Thursday, 30 June 2011


     With the marathon of the Duke in London Drama Programs and theatre daily, I have to shorten my reviews in the summer.
     MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Shakespeare's Globe. Charles Edwards was excellent as Benedick. I had trouble hearing Eve Best. Dogberry was tedious. The rest of the cast was good, but not great. There was one major flaw in the production: it was all played as if everyone were front and center as in a proscenium theatre which meant that the 1/3 of the audience at the sides was ignored all night. A bit alienating. The production, like many at the Globe, didn't have an idea in its head.
     Harold Pinter's BETRAYAL is a play that seems to change with every cast that performs it. In this case. Kristen Scott-Thomas made more out of the often enigmatic EMMA than any other actress I have seen in the part. Ben Miles was very good as Robert, Emma's husband and for me the pivotal character in the work. Here is a man who allows his wife to continue to sleep with his best friend for years. Douglas Henshall as the somewhat clueless lover seemed lost with Pinter's language which didn't seem natural at all as he spoke it. Henshall is Scottish and may not have the same speech rhythms. His speaking seemed too monotone to me. The production was good enough to remind me what a fascinating play this is.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Shakespeare's Globe. June 27, 2011. BETRAYAL. Comedy Theatre, June 28, 2011.


     I found Howard Davies' production of Chekhov's CHERRY ORCHARD at the National to be alternately soporific and infuriating. Draining the play of most of its humor goes against the grain of this play and Chekhov's other work. Seeing the play as a presage of what will follow in Russia belies the play's spirit. Lopahin becomes more angry and nasty than usual, therefore not sympathetic. Pyotr becomes an ardent revolutionary instead of an eternal student preaching the value of work without doing any work. Zoe Wanamaker's Madame Ranevskaya is so concerned with her ailing lover in Paris and her dead son that she is not at all involved in the present. There's lots of sound and fury in the production but Chekhov's round characters seemed very flat.
     Then there's the Olivier problem. The Olivier works for a large-scale play like EMPEROR AND GALILIEAN. This is the second CHERRY ORCHARD I have seen in there and both productions have been swallowed up by the scale of the theatre and the size of that open stage. The theatre seems to slow the play down and drain it of energy.
     The sets were those same fading white walls and multiple windows that seem to recycly through every National Theatre production of a Russian play. It seems to be their "Russian set." I have seen it too often.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD. National Theatre Olivier Theatre. June 28, 2011.    


     For its first London production, Ben Power has trimmed Ibsen's mammoth philosophical closet drama from what would take around ten hours to a concise three and a quarter hours (including intermission). That's a lot of cutting. Power has also added some moments for dramatic coherence. The result may be a very distilled Ibsen, but with Jonathan Kent's dynamic direction and some fine performances, particularly Andrew Scott's in the marathon role of Julian, the result is totally absorbing.
     There are resonances of Hamlet in Julian. His father and mother have been murdered by his uncle, now the Emperor and Julian lives in fear of what the emperor might do to him. Julian is something of an intellectual, more concerned with ideas than with reality. He wants to believe in Christianity, now the official religion of the Roman empire, but can't. He runs to Athens to study philosophy, but the Athens of his time is very different from that of Plato. After his brother's murder he becomes a war hero. Eventually, to survive, he must start a rebellion against the emperor or be killed by him. When he becomes emperor, he becomes a living example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. He first declares freedom of religion while establishing the pagan gods as the official deities. He then becomes obsessed with Christianity as his adversary. It's either him or Christ. He then decides that he must be god. Julian moves, then, from a weak, vacillating young man to a tyrant. He wants to believe in some divine power, but even his spiritual adviser says that "There's only you."
     Andrew Scott gives a magnificent performance as Julian. capturing his spiritual, intelelctual and moral descent in a bloody world (the Christians are as blood-thirsty as he is. Scott is supported by a cast of fifty. Ian McDiarmid is powerful as his mystical guru, James McArdle and John Heffernan moving as the close friends Julian betrays. Jonathan Kent's staging uses the Olivier's drum revolve effectively. It's a grand, almost operatic production, but the characters shine through.
     This production of EMPEROR AND GALILEAN is a special event, one of the high points of my theatergoing over the past year or so.
EMPEROR AND GALILEAN. National Theatre Olivier Theatre, June 26, 2011.

