Although this is the website for our theatre-going group, we sometimes go to the theatre by ourselves or with friends. This is the page where we intend to write about those theatre visits. Our earlier theatre visits are lower down the page with the latest at the top of this page.
16/05/23 Kathie writes –
Jules and Jim
by Timberlake Wertenbaker, based on the autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, at the Jermyn Street Theatre
I wasn’t familiar with the Truffaut 1962 film based on the book and in the 87-seat Jermyn Street Theatre this version was a more contained affair. Our cast of 3 presented themselves and their story using a mix of narrative to the audience interspersed with key scenes acted out. The set was sympathetically designed and used just a table and chairs, a couple of screens and a clever water feature.
We meet Jules (Austrian/writer) and Jim (French/translator) in Paris at the start of their friendship, pre-WW1, and a close and deep friendship is forged. In character they are quite different with Jim, extrovert and successful in attracting female company, the opposite of Jules, who is focussed on his writing, to the exclusion of anything else at times.
On a trip to Greece they come across a statue of a goddess. They are both entranced by her smile and imagine what it would be like to meet a woman with that smile.
Back in Paris they meet Kath (German) and, yes, she has ‘the smile’. Kath lives life by her rules, pushing and testing limits and boundaries with relish. She marries Jules, they move to Germany and war breaks out with Jules and Jim on opposite sides. When they meet, post-war, their reunion is poignant, both relieved that their wartime service in different arenas meant they couldn’t kill the other.
Kath now leads them both a merry dance, with other men mentioned at times, and we arrive at an almost inevitable conclusion.
This 90-minute distillation of their story was executed well and each actor was convincing in their roles. The element that didn’t work so well, and is so essential to the plot, was the belief in the chemistry between them that could generate so much passion.
Our rating: ★ ★ ★
Group appeal: ★ ★
Mike adds – Jules et Jim (the film)
I still have memories of Jules et Jim, the classic film dating from 1962 when François Truffaut (a founder of French Cinema’s La Nouvelle Vague) turned this bohemian novel into a quintessential milestone in French Cinema. It was so visual, so unstructured, so Truffaut and so French – I could not imagine it confined to any stage. But of course I had to see the play.
Coincidently, I found I had made notes on the film, almost 60 years ago to the day I was now seeing Jules and Jim again, this time in a theatre. Back then I called it “a film of great charm and fascination”; “the photography of sunlit woods, misty dawns, etc. is often very beautiful”; “the erratically edited film almost runs away with itself”; “Jeanne Moreau is at her most lively”. Ah, Jeanne Moreau, the doyenne of French Cinema, thought to be at her most luminescent in those avant-garde New Wave films.
As a comparison, after seeing the play, I decided to watch the film again on tv. In 1962 its setting during WW1 made it a period piece and now the film itself is a period piece very much of its time, a seldom seen treasure of those New Wave years. It’s still charming, but irritating too in its persistent bohemian quirkiness, it’s arty intellect out of step with today’s antibourgeois obsessions. It relies heavily on a voice-over commentary, perhaps taken directly from the novel, while the narrative is illustrated more than dramatised on screen. The characters jump moral and social barriers for their playful lifestyle, and today Kath at the centre of this ‘entitled’ trio would now be tagged with a patronising ‘syndrome’. I certainly remained “emotionally detached” from them, now as I did back then when first viewed. But it remains a joyfully indulgent fairy tale.
Jules et Jim, both novel and film, remain classics of their time, but now on stage as Jules and Jim and Kath they lose much of their charm and originality, and an earnest silliness takes over in a rather English way. It amuses, but why did Timberlake Wertenbaker bother when the classic originals still exist? I agree with Kathie’s rating and hope this new play may encourage some to seek out those originals. The book remains in print as well as the film (widescreen, monochrome) being available on Amazon Prime/BFI Home Cinema.
10/05/23 Fredo writes –
Dancing at Lughnasa
by Brian Friel, at the National: Olivier Theatre
Michael, the narrator now an adult, steps forward and sets the scene: it’s 1936, and he’s a child living with his mother and aunts outside Ballybeg in Co Donegal. My eyes filled with tears; no, it wasn’t nostalgia, it’s the carefully chosen words delivered with tenderness by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor at the opening of Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel.
Could this be Friel’s greatest play? It seems like a small domestic drama, even spread across the vast expanse of the Olivier stage, but as the story unfolds in Josie Rourke’s detailed production, the lives of the Mundy sisters reveal the personal tragedies in each of their lives.
It’s surely no accident that a writer so attuned to language as Friel chose the name “Mundy”. It makes us think of “mundane” and that is how they appear at first glance, as they carry out their domestic chores – ironing, knitting, baking bread, unpacking the shopping, worrying about their brother Father Jack, a priest who has been recalled from the missions. There’s a missing person: Gerry Evans, the father of Michael, Christina’s love-child. And there’s another character – the unreliable new radio, Marconi, which suddenly erupts with music (never news) at key points in the action.
With a masterly sleight of hand, Friel draws us into their world, where Catholic values co-exist with a suppressed form of paganism: rumours abound about rituals taking place in the back hills to celebrate the August festival of Lughnasa. Father Jack, who had gone native during his 25 years in a leper colony in Uganda, evokes the ceremony associated with the festivals in that country, and we see how close the civilisation of Ballybeg is to this primitivism.
