Review – Bitter Wheat, Garrick Theatre, 18th July 2019

Bitter WheatMrs Chrisparkle isn’t the greatest fan of David Mamet but the Squire of Sidcup and I really enjoyed Glenglarry Glen Ross a while back so we decided to book to see Bitter Wheat on the strength of its writer and because neither of us had seen John Malkovich in the flesh before. Then came the reviews: one star, two stars, one star, one star…. offensive play, bad acting, underwritten characters, lazy direction… it doesn’t give you much confidence in what you’re going to see.

FeinThe concept of the offensive play is a fascinating one. The first audiences of Edward Bond’s Saved were offended by the play because of its infamous baby-stoning scene. Mary Whitehouse was offended by The Romans in Britain (even though she’d never seen it) because Roman soldiers rape native Celts in a rather heavy-handed metaphor for invasion. I don’t believe either of those plays particularly set out to offend; they just contained scenes which, for whatever reason, shocked some members of the audience into recognising unpleasant truths. On the other hand, a light-hearted entertainment like Oh Calcutta, which had no serious axe to grind, was probably more likely have been assembled with the intention of offending some people; and Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, with its cast directly criticising, ridiculing and abusing the audience, does exactly what it says on the tin. Is Bitter Wheat to be added to the list of offensive plays?

Yung Kim Li and FeinMamet’s new and very black comedy satirises the Harvey Weinsteins of this world. His character Barney Fein is a belligerent and manipulative movie mogul who schedules, into his daily routine, ways of taking advantage of young actresses, cheating writers out of their fees, blackmailing his staff and acquaintances, and ignoring the needs of his only relative, his mother. Not a nice man. When the young starlet of new film Dark Water, exhausted and starving after a 27 hour flight from Seoul to Hollywood, arrives for a business meeting, he has no intention of giving her film the backing she and it needs unless she performs some kind of sexual favour first. Shocked, scared and disgusted, her natural reaction is to somehow get out of harm’s way; however, her career depends on this deal, so she’s resigned to, as the old phrase might go, Shut Your Eyes and Think of Korea. How far can he push her? Will she give in? And will there be consequences? I must keep some of the plot back so that you have to come to see the play to find out!

Doctor and FeinLet’s be frank here; there’s been a casting couch for as long as there’s been casting. It wasn’t that long ago that the tongue-in-cheek joke used to go something like: “Who do I have to sleep with to get a job here?” with its subsequent variant, “who do I have to sleep with not to get a job here?” Revolting and despicable though they may be, there’s nothing new about a Weinstein or a Fein. What is new, is the Internet, and its free flow of information and opinion, and individuals’ first-hand accounts, closely allow us to be involved with – almost complicit in – the activities of such monsters.

Sondra and FeinAnd I think it is the complicity that is the most powerful undercurrent in this play. Splendid actors like Doon Mackichan as Fein’s PA Sondra, or Teddy Kempner as his Viagra-providing doctor, actors whom audiences automatically love and identify with, play characters who know full well what Fein gets up to inter alia, and figuratively hold their noses whilst they enable him to – literally – rape and pillage. As witnesses, we the audience are also asked to dip our hands in the blood and be complicit in his actions. Sondra, the doc, and assistant Roberto allow themselves to be offended and allow others to be abused in order to keep their good jobs, high status and nice incomes. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not offensive (in dramatic terms), that’s challenging, which is what I seek from theatre.

Casting CouchI must add: I’m not in any way casting any doubt on the legitimacy of #metoo accounts, or downplaying the sheer horror of their consequences. What men like Fein do is simply unacceptable and criminal. But to find this play offensive just because it portrays Fein’s modus operandi through the medium of black comedy rather than through serious drama is to miss the point. Even a wretch like Fein can make himself likeable when it comes to the crunch; indeed, he has to, to get away with it. When society doesn’t act to block his ruthless and selfish pursuit of women, we, as a society, are partly culpable for his actions too.

Fein and TaitteThe play is dominated by Fein, so, unsurprisingly, the production is dominated by John Malkovich. Never off stage, he cuts the most grotesque figure. Cantankerous, belittling, and totally self-obsessed, he never listens to what people say to him because his own voice is his only music. Mr Malkovich inhabits Fein’s body with repugnant accuracy; small details, like his need to rock back and forwards a couple of times in order to get the physical impetus to stand up, work perfectly. When the world closes in on him, his self-pity comes to the fore, choosing to blame all his problems on being fat, instantly taking to the window ledge in a hollow, but ostentatious nod towards a suicide attempt – and you can tell from Ms Mackichan’s unimpressed reaction that he’s done that several times before. Mr Malkovich spits out Fein’s sarcasms and foul-mouthed tirades with dismissive disdain, only revelling in the words when he’s using them to either a) get the girl or b) blackmail the opponent. It’s a brilliant performance, playing with the grotesque from all angles, making us laugh at his repulsiveness.