Saturday, 25 June 2011


     Farce is harder to realize successfully than many think. It needs a consistent style, actors who are adept vocally and physically and who bring some of their own personality to the roles and who fuse into an ensemble (farce is a team sport), tempo and a light touch.
     This week I saw two classic farces back to back. Nicolai Gogol's 1834 classic, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR under Richard Jones's direction at the Young Vic and Shakespeare's COMEDY OF ERRORS performed by Edward Hall's Propellor at the Hampstead. Both were highly enjoyable but COMEDY OF ERRORS was something special -- one of the funniest performances I have seen in a long time.
      THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR is still timely. A bunch of mediocre, corrupt local officials are terrified of the impending visit of a government inspector. They mistakenly think a dissolute young man staying at the hotel is the august personage, so they wine and dine and bribe him. He is more than happy to accept the food and drink, the money, everyone's rapt attention at his outlandish stories about himself, and the attentions of the mayor's wife and daughter. The young man is a loser who is full of grandiose fantasies about himself the townspeople completely accept. The officials are idiots. Like many contemporary directors, Richard Jones plays THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR as a stylized, highly theatrical extravaganza. When the curtain rises, the mayor is having a nightmare. The word "Incognito" flashes all over the set and he is confronted by two large rats. Julian Barratt's mayor is a descendent of John Cleese's hotelier in FAWLTY TOWERS, always on the brink of a hissy fit. His underlings are a bizarre lot. His wife and daughter dress in their bizarre idea of high fashion. Kyle Soller plays the young imposter competently. He just doesn't have much of an individual personality and he works a bit too hard. We shouldn't see the effort in farce. The sets and costumes are purposely and delightfully hideous. The tempo is fast, but GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR is a long play -- too long --some of the first act could have been cut. David Harrower's translation is lively and witty.
     THE COMEDY OF ERRORS in Mexico instead of Ephesus? Why not? The costumes are perhaps nineteen-sixties or out of a terrible thrift shop. The set is covered in graffiti. The cast act and serve as a backup band. If one wants a production of COMEDY OF ERRORS that is character driven or that suggests that there is any emotional weight to the play, this isn't it. Instead we have a raucous vaudeville that is an absolute joy to experience (not for everyone -- some spoilsports left at the interval). I haven't laughed so hard in the theater in years.
     Propellor is an all-male company, so we have grown men as the female characters. In this case, they play up the tacky drag.
     The production is full of wonderful surprises, including an interval charity concert given by the cast in the bar during the interval.
THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR. Young Vic Theatre. June 22, 2011. THE COMEDY OF ERRORS. Hampstead Theatre. June 23, 2011.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