This explodes in the play’s most famous scene, when Marconi comes to life with an exuberant Irish jig. The sisters can’t contain their suppressed emotions, and they release their feelings in individual ways. Extrovert Maggie stomps out her steps, demure Agnes trips through her dance lightly, Christina sacrilegiously pulls on her brother’s surplice and cavorts, and Rose skips childishly around. Even Kate, initially scandalised by this bacchanal, is eventually overcome, but leaves the cottage to dance privately her own variation of a traditional reel.
And then it’s over: unreliable Marconi cuts out, and the sisters are brought down to earth. For a moment, their euphoria makes them plan to attend the Lughnasa dance, but Kate puts a stop to that pipe-dream; women of their age would be a laughing-stock in that setting. Tensions rise to the surface when Agnes declares that Kate treats them all like unpaid servants.
We witness their excitement at the visit of the unreliable Gerry, who has become a strictly ballroom dance instructor in Dublin and once again sweeps Christina briefly off her feet. We feel Maggie’s anger when she hears that Gerry has promised Michael a bicycle, for she knows the bike will never arrive, and that Gerry will disappoint his son just as casually as he seduced and betrayed her sister. It’s a play of broken dreams.
Their fragile way of life is coming to a close. In a stroke of breath-taking theatricality, Friel interrupts the action in the middle of the second Act: Michael steps forward again to tell us what becomes of every character in the play – and we haven’t reached the end yet. We still have to see the return of Gerry, now headed for the Spanish Civil war but still taking time to sweep a lovelorn Agnes in his arms for a dance while Chris, the mother of his child, watches dismally from the cottage window. We still have to watch Kate’s gradual acceptance that Fr Jack will never celebrate Mass again. We still have more tears to shed.
I admit that this play explores many emotions and experiences that are familiar to me. (Am I the only surviving person who can recognise Kate’s dismissal of “the book by Annie M P Smithson – The Marriage of Nurse Harding”? Yes, I read it when I was very young; I thought it was the Irish Gone With the Wind!) However, my feelings were shared by an appreciative full house at the Olivier, and by friends who have seen and enjoyed it.
(Production photos: Johan Persson)
But for all its gentleness and nostalgia, there’s a hard core there. Friel eschews sentimentality. His agenda is to explore the slender line between religion and paganism, between tradition and modernisation, between memory and reality and the hostages that they take.
It was an absolute joy to listen to Friel’s command of language. This is the writer who, in Faith Healer has one character comment on another’s confident use of the word “chicanery”. He has a love and awareness of words, and uses them with pinpoint accuracy.
The actors in the play are accurate as well. Justine Mitchell gives her best-ever performance, and both Siobhan McSweeney and Ardal O’Hanlon rein in their comic instincts to bring their characters to vivid life. Tom Riley resists the temptation to make Gerry just a lovable rogue. He’s half aware that he’s destined to fail at everything, and of the damage he causes to others along the way. If it sounds as though the sisters Louisa Harland, Alison Oliver and Bláithín Mac Gabhann are also-rans, far from it: they enhance every scene they appear in. And at the end, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor reduced me to tears again with a winding-down epitaph of love and regret. And I wasn’t the only tearful one.
Our rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Group Appeal: ★ ★ ★ ★
13/05/23 Cecilia writes –
Opera at the Royal Opera House, score by Kaija Saariaho (b.1952), libretto by Sofi Oksanen, directed by Simon Stone. (I saw it on 20 April 2023)
Opera at the London Coliseum, score by Jeanine Tesori (b.1961), libretto by Tazewell Thompson, directed by Tinuke Craig. [I saw it on 4 May 2023)
Preface – Aside from debuting in the U.K. at more or less the same time, both are works by respected women composers, both have remarkable libretti and both examine contemporary sources of social and personal tragedy. Both make a strong impact – but by means that could hardly be more different.
What are they about?
Blue’s deceptively simple story – the libretto pulls no punches – is about the birth and death – by shooting – of a black boy in today’s America.
Innocence explores the continuing impact of a school shooting in Finland.
Oksanen’s Innocence libretto tells us that, 10 years after a mass shooting at an international school in Finland, a wedding breakfast is in progress. Survivors and ghosts of victims recount their memories and their continuing traumas. The new bride (Lilian Faharani) does not know that her husband Tuomas (Markus Nykänen) is the brother of the shooter. Tuomas confesses his own part in the planning of the attack, but asserts that he went home before the killing began……
Innocence (Photos: Tristram Kenton)
Blue (Photos: Zoe Martin)
In Blue, The Mother proudly announces to The Girlfriends that she’s expecting a son with her policeman husband (in his “blue”uniform). Double shock reactions – a policeman? A boy? – a black boy in America? – what a future…. The Father’s male friends cheer the prospect of a boy, but predict hard times ahead for their friend. Sure enough, The Son, in his teens, becomes a full-blown Harlem street rebel, and doubly contemptuous of “a black in blue” who is protecting effectively only whites. Inevitably, on a demo, The Son is shot and killed – by a “blue”. The Father’s impulse for revenge is neutralised by The Reverend and the funeral follows…..
What have they got going for them?
Both productions include several of the originating cast members. Both productions warrant high marks for their stage settings.
