Review – The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19th March 2019

The Taming of the ShrewIf you can’t decide whether a comment is sexist or not, I always think it’s worth imagining what it would sound like if it was said by someone of the opposite sex. Imagine, for instance, Miss World commentaries from the 1970s spoken by a woman about a bunch of men, and it doesn’t sound right. Pretend the presenters of Strictly Come Dancing are men and then say what the female presenters say about the bare-chested male dancers as if they were talking about women. You soon come to a helpful conclusion.

The CompanyWhen you consider those things that men are sometimes apt to say about women, or how they behave with them, or how a male-dominated society treats women, you can probably think of a number of ways in which things ought to change. Justin Audibert’s The Taming of the Shrew sheds light on the dark area of how men have traditionally ruled the roost over women in a fierce, funny and often ghastly new production.

Bianco, Baptista and KatherineImagine, if you will: 1590s England is a matriarchy. Women make the decisions, women hold rank, women own all the wealth, women choose their husbands. It’s Petruchia, rather than Petruchio, who’s come to husband it wealthily in Padua. Men are adornments; chastely virtuous chattel under the dominance of their mothers until it is decreed they should wed the woman of others’ choosing. One such family is headed by Baptista Minola, with her preening, compliant younger son Bianco, who has three suitors, Lucentia, Gremia and Hortensia. The other son is the firebrand Katherine. Yes, Katherine. It’s a girl’s name. All the other swapped-gender characters have masculined or feminined their name endings, but Katherine remains Katherine. No wonder he’s upset. He must have been bullied rotten at school.

Katherine and PetruchiaI don’t have to tell you the traditional story of the Taming of the Shrew, but in a nutshell: Lovely daughter Bianca can’t get married until dreadful daughter Katherine finds a husband. Enter Petruchio, who loves a challenge; woos her, marries her, then tames her by keeping her hungry, psyching her out, and even beating her into submission. At the end, there’s a magical transformation and she becomes the perfect wife. Put in those terms, it was high time for an alternative production. But it’s always been thought of as a comedy, because Katherine normally gives as good as she gets, and it becomes a true battle of the sexes.

PetruchiaAnd that’s where this laudable production slightly falls down. Whilst Petruchia is as alpha female as they get, Katherine himself isn’t really that awful. Yes, he has a temper, and eats like a pig; but apart from that, his general stage presence is surprisingly quiet – demure, almost. In traditional productions, the battles between Petruchio and Katherine are almost 50-50, maybe 60-40 on his side. But in this production, Petruchia wins 80-20, and rather than laugh at Katherine’s attempts to get her own back, we’re dismayed with horror at the sheer domestic abuse landed on the poor chap. Their relationship seems to have made both abuser and victim unhinged, and reminds us that women can abuse men just as easily as men abuse women. KatherineWhen Katherine delivers his final speech about the homely role of men, you sense this is not because his character has been transformed into a duteous, wifely fellow, but because he fears abuse and/or starvation if he doesn’t say it. It’s a shame that this Katherine isn’t feistier, as it might have been a bolder examination of what happens when you swap the traditional gender roles. As it stands, the quieter male Katherine rather lets the production off the hook as it ignores what it could have explored if it had gone a bit further.

BaptistaThat’s to take nothing away from the grandeur and humour of the production, especially in the first act. The traditional male roles played as redoubtable females are funny, telling, and beautifully performed; and provide a real eye-opener to the imbalance of the sexes, at least as far as this story conveys it. The second act loses some steam; I didn’t enjoy the totally irrelevant song and dance immediately after the interval, performed by characters whom we don’t recognise; and the subsequent scene between Grumio and Curtis goes on excessively long without really achieving much in the way of plot or character development. By then, the buzz of invention that had carried us into the interval had dissipated and for me the production never quite regained it.

GrumioI also found myself (unnecessarily, probably) irked by the fact that they didn’t swap the genders 100%. Why was Petruchia’s servant Grumio still a man? Why wasn’t she Grumia? The opening second act dance routine had men providing the singing with a decorative girl doing the dancing – shouldn’t the genders have been reversed? And why were the servants, who brought furniture props on and off stage, effeminate men rather than strong and able women? For a cheap laugh, I fear. A matriarchal society would surely give those important household jobs that required heavy lifting to reliable women of a lower class.

HortensiaStephen Brimson Lewis’ stately set serves its purpose, with plenty of doors to provide those occasional Feydeau Farce moments. Hannah Clark’s costumes are sumptuous, where sumptuous is required, and alarming where alarming is required. Most impressive were Ruth Chan’s compositions, superbly played by the six musicians perched above the stage, which varied from madrigal to West End showtune, and everything in between. I’m sure one of the group numbers was Italy’s entry to the 1592 Eurovision Song Contest.

Katherine - weddingClaire Price dominates the stage with her tyrannical and, frankly, terrifying performance as Petruchia. Unconventional, go-getting and heartier than Captain Birdseye, her characterisation also reminded me of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flash-heart on amphetamines. I think it was the hairstyle that did it. She gives a superb portrayal of someone who’s just allowed himself unfettered access to do whatever he wants, in order to get what he wants, no matter the consequences. Scary, but brilliant. Joseph Arkley’s Katherine never has a chance against her. More petulant than petrifying, it’s a strangely introverted performance; sour faced, but not really a shrew. This is perhaps most visible in the scene where he waits for Petruchia to turn up for their wedding – sulky, and a bit put out; but not angry. Even when he throws the flowers away it’s in despair rather than fury.

