Friday, 22 August 2014

The Crucible



Old Vic, London

16th August, 2014, matinee

Yael Farber’s spine-tingling, atmospheric production of Arthur Miller’s parable play is powerfully performed and prompts you to think about modern day witch hunts.

In an interview with Richard Eyre, Arthur Miller stresses that he hopes audiences would reflect how they lived their lives after watching The Crucible. The play was written during the McCarthyism period in the 1950s: a period of madness, he recalls, in which even radical teachers were fired with ‘no trial, nothing. Just accused of something and they’ve gone’.[1] However by setting the play in Salem during the witch trials will mean that the play transcends time so it can resonate with senseless accusations of any community in any time. Watching the Old Vic production reminded me of the recent culture of celebrity witch hunts and radical immigration beliefs. The following lines, for example, ring just as true and relevant now:
Hale: We cannot blink it more. There is a prodigious fear of this court in the country.
Danforth: Then there is a prodigious guilt in the country. Are you afraid to be questioned here?
Hale: I may only fear the Lord sir. But there is fear in the country nevertheless.
‘These are strange times’, says Hale of the denouncing in Salem, where gossip can turn to a charge of witchcraft, for which they could hang if they deny. The fear felt by the community of such accusations (perhaps started through rumour and hatred) reminds us how urgent this play can be.

The in-the-round layout may not always be the best for sight lines, but it is incredibly immersive. Sitting on stage level (in a cosy side-stalls crevice) feels like you’re in the action, which is only heightened by dressing the auditorium’s plushness in drabs of material and an atmospheric haze. Yet it is also voyeuristic at times, especially in the final act when burnt black leaves fall from the ceiling and it’s as if we are peering through the forest trees. It’s extremely effective and chilling. After seeing Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, this production may not have stripped away the detail of the setting, but the effect is just as raw and relevant.

Richard Armitage may be the name on the poster, and he certainly plays John Proctor with verve and earthiness, but this is an ensemble piece, with the entire cast impressing. Armitage is thoughtful and strong as Proctor, as well as being passionately fierce when shouting to keep hold of his name and therefore identity. Act’s three and four are certainly the most charged, and even though there are times when you are aware of actors shouting and spitting at each other, these performances have been finely pitched. Jack Ellis as Judge Danforth powerfully plays his court room scenes excellently to the whole auditorium as if the audience were implicit as witnesses, and Michael Thomas nicely expresses pious anxiety over accusations of witch craft in the first act. Samantha Colley successfully portrays the fraudulent ringleader Abigail Williams with a hint of childish tittle-tattling which then heightens the disbelief that it gets taken for the gospel truth. Plus, Adrian Schiller and Anna Madely provide an air of darkness and mystery as the persistent and then broken Reverend John Hale and the loyal wife Elizabeth Proctor. There is also fine support from Harry Attwell, Natalie Gavin and Sarah Niles but this is a very strong cast that give this production thrilling performances.

The opening image of the cast with chairs that are scattered about the stage before the play begins provides a tableau that prompts thought on a community driven to suspicion and the second-guessing of neighbours’ behaviour. But above all, it is Miller’s potent language that remains the most provoking. There have only been a couple of times when I’ve heard audiences gasp at a play: Howard Davies’ excellent production of All My Sons, and at characters’ double standards in this production.

After last seeing the disappointing Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic, it’s great to see the theatre back on form. This is a top production of one of the seminal plays from the 20th century.

The Crucible runs at the Old Vic until 13th September.















[1] 122, Arthur Miller in Richard Eyre, Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People (2012).

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Scotland Decides: State of a Nation

The Finborough Theatre is to stage a season of plays next month dedicated to the Scottish Independence Referendum, a season which apparently is the "only one of its kind" in England. The limited season, entitled Scotland Decides, lasts for 4 weeks and includes three English premieres of Scots works and a new play by leading 'Yes' campaigner Alan Bissett.

Artistic Director Neil McPherson has said that there is a current lack in the amount of theatre responding to the vote:

"I was profoundly surprised though to see how little the English theatre is responding to the vote. As the BBC says, 'There are more Scots in England than any city in Scotland... more than the population of Edinburgh or Glasgow.'"