Innocence’s revolving set of rooms on two levels very effectively conveys the passage of time and place. For all its concluding revelatory drama and the sight of bleeding bodies in the school, it is essentially a meditation on the horrible event and its ramifications, not a narrative of it. At ENO for Blue, a combination of a tight tilting-box acting-space is combined with video to convey intimate narrative in the seething streets of New York.
Saariaho’s Innocence score – wonderfully rich in orchestration and sensitively realised under conductor Susanna Mälkki – offers a mood that is sometimes tense and anguished, sometimes brooding. The music doesn’t “set the words” in a conventional sense (I am open to expert correction on that point) or sonically describe the action. The words are important – several languages are used – thank goodness for surtitles.
Tesori’s lush score for Blue does by contrast directly underline and enhance what’s sung on stage in dramatic fashion, providing some spectacular opportunities for wonderful solo and ensemble singing. Whatever the more conventional character of much of act 1, reflective perhaps of the composer’s background in musicals, act 2 demonstrates that classical and black traditions in American music carry great emotional charge. Under the baton of Matthew Kofi Waldron, the resilient ENO orchestra truly delivered the goods.
Blue’s structure is that of a Greek tragedy – the build-up to the fatal moment which occurs off-stage, followed by the grief and anger. Here too of course, a woman (Nadine Benjamin) is bereft, but the closer focus is on The Father (Kenneth Kellogg), broken by fate. Much of act 1 is used to establish the joy and pride of the parents in the birth of their boy, arguably a little OTT and not without jokes. But these preliminaries make the intensity and high passions of act 2 all the more devastating.
Both works are impressive musically.
Did we enjoy them?
You might reasonably think that a school shooting and the death of a young man at the hands of the police are grisly subjects, so hideous and heartbreaking as to be avoided. But heartbreak and death and betrayal are the essence of many operas over the centuries. In many instances they are cathartic and I felt that both Blue and Innocence were just that. So “enjoyment” in this case encompasses an obligation to ponder what these gruesome contemporary phenomena, almost daily events in the USA, can mean over time for survivors and for their communities. Innocence is not a transcription of “media coverage” and Blue’s agonising scene between The Reverend (Ronald Samm) and The Father pulls us into a virtual wrestling match of values and intense feelings.
Critics have sometimes complained about the absence of “character development” and engagement in Saariaho’s work (ENO staged her L’Amour de loin in 2009). But in Innocence we can hardly fail to feel for Stela, for Tereza, for her young daughter, for the schoolteacher, for Tuomas’ parents, even though they too concealed the family’s secret, and even for Tuomas too. Beyond these principals, the group of ghosts and survivors slowly draw us into their experiences.
The potency of this work and its polished ensemble clearly struck the unusually young and diverse audience on the night I was present if the prolonged plaudits were any measure.
The characters in Blue may be unnamed and thus “universal” but they emerged as rounded and convincing individuals, a tribute to the singers’ fantastic vocal assurance and commitment and to the skill of the composer. The principals were all striking, not least Zwakele Tshabalala whose seizure of role of The Boy was phenomenal, vocally and dramatically. The extended trio of The Girlfriends in the aftermath of the obsequies was utterly gripping, as strong as Wagner’s Norns. As with Innocence, the audience for Blue was diverse and enthusiastic, according it a well-deserved standing ovation.
There are great contrasts between the two compelling works – the one in-your-face, with its insistent Black Lives Matter message, the other more subtle and insinuating but just as moving. I hope that the crabby apparatchiks of the Arts Council took a few hours away from the ledgers to experience these remarkable creations.
My rating: Equal ★ ★ ★ ★ each.
A contempory opera-loving group may agree.
18/04/23 Mike writes
An opera in two acts with music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Tazewell Thompson, at the London Coliseum. This was a Dress Rehearsal
What did it have going for it?: A new production from English National Opera is always worth a look, and this is a new opera too, dating from only 2019 when it premiered at the Glimmerglass Festival in the US. Jeanine Tesori is an award-winning composer better known for her work on musicals than opera, and wrote the music for contrasting shows including Caroline or Change, Fun House, Shrek the Musical and Thoroughly Modern Millie.
What’s it about?: The Mother (Nadine Benjamine)is about to have her first child and is breaking the news to her Girlfriends. They are worried about a boy child being brought into this world by an African American family when The Father (Kenneth Kellogg) is a cop (no, “a law enforcement officer” he insists). The son becomes a talented but rebellious teenager and (a SPOILER is coming but read on) by the opening of Act 2 has been shot dead by a white policeman. The topicality sets up the situation, the anticipation focuses its importance, and grief is the heart of the tale.
Did we enjoy it?: From Millie to Caroline, you can see the increasing interest of the ‘black lives’ subject in Ms Tesori’s work, and here her music and Thompson’s libretto bring strong emotion to today’s newspaper headlines. She makes the story accessible, direct, all too understandable, and increasingly powerful. I feared the tragedy could become sentimental and preachy but it didn’t. I was completely hooked by the family’s situation (the birth, the love, the community, the difficulties, and then the devastation); the sadness overwhelms them and us.
From Ms Tesori’s background in musicals and general theatre work, I wondered if just this second opera would fit into an Opera House repertoire or still be a sung-through musical. It fits! With its surging orchestral sounds and emotional voices filling the Coliseum, even in this small-scale production, it becomes a magnificent addition to the regular opera programme rather than another of their occasional musicals. I wonder if opera buffs will agree – it is telling that the rehearsal audience packed the house for the earlier Rhinegold, and The Dead City was respectfully attended, but here the audience was shamefully sparse.