BiondellaAmanda Harris’ Baptista is a grande dame, well used to opulence and having the final say, and she runs her household with beneficent, but stern, matronage. James Cooney’s Bianco is an eye-fluttering, hair-wafting fetching young cove; Mr Cooney very cleverly reflects the traditional behaviours of a Shakespearean younger woman in his movement and his stance and it’s a highly convincing performance. There’s great fun between Emily Johnstone’s super-keen Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania, her servant who acts as the lady, with all the pomp and circumstance she can muster. Amy Trigg brings out all the humour of her go-between role as Biondella, charmingly insolent with Baptista, yet trying to be a good servant; and Melody Brown gives a very strong showing as the domineering Vincentia.

GremiaBut once again it is Sophie Stanton who steals the show with her brilliantly comic performance as Gremia. It’s an old cliché I know, but Ms Stanton really could make you laugh your head off reading the telephone directory. The comic timing when she’s pleading her case for Bianco’s hand; the way she introduces Cambio “from Rheims”, “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” – it’s just naturally inventive and truly a class act. She amazes you with the physicality of her ability to glide like a hovercraft, and the running gag with the sword and the scabbard is just brilliant. She’s quickly becoming one of my most favourite stage performers of all time.

Vincentia and KatherineIn the final analysis, this production boils down to an exercise to see what a familiar situation looks like when the sexes are reversed; and from that point of view it’s successful, although I think it could have gone even further. At three hours, it’s just as well they’ve dropped the whole Christopher Sly framework story! It’s playing in repertoire in Stratford until August, but then tours alongside As You Like It and Measure for Measure in Salford, Canterbury, Plymouth, Nottingham. Newcastle and Blackpool. Very enjoyable, and worth seeing to draw your own conclusions about this unusual battle of the sexes.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

Review – Equus, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 14th March 2019

EquusThere’s something about a Latin word that gives it more clout. Like when they create some expensive new cosmetic but 50% of it is tap water, the main ingredient majestically becomes Aqua. No one says aqua! Not since 55 BC. No surprise, therefore, that a 17-year-old mentally ill, sexually confused boy with a horse hang-up would scream “Eq… Eq…Equus!” from his hospital bed rather than the more traditional “Giddy up Neddy”.

Equus 7Forgive me for that disrespectful introduction, because I actually have a ton of respect for this most significant 20th century play, first performed in 1973 – and I have no doubt it would have faced the wrath of the censor ten years earlier. It’s now been given a pared-down, imagination-filled production from the English Touring Theatre, starting its national tour appropriately enough at one of the most significant theatres of 20th century drama, the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s been a matter of personal shame that I have reached the grand old age of [insert grand old age here] and had never been to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. So when my friend the Squire of Sidcup announced that he wanted to see some “great plays”, and I saw that Peter Shaffer’s Equus was on at that self-same theatre, it was a no-brainer.

Equus 14I’m sure you know – but in case you don’t, Magistrate Hesther Salomon refers the case of Alan Strang to psychiatrist Martin Dysart as his last chance before being locked up in prison. Strang has been found guilty of blinding six horses at a riding stable; a crime that, even today, stuns the audience into silence when they first hear it. Strang is obstructive, uncommunicative, confrontational, but clearly in need of some meaning to his life; in many ways, a typical teenager. As Dysart pushes and probes into Strang’s emotions and motivations, the truth is slowly revealed of the latter’s destructive obsession with the horse god Equus. But, in comparison, Dysart also considers his own dusty, crusty existence, where he merely observes outside life taking place without having any of his own; and, although comparisons are odious, he becomes jealous of Strang’s passionate and sensual self-expression. At the end of the play, you can draw your own conclusions as to which of them has the brighter future.

Equus 16This is my third exposure to the dark recesses of Alan Strang’s mind and Martin Dysart’s own personal struggles as his psychiatrist. The first time was in a school group (that’s bold) in 1976, with Colin Blakely as Dysart and Gerry Sundquist as Strang, shortly before it closed – this was the tail end of the original production, I believe. There were bench seats at the back of the stage where we all perched, uncomfortably, but I remember it as a mesmeric experience. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the celebrated 2007 production with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe, which was probably the hottest ticket in town. However, this new production can easily hold its head up high in such prized company.

Equus 9The simple, stark set adapts itself so well to represent a clinical hospital environment. Sheer white curtains drop down three sides of the stage suggesting those curtains that divide beds in a ward, but also just giving that hint of a white padded room that we associate with mental institutions. A few props, such as Strang’s hospital bed, a basic TV so loathed by his father, and an unexplained hospital trolley carrying six horses’ skulls, are all you need to fill in the gaps. The biggest and most effective prop is Jessica Hung Han Yun’s fantastic lighting design, which incorporates mysterious gloom and blood-red gore, and all moods in between. Giles Thomas’ subtle, disturbing music provides a near-constant undercurrent reflecting Dysart’s state of mind. That alone unsettles us in the audience, because it’s Strang who’s in mental torture, not Dysart, right?

Equus 12Many of the actors double up their roles to represent the horses, which provides the creative team with the nice problem of how best to portray these strong, kindly equine beauties. Shaffer’s original stage directions required the actors, who wore tracksuits, to don see-through horse masks, putting them on in full view of the audience as part of a deliberate ceremonial procedure. Instead, director Ned Bennett has gone for greater realism in this production. The horse actors just wear shorts; you could consider that the equivalent of a horse’s saddle. The exposure of the strength of the actors’ limbs and torsos directly convey a more powerful impression of the unadorned strength of a horse.

