Friday, 28 January 2011

GREENLAND at the National Theatre

     Last summer the National presented Rupert Goold's enthralling production of Mike Bartlett's EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON. Here was a play that put ecological questions at the heart of a human story. Ecology was part of the larger question of how to live meaningfully in the chaotic post-modern world. Bartlett writes in the published text that the play is about excess and that is what the audience experienced. The play was also about recognizable characters one could care about as we followed the three-plus hour extravaganza. Why did the National felt it needed another theater piece on ecology this year? And why did it produce one that wasn't very good. Where the three-plus hours of EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON flew by, the two-hour GREENLAND seemed interminable.
     Among other things, GREENLAND shows why plays written by committees are not a good idea. The program lists four playwrights: Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne. It may be possible for four playwrights to create a coherent theatrical experience, but this mishmash wasn't one of them. Episodes simply repeated themselves instead of developing. Characters (well, not quite characters) would step forward and deliver basically the same speech again and again. Scenes would seem more repetition than development. GREENLAND was also a lesson in the problems of writing a didactic play. The National Theatre audience is likely to be aware of and accept the idea of global warming. So why give them a two-hour intermissionless harangue. If you're going to write a polemical play, you need characters the audience cares about and you need a good argument. George Bernard Shaw, the master of this sort of play, always gave the best lines to the character you were supposed to disagree with. In other words, you have got to put your ideas into a play. GREENLAND got tiresome because it only presented one side of the issue and was only interested in the people who were fighting global warming. The interesting human story is of the majority of us who know we're heading for destruction but go on driving our cars and drinking out of plastic bottles. The real issue is that we have been so brainwashed as consumers that, like addicts, we can't live without the things that are destroying our world. That's the story to tell, preferably in an entertaining satiric mode with characters who aren't walking cliches. This was a tiresome two hours. People were walking out and I don't blame them. When you're preaching to the choir, make sure that you understand the form in which they will listen to you.  
     For all the faults in the script,  director Beijan Shebani did all he could to turn it into a viable piece of theatre. I was mightily impressed with Shebani's production of OUR CLASS last season. Like GREENLAND, it was a politically charged ensemble piece but, unlike GREENLAND, it was a gripping script with three-dimensonal characters. There were visually beautiful moments in Shebani's production, particularly in the scenes in the Arctic which were the only really interesting scenes in the play. Among other bits of theatre magic, the production had the most impressive bear I have ever seen on stage. However, al the smoke and mirrors, projections, falling snow and rain can't hide a tedious script. Why were the actors  heavily miked? I was in the fifth row and only heard the actors through the loudspeakers to my right.
     A slightly tangential question -- do National Theatre audiences watch DEAL OR NO DEAL on tv? I don't but take it that the many scenes in which characters were carrying numbered red boxes were in some way referring to that show. Each time a young man gave basically the same speech -- at great length - about why he wanted to win. What was the point??
     I haven't said much about the cast because they weren't given anything interesting to do. It was a waste of talents like Lyndsey Marshal. They danced, ran around a lot, flew, popped up out of trap doors, gave speeches, moved furniture. Lots of sound and fury. And lots of stuff falling onto the stage and, at the end, being blown into the auditorium. Perhaps these environmentally conscious folk should care about the cleaners who have to sweep up the mess the play left and the environmental impact of the trash the production created.
     As one left the auditorium one confronted in the lobby a mock radio panel show on global warming. The moderator tried to interest the exiting audience members in participating. Everyone ran for the hills. Perhaps they should have had a panel discussion on the perils of producing a committee-created, one sided polemical play.   
GREENLAND. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. January 27, 2011.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


