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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – 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