Equus 5Furthermore, movement director Shelley Maxwell has done an amazing job in enabling the actors to recreate a horse’s neck movements – angular but flowing, strong but vulnerable – and Ira Mandela Siobhan’s performance as Strang’s favourite horse, Nugget, physically blows your mind with its accurate suggestion of how a horse moves. He’s absolutely superb in the role. The climax scene where we see Strang’s attack on the horses also calls for incredibly expressive physical movement, with the agonising blinding of the five horses in the stable followed by Strang’s torturous, mocking, assault dance with Nugget before he too is blinded. It’s both the stuff of nightmares but also incredibly vivid and stunning to watch.

Equus 3Ethan Kai gives a deeply expressive, no-holds-barred performance as the damaged Strang; initially insolent, gradually more trusting, extremely vulnerable and uncontrollably violent. It’s a brave and memorable performance. Norah Lopez Holden is also excellent as his girlfriend Jill, cheekily and excitedly suggesting a (literal) romp in the hay, and trying to smooth over the waters when it doesn’t go the way she hoped. She’s also extremely good in the hilarious scene set in the sex cinema (which ages the play somewhat). There’s excellent support from Robert Fitch as Strang’s principled-yet-hypocritical father and Syreeta Kumar as his well-meaning mother, Ruth Lass as the concerned Hesther and Keith Gilmore as the no-nonsense nurse and stable owner.

Equus 13But it is Zubin Varla who stands out, as the professionally high-achieving and personally self-disappointing Dysart. We first see him, huddled in the corner of the stage. You think it’s going to be Strang, because that plays to our preconceptions of a mental health patient, but in fact it is Dysart, revealing from the start his discomfort in his own skin. Wretchedly dependent on his cigarettes, his analytical tactics may well pinpoint precisely Strang’s issues, but they also gapingly reveal his own. Constantly addressing the audience, you can hear the doubt and the essential sadness through both his voice and his body language. I’d be surprised if Dysart has ever been portrayed with greater eloquence or pain. It’s one of those performances where you can’t take your eyes off the actor; first rate throughout.

Equus 6Equus plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 23rd March, and then goes on to Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, The Lowry in Salford, Northern Stage in Newcastle and Guildford. If you’ve never seen the play, this is a great opportunity to witness for yourself this ground-breaking work. If you have seen it before, I doubt whether you’d ever have peered so closely into Dysart’s soul, as Mr Varla allows us to see. Stonkingly good.

Equus 2P. S. The Theatre Royal, Stratford East is a little island of Victorian delight in a sea of modern shopping centre. Extremely welcoming and friendly, it has a cool vibe, good toilets, and a trendy bar supporting its beautiful, intricate Victorian interior of red and gold. We sat in the middle of row D of the stalls, and, I must confess, I now know the definition of cramped. There’s not a lot of space there! And the stage is surprisingly high, so even from row D you can only just make out the floor level. But the prices are incredibly reasonable and the atmosphere is superb, even for a Thursday matinee. Very keen to go again!

Equus 8P. P. S. The Squire of Sidcup was gobsmacked with the brilliance of Equus. It’s incredibly rewarding to introduce new minds to the wonders of the theatre!

Production photos by The Other Richard

Review – Abigail’s Party, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th March 2019

Abigail's PartyAhhh, the glory days of 1977. Everything about Abigail’s Party exudes nostalgia. As soon as I saw the set, I remembered when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought a top-of-the-range fibre optic lamp for the living room. How I loved that thing! I could sit in the dark and watch it change colours for hours, just like Beverly does. Mind you, I don’t miss the endless times when little bits of glass snapped off and stuck to the carpet until, inevitably, they got stuck in my feet. Serves me right for not wearing any slippers. Nostalgia always hurts somehow.

Beverly and LaurenceNostalgia isn’t just the set, either. There’s an interview in the programme with director Sarah Esdaile, where she talks about the link between the character of Beverly and Alison Steadman, who first played her. Ms Steadman was part of the cast who, with the guidance and leadership of Mike Leigh, devised the play back in 1977; indeed, at the time, she and Leigh were married. This is what Ms Esdaile took from her discussions with Mike Leigh, prior to directing the play: “there is no point in wilfully trying to move Beverly away from [Alison’s] voice because her voice is all over it […] Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice because she has been such a fundamental part of creating that character.”

BeverlyAnd, in performance, that is both a strength and a weakness of this production. In Jodie Prenger’s highly entertaining portrayal of Beverly, she’s emphatically not, I believe, giving us a simple impersonation of Alison Steadman, because that just wouldn’t work. I remember seeing an immensely tedious production of Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier ten years ago where the lead actor just pretended to be the late Ms Wood throughout – merely to confirm what we already suspected, that only Ms Wood could do Ms Wood.

The castHowever, Ms Prenger’s voice, channelling Ms Steadman’s, does give you a feeling of nostalgia, and you can’t help but wonder whether you’d have been better off in the comfort of your own home, watching the original BBC Play for Today on DVD? That’s the elephant in the room; can you improve on (or at least do an interesting cover version of) the original, particularly if you’ve seen said original loads of times? Seven years ago we saw Jill Halfpenny in a production at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Her performance was nothing like Alison Steadman’s; she completely made it her own. And it was an irresistible eye-opener: sexy, funny, tragic, brilliant. Far be it from me to tell Mike Leigh how to stage a production of Abigail’s Party, but actually you can leave Ms Steadman at the front door and go your own way.