SHE LOVES ME at Chichester Theatre Festival

     SHE LOVES ME is one of the best pre-Sondheim American musicals. It came at a fallow time for Broadway musical comedy. Jerry Herman's overblown HELLO, DOLLY was the reigning hit with its camp heroine and big production numbers. SHE LOVES ME is a small, scale musical with little dancing and not much of a chorus. What it does have is one of the best scores (Jerry Bock) of any American musical, so much music that it filled two lps on the first original cast album. The songs are character driven in the manner we associate with later Sondheim musicals 1963, the year SHE LOVES ME opened, was also the year A FUNNY THING ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM appeared at the Alvin Theare four blocks north. The lyrics by Sheldon Harnick perfectly fit the characters who sing them. Joe Masterhoff's book, an adaptation of the film, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and the Hungarian play on which it is based, is economical (the songs do most of the work) but well-crafted. It's a gem of a show. It wasn't a hit on its first outing despite a starry cast (Barbara Cook, Barbara Baxley, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy) and a lovely production by Hal Prince, one of the first shows he directed as well as produced.
     The characters all work in a Budapest parfumerie before World War II. There is a battling couple who really are in love with each other; a vain, caddish ladies man and his sometime lover, a Hungarian Ado Annie; the owner who realizes his best days are past, an eager young delivery boy and a paragon of common sense. The songs turn these types into characters one cares about.
      Older-time show buffs like me know the original cast album well. It is difficult not to hear Barbara Cook's beautifully sung "Dear Friend" or her almost hysterical discovery of love in "Ice Cream" while watching any production of SHE LOVES ME. Nor can ayone who saw the original forget Jack Cassidy's hilarious ladies man. For those of us who know and love the show, every revival can't help but be compared to the original. There was a Broadway and London revival that was quite good (John Gordon Sinclair and Ruthie Henshall in London).  Now there is this new production at the Chichester Theatre Festival directed by Stephen Mears. Wisely, the festival has put this intimate show in its smaller theatre.
      Mears is an excellent choreographer, but SHE LOVES ME isn't a dance show. In the first act, he seems to want to choreograph the numbers in a way that simply doesn't fit the characters. As a result, moments scream "musical!" when they should be more character-driven. He lets up in the second act (perhaps he ran out of time). The cast is good to very good. The strongest are Steve Elias as the cautious family man, Sipos, and Annette McLaughlin as the illiterate, man hungry Ilona Ritter. They inhabit their characters most fully. The two leads are a mixed bag. Joe McFadden is charming, but too nice. McFadden seems to want the audience to like him at moments he should not be likeable. He has a sweet little singing voice, a size or two too small for the title song, but he tends to "perform" his numbers rather than act them. Perhaps a director with more experience working with actors would have helped him. Dianne Pilkington in the Barbara Cook role suffers from not being Barbara Cook. Her soprano voice is edgy and wobbly at times. She also suffers from lack of direction. I remember that Amalia's song that ends the first act, "Dear Friend" was heartbreaking when Barbara Cook sang it. Here Pinkington's first choice is to make the song comic, then get more serious. The song just didn't have the emotional force it should have had.
      Anthony Ward's black and white sets were beautiful.
      I enjoyed this production because I love the show. However, there's a richer show there than Stephen Mears and his cast presented.
SHE LOVES ME. Minerva Theatre at the Chichester Theatre Festival. June 18, 2011.      

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


Director Michael Grandage has made the plays of Friedrich Schiller something of a specialty. his DON CARLO with Derek Jacobi and Richard Coyle was so good that I didn't miss Verdi's magnificent music for his operatic setting of the play. MARY STUART with Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer was riveting. And now his version of Schiller's early play, KABALLE UND LIEBE (Intrigue and Love) has opened at the Donmar as LUISE MILLER. Again, I know this work from Verdi's operatic version, LUISA MILLER, but had never seen the play which, according to the program essay, is the most produced play of this great, great playwright in his native land.
LUISE MILLER is what is termed a "bourgeois tragedy," a genre that became popular in the mid-18th century (Schiller's play was first performed in 1774). These plays center on a middle class family who are threatened and destroyed by the prevailing class system. Louise is the daughter of a musician who gains most of his income from appearances at court. She falls in love with the son of the most powerful man in the region. He loves her in return but his ruthless father wants to marry him off to someone who will confer more power on the family. It does not end well for poor Luise. In the hands of some playwrights of the period, this sort of story is pure pathos. In Schiller's hands, it is a blistering picture of a society in which ruthless despots rule. The only thing of value is power and those who have it simply don't care about anyone else. Schiller is the great 18th century advocate of liberty and even his domestic dramas focus on politics. He also takes a complex view of what could be stock characters. The noble young man is dangerously naive. The villainness is herself exploited and knows it.
Grandage obviously loves these plays and knows how to make them work for a contemporary audience. Schiller's plays are grand -- almost operatic (no wonder Verdi was drawn to them) -- but Grandage finds a balance between the grand emotions and the intimate space of the Donmar. His staging is simple and effecting and the setting is spare -- a necessity on the open stage of he Donmar. The lighting is harsh but effective. Most of all, Grandage knows how to bring out the best in his actors. Alex Kingston (of ER and DR WHO fame) is terrific as the cynical mistress. She has the longest speeches in the play and finds all the emotional changes in them. Ben Daniels and John Light are a great pair as the tyrannical Chancellor and his henchman, aptly named Wurm. The always reliable Paul Higgins makes Luisa's father totally believable -- a nice, somewhat ineffectual man trying to protect his family. I don't think I have ever seen Felicity Jones before, but her Luisa was not just a sweet young thing. She was tough when she needed to be.
There were a few jarring anachronisms in Mike Poulton's translation, but on the whole it was effective.   
This is one of Michael Grandage's last productions as artistic director of the Donmar and one of his best.
LUISE MILLER. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. June 8, 2011.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