     I had the pleasure of reading Gina Gionfriddo's BECKY SHAW and seeing its New York production while I was on the Pulitzer Prize drama jury. The jury had no difficulty making BECKY SHAW one of its three finalists for the prize that year (2009). It has reached London in a production by the director of the New York production (Peter DuBois) and one of the original cast members and received raves from most of the critics. A second viewing only confirms my enthusiasm for the play.
     In the simplest terms, BECKY SHAW is a quintessentially American play is focusing on a dysfunctional family. What it does brilliantly is confront serious issues through comedy. We begin with an odd family configuration in a typical domestic drama crisis. Suzanna's father has died and the family discovers not only that he squandered a great deal in poor business decisions, but that he and his business partner were lovers. Four months after his death, his mother, suffering from multiple sclerosis, has taken a lover-caregiver who is, to put it mildly, a bit shady. The only daughter, Suzanna, is a thirty-one year old graduate student in psychology who has many issues of her own. The family fortune, such as it is, and domestic crises are handled by Max, who has lived with them since his mother died when he was ten. Max and Suzanna are, to put it mildly, very close. At the end of the first scene, it becomes sexual, at least for one night. Suzanna's response is to marry the first man she meets, a sweet, overly sentimental (pornography makes him cry) barista and would-be writer, Andrew. While they live in grad student poverty, Max gets rich as an investment counselor.
     Max is really the central character in the play. Professionally successful, Max in his private life has no ability to dissemble. He says exactly what he thinks, no matter how hurtful. No relationship with a woman has lasted more than three months. A principal reason for this is his love of Suzanna.
     Enter Becky Shaw as a blind date Suzanna and Andrew have arranged for Max. If Max is the central character, Becky is the catalyst for all the action in the second half of the play. Becky is needy, manipulative and tenacious. When Max dumps her after one disastrous date, Becky looks to Andrew for solace and sappy Andrew gets totally sucked into her black hole of need. Becky still believes she can get Max, who can't stand her, through her manipulation of Andrew. After her patently bogus suicide attempt, Max screams, "The nest time you attempt suicide, try harder." However, it isn't clear that he can avoid her. Becky becomes the litmus test by which the characters defend their sense of morality. Ardent feminist Andrew sees Becky as a victim who must be cared for. Suzanna wants her husband back, though she is really in love with Max. She has her own neediness and can only live with a strong man to protect her. She was devastated by the death of her father and needs Max's strength. Max is deeply loyal to the people he loves -- Suzanna and her mother -- but could care less about anyone else. Morality begins and ends at home for him. The only thing that all the characters share is a need for a loving relationship, however unstable. Max and Suzanna's mother claim not to believe in love, yet Max is devoted to Suzanna and her mother quickly found another man. The loving relationship they seek may or may not be sexual and sex is not necessarily a sign of love. Becky asks Max, "If you didn't want a relationship, why did you fuck me?" Ethically the question makes sense, but unfortunately that's not the way men always think. Is Becky's use of sex to hook a man for life any less ethical than Max's separation of sex and love.  
     This very funny play raises all sorts of issues about our responsibility beyond the people nearest to us. Is Max wrong for not caring about Iraq? Is Andrew ridiculous in feeling that Becky has become his reponsibility? In general Gionfriddo's sympathy seems to be with the most rational characters -- Max and Suzanna's mother.
     One of the things I like best about the play is its non-ending. We're left without a resolution -- with a sense that the process will still be going on. Becky will not disappear. Max will still love Suzanna whose marriage to Andrew is far from satisfactory. The ends aren't neatly tied up at the final curtain.
     As in New York, David Wilson Barnes's Max is the center of the play. He is the most complex, interesting character and Barnes totally inhabits him. His body language is as masterful as his comic timing. He's funny but also touching. The always terrific Hayden Gwynne plays the pragmatic mother brilliantly, a rock in a sea of neurosis. The other actors are appropriately irritating. Anna Madeley makes one see that Suzanna may be physically thirty-one but, like many graduate students, is still seventeen. Vincent Montuel is a bit too handsome and too young for the wimpy Andrew. Of course Suzanna would be drawn to this stunning guy who makes his first appearance shirtless, but in the context of the play Suzanna falls for Andrew because of his personality, not his looks. He is the opposite of Max.  At first I was surprised at the casting of Daisy Haggard as Becky. She seemed ditzy in her first scene, but the New York Becky radiated neediness from her first appearance. However, as the play progressed, I totally bought that there was a neurotic strength that kept her going. She is totally focused on nabbing Max.
     The pacing and character relationships were perfect, the sets (on a revolving stage) appropriate. The cheering audience brought the cast back on repeatedly at the end. This comedy of manners is deceptive. Under the laughs are really serious questions. I think the British love it because they are always drawn to characters like Max who breach all manners (an American Basil Fawlty). However, I think the play speaks more to the American sense of family responsibility and our belief that one is judged first and foremost by how one treats the people closest to them, not one's position on geopolitical issues.
     It was great to see BECKY SHAW in an audience that had as many young people as old. When I saw it on a Saturday night at Second Stage in New York, the audience was totally geriatric -- the typical audience at a non-profit theatre in the Big Apple. Now I too am geriatric, but the future of theatre depends on a younger audience. It also make the energy of the theatrical experience more intense. Let's hope that the smaller non-profit theatres in London ca keep their prices low so young people still can affort to attend. The National Theatre is now as pricey as the West End, so one gets an older, well-heeled audience. The National Theatre should be the most affordable theatre in London.
BECKY SHAW by Gina Gionfriddo. Almeida Theatre. January 25, 2011.

Sunday, 23 January 2011


     We were very impressed with Nina Raine's TRIBES at the Royal Court this past fall. She's a writer with a sure sense of theatre and an ear for sharp dialogue. So we were curious and excited about her new play, TIGER COuNTRY, now at the Hampstead Theatre. Raine studied directing as well as playwriting. This is her production of her work.
     TIGER COUNTRY is about doctors in a large city hospital. Sound familiar? Can one write a play on this subject without echoing ER, GRAY'S ANATOMY and their UK brethren HOLBY CITY and CASUALTY? The answer is not totally. The fast moving play that cuts back and forth between short scenes seems at times like a television drama, particularly in the romantic, or should I say sexual, moments. The doctors are all heterosexual, of course. The young male doctors are all handsome, the young females attractive. I'm sure there are homely doctors as well as gay doctors. However, Raine has a particular focus, the balance of dedication and cynicism necessary for a person to survive as a doctor. Her central charater, Emily, is a young emergency room doctor who taes a rather sentimental attitude toward her work while her colleagues are more hard-hearted. She almost implodes when a young woman who has had a heart attack dies. In her eyes, all her colleagues were heartless and uncaring while they were merely being realistic. The patient was dead on arrival and nothing would have saved her. Emily's attempts at resuscitation were wasting time and money. There were moments when I wanted to slap her but fortunately she grows up. Emily is surrounded by colleagues her age and senior. A female Indian surgeon realizes that she is giving up too much to be one of the blokes (necessary in her profession). She sacrifices her femininity and her ethnic identity -- the blokes are white. One becomes aware of the rigid hierarchy of a medical center and the cost of defying the chain of command even when it is necessary.
     All Raines's characters are sharply drawn and her dialogue is lively. So, despite the moments that verged on cliche, the play was enjoyable and somewhat thought provoking. Her production was flawless. The Hampstead was turned into a transverse stage with the audience seated on two sides of an open playing area. Beds, gurneys and operating tables were wheeled in and out with choreographic precision and grace. Walls are filled with projections of x-rays and scans. Her 15 member cast was top notch featuring some of Britain's best actors, familiar both from stage and television. Standouts were Thusitha Jayasundera and Adam James. Jayasundera plays the senior female physician who realizes she doesn't fit in any more when she can do nothing for her aunt who is seriously ill thanks to a botched surgery by a senior specialist. To remain one of the blokes, the doctor can not complain or move her aunt to another hospital. James is a forty-something doctor who is forced to become a patient. The younger members of the cast are also fine, particularly Pip Carter as the rebellious resident.
     TIGER COUNTRY is not as rich as Raines's TRIBES, but a thoroughly enjoyable play that reinforces all one's reservations about hospitals. Having once been on the receiving end of medical imcompetence, I am always skeptical of hospital care.
TIGER COUNTRY, written and directed by Nina Raine. Hampstead Theatre. January 22, 2011.           