The black cast are all magnificent, in passionate voice (even at this dress rehearsal when they can ‘hold back’ if they wish) and a big Thankyou to ENO for casting so appropriately, which does not always happen. The production is perfect, and I haven’t been able to make that comment at the Coliseum often. Each small scene is set in a central box within a framing circle of light, overlaid with hovering camera views of Harlem. The characters are formally placed, three Girlfriends balancing three Policemen, then The Mother and The Father with just The Son and The Reverend completing the cast. It could be any and every family; its honesty and simplicity touches us personally.
I hope I’m not making Blue sound depressing. No, it’s hard-hitting but life-affirming too with a coda that gives us time to wipe tears before spreading the news – the Coli has a must-see.
Our rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Group appeal: ★ ★ ★ ★
31/03/23 Mike writes –
Further than the Furthest Thing
by Zinnie Harris, at the Young Vic theatre.
We’re in-the-round again here, and in the Atlantic Ocean with waves lapping across the bare circular stage. In the centre is projected a small island. We must believe it’s Tristan da Cunha as the play is based in many ways on part of that tiny island’s history. The small population was cut off from the rest of the world during WW2, then in 1961 a volcano on the island threatened to erupt and all the islanders were evacuated. Only a few returned. II’s a sad fact that the small community was badly treated, exploited by capitalist endeavours, and some would say their idyllic existence, detached from the modern world, was forever ruined. The playwright focuses on the troubles of one family and weaves a few historical facts around them to sell its anti-imperialist theme of the Damage that Progress can do to those scraping a living with little means. Some narrative detours were thrown in as added interest but they just slowed the pace. You would think the story should raise some hackles but I was not impressed.
I could have wept at the way circumstances were stacked against simple folk just wanting a simple life. But I did not weep. This was an everyday story of poor clichéd folk we’ve seen the likes of so many times before, once again being used to exercise our politics and moisten our eyes. The actors did their best and Jenna Russell (who drew us to see the play) held the tragedy together with her motherly portrayal of the simplistic ‘traditional ways’.
For me, the main difficulty was the production. The audience sat on benches (mostly backless – very levelling!) in four rows surrounding the very large open circular stage. The actors were always at a distance, often with backs to the spectators despite a very slowly revolving stage. And a lot of dialogue was difficult to hear across the very open space. I followed the basic theme but cared little and an irrelevant side-story of a rape passed me by. On the plus side were atmospheric lighting and sound effects which grabbed more attention than the characters did.
The typical Young Vic audience, I would say mostly politically aware, were won over, I think more by the theme than the way it was written and portrayed as a drama. The enthusiastic applause was unearned.
My rating: ★★ / Group appeal: ★★
30/03/23 Fredo writes –
A Couple of Swells: Joe Stilgoe & Liza Pulman
Cabaret at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames
Regular readers of this website may have noticed that I keep going back to Joe Stilgoe. You must think I’m besotted. And if I were, it would be understandable: he’s a great pianist, has a pleasant voice, and an engaging stage personality. Seeing him again, and this time with Fascinating Aida’s Liza Pulman, was a rare treat. We hadn’t seen Ms Pulman before, though I was aware that she tours with her own tribute show to Barbra Streisand – and indeed, one of her first numbers was Don’t Rain on My Parade. It was very clear that she is as assured vocally as her companion is on the piano.
The programme was designed to show off their versatility and their ability to refresh old favourites and reintroduce us to the more eclectic treasures of the songbook. The seldom-heard What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? came over as a warm caress from Liza, while Joe enjoyed himself (and we shared the pleasure) with The King’s New Clothes and his distinctive medley of audience requests, merging My Way with The Wheels on the Bus.
It was mainly a programme of duets, with an exquisite blending of People Will Say We’re in Love and If I Loved You, for the Rodgers & Hammerstein fans (that would be me!). We were also treated a lively rendition of the counterpoint I Hear Music/You’re Just in Love from Irving Berlin, and The Folks who Live on the Hill from Jerome Kern. I thought I’d gone to heaven.
Any quibbles? Well, I wouldn’t have minded a few more solos from these two gifted artists, but having too much of a good thing isn’t a serious complaint. I’ll be back for more!
(Look out for their London date at the Duchess Theatre on Monday 15 May.)
Our rating: ★★★★ / Group appeal: ★★★★
22/03/23 Fredo writes –
The Dead City
Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; Based on a translation by Kelley Rourke, at the London Coliseum
There are often good reasons why books go out of print, plays fall out of the repertoire and operas disappear from sight. Occasionally it’s a question of fashion, and in the case of opera, logistics: there just isn’t the money to stage them. However, from time to time we stumble across a major work that was just biding its time to be rediscovered. This is one of them.
Die Tote Stadt by 23-year-old prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold premiered in 1920, but has been seldom seen or heard in this country. That’s why it’s urgent not to miss the current production as The Dead City by the English National Opera. Given that company’s uncertain future (thanks to bad decisions by Arts Council England, as instructed by Nadine Dorries) you might not get the chance again.
It’s a strange, and rather morbid story: Paul, mourning his dead wife Marie, becomes infatuated with Marietta, and tries to transform her into Marie. We were reminded of the Hitchcock movie Vertigo, but instead of Bernard Herrmann’s theme music, we have Korngold’s lush score, with soaring arias filling the vast space of the Coliseum. (“Does it remind you of Richard Strauss?” asked our friend Meryl, who knows about these things.)
