Review – Les Miserables, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 10th November 2018

Les MiserablesI wouldn’t say the first time we saw Les Miserables that we hated it, but we certainly didn’t get it. It was 1986. We were too young, too wet behind the ears and, frankly, not enough things had gone wrong in our lives to be able to appreciate it. Then, a few years ago, at the suggestion of Mrs Chrisparkle’s boss at the time, we chanced to find ourselves at the Imperial Theatre in New York to see the new high pizazz production that was described as Les Mis for the American Idol Generation.

Killian DonnellyI’d love to be able to put the New York/Leicester production (because they are more or less the same) up against the original 1980s London production and see if and where they differ. I sense that Laurence Connor and James Powell’s version is somehow more in-your-face and no-holds-barred than Trevor Nunn and James Caird’s. Just like when we saw it in New York, this production is outstanding, no two ways about it. Instant ovation, that seemed to go on for hours; great performances, set, musical direction, everything about it is superlative. The cunning projected backdrop that recreates the scenes in the sewers, or makes you think the students are marching towards you, works so well; but no better moment than when Javert falls to his death (oops spoiler alert) and moves from vertical standing up to horizontal splashing down purely by means of optical illusion. It’s absolutely brilliant.

JVJI could save myself a lot of time by simply referring you to my 2015 review of the production because the only difference is substituting the slightly smaller Leicester stage for the grandeur of the New York Imperial. All the great effects are the same – the lighting in the barricades scene, the pure heroism of Red/Black, and the emotional charge of moments such as Bring Him Home and I Dreamed a Dream.

EponineComparisons are odious when it comes to performances. When we saw it in 2015, the management had clearly hired the best cast money could buy and they were all extraordinary, no exceptions. The UK touring production also has a fantastic cast but, in comparison, I felt they hadn’t all entirely grown into it yet. To be honest, the performance I saw still counted as a preview; and to compare that to a Broadway cast a few months into their run is probably not entirely fair. When we saw it in Broadway, we cried at Fantine’s death, Bring Him Home, and the final scene. We continued crying as we left the theatre. We resumed crying (embarrassed now) on the streets, walking back to our hotel. We threw ourselves on the bed and started crying all over again. THAT’S how emotional it was. In this production, I started to cry during Bring Me Home but got my cool back before the song had finished. Admittedly, when Fantine re-appeared to welcome Jean Valjean into heaven, I dissolved completely; but I was fine again by curtain call. If I compare the number of minutes spent in tears between the two performances then New York wins hands down on the emotional front.

Great setOur Jean Valjean was Killian Donnelly, a great actor with a tremendous voice, whom we enjoyed in Kinky Boots a couple of years ago. He really brings out the kindness and altruism of the role, largely as a result of exploiting his extraordinarily delicate tone when he sings. Some actors could take to this with bombast and turbo power, but Mr Donnelly makes it his own through sheer subtlety and grace. Javert, his arch-opponent, is played by Nic Greenshields, whose physical presence is so perfect for a dominant and domineering role. His is a powerful performance, both in the singing and the emotions. One thing that really works perfectly is how the two actors/characters both age during the show. Les Miserables spans the decades, so it makes sense for them both to become greyer as time goes on, and Mr Donnelly in particular gradually starts to shuffle and to stoop so that you really get the impression of an old man running out of time.

ThenardiersThere were excellent supporting performances by Tegan Bannister as Eponine and Katie Hall as Fantine, full of emotion and superb singing. Martin Ball gives us an almost pantomime villain performance as Thenardier, with the always terrific Sophie-Louise Dann as his ghastly wife. Harry Apps makes a remarkable professional debut as Marius – such a pivotal role, as you have to be both young and naïve yet mature enough to want to marry Cosette, and he pretty much nailed that; and Will Richardson cut a truly heroic figure as the inspirational Enjolras. I don’t know which child actors appeared in the show we saw, but whoever played little Cosette was absolutely perfect; and the friendship between Ruben Van Keer’s Grantaire and Gavroche was also very tenderly portrayed.

Marius and EnjolrasI had huge – and I mean huge – expectations of this show, having been blown over by the New York production, and I reckon they were 98% met; and it’s only going to get better and better as the tour progresses. After Leicester it travels to Dublin, Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Newcastle. No hesitation in recommending it whole-heartedly; take lots of tissues.