Friday, 21 January 2011


     Fors some reason, Clifford Odets is seldom included in the pantheon of twentieth-century American playwrights. Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, whom I think is highly overrated, are accepted as our great writers for the stage and Odets usually is placed a the top of the second rank. My pantheon would exclude the lumbering O'Neill and include Odets. He had the great gift of making characters sound real and eloquent simultaneously. The devil is in the details with Odets and none of our other major playwrights could include so many detailed character portraits in one play. Odets was the house playwright for the Group Theatre in the mid-1930s, turning out four classics in a row: WAITING FOR LEFTY, AWAKE AND SING, PARADISE LOST, AND GOLDEN BOY. All are studies of the dark side of the American dream as characters give up parts of their soul for money. In these plays Odets managed to create a group of urban characters who were simultaneously optimistic and disillusioned. The language is urban poetry. Odets writes better than any of our other playwrights except Tennessee Williams.
    After a period in Hollywood -- like his characters, Odets chased fortune but never quite caught it, ODets returned to Broadway with two showbusiness sagas, THE BIG KNIFE, his vision of a Hollywood sellout, and THE COUNTRY GIRL, which is just finishing a successful run on the West End. This seems to be  Odets' year in London. The National Theatre is about to revive his seldom performed 1938 play, ROCKET TO THE MOON.
     I had never seen THE COUNTRY GIRL onstage and only knew it from reading it and from the film with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, of all people. Most of the play takes place backstage and in dressing rooms. It is the world of its two leading men, weak, washed-up actor Frank Elgin, who uses bits from plays he has performed in as his own fictional, self-justifying back story and young director Bernie Dodd, who can't manage a life outside of the theatre. Dodd, whose father was an alcoholic, becomes obsessed with saving Frank and providing his comeback to the stage as a leading actor. The central character is Frank's young wife, Georgie. When we first see her, she is packing a suitcase to leave her squalid flat and needy failure of a husband. Georgie is a living embodiment of disillusionment. She looks older than her years, exhausted from holding up two people. Frank tells Bernie that Georgie is mentally unstable, suicidal and an alcoholic, projecting onto her his own weaknesses. Young, idealistic Bernie believes him and treats Georgie  terribly. He sees Georgie's protection of her husband as destructive when actually Frank totally depends on her.
     In THE COUNTRY GIRL, Odets has written a powerful play about a strong woman surrounded by weak men. Georgie doesn't have a career, but must be mother, lover, agent, servant, domineering bitch, sexual magnet to the men who enter her sphere. By the end, all she wants to be is alone. Since the men don't see or care who she really is, Georgie remains something of an enigma to us. Slowly the details of her character emerge.
     Rufus Norris, who can be a gimmicky director (his recent production of Mozart's DON GIOVANNI was dreadful) here leaves the play alone and focuses on the performances. Being a West End enterprise, the production has a cast of actors best known for their many television appearances, but with impressive theatre credentials. All give nuanced performances. All three leading roles are tricky because the characters are deeply flawed. Frank at one point says that he must come to like his character before he can play him and that is true as well of any actor in an Odets play -- he or she must find what is likeable amidst the weakness and brashness. I know people who don't care for Jenny Seagrove but I found her totally believable as a trapped woman who stops believing it is too late to change her life. Martin Shaw, who usually plays heroes in television detective dramas found the balance between bluster and weakness in Frank. Like many actors, Frank is a child who has never grown up. Georgie, young enough to be his daughter, must be his mother. Mark Letheren found Bernie's anger and his need to save Frank. I saw this production on a weekday matinee at the end of a long run. It was fresh and totally committed. It reminded me of what a great playwright Odets is and how alive he still is in the right hands. The language is beautiful, both mundane and poetic.
     A tangential note. As much as I enjoyed this performance, I was appalled at the state of the Apollo Theatre. At West End prices, one expects a level of comfort and upkeep. The carpet is being held down with duct tape. The old seats are uncomfortable and there is no legroom even in the stalls. New York theatre owners keep their buildings in good condition. The Apollo, like many old West End theatres, is a dingy dump. Anyone paying Wes End prices should expect more than that.
THE COUNTRY GIRL by Clifford Odets. Directed by Rufus Norris. Sets and costumes by Scott Pask and Jonathan Lipman. With Martin Shaw, Jenny Seagrove and Mark Letheren. Apollo Theatre. January 21, 2011.            