There may be not enough plays in England which tackle the Independence vote directly however there are many  plays which tackle similar issues. Some say that one possible effect from Scotland gaining independence is that England’s identity will weaken, and without the strong Celtic ties that Wales and Scotland can boast, England's face will be in danger.

Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling (2006), Parlour Song and Jerusalem (both 2009 in the UK) all have rural or suburban settings which present England that have a rawness which is compromised by globalisation and mass media. The Winterling’s Dartmoor setting and Jerusalem’s Wiltshire forest clearing setting presents an England which is wild and still in touch with its ancient origins. Yet England’s individualism is then made problematic by an onslaught of Coca-Cola, St George’s Day pageants which celebrate an X Factor culture, and a uniformity of the landscape. Parlour Song, on the other hand, is the antithesis in some ways to Jerusalem, where the middle class, Middle England, middle aged Ned is arguably a weak, unsuccessful product of the identical houses which make up the lifeless setting. It is clear that England is presented as a binary of the old and the new, and perhaps that its identity is under strain.

Rory Mullarkey’s new play The Wolf from the Door (soon to open at the Royal Court Upstairs) also explores Middle England and sees the characters try to ‘change the country forever’ and even Richard Bean’s satire romp Great Britain (soon to be transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Lucy Punch taking over Billie Piper’s role) hints at the interest with the tabloids as being a national worry.

After years of clinging onto the ‘Great Britain’/ ‘United Kingdom’ tag, if Scotland does win independence, then perhaps England’s future identity will be put into question, hence the need and great hunger for contemporary plays which explore the state of the nation. As for the Scottish plays at the Finborough, the brevity of the season perhaps reveals that there isn’t much of an interest in the vote. The real interest lies in its result and its potential effect on the countries involved.

The Scotland Decides season runs from 2nd – 18th September at the Finborough Theatre, with the election also on 18th September.


http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Mr Burns



Almeida, London
9th July 2014 matinee

Anne Washburns’ Mr Burns – a Post-Electric Play is entertaining, full of big ideas, well performed by a cast who gives it its heart, and ingeniously designed by Tom Scutt’s creative flair. However, the play’s ideas are perhaps under-explored and left me feeling a tad underwhelmed.

Where to start with Mr Burns: a play about The Simpsons, a play about storytelling, a play about cultural transmission. Washburn states that she probably chose The Simpsons randomly yet it (particularly this episode) is an extremely interesting choice. The Cape Feare episode (1993) sees Sideshow Bob out to kill Bart, which in turn means that the Simpsons have to leave Springfield to live on a houseboat in order to escape the killer clown. Little do they know that he has followed them. In the night, he ties the family up, sets the boat along the river and plans to murder Bart, but is distracted by Bart’s request to hear him sing a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The boat crashes into a verge where Chief Wiggum is ready to arrest Sideshow Bob. The episode spoofs the 1991 Scorsese film Cape Fear (itself a remake of the 1962 film), which makes the episode and play very meta-theatrical. The Simpsons, by the way, is an excellent subject for a play. More than just a popular cartoon, each episode (particularly the earlier seasons) features snippets of genius wit with deeper-rooted ironies that aren’t just to be dismissed as a bit of cartoon humour. As a post-modern cartoon it references other bits of popular culture, politics and much more. Furthermore, as a much-loved episode, it is a good basis for a play, but there is much more to Washburn’s work.

Act one (in the obscure setting of ‘soon’), is set in a not-so-distant future America, after the apocalyptic disaster of the Nuclear power stations failing (Mr Burns owns the Nuclear Power Plant in The Simpsons). In near-darkness, we meet a group of people gathered around a campfire, collectively remembering this particular episode. Some remember it better than others, some remember bits wrong (such as Sideshow Bob writing with actual blood rather than ketchup and there being eels rather than piranhas in the river), some struggle to remember bits at all. They bond through the episode, as seen in one character’s late entrance which is greeted with pointing guns at him. This is a setting where they are unsure of what’s on the outside, don’t know where their loved ones are and where the number one challenge is to survive. And as fascinating as the apocalypse exposition is, it does have a tendency to slow the play down with crowbarred emotion, particularly during Maria’s account of getting some duct tape, even if it is well-performed by Annabel Scholey.