Review – Rebus: Long Shadows, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th November 2018

Rebus Long ShadowsOf course I know about Ian Rankin. Everyone does. Of course I’ve heard about Inspector John Rebus of the Glasgow Police. Absolutely. But… you can guess, can’t you, gentle reader, I’ve never read any of his books or encountered Rebus in any format until last Monday evening in the intimate charm of the Royal Theatre in Northampton, where Rebus: Long Shadows has come for a week as part of its UK tour.

Rebus1I wondered whether I should find out a bit about this famous Scottish cop in advance of the show – but in the end I decided to let the play talk for itself, so Mrs Chrisparkle and I both went into it with absolutely no preconceptions. It’s not an adaptation of an existing novel, but a new work, taken from a story that Rankin devised for the play but then passed to, and was written specifically as a play by, Rona Munro, responsible for those fascinating James Plays a couple of years ago.

Rebus4Late one night, Ex-Detective Inspector Rebus chances upon a young woman on his staircase, who turns out to be the daughter of a woman murdered years ago. The local police messed up the investigation so that her murderer was never caught. Although Rebus is no longer on active duty, he decides to follow up a few loose ends to try to solve the case. At the same time, Rebus’ protégé DS Siobhan Clarke is involved with another case, where another young woman was murdered in the past, and also not solved. The two investigations end up converging, with all roads leading to Rebus’ nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty.

Rebus2Ti Green, whose design for the recent production of Touching the Void was so dynamic and inventive, has here created an ultra-grey and depressing world, dominated by a grim set of steps in the centre of the stage, and a dour flat furnished with only grey office filing cabinets and featureless walls. If the intent was to express a minimalist, depressing environment, she certainly achieves that! Occasional touches of the outside world appear, such as inside the traditional local pub, and the splendour of Cafferty’s drinks trolley. Robin Lefevre, who’s directed more plays than I’ve had hot dinners, has concentrated on making the character of Rebus centre stage throughout, and Charles Lawson’s performance is pretty impressive. He’s an honest, thoughtful, diligent and, at heart, a kind man, but with a rough exterior and a gruff voice that made Mrs C think she had been transported to an old episode of Taggart. His ungainly stance and quirky character make him intriguing to watch – although I absolutely hated that final tableau right at the end of the play; the light illuminating Rebus’ quizzical expression as he perched atop the staircase crossed hero-worship with pure hokum.

Rebus-6John Stahl is superb as Cafferty, a menacing but privileged presence, dispensing glasses of £650 per bottle claret like it was Tesco Everyday Value; a Glaswegian underworld Vinnie Jones with the keys to Fortnums wine cellar. Mr Stahl really impresses with the character’s sly-and-shiftiness, and clever manipulation of all situations to his own benefit. I also very much enjoyed Dani Heron and Eleanor House’s virtual double act as the ghosts of the two dead girls, pressurising Rebus’ conscience to put right the wrongs of the past. Neil McKinven has the arduous task of taking on five roles, and successfully gives each one their own characteristics so we’re never confused as to who he’s taking on at any one time.

Rebus3But it’s with Cathy Tyson that this production seems to go a little awry. Not with Ms Tyson herself, I should say; she gives a strong, clear, determined performance, just as you’d expect from someone of her experience and skill. However, if she’s Rebus’ protégé, she never shows it; there’s no sense of respect or admiration for him. And there’s no light and shade in her reading of the role; she seems set on 6th gear turbo drive throughout so you don’t get a sense of her character, she’s just a cop doing a cop’s job. I couldn’t decide whether that was a fault of the writer, the actor or the director. But somehow it just didn’t quite feel right.

Rebus5Although I had a few reservations – including a very unconvincing stage fight – it’s still an entertaining story and a diverting way of spending an evening. We found ourselves enjoying it despite itself, if you get my drift. It hasn’t piqued my curiosity to plunder Rankin’s back catalogue though – and I’d rather hoped it would. After its time in Northampton, the tour continues to Aberdeen and Guildford.