Friday, 14 January 2011

THE POTTING SHED at the Finborough

     Graham Greene's THE POTTING SHED was first performed in London and on Broadway in 1958. It has seldom been revived since. There's nothing particularly wrong with the play though critics over the years critics have deemed it dated in style and substance. The solid production at the Finborough Theatre proves that perhaps now, when atheism can be as doctrinaire as fundamentalist Chrstianity, it is again timely.
      THE POTTING SHED is structured as a kind of mystery. The form goes back to Sophocles' OEDIPUS REX. Something happened to James Callifer when he was fourteen that he has totally forgotten and which his family has tried to erase. During the course of the play James is impelled to discover the secret and this family must deal with the consequences. There is no incest or murder here in this hyper-intellectual British family. The secret has metaphysical implications which change James and since the family are celebrated professional atheists -- the patriarch was the Richard Dawkins of his age -- upset his family. Has James gone mad because he has come to believe that he experienced a miracle? To accept his conviction is to admit that there is something more than -- or other than -- science and rationality. The play explores a mystery in the religious sense of the word. The question the revelation at the heart of the play poses is whether miracles happen. If they do, the family's staunch atheism is exposed as a sham. Graham Greene is writing in prose the sort of religious play in the mode of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry wrote in verse. There is a strong kinship between THE POTTING SHED and Eliot's THE COCKTAIL PARTY and THE FAMILY REUNION. Greene was a Catholic and his Catholicism permeates his work, but his approach to his religion was complex and far more modern than Eliot's. Faith and doubt go together in Greene's universe. There is little comfort in faith and God is always unknowable. Yet God does intervene in our world. Greene's plays are intrinsically dramatic because his faith is built on contradictions. I prefer his novels to the plays. There is something formulaic about his dramatic structure. It is too pat for his subject matter. He's a good playwright, but much more than a good novelist at his best. Seeing this production of THE POTTING SHED made me want to reread the novels. There's a new Hollywood film of his classic novel, BRIGHTON ROCK, coming out this Spring. Will Hollywood do justice to this complex writer? Probably not.
     I enjoyed this production of THE POTTING SHED at the tiny Finborough. Svetlana Dimcovic staged and paced the play effectively on the small playing area. The playing area created by the walls of this oddly shaped building makes a natural box set that is a perfect size for this sort of drama. Given the brevity of the play, I would have cut one or both of the intervals to maintain tension (without intervals, the play runs less than two hours). Paul Cawley as James, the man discovering his past, was fine in the big moments. I never felt his spiritual emptiness in the first half of the play. He must go through a major change and I think it demands an actor with greater range than Cawley has. In essense we must see a man reborn in the third act but that depends on seeing the deadness before. I'm sure he was improvement over the original John Gielgud and pop star Cliff Richard in the 1971 revival (whose idea was that?). The other ten actors were well cast and more than adequate. If I am a bit dissatisfied, it is because I think more is at stake in the play for all the characters than these actors realized. Everyone underplayed a bit too much. Since I excoriated the cast of a previous Finborough production for chewing up the scenery, I am uncomfortable criticizing this group of good actors for not raising the emotional temperature enough. It's tricky to find the proper balance in a tiny space like the Finborough but I didn't feel that Eileen Battye in the crucial role as the matriarch holding the big secret was ever more than mildly piqued as if someone had breached a rule of etiquette when actually a thirty-year-old family secret is about to be exposed. It's more a question of listening and reacting than how the lines were spoken. I'm not sure one can totally avoid melodrama in this work, which is a kind of Agatha Christie mystery with deep religious implications.
     Whatever my reservations, I am deeply grateful to the Finborough for giving me the opportunity to see this play again. And may I say I'm grateful to the friendly new owners of the nice wine bar downstairs for providing cleaner amenities. And I look forward to the new air conditioning system for this famously hot (in all senses of the word) performing space      
THE POTTING SHED by Graham Greene. Finborough Theatre. January 13, 2011.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011


     As with KING LEAR, I have seen many productions of Tennessee Williams's THE GLASS MENAGERIE and have directed the play myself. Only one production captured the play as I understand it -- a production at the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville, Florida. Usually the Amanda is too old to have children in their early twenties and, to compensate, the children have to be older than their stated age in the script. Jessica Tandy played Amanda in her eighties --- she would have been Tom and Laura's grandmother but not their mother. The same miscasting often occurs with Blanche in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE who is supposed to be thirtyish, not middle aged. Often, too, the focus is placed too much on Amanda and Laura when the relationship between Tom and Amanda is equally important. It is Tom's memories we are watching, after all.
     The current production, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins at the Young Vic has its flaws, but the fascinating, near over-the-top performance by Leo Bill as Tom makes it worth seeing. The program reminds us that Tom Williams, not yet named Tennessee Williams, had a nervous breakdown while working at the International Shoe Company and living at home with his garrulous mother and mentally disturbed sister. Leo Bill's Tom is at the breaking point. He is all nervous energy, frustration and entrapment. When his mother cries, "I don't believe you go to the movies," he backs against the wall as if harboring a guilty secret (homosexuality?). This young man has to get out of this apartment and away from  his chatterbox of a mother or lose his mind. To some extent, Bill's performance throws the play a bit off balance, but it is perfectly valid and fascinating to watch, particularly for someone who knows the play well. The Brits next to me thought he was too manic, but I think he justifies the production. Bill is an actor willing to take great risks.
     Deborah Findlay, an actress I usually like from stage and television roles, is a bit disappointing as Amanda. Perhaps it is the awful southern accent, but I never quite believed her (I must say that in general the dialects were all over the place. Bill's Tom was New York, Jim was midwest -- well, it is St. Louis -- and Laura nineteen-thirties Hollywood. Btitish actors are usually better with American dialects these days -- they certainly seem to be getting lots of leading roles on American tv with their Hugh Laurie midwestern accents. I don't demand accuracy, but consistency would be nice). Great Amandas combine desperation with humor. Like all Tennessee Williams's heroines, Amanda is funny, sad and irritating all at once. Somehow Findlay was too earthy to capture Amanda. She has clearly never met a southern steel magnolia. I have lived in the south for decades now and have met many Amandas. They're a dying breed now, but once ruled the roost in every church and cultural organization. Sinead Mathews was perfectly acceptable as Laura, a bit too pretty and with a strange, throaty voice. I didn't see that brief blossoming of a wallflower and deflation when her dream, after briefly coming true, is dashed. Kyle Soller is equally OK. I missed that sense of a young man for whom high school was always going to be his finest hour and he knows it. He basks in Laura's fond memories of him, but the future doesn't look too bright. Which is to say that 90 per cent of the pathos and the humor in this production came from Leo Bill's Tom.
     The staging, pacing and music are fine. Hill-Gibbins used the odd Young Vic space effectively. The audience sits on two sides of a corner stage, but the production uses a curtain which sometimes rises from the floor and sometimes descends from above to give a sense of the illusion Tom speaks of in his prologue. This wasn't a revelatory production but I'm glad I went.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams. Young Vic Theatre. January 13, 2011.