Fein and the WriterDoon Mackichan is excellent as Sondra, a role that’s not underwritten as some critics have said, rather the character understands that she must choose her words very carefully to avoid falling into all the traps that her vile boss lays with every sentence. She tries her best to do a proper PA job and knows she has to go along with his devious plans in order to remain employed; Ms Mackichan very shrewdly portrays that fine line between disgust at him and disgust at herself. There’s also a very strong West End debut from Ioanna Kimbook as Yung Kim Li, the respectable and vulnerable young woman who slowly realises how she is being trapped and manipulated, conveying beautifully not only her horror and disgust at Fein’s intentions but also her disappointment at the realisation that someone she regarded as a hero is in fact a zero.

Roberto and FeinIf you decided to skip this show on the strength of the reviews, think again. Sure, it presents us with a pretty seedy side of life, but you’re a mug if you think stuff like this doesn’t happen. Unchecked, men like Fein carry on; Mamet shows how he can even find a way of extricating himself from the narrowest of squeaks at the end of the play. Recommended!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Lost Musicals presents Auntie Mame, RADA Studios, 14th July 2019

Auntie MameFirst of all, hurrah for the return of Lost Musicals! We haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since 2013, and I’ve missed them! Looking back, we saw one “lost musical” every year from 2006 to 2013, and it’s a unique form of theatrical entertainment. Taking a show that, for whatever reason, has largely been forgotten despite its merit and quality, a group of dinner-jacketed/posh-frocked actors sit on a row of chairs at the back of the stage, coming forward with their neatly bound, colourfully highlighted scripts to perform it with no scenery but with abundant energy and fantastic characterisations. Each performance is introduced by director Ian Marshall Fisher, with some sneaky and fascinating facts about the original production; and, because a musical isn’t a musical without music, we would be joined by an overworked pianist, gamely reproducing a complete orchestral accompaniment to the entire show.

Elizabeth CounsellThis year, Lost Musicals have dug up a Lost Play (therefore, no pianist). Auntie Mame, a highly successful production starring Rosalind Russell, appeared at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway in 1956 and ran for two years. It subsequently opened at the Adelphi in London in 1959 with Beatrice Lillie as the eponymous aunt. But, since then, not a peep. Nevertheless, as the basis of the very successful musical, Mame, which starred Angela Lansbury on Broadway and Ginger Rogers in London, this was a pretty good choice for their next production.

James VaughanWritten by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee, it’s an adaptation of Patrick Dennis’ novel, also called Auntie Mame, about the escapades of a boy growing up with his glamorous and outrageous aunt after his own father had died. In the play, young Patrick is exposed to New York Society Parties, unconventional education practices, and suitable and unsuitable suitors, whilst Mame, who loses everything in the Wall Street Crash, is hopeless at ordinary jobs until she meets the wealthy Beauregard Burnside from a Georgia plantation, marries him and goes on a (very) extended honeymoon. When Beau falls to his death taking a snapshot, she returns to discover that Patrick is now a snob and engaged to a revoltingly shallow girl from an obnoxiously racist family. Fortunately, he sees the light and it all ends well.

Myra SandsIt shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how successful the original production was, that this is a hugely enjoyable play. Very funny, with great characters, a sprawling outlook, and tongue fairly firmly placed in cheek most of the way. Mame herself is a strongly, wittily written part; someone who knows precisely where her strengths lie and where they don’t, an intricate mix of selfless and selfish, but always with a kind heart and an unerring knack of knowing what’s right. In this semi-staged production, she was played by the marvellous Elizabeth Counsell, whom I first saw in Marc Camoletti’s Happy Birthday at the Apollo in 1979; Ms Counsell gives Mame just the right dash of cheekiness, exasperation, kindness and that knowing look.

