Wednesday, 30 March 2011


     This is the second revival of a Clifford Odets play this season (THE COUNTRY GIRL was revived successfully on the West End -- see below). I have always considered Odets an underrated playwright. At his best, he is the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and far superior to the clunky, over-rated Eugene O'Neill. His territory was second generation Americans trying to survive economically and spiritually in New York during the depression. ROCKET TO THE MOON (1938) takes place in a dentist's office. It is summer during the depression so there are no patients. Ben Stark is a sweet 40 year old who has a childlike desire to please everyone. Belle, his wife wants him to be tougher and more practical but also more loving. Their marriage is childless -- a child died and she cannot have another -- and Belle needs both economic and emotional security. She isn't on speaking terms with her wealthy father because he didn't offer her mother enough love.  Both Ben and his father fall in love with Ben's young assistant, Cleo, who is a strange combination of innocence and experience. Cleo fabricates most of her biography but insists on honesty from the people around her. In her own way, she is emotionally demanding, but not overbearing. She's young, sexy and full of hope. Both Ben and his father fall in love with her, but neither can offer her what she wants.
     There isn't much action in ROCKET TO THE MOON and not much in the way of a narrative. People talk on hot summer afternoons and evenings. Characters philosophize. We see the desperation of one dentist who eventually has to sell his blood to pay his debts. Everyone is lonely and frightened. Everyone wants some economic security and a reason to live in an irrational world. There is no God in Odets's world. People are flawed, but decent and depend on other people for any meaning in their lives. But all the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue so convincingly real but at the same time eloquent that one is totally absorbed for the play's two and three-quarters hours.
     Typical of National Theatre productions, the set is far too massive. This enormous dentist's office with thirty-foor high walls, is like a giant Edward Hopper painting. Angus Jackson has directed his fine cast well. As always, Joseph Millson totaly inhabits his character. Millson is one of the finest actors of his generation. It is wonderful to see him back doing real work after wasting him time and talent for a year in LOVE NEVER DIES. We see Ben's weakness, his eagerness to please, and his awareness that there simply isn't much inside. Jessica Raine's voice and fake New York accent are irritating at times, but she captures both what is loveable and what is potentially destructive about Cleo. Keeley Hawes is too beautiful for Belle but she finds the vulnerabillity and insecurity under Belle's bossiness. This tv star has lists no stage credits in the program which may explain why I had trouble hearing her in her early scenes. Nicholas Wodeson and Peter Sullivan were their usual brilliant selves. Mr. Prince, Belle's estranged father, offers the only real humor in the play and Wodeson lit up the stage every time he strutted into the office. Sullivan captured the desperation of an able man who can no longer support his family and has lost his pride.
     ROCKET TO THE MOON seems quite timely in a time of raising unemployment and a general sense of financial unease. Odets' characters have an unlikely combination of desperation and optimism. It is their emotional complexity, their contradictions that make them among the most fascinating characters in American drama. I would have preferred to see this fine revival in a more intimate space than the unfriendly Lyttleton Theatre, but I'm so glad I saw it.
ROCKET TO THE MOON. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. March 29, 2011.    

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

CAUSE CELEBRE at the Old Vic

     CAUSE CELEBRE was Terence Rattigan's last play, produced in 1977, the year of his death. By that time he was considered a representative of a long lost period of British drama, replaced by more modern writers like Pinter, Osborne and, briefly, Joe Orton. Through major revivals of his work in this, his centenary year, theatergoers see a fine craftsman with the gift of creating complex, rich characters. Like his American contemporary, Tennessee Williams, Rattigan was best at writing women and, in a more understated way than Williams, the ways in which female sexuality comes into conflict with social norms and the expectations of marriage.
     Based on a 1935 murder case in which a woman and her eighteen-year-old lover are accused of murdering the woman's husband, CAUSE CELEBRE, at its best moments, focuses on two women whose sexuality, or lack of same, do not jibe with the expectations of middle-class marriage. From the first, we see Alma Rattenbury (Anne-Marie Duff)as a vibrant, sexual woman trapped in a comfortable, but sexless marriage to an older man who doesn't seem at all interested in her. Her interview of seventeen-year-old George, who has applied for a job as gardener, is a seduction. To the public, the murder case is sensational because Alma is having sex (twice a night according to the papers) with a boy twenty years younger than she. Alma's sexual transgressions are more horrible to the public than the murdering of her husband and deserving of the death penalty. Alma is contrasted with Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack) who is appointed forewoman of the jury that will decide Alma's guilt or innocence. Edith has lost her husband because of her refusal to have sex with him and her morality that will not accept that he may need to find sex elsewhere while still loving her. Edith tells the judge that she can not possibly judge Alma fairly because she so despises her immorality. Edith's son, the same age as Alma's lover, has a sexually transmitted dsease from an encounter with a prostitute and has moved in with his estranged father because he knows his mother will never understand or forgive him. "That damned woman," Edith cries, as if Alma Rattenbury had somehow indirectly seduced her son. Yet Edith's strict morality saves Alma who is innocent of the murder. For Edith, the law must be obeyed, and however much the public wants sinful Alma to hang, she shouldn't die for a crime she did not commit.
     My first impulse was to blame the play for the lack of focus. I left thinking that had Rattigan written CAUSE CELEBRE when he was in better health, he might have shaped it into a powerful study of these two women. I still stick by some of this first impression. The many courtroom scenes and scenes between the male barristers are not particularly interesting because the lawyers aren't interesting characters. We really needed more domestic scenes and less of the trial. Rattigan's greatest play about a trial, THE WINSLOW BOY, never shows us the courtroom but stays in the home of the major characters. The contrast between Alma and Edith is the main interest here and everything else seems to be tangential.
     However, after rereading the script I see that Thea Sharrock, who directed the brilliant production of Rattigan's AFTER THE DANCE at the National last year, is partly to blame for the sense that the focus is not as fully on Alma and Edith as it should be. She has played to the problems of the cavernous, unfriendly Old Vic by using a very deep playing area. Many scenes call out for intimacy and the staging and set often place the actors too far from the audience which seemed odd as the thrust stage would allow actors to get closer. The cast seemed uniformly fine but in the fourth row of the circle of the Old Vic I could not see faces and thus was emotionally distanced from the action. I have come to realize that if one isn't in the first fifteen or sixteen rows of the stalls of the Old Vic, there isn't much point in being there at all.
     CAUSE CELEBRE may not be Rattigan at his best. However, it is a better play than one sees in this production. I'd love to see it in a more intimate space.
CAUSE CELEBRE. Old Vic Theatre. March 21, 2011.       