     How many productions of KING LEAR have I seen? I remember Morris Carnovsky, Paul Scofield in the great Peter Brook production, John Wood, Robert Stephens, Brian Cox in a fascinating Deborah Warner production, Ian McKellan. I also remember a production at Playmakers Repertory Theatre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that ranks as the worst production of Shakespeare I have ever seen and one of the worst productions of any play I have ever seen. I shouldn't just mention Lear; for the play is as much about Edgar, Gloucester and Kent as it is about the old king.One thing is clear: there is so much to this play that no director or cast can get it all and different productions emphasize different aspects of the play. In the recent Trevor Nunn production, McKellan brought out the humor in Lear's role while the fine Ben Meyjes made Edgar's suffering almost unbearable. No production made me think more about this fascinating, dark play than Michael Grandage's current production at the Donmar. This is ironic since the playing area, the ceiling placed over it and the edges of the circle are covered in whitewashed boards. Visually, the production looks washed out, like over-exposed black and white film. The characters are mostly in black -- the few bits of color are almost shocking. The lighting is almost entirely white. On this bare set -- no furnishings until a throne is brought in for Lear's reunion with Cordelia -- Grandage offers a fast paced Lear. Actors for one scene are entering as characters from the previous scene speak their final lines. There are enough cuts -- mostly in the final acts -- to get the production to two hours and fifty minutes including the interval. There are no armies of attendants. In this small theater, KING LEAR can be performed effectively with an ensemble of sixteen fine actors.
     What this KING LEAR offers is a stark picture of good and evil, striving and suffering. The play is almost a moral parable of what happens to a world when people surrender their most important human trait -- compassion. In this stark production, the heartless grasping of Goneril, Regan and Edmind seemed all the more frightening. They were so matter-of-fact in their brutality. There was no chewing of the scenery from the nasty sisters or Edmund, just simple, cold ambition, greed and desire. One missed the usual sense of humor actors find in Edmund. Alec Newman's bastard was too heartless to be funny, but his interpretation worked in this context. The good characters were superbly played. Reliable Paul Jesson, who always gives a superb performance, was a sweet, clueless Gloucester, trying to do the right thing but unaware there could be such evil. Gwilym Lee's Edgar, the polestar of good in this production, evolved through his testing into a real hero. One saw Lear and Edgar as the central relationship in the play -- mad old man learning to "see better" and young man feigning madness while he learns about human suffering. Two naked souls in the tempest. It seemed absolutely right that Edgar got the last word. Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell wisely did not play the usual harridans. They were women who simply had no feeling for their fathers or their husbands. All they had were anger and appetites. Yet I did, as one must, feel that right was on their side in the first hour of the play as they suffered their father's hundred knights and invective. You should not see Goneril and Regan's villainy right away. I didn't think Pippa Bennett-Warner did much more than speak Cordelia's lines. Why is she Lear's favorite and, if so, why isn't she willing to humor him in the first scene? What she says is absolutely rational, but we should see a reason why she won't play the game as her sisters do. Michael Hadley was effective as Kent and Ron Cook ably played the fool as a clown who realized that wit and humor were no antidote to the tempest that was brewing. When Lear and Edgar go off at the end of the first part, the Fool goes off in another direction, never to be seen again (not even at the curtain call). He sees that "Poor Tom of Bedlam" is a fitter companion for the mad king.    
     Now to Derek Jacobi's Lear. Everything was there. One had a sense that he was on the way to madness in the first scene. I have seen actos make more of certain moments in the first half of the play ("I will do such things as  .  .  .I know not what"). When one sees a lot of Lears one tends to judge a performance by certain moments but here one had to look at the evolution of the character. There were surprises. The whispered "Blow winds, crack your cheeks", as if the storm Lear was invoking was not the one whirling around him. Grandage cut the storm sounds and brightened the lights as Lear spoke these lines to make it a mad, internal moment. He was at this best in the scenes with Edgar and the final scenes. For this seventy-something actor, KING LEAR was in great part a play about age. Edgar and Cordelia become the polestars of good because they revere age, even when the old are cruel, like Lear, or foolish, like Gloucester. Lear, Gloucester and Kent all realize that they have lived too long and seen too much to want to go on. It's up to the young to redeem this fallen world. A minor point, but it is amazing that at the finale of such a powerful performance the smallish, seventy-something Jacobi still carried in the not-so-petite Cordelia.
     At the end, after Edgar has spoken those interesting final lines (the text gives them to Albany, but it seemed right for Edgar to speak them. Albany has not really earned these lines.) -- "The weight of this sad time we must obey,/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long" -- the lights brighten and we hear birdsong. The natural world will go on. The sun will rise. Birds will sing. But mankind must live to a higher order than the mere "Nature" Edmund invokes. The three surviving good men -- Albany, Edgar and Kent -- are there. The evil has been purged, but some good people have suffered and died as well.
     Michael Grandage's production reminded me that this is one of the greatest plays ever written, perhaps the greatest, but also the darkest. We watch what happens when people do not act humanely and the cost of trying to do good when the moral order breaks down. One can think of big things like the holocaust, or smaller tragedies like the shooting in Arizona last week, a byproduct not only of madness, but also of the total breakdown in civil dscourse in my native land thanks in part to people making millions of dollars being uncivil on radio and television and setting a horrible example of behavior in a democracy. Sermon ended.). Purists may quibble at the cuts and the reassignmnt of some lines, but this KING LEAR does more than tell a story. It gets at the heart of the play. On both sides of us, peopple whispered "Wow" as the lights went down at the end. Brits don't often say "Wow." It was deserved. It was also interesting to note the number of actors in the audience last night. I saw one fine young actor who plays one of the leads in the current National Theatre HAMLET watch intently. Even for a good actor, this production offered lessons in acting.
KING LEAR, directed by Michael Grandage, designed by Christopher Oran. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. January 12, 2011.    