Act 2, set 7 years later, sees the same group of survivors in a shack of a theatre (with Tom Scutt’s design coming over the proscenium into the auditorium) as part of a touring theatre company playing episodes of The Simpsons. The world is now without electricity, so they re-imagine episodes with home-made props, complete with their own commercials. Even though the world may have started again, it is clear that commercialisation still exists: the theatre groups trade in lines from The Simpsons and fight over who has written certain jokes. It is interesting how Washburn implies that survivors revel in recreations of sitcoms and other popular TV shows to perhaps remember the pre-Apocalypse world and to find comfort in them. And although the world of sitcoms may be comforting, it might mean that other literature and culture are compromised:

I find it a melancholy thought that art, architecture and literature may perish in the collective memory but a popular TV show will be the last relic of western civilisation
                                                                                                Michael Billington, 2014[1]

Yet Shakespeare groups do exist in this world even if Western pop culture is what Washburn considers will be grasped hold of as important for existence. It’s an interesting point, and in fact the play is at its best when delving into this idea of cultural transmission. Indeed, just because The Simpsons is from the mainstream world of television, it doesn’t mean it isn’t culturally credible. Episodes that are discussed for performance in the second act include Heretic Homer, Springfield Files, Streetcar Named Marge, and Much Apu about Nothing. The meta-theatricality is clear and Mr Burns is at its most fascinating when working at this level. What a richly rewarding idea to examine the place of classic, modern classic and popular culture in a post-disaster America through the optic of a popular cartoon. It has huge potential but gets lost on the way. Indeed the lookalike costumes, paper mache Simpsons car and the recreation of the funny Mr Thompson scene shows off how this futuristic theatre company might work. But the act then tangles itself up in acting out commercials and creating medleys of popular music. It’s entertaining and imaginative but it could focus more on the episode and it’s usage in America post-disaster. However, in Washburn’s defence, the Cape Feare Simpsons episode is a reworking of the movie but it then goes off to also reference Gilbert and Sullivan songs. Mr Burns similarly brings in other material but perhaps at the extent of it being bogged down (Demetri Goritsas’ version of Three Little Maids from School, however, is impressive). The act ends in gunmen in the auditorium and firing onto the stage. It’s an unnerving reminder of the world outside the theatre and nicely suggests how theatre can be escapist but it is another reminder of how the play can get stuck in its exposition.

Act three, set 75 years later, is a full-on opera with highly stylized costumes with little resemblance of but strong groundings in the original Simpsons characters. The costumes and ship design don’t resemble that of the Cape Feare episode as much as the New York production but instead carries a more tribal feel: Marge Simpson seems more tribal warrior than middle-of-the-road housewife. The characters now have a quasi-religious status and Springfield is not just a place but an idealised time before the disaster. Orlando Gough’s and Michael Henry’s music in this act elevates the play to being exhilarating. Jenna Russell in particular impresses as she shows the vulnerable side to Bart in ‘It’s the End of Everything’. Mr Burns, not Sideshow Bob, is the villain of this musical act and there is a suggestion that this could be viewed as some Simpsons-inspired allegory in the future. It is fascinating and its mutation from the original episode suggests how culture transcends through the generations and how it can be made anew. Ultimately, we see how people use pop culture to validate and celebrate their history.

The play ends with Mr Burns powering the theatre on a generator bike, as a globe ascends to the top of the fairy light-lit theatre. As he slows down the theatre plunges into the darkness in which it started, suggesting a cyclical nature. It’s a beautiful moment and is another exciting theatrical image in a play full of them. And although it touches upon brilliance at times, the fast-paced, ambitious ingenuity of Mr Burns is perhaps the thing which stops it from focusing on interesting, specific ideas.

After a string of hits at the Almeida from Chimerica to King Charles III, Mr Burns may not be getting a West End transfer yet its debates and Twitter reactions continues the theatre’s recent track record of producing engaging, provocative theatre.

On another note, I found my first trip to the Almeida not to be the most welcoming. Although I was impressed with the building and the theatre’s mission statement, I found some staff members to be a bit unwelcoming.

There’s probably so much more to say about Mr Burns and I’ll probably blog on the storytelling in the play. The play may only be 3 stars here, but I highly recommend it for its ideas, Robin Icke’s entertaining production, first-class cast, Gough and Henry’s music, and Tom Scutt’s design.

