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 – The Grönholm Method, Menier Chocolate Factory, 1st July 2018

The Gronholm MethodSeveral decades ago in a previous existence, gentle reader, I was gainfully employed as an officer of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. Early on in my career there, I was required to attend a week-long Induction Course at a London Headquarters building. It was one of the most miserable weeks of my life. Incredibly stressful, totally humiliating, but moreover completely designed to be both those two things and we all knew it. The story was that they had moved the course from another office because one participant had attempted to throw themselves off the roof, so they relocated it to a non-skyscraper building. Whether that’s apocryphal or not, I don’t know – but I have no reason to disbelieve it. Not long after I’d survived that week, the powers that be decided to stop running the course. How very wise.

Jonathan CakeSo that horrendous experience was the first thing that came into my head as I watched the opening moments of The Grönholm Method. Four people are shown into a smart office waiting room, expecting a final-stage interview for some great city management role. But there’s no interviewer? And the four of them are left to battle it out for themselves, following instructions that magically appear in a secret drawer that opens out of the wall every so often. Wiser reviewers than me have pointed out the similarity to Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and I get their drift – instructions that come into a closed unit from an invisible hand outside. I was also reminded of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, as the numbers in the room slowly go down, whilst a hidden presence from without reveals the secrets of members of the group. And, of course, there’s a large element of TV’s Big Brother here, with the unseen boss giving individual members of the group secret tasks that they have to achieve in order to win preference in future rounds.

John Gordon SinclairBut you shouldn’t waste your time trying to read any particular meaning into this play. Yes, it has some amusing and insightful observations into office life, but that aside, it’s purely for fun. Catalan playwright Jordi Galceran has written 90 minutes of tricks and teases, leading the audience up one garden path then down another, playing mindgames not only on the audience but also on the characters too. It’s not over till the fat lady sings, and the last couple of minutes contains two plot voltes-face, that you can choose to believe, or not. This is a play that has no definite rights and wrongs.

Laura Pitt-PulfordAlthough it may be purely for fun, there’s no disguising that it’s actually a thoroughly nasty play. Characters are required to go through hoops that expose them and demean themselves in a way that you wouldn’t possibly accept if you were going for a job interview. Any company that hauled you in through the Grönholm Method (this method of applicant selection doesn’t exist by the way and is purely a fiendish invention of Mr Galceran) is a company that you would not want to work for. There’s a reasonably lengthy sequence about halfway through the play that can only be described as transphobic. It made me feel very uncomfortable and certainly unwilling to laugh at anything in that sequence. The play was originally written in 2003, when attitudes to such topics were probably less enlightened than they are today, and from that point of view it’s not an inaccurate portrayal of the perception of trans people in the workplace; but it’s thoroughly unpleasant and outdated to today’s audience. There’s another sequence towards the end when two candidates are each given secret tasks, and the interview ends either when one of them achieves their task, or the other guesses what the other’s task is. Much personal harassment and heartache ensues. However, they left the two task instructions in envelopes on the table. Don’t know about you, but I would simply have opened my opponent’s envelope and read their task. Simples.

Greg McHughB T McNicholl directs at a slick pace, bringing out all the antagonism and cynicism of modern office life, and emphasising the sacrifices that people must make if they’re to get on in business. It’s set in New York, but in reality it could be set anywhere in the world where ambitious city types are willing to tread on and be trodden on in order to get places. When you arrive in the auditorium before it starts, you’re made to look at a featureless black screen that separates you from the stage and it’s surprising how disturbing it feels – almost as though we the audience are imprisoned too. When it finally opens out to reveal Tim Hatley’s set, it’s as crisply efficient and ruthlessly sterile as the business firm it depicts.

Frank and MelanieThe cast of four work superbly together – and indeed it is brilliant casting. Jonathan Cake truly excels as the dislikeable Frank Porter, the hard-nosed Pharma executive who reckons he knows it all and is just there to sniff out the money and to hell with everything and everyone else. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly so it’s perfect for him to be up against John Gordon Sinclair’s Rick Foster for the first part of the play, another deftly fantastic performance with brilliant comic timing. Mr Sinclair plays Rick like he just about has a reasonable grasp on the basics of life but is woefully absent on any detail; it’s a really funny performance.