Monday, 10 January 2011


     This past weekend we saw the delightful MIDSUMMER for £15 a ticket (unreserved) and a superb concert by the BBC Symphony led by the charismatic John Wilson for £12.80 a ticket (orchestra stalls seats). This week I will see Derek Jacobi in KING LEAR for £18 (front row circle), a critically acclaimed revival of THE GLASS MENAGERIE for £10 (front row orchestra stalls) and a revival of a Graham Greene play for £9 (unreserved). That's £65 pounds (a little over $100) for five performances. An orchestra seat for a Broadway show is upwards of $135 before all those handling fees are added on ($75 or so for Off-Broadway and non-profit theaters). This means that theater is affordable, not much more expensive than going to a movie. Granted, none of the productions I saw last week or are seeing this week are West End commercial productions which are considerably more expensive, but seldom as interesting as what is running off West End or on the fringe. They now have a top of around £60 a ticket (around $96 which is still $40 cheaper than Broadway). But one can see a lot of great theater without going to the West End. One goes there for big stars and big musicals.
     My point is that one can go to the theater regularly in London. It needn't be a special occasion. This means that one feels more adventurous. I will gamble on a new play at £10-£20 a ticket. I would be unlikely to do so at $135 a ticket. Here the level of acting is so consistently high that you are likely to get as good, if not better, performances on the fringe as on the West End.
     I don't include the Royal National Theatre in my argument. Their productions are usually excellent, though they seldom get the best of the new plays. As a national theater, it should be affordable, but except for the discounted summer productions in the largest of the theaters, their prices are inching close to those on the West End. Under 25s can get in relatively cheaply and over 60s get a deal on the weekday matinees but with a £44 top, you don't gamble on National productions unless it is something you feel you must see.
     Like New York, there is a half price ticket booth and on weekdays most shows are available. I have noticed that a lot of shows are no longer offering half price tickets, but something like 2/3 or 3/4 price tickets.
     The point of all this is -- if you are a theater fan and want to glut on theater, London is the place to be.   

Sunday, 9 January 2011


     Despite all the unnecessary, elephantine musicals based on movies that don't need to be turned into musicals and greatest hits compilations turned into musicals, there has been a lot of healthy experimentation in musical theater in the last few years. NEXT TO NORMAL, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, and THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS are examples of new and veteran creators rethinking what the musical can be and how it can address the world outsde the theater. Alas, two of the three bombed on Broadway which is now dependent on tourists who want large-scale, mindless entertainment. Many of them don't speak English (given the woeful lyrics of some f these shows, that is a virtue). If original, creative musicals are going to survive, they are going to be on a smaller scale and in some sort of non-profit theater dedicated to nurturing new work. Like serious drama, the serious musical has become an endangered species that needs protection away from Broadway or the West End in London. Recent small-scale revivals of past musicals has proven that good shows can also benefit from clever, minimalist productions.
     MIDSUMMER, a play with music by David Greig with songs by Gordon McIntyre, is an example of a lovely, small-scale musical. Two actors with guitars comprise the entire cast and band. The show was first performed to great acclaim at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. This is the second London run of a little show that has now been successfully mounted all over the world. With the right two performers it is a delightful adult musical.
     Helena is a thirty-five year old lawyer with a dismal romantic track record and a tendency to drink too much. Bob is a small-time gangster facing his thirty-fifth birthday and some serious questions about how he is going to spend the rest of his life. He is one of those sad souls who sees high school as the best time of his life. This unhappy, self-loathing couple meet in an Edinburgh wine bar. The play shows us their weekend together which takes them all over the city they both love. Their forty-eight hours is a final bout of total irresponsibility funded by fifteen thousand pounds  Bob was supposed to deposit into a gangster's bank account. Though they don't want to admit it, they are falling in love. On paper, these walking disaster areas don't sound like the sort of raw material for a delightful, feelgood evening of theater, but in the telling and acting, MIDSUMMER is a joy to behold.
    Bob and Helena's weekend misadventures are recounted in scenes, narration, songs, even a bit of audience participation. Greig's script could be a less glamorous version of one of those Richard Curtis romantic comedies, a Scots NOTTING HILL. But it has been shaped as a lively theatrical experience that consistently breaks the fourth wall and embraces its audience. There is no scenery except a bed and some very clever signage and virtually no costume changes. The two actors also play the small supporting roles. This is theater as play in the best sense. The simple, folksy songs fit perfectly. MIDSUMMER has received critical raves here and deserves them.
     The two charming, tireless performers, Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, quickly win the audience's affection. They're not great singers -- that would be out of character, but they totally inhabit their characters.   
     This is not a show to take the kiddies to. It is sexually candid. More important, it is about what it means to be grown up. A+
      MIDSUMMER is now being performed at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, North London, a 200 seat theatre that offers some of the most interesting contemporary theater work. The Tricycle produced THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN, the most exciting piece of new theater I have seen in the past few years. I read in the paper that on the basis of the play cycle's successful American tour the Pentagon in presenting it to its senior personnel. Too bad it wasn't availabe to them ten years ago!
MIDSUMMER, a play with music by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre, directed by David Greig. Tricycle Theatre. January 8, 2011.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