Mr Burns is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 26th July, 2014.







[1] http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jun/13/mr-burns-review

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Great Britain



National Theatre Lyttelton, London
5th July 2014 matinee

Richard Bean’s new play about the phone hacking scandal – which wasn’t announced until after the trial was over – is as bold and funny as his previous plays and allows the audience to share laughter and anger caused by the corrupt ways of tabloid newspapers.

There had been rumours about the National Theatre workshopping a play about phone hacking, but when the trial’s verdicts were announced two weeks ago the theatre launched a quick turn-around from announcing the play to opening night to almost immediately announcing a West End transfer. And Nicholas Hytner’s well-paced production lives up to its hype. The play focuses on the workings of a daily tabloid newspaper, The Free Press (although there are clear echoes to real papers and their employees). It’s a paper that has a cardboard cut-out of Terry and Tracy who represent their typical readership; the editor firmly points out that Terry is a ‘scaffolder. Into football. Cunt’. It’s the sort of paper to entice readers with ‘page 7’ nudity, cheap prices and bigot-goading, flash headlines. Bean’s brash dialogue effectively captures the hunger for the ‘double scum’ story for which the paper yearns every day.

When news editor Paige Britain (brilliantly played by Billie Piper) discovers how to hack voicemail messages to build exclusive stories, the sales of the paper go up as do their accolades. But when they use this technique to hack the phone of Keiron Mills, who they believe has kidnapped and murdered his two children, they falsely imprison him which leads to his brutal murder. The case, although fictional, clearly has similarities with the Millie Dowler murder investigation which led to the shutting-down of the News of the World and, likewise, the end of The Free Press soon escalates quickly.

What is really interesting about the play is that it hints at the reason why the press, police, politicians and even a solicitor who unearthed the hacking easily sacrifice their position of trust. Money partly comes into the ratio but it is also to do with the search for power in business: Paige Britain talks of an ‘invite to the party’ being her impetus.  And so we see some of the country’s more powerful figures in each other’s pockets, palms and beds and doing deals in rooms to forge their path to the top. The satire is not only funny but it seems spot on in its depiction of a tabloid newspaper’s rule to put breaking the story before solving the crime. Likewise, we see how the paper encourages what they apparently abhor, here being an example of where darkness lies beneath the humour. In fact the fast-paced first scene which includes a story of a ‘font fiddling’ vicar is underscored by the editor coldly announcing that he’s killed himself. To the newsroom, it comes as nothing much more than a turn in the story but, with the help of Grant Olding’s effective music, it leaves the audience silent with the realisation of the paper’s dispassion. It is particularly striking, but not really surprising, when someone comments that the media run the country. In Great Britain, they certainly do until they go too far and Bean is right when it comes to the difference between celebrities’ phones being hacked and murder victims.

Billie Piper plays the abhorrent Britain with utter conviction but also allows us to warm to her through lengthy asides and a certain allure. Robert Glenister is a powerful stage presence as the hilarious Cockney editor who gets a hard-on from headline alliteration and runs ‘cunt of the month’ competitions in the office, but who also shows a hint of dissatisfaction in his promotion to TV executive. Equally funny is Aaron Neil as the incompetent police officer, willing to get tasered as part of his clueless press conferences. Through him, there is a touch of humour that reminded me of Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy’s unwitting puns. Neil also features in his own viral videos played as part of 59 Productions’ extremely impressive mid-scene VTs. Jo Dockery also pleases with her annoying Rebekah Brooks-inspired Virginia White. When the police ransack the offices, she stands amongst the panic-ridden journalists trying to smash their laptops, defensively shouting ‘what have we done?!’ Her love for horses and claims that she genuinely runs a campaigning newspaper make her look as stupid as it does innocent – a brilliant bit of satire. There is also strong work from Dermot Crowley and Oliver Chris, but the entire cast play this riotous play with the right energy. Hytner’s production excellently captures the machine-like, daily workings of the office (with characters getting to their desks before the play even starts) and Tim Hatley’s smart designs are very compelling.