It’s a strong, confident production from director Annilese Miskimmon, with an impassioned performance from Rolf Romeo as Paul, and a suitably ambiguous one from Allison Oakes as the object of his infatuation. In the smaller role of Brigitta, Sarah Connolly was luxury casting, but was effective, as always.
It’s difficult to judge if this staging explored all the layers of this unfamiliar work, but it’s a start in restoring it to the mainstream. Sadly, this work was suppressed by Hitler, and Korngold decided not to write any more operas till the overthrow of Nazism. Instead, he continued his career in Hollywood, writing symphonic scores for Warner Bros for movies such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Opera’s loss was Hollywood’s gain; it’s time to redress the balance.
Our rating: ★★★★ Group appeal ★★★★
15/03/23 Fredo writes –
Romeo and Julie
By Gary Owen, at the National: Dorfman Theatre
We’re a long way from fair Verona. Gary Owen’s play is set in Splott, a suburb of Cardiff. Romeo (and to make a point, it’s pronounced the Italian way, roMAYo) is a teenage single father. His girlfriend didn’t want an abortion, and then she didn’t want the baby either. Now Romeo is struggling to bring up baby Niamh on his own, and changing a pooey nappy is a major challenge.
Things look up when he meets bright student Julie, heading out of Splott to read Physics at Cambridge. It’s a rom-com, set against the backdrop of Romeo’s responsibilities to baby Niamh and the problems with his alcoholic mother, plus Julie’s personal aspirations and the expectations of her proud father and step-mother.
It’s not just the appealing performances of Callum Scott Howells (from TV’s It’s a Sin) and Rosie Sheehy (Oleanna) that draw us in, though that’s a major part of it. Gary Owens has constructed his narrative carefully, and we hardly realised how much we have invested in Romy and Julie’s future happiness until he throws a curve-ball at them. All I can tell you is that the totally engaged audience gasped in anguish and sympathy, and not a few had to brush away a tear and fix their make-up at the end.
No, it isn’t a tragedy. Interestingly; this is the second play we’ve seen at the National that refers to a classical work in its title (the other one is Phaedra) in order to show us that the familiar stories can inform contemporary situations. Yes, we have a pair of star-cross’d lovers, but in this instance, the stars are slightly more benign.
Director Rachel O’Riordan moves the story along at a fast pace, and Catrin Aron, Paul Brennan and Anita Reynolds provide parental support – or lack of it. But it is a triumph for Gary Owen, and Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehey give star-making performances. No wonder they looked so pleased with the audiences’ cheers at the end.
“It will be an O-level text,” declared our friend Janice, with an air of authority. Oh, I do hope she is right. There is so much in this play for young people to identify with, to debate and argue over, but most of all, to enjoy. If you really love your teenage grandchildren, buy them a ticket!
Our rating ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Group appeal: ★ ★ ★ ★
14/03/23 Mike writes –
A Little Life
based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara, adapted by Koen Tachelet,
Ivo von Hove and Hanya Yanagihara, at Richmond Theatre
You may have read the book. Apparently it was a best seller in 2016, all 736 pages of it. But Fredo tells me he disliked it. Psychologies magazine said of the book “Astonishing . . . tender, torturous and achingly alive to the undeniable pain that can scar a life.” Some say they ‘devoured’ the book! But how do you turn a tome into a stage play? Ivo von Hove, the director, has attempted it and cast James Norton in the lead to ensure good box office returns. I thought I’d better see it, and catch it in preview at Richmond, at slightly cheaper prices.
It’s tough – there’s a very long list of trigger warnings for the weak-and-whiny and the faint-hearted. No drug taking or smoking though, just a list of life challenging hazards. At first I was reminded of that two-part epic The Inheritance which we saw in the West End a few years ago, a stage masterpiece with great emotional clout. That was about the history and interaction of gay friends over many years. Here we have just four friends, together since college, now all in major professions – an architect, an actor, an artist, and a lawyer. We are introduced to each with light banter, affectionate grapplings, and then the tone of the evening turns dark, very dark.
The focus is on the lawyer Jude (a name which implies suffering) partly disabled, withdrawn, mentally damaged despite his academic achievements. He cannot, he refuses, to talk of his past. Another reminder – Equus, the play about an emotionally damaged boy unable to speak of a past trauma. But A Little Life probes; the play presents in unflinching detail the horrors of what has damaged Jude both physically and emotionally. As a child, between the ages of 8 and 15, he was sexually abused, violently and continually, by a controlling Father figure who prostituted him. Then as an older teenager addicted to self-harm, he was trapped in a coercive, violent and belittling relationship which ultimately crippled him, physically and emotionally. At one point he cries “I can’t get an erection without cutting myself!”.
It’s a devastating history of trauma. Are you still with me? Are you still in your theatre seat? Obviously most readers of the book turned every page, and thanks to this theatrical storytelling and prestige casting it keeps an appalling grip on one’s attention.
The audience is clustered fore and aft of a small performance area furnished oddly with a pedestal bathroom basin, a cooking stove to one side and office furniture to the other, with background video images of New York. The worn flooring is ominously red.