Review – Pack of Lies, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th October 2018

Major spoiler alert! Here’s an interesting little timeline for you:

Pack of Lies1961: Ruislip residents Helen and Peter Kroger (real names Lona and Morris Cohen) were sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment for spying for the Russians.
1969: They were released and exchanged for a Briton, Gerald Brooke, who was in jail in Moscow; and they flew to Poland.
1971: Having met Gay Search, today a presenter of gardening programmes, but then a young journalist who was the Krogers’ neighbour, Hugh Whitemore writes a BBC Play of the Month, Act of Betrayal, based on the facts of the case.
1983: Hugh Whitemore expands his play into a more fictionalised account, calls it Pack of Lies, and it plays at the Lyric Theatre in the West End, starring Michael Williams and Judi Dench.
1995: Having spent years training Soviet agents in Moscow, and then retiring on KGB pensions, Morris (Peter) dies; Lona (Helen) had died three years earlier. They were recipients of the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of the Friendship of Nations, and post-dissolution of the USSR, Yeltsin gave them the honour Hero of the Russian Federation.
2018: Michael Williams and Judi Dench’s daughter Finty Williams stars in a revival of Pack of Lies at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Macy Nyman, Finty WilliamsI knew – but I’d forgotten – before seeing this production that it was largely based on the true story outlined above; the Krogers were at the heart of a major espionage scandal that shocked the media in the early 1960s, being part of the Portland Spy Ring who had infiltrated the Royal Navy. As portrayed in Pack of Lies, their cover, their back-story, their pretence with the naively innocent Jackson family (in real life, Ruth, Bill and Gay Search) was immaculate.

Macy Nyman, Alasdair Harvey, Tracy-Ann ObermanThe question in this play is, who pays the price? The Krogers are imprisoned, so they do the time for their crime, but they were lucky to be released early, and their lives are privileged once they leave jail. The country paid a price – who knows what damage their information gathering did to the security of the UK, and whether lives were lost as a result? Always hard to quantify an unknown.

Jasper Britton, Finty WilliamsBut it’s the Jacksons whom we see pay the biggest price. Can you imagine what it would be like to discover that your best friend, your most trusted ally (outside, perhaps of your closest family members) was working as a spy all along, and that you were merely cultivated in order to create a more convincing fabrication to conceal their activities? Everything you ever held true would be flung into doubt. You could never trust another word anyone said. It would be – literally – shattering. And what about having to break that news to your very trusting daughter? That growing fear that something is going wrong, followed by the ultimate proof that you’ve been taken for a fool all along, is what this play achieves best.

Finty Williams, Jasper Britton, Chris Larkin1960 was a spartan time, and Hannah Chissick’s production nicely paints a picture of a society where your friend makes your dress from materials, and you wait your turn to have a cup of tea, you can’t just have a cuppa willy-nilly any time any place. Bob comes home from a hard day at work and merely replaces his jacket with his cardigan to spend the evening with his newspaper – no changing his shirt or removing his tie for him. Paul Farnsworth’s set suggests an adequate but not opulent lifestyle; re-covered soft furnishings, basic kitchen cupboards – but would they really have had such a modern looking toaster? Surely the toast would have been prepared under the grill at the top of the oven? I did love the attention to detail elsewhere though, with the vintage packets of cereals and the Susie Cooper tea-set.

Tracy-Ann Oberman, Finty Williams, Macy NymanIt’s fair to say that the play progresses at a gentle pace. This allows for maximum scene-setting and a useful appreciation of the apparent relationship between the Jacksons and the Krogers. The opening scenes are full of very nice observations and characterisations, and, although nothing much happens, the performance level keeps you entertained. By the time that Mr Stewart – who’s emphatically not a policeman, but is definitely a law enforcer – starts to ingratiate himself with the Jackson family, I was beginning to wonder if anything was ever going to start happening. I was still enjoying it, but very much at a loss regarding the direction it was heading. However, as the truth of the situation starts to emerge, the story becomes surprisingly gripping, and the emotional fall-out at the end of the play creates a very moving and powerful climax.

Finty Williams, Tracy-Ann ObermanFinty Williams and Chris Larkin are a perfect match for the central characters of Barbara and Bob Jackson. They’re both very formal performances, full of that sense of repression that followed the austere 1950s, making an excellent juxtaposition with the extravagant demonstrativeness of the Krogers. Ms Williams beautifully conveys all Barbara’s little fears and paranoias, and her deep trembling emotion that only occasionally is allowed to creep to the surface. Mr Larkin’s Bob is reserved and passive; knows his limitations and is grateful for what he’s got; mindful of doing the right thing and not wishing to stir up trouble, whilst still being as good a protector for his family as he can.

Jasper BrittonMacy Nyman is excellent as daughter Julie; full of enthusiasm for anything new, just like a good teenager should be, but also well brought-up so she’s polite and obliging with Mr Stewart; and feels totally at ease with the Krogers, whom she calls Auntie and Uncle. Jasper Britton is very convincing as Stewart; authoritatively refusing to answer any question that he simply can’t and doing so with as much honesty as possible. The ever reliable Tracy-Ann Oberman is brilliant as Helen Kroger, never missing an opportunity for some brash New York style advice; ironically coming across as the epitome of bright kindness. Tracy-Ann Oberman, Finty WilliamsAnd Alasdair Harvey is also very good as Peter Kroger, the quieter, more sensible half of the marriage; you could easily imagine him as an antiquarian book dealer, until he delivers his rather creepy but very illuminating address to the audience about how his life changed in 1932 when he attended his first Communist party meeting.

Finty WilliamsAn engrossing play, with some immaculate performances. An unusual choice for a revival? Possibly. But very rewarding nonetheless. On at the Menier until 17th November.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, 27th October 2018

A Very Very Very Dark MatterA new play by Martin McDonagh? Starring Jim Broadbent? That’ll do nicely, thank you. But what’s this? Unofficial feedback from a number of sources saying the play’s an absolute stinker? Surely some mistake? That was, at least, the early reaction from some quarters. Others were saying how bold and brilliant it was. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I concluded it was going to be one of those plays that you either love with a passion or hate with even more passion. And I think that conclusion was right.

VVVDM3Meet Hans Christian Andersen, at the top of his powers; receiving fan mail from around the world, reading his latest stories to an admiring public, and getting richly rewarded in the process. So who would have thought that his stories were actually written by a pygmy Congolese woman he kept locked up in a cage? I know, it doesn’t sound likely. Don’t get me wrong, he does let her out occasionally – although the deal seems to be that if she’s let out, when she gets back inside, he has configured it so that the cage has become slightly smaller for her. Does that seem fair? But then, is it fair that he takes all the plaudits for her work? True, he does edit her stories; he tweaked The Little Black Mermaid, for example, by removing a significant word from the title, much to her disappointment. His justification? There are no black mermaids. Her retort – that there are no mermaids! – carries little weight with him. The woman – called Marjory, because he can’t be bothered to learn her real name – also appears to be tied up with some kind of Congolese resistance movement against the brutal Belgian colonisation of her homeland. Of course, the Congo Free State was founded ten years after Hans Christian Andersen died. And of course, Charles Dickens is mixed up in all of this too. Well, why not? I’m sensing allegory here. Confused? You will be.

VVVDM2It’s as though Martin McDonagh has got together the threads of three or four plays – one about Andersen, one about Dickens, one about the Congo and one about plagiarism – thrown them all up in the air at once, and then stitched them together where they landed. It can’t possibly work, can it? Strangely, by virtue of some great performances, cunning characterisation, hilarious scenes and sheer bravado, it does; but if you ask me how, I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you.

VVVDM1Jim Broadbent’s performance as Andersen certainly helps. No happy-go-lucky Danny Kaye type here. He’s a gurning, miserable, grouchy old sod; casually racist – against everyone, mind, even the Danes, and certainly the Belgians; irrepressibly vain (if he receives a letter that doesn’t praise him to the skies, he thinks the writer is selfish; if they do praise him, he thinks they’re after something), grotesquely cruel, and – bizarrely – child-hating. Despite all that, somehow he gets the audience on his side. There’s quite a lot of fourth wall breaking – only minor moments, but always when he’s appealing to us to agree with him about something – and, in some challenging way, you can’t help liking the irascible old git. Probably because it’s Jim Broadbent.

VVVDM4There are two or three fabulously funny scenes where he invites himself to stay with Charles Dickens and his family for weeks on end, outstaying his welcome from the word go. McDonagh characterises Dickens as a foul-mouthed oaf with a bad temper – Phil Daniels captures this beautifully – and provides him with a sweet-looking but almost as crude wife and kids, and their family exchanges are toe-curlingly delightful. You just don’t expect Mrs Catherine Dickens (Elizabeth Berrington on fine form) to come out with lines like “you’re shitting me?” and “I’m leaving you, and taking one of the children with me.” Dickens also has a very very very dark secret, but I’ve got to hold back on some spoilers.

VVVDM7Despite racism being a very powerful theme in this story, McDonagh’s writing and construction keep all the content just on the safe side of acceptable; for example, when the Belgian redmen (you’ll have to see the play to understand who they are) break in to Andersen’s house and give Marjory some chips, naturally they are covered in mayo. She’s not impressed. I think I’m a reasonably PC kind of guy but I surprised myself by never being offended by this play – and I had fully expected to be Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells about this – which I think is a smart trick on McDonagh’s part.

VVVDM5There’s also a funny and moving performance by Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, on her professional debut. Her facial expressions, her comic timing, and her expressions of pathos are all absolutely spot-on; emotional without ever being maudlin. The character has a sting in her tail and Ms Ackles never holds back from giving us a really gutsy show. The supporting cast are also all excellent; big shout-out to the children on our performance who were delightfully butter-wouldn’t-melt alongside quoting their father’s filthy language; and there’s an excellent cameo scene from Northampton University recent alumna Kundai Kanyama as Marjory’s sister Ogechi – a splendid career awaits I’m sure!

VVVDM6At barely 90 minutes with no interval, this play rattles through at a fast pace and constantly shocks, surprises and upsets you whilst maintaining a mischievous sense of humour throughout. Working on my theory that I’d sooner see a brave failure than a lazy success, there’s nothing lazy about this, nor is it a failure. It’s certainly brave! A Very Very Very Strange, but Entertaining Play!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – O,FFS, Ytho? Theatre, University of Northampton Graduate Students, Avenue Campus, Northampton, 24th October 2018

Watch out for spoilers in this review!!

OFFSOne of the productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I weren’t able to see at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer was O,FFS, a devised comedy about office life and the political machinations that take place therein. I’d seen that it had some good reviews, but, as Mrs C always says, you can’t see everything. Normally, if you miss a decent show at the Fringe, you’d be very lucky to ever get a chance to catch it somewhere else second time round. But, as luck would have it, Ytho? Theatre, which consists of four strong alumni from the last couple of years’ pick of Acting Students at the University of Northampton, have brought back their O,FFS to their alma mater so their contemporaries could see what they’ve been getting up to since graduating; and, fortunately, Mr Smallmind and I managed to get tickets for one of the performances.

Jessica BichardIn this children’s charity office, the usual loafers Ben, the IT manager, Gail, the office supervisor and Angela, the chuggers manager, are idling their time away, concerned at the absence of the Max, the office manager. Max has been sacked for uselessness, and has been temporarily replaced by Sasha, who’s tasked with testing the rest of the team to find out precisely how good (or otherwise) they are at their jobs. Naturally paranoia takes over and it’s not long before their early trickery – like deliberately misdirecting Sasha so that she can’t find the HR department – leads on to more wilful disobedience. As things get more and more out of hand, it’s clear this is more than just a normal day at the office. But what will Sasha’s recommendation be – if she survives the day?

Liam FaikThis gifted little cast turn in a smashing performance in this very funny, quirky and surreal play, that sees the story retold from several different points of view – which means that each of the four characters acquire different characteristics and accents, depending on who’s telling the story. It’s performed at breakneck speed, with absolutely no time to pause for breath between individual scenes, so it builds to a tremendous crescendo; and you also appreciate how demanding it is for the cast to constantly switch in and out of character and voice.

Aoife SmythAll four actors create a perfect ensemble, with great trust and respect between each other, which gives you such confidence that they’re going to give you a great performance – and they do. Jessica Bichard tries to be the sensible voice of the team and acts as a kind of spirit level against which you can assess how bizarre everyone else is. Very effective Russian accent too! Liam Faik, as always, gives a fantastically strong performance, vainly milking the double entendres in his sexualised interview with Sasha, and either splendidly manipulative or manipulated in the office politics, depending on whose point of view you’re watching. Aoife Smyth gives Sasha a range of brilliant characteristics, from the kindly, helpful manager we all hope to get or strive to become, to the gangster channelling her inner Frank Butcher.

Helena FentonBut it’s Helena Fenton who steals the show for me, with her brilliant characterisation of the appalling Angela, the kind of person you really hope you don’t have to sit next to in the office. You know the kind; the type who speak their thoughts no matter how in appropriate; the type that invent irritating office rituals like Quiche O’Clock. Her down at heel voice, with hints of Julie Walters, crossed with James Acaster and a pinch of Jane Horrocks, sent shivers down my spine as I recognised in her a combination of people who used to report to me in my old civil service job. Particularly in her one-to-one meetings with Sasha, when she openly debated how seriously she was going to take the meeting – aargh! Painfully recognisable and devastatingly funny!

Well worth keeping an eye out for this company, as I know they are bringing this play to London in December, and I’m sure they’ll be doing some more great comedy plays in the future.

Review – Pinter One, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The New World Order, Mountain Language, One For The Road, Ashes To Ashes, plus five other short pieces, Harold Pinter Theatre, 20th October 2018

Pinter OneBack at the Harold Pinter Theatre for another session of Pinteresque shorts, and an outstanding programme, beautifully sequenced, of nine fascinating pieces – ok, maybe there was one I wasn’t that keen on, but I just don’t think I had the time to pay attention to it. Eight short pieces were crammed into the first half, plus another one-act play after the interval, and a fantastic night of dramatic tension it truly was. I’ve rarely had such a varied and challenging experience in the theatre, on both an intellectual and emotional level.

jonjo-oneillJonjo O’Neill opened the proceedings with Press Conference, a piece Pinter wrote for the 2002 National Theatre show Sketches, and a role which he himself originally performed. To an explosion of confetti that lingers, ironically, in your clothes and on the seats and floor for the rest of the evening, the Minister for Culture is received rapturously in some kind of totalitarian state, and then answers questions about the state attitude to children and women, which includes killing them and raping them (“it was part of an educational process”). It’s so outrageous that you’re completely shocked, but the juxtaposition of upbeat jollity and Mr O’Neill’s excellent performance, means it’s hard not to laugh, even though you hate yourself for doing so. You reassure yourself with the thought “it couldn’t happen here…” but then you look around you at the world today, and wonder…. A perfect introduction to a disturbing evening’s entertainment.

kate-oflynn-and-maggie-steedPrecisely, a 1983 sketch originally performed by Martin Jarvis and Barry Foster, featured Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn, suited up like two overfed and over-indulged politicians, discussing how to carve up the country for some unknown plan that’s clearly just for their own benefit and no one else’s. Maggie Steed in particular reminded me of the way they used to represent Mrs Thatcher in Spitting Image – with Churchill’s suit and cigar – gritty, cynical, powerful. As is nearly always the case with Pinter, the non-specific nature of the threat made it all the more unsettling. Terrifically acted, brief to perform but hard to forget.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThe New World Order, first performed in 1991, shows Des (Jonjo O’Neill) and Lionel (the brilliant Paapa Essiedu) tormenting a naked, silent, blindfolded prisoner (Jonathan Glew), and reminded me so much of the mental torturers Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party only forty years on. Whilst the majority of their vitriol is hurled against the prisoner, the more experienced Des sometimes challenges the more youthful Lionel about his approach, criticising his use of language: (“You called him a c*** last time. Now you call him a prick. How many times do I have to tell you? You’ve got to learn to define your terms and stick to them.”) Like Press Conference, at times it’s incredibly funny, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of terror.

maggie-steed-and-paapa-essieduNext, Mountain Language, a 1988 play that Pinter wrote following a visit to Turkey, although he always insisted that it was not based on the political situation between Turks and Kurds. In some miserable military camp, prisoners are apparently taken captive for the crime of speaking the “mountain language”. They are mountain people, the language is their own language, but it has been outlawed. The deprivation and penalties for transgressing this law are severe. Even though the threat in this play is a little more obvious, it’s no less sinister; and, as in The New World Order, paapa-essieduthere is an element of comedy in the interplay between the captors and interrogators, as well as some nonsensical rules that cannot be followed – such as when the old woman has been bitten by a Dobermann Pinscher but the authorities won’t do anything about it unless they can tell them the name of the dog. Jamie Lloyd’s direction brings out the starkness of the situation and I loved the decision to give the role of the Guard to the disembodied voice of Michael Gambon – a very effective way of increasing the “otherworldly” aspect of the play. Riveting, disturbing, unforgettable.

paapa-essiedu-and-jonjo-oneillThen we had Kate O’Flynn performing Pinter’s poem American Football. I think I was still so overwhelmed by the themes and imagery of Mountain Language that I scarcely noticed this short piece. It was written in 1991 as a reaction to the Gulf War, and satirises the action of the American military at war as if they were just playing a game of football. It didn’t, for me, have the stand-out nature of the other pieces; maybe if it had been repositioned in the running order it might have worked better? Genuinely not sure.

jon-culshawThen an unexpected moment of lightness. The Pres and the Officer is a short piece only discovered by his widow Lady Antonia Fraser last year in a notepad; she remarked that his handwriting was quite frail so presumably he wrote it sometime in his final years – he died in 2008. Lady Antonia said she has often been asked what Pinter would have made of Trump – so now we know! This presages the American president so accurately that it takes your breath away. The simple premise: the President gives the order to nuke London. He says they had it coming to them. After a short conversation with his officer, he realises he made a mistake and it should have been Paris. So many questions, so little time. With a guest star playing the unnamed President (I think it was Jon Culshaw) this little sketch is horrifyingly hilarious.

antony-sher-and-paapa-essieduAnother poem next; Death, from 1997, given a sombre but effective reading by Maggie Steed. It takes the form of a clinical set of questions about a dead body that have a strange way of making you think about death and the dead in an unemotional way. A simple, but fascinating poem, which I enjoyed very much, despite its dour subject matter.

quentin-deborneThat led us into the final piece before the interval, One For The Road, and the first time I’d seen Antony Sher on stage since Peter Barnes’ Red Noses for the RSC in 1985. His performance as the creepy, faux-avuncular Nicolas, doing a one-man nice cop nasty cop routine as part of an interrogation procedure, was outstanding and worth the ticket price alone. antony-sher-and-kate-oflynnDominating both Paapa Essiedu’s Victor and Kate O’Flynn’s Gila into nervous wrecks, the most chilling scene was his interrogation of seven-year-old Nicky, their son, played with fantastic confidence by young Quentin Deborne. It was when Nicolas was fingering the neckline of Nicky’s T-shirt you could really feel your sweat forming and your gorge rising. A riveting play with an immaculate performance, and, despite its awfulness, I loved it.

paapa-essieduAll that, and it was only just time for the interval! After the ice-cream and Chardonnay break, it was back for Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams. Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu starred in this moving and disturbing one-act play from 1996; partly a stream of consciousness between a couple in a relationship, partly a sequence of reminiscences and imaginings, partly a conversation with a counsellor in therapy.  paapa-essiedu-and-kate-oflynnBecause Pinter keeps all the references as obscure as possible, this play can mean all things to all people, but there is definitely a suggestion of families being torn apart on the way to a Concentration Camp at the end of the play. Superb performances – and an exceptional lighting design by Jon Clark that added enormously to the mood and the terror.

paapa-essieduAfter the relative frothiness of the afternoon’s Pinter Two programme, this was an emotional sucker punch that left us sitting in our seats for minutes after it had ended, trying to make sense of all that had gone before. Brilliant performances throughout, but it’s Kate O’Flynn and Paapa Essiedu who had the majority of the work to do, and they carried it off amazingly. And, to cap it all, Antony Sher’s nauseatingly superb interrogator Nicolas ran off with the Best Characterisation of the Night award. Congratulations to the whole cast for an awe-inspiring production.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Pinter Two, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The Lover, and The Collection, Harold Pinter Theatre, 20th October 2018

Pinter TwoNo Pinters come along for ages, then, just like buses, seven of them all arrive at once. Well not quite at once; between September just gone and next February. And where better for them to turn up than at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre? Harold Pinter TheatreI guess after this intensive season of mini-Pinter plays I’ll have to start calling it by its new name. Then some other great dramatic hero will die and we’ll have to rename some other fine theatre, eradicating its history in one fell swoop. Ah well… Mrs Chrisparkle said I woke up grumpy today…. Perhaps she’s right.

hayley-squiresAs soon as I saw this season of Pinter short plays was on the horizon, I booked for them straight away. This is a great opportunity to see some much less well known and rarely performed pieces; and who know when that chance will come round again? Alas, prior commitments mean I can’t see how we can squeeze in Pinters Three and Four, but we caught Pinters One and Two on their last day on Saturday and have Five, Six and Seven to look forward to in 2019. Imaginative titles, no?

hayley-squires-and-john-macmillanThey are least practical titles. Pinter Two, which we, perversely, saw first, consisted of two one-act plays I’ve known since my teenager years, The Lover, and The Collection, both of which were, handily, published together in an Eyre Methuen paperback in the 1960s. The first half of the production was The Lover, Pinter’s 1962 quirky and ironic look at marital fidelity and the games people play within marriage. hayley-squiresRichard and Sarah are upbeat about her regular afternoon visits from her lover, but after a while Richard begins to get fed up and hurt about it, and wants to bring the dalliance to an end. However, the lover, Max, also appears to be… Richard. One actor playing two characters? One character with a touch of Jekyll and Hyde? A sexual fantasy for both of them to keep their relationship hot? Or simply delusional fantasy on Sarah’s part? You choose. There are no right and wrong answers.

hayley-squiresJamie Lloyd directs it at a smart pace, with the characters trapped within the featureless, claustrophobic and above all, pink (for romance?) room designed by Soutra Gilmour. John Macmillan – who also appeared in Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming a few years ago – and Hayley Squires mined all the laughs there are out of john-macmillanthis weird situation; I found Mr Macmillan also rather disturbing as Max. And this must be the briefest appearance on stage ever in Russell Tovey’s career as John the milkman, proffering Sarah his cream at the front door. It’s a clever play, brightly done; but in comparison with everything else we saw that day, feels very slight and insubstantial.

david-suchetAfter the interval we returned for The Collection, first produced in 1961. I remember seeing an amateur production of this in my early teens and I am convinced they managed to perform it without a hint of reference to homosexuality. Either they didn’t understand it; or, more probably, I didn’t. Anyway, there’s no escaping the homosexual overtones in this superb little production, again directed by Jamie Lloyd. Russell Tovey’s Jack-the-Lad Bill lives with David Suchet’s quietly flamboyant Harry, and is disturbed by an accusation from John Macmillan’s James that, whilst in Leeds showing his latest dress collection russell-tovey(he’s a designer) Bill slept with James’ wife Stella (Hayley Squires, and also a dress designer). When Bill denies it, saying he’s not that kind of boy, we believe him. But James doesn’t. Instead, James decides to spend a little more time with Bill john-macmillanto find out a bit more about him…. curious. Did Bill and Stella sleep together? Will Stella and James’ relationship ever be the same again? Will Harry and Bill’s? It’s Pinter, so don’t expect any answers.

david-suchetIt’s a cracking little play, and once again Lloyd and Pinter draw out both the comedy and the menace that lurks underneath. We’re treated to a mini-masterclass from David Suchet, languorously putting up with the “slum slug” Bill for, one presumes, one reason only; affectedly expecting everything to be done for him, mischievously stirring up trouble wherever he can.  russell-toveyAnd Russell Tovey, too, gives a great performance, channelling his inner Ricky Gervais with wide-boy cheek mixed with just a little frosty petulance. John Macmillan gives a deliberately unemotional and rigid performance as the bully who might have got entangled just a bit too far for his own comfort; and it’s left to Hayley Squires to convince us of the truth or otherwise of her story.

john-macmilland-and-russell-toveyA very intelligent and enjoyable production, which went down very well with the audience. Back tomorrow with a review of Pinter One!

Production photos by Marc Brenner