It’s not perfect: the title seems a bit too obvious but does interestingly draw on ideas of nationhood that Bean’s England People Very Nice is interested. Also, as others have mentioned, the end only hints at the future for Paige Britain rather than offering a view on the future of the state of the press or the nation. However, as an overview of the corruption amongst the press, police and politicians it satisfies in entertainment value as well as exploring corrupt public figures and the public’s hunger for the titillating. Overall, Great Britain is satirical, riveting and essential theatre.

Great Britain runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre until 23rd August before transferring to the West End’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket on 10th September where it runs until 10th January, 2015.



Friday, 4 July 2014

Is Leicester's Curve Theatre artistically challenging enough?

Earlier in the year, Leicester’s Curve Theatre produced a production of Mark Ravenhill’s 2001 play with songs Mother Clap’s Molly House. It was a co-production with De Montfort University students and played in one of the rehearsal studios over several nights. Under Suba Das’ direction, Twitter offered positive feedback: Ravenhill’s difficult play flitting between a 17th century brothel and the present was a success. More of such challenging and interesting plays should be seen at Curve and not limited to the smaller try-out spaces. Yet it might seem disappointing that the autumn season offers in-house productions of popular, more commercial pieces.

Later this year, Suba Das returns to direct Mike Leigh’s 70s’ play Abigail’s Party in the studio and Paul Kerryson bows out as Artistic Director with The Sound of Music over Christmas. Abigail’s Party may well be a modern classic but a recent West End production and UK tour (from the Menier Chocolate Factory) would make it nice to see a play that offers more than a satire on the bourgeois middle classes. Similarly, The Sound of Music is an ambitious and pleasantly popular choice for a Christmas musical but recent mainstream productions might put off potential visitors. If they’ve seen other productions (including the West End and Open Air Theatre versions) they will certainly compare. And this isn’t to say I’m not a fan of Curve. As someone who lives in Leicester, I often remind myself that Curve has an impressive building and repertory of work. The auditoriums are smart and technically well-facilitated and the work is often diverse and exciting. But I sometimes wonder if their artistic decisions are understandably compromised by the financial need to put bums on seats. Their work in the past has included musicals Chicago and Hairspray, both of which recently have been in the West End and on tour which possibly makes them box office hits even if they took a different artistic spin on them. Ceri Dupree (who seems to be a resident artist at Curve) did his show Hot Stuff for about a month in the main house, with one of Curve’s associate directors saying that it brought in audiences even if it wasn’t his cup of tea. Classic musicals such as Hello Dolly!, 42nd Street and The King and I have also been produced at Curve in recent years which may not have been big budget revivals but were popular with audiences and critics and did offer something which may not have been seen in some time. Interestingly, Hello Dolly! had a very expensive rehearsal period due to Caroline O’Connor pulling out and leaving the cast to travel to London to rehearse with her replacement Janie Dee when she was performing in NSFW at the Royal Court. Yet the theatre has also seemingly stopped producing their own plays in the main house in recent years. They did do All My Sons, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Absurd Person Singular on the main stage but seem to have kept plays to the studio in the past couple of seasons. Albeit, if Abigail’s Party is a ‘safe choice’, then plays such as Piaf, Buried Child and Entertaining Mr Sloane might have been edgier and more inspired choices. But I hope that they continue to push forward artistically challenging plays and musicals.

Last week, Nikolai Foster was named Artistic Director Designate of Curve. The theatre also added that they will soon put a focus onto new musicals as “Leicester loves musicals”.[1] Indeed, Leicester does love musicals, and the former Haymarket Theatre in Leicester was famous for producing many excellent productions of new and contemporary musicals, such as Chicago and Merrily We Roll Along. Also, the Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson-led Me and My Girl and Richard Eyre’s High Fidelity started in Leicester. However, I hope that they will continue to build on its drama audiences as promised. Leicester also loves its plays, with the nearby Little Theatre being one of the best and most-professionally ran amateur theatre companies in the country, producing 12 plays a year. However, I look forward to seeing what Foster can add to Curve’s artistic output. Also, maybe a West End transfer could happen….

