

Since the beginning of 2014, I’ve tweeted about one play a week that I recommend reading. Of course, plays are meant to be seen rather than read, yet if you are either unable to see a particular play, fancy brushing up on the classical canon, or just want to read a playtext, then #ReadaPlayaWeek offers a wide range of scripts. From the challenging and the classical to the popular and the contemporary, from a host of playwrights, both well-known and obscure, from all over the world, here are 2014’s #ReadaPlayaWeek suggestions:

January
The Caretaker (1960), Harold Pinter
The Night Heron (2002), Jez Butterworth
The Winterling (2006), Jez Butterworth
Separate Tables (1954), Terence Rattigan
A Taste of Honey (1958), Shelagh Delaney

February
The Shape of Things (2001), Neil LaBute
The Weir (1997), Conor McPherson
random (2008), debbie tucker green
All My Sons (1947), Arthur Miller

March
Twelfth Night (c.1602), William Shakespeare
Mother Clap’s Molly House (2001), Mark Ravenhill
Plenty (1978), David Hare
England People Very Nice (2009), Richard Bean

April
The History Boys (2004), Alan Bennett
Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (1998), Terry Johnson
Awake and Sing! (1935), Clifford Odets
Jerusalem (2009), Jez Butterworth

May
Old Times (1971), Harold Pinter
Shopping and Fucking (1996), Mark Ravenhill
The Permanent Way (2003), David Hare
Birdland (2014), Simon Stephens
Body Language (1990), Alan Ayckbourn

June
Noises Off (1982), Michael Frayn
Arcadia (1993), Tom Stoppard
Volpone (1606), Ben Jonson
The Secret Rapture (1988), David Hare

July
Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), David Mamet
The Trial of Ubu and King Ubu (2012), Simon Stephens, King Ubu after Alfred Jarry (1896)
Chimerica (2013), Lucy Kirkwood
The Unexpected Man (1998), Yasmina Reza
The Seagull (1896), Anton Chekhov

August
Uncle Vanya (1898), Anton Chekhov
Parlour Song (2008), Jez Butterworth
Dead Funny (1994), Tony Johnson
August, Osage County (2007), Tracy Letts

September
Beyond Therapy (1981), Christopher Durang
Quartermaine’s Terms (1981), Simon Gray
The Imaginary Invalid (1673), Moliere
Bluebird (1998), Simon Stephens

October
Stuff Happens (2004), David Hare
The Lady’s Not For Burning (1948), Christopher Fry
Anne Boleyn (2010), Howard Brenton
Blue Heart (1997), Caryl Churchill
The Invisible Man (1991), Ken Hill after HG Wells’ novel

November
A Dream Play (2005), Caryl Churchill after Strindberg (1907)
The River (2012), Jez Butterworth
The Philadelphia Story (1939), Philip Barry
Christmas (2004), Simon Stephens

December
Absurd Person Singular (1972), Alan Ayckbourn
Almost, Maine (2004), John Cariani
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989), Keith Waterhouse
Not I (1972), Samuel Beckett
Breath (1969), Samuel Beckett

#ReadaPlayaWeek will continue in 2015.