Beverly and TonyYou also get the feeling that Beverly’s strangulated vowel sounds as expressed by Ms Prenger aren’t entirely natural; and that, vocally, it’s a bit forced, maybe a little bit pretentious. Which is a shame, because the one thing Beverly is not, is pretentious. She lives for pleasure; for booze, for smoking, for Demis Roussos, for beauty products. She dreams of reclining on the beach at Palma Nova; for her, good taste is whatever you enjoy, and she never tries to be what she isn’t. She leaves the pretentiousness to her husband Laurence, whose desperate attempts to force Van Gogh and Shakespeare on their bemused guests eventually lead to his own personal tragedy.

Beverly Angela and LaurenceWhat Ms Prenger does achieve, brilliantly, is Beverly’s physical presence; her self-indulgent loucheness, gin-and-tonic in one hand, cheesy pineapple sticks in the other, puffing at the cigarette that protrudes sensuously from those heavily made-up lips. And, as the night carries on, she subtly re-balances her stance and walk, as she tries to hide how progressively more drunk she has become, still hoping to maintain that ever-diminishing façade of attractiveness.

LaurenceShe also conveys Beverly’s inner sadness and vulnerability extremely well, forcing others to conform to what she wants because she can’t bear the thought that someone else knows better than she does; spitting out her vengeance against the hapless Laurence, who clearly can no longer bear the sight of her and she hasn’t a clue why.

BeverlyDesigner Janet Bird’s 1970s comfortable suburban living room is filled with all the must-have items of the era. Not only the sensational optic lamp, but also a hi-fi to die for, the perfect pot plants, and a plentifully stocked drinks cabinet concealed within the teak room-divider; everything is spot-on. It is a shame that the room-divider masks a brief, but important scene between Beverly and Laurence, where she tries to make up to him and he pushes her away. I can’t imagine anyone in the audience saw it properly at all, and that feels like a basic staging error. The dinky set sits in the middle of the ginormous Derngate stage and just about holds its own there, although it would have been hugely better in the intimate confines of the Royal Theatre instead. By my reckoning, only by sitting in the absolute centre of the rows do you have a chance to see everything on stage. We were in the centre block of Row F, but on the right aisle, and had no idea there was a bathroom off stage on our side of the auditorium. Similarly, those on the left side of the centre couldn’t see the kitchen. It doesn’t hugely matter for the action in this play, but purists might be disappointed.

AngelaApart from Beverly, the rest of the cast bring their own approaches to their characters, stamping a sometimes unexpected individual authority on them. For example, Vicky Binns’ Angela struck me as being more socially adept and good company than in previous incarnations; she’s clearly very fond of Beverly (or at least, in enormous awe of her) and doesn’t really tell her off at the end when she’s getting in the way of her paramedic act. Calum Callaghan’s Tony is extremely non-communicative and sullen, and only once does he give us a facial expression to suggest he might be willing to thrust along with Beverly’s intimate dancing. The bitterness between Tony and Ange is palpable and excruciating; and their final scene, which is pure physical comedy, works a treat. Daniel Casey (totally unrecognisable as Sgt Troy from Midsomer Murders) is perhaps a little over-frantic in his interaction with the guests and hugely patronising when it comes to the subjects of art and literature; but then again he does have to share his house with a philistine.

SueBut it is Rose Keegan’s characterisation of Sue that comes as the big revelation in this production. Normally seen as a dowdy wallflower totally obsessed with what her daughter might be doing at her party, this Sue comes from another planet. Completely aloof and with her mind on much more than just her daughter, you can almost see her words fragment into vacuousness as they leave her lips. She reminded me of a female version of Neil the Hippy in TV’s The Young Ones. Whether it’s a class thing, and she can’t bear to be surrounded by these awful people, or whether she’s on some kind of drug-induced cloud, I’ve no idea. But she’s totally out of it. And – strangely enough – it works incredibly well. I laughed at her performance more than I laughed at anything else in the play.

DancingAnd that answers the question I asked earlier. Despite an assumption that you might know the play intimately, and despite the lingering Steadmanism of Beverly, there’s always something fresh to be discovered in a new version. Yes, a lot of its darker side gets lost in the quest for comedy. Still, for all its occasional faults, I really enjoyed this production. It’s already been touring for a few weeks, and after its visit to Northampton, it goes on to Blackpool, Aylesbury, Liverpool, Dartford, Manchester and Edinburgh in time for Easter. Time for a top-up?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Alys Always, Bridge Theatre, 2nd March 2019

Alys Always“You’re a very good listener,” says the vacuous Polly to the arch manipulator Frances, in Lucinda Coxon’s gripping and joyful adaptation of Harriet Lane’s first novel, Alys Always, a preview of which we saw on Saturday afternoon. Polly doesn’t know the half of it; she has a great memory too. Frances has a gifted brain; in its deepest recesses she files away all the facts and feelings (names, passcodes, ages, hiding places for keys, etc) that she chances upon through everyday conversation that one day might, just might, come in useful. But does she use this gift for the greater good of mankind? Not exactly.