If Curve’s Autumn season is perhaps lacking when it comes to their own productions, it will certainly flourish as a receiving house. Tours of One Man, Two Guvnors, Eric and Little Ern, Frantic Assembly’s Othello, David Greg’s The Events, ATC’s Blind Hamlet, Open Air’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Chichester’s Barnum are all coming to Leicester. The tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is also coming to Curve in the summer of 2015. Overall, Paul Kerryson should be proud of his achievements in Leicester (at the Haymarket and Curve), and I’m sure the future of the theatre’s work will be an interesting one.

The Little Theatre, Leicester starts its new season in September with plays such as Alan Ayckbourn’s RolePlay, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End the pantomime Puss in Boots.






[1] http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2014/06/nikolai-foster-named-new-artistic-director-leicesters-curve/

Friday, 27 June 2014

#ReadaPlayaWeek

Since the beginning of 2014, mostly on Thursdays, 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, here are the plays from the first half of 2014’s #ReadaPlayaWeek challenge:

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

The series has mainly had an interest in modern and contemporary works, with three plays each by Jez Butterworth and David Hare. Certainly by the end of the year, more of Hare’s plays will be included and so will all of Butterworth’s. When reading contemporary playtexts, such as Simon Stephens’ Birdland (2014) or debbie tucker green’s random (2008), one easily realises the more collaborative nature of playwriting today – gone are the days of the autonomous playwright. When seeing Stephens’ play for instance, Carrie Cracknell’s production and Ian MacNeil’s design really made the play what it was, so simply reading the play perhaps helps to appreciate both the play and the production more.

Even if some plays and playwrights are more obscure than others here, all of them are significantly successful. Odets and Miller are two American playwrights, whose included plays show some of their most successful work and examples of successful theatre at the time. Comparing Miller’s All My Sons (1947) to Rattigan’s Separate Tables (1954) is useful to help compare American and British theatre post-WWII (Rattigan’s play was seen as one of the first British plays that dealt with difficult issues, an area in which post-war British theatre was considered lagging behind American theatre). In terms of British theatre, the plays give an insight into British trends at the time as well as plays which differed from these. For example, Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1996) exemplifies the In-Yer-Face wave of theatre popular in the mid-1990s, but choosing Terry Johnson’s Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (1998) and Conor McPherson’s The Weir (1997) also indicates that the deliberately provocative plays perhaps didn’t wholly dominate the 90s.

The series is also a chance to showcase some of Britain’s most prolific playwrights and their well-known and less well-known plays (such as Ayckbourn’s Body Language). Furthermore, it features famous plays which theatrically defined a moment in time: David Hare’s Plenty and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, for example. In the next half of the year for #ReadaPlayaWeek, there will be more plays by female playwrights, more classic and contemporary plays, and plays from not only Britain but also Ireland, America, France and other countries.

#ReadaPlayaWeek

Suggest plays @nobillington

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels



Savoy, London
22nd March, 2014 matinee

Please note that I saw a preview of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Opening night was 2nd April.

With its perfect casting, impressive Art Deco design and diverse score, Tony-Award winning director Jerry Mitchell’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels finally opens in the West End. It has the postmodern humour of The Book of Mormon and the suave style of a classic American book musical, but Scoundrels admirably stands out from other West End musicals.

Based on the 1988 film starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, the plot focuses on two competent conmen in the French Riviera who compete to scam a wealthy heiress. We first meet Lawrence (Robert Lindsay), a seasoned swindler who convinces us he has the whole of Southern France in the palm of his hand. But he’s not in it for the money; it’s the game itself that he enjoys. His opening number (revised from the Broadway production) ‘Give Them What They Want’ gives Lindsay a chance to show off Lawrence’s charm with the ladies, his faux bonhomie and ability to take on different guises at the drop of a hat. Speaking of which, I’m not sure if it’s in Lindsay’s contract to have a hat for every theatre role, but he sings, dances and hat manipulates with aplomb. I last saw Lindsay (a fellow East Midlander) at the Derby Theatre in Onassis and he still performs with such vitality that the first number alone evokes the exhilaration that a musical is meant to deliver. There aren’t many performers like Lindsay and you’ll think that he was born for this part.

