Sunday, 20 June 2010


Simon Gray is best known for the plays he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s that were directed by Harold Pinter and starred Alan Bates : BUTLEY, OTHERWISE ENGAGED and MELON. They are all studies in the mid-life crisis of brilliant, but self-destructive men. They probably look quite dated now. Unlike Pinter's, elliptical characters, Grays's peple tend to be garrulous, delivering long verbal riffs, usually to get an extreme reaction out of the listener.
THE LATE MIDDLE CLASSES originally closed out of town. After successful runs outside of London, the producers couldn't find a theater for it. It probably was not commercial enough material for a Shaftesbury Avenue theater. Nonetheless, it won awards. Finally, eleven years later, it is being produced at the Donmar Warehouse. The play is less funny than Gray's hit plays. Set in the early 1950s, it centers on an unhappy family living on the Isle of Wight. The mother has social ambitions and feels trapped on the island and dreams of getting to London. She drives her son to academic and musical success so he can get a scholarship to a London private school. Her husband, a pathologist, is an old school, emotionally constipated upper middle class Englishman who even has an affair because it seemed rude to turn the woman down. The boys primary relationship is with a strange middle-aged Viennese piano teacher who seems to have been a child molester in the past. Like the boy,he has a problematic relationship with an alcoholic, somewhat hysterical mother.
Some of the scenes are well written and enjoyable to witness, but the play, like most of Gray's work doesn't add up to much. At the end, one wonders exactly what Gray was trying to do here. Is it simply about the destructiveness of upper middle class English prejudices of the early 1950s (Daddy is a anti-Semite, Mommy a snob). To both homosexuality is beneath contempt. The mother is constantly demanding of her eleven year old son protestations of love she'll never receive from her husband. Somehow I felt I've been in this territory before in better written plays and films. The cast was good. Rose McCrory made the mother believable. Peter Sullivan did his best with her husband, but he is a stereotype. The best performance was Robert Glenister's as the piano teacher who is a master of mixed signals. The worst was Eleanor Bron's scenery chewing as his mother. David Leveaux directed but couldn't give the play a coherence it doesn't have.
THE LATE MIDDLE CLASSES by Simon Gray. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. June 17, 2010.


One of the most foolish things Terence Rattigan did -- or didn't do -- was to omit his 1939 play AFTER THE DANCE from any edition of his collected plays. Other plays of his were more poorly received from critics and audiences, but were included. At some point he must have looked back on AFTER THE DANCE and decided it wasn't as good as his other work. He was wrong. Now it looks like one of his best, along with THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE WINSLOW BOY and THE BROWNING VERSION.
In a way, AFTER THE DANCE is a response to Noel Coward's plays of the 1920s. Coward's work focuses on people for whom life is an eternal party, maturity the most dreaded fate and childish irresponsibility a right. The butts of his jokes are people who take life seriously. AFTER THE DANCE focuses on a group of thirty-somthings who have been partying for fifteen years. Their memories are of other parties, usually parties in which some mishap occurred--someone fell down the stairs or off a balcony. People start drinking as soon as they wake up. Unfortunately the moe serious twenty-somethings aren't much better -- more earnest but either ruthless or lost.
The central figures are wealthy host and hostess David and Joan, who have been married for twelve years. They married as a lark, but seem to belong together. Their worst fear is being boring, but unfortunately their fear of boring their spouse has led them to misunderstand the real nature of their relationship. Joan loves David but fears boring him with her love or need. David doesn't want to bore Joan with his illness or his desire to change. So David falls in love with twenty-year-old Helen who has a romantic fantasy of reforming him that he briefly buys into. Helen has no feeling for Joan or the young man who loves her, Peter. The play starts as light comedy -- like something Coward might have written, but gets progressively darker as both David and Joan destroy themselves. It's a brilliantly written play. Unlike Coward, who had little sense of form, Rattigan is a master of dramatic structure. Unlike Eugene O'Neill, dialogue and situation stem from character rather than are imposed on characters. Everyone is treated sympathetically, most of all the self-confessed parasite, John Reed, who is the play's principal truth teller.
Thea Sharrock's production at the National, which has been raved about by all the London critics, is perfect, as is her cast. Benedict Cumberpatch and Nancy Carroll are excellent perfect as David and Joan. It would be easy to play their roles as stereotypes or ultra-sophisticated "brilliant" socialites, but there's always a serious side to their behavior. Adrian Scarborough is equally fine as John who as court jester knows he is expected to be witty, but also honest to a point. The audience cheered at the end and the play and production deserved. Rattigan is one of the best twentieth century playwrights and deserves this kind of treatment. Nest year is the centenary of his birth and one can only hope the celebratory revivals of his work come close to this standard.
AFTER THE DANCE by Terence Rattigan. Directed by Thea Sharrock. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. June 20, 2010