joanne-froggatt-and-the-cellistFrances is wasted in her day job – a sub-editor in the Books department at The Questioner Newspaper; in other words, a general dogsbody who spends her day feeding the meter for more senior employees’ cars, making the drinks for meetings, and hoping that the Departmental Head might one day remember her name. But a random experience changes all that. She witnesses a car accident late one night; she rushes to the scene to try to help but can only hear the accident victim talking to her from her trapped car. They have a brief conversation, where Frances does her best to calm her; but there’s nothing she can do apart from keep her company until the ambulance arrives. The victim is Alys – pronounced Alice – and she doesn’t survive.

laurence-and-francesBut it turns out that Alys was the wife of Laurence Kyte, the most marketable thriller writer in town; and when the police suggest that Frances meet the family as part of a “closure” initiative, it’s probably an invitation she shouldn’t pass up. Particularly when it turns out that her boss is also at Alys’ memorial. Alys’ daughter Polly becomes especially attached to Frances; and as the latter’s influence within the Kyte family blossoms, so does her ability to spot personal opportunities that will do her no harm whatsoever, and her position in the office can take on a more significant role.

frances-and-kyteI haven’t read the novel, but it’s a truly engrossing and unpredictable story, with snappy, crisp (and sometimes excruciatingly wicked) dialogue, sparkling wit and a winning performance from Joanne Froggatt who introduces us, simple idea by simple idea, to the darker side of the unassuming office girl; so that we, the audience, don’t sit there tutting and criticising her devious planning, but in fact rather approve of how she tricks the foolish people around her to make a better life for herself. Morally we’re on very shaky ground here; but Ms Froggatt convinces us that it’s all just a bit of fun, and, if we were in her shoes, which of us would be that squeaky clean?

a-more-relaxed-mealThe blank wall that greets us when we arrive in the auditorium is used for various arty projection backgrounds, the majority of which quirkily suggest the location and/or mood for each scene so that we never need more than a few tables and chairs to be sure of our location. The mood is further enhanced by Grant Olding’s moving and haunting compositions, played live with style and panache by Maddie Cutter.

robert-glenister-and-joanne-froggattRobert Glenister is excellent as the morose and mournful Laurence Kyte, apparently plunged into emotional darkness by Alys’ death, although it’s not too long before he’s, shall we say, back to his old tricks. Ms Coxon has been generous with the script to Mr Glenister and he delivers some brilliantly sour one-liners and wallows in fabulous hypocrisy. I guffawed loudly at the observation about picking your way past the homeless to get to Hatchard’s before feeling incredibly guilty at finding it funny – ouch.

Frances meets the familyI really enjoyed Simon Manyonda’s arsy Oliver, the big-headed book reviewer who’s insufficiently aware of his own shortcomings; Joanna David’s calming but business-like Charlotte, the housekeeper-cum-literary agent with a guilty secret; Leah Gayer’s needy and irritating millennial Polly (a cracking West End debut that’s all character and no caricature); and Danny Ashok’s ever-hopeful but maybe too principled Sid.

frances-and-oliverThere’s also a wonderful performance from Sylvestra le Touzel as Literary Editor Mary; like a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Margo Leadbetter, she bosses her underlings, but cultivates any story opportunity whilst always being seen to be On Top. She underplays the character’s savagery to perfection; and teases out riotous laughter when she offers Frances “flat white or latte… and a little pastry?” Those office politics and ingratiating tactics are so well observed.

Joanne FroggattBut it’s Joanne Froggatt who carries off this superb play with a truly entertaining, insightful, comic and devastatingly ruthless performance. Her connection with the audience works incredibly well – she spends most of the play talking to us, so it’s no surprise that we’re behind her all the way – even when she’s forcing people’s hands and deliberately misleading them. What a little imp she is! Hugely enjoyable, beautifully written and structured, fantastic performances; an absolute gem. It’s only on at the Bridge Theatre until 30th March, but surely it should somehow have a life thereafter?

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Home I’m Darling, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2nd March 2019

Home I'm DarlingFashionistas, help me; I can’t remember, is Retro in or out this year? Whatever, it’s definitely in chez Judy and Johnny, where she spends her day dressed in her best 1950s garb, preparing meals for her beloved on a 1950s stove, using ingredients distilled into 1950s packaging, cleaning the floor with her 1950s carpet sweeper, and preparing 1950s cocktails for Johnny when he comes home from work.

Katherine ParkinsonBut this is not the 1950s. This is today; and in her search to find her true self, Judy has espoused her favourite decade 100%. No interior design out of place, from the TV to the telephone, the sofa to the fridge, everything is genuine 1950s. Her only day-to-day link with the modern world in her home is her laptop, because she relies on eBay and Amazon to furnish her with her outdated, second-hand necessities. And, despite her spirited defence of her way of life, it’s all very sad.

Katherine Parkinson and Hywel MorganAnna Fleischle has gone to town in creating her delightful 1950s set. When we see it, as we enter the auditorium, with its dolls’ house frontage, it suggests both a perfect idyll, but also a plaything, a façade. However, when the front of the house flies up and Judy comes along and physically pushes the front door into place to reveal a proper, lived-in home, we discover this is genuinely her real life. Visually, it’s both amusing and stunning, with excellent attention to detail, from the pineapple ice-bucket to the starburst mirror. The superb 50s styling of Judy’s clothes make for an obvious contrast with the modern-day outfits worn by everyone else who comes to her house. There’s a moment in the second act when the set comes to life and switches from “half-renovated” to “fully-DIY’d” and receives a round of applause all for itself.