RickIt’s unusual to see Laura Pitt-Pulford in a non-musical role but here she is scheming with the best of them as Melanie Douglas, contending with personal crises whilst refusing to back down in the selection procedure and switching personality (all becomes clear when you see the show) with effortless effectiveness and hilarious ease. Greg McHugh makes up the foursome as the genial Carl Gardner, who may or may not have any number of secrets up his sleeve, and whose principled stance sets him at odds against the Big Recruitment Plan.

CarlEndlessly surprising and impossible to second-guess, this is a fast and funny production that’s full of entertainment, despite a few sticky moments in the script. It’s almost at the end of its run now, but if you’re quick you could get tickets. Very enjoyable!

Review – The Lie, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th September 2017

The LieIt doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were at the Menier Chocolate Factory, watching Alexander Hanson in Florian Zeller’s The Truth, translated by Christopher Hampton. It was a one-act play with two couples, where the husband in one couple was having an affair with the wife in the other couple, and vice versa. Here we are again at the Menier Chocolate Factory, watching Alexander Hanson in Florian Zeller’s The Lie, translated by Christopher Hampton. It’s a one-act play with two couples, where the husband in one…. Oh, I think I’d better stop there.

Samantha BondIt’s true though; this does feel like very familiar territory. Even more so than watching a sequence of Ayckbourns or Pinters, because even if those redoubtable playwrights deal with many recurring themes, at least they place them in different locations and have a variety of character-types. With M. Zeller, we’re again back in a luxury Paris flat, with four characters called Paul, Alice, Michel and Laurence – although to be fair, this time Mr Hanson is playing Paul, not Michel. They can’t actually be the very same characters, because I doubt whether those in The Truth would still be talking together long enough to engage in intrigues as they do in The Lie. I guess M. Zeller just feels he’s on to a winning formula so why waste time changing names and locations?

Alexander HansonPaul and Alice are expecting Michel and Laurence to join them for a dinner party, but Alice is on edge. She was in a taxi driving by the Galeries Lafayette (well not the Galeries Lafayette exactly, but a road to the side) and she saw a man they know kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife. There are of course several perfectly innocent explanations for this, but not in the way that Alice says she saw it. As Paul questions her further, he realises the guilty party is closer to home than he thought; but could his best friend really have an affair without Paul knowing about it? And should Alice tell her best friend that she knows her husband is having an affair, or should she tell a lie?

Tony GardnerBoth The Truth and The Lie are actually very similar plays – both written for the same lead actor, so perhaps it’s not surprising – although structurally there’s a very enjoyable difference. In The Truth, the individual scenes were labelled (with just a hint of Brecht) so that you could count down the stages of deception. In The Lie, we just have a one-act play, with no hints from the programme if there are any surprises in store. However, as I am beginning to realise, M. Zeller is most definitely a man of surprises, so let’s just say it isn’t over until it’s over. He must have the most deceitful imagination going, because over the course of ninety minutes he pulls the characters every way but loose through a series of lies and fantasies so that you really don’t know who or what to believe. It’s incredibly clever and inventive, and everything hangs together perfectly at the end, so the audience does get the satisfaction of a full explanation. Oh, and it’s excruciatingly funny.

Alexandra GilbreathOriginally the role of Paul was to be played by James Dreyfus, but he had to pull out at the last minute due to medical reasons. Enter Alexander Hanson like a knight in shining armour rescuing the production from disaster. We saw last Sunday’s preview, at which point Mr Hanson had only been rehearsing for a week, so he still had to have the book with him for some scenes; but to be honest we barely noticed it. Given his lack of rehearsal time, he’s absolutely brilliant. What a trouper! He really conveys the character’s intricate blend of honest outrage and feigned innocence, sometimes looking like butter wouldn’t melt, at others, as guilty as sin. And of course he has immaculate comic delivery, making the most of M. Zeller’s and Mr Hampton’s hilarious script.