Rebekah HindsAnother stalwart of the Lost Musicals productions, James Vaughan, plays a whole bunch of roles, including Mame’s winning suitor Beauregard (not many Beauregards born nowadays), the slimeball ghost writer Brian O’Bannion, and the short-tempered Stage Manager. Mr Vaughan always gives each character maximum presence, with an instantly recognisable voice, playing up the humour wherever possible, and always great fun to watch. Another postgraduate of the Lost Musicals Academy is Myra Sands, who plays the coarse and demanding Mother Burnside and the hideously uppity Doris Upson, again bringing all the ghastly humour from those roles.

Alfie LowlesThe production had a cast of (I think) eighteen, so I’d be here all day if I mention everyone, but they all gave us a lot of fun and did a great job. Special mentions, however, to Rebekah Hinds for her hilarious characterisation (that voice!) as the comedy gift Agnes Gooch, and to young Alfie Lowles for his very strong performance as Patrick as a boy – it’s a very substantial part that features heavily in the first Act, and he was superb.

Unfortunately, it appears there will be no more Lost Musicals and/or Plays this year, but hopefully they will be back in 2020 with loads more for us to enjoy!

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 13th July 2019

A Midsummer Night's DreamLast year the Bridge removed all its stalls seats for a gloriously exciting promenade production of Julius Caesar. This year, they’ve only gone and done it again – for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an old perennial favourite that can withstand the tests of time and whatever bright inventive ideas an innovative director can throw at it. Over the years, Dream has learned to stand on its own two feet; I’ve never yet seen a production that I didn’t like, because there’s always so much fun to be squeezed out from squabbling lovers, ruthless fairies and a starstruck weaver. It lends itself to updating too; I was just a bit too young to have seen the famous Peter Brook production, but that concept of aerial fairies has never quite gone away.

Gwendoline ChristieIt’s always a pleasure to write about a production that gives so much joy, happiness and sheer delight. Mr Hytner’s version is a dream of a Dream. Inventive, cheeky, bang up-to-date; playing with the storyline but still respectful of the original and its characters. Before the show started, I noted that the programme gave the factual, but enigmatic statement: “around 300 lines have been reassigned”. I hadn’t read any reviews in advance, so didn’t know what to expect; and if you’re in the same position, gentle reader, and don’t want a big surprise to be spoiled, I will completely understand if you now X me out at the corner of the page and read no more. Because the surprise is a thing of beauty.

David Moorst“I jest to Oberon”, Puck normally explains, in his introductory speech, to the unnamed fairy at the beginning of Act Two. Instead, “I serve Titania”, says this Puck, with an accent straight up from the Black Country, looking like a cross between the late lamented Rik from The Young Ones and Keith from The Prodigy. By serving Titania rather than Oberon, that means she’s going to play a trick on him, rather than the other way round. So it’s Oberon’s eyes who receive the Love-in-Idleness treatment, and who therefore becomes besotted with Bottom when he awakes. And how does that make Bottom feel? You’ll just have to see this production for yourself to find out.

Tessa Bonham Jones, Isis Hainsworth, Kit Young and Paul AdeyefaBunny Christie comes up trumps as usual with a superb set, full of trickery and surprises; a Perspex box for Hippolyta’s first appearance (she has been captured by Theseus at war, after all); an Athenian forest liberally sprinkled with brass bedsteads for the lovers’ sleep-out adventures; and a range of fabric trapezes for Puck and the fairies’ general use (see Para 1, Peter Brook reference.) Hermia and Helena appear in monastic grey, in contrast with their suitors’ sharp suits; but no one’s as splendidly clad as Theseus/Oberon, which strangely adds to his slight fragility and insecurity. Grant Olding’s original music is both haunting and happy; and if ever there was an award for the Best Ever Use of Johnny Nash in a West End Play – this is your winner.

Gwendoline Christie as TitaniaThere’s the always thorny decision to be taken when it’s a promenade production; do you stand or do you sit? At two hours forty minutes, plus the interval, depending on your level of fitness, it can take it out on both the feet and the back. And there will always be moments when you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you just won’t see what everyone else sees. I know that Hippolyta did a great visual reaction in the first scene from the guffaws from the audience; but another of the characters was right in my way so I’ve no idea what she actually did. But for every naff moment like that, there’s the chance of a golden moment; we were right there when Helena was spoiling for a fight against Hermia, and when Oberon was going to get it on with Bottom; and Snug and I exchanged thumbs ups when Pyramus and Thisbe was chosen as the entertainment for the Duke’s nuptials. The best seated position is almost certainly the front row of Gallery One; but, despite all its complications, you can’t beat the thrill of being up close and personal with the cast in the pit. And the party end to the show is by far best enjoyed by the promenaders. Those in the seats looked on like they’d been left out of the invitations, whilst we were chucking enormous moon balls at each other and boogying with Puck and Demetrius.

Hammed AnimashaunWhilst there are serious aspects to the play – Egeus, after all, is preparing to have his daughter killed if she does not bend to his will as to whom she should marry, and Theseus is on his side in this matter – this production concentrates unashamedly on the humour. Not only from the role-reversals of Oberon and Titania, but also with a beautiful mesh of modern-day asides alongside the Elizabethan text. Seeking a calendar, Bottom borrows a mobile phone off a member of the audience (and you can guess how well that can go down). Theseus and Hippolyta critique the mechanicals with a modern twist; the preferment of Pyramus and Thisbe is shown in X-Factor terms; oh, yes, and there’s that Johnny Nash moment, as well as Beyoncé and Dizzee Rascal. Not like the Athens I’ve visited at all.

Felicity Montagu and Hammed AnimashaunAlthough it is very much an ensemble piece there are a number of absolute stand-out performances. Oliver Chris is a very majestic Theseus who adores the sound of his own stentorian voice; the kind of authority figure who doesn’t walk, he sweeps; yet he retains a slight air of doubt, perfectly seen when Theseus talks to Bottom in Act Five and wonders if he remembered him from some vague encounter…? Gwendoline Christie is superb as the statuesque, no-nonsense Hippolyta and a most mischievous Titania. David Moorst is a fantastically agile and attitude-filled Puck; not one of the usual cutesy fairy characters, you could easily imagine this one beating you up behind the bikesheds if you got in his way. Perhaps funniest and most endearing of all, Hammed Animashaun is unbeatable as Bottom; a big kid who’ll sulk his way into the best parts, with a fantastic, larger-than-life chuckle and a huge heart to spread the positive energy of this play.

Kit Young and Isis HainsworthIsis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones are excellent as Hermia and Helena, Miss Jones taking every opportunity to mine the humour out of the character, and Miss Hainsworth feisty and fighty; as their suitors Paul Adeyefa and Kit Young make an enjoyable double act as the brash Demetrius and Lysander. In another sex change, Felicity Montagu turns in a brilliant comic performance as Mistress Quince, and all the other rude mechanicals make for a dream team of comedy; far and away the funniest portrayal of Pyramus and Thisbe (plus its rehearsals) that I’ve ever seen. And the supplementary fairies are all beautifully played with their face sparkles and acrobatic antics; butter wouldn’t melt when they’re in the sky, then they come down to earth and are – shall we say – delightfully human in their provision of comfort to Bottom the Ass.

Chipo KureyaPurists will be aghast. But the rest of us will absolutely love it. It’s playing at the Bridge right up until the end of August. That’s three shows this year that I’ve wanted to see again before we reached the interval; Company, Man of La Mancha, and now Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, how can I fit in another visit…?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Measure for Measure, Royal Shakespeare Company, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 4th July 2019

Measure for MeasureOne of the most rewarding aspects about watching Shakespeare in the 21st century is to realise how little has changed. RSC supremo Gregory Doran has set his new version of Measure for Measure in the Vienna of the 1900s, a time and a place of louche decadence, during the final knockings of the Habsburg Empire. The play may have been written over 400 years ago, but it was equally relevant a hundred years ago, and indeed today – particularly with the #metoo generation in mind, where (you could say) the puritan Angelo is just as bad* as your Harvey Weinsteins* of today (*allegedly). (*I didn’t say that).

Duke and AngeloAs an introduction to the plot, in case you don’t know… The Duke of Vienna has had enough of the limelight so leaves the administration of the city in the capable hands of his deupty, Angelo, and his assistant Escalus. Whilst Escalus is a safe pair of hands, and can be expected to mete out justice fairly, Angelo reveals himself to be a puritan fanatic. He unearths old laws that prohibit anything bawdy, and as a result closes all the whorehouses, and sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for having got his fiancé with child. Given that she was a willing participant in the exercise, that’s more than a bit tough. Claudio’s friend Lucio tells the condemned man’s sister Isabella about her brother’s fate, so she attends on Angelo to try to persuade him to change his mind. But Angelo’s price to preserve Claudio’s life is more costly on a personal level than Isabella is prepared to pay… Aha.

Lucio, Claudio and ProvostMeasure for Measure is delightfully uncategorisable; hence its consideration as one of Shakespeare’s three Problem Plays – and probably the most accessible and relatable of those works. Broadly it’s a comedy, but with some very savage aspects, and an ending that doesn’t comply with the usual multi-marriage tie-ups you expect from the genre. It has the bawdiness of the Merry Wives, the clownish policing of Much Ado, the plea for mercy of the Merchant of Venice and the uncompromisingly uncertain final resolution of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It satirises puritanism more sinisterly than Shakespeare’s treatment of Malvolio, and it reveals hypocrisy like the best Molière. It even cheerfully beheads a prisoner whose time hasn’t come yet.

Claudio and IsabellaThe 1900s setting works well enough, with hints of Viennese waltzes, frock coats and painted trollops, although the timelessness of the story and its quiet, understated horror, means you quickly forget about the outward show, and, to be honest, it could be anytime, anyplace. Deep down, it’s all about the powerplay between Angelo and Isabella, and the Duke’s subsequent devious plans to right the wrongs without being castigated for handing over control. The contrast between the Angelo’s clinical brutality and, say, the jokey shenanigans of the pimp Pompey or the foolish constable Elbow, is stark and uncomfortable; but they do very successfully show that it takes all sorts to make a dukedom. Only Lucio bridges the gap between the classes, being both educated and courtly, but also absurd and foppish; whilst he mixes in the high circles of power, and, with apologies for mixing my analogies here, like Icarus he flies too close to the sun.

Escalus, Angelo and JusticeThis is a fine, strong, satisfying production with great performances across the board. Lucy Phelps’ Isabella is a hearty, determined young woman but who won’t allow her moral standards to slip. It’s a great portrayal of a small cog in a big machine, out of her depth when the consequences of her actions become clear. There’s a great scene between Ms Phelps and James Cooney, as the forlorn, clueless Claudio, when he’s uncomprehending as to why she wouldn’t make this sacrifice for him and she’s furious that he should even ask such a thing; two little people lost in a vast, cruel world.

Pompey and FrothSandy Grierson is excellent as the cold, calculating Angelo; looking like a cross between Uriah Heep and Vladimir Putin, and about as trustworthy as both of them, he assumes mock humility at first but is quick to gain ruthless confidence. It’s a measure of the seriousness of his performance that when he cowers on the floor, trembling at the prospect of a night of extorted rapture, that we don’t find it funny, like we would Malvolio. This Angelo allows us the wry smiles of recognising hypocrisy but no more; even when he is condemned to marriage with Mariana, we don’t laugh at his woe. Mr Grierson gives us a superb portrayal of a man who is ugly on the inside; a chancer who spreads misery where he can but is powerless against true authority.

BarnadineClaire Price is fantastic as Escalus, beautifully upright, clear and decisive in her pronouncements; Joseph Arkley imbues Lucio with true upper-crust mischief making; and there are brilliant comic turns from Michael Patrick as the overzealous but under-accurate Elbow, and David Ajao as the wisecracking wide boy Pompey. Great support also from Amanda Harris as the surprisingly kindly Provost, Graeme Brookes as the flustered Mistress Overdone and the bizarrely assertive Barnadine, and Sophie Khan Levy as the much-wronged Mariana.

DukeBut it’s Antony Byrne’s magnificent portrayal of the Duke, with his innate authority at court and his overwhelmingly positive masquerade as Friar Lodowick that knits together all the threads of this superb production, full equally of humour and underplayed horror, and that helps to make this – in my humble opinion – the RSC’s best revival this year so far. Plenty of opportunities to see it, as it’s playing at Stratford until the end of August and then is on tour throughout the country until April, including the Christmas season at the Barbican. An excellent production of this perpetually relevant play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Death of a Salesman, Young Vic, 3rd July 2019

Death of a SalesmanMy third time of seeing (arguably) Arthur Miller’s finest play, but it was the Squire of Sidcup’s first time, and, as you know, you always remember your first time. Miller’s portrayal of Willy Loman, visually crumbling before us all, never fails to hit the heartstrings and I felt especially sorry for the young woman in the row in front, who started crying about an hour before the end and never let up. Since the introduction of the Internet, travelling salesmen like Willy are a thing of the past; old jokes like “I travel in ladies’ underwear” make no sense to anyone under the age of 40. But crushing guilt, bitter loneliness, that ghastly inability to regain one’s former success, and the desperate clutching of the feeblest straws to keep one’s hopes alive, are timeless concepts that everyone encounters at some point throughout their lives.

WillyThis production has been a sensational success and it’s not hard to see why. A phenomenal cast headed by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke, lucid direction from Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, sparse but creative design from Anna Fleischle, evocative and enchanting music from Femi Temowo, all within the inspirational intimacy of the Young Vic, make three hours fly by.

Willy and CharleyAbove the bare stage dangle sticks of furniture that drop into place when required then fly up again afterwards; a meagre window-frame, a small telephone table, comfortless chairs. The only other props are the refrigerator – standing as a symbol for those necessities in life one can never quite afford – and the gas heater, which hides the rubber tubing that Willy might use to end his life. A flight of stairs is barely visible through the back door; there is life outside, but it’s of no consequence to us.

Willy and the boysThe music, played live by Mr Temowo as he wanders in and out of the recesses of the set, feels of greater significance than in any other production of this play that I’ve seen. When Willy is hallucinating his conversations with his young sons, the music comes in and acts as their unseen responses; it seems to create a balance in Willy’s mind and provides support where, usually, silence is deafening. It also provides Biff’s responses when he’s on the phone to Linda; whether this supplies the support she needs, or whether it’s another example of the deceptions that the family can’t help but feed each other, you decide.

BrothersOh those deceptions… that, for me, was the chief element of the play that this production really brought out. This is a family founded on the thinnest of ice, from Willy’s infidelity in Boston, to the fabrication of Biff’s successes out West, from the true source of Willy’s income to Biff’s kleptomania. Willy’s famous contradictions show that he has no consistency in the truth; one minute the Studebaker is the finest car on the planet, the next minute the goddam thing should be prohibited. When Biff and Happy go out on the pull, there’s not an ounce of truth in the stories they spin to impress the girls. Willy insists that, in his interview with Bill Oliver, Biff shouldn’t pick anything off the floor if Oliver drops it; yet, in a brilliant moment of enhancing the original stage direction, what does Willy do when boss Howard drops his lighter? Lies, deceptions, inconsistencies, contradictions.

Wendell PierceWendell Pierce is an outstanding Willy Loman. Somehow, he can make his physical appearance rise and sink depending on the character’s mood and confidence, visible transformations that instantly convey the weight on his soul; at Willy’s lowest he tremors and closes down like a Parkinson’s or dementia patient. It’s extraordinary to watch. When he constantly complains about Linda or Happy interrupting him, it doesn’t come across as the usual bad-tempered bullying, rather it’s a desperate insecurity revealing that the only thing he really wants in life is to be proud of Biff. Mr Pierce’s stage authority is immense; all eyes on him when he speaks, he gives a performance of superb texture, where changes of pace, mood, direction and power abound.

Arinze Kene and Sharon D. ClarkeI’ve not seen Sharon D. Clarke on stage before but I can see why she’s steadily on her way to becoming a national treasure. Linda Loman can sometimes come across as a bit of a mousey drudge, but not this one. She’s a powerhouse of emotions, made strong by years of supporting a good man but a failed one, devoted to protecting him even if it means writing her children out of her life. You never doubt that this Linda would follow through with her threats. But it’s all delivered with supreme control and terrific stage presence.

Ben and WillyArinzé Kene plays Biff with great honesty and integrity; he never really comes across as the sporting hero or powerful businessman that he’d like us to think he is – because he’s not. From the very start, this Biff is riddled with failure; there’s no pretence, no assumption of confidence in advance of his meeting with Oliver, and his respect for his father is always compromised (unsurprisingly). Physically, Mr Kene is the least statuesque of the four family members, and it works to his advantage; that stylised, slow-motion, entry on stage where we all know he’s going to burst in upon his father with his mistress, and there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent it, is a perfect moment of agonising, looming fate, Mr Kene stealing upon the scene with virtual invisibility.

Happy chats up Miss ForsytheMartins Imhangbe’s Happy, on the other hand, appears every inch the Young Pretender, but without the approval or patronage of his parents; constantly shoving himself forward only to be ignored or slapped down. There’s both comedy and tragedy in his excellent interactions with Mr Pierce; Willy totally ignores the conversational contributions – indeed the presence – of his second son. No wonder the boy has grown into a dissolute layabout whose only efforts go into sensationally impressive chat-up techniques.

Bernard and WillyThe rest of the cast give tremendous support, with finely judged characterisations from Ian Bonar as the “anaemic” Bernard and Trevor Cooper as the long-suffering Charley; Matthew Seadon-Young is grimly unforgiving as Howard Wagner and smartly chipper as Stanley the waiter; and Jennifer Saayeng and Nenda Neurer, as Miss Forsythe and Letta, are made splendidly uncomfortable by the unexpectedly brutal Loman family interactions.

That WomanThis is a strong, gripping production, overflowing with conviction and majestic throughout. The run at the Young Vic is fully sold out, and it’ll be a different experience when it transfers to the much larger Piccadilly Theatre in October, but I’m sure equally rewarding. Highly recommended.

Linda and Willy with BenP. S. I did enjoy and admire the dignity of the curtain call; Mr Pierce, quite rightly, taking centre stage and very appreciatively acknowledging all parts of the auditorium for their response, but also taking care that his fellow performers were fully recovered from the incredible emotion of the final scene before inviting them to join in recognising the audience. I can’t remember seeing that before; it showed a generosity and concern towards the other cast members that fair warmed my heart, it did.

 Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell PierceP. P. S. This was my first visit to the Young Vic since the late Pete Postlethwaite’s King Lear ten years ago. Very impressed with its exciting vibe and the comfort and sight lines in the auditorium. However, I was most unimpressed with only allowing us ten minutes for the interval! Ten minutes! You’ve seen how long the queues are for the ladies’ toilets in a theatre – do the maths, it doesn’t add up. By the time you’ve got out of the auditorium, collected your interval drinks, and done a quick wee, someone’s shouting THREE MINUTES LEFT with apocalyptic urgency. No time for a sip, no chance of a half-time chat. I think that’s rather disrespectful towards the audience. We’re not cattle, you know.

Production photos by Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Review – The Pope, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th June 2019

The PopeWhen is a precedent not a precedent? When it happened in 1295. No, it’s not a riddle, it’s the crux of Pope Benedict XVI’s predicament when he wanted to abdicate – to resign from the papacy – in 2013 and leave the way for his successor Pope Francis, who had come second in the decision making process to create the new Pope back in 2005.

Anton LesserWe all know that person at work who has been promoted way beyond their ability to do the job, but because they were in the right place at the right time, said the right things and had the right smile, they got the gig. That was Josef Ratzinger, when he was elected Pope at the age of 78, when all he really wanted to do was to retire softly into the background, read his books and maybe do a little writing. Lucky too, for Cardinal Bergoglio, runner-up in the process, who also was content with his work with the poor of Buenos Aires. Nicholas WoodesonNow he, at the age of 77, has written to the Pope to tender his resignation as Bishop, so that he can spend his twilight days watching football and singing to Abba. But the Pope has not responded to his letters, but has asked him to visit him in the Vatican. The Cardinal assumes it’s to accept his resignation in person, but the Pope has other ideas…

in the Sistine ChapelThis is a beautifully written play, full of wit and insight, superbly character-driven; a window into the lives of two religious leaders whom we would assume would spend their time in contemplation and duty, rather than catching up on TV soaps and looking forward to the World Cup. The Pope’s agonising self-doubt about his own worth, and his successor’s own murky involvement with his country’s corrupt government are brought starkly into the light by Anthony McCarten’s moving, crisp, heartfelt text; and Jonathan Fensom’s design is formal and uncluttered, reflecting the rich grandeur of the Office but also the self-denial of its Officers.

Two PopesAnton Lesser is simply magnificent as the old, unhappy Pope; filled with uncertainty, deprived of the lifestyle he would have chosen, his occasionally faltering speech revealing the depth of his problems and his humanity. Germanic to the core, reserved in outlook, the height of his self-indulgence is delighting in a Suppe mit Knödel. Pope FrancisHe is matched by Nicholas Woodeson as Bergoglio, with his fiery Latin temperament, a tendency towards impatience and impetuosity, a man who would get his hands dirty in practical work as opposed to the Pope’s more cerebral approach. Together they give us an acting masterclass of immaculate timing and expression, the like of which you very rarely see.

Lynsey BeauchampExcellent support is given by Lynsey Beauchamp as Sister Brigitta, Benedict’s lone confidante and friend, and Faith Alabi as Sister Sophia, Bergoglio’s assistant at the Convent in Buenos Aires. But it’s the gripping tension between the two Popes that takes your breath away; the power struggle, the influencing, the confessions, the opposing positions and finally the meeting of minds.Faith Alabi Probably the best modern play that I’ve ever seen at the Royal Theatre, definitely with two of the best performances of the decade. It would be a Cardinal Sin if this doesn’t have a life hereafter.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory, 2nd June 2019

Orpheus DescendingIf Tennessee Williams knew one thing, it was how to write for, and about, women. His plays always (as far as I can make out) feature a few vulnerable, essentially noble, world-weary, mentally tortured women affected by one lone humdinger of a rough-and-ready sexual male. Think the triangle of Blanche, Stella and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chance and Alexandra in Sweet Bird of Youth. There will be others, I’m sure.

Hattie MorahanOrpheus Descending, which was first produced in 1957, after Cat and before Bird, also follows this structure. Lady runs a dry-goods store whilst her ailing husband complains upstairs, when into her life drifts the itinerant musician and ne’er-do-well Valentine Xavier (you couldn’t create a more exotic stage name if you tried). Val has already had knowledge of local harlot Carol, and is also caught playing up to Vee Talbott, the Sheriff’s wife – never a wise move. Nevertheless, (or, maybe, as a result,) Lady invites Xavier to move into a storeroom downstairs in the shop, ostensibly as a clerk and to save on hotel bills, but, in reality, to be engaged on additional duties.

Seth Numrich and castBriefly Lady enjoys a new lease of life. But guys like Valentine never stay in one place too long, and, encouraged to leave town by the sheriff, he makes plans to save his bacon. However, someone else takes matters into their own hands in a surprisingly catastrophic ending, that represents an irrepressible surge of the emotions that have been bubbling under the surface. Whilst it might not be clean and classic, it’s certainly effective; and if you don’t know what happens, I’m not going to spoil it for you!

Seth Numrich and Ian PorterAs the title suggests, the play is a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, although I don’t know enough of the Classical story to identify quite where the crossovers lie. I know that Orpheus visited the underworld, so I guess that’s the descent that’s alluded to in the title. Trouble is, if Val represents Orpheus, he never quite gets around to leading Eurydice (Lady, I presume) out of the underworld. Or maybe that’s the point? I’m not going to dwell on it, I’ll leave that to others more intelligent than me.

CastDesigner Jonathan Fensom has very sensibly created a Spartan set, with only a few tables and chairs, a magnificent old till (either beautifully recreated by a workshop somewhere or well sourced by the props department), with the back of the stage enclosed by a decrepit wooden-slatted back screen. This design approach, which allows our imaginations to run riot, is perfect for this kind of play; one that has a large cast of characters and could otherwise get bogged down in trying to present a realistic setting.

Hattie Morahan, Seth Numrich, Jemima RooperHattie Morahan gives a great performance as Lady; she’s that rare combination of strong and fragile, assertive and vulnerable. Although Lady may be in charge of her business, she’s not really in charge of her life, and Ms Morahan’s portrayal deftly reveals that conflict. She is matched by a very good performance by Seth Numrich as Valentine; a tad clean-cut to be loafing on the road perhaps, but then, appearances can be deceptive. Because he comes across as an essentially decent type, when his transgressions are variously revealed it makes them all the more shocking.

Ian Porter and Carol RoyleJemima Rooper is brilliant as the louche and couldn’t-give-a-damn-about-it Carol, face painted with artless excess, someone who’s used whatever it took in order to survive. Carol Royle is also excellent as the slightly deranged Vee, desperate to peek out from under the thumb of her controlling husband, and a lone figure of creativity in an otherwise repressed environment. And there’s a great partnering of Catrin Aaron as Beulah and Laura Jane Matthewson as Dolly, the gossipy locals who love to sniff out any scandal.

Valentine Hanson and Jemima RooperIn a nicely Brechtian touch, the role of Uncle Pleasant, played by Valentine Hanson, is enhanced so that he recites Williams’ stage directions as an introduction and towards the climax of the piece. Mr Hanson hangs around portentously, on and off during the performance, creating an ominous reminder that there is a world outside. Williams often has a minor, but authoritarian male figure who calls the shots – or at least tries to; here given a strong performance by Ian Porter as Sheriff Talbott. But the whole cast do a great job in bringing this slice of southern melodrama to life.

Jemima Rooper and CastThis is definitely one of Tennessee Williams’ Championship-level plays rather than one of his Premiership big-hitters, but nevertheless this excellent production gives us a good chance to see one of his works that isn’t performed that frequently. Powerful and riveting performances win the day! It’s on at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July.

Production photos by Johan Persson