Katherine Parkinson and Sara GregoryAnd I think that’s the key to the whole play. On the face of it, it’s quirky, funny, outrageous even. But when you get under the surface, there’s not actually a lot going on. I can sum up the plot quite simply: Woman takes voluntary redundancy in order to live out 1950s fantasy existence; runs out of money, goes back to work. That’s it. The rest of the play is padded out, watching Judy interact with the outside world in the form of her friend Fran, her mother Sylvia and Johnny’s boss Alex. None of them really “get it” – Fran is supportive of her lifestyle, but bemused; Sylvia thinks she’s an idiot; and Alex suspects that whatever it is that Judy’s got, Johnny might catch it. Johnny blames the fact that he was passed up for promotion on Judy’s 50s obsession which made Alex feel uneasy – and he’s probably right.

Katherine ParkinsonIn fact, it may well be that Judy’s mental health is in question here, revealing some need to turn her back on reality and escape into her own little cocoon. However, if that is the case, then it appears to be one of the most easily treated mental illnesses ever recorded; simply by happily skipping off to work at the end of the play, it implies she’s cured. I think the play is also trying to send a message about feminism – but I can’t quite work out what that message is. All the way through, it’s Judy who’s in the driver’s seat. She decides to leave work, she decides to devote herself full-time to running her fantasy household, she decides to conceal their debt from Johnny, she decides to go back to work. As a couple, she’s takes the assertive role, and he’s the passive one. But despite that, she’s not happy, and she doesn’t achieve what she wants. Don’t push too hard, your dreams are china in your hand? Not sure.

Katherine Parkinson and Richard HarringtonYou might be getting the message, gentle reader, that I didn’t care for this play very much. Sadly, that’s true. Despite its initial impact – that opening scene ends with a delightful coup de theatre – I began to get a little bored, which for me is the cardinal sin for a play. None of the characters is particularly likeable, except Judy’s tell-it-like-it-is mother Sylvia, who tries desperately to appeal to her daughter to see sense and take control of reality. As she says, unless you were a straight white male, the 50s were shit. Why celebrate that time of rationing and dreariness now? It’s not unlike the current fad for pro-Brexiteers to hanker after the good old days of the Second World War; we survived it then, we can survive it now. But, as Sylvia tries to make Judy see, it’s clearly a smokescreen for something else. Doesn’t she want to achieve more than mere survival?

Hywel Morgan and Siubhan HarrisonGot political there, soz. Nearly everyone else in the play – Johnny, Fran, Alex – is portrayed with only modest, vanilla characterisation so we don’t really know much about them; and Marcus is clearly a sex pest but only has a minor involvement in the story. As for Laura Wade’s writing, it’s quite funny in parts, but probably not funny enough to think of it as a proper comedy. Any serious attempt to draw out a feminist – or indeed anti-feminist – argument in the play gets bogged down and befuddled. In the end, this is simply a story of someone making a decision to do something; then realising they were wrong and changing their mind; then moving on. Happens all the time, doesn’t it? I sense there’s a good play lurking under the surface here, but Home I’m Darling isn’t it.

Susan BrownKatherine Parkinson is one of our most intelligent and insightful stage performers and she makes the best of the role of Judy, revealing the character’s inner frustrations and ambitious motives, but even she can’t make it soar. Susan Brown is excellent as Sylvia, dishing out her caustic bonmots and the stage certainly brightens up when she comes on. Sara Gregory gives a nicely perplexed performance as Johnny’s boss Alex, out of her depth in weirdo-land.

Sara Gregory Richard Harrington and Katherine ParkinsonBut I’m afraid I was distinctly unimpressed with the whole thing. Happy to accept that I’m out of kilter on this one as it received rapturous applause from the audience and the critics have rated it highly. After its short stay at the Duke of York’s, it’s having a mini-tour to Bath and the Lowry in Salford, before returning to its birthplace from last summer, Theatr Clwyd.

Katherine Parkinson and Richard HarringtonP. S. Perhaps my reaction was in part to the uncomfortable nature of the Duke of York’s Theatre. Yes, it looks beautiful, but the bars and public areas are cramped and the toilets few-and-far-between. Go to the loo before you arrive!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Remains of the Day, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2019

The Remains of the DayOften, gentle reader, when it comes to writing about a stage adaptation of a book or a film, I have to confess to having neither read nor seen its earlier manifestations. However, on this occasion, my confession is that I have indeed read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning 1989 novel (at the time I used to read as many Booker Prize nominees as I could) and even seen the Merchant Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Of course, I can’t remember a thing about either of them – apart from the fact that they were both good. For this current Made in Northampton production (co-produced with Out of Joint and the Oxford Playhouse), Barney Norris (he of Nightfall fame) has adapted Ishiguro’s novel and created a beautifully crafted, elegantly realised play which deftly weaves the story’s two timelines so you can’t see the join.

ROTD2In brief (and the plot is simple, so this is indeed brief), Stevens is the butler at Darlington Hall – once the seat of Lord Darlington – but now owned by an American, the ex-Senator Lewis. Lewis gives Stevens a few days off, so Stevens motors down to the West Country to find his ex-colleague, Mrs Benn, who was once housekeeper at the Hall. Of course, in those days, she was Miss Kenton; and Miss Kenton used to hold something of a torch for Mr Stevens. But Mr Stevens was either too cold-hearted to notice it, or too devoted to his Master to allow a third party to intervene in his life. Mrs Benn has written to Stevens to inform him that her marriage to Mr Benn is on the rocks. Will Stevens track her down and whisk her away to a life of bliss in their autumnal years? Or will his natural reserve come to the fore so that he merely seeks to employ her as a housekeeper back at Darlington Hall? I couldn’t possibly say.