Of course it’s not an easy evening and the adaptation is not ideal. It has a truncated and fractured narrative, too transfixed on some detail and skimpy with other plot turns and characters. Some will find its negativity indulgent and persistent. I felt that the self-harm, the razors and the blood may be too much for the squeamish. The careful mopping-up of the stage becomes part of the slow decent into the horrors of Jude’s tortured life. It is epically grim. However, and this is a big however, there is James Norton leading an heroic cast and Ivo von Hove ensuring the prolonged degradation never tips over into black humour.
There’s much work for the Intimacy Director in numerous scenes with James Norton, naked and being violently abused, comatose in hospital, or lovingly coaxed into intimacy. His performance makes us care, breaks our hearts; we can even overlook the overload of disaster and coincidence which directs Jude’s life and extends the play. All that is counterbalanced by the kindness and friendship of some peripheral characters and the support of Jude’s friends – one becomes his patiently affectionate lover.
Does it all end well? Is there a cathartic redemption? Of course I’m not saying, but there’s a long silence before the cheers and well-deserved standing ovation. Cast and audience alike have suffered and survived 3hours 45minutes together, in a packed to the rafters theatre, witnessing a side of human perversion we might prefer to be left unseen. After this unforgettable journey, the destination is a relief and a release.
I wonder if any newspaper critic will protest at the exposure of such ‘filth and degradation’ on a London stage. I certainly won’t.
My rating: ★★★½ / Group appeal: ★★★
But those enthusiastic about the book may rate it more highly.
11/03/23 Mike writes –
Women, Beware the Devil
By Lulu Raczka, at the Almeida Theatre
The Devil works in mysterious ways. He opens the play with a sardonic smile to the audience, introduces himself with some well chosen examples of his work today, then turns the clock back to 1640 with witchcraft in the air and a necessary task to achieve.
An Englishman’s home is his ……inheritance, and his prestige too. Without an heir, his ancestral home could pass into the wrong hands; his legacy could be lost forever and the family name forgotten. When an heir Is not apparent, the important task of providing one needs urgent, even desperate, attention. Where to turn? Who to turn to? The answer here is the Devil himself.
Lady Elizabeth wants to see her brother’s wife with child heir, but Edward prefers to romp with chambermaids or accept a helping hand from his own sister, rather than bed his wife Katherine. Elizabeth decides to appoint Agnes, with her witchcraft knowledge and covert aspirations, as Katherine’s maid, to bring the devil’s doings to the bedchamber.
Some critics have been less than kind to this play but Rupert Goold, the Almeida’s artistic director, had faith in it, directs it himself, and has provided an elegant and atmospheric production. There are candles and shadows, corridors with hidden doorways, shuttered windows, an over-laden table to feast upon, and a four-poster bed (rather too small for much cavorting) rising through the checkerboard floor for bedtime gropings.
Falling somewhere between a tragedy and a sex farce, the plot has potions and poisons, intrigue, blackmail, swapped identity and some bloody mayhem thrown in. If it misses the mark as a feminist treatise in gothic style, it still entertains enough to please a young audience and those of us who especially appreciate the visual Old Masterpiece approach.
Lydia Leonard is forceful as Elizabeth, and Alison Oliver’s maid Agnes manages her transformation from cowering servant to commanding madam with ease. Leo Bill uses his best endeavours with an OTT caricature of entitlement (Fredo noticed some Boris Johnson in him) and the Devil played by Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea is as persuasive as the Devil usually is.
We enjoyed it a lot more than some critics suggested (★ from the Times) and congratulate the young playwright Lulu Raczka on her originality and lively script.
Our rating: ★★★½
Group appeal: ★★★
08/03/23 Fredo writes –
Standing at the Sky’s Edge
Music & Lyrics by Richard Hawley, Book by Chris Bush, at the National: Olivier Theatre
When you come out of Sheffield station, look over your shoulder and you’ll be astonished to see the huge Park Hill Estate on the hill overlooking the city. This brutalist structure was part of the housing programme of the late 50s, based on the designs and social theories of the architect Le Corbusier. It’s the largest Grade ll listed building in the country.
It doesn’t sound like promising material for the setting of a musical, but Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a triumph. Yes, the estate is the centre piece of every scene, recreated inside and outside on the Olivier stage, but we’re reminded that a home is not just a box to keep the rain out; it consists of what you put into it.
And writer Chris Bush introduces us to three sets of residents at different stages of Park Hill’s history, tracing their hopes, ambitions and disappointments over the 60 year history of the estate. Newly-weds Rose and Harry enter this utopia with its running water and waste-disposal unit with dreams of their future. They see that future darken, as the building deteriorates through damp and mould and rats in the wall. An immigrant family from Liberia arrive as refugees, determined to integrate but fearful of unlocking their doors. Finally, the estate is emptied and refurbished, and another refugee arrives – but this time it’s a yuppie from London, fleeing a broken relationship and trying to build a new life in her comfortable split-level duplex.
It takes a moment to adjust to the interleaving of the stories and intermingling of characters, but director Robert Hastie clearly signals the period and the concerns of the characters as the action moves forward through three momentous general elections, the miners’ strike, racism and urban renewal. There’s a brief loss of focus in a New Year’s Eve party scene, but it’s quickly back on track by the time midnight strikes. It’s a hymn to the community of Sheffield, but not an uncritical one.