Of course, the game of deception speaks not only of conning but also of acting itself – and this is why Mitchell’s casting works so well.  You have the veteran consummate performer of Lawrence/ Lindsay coupled with the talented newcomer Rufus Hound (playing Freddy). Even the programme notes for Lindsay and Hound indicate their different paths to Scoundrels, but they have great chemistry as this unlikely double act. Lawrence and Freddy jostle, play dirty and can work together brilliantly through several plot turns in order to out-con each other. When Lawrence disguises himself as the Lichtenstein psychiatrist Dr Shuffhausen, he tickles the wheelchair-bound Freddy with a feather and whips his legs with a cane in order to break his act and win their bet of tricking the wealthy Christine Colgate (Katherine Kingsley). It is just one of the moments of hilarity, another being the Ruprecht scene where Lawrence and Freddy work together to convince Jolene that she wouldn’t want to marry Lawrence when the socially challenged Ruprecht (Freddy in disguise) is the third person in the marriage.

Samantha Bond and John Marquez provide an endearing sub plot of Muriel (another woman tricked by Lawrence) and Lawrence’s French aide, Andre. The two fall in love, their language differences being overcome in the very funny and memorable ‘Like Zis/ Like Zat’. Their dance sweeps the whole stage of the beautiful (also Art Deco) Savoy in a nod to classic musicals like Top Hat. The scene is a reminder of the strength of Mitchell’s choreography, which impresses throughout the show with each number receiving well-earned applause. Marquez plays Andre as if he could be hapless and cunning depending on what Lawrence requires of him, with only Muriel bringing him out of his shell. Bond is equally impressive as the fairly gullible woman from the Home Counties and looks like she is having a whale of a time.

One thing which is different about Scoundrels is its self-awareness. It sets up the show’s light heartedness and means we can connect with the two leads as their rotten nature is balanced with a tongue-in-cheek knowingness. Indeed, ‘Give Them What They Want’ couples with the closing ‘Dirty Rotten Number’ to frame the show as a theatrical treat which fits the bill as a musical comedy. As a balcony that Muriel and Andre are leaning on lowers back down under the stage, Muriel remarks ‘Is it me or is this balcony moving?’; the second act opening in the same way that act one closes sparks a ‘Haven’t we already done this bit?’; and there is plenty of involvement of the musical director Richard John. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea and perhaps doesn’t give the show a bold tone that would make it a classic musical, but it certainly is enjoyable. For instance, when Lawrence manages to find himself engaged to the simple country girl from Oklahoma, Jolene, his banter with the MD perhaps goes on a bit too long considering we know it’s part of the plot, however the humour of Lindsay’s panicked dance is heightened by the closeness between the audience and him.

Katherine Kingsley is extremely impressive as the American, seemingly-na├»ve Christine and gives the show the vocal power that it needs. However, Rufus Hound also packs a punch in ‘Great Big Stuff’ and his talents as a comedian are put to good use keeping the gags in good hands and the physical humour convincingly fresh. I’m sure I saw his first performance in One Man, Two Guvnors and he is certainly proving himself as a great, comedic stage actor. Lizzy Connolly gives entertaining support as the thigh-slapping, enthusiastic Jolene and the ensemble all perform Mitchell’s choreography with sexy, energetic flair. Their work is certainly appreciated.

Some comments on the theatre forums have noted that David Yazbek’s songs are not that memorable but they do the  job of keeping the story flowing and I was soon reminded of them during a quick listen on YouTube. The score uses a mix of different styles which blend well together, especially in ‘Son of Great Big Stuff’. Yazbek’s lyrics, though, are certainly catchy, funny and clever as in “The skies are French, these pies are French, those guys are French, these fries are French” in ‘Here I am’. They bring out the sweetness between Andre and Muriel in ‘Like Zis/ Like Zat’ and bring out the weirdness of Ruprecht in ‘All About Ruprecht’. And finally, Peter McKintosh’s designs certainly deserve an award nomination next year. The colourful costumes and ever-surprising set-pieces reflect the wealth and gaiety of Beaumont-Sur-Mer. I agree that the boldness of the design perhaps makes it difficult to place the setting in the present but it carries a brightness that is appealing and joyful.

Whatever people might think of the show, there is no doubt that Mitchell’s production is a five star one simply for its slick execution and fine performances.


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs at the Savoy Theatre until 29th November, 2014. I really want this to do well. Also, it would be great to have a London cast recording….