It is both heartening and sad to see the highly acclaimed London revivals of works by three of the greatest American playwrights: (in descending order) Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill. Heartening because British audiences appreciate American drama. Sad because our best playwrights are produced more in London than in New York. Even cutting edge work from new writers is more likely to be produced in London. Has Christopher Shinn's NOW OR LATER, for instance, received a major American production? When American work is done, it tends to be done better here. The Almeida production of Lynn Nottage's RUINED was far superior to the production seen in Chicago and New York. I could deliver a tirade on how the U.S. doesn't celebrate its own culture other than popular culture. In any other country, its own literature, art, drama are required subjects of study. IS anybody now teaching American drama at Duke where Itaught it for forty years?
The National Theatre has imported productions from the Royal and Derngate Northampton Theatre of early works by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, SPRING STORM and BEYOND THE HORIZON that have marked similarities. The same cast and fine director, Laurie Sansom are responsible for both productions.
SPRING STORM is a very early Williams work (1937), written while he was still a student a Iowa University. His professor hated it. It was not published until the late
1990s and has not received a major prodction in the U.S. It is not a perfect work, but Williams's genius is already there. Heavenly Critchfield is the first of Williams's voluble heroines. In the small Southern town in which she lives, her only option seems to be marriage. Her family expects her to marry the rich, bookish Arthur, but she is in love with and sleeping with the more macho Dick Miles. Her problem is that neither is the marrying kind. Dick wants to prove himself through physical work, but Heavenly can't see herself in a workman's shack on the levee. Arthur is a crypto-gay character who knows he should feel something for Heavenly and for the frustrated librarian who adores him, but is disgusted by any female sign of sexual ardor. He screams "YOu disgust me" at the librarian, a precursor of Blanche Dubois's verbal assult on her young gay husband in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Dick goes off to the levee and Arthur, guilt-ridden at pushing the librarian to suicide, runs off. For him it is another escape from a sexualy vibrant woman. The men may be a bit schematic -- wayward stud and sexually repressed aristocrat, but Heavenly is beautifully drawn and brilliantly acted by Liz White who is simply wonderful in both plays. There are clunky moments in SPRING STORM, but also superbly written scenes. Heavenly's garrulous, socially ambitious mother -- a precursor of Amanda in GLASS MENAGERIE and an echo of Williams's mother, is a great character role well played by Jacqueline King. I'll say more about the two male leads anon.
BEYOND THE HORIZON was O'Neill's first full-length play (1920). Like SPRING STORM, it places a woman between two men who are opposites: one a bookish dreamer, the other an ambitious, practical materialist. I have never been a big fan of O'Neill's work. His obsession with over-explaining everything, leaving nothing for the audience to read in, makes his plays over-explicit and over-long. He also seems to write from an idea rather than out of character. You can figure out what is going to happen after the first scene of BEYOND THE HORIZON. The O'Neill machine grinds out the inevitable reversals and conclusion with characters explaining every thought and feeling they have. Though O'Neill wanted his audiences to believe in fate, one has the feeling that the sad things that happen to his characters happen because the playwright wants them to happen, not because they must happen. At least BEYOND THE HORIZON is not stretched out to five hours like his later plays. One also gets tired of the typical O'Neill speech pattern in which a character says something honest, but cruel and in the next speech apologizes for it.
That said, this beautifully directed revival makes as strong a case for the play as can be made. Liz White convincingly traces Ruth's downfall from a vibrant girl to a bitter woman. As in SPRING STORM the two men are played by Michael Thomson and Michael Mallarky. As in SPRING STORM, Thomson plays the more virile, materialistic character and Mallarky plays the bookish dreamer. I kept thinking that, although Thomson is bigger physically, I would have cast them the other way round. Thomson plays Andrew as sweet and kind, a man who wants to make the best out of every situation. I believed him more as Andrew than I did as Dick in SPRING STORM, but Williams's studs are hard to play convincingly. Young Mallarky is straight out of acting school. He's handsome and has a beautiful voice, but physically a bit stiff on stage. I couldn't believe his illness and death because he didn't move any differently. It is wonderful that he is getting this experience, but I'm not sure he's ready for this sort of exposure at this point in his career. He doesn't give bad performances in the two plays, but one can see his technical weaknesses in these two big, demanding roles, but can anyone play the overblown pathos of O'Neill's work convincingly? The supporting cast is fine. Again, it's Liz White who really shines and justifies the revival. If only didn't O'Neill, with his usual misogyny, end up blaimg the woman for al that goes wrong. She's the victim, not the villain. This production makes as strong a case for the play as can be made. The run is sold out, so word of mouth has been strong.
Tennessee Williams, SPRING STORM and Eugene O'Neill, BEYOND THE HORIZON. Royal National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre, June 12 and 19, 2010.