ROTD7The play accurately reflects the flashbacks of both the book and the film by having today’s story, of Mr Stevens travelling down to Cornwall, played alongside yesterday’s story, of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton running the house, with Lord Darlington inviting political bigwigs to the Hall for pre-Second World War negotiations. At first, my companions – Mrs Chrisparkle and the Squire of Sidcup – were both perplexed at the presentation and didn’t know who was what nor what was where. I, naturally, saw through the time travel ploy instantly; a matter of a good education, I guess. Once you do get the hang of the timescale swopsies, it all falls into place very satisfactorily.

ROTD1Lily Arnold’s simple but highly effective design recreates a stately home awash with full length mirrors (and with perpetual rain) by having panels that slide into place to create the illusion of rooms, hallways, and, indeed, the West Country pub where Mr Stevens has to overnight en route. There are mirrors at the back, too, which really come into their own in the very final moments of the play as Stevens walks towards them, having been bombarded by the voices from his past from all over the auditorium; a sound engineer’s dream, it’s like discovering Stereo all over again.

ROTD8At the heart of the production is Stephen Boxer as Stevens; never off-stage, even when he’s not part of the action he’s lurking at the back as the discreet butler par excellence. It’s an immaculate performance, full of reserve and contemplation, discretion and control. Almost imperceptibly, he changes from the formal, upright butler of the past to the slightly more relaxed, aged Stevens of the present; the merest of stoops, the softest of shuffles, a hint of more facial expression, slightly less clipped enunciation – a masterclass. He is matched by Niamh Cusack’s excellent performance as Miss Kenton, the assertive housekeeper who knows she’s good at her job, politely resenting interference and appalled at the growing antisemitism of the age – plus ça change, sadly. Ms Cusack also excels as the Mrs Benn of today, slightly worn down by the experiences of a difficult married life, and with an affectionate fondness for nostalgia. However, she’s not lost any of her assertiveness, as Mr Stevens discovers to his well-concealed shock.

ROTD5The rest of the cast double up to cover many different roles between the two timescales, sometimes transforming from one to another before your very eyes, and with impressive impact. Stephen Critchlow’s saloon bar Harry quickly flips into the square-shouldered, cynical Sir David; Sadie Shimmin’s pub landlady Mrs Taylor adopts class and elegance as Mme Dupont, and Miles Richardson’s formal Lord Darlington becomes the avuncular Dr Carlisle with one twist of the heel. These are all confident, assertive performances. Snappy and impressive, their timescale switches are particularly effective at keeping the narration moving along nicely, especially in the second act. If I’m honest, there were a couple of moments in the first act where plot progress felt a little sluggish, but after the interval the pace picked up with gusto.

ROTD3Additionally, Pip Donaghy brings a lump to the throat as the ever-faithful but increasingly frail Stevens Senior; Patrick Toomey is a prickly Senator Lewis (but one who always has an admiration for Mr Stevens) and Edward Franklin a superbly wet-behind-the-ears young Reginald, for whom Stevens is appointed as official Birds and Bees adviser.

ROTD6Smart, elegant, convincing; this production tells its simple tale with class and clarity and boasts some terrific performances. After its run at Northampton, the tour continues to York, Bury St Edmunds, Southampton, Guildford, Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. A neat spin on a traditional format, it’s well worth catching.

Production photos by Iona Firouzabadi

Review – As You Like It, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 21st February 2019

As You Like ItThe prospect of seeing another production of As You Like It always fills me with excitement because it’s one of Shakespeare’s true crowd-pleasers. The cheeky, jokey relationship between Rosalind and Celia; the challenge of how to characterise the melancholy Jaques; the knowing sniggering of Orlando chatting up Ganymede when we all know it’s Rosalind; the rustic tomfoolery of Touchstone, Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. Then there are also those little heart-warming moments, like Adam pledging allegiance to Orlando, and Orlando’s subsequent care for Adam when his life is almost at an end; and Celia facing up to her vicious father and refusing to leave Rosalind’s side. There’s a lot of kind friendship going on here.

Celia and RosalindI confess; I struggled to identify director Kimberley Sykes’ vision for this production. My only clue came from an article in the programme about how plays such as these would have been very much performed to and for the audience in Shakespeare’s time. As a result, there’s quite a bit of fourth-wall breaking. It’s as though they’ve taken Rosalind’s final speech, an epilogue delivered directly to the audience, and worked backward from there.

Orlando wrestlingTo be fair, some of this works extremely well. Whilst Orlando and “Ganymede” are wooing each other and pretending to get married, Celia joins us at the edge of the stage and casts tutting glances at individual audience members as if to share the thought, jeez how much longer is this going on? She grabs a programme off someone and tries to identify who’s on stage – and then she finds a funny photo in the programme and cackles with inappropriate laughter whilst pointing at it and others, just like an ill-behaved audience member might. Personally, I found that “irreverent audience member-act” hilarious. In another scene, Touchstone’s camera lens disintegrated so he gave it to an audience member to hold. On yet another occasion, Rosalind and Celia tried to outstare a gentleman in the front row. All these little incidents really helped to build a relationship between cast and crowd. Less so the moment shortly before the interval when Orlando got four people out of the audience to hold up pieces of paper that, when put together, read “Rosalind”. Rarely has so much audience disruption been caused for so little dramatic or comic gain.