Samantha Bond and Tony GardnerSamantha Bond is also superb as Alice; constantly on the lookout for signs of deception, seeking reassurance, and throwing herself whole-heartedly into the grand gesture of locking herself in the bedroom overnight. One can only imagine that the Hanson-Bond household can be a lively place if they ever have an argument. Being a thrusting woman on the business front, Mrs Chrisparkle wants to know why Alice would go to an important presentation in the morning dressed in the same outfit that she was wearing for a dinner party the night before? When she spent the night locked in her own bedroom? You just wouldn’t do that. There’s excellent support from Tony Gardner as the extremely laid-back Michel – you get the feeling nothing would ever faze him; and from Alexandra Gilbreath as the bubbly Laurence, confidently assured of Michel’s devoted fidelity.

Samantha Bond and Alexander HansonIf you saw The Truth, you’ll want to see The Lie as a companion piece. Even if you didn’t, I’d really recommend it as one of those laugh a minute plays where you sometimes watch the stage through your fingers through sheer embarrassment. As with The Truth, this is NOT a play to take your other half if you’ve been playing away from home. It’s on till 18th November and you should go and see it – not a word of a lie.

Alexander Hanson and Tony GardnerP. S. Next year at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Alexander Hanson in The Half-Truth; a one-act play by Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton, where Paul and Michel have a homosexual affair but it’s fine because unknown to them so do Alice and Laurence. No, I made that up. Or did I…?

Review – Lettice and Lovage, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st May 2017

Lettice and LovagePeter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage first hit the stage way back in 1987 as a star vehicle for Maggie Smith. I knew that we had seen the play before but I was darned if I could remember seeing la grande dame in the role – I am sure I would have remembered. I can just imagine how she would have grasped it with – well everything you can grasp with.

LAL guidingMove forward another twenty years and none other than Sir Trevor Nunn has directed a spanking new production in the intimate charm of the Menier Chocolate Factory and cast two theatrical favourites – Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman. Perfect for this almost two-hander, theatrically genteel boxing match between the guide who embellishes the history of the dullest Stately Home in the country to make it remotely interesting, and the battleaxe from the Preservation Trust who sacks her.

LAL being firedTo be honest, it’s a very slight play and I’m surprised that both Sir Trev and the Menier were that interested in reviving it. It doesn’t do much to illuminate the human condition, although it does appeal to the YOLO generation, as Lettice and Lottie cast care to the wind and become the least likely pals since Margaret Thatcher and Eric Heffer. The play did remind me of the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle who for several years post-retirement was a room warden at the National Trust’s property at Waddesdon Manor, and who took great delight in finding out as much about the treasures on display as possible – but there’s nothing more challenging than being asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, and having a fertile imagination can make the experience even more enjoyable!

Lettice and LottieFortunately, this production benefits from two totally delightful performances which make the two and a half hours plus absolutely fly by. No linguistic contortion is too strained for Felicity Kendal’s Lettice, as she recollects the dear old days of supporting her mother and father on the stage, an eccentric Bohemienne to her fingertips, concocting potent jugs of 16th century punch distilled from lovage and eye of bat. Similarly, Maureen Lipman wallows in her opportunity to be the frosty frowsy bossy boss, ridiculing her underlings, putting up with no nonsense, but just wondering if it is time to (nearly literally) let her hair down. Maybe the excellence of the two main performances highlights the patchiness of some of the supporting ensemble, not that that spoils your enjoyment of the play.

LetticeSlight, but funny; you won’t talk about the characters’ motivations or the thematic structure of the play on the way home, but you might well crack up reminiscing about Miss Lipman’s wonderful drunk act or Miss Kendal’s heartier-than-thou ham-Shakespearean verbal dexterity. If ever they cast Women Behaving Badly, they need look no further. The entire run is now sold out, but I doubt if this production, unlike some of the Menier’s other recent successes, would warrant a transfer. Sorry guys, if you’re not already booked, you’ve missed it.

LottieP. S. We didn’t see the original production. I remember now – we saw a production in 1997 with two other Dear Ladies who gave it an equally good grasp – yes, Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket. And if you can remember what Hinge and Bracket were like in their prime – I can confirm they were really very funny.