Friday, 11 June 2010


When I began studying English theatre history half a century ago (I am still studying it), we read Dion Bouccicault's 1841 farce LONDON ASSURANCE. It was the only play we studied between the comedies of Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan and the work of Oscar Wilde. We learned tha the play was produced by Eliza Vestris at the Covent Garden Theatre (the site of the Royal Opera House) and was one of the first plays to use a box set instead of painted backdrops. On the page, LONDON ASSURANCE seemed formulaic -- comedy, more than any other dramatic form, needs to be seen -- but it still plays magnificently. The National Theatre has revived LONDON ASSURANCE and proven its worthy place between Goldsmith and Wilde. The play and production are hilarious. There are classic farce elements here -- a silly old man trying to wed a perky eighteen year old to secure his fortune; his wayward son also courting the girl; city toffs trying to survive a country visit; all-knowing, cynical servants. To this Boucicault adds his great comic invention, the raucus, horse-loving, life-affirming Lady Gay Spanker (one of the best character names in all drama).
A perfect cast mined all the gold there is out of this romp. Simon Russell Beale, made up to look even more portly than usual, made a magnificent middle-aged fop. Paul Ready and Michelle Terry were fine as the young lovers. The scene in which Ready's character tries to convince his father that he isn't his son was one of the funniest moments. Richard Briers doddered magnificently as Lady Gay's husband and Fiona Shaw was a perfect Lady Gay Spanker. I had never seen her play comedy before and was pleasantly surprised. Within the context of the piece, everyone was credible as well as comic. No one overtly "played for laughs" which would be death in a piece like this. The sets were superb on the Olivier's revolving stage and Nicholas Hytner paced the production perfectly.
It is too bad that LONDON ASSURANCE, which is a sellout hit, has to close at the end of June so Beale can go into a revival of DEATHRAP (why?????).
LONDON ASSURANCE by Dion Boucicault. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, designed by Mark Thompson. National Theatre Olivier Theatre. May 30, 2010.


Over the years Jonathan Harvey has proven his gift for comedy in sweet little plays like BEAUTIFUL THING and the terrific television series BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE. He's basically a gay Neil Simon. There are lovely sentimental moments that ring true in addition to laugh out loud comic moments. He also has a gift for light camp humor that over the years has appealed to a gay audience. In his new work, CANARY, he tries to write a serious gay epic a la Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA. I'm afraid he has over-reached here. CANARY is neither as rich and profound nor as funny as Kushner's epic work. Harvey has moved out of his comfort zone.
CANARY tries to be an epic work spanning the past helf century of British gay history from vicious arrests, Draconian psychiatric "cures", Mary Whitehouse's Festival of Light, gay demonstrations, AIDS, to openly gay television stars like Graham Norton. Its best moments are the comic ones -- Mary Whitehouse (the always queenly Philip Voss in drag) lecturing the audience and Margaret Thatcher trying to find a euphemism for anal sex. The worst moments are the attempts at Kushner-like theatrical fantasy such as a mink-coat-clad mother flying with the spirit of her dead son (particuarly when the flying rig is awkward and very noisy). Much of the rest seems old hat to those of us who have watched gay drama over the past forty years -- AIDS death scenes, gay bashing, etc. The scene of a young man going through aversion therapy was better done in Alexi Kaye Campbell's wonderful play, THE PRIDE. In general, CANARY would benefit from cutting. Many scenes went on too long.
The focus of CANARY is the life of a closeted police offcer who rises to police chief. As a young man, he lets his lover take the rap for their sexual activity so he can survive professionaly. Twenty years later his son dies of AIDS. Another quarter of a century later he is outed by his son's best friend and tries to reconcile with the lover he betrayed forty years before. There's a bit too much coincidence in all this and not a lot of credibility. Why would the son's best friend decide to out the father a quarter of a century after the son's death?
The cast play multiple roles and the central character (the police chief and his osn's best friend) have actors as their young and older selves. Would the young cockney police officer really turn into grande dame Philip Voss? The best performances are from the younger actors, particularly Kevin Trainor as the young policeman's lover turned revolutionary and Ryan Sampson as a young show queen.
There are good moments in CANARY, but too many in which one feels one has seen it better done before. The big question is why there are now so many plays reminding us of gay history -- THE PRIDE, HOLDING THE MAN, CANARY, MAURICE. In an interview in the program, Jonathan Harvey laments that young gay people today don't know their history and don't see themselves as different. In other words, gay culture is fading out because of assimilation. Older gay writers seem compelled to remind audiences of the bad old days when gay men suffered and fought but felt a sense of difference that joined them -- when there was a gay culture and a gay community. At one moment in the play, the openly gay television personality screams to a callow youth he has picked up, "Me and my mates went through shit to let you be this apathetic!" The plays are reminders of what it meant to be gay before this post-gay (at least in enlightened areas) age. There aren't any battles to be fought in Britain. We can't forget that there are still battles to be fought in Africa, Islamic societies and much of the USA -- anywhere where fundamentalist religions are dominant.
CANARY by Jonathan Harvey. Directed by Hettie Macdonald. Hampstead Theatre. June 10, 2010.