ON THE 20TH CENTURY - Union Theatre

     Over the past two years there has been a movement in London toward pocket-size revivals of classic American musicals. For years the 240 seat Donmar Warehouse has been mounting brilliant productions of Sondheim musicals (most recently PASSION) and serious musicals like Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's PARADE. Now even smaller fringe venues are beginning to follow suit. The seventry-five seat Union Theatre, under the railroad tracks near Waterloo Station specializes in musicals. The equally tiny Southwark Playhouse near London Bridge station is about to produce Sondheim's COMPANY. And now the claustrophobic King's Head pub theatre in Islington is producing a season of small-scale operas in modern revisions with piano accompaniment. These theatres offer excellent productions at bargain prices (£15 or less).
     These very low budget revivals depend on directoral ingenuity and good performances to compensate for the lack of spectacle. These minimalist productions also put the spotlight on script and score with no smoke and mirrors to cover their inadequacies.
      The first thing one remembers about the original Harold Prince production of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY in 1978 was the gorgeous scenery, all silver and art deco. It was one of the most visually beautiful productions I have ever seen. It was also a brilliant, funny show with a fast-paced book and  an extremely witty score and lyrics (Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green) that was closer to something like Bernstein's CANDIDE than the typical Broadway score. Coleman's score was very different from his catchy, tune-filled scores for SWEET CHARITY or BARNUM. There were no excerptable potential hit songs here. Everything fit character and situation and the style of the piece, more Rossini in places than Broadway. The music was as clever as the lyrics. The cast was brilliant -- John Cullum, Judy Kaye (replacing Madeleine Kahn), veteran comic Imogene Coca and the brilliant debut of Kevin Kline. Of course, something this sophisticated was lost in the giant St. James Theatre and, frankly, too intelligent for Broadway even in 1978 and ran for only a year. In 2011, it wouldn't stand a chance on Broadway.
     The Union Theatre production, cleverly directed by Ryan McBryde (choreographer Drew McOnie) had a hard-working cast of eleven playing all the roles as well as serving as chorus. The only sceneery were pieces of luggage and two door units on wheels. The costumes were pure thrift shop. The band consisted of four saxophones and a piano. As usual with these fringe productions, there were no microphones (horray!). What can I say? It all worked and made one appreciate what a good show this is. The book was wisely trimmed to the essentials so the focus was on the wonderful score. The cast was fine. Where do they get all these talented people who must be paid next to nothing? Howard Samuels, who played the crafty impressario Oscar Jaffe, doesn't have much of a singing voice but is a great stage comic, sort of Nathan Lane with a larger bag of tricks. The role of film star Lily Garland is a difficult one, requiring a singer who can both sing coloratura and belt, sometimes in the same phrase. The original Lily, Madeleine Kahn, left the show after a couple of months, claiming that the demands of the score ruined her voice. Rebecca Vere sang it all and played the comedy well. Everyone else was fine, particularly Valda Aviks as the mad evangelist, Letitia Primrose. Her part was tailor-made for Imogene Coca, but Aviks made it seem like it was written for her. The cast threw themselves into the madcap spirit of the show.
     Like the Union Theatre's IOLANTHE, the production of ON THE 20TH CENTURY managed to transcend the dumpy theater (though nothing could transcend the men's room!). Four stars!
ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Music by Cy Coleman. Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Union Theatre. January 5, 2011.  

Saturday, 1 January 2011


     I happen to be particularly fond of Wilde's AN IDEAL HUSBAND and A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, both of which hold more interest for me than his more often revived THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. Fortunately Wilde is often revived in London though, oddly, seldom at the National Theatre which doesn't seem very interested in one of England's greates playwrights.
     Here's a revival that did what a revival should do -- give enormous pleasure to those seeing the fine play for the first time and shedding new light on the work for those familiar with the play. Lindsay Posner's production managed to make the social comedy and well made play melodrama all of a piece. There's a tendency in Wilde revivals for characters to pose and to preen at their witticisms. All the actors in this production managed to act and react like human beings. The center of the production was Elliot Cowan's Lord Goring, the brilliantly witty man about town. Cowan's Goring showed both the pose and the man under the pose who was painfully aware of his own inadequacies. He was throughout a great listener as well as a witty performer. Rachel Stirling's Lady Chiltern was not just a priggish young woman, but an intelligent, passionate one. Samantha Bond's villainous Mrs. Cheveley was a woman who wanted power in a man's world and kenw the price she paid for not playing by the rules. The always reliable Alexander Hanson captured Chiltern's ambition and his devotion to his wife.
     Yes, the sets and costumes were gorgeous as they should be in a Wilde revival, but the production also reminded all of us in the audience that Wilde's comments on politics and human frailties are still pertinent even if his views on gender were shall we say unenlightened. I also felt in this production the presence of Wilde speaking through his characters his own awareness of the dangerous position in which he placed himself.
     A great way to begin a new year of theatergoing.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND. Vaudeville Theatre. January 1, 2011