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore

Review – Love in Idleness, Menier Chocolate Factory, 9th April 2017

Love in IdlenessYou may think you know your Terence Rattigan, but have you ever come across Love in Idleness before? I bet you haven’t. This is, in fact, the first London production of the play since it originally graced the boards of the Lyric in 1944, two years after Flare Path and two years before The Winslow Boy. It’s easy to forget Rattigan’s status in the first half of the 20th century; but to give you some context, Love in Idleness was one of three plays he had on at the same time in Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1940s, and he is the only playwright to have notched more than 1000 performances for two separate plays – French Without Tears and While The Sun Shines. That’s some feat. No wonder a few years later John Osborne and Kenneth Tynan were so jealous.

LII1Love in Idleness is actually a rewrite of Rattigan’s unpublished play Less Than Kind, created at the behest of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne as the perfect vehicle for that darling American stage couple (although, to add to the confusion, it was called O Mistress Mine on Broadway). For this new Menier production, that seasoned expert of the stage Trevor Nunn has created a new piece by placing Less Than Kind and Love in Idleness side by side and synthesising the two. The result is a fine creation that blends the comedy of Lunt and Fontanne, heavily sprinkled with Rattigan wit, with a story of political argument highlighting progressive versus reactionary, youth versus experience. Ironically, the character of Michael Brown preceded that of Jimmy Porter to vie for the status of Angry Young Man by a good twelve years. No wonder John Osborne and Kenneth Tynan were so jealous. That’s twice I’ve had to say that.

Lii2Back in 1944, children who had been evacuated during the war were just starting to come home. Olivia Brown last saw her son Michael almost four years ago; and since then her life has changed more than somewhat. No longer living in a dingy bedsit in Baron’s Court, she’s become the lover and co-habitor of none other than Cabinet Minister for New Tanks, Sir John Fletcher, in his swish pad in Westminster. When Michael, now nearly 18 and something of a lefty, returns home, he is taken aback by the change in his mother’s status, appearance and behaviour. Something’s gotta give, but who, or what, will it be?

Lii3I came to this show with no prior knowledge of what it was about and no particular expectation, aside from the fact that a) it’s the Menier so it’s bound to be good and b) it’s already secured its West End transfer and that speaks for itself. Nevertheless, I still don’t think I was expecting too much from this production. Well that just shows how wrong I can be. This is an absolute corker (as Michael might say) of a production, immaculately performed throughout, at times blisteringly funny, at others superbly moving, and really, one must ask, why has this little nugget been hiding from us for all these years?

Lii8Trevor Nunn has coaxed his brilliant cast to get the maximum laughter, tension and pathos out of Rattigan’s characters whilst always remaining natural, unforced and very character-driven. That delightful opening scene, where Eve Best’s Olivia is draped over her couch arranging guests for dinner by telephone, tells you so much about her character with such simplicity, clarity and humour. In fact, it’s those physical moments in the play that really communicate what the characters are all about, from Olivia’s tender and ever-so-slightly sexual undoing of John’s jacket and giving his feet a gentle massage, to Michael’s continuously flinging himself face down on his bed in grand gestures of teenage harrumph.

Lii7Visually it’s charming, with perfect costumes by Stephen Brimson Lewis, from Olivia’s trouser-suit to Diana’s Ascot chic and even Miss Wentworth’s artily dotty creation; I appreciated the use of the attractive but commonplace Susie Cooper crockery – perfect for the era; and the Pathe newsreels, projected onto the translucent curtain, that divide the scenes, and add an informative background. Although, beware when the curtain forcefully swishes open past you; I was sat, legs outstretched, on the corner of Row A where it takes a 90 degree turn and the curtain very nearly took me with it.

Lii5About three minutes in to the play, I completely understood what it is Sir John would have seen in Olivia. Eve Best gives a most scintillating, enticing, and endearing performance as the Baron’s Court wife lured into the high life of Tory politics; adoring the surroundings and accoutrements of Dorchester dinners and tittle-tattle, relishing the demands of being a society hostess. She really would spark up an older man’s life and no mistake. Where it comes to uniting her new life with her old, she shows her struggle of understanding the demands of youth and upholding her familial commitments: as the poet once said, I thought that you’d want what I’d want, sorry my dear. Her changed appearance in the final scene provides a stark contrast to the glamour that preceded it, and shows how she is the only character to have made a genuine change in an attempt to help those around her. Ms Best is one of those actors that you just can’t take your eyes off. A stunning performance.

Vivienne RochesterAnthony Head’s Sir John is a distinguished, largely mellow, extraordinarily patient man, unless his routine is interrupted or he is pushed just that one inch too far. Unlike Olivia, he is totally used to the trappings of wealth, so his disdainful contemplation of catching a sequence of three buses in order to get to the café at Puffins Corner is absolutely hilarious. Radiating power, but through nobility rather than mere strength, he completely captures the essence of Sir John, which includes his unconventional handling of his wife. Mrs C thought he really knew how to carry off a Tuxedo. I’ll say no more.

Nicola SloaneEdward Bluemel, as young Michael, is new to me but is definitely a candidate for One To Watch. Perfectly expressing that awkward age between boy and man, his Michael is both feistily uncooperative and easily malleable at the same time. I loved his scene with Mr Head, as they prowl either side of the sofa like two caged tigers ready to rip each other to shreds but far too well brought up to do so. Idealistic and petulant, but also knowing when he’s beat, this is a gem of a role for a young actor and Mr Bluemel really handles it with aplomb.

Lii4I’ve only seen Helen George before on TV following her Strictly journey so didn’t know what to expect from her as the wronged (maybe) Lady Fletcher. Certainly her unexpected appearance just before the interval lifts the whole play and adds a new dynamism as the audience can’t quite work out whether she is more sinned against or sinning; simply incompatible to her husband is probably the closest you’ll get. It’s a lovely, assertive, slightly strident, beautifully composed performance; again, her interaction with Mr Bluemel is hilarious, ridiculing his use of archaic words, as is the cringingly excruciating scene where she meets Olivia, in a delightfully underplayed exercise of oneupwomanship. There’s excellent support from Vivienne Rochester as Sir John’s remarkably humourless assistant Miss Dell, and from Nicola Sloane as the respectable and loyal parlourmaid Polton, and the arty yet insubstantial Miss Wentworth.

I found myself absolutely glued to this play, and when the final scene fitted all the pieces together so nicely and with an amusingly happy ending, I found myself saying out loud “what a beautiful production!” as the lights dimmed but lingered on its protagonists. No surprise at all that this sold-out show warrants its West End transfer, intertwining as it does its rather beautiful depiction of 1940s elegance with its very relevant undercurrent of political anger. I thought it was magic! And if you missed it at the Menier you can catch it at the Apollo in May and June – but you’d better be quick, tickets are getting scarce.

Review – Into The Woods, Menier Chocolate Factory, 4th September 2016

Into The WoodsAs a theatregoer of more years than you’ve had hot dinners, one of my pet hates is those rare occasions when, for whatever reason, you don’t get a programme. Alas, the Menier’s printers have let them down and they ran out of programmes for Into The Woods on Saturday afternoon, and don’t expect another delivery until Wednesday. Lack of a programme makes it so much harder to review a show, so forgive me in advance, gentle reader, if I offer up any factual inaccuracies!

Harry HeppleIn case you didn’t know – and I’m sure you did – Into The Woods, rather like the film Shrek (which appeared 15 years later), takes fairy-tale characters and jumbles them up into a preposterous interweaving of all their tales, culminating with the fine achievement of Happy Ever After status at the interval; and then the second act undoes all that good work by showing how Happy Ever After is an unattainable myth. Relationships fall apart; the land is beset by terror; people die.

Laura TebbuttDespite the fact that it’s had a number of revivals over the years, we’d never seen the stage show live before. We’d seen a DVD recording of the New York stage production starring Bernadette Peters; and we saw and enjoyed the film adaptation last year. But it’s never been a show that I have ever felt I’ve properly understood or appreciated. Just as Shakespeare has his Problem Plays, Sondheim has his Difficult Musicals and I think this a prime example of the genre. It’s a show that doesn’t give you a moment to stop and stare, to think and reflect. From the start to the finish you’re constantly processing data, from the variety of its characters to the relentlessness of its music. The lyrics alone are enough to do your head in. You remember the young Mozart being criticised by the establishment in Amadeus for writing “too many notes”? Here Sondheim gives us “too many words”. It’s exhausting. I honestly don’t know how the cast cope with it all (which they do, brilliantly, by the way).

Claire KarpenAs another indication of how good a production this is, yesterday was the first time I’ve seen it and not felt it was way too long. Structurally there is a problem; because the end of Act One ties everything up so perfectly, and everyone lives happily ever after, that you feel there is no need for an Act Two. That’s why it sometimes feels too long, because deep down inside you feel everything is already all done and dusted. No wonder the opening announcement from Prince Charming reminded us that there was an interval and that they hoped we would return afterwards. So many people must just get up and leave at the interval thinking it was one of these new-fangled, 90 minutes, no interval, short, sharp shows. A third indication of the strength of the production comes with the fact that not only is the Baker’s Wife in tears at the end of the show, Mrs Chrisparkle damn nearly was too, and it’s a rare show indeed that can stir such emotion in her.

Steffan Lloyd-EvansThis production comes courtesy of New York’s Fiasco Theater, and is the 2015 Off-Broadway production that has been parachuted into the Menier, with its pared-down, informal, and intimate approach to presentation. The proscenium arch is decorated from top to bottom with piano strings and keyboards; a backdrop of tightly fitting ropes suggest the dense woods that many of the cast will Into at some point; a few chairs are placed around the edges of the set where the actors can sit whilst they’re not engaged in the action (and from where they can make musical and/or vocal interpolations); and on a floating island, moving around the stage, is one central piano for Evan Rees, the musical director, to pound for the best part of two and three quarter hours. Andy GrotelueschenTo add to the informality and intimacy, the cast idle on to the stage in dribs and drabs, some taking up conversation with the people in the front row; we had a nice chat with Steffan Lloyd-Evans about lunch at Wagamama; he assured us not to be scared, he wasn’t going to bring us up onto the stage or anything like that – which I must say makes a nice change for me after my recent Edinburgh experiences. I even looked after his horse for a short while in the first act (no, really). As the second act opened, Liz Hayes (Jack’s mum) spoke to the ladies to our right and declared them to be #TeamBassoon, as that was the corner of the stage where her instrument was kept when not in use – and a mighty fine bassoonist she is too.

Emily YoungThe whole cast give a fantastic ensemble performance as they take on the myriad roles in the piece, swapping musical and sound-effect activities with each other; those sitting to the side largely observing the show dispassionately. Although that was distinctly not the case when Steffan Lloyd-Evans and Andy Grotelueschen as the two princes started teasing each other with silly voices, creating an uncontrollable wave of hilarity that reached our not only to the audience but also to their fellow cast members. I really enjoyed Laura Tebbutt as the Baker’s wife; she completely inhabited the character and emphasised the reality of her predicaments even though she’s surrounded by this fairy-tale world; she also has a great stage presence and beautiful singing voice. Similarly, we both thought Claire Karpen as Cinderella was terrific, performing endless pratfalls because of those awkward crystal slippers, really bringing out the emotion of the realities of how Happiness isn’t necessarily Ever After even in post fairy-tale marriage. National-treasure-in-waiting Harry Hepple (whom we loved in both Privates on Parade and Pippin) is on great form as the rather bewildered Baker, Vanessa Reselandcapturing the nice comedy moments in his understated way but also giving it large with the emotion of the songs. The aforementioned Mr Lloyd-Evans, who had already got me on his side with our initial conversation before the show started, was a brilliant Prince Charming, and made a great double act with Mr Grotelueschen as the two princes expressed their Agony in song. The latter also showed how emotionally you can portray the plight of a cow with just a plaintive moo. I also loved how Vanessa Reseland’s harridan of a witch turns into, quite frankly, a sex goddess. But the whole cast give it everything and it’s immensely watchable and enjoyable all the way through.

Unsurprisingly, the whole season is now sold out, and it chalks up another winner for the Menier – and this is definitely the most entertaining, expressive and emotional presentation of Into The Woods that we have seen. Now I just hope they’ll sell me a programme and send it by post to keep my collection up!