THE ACID TEST at the Royal Court

      When you come up the stairs to the Royal Court Upstairs Theatre, an usher tells you to follow the corridor to Flat #11. So you go down a created hallway with flat doors, open the door to 11 and find yourself in a sloppy London apartment. Magazines, glasses, ashtrays are strewed about. You take one of the eighty or so seats ranged in two rows on three sides of this playing area. Doing so, you have entered the world of three twenty-something young women, the world of teenage playwright Anya Reiss's second hit in a year, THE ACID TEST. Reiss writes what she knowes, the world of young women like herself (you can't fault her for that) and she writes about it brilliantly. The language rings true, but it is also witty and polished. The charaters could be like those in a sitcom -- the pretty blonde who sleeps around, the brunette who has a disastrous breakup with her countercultural boyfriend, the serious one with family issues. But, unlike sitcom writing committees, Reiss cares about truth of character. On one rainy night, the serious one brings her father back to the flat. He has left home because his wife is having an affair with their roofing contractor. What transpires is a night of drinking, smoking (tobacco and pot), dancing, and confessing. The middle-aged father tries to become the pals to his daughter's roommates and rather viciously tries to set them against her. The roomates try to deal with their disastrous love lives.      THE ACID TEST is best when it stays funny. The long father-daughter confrontation doesn't ring quite as true as the drunken banter that precedes it. It has received a perfect production. Reiss's plays probably benefit from being in the intimate upstairs theater. Simon Godwin's idea of giving the play an almost environmental presentation was an excellent one. All three girls are totally convincing and Denis Lawson captures all the facets of the father, surprisingly the best written of the characters (Reiss seems to be particularly good with fathers). 
     Once again, the Royal Court has picked a winner.
THE ACID TEST. Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs Theatre. June 4, 2011.  

Saturday, 4 June 2011


     Tarrell Alvin McCraney has shown himself in recent work (WIG OUT, THE BROTHERS SIZE) to be one of the most interesting young American playwrights. He has a unique gift for poetic language and storytelling that allows him to depict aspects of African-American culture from urban drag queens to rural farmers. He is also one of the chief chroniclers of the gay African-American experience. Recently, McCraney has served as playwright-in-residnce to the Royal Shakespeare Company, a position that has taken him away from the African-American culture he knows best. His latest play, AMERICAN TRADE, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and written particularly for members of the company that has been performing together for almost three years now -- a true repertory company and a change from recent years during which the Royal Shakespeare Company has not really been a company at all. Writing a play for a particular group of actors has its virtues and defects. You can write to the actors' strengths, but it may take you from your subject matter.
     AMERICAN TRADE is certainly a disappointment for us admirers of McCraney's work. It is glib, aiming for laughs rather than any insights into character and situation. It is possible to do both. AMERICAN TRADE, in Jamie Lloyd's overloud production, is neither funny nor insightful.
     Pharus is an African-American rent boy who runs to London to escape the clutches of a hip-hop star who wants to own him. For some reason, a dotty woman who runs a PR agency with her neurotic lesbian daughter wants Pharis to set up a modeling agency for her. Actually, Pharus's plan is for the modeling agency to be a cover for an odd band of male and female prostitutes he has assembled. AMERICAN TRADE is really a farce, but heavy-handed drector Jamie Lloyd doesn't seem to know how to direct farce which depends on bizarre situations being played as if they were completely normal. Farce takes a light touch. It shouldn't be shouted and amplified for a 300 seat theatre like the Hampstead. The play itself isn't much, but I blame Lloyd for the labored production. It was all "faster-louder" and, oddly, no sense of a  consistent acting style from this company that has worked together for years. No one seemed to be acting "with" their fellow actors. And playwright, director and actors seemed to have little concern about developing characters the audience could care about at all. Even in farce, one has to feel some interest in the protagonist.
     This was a really long 90 minutes. I looked at my watch halfwa through and couldn't believe only 45 minutes had passed.
AMERICAN TRADE. Hampstead Theatre. June 3, 2011.