1. AFTER THE DANCE. A perfect production of a gem of a play by Terence Rattigan, a playwright who is deservedly coming back into style. Oddly, this play has not received a major production since 1938. Magnificent cast with Nancy Carroll and Adrian Scarborough giving exemplary performances.
2. CLYBOURNE PARK. Bruce Norris's brilliant riff on Lorraine Hansberry's A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Funny, angry, sad all at once. A perfect cast and production.
3. PUNK ROCK. Another great Simon Stephens play, this one about disaffected youth, but not a cliche in sight. As usual in Stephens's work, someone goes violently, momentraily berserk, but the meltdown says much about where we are right now.
4. RUINED. I loved the script, didn't like the New York production, but the perfect production at the Almeida proved me right about Lynn Nottage's powerful play about women surviving in war torn Africa.
5.DESIGN FOR LIVING. A superb production that proved that this long, sometimes preachy Noel Coward comedy can work. Brilliant performances from Andrew Scott, Lisa Dillon and Tom Burke.
6. ALIENS. Annie Baker's touching little play about two thirty-something losers and a teenage boy who just might make it. Lovely!
7. HAMLET. Rory Kinnear is simply the best Hamlet I have seen. The rest B+ but he's definitely A+.
8. PASSION. A revelatory production of Sondheim's problematic pice at the Donmar, proving it works best small scale.
9. WHITE GUARD. Howard Davies superb, well cast production of Bulkagov's play about a family trying to survive the various 1918 Russian revolutions.
10. SPRING STORM. A moving production of a piece of Tennessee Williams juvenalia. Flawed but showing the marks of a great playwright.
LA BETE. A perhaps clever skit in rhymed couplets bloated into a tedious ninety minute play to showcase once again the irritating Mark Rylance. I know some people think he's a great actor. I think he's Britain's answer to Nathan Lane and from me that's not a compliment!
LOVE NEVER DIES. Incoherent mush. A sequel to PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. One of those productions when one asks "Why did they bother?" throughout. Great sets. I understand they have revised the script somewhat but the raw materials for a good musical simply aren't there. Like a score worth hearing, intelligent lyrics, an interesting story, characters.
PYGMALION. Rupert Everett giving the worst performance of the year. His co-star, Honeysuckly Weeks (I'm not kidding) looked like Eliza Doolittle's mother and almost matched Everett in awfulness.
Some comedies that shouldn't be revived -- SEASONS GREETINGS, WHEN WE ARE MARRIED
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (Broadway). One of many totally unnecessary musicals  made from movies that are perfect in their own right. This one a particularly incoherent mess despite a starry cast. Awful score. Not all movies make good musicals!!!!!!!!!!
DON GIOVANNI at the English National Opera. I'm not a purist about opera productions but this one by Rufus Norris made the supposedly aristocratic, sexy Don into an ugly slob few women would be interested in. Poorly conducted. Mediocre cast. At the English National Opera prices, this is not good enough
THE NUTCRACKER at the English National Ballet. I am a sucker for The Nutcracker. I love the music, grew up with the Balanchine production, have fond memories of the American Ballet Theatre's quasi-Freudian production in the 1970s and think the Royal Ballet production is close to perfect. This one was a mess, rendering the story incoherent. Choreographer Wayne Eagling, a former star dancer, knows how to choreograph for men, but not for women. The dancers ranged from mediocre to poor. They wouldn't have made the corps of the Royal Ballet.


     Sometimes a theater has to revive a play to see whether it is worth reviving. The proof is in the production. The National put one of its best directors, Marianne Elliott, and a cast of star comics, all known from television as well as the stage (Catherine Tate, Mark Gatiss, Katherine Parkinson, Nicola Walker) to the task of reviving Alan Ayckbourn's 1980 comedy, SEASONS GREETINGS. Alas, all that talent could not bring the corpse to life.
     Ayckbourn was sort of the Neil Simon of Britain. He had a highly successful career in the commerical theater in the 1960 and 1970s writing comedies about British middle class folk, prosperous, but not contented. The plays were basically situation comedies with a touch of seriousness. Some of them (THE NORMAN CONQUEST, ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR) were hits on both sides of the Atlantic and very funny in their time. But, as Neil Simon's comedies are hard to revive now (even his best work, the fine BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, flopped in a Broadway revival last year). Tastes in comedy change -- the history of theater proves that few comedies from the past stand the test of time.
     There are half a dozen funny moments in SEASONS GREETINGS separated by setups that last far too long. You see the payoff coming long before it does. You can build a mystery on such prolonged foreplay, but not a comedy. Director Marianne Elliott made the mistake of taking the play more seriously than it deserves. I think she saw in it a play about frustrated women and inadequate men and tried to get her talented cast to play it realistically. Unfortunately the characters are thinner than cardboard and the attempts to lend them more depth only showed how thin they were. The cast deserves A for effort, but I wanted to scream "Faster, louder." It was all too tasteful. Ayckbourn wrote his plays for an intimate theater-in-the-round in Scarborough. The enormous three level set on the giant stage of the Lyttleton  seemed to swallow the slight play up.
     The really good performers were interesting to watch. The weaker ones were not, particularly Katherine Parkinson (from the hit tv series DOC MARTIN), a one note actress who always gets tiresome on stage. She was the very weak link in Mike Bartlett's COCK last winter and in this one as well.
      The performance received polite applause from a New Years Eve audience. Not only of the National's finest hours. In this age of budget cuts, it's a shame to see so much money wasted on minor fluff.
SEASONS GREETINGS by Alan Ayckbourn. Royal National Theatre. December 31, 2010