Duke FrederickOther effects bludgeon us into some form of reaction. Touchstone is dressed throughout in homage to Scottish/American magician/comedian Jerry Sadowitz. Don’t ask me why. The arrival by the banished characters at the Forest of Arden is marked by the stage lights glowing bright, removal of the backdrop so we can see all the backstage gubbins, members of the cast walking round chatting willy-nilly, and a disembodied voice requiring Miss Stanton to appear on stage to perform her All The World’s a Stage routine (even though we hadn’t got that far into the play yet). Again, don’t ask me why. Many productions do away with the appearance of Hymen, the god of marriage, in the final scene, because it heavily detracts from any sense of realism. Not so with this production, where the stage is dominated by the biggest Hymen (if you’ll pardon the expression) you’re ever likely to see. Out of all proportion, it’s grotesque and ungainly and looks like an accident in a papier-mâché factory.

Forest of ArdenThis is a very strange evening at the theatre. On the one hand, you have some superb performances and a few laugh out loud moments that really take your breath away. On the other hand, the production has a strange energy-sapping effect, and by the time Rosalind/Ganymede has engineered the four-way marriage celebrations, you really just want to get out for some fresh air. Although the production aims to bring the audience and play closer together, it’s only Rosalind, Orlando and Celia who sustain your interest. The plights and intrigues of the other characters can go hang for all you care. Mrs Chrisparkle wore her bored look for much of the evening – OK I realise, that might have been because of me, but I sense (and hope) it was the Arden brigade.

JaquesOn a lighter note, the love triangle of Touchstone, Audrey and William is enhanced by having Tom Dawze’s William act as a sign-language interpreter between the other two characters; Charlotte Arrowsmith delivers all Audrey’s lines by sign language and this excellent element of inclusivity lends an extra dimension and weight to their relationship. Recently we’ve seen quite a lot of gender-bending in productions of the classics, and this production features female portrayals of Jaques, Le Beau, Amiens and Martext, all of which help you to see the familiar characters from a different perspective.

TouchstoneAnd there’s also a female Silvius – now portrayed as Silvia. This means Phoebe is now being pestered by a lovelorn young shepherdess; fair enough. However, the appropriateness of this change all unravels at the final scene. Ganymede promises to marry Phoebe if ever he marries woman. But when it’s revealed that he is a she, Phoebe’s reaction is if sight and shape be true, why then my love adieu – in other words, “oh no, you’re a girl, I only fancy boys”. Nevertheless she’s still instantly married off to a girl! I appreciate that the words of Hymen could imply that he has no problem with equal marriage – which, of course, is great – but it’s being imposed on Phoebe and for me, it didn’t make sense and it didn’t sit comfortably.

RosalindLet’s concentrate on the good things. Lucy Phelps as Rosalind – what a tremendous performance! A perfect blend of mischief and nobility, of girlish goofiness and authoritative courtier. Whether she be sharing a joke with her friend or trying to extricate herself from very serious situations, she constantly reveals little insights about her character and she is so completely believable. Very funny, very dignified; Ms Phelps absolutely nails it.

Rosalind SubmergedSophie Khan Levy, too, is perfect as Celia; long-suffering, easily giving in to temptation, and wickedly sarcastic. I loved how she transformed herself into a rock; and how her cynical side just melted away when she encounters the dreamy Jacques de Bois. She and Ms Phelps form a terrific double-act, both comic and dramatic. David Ajao’s Orlando is a simple, good-hearted soul, exuding enthusiasm in everything he does, and a great match for Ms Phelps as neither can contain their giggly romantic interest in each other.

CeliaSophie Stanton’s Jaques is a very intelligent reading of the role, full of wistful thought and interrupted emotion; calmly and unhysterically delivered. She doesn’t recite All the World’s a Stage like some powerful, previously well thought-out party piece, but as though the idea is coming to her as she says it; a concept developing in her brain as she works her way through the journey of An Average Life. The staging of What shall he have that kill’d the deer is less successful; the combination of Ms Stanton’s eerie vocal delivery and Graeme Brookes’ First Lord’s cervine scampering around the stage makes the audience uncertain whether to laugh or be concerned for their mental wellbeing.

OrlandoAntony Byrne excels at the dual roles of the two Dukes, one nice, one nasty; and I enjoyed the way the one became the other at that otherwise strange border crossing into the Forest of Arden. Sandy Grierson’s eccentric and perceptive Touchstone is a lot to take on board, and treads a fine line between annoyingly comic and comically annoying – which is perfectly reasonable for that character. Richard Clews’ Adam is a noble and moving performance – with a delightful singing voice too, and there’s a nicely bumbling characterisation of Corin by Patrick Brennan. Emily Johnstone’s Madame Le Beau steals every scene in the first act as she teeters into the sinking grass with her stilettos and speaks her servilities with wonderful emptiness.

Rosalind and SilviaThere’s no doubt that the fantastic cast carry this rather underwhelming production. It could do with a few more cuts and a little tightening up; at just over three hours including the interval it is a little trying at times. However, it’s worth paying the ticket price to see Lucy Phelps alone! In repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31st August and then across the country between September and April 2020.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis