Review – Copenhagen, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

CopenhagenIt’s with happiness tinged with sadness that I reflect that this was our last Chichester weekend of the year. It’s a privilege to be able to visit this influential and creative theatrical hub a few times throughout the summer, mixing it in with sensational lunches at the Minerva Brasserie and an enjoyable wind-down post-show with the excellent sharing boards in the Minerva Grill; unless, like me, you don’t share your board – I have the Vegetarian Board all to myself and it’s fab!

C 8For our final visit to Chichester this year we were spoilt for company, as we had Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum to enjoy it with us. And for our first theatrical extravaganza of the day, we saw a revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, his highly successful play about an imagined get-together by quantum physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, together with Niels’ wife Margrethe, after they’d all died. They looked back at a meeting between them all in 1941 in Copenhagen.

C 7What was the purpose of their meeting? Ay, there’s the rub. The essential elements of what brought them together are played out a number of times as the characters try to get to the truth of exactly what happened and why. I’m no quantum physicist, as you’ll soon see, but apparently – according to Michael Frayn’s introductory note in the programme – the act of observation changes what’s being observed. That’s one of the implications of quantum mechanics that Bohr and Heisenberg formulated in the 1920s. Therefore, every time we go back to re-observe, Groundhog Day-like, the events of that meeting, those events, by their very nature, have changed. Have I lost you? I’ve certainly lost myself.

C 3It’s not often that a play totally bamboozles me, but I confess this one did. Mr Frayn was in the bar later that evening; we really should have asked him to tell us what it was all about, but then we would have looked completely foolish. I take comfort in the fact that more intelligent souls than me, not to mention highly experienced drama and literary critics over the years, have emerged from theatres showing this play saying, in a highly intellectual way of course, “my brain hurts”.

C 2There’s no doubt that this meeting actually happened. In 1941, Bohr’s Denmark had been invaded and subjugated by Heisenberg’s Germany, so it wasn’t the most auspicious of times to meet, even though the two had been old friends from way back. It makes small-talk difficult; when Heisenberg tactlessly suggests a skiing trip to his place in the German mountains, the Bohrs look at him like he’s completely lost his marbles. Most commentators agree that their meeting was to debate the morality of scientists working on the creation of nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was in charge of the Nazi nuclear weapons project; Bohr was a natural peacemaker who despised the thought of science being used in this destructive way. But what actually went on between the two of them, we’ll probably never know. A number of letters were written, and discovered, over the years that complicate the opinions of these protagonists. Frayn’s play is therefore an attempt to clarify, or at least suggest, how the whole meeting might have played out. I think. But I’m not sure.

C 1I was left merely to enjoy the interplay between the characters, the high-quality acting, and convincing arguments being made on stage that you think you understand and follow – only to discover you’ve been left behind on a new strand of arguments and you’ve already forgotten what the first one was about. I think it probably does help if you’re a quantum physicist yourself; none of us is, although between us we do have a number of first-rate intellects who can form an opinion on most things. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like we should be wearing dunce caps in the corner.

C 6Maybe one of the problems with this very wordy play is the lack of action. Three actors, three chairs and a lot of sentences doesn’t necessarily make for great drama. Fortunately, Michael Blakemore (still directing at the age of 90, goodness me!) assembled a terrific, committed and intelligent cast who convert Frayn’s text into believable conversation and reminiscence. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Paul Jesson as Bohr; a reasoning and reasonable man but quick to ire and susceptible to bluster, as older authoritative figures frequently are. C 4He delights in pointing out where his Young Pretender’s calculations and assumptions have gone wrong – he is the Master Lecturer, after all. Charles Edwards’ Heisenberg is more measured in tone, calmer in argument, with a little of the smugness you get from being on the winning side of a war (at least at that point). Umpiring the two is Patricia Hodge’s Margrethe, a solemn, contemplative character who chips in with a few pointed remarks but largely keeps her thoughts to herself unless she can see the two men completely going up the wrong path.

C 5The play has long been a success, and it has certainly succeeded in making me curious to know more about these men and their theories. Alas, its short season has now ended, but this powerful, if static, production certainly exercised our brainboxes!

Production photos by Conrad Blakemore

Review – Absolute Hell, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 28th April 2018

Absolute HellRodney Ackland isn’t performed much anymore. The only other time I’ve seen one of his plays was the commercially quite successful Before The Party, revived in 1980 at the Apollo, directed by Tom Conti. But the story of how Absolute Hell came into being is one that intrigued me, so I decided it was one I had to see.

absolutehell_1You may know, gentle reader, that I am very interested in the history of theatre censorship – indeed, in this 50th anniversary year since the abolition of stage censorship, I’ll be writing some blog posts in recognition of this significant event later this summer. Ackland wrote the original play, The Pink Room, in 1952, at a time when the Lord Chamberlain’s control over what was presented on stage was in its hey-day. It’s set in a seedy nightclub in Soho just as the Second World War was ending in Europe, and he wanted to portray all the human life and spirit that six years of war had brought out of people; and now that war was over, the people needed to find a new vent and expression to reflect that freedom.

absolutehell_2Ackland wrote a play that he knew would get a licence – but by all accounts, it wasn’t the play he wanted to write. He wanted his characters people to use liberated, foul language. He wanted them to portray all the sexual freedom they wanted to enjoy, gay and straight, inside and outside relationships, legal and illegal. He wanted to show people getting drunk, not just gently tipsy for comedy purposes but rip-roaring, destructive drunk. You sense there was probably no physical boundaries that Ackland’s characters wouldn’t have breached.

absolutehell_16But it was a flop – produced by his friend Terence Rattigan, who never spoke to him again. Disheartened by the experience, Ackland hardly wrote another thing; but after stage censorship was abolished, he revised the play so that it would reflect more what he had originally intended. And when he was an old man, and down on his uppers, the play was rediscovered by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and finally became a success. A perfect example of a play written at the wrong time, you could say.

absolutehell_9The main problem with the play – and by the sound of it, it’s always been the case, right since 1952 – is that it is just too long. The original word from the National Theatre was to expect a three hour, forty minutes production, and, with the best will in the world, you can’t even concentrate on Hamlet for that long. Forty minutes have been shed between the early previews and opening night, which makes you a) feel extremely grateful and b) wonder what in the way of narrative has been left out; because the other downside to this play is that not a lot happens. That isn’t a strength, like in Beckett, where it would have been so disappointing for Godot to turn up and take everyone down the pub; in Absolute Hell you always feel like it’s going to break into a strong storyline, but it never ends up going down that path.

absolutehell_4Spoiler alert in this paragraph! Four scenes – the opening and closing times at La Vie en Rose club over a period of five weeks – show manageress Christine slowly losing her hold over the club, from an opening position of running a place that everyone loved but didn’t make much money, to a final scene with a structurally unsafe building that has to be closed down. As La Vie en Rose slowly disintegrates, the fortunes of the Labour Party offices over the road thrive – in what might be seen as some rather heavy-handed symbolism; even their constant typing (which of course in real life they wouldn’t have been able to hear) provides an interruption and irritation to the activities of the club – and, indeed, to the audience. Over those five weeks, the hopes and dreams of La Vie en Rosers are shattered. Writer Hugh Marriner’s last ditch attempt to make a movie gets nowhere. His agent Maurice is exposed as a sham. His boyfriend Nigel leaves him for a woman. His mother finds out he’s not as successful as he pretended. His friend Elizabeth discovers a dear friend has died in the Holocaust. And of course, Christine loses her business and the building becomes derelict.

absolutehell_11As a slice of life snapshot of the summer of 1945, it makes fascinating viewing – you really get a feel for that post-war energy and optimism, but only outside of the club. Inside the club, life is claustrophobic and going nowhere. There are black market etiquettes to observe, and self-important people to be pandered to. You sense that any fun they have on the inside is purely ephemeral. The future is on the outside.

absolutehell_12There’s no denying it – this is an unpleasant play. Binkie Beaumont described it as “a libel on the British people” and I see his point. There are few positive characters in it, vastly outweighed by a variety of self-obsessed, cruel, pig-headed people whom you would run a mile to avoid. But who are we to say how any of us would be if we’d lived through the Second World War like these people? An experience like that would take a massive toll on society, and that, I think, is the prime aim of the play – to show fairly desperate lives and without any real judgment against them.

absolutehell_14Unpleasant it may be, but there is a big upside; this is an extraordinarily good production, primarily because of several really superb performances that keep you hanging on to find out what happens to the characters. Charles Edwards inhabits the character of Hugh Marriner down to his tobacco-stained fingertips. The slight stoop he adopts, the rambling, wheedling manner of speech, the petulance, his general impotence and all his other characteristics are all perfectly captured as he wastes his way through life. It’s an incredible performance. Kate Fleetwood is also brilliant as Christine who manages the club, with a perpetual twinkle in her eye at the sight of any remotely desirable man; she has all the attributes of a tough businesswoman apart from the important one of keeping an eye on the till. Welcoming and indeed almost grovelling to those in influence, whilst dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit her own opinion of a good customer, this is another excellent performance.

absolutehell_15Jonathan Slinger gives a superb performance as the arrogant agent Maurice, steeped in his own self-esteem to the belittling of anyone who gets in his way; Joanne David is delightfully charming as the easily duped and surprisingly refined Mrs Marriner; Martins Imhangbe conveys Sam’s desire to learn and expand his horizons in a terrifically enthusiastic performance; Jenny Galloway invests the critic R B Monody with a wonderfully huffy self-importance; and John Sackville gives a tremendous performance of sheer stiff upper lip as Douglas Eden. But it’s a marvellous ensemble cast of thirty-plus who throw everything they have at making these characters come alive. If it hadn’t been so superbly performed, it would have felt like a much, much longer show. An interesting period piece; but, seen once, you’d never want to see it again.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Waste, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 30th December 2015

WasteThe final instalment of our post-Christmas London Theatre Splurge was to see Waste at the Lyttelton, written by Harley Granville Barker in 1907. It was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, was subsequently revised in 1927, and finally staged in a public theatre in 1936. It was high time I saw this play, having researched stage censorship in my early 20s. I still find anything to do with censorship (particularly on stage) totally fascinating, as you will realise from this review! In October 1907, 71 dramatists wrote to complain about the extent of censorship and Waste was a major catalyst for the revolt. Barker spent much of his post-Waste life campaigning for the withdrawal of stage censorship. There seemed to be a particular concern that when a serious play, which questions the establishment and makes you think, utilised subject matter which the censor would list under “dicey”, it was more likely to fall foul of the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen than, say, a drawing-room comedy with similar content. Brookfield, the individual Examiner of Plays to whom it fell to read and judge the play, loathed it so much that he dubbed it Sewage.

Charles EdwardsHenry Trebell is a very able MP, Independent and much admired; and the Tory government, under the leadership of Cyril Horsham, wants to encourage him to join the cabinet. Trebell is particularly interested in putting forward proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England – a thorny issue, but one that attracts support in certain influential areas. However, Trebell’s private life is a bit of a mess. He treats women with flirtatious contempt; as a result, most eligible women don’t touch him with the proverbial bargepole, but some women enjoy the danger of his attention. One such woman is Amy O’Connell, estranged from her once respectable husband (who’s now only gone and joined Sinn Fein, would you believe, Lord love a duck). Sometime between the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two, Trebell and Amy have had a relationship; they have parted; he has gone travelling, and returned; and she has tracked him down to his offices to announce that she is pregnant. Not the best situation for a prospective cabinet member. Worse, she insists on having an abortion. He doesn’t go along with this idea but is powerless to stop her. What happens next? I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t already know.

Olivia WilliamsIt was the whole business of abortion that was too much for the censor. The final scene of the play, which also contains rather iffy subject matter as far as the censor was concerned, was pretty much ignorable in comparison to the abortion. As long as this illegal operation (as they termed it) was being bandied about on stage, the play would remain unlicensed. Apparently particular offence was taken at the suggestion that a doctor (so revered in those days) would undertake such a procedure. Barker refused to yield to Brookfield’s pressure to “moderate” his plot and his terminology, and thus it went unperformed for almost 30 years, apart from a private performance under the aegis of the Stage Society (one of those “theatre club” ways you could use to get round the censor).

Michael ElwynEven today, abortion is a very hot topic and the subject of much debate. Disestablishment of the Church, too, is very relevant, especially with the current trend in developing faith schools, and continued uncertainty as to what part bishops should play in the House of Lords. And we still love to snigger over the sex lives of politicians, especially when it thwarts their political ambitions. There’s a lot of very meaty substance to this play and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both found it very engrossing, well-written, not without humour and extremely thought-provoking. So I was baffled when, en route to the bar for our half-time Shiraz, I overheard a guy saying to his friend: “it’s a good play but this is SO badly directed…..” and then he went out of earshot.

Paul HickeyTrue, it’s not staged like a typical Edwardian drama. There are no comfy leather armchairs, warm fires, leather-bound libraries, or French windows with glimpses of tennis courts in the distance. Instead, Hildegard Bechtler has designed a monochrome, featureless set, with huge walls that slide from side to side to compliment the Lyttelton’s own safety curtain which has always amused me with the way it goes up and down. Apart from some messy desks at Trebell’s house, props are kept to a minimum. It is rather a disquieting set-up, but I think it works, encouraging the audience to concentrate on the spoken word rather than peripherals, creating a stark and sterile environment where only black and white survives. When the walls move for scene changes, your sight is struck by the geometric shapes that are created, and with much of the stage out of sight there is a suggestion that you are literally only seeing part of the bigger picture. The design was all rather clever and eerie, and I rather enjoyed the tricks that the designer played on me, including that rather significant waste paper basket.

Charles Edwards and Olivia WilliamsThere are also some fine performances. Charles Edwards is perfect as Trebell, balancing public decency with private impropriety, married to his work, brashly defending his situation to the Tory VIPs, upset at Amy’s pregnancy but more for how it will inconvenience him than for what it does to her. Olivia Williams is also excellent as Amy, nicely spoilt and outspoken in the first scene so that you get a really good insight into her character, then rather coquettish in love in the second. Once she is pregnant she gives a great account of someone who is deeply upset and trying to hide it, knowing she will have to go into battle alone, with her reputation shattered. It’s a very moving performance.

Andrew Havill and Charles EdwardsSylvestra le Touzel gives great support as Trebell’s faithful sister Frances, trying to guide him in the right direction but in reality indulging him to make serious mistakes; it’s a very convincing portrayal of someone who has sacrificed themselves for another. There also a few terrific cameo performances – Paul Hickey as Justin O’Connell comes in unexpectedly as the soul of reasonableness, with a very fine dignified performance; Louis Hilyer is superb as the bluff and gruff self-made northerner Blackborough; and perhaps best of all Doreen Mantle as Lady Mortimer, politely observing everything that goes on but delivering some deadly lines with wicked timing; she can fill the Lyttelton with laughter with just one blink of an eye. But it’s a long and ambitious play, during which the entire cast regularly come in and out of the action, creating an excellent ensemble feel. We both particularly enjoyed the third act, where Trebell’s actions are dissected and discussed with no thought for anyone or anything but the Good of the Party. It reminded Mrs C of a Management Team meeting.

I highly recommend both the play and the production. Riveting stuff, and still very relevant today.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Blithe Spirit, Gielgud Theatre, 19th April 2014

Blithe Spirit 1970I can still remember the excitement felt by the ten-year-old me going to see Blithe Spirit in the very self-same Shaftesbury Avenue theatre in 1970 (it were called the Globe when I were a lad). Patrick Cargill as Charles Condomine (I used to love “Father, Dear Father”), Ursula Howells as Ruth (she played Patrick Cargill’s ex-wife in that sitcom) and Beryl Reid, would you believe, as Madame Arcati. God I felt grown-up. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have a memory that we saw another production in the not too distant past, maybe at the Wycombe Swan, but I can’t find the programme, and all other details about the show escape me. I have a feeling it wasn’t that great.

Blithe Spirit 2014It is an extremely funny play though. I’m sure you know the premise – Charles and Ruth Condomine host a séance with their friends the Bradmans; and it’s all run by the medium Madame Arcati, going into hokey trances to connect with the “other side”. Unfortunately for Charles, she’s a bit too successful and brings back Charles’ first wife, the late Elvira, as a ghostly apparition that only he (and we) can see. Elvira’s quite a handful and Ruth doesn’t appreciate being sidelined, as Charles spends a bit too much time catching up with his dead missus. Things come to a head as Elvira gets more and more jealous, and mischievous, with rather bizarre consequences. In the end, Charles’ life comes crashing down upon him. Literally.

SeanceMichael Blakemore directs with a nice sense of fun and ease, getting the best out of his talented cast. Janie Dee (always a favourite) is a fantastic Ruth, elegant and charming at first, but also delightfully furious at Charles’ behaviour and then perplexed at trying to understand exactly what’s going on with her barmy husband and his pre-enamorata. Jemima Rooper is a very mischievous and cheeky Elvira, who successfully conveys the sense of a girlish, immature wife taken from her husband too soon – although I thought she could have been a bit more petulant at times. Charles Edwards plays Condomine as an avuncular fellow, who rather enjoys the continuation of his present and past relationships more than is good for him. I have a recollection that Patrick Cargill was a far more exasperated Condomine – by comparison, Mr Edwards is rather Zen in accepting his lot. There’s some excellent support from Serena Evans as the tactless Mrs Bradman, Simon Jones as her respectable Doctor husband, and Patsy Ferran as the breakneck-speed Edith, one of Noel Coward’s hallmark comedy maids.

Angela LansburyOf course in 1941, this was structured as a classic three act play, but nowadays we’re not allowed to linger in a theatre that long any more. So the sole interval comes after the original Act Two Scene One. On the plus side, I rather liked the stage projections that explained the time and place for each scene; however I did also feel that many of the scenes ended rather suddenly, without a real visual or verbal punchline. Whether the “curtain down” wasn’t snappy enough, or if Coward got it wrong, I’m not sure.

Madame Arcati mayhemBut, make no mistake, there’s only one reason why the best part of 1000 people have crammed into the Gielgud Theatre for eight performances a week – and that’s the appearance of Dame Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati. It’s been 40 years (apparently) since she was last on the London stage, so she’s definitely overdue a visit. Whether you think of her as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, as the over-the-top Mrs Otterbourne in the film of Death on the Nile, as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd or (like me) Miss Price singing Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she’s bound to have a place somewhere in your heart.

Janie DeeAt the age of 88 (according to Wikipedia) she is in incredible form. Her Madame Arcati is every bit as loopy as Coward intended, daftly bouncing around the stage as she communes with Daphne her control, crashing to the sofa in the warm up to her trances, jangling in her Boho beads and generally running highly eccentrically amok. She is the epitome of the stagey, ham character that makes the Condomines and the Bradmans mock her behind her back. She does a very nice line in withering looks, especially when Mrs Bradman is being particularly dim and inappropriate; and she also chews on her words in that thoughtful way that makes her face frown with concentration – an homage, maybe, to the original Madame Arcati, Margaret Rutherford, with whom I always associate that particular oral tic.

Dr and Mrs BradmanGiven the resounding round of applause on her first entry, and the appreciative rounds of applause when she leaves the stage, never has there been a less surprising standing ovation at curtain call than for Dame Angela. I reckon we’d have all stood up even if she’d been lousy – but the fact that she was excellent made it all the more rewarding.

Patsy FerranThe result is a very enjoyable theatrical experience where you can both enjoy a good production of a very funny old play, and also share in the magic of witnessing Dame Angela before your very eyes, still at it. I doubt if there are many tickets still available – but if you get to see this, you’re in for a treat.