The stories are linked tenuously by two characters, but this isn’t laboured, and might easily be overlooked. The script bristles with comic lines, particularly at the expense of the yuppie Poppy’s parents, who think their daughter has emigrated to some forlorn northern outpost. But its warm heart is in the right place: Sheffield and home. Even the local nectar, Henderson’s relish, gets a name-check.
The show has transferred from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, and it’s strongly cast and powerfully sung, particularly by Alex Young, Rachel Wooding, Faith Omole and David McKechnie. There’s minimal dancing but the songs are sometimes highly emotional or softly lyrical and are often performed concert style direct to the audience. Two of our friends found some of the lyrics turgid and repetitive, but I can’t agree. The songs by Richard Hawley (formerly of Pulp, and with collaborations with Arctic Monkeys, Elbow and Paul Weller) seemed strong and appropriate to me. Open Up Your Door, both a plea and a song of love, could become a classic – it embraces your heart. Both the narrative structure and the placing of the songs reminded me of Conor MacPherson’s use of Bob Dylan’s songs in Girl from the North Country – high praise indeed from me.
Our friend Jan reports that at the end of the performance she attended, she had to distribute Kleenex to her husband and her surrounding neighbours. I only wish that she had been sitting near me, as I had to search my pockets for my handkerchief to brush away the tears.
As an unapologetic lover of musicals, I’ve been embarrassed for some years in being unable to defend recent products. I’ve sat through quite a few that I never want to see again, and found difficult to enjoy once. Could things be looking up? The last six months have given us The Band’s Visit , Sylvia and now Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Are we standing on the edge of a new golden era? I live in hope.
Maimuna Memon sings Open Up Your Door
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Richard Hawley, the composer, sings
Open Up Your Door.
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My rating: ★★★★★ / Group appeal: ★★★★
16/02/23 Mike writes –
The opera by Richard Wagner, directed by Richard Jones,
at the London Coliseum
That lizard – don’t ask!
I was at the dress rehearsal of this new production (so a big Thank You to our friend Meryl for offering me the ticket). Critics, with Wagner flowing through their veins, have written in glowing terms of the Press Night performance, interpreting every aspect of the production in different ways. Perhaps I should say ‘in forgiving ways’, as the benefit of doubt has crept in to praise quirky representations and forgive very dubious choices. They say “Witty and delightful; so damn good; a cheap delight; armed with more glitter than a drag convention”. Hmmmm….
For me the epic nature of the piece (I shall not even try to tell the tale or explain the mythology) has been reduced and grounded by designs both comical and ugly. The costumes (oh, the horror of those costumes!) are mainly hideous sixties frocks, worker’s dungarees or lycra sportswear, with a few cheap suits for the leading men. The stage is surrounded by glitter curtains, with oversized atom-model globes on poles, or crates and piles of (very light!) gold blocks. The proceedings begin with a naked man (in body-stocking) dragging a tree across the stage, which encouraged some titters from the audience. This is surely not what Wagnerites have come to see.
Just close your eyes and listen. You will miss the surtitles (which I did anyway because of poor eyesight) but the huge sound from orchestra, chorus and principals is magnificent. The critics were full of praise and, with my eyes closed, I can agree.
It’s a long heavyweight slog with moments of frivolity and occasional effective staging, but I’m tempted to think the cast and chorus were allowed to improvise their acting requirements as long as they sang the right notes. They scurry about then regroup on cue.
After two and three-quarter uninterrupted hours, it does all come together with an effective storm of rainbow-coloured confetti. ‘Son et lumiere’ did the trick in the end – cheers, thanks, bows, big job done.
For my own pleasure – ★★★
For Wagnerites – possibly ★★★★★
15/02/23 Fredo writes –
by Simon Stone, at the National: Lyttelton Theatre
Our rating: ★★★★
Group appeal: ★★★
It’s a cosy domestic breakfast scene in affluent Holland Park; mother Helen (Janet McTeer) affectionately scolds her son and daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis) who bridles at the affection shown to her husband Eric by her mother. Father Hugo (Paul Chahidi) comes home with the shopping as they prepare to greet a guest from the past.
And then the tensions that have rippled on the surface of the badinage become more turbulent. We learn that the guest is Soufiane, the Moroccan son of Helen’s former lover who died.
Suddenly the set makes sense. It’s a glass box, with vertical bars hiding strip-lights. The family are caged in, and their secrets and desires are going to be scrutinised and exposed, dissected behind the glass.
When Soufiane (Assaad Bouab) arrives, the strain beneath the friendly ambience emerges as Soufiane’s long-harboured resentments explode. The glass box starts to revolve, as Helen and her comfortable world are spun into disarray.
Simon Stone’s play is billed as “after Euripides, Seneca and Racine” and it’s quite a long way after those classic texts. There’s humour in this heady mix too. It’s a chic contemporary setting and there are contemporary references to remind us that this story is timeless. Helen is an MP, Hugo’s parents fled Iran, Isolde and Eric are about to adopt a child as they can’t conceive. Their First World concerns are about to be upended by the primal passions that suddenly possess Helen, Soufiane and Isolde in the searing drama that follows.
I was possessed as well, by the escalating power of Janet McTeer’s vivid performance of a woman no longer in control of her actions. She’s reawakened to a new sexual longing by the memory of her former lover while losing her control in his son’s arms. It’s McTeer’s evening, and I never doubted her abandonment of self control. She has first rate support from Paul Chahidi as an initially supportive husband whose resentment grows, and from Mackenzie Davis as a younger woman seeking her own emotional and sexual fulfilment.