Monday, 21 March 2011


     We had tickets to see Rupert Goold's production of ROMEO AND JULIET during the Royal Shakespeare Company fall season at the Roundhouse in London, but the snowstorm made travel to North London impossible, so we got tickets for its return engagement in the newly refurbished theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon. This way we could see the new facilities and a production we wanted to see.
     The trip up and back was longer and more tedious than usual. Because of track work, we had to take a train to Birmingham, walk between New Street Station and Moor Street Station, then get on a small train that made seventeen stops between Birmingham and Stratford. The train was like a third class carriage out of the nineteenth century, dirty and overcrowded. We walked down to the theatre complex hoping to have a nice lunch in the Riverside Cafeteria, but there is no longer a nice cafeteria. It has been halved in size and is a coffee bar with a few sandwiches. In fact, all the public spaces are less satisfactory than before. The new lobby is very shallow. To get from the new box office to the main theatre, one has to wend one's way through the souvenir stands. The passageways leading into the auditorium are narrow and not well marked causing crowds of people in cramped space. Whoever planned the spaces had no conception of flow of people. The new bathrooms are small so there are long lines to the ladies room on the narrow hallways during the interval. The lovely old lobbies are now bars -- in fact dispensing alcohol seems to be a priority now. The front of the main theatre looks derelict with boys biking and skateboarding on the steps and ramps when actually the old entrance would be the best way into the new theatre. The renovation looks cheap and is anything but beautiful. The new auditorium is functional. As expected, it is like the temporary theatre they have been using -- a thousand seat auditorium with the audience seated on three sides of a large thrust stage. However, with only two entrances on every level, getting in and out of the auditorium is a problem. There is no longer a nice bookshop and souvenir store -- that too has been turned into a bar. So the RSC has destroyed what was a lovely, functioning theatre building to create a homely one that does not function well as a public space. They should rethink the use of space -- turn the new lobby into a bar-cafeteria and use the old lobby and entrance. What happened to the beautiful art deco box office kiosk? There is a new tower that is not essential and does not fit nto the original architecture, but if one pays £2.50 treks up three flights of stairs, then takes the lift up, one gets a lovely aerial view of Stratford and the countryside.
     I think the critics were very generous to the production of ROMEO AND JULIET -- or the actors have simply gotten tired of performing it. Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale did give comitted performances in the title roles. Troughton (His father, a fine character actor was a mainstay of the company for years. His grandfather was the second DR WHO) is one of those actors with no notes in his voice. He can go loud and soft but with no variety of intonation. He speaks clearly and made sense of the language. He also avoided making Romeo's post-banishment weeping and wailing moving rather than irritating (Goold followed contemporary practice and conflated and shortened the scenes of Romeo and Juliet lamenting Romeo's banishment). Gale is a homely actress and played Juliet as a gawky adolescent, but was always affecting. In many ways, she was the best Juliet I have seen. Eveyone else was mediocre. Jonjo O'Neill's Mercutio was obnoxious -- I wanted to cheer his death. The rest phoned in their performances. I have never seen actors make so little of the Nurse or Lord Capulet or even Paris. They may have been avoiding the conventional interpretations of their roles, but they had no ideas of their own about their characters.
     I have mixed feelings about Rupert Goold as a director. I have seen fine work, like his TIME AND THE CONWAYS at the NT and SIX CHARACTERS at Chichester, and dreadful, self-indulgent work like his TURANDOT for the English National Opera. Here he had a few directoral ideas that were not fully developed. We begin in a contemporary Italian museum with Romeo hearing the prologue through an audio guide. Romeo and Juliet are in contemporary clothes while everyone else is in period costume, until the final scenes when they are also in period clothing. Is the young man in the museum imagining himself as Romeo and imagining his Juliet? Why the change in costume? Why does Bathasar sing his crucial Act V lines in falsetto. The production was well staged, but not well directed -- that is, other than Romeo and Juliet, I felt no relationships between the characters. The RSC has proudly promoted this ensemble as a return to being a real repertory company but I didn't see ensemble acting -- I saw a lot of individuals who were not clarifying character relationships. This company has been working together for two years now. Perhaps they are tired of each other and the plays they are performing.   
ROMEO AND JULIET. Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. March 19, 2011.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


There's so much to see in London that I seldom go back to a production for a second time, but I did want to see this COMPANY again and wanted to make sure my partner saw it. I have already written a blog entry on this production (see below). Second viewings of a show can be tricky, particularly when one knows the work well. There are no surprises, so one starts looking for the flaws. I am delighted to say this COMPANY was as wonderful the second time around. I am still astounded by Rupert Young's performance. He brings more to Bobby than anyone I have seen and sings the music beautifully. I only hope the producers find another role for him. The entire ensemble is excellent, particularly the women who find every bit of humor in their roles. I can't imagine a better performance of this great musical. Kudos to everyone, especially Joe Fredericks for such fine staging and character work.