Review – The Truth, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th April 2016

The TruthAs a result of The Father, Florian Zeller has become something of a star name in the world of dramatists, but I confess this is the first time I’ve seen anything he’s written. As La Vérité, this play was written in 2011 and has been performed not only in France but also Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain. As The Truth it has been translated by Christopher Hampton and now appears for the first time in the UK.

Alexander HansonWhat is the truth? Sometimes, as this hilarious and cringe-making play shows, it’s not always that easy to tell. You may be lying to your partner if you are having an affair, and presumably your co-affairee (is that a word? If not, it should be) is also lying to their partner. But is that the end of it? Are there further untruths out there? With terrific dexterity, the play shows the tangled web we weave when first we practise…well you know the rest. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving the entire game away, and that would be greatly to reduce the play’s impact; you need to come fresh to its little shocks and surprises right until the bitter end. So that’s all the plot you’re getting from me.

Frances O’ConnorAs a teaser, though, the programme gives you the play’s tight structure: seven scenes take you through the Rendezvous, Tightrope Walking, The Lie, Friendship, The Break-Up, An Explanation, and the Truth. When it’s precisely mapped out like this in advance, your mind can follow the clear route from start to finish even though you’ve no idea exactly what’s in store. This helps give the play an inexorable drive and pace, and somehow makes its final conclusion seem even more inevitable. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were thinking afterwards that this would be a most uncomfortable play to watch as a couple if either of you had had an affair. And whatever you do, don’t book this show as part of a let’s forgive and forget process; you might as well hand over the keys your house and move out straight away.

Tanya FranksLizzie Clachan’s stark and sterile set provides an excellent background for this deceptively unemotional play; no place for sentiment here. Instead all the attention is focussed on Michel getting further and further into trouble and trying to extricate himself from the mess. The text delivers cliffhanger after cliffhanger, punchline after punchline, always keeping you on your toes waiting for the next squirm; and Lindsay Posner’s clear and pacey direction helps keep the fast and furious plot development as the topmost priority.

Robert PortalWeaving its way through the web of deceit is a superb performance by Alexander Hanson as Michel. Hardly ever off stage, he self-degenerates from urbane, rather smarmy and selfish lover to quivering wreck. As he starts to realise that he is just as sinned against as sinning, his retaliations and defences become more and more ludicrous, so that he comes across as a self-pitying spoilt git without the slightest degree of empathy. It’s a beautifully funny performance, full of fantastic timing and great energy. It’s not often you see Captain von Trapp with his pants around his ankles – don’t worry, it’s all done in the best possible taste.

Alice and MichelFor the plot development and reveals to work fully, it’s necessary for the motivations of the other characters to be not quite so obvious. Frances O’Connor’s Alice, carrying on the affair with Michel behind her husband’s back, is delightfully aloof at times, providing just enough sexual allure to keep Michel coming back for more but holding back too so that we can’t quite see where she’s going. Their phone call scene where Michel has to pretend to be Alice’s aunt is a Laugh Out Loud Riot. Tanya Franks gives a great performance as Laurence, Michel’s wife, pointedly asking him difficult questions, slowly revealing she knows more than he thinks she knows, making him dig deeper to get out of his already substantial hole. And anything she might be hiding comes to the surface with subtle brilliance. Perhaps it’s only Robert Portal who slightly underplays the role of Paul, Michel’s best friend and Alice’s husband; he successfully keeps his cards close to his chest but at the same time you slightly wonder why Michel would have him as his best friend, because not quite enough of the “best friendliness” comes out in his performance. Still, maybe Paul knows something we don’t know…

Laurence and PaulBut this is a minor quibble. It’s a fascinating and hilarious play, perfectly structured, and with a marvellous central performance. One hour 25 minutes at a push; for some people that is music to their ears, so they can get on and do other things; for others (myself included) you can’t quite help the feeling of being slightly short-changed. Back in the day, that would have constituted one half of a double bill of two one-act plays. But better a short performance of this play than none. There is talk of a transfer; why not? It’s enormously entertaining and really deserves it.