Much depends on Assaad Bouab as the object of their desires, and fortunately this actor (from the French Call My Agent, but a million miles from that comedy series) convinces the audience that he has emotional depths to satisfy the women beyond his physical attractiveness . As a company, the cast rise to the occasion: it has all the excesses of a Greek tragedy transposed to our time.
I was particularly engaged by Simon Stone’s direction. The action is punctuated by blackouts and throbbing music which enhance the tension; the stage revolves at moments of turmoil, and in one scene, the actors are lost in tall grass, almost obscured as they struggle to find their way to identify and express their feelings. The domestic scene that opens the play is almost parodied at the start of the second act, at a birthday dinner in an ultra smart restaurant where damaging secrets are exposed. I enjoyed too the way Stone has fun with the passive role of the confidante in Greek and French tragedy, where the character is almost characterless, just there to listen to the anxieties of whosever name is in the title. Here Omolara (Akıya Henry) wittily overturns this, by rounding on Helen with bold criticisms and “You don’t know anything about me, do you?”
It’s not a production that pleases everyone. The first act of the matinee was marked by several members of the audience absconding, and our two friends didn’t join in the raptures that Mike and I expressed. Fortunately, our neighbours in the front stalls were equally enthralled. I admit, the blackouts were perhaps too frequent, and some of them too long, and a crucial scene near the end that is performed in French and Arabic was poorly subtitled. The set was perhaps over furnished at times (why have a bath in the bedroom if no-one is going to have a scrub-down?). But I’m happy to forgive these blemishes because it’s a work of imagination and power, performed with commitment. Some may resist its traits and choices but I was more than satisfied.
11/02/23 Mike writes –
Book, Lyrics and Choreography by Kate Prince, Music by Josh Cohen & DJ Walde, at the Old Vic Theatre
I approached Sylvia with misgivings. I knew it was a hip-hop/funk musical which had had problems on its first outing pre-lockdown. Back then there had been cast illnesses which had reduced rehearsal time. It had opened at the Old Vic in 2018 described as a ‘work-in-progress’ and received poor reports and poor attendances. To cap that, the run was curtailed when all theatres were forced to close. But the production team were undeterred, determined to continue working on the show towards a better relaunch.
As well as these problems, prospective audiences were not enthused by Suffragettes being portrayed by a reportedly black cast. It’s about the white middle-class Pankhurst family and their campaign for Votes for Women early last century – a hip-hop song’n’dance show seemed a strange and inappropriate amalgam of ideas and style.
I am not enthusiastic about colourblind casting myself, especially when people of colour are given roles written as white, even familiar real-life white characters (eg. David Harewood in Best of Enemies), where a colour change can not only misrepresent that person but also ruin any sense of authenticity. I was not alone. A recent interview with Beverley Knight in the Times received on-line criticisms. One fan of Knight opposed the black-for-white casting and mean-spiritedly wished the show a short run – women’s suffrage was not a subject to be messed with by a black cast. Of course that fan had not seen Sylvia and did not want to. I did.
Now I have seen the show myself and have had to rethink my previous misconceptions. It’s certainly a hip-hop/funk musical with all the energy, sound and dance which that suggests; it has a mixed black and white cast with the style and talent to showcase their historical tale of perseverance.
And it’s tremendous!
The Pankhurst family were as determined to succeed in their campaign as this production team were to make their show work. Pankhurst means politics, protest, prison, parades, passion…and even more passion still from not just the characters but the cast too. The show is sung-through and danced-through – it never stops and carries its audience with it all the way.
We begin in Manchester, come to London’s East End and to Parliament, sidestep to a death on Epsom racecourse, and Keir Hardie joins the Pankhursts in their political and sometimes literal battle with the Churchills and other worthies. Winston and mother Lucy were staunch opponents to the Pankhursts. It’s a family saga too with tragedy and fallouts along the way.
The songs tell the long running history of support and setbacks, with waves of historical detail on when and how to attack and defend (one song is called Suffrajitsu!) all against a background of helpful slogans and signs. It’s strikingly set and dressed (bustles and breeches, top hats and bows) in appropriate black and white, with flashes of red (always a significant colour, like Keir Hardie’s scarf).
It’s an adrenalin rush of a show, its rhyming words and soul music combining with excitingly choreographed movement to stir us to tears and cheers. Beverley Knight takes charge as mother Emmeline Pankhurst (Sylvia is a daughter) but the rest of the largely unknown cast form a well-drilled ensemble which stirs the emotions with the passion of dedicated activists.
This was a preview performance, well prepared for Press Night, with only a few brief uncertainties and loss of focus, including an ending not quite as expected – votes for ALL women without restrictions came a further ten years AFTER the Pankhursts campaign.
Of course this is about the Women’s Suffrage movement but the theme, casting and music-style stand in for any universal cause worth fighting for. The title Sylvia may not encourage the Sound of Music fans or even the sound of funk crowds, but let’s hope word of mouth from cheering audiences now will. After five years of setbacks and revisions, Sylvia has arrived, fighting fit, and ready for, I hope, a clutch of awards.
Our rating: ★★★★½
Group apppeal: Would the Pankhurst content overcome any hip-hop/funk/soul resistance? I hope it would.
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