Good Dog. Watford Palace Theatre at the SJT Scarborough.

Goodness gonna mow you down and swerve round them.

The boy in Arinzé Kene’s play Good Dog has been told by his now absent dad that all he has to do is be good, help his mum, work hard and stay out of trouble, and good things will come to him. He is holding onto that but life is hard and sometimes it seems a long wait. The play is the story of his awakening to the fact that being good is not always enough- sometimes you have to do what is right for you in order to keep your self respect and walk with your head held high. Along the way he describes for us a whole community. We hear their voices as he listens and get to know the shopkeepers, the what what girls and the smoking boys who surround him, and we come to know and like him. He is a decent young man who has a basic naive goodness and charm. When he finally snaps at the end of the first half we feel for him. It has been a long time coming.

Kwaku Mills graduated from RADA last year and he has a big job on to play the boy. He succeeds wonderfully. It is a long one man play- both technically and emotionally difficult- and a real tour de force. Anyone who sees this play on his CV will know that he has serious talent. The range needed is impressive. We believe in him absolutely as a young, well meaning, vulnerable teenager and when he appears, high up on the set at the start of the second half, it is immediately clear that he has been hardened by life and is now a man. He is now prepared to take action and stand up for himself in order to keep the self respect that life has tried so hard to take from him. While it is sad to see him drawn into direct action and violence we are carefully shown the reasons and it is clear that the bedrock of his character has not changed. Being good is complicated and there are more ways of being a decent person than he had understood as a young boy.

Technically the play is beautifully put together. The sound and lighting design is crucial and needs to be perfectly timed. The direction from Natalie Ibu keeps things moving well and adds variety and pace. There is a lot of good, well structured writing from Arinzé Kene but sometimes I did feel a bit of editing would have sharpened the points he was making. The set, by designer Amelia Jane Hankin, is impressive, a giant climbable cube made from weathered slats and it is used to full effect.

It was great to see a slice of London life in far away Scarborough. It isn’t the sort of play which will gather an audience easily here but when theatre is as good as this it needs to be seen so I am glad that the SJT invited it up. I don’t think this is the last I will hear of Kwaku Mills.

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Tobacco Factory Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 11-10-18

Production-photos-collage-Henry-V

Production images by Craig Fuller.

I had been looking forward to the Tobacco Factory Theatre’s production of Henry V and I wasn’t disappointed. They are one of the best small scale theatre companies doing Shakespeare in the country and we are lucky to be able to see them up in Scarborough, a long way from their home in Bristol. The round at the Stephen Joseph is a perfect space for them- a home from home which reflects their own Factory theatre- and the production energised the space beautifully. Even within a relatively small matinee audience I could feel the tension ramp up and the temperature drop as we watched the devastating final scenes. Put simply- it worked.

While more could have been done with the characters of the bunch of renegades who went to war with Henry all the cast worked hard and delivered well. There were three performances which were outstanding for me. Ben Hall gave us a Henry who was clearly still struggling for control of himself, his dissolute past never far away. This was not a king who had shrugged off his past and chosen the route of leadership and duty easily without looking back. He is no hero, his route to becoming a great king throughout the play is fraught and costs him dear. In a small space every expression, every small gesture, is seen in detail, there is nowhere to hide, and this was a performance with great truth. He is young and relatively inexperienced and I hope that someone from one of the national companies has taken note. When he had scenes with Heledd Gwynn, another relatively inexperienced actor, the play really caught fire. I absolutely loved her performance, both as the Dauphin and Katherine- I doubt I will see anyone I like better in that role. She was full of fire and energy, a true warrior who wore her pain and outrage as a badge of honour. It was a masterful idea to combine the two roles and transpose the scene where Katherine learns some English onto the battlefield over the body of Orleans. It made the later scene where Henry has to persuade her to marry him absolutely electrifying. There was pain, resentment and anger but at the same time she knew what she had to do. It was quite different to the way that scene is usually played and it was a revelation. I shall be looking out for her in anything she does in the future- I have a feeling there will be plenty.

It was a great pleasure to see an experienced actor alongside those two shining young people playing the Chorus and Burgundy. Joanne Howarth was excellent, drawing us in and speaking directly to us in exactly the way that the round loves. Every word was thought through, engaging and accurate. She knew exactly what she was doing and there is no better feeling for an audience than having a close connection in a small space with an actor who you know is not going to let you down. You don’t develop that kind of skill overnight and it was a pleasure to see. The chorus is one of the most important parts in the play. It provides an ironic and lyrical voice to comment on the action and drive the play forward and it really matters that it is done well.

I have already praised the direction and Elizabeth Freestone’s considerable experience showed throughout, both on a large scale, allowing pace and clarity, and in small details like the way that French and English armies were able to transform into each other instantly with subtle changes of attitude and costume. Lily Arnold’s set and costume design worked perfectly, mesh boxes and rubble for a set and weathered military jerkins that crossed the centuries, creating an archetypal world that could be anywhere, anytime. Exactly right for a play that will never lose it’s relevance while people still fight and those who are caught up in the carnage- not least the leaders- have to attempt to deal with the damage.

Alleluyah! The Bridge Theatre. 5-9-18

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

Nobody likes old people- old people don’t like old people.

Alan Bennett’s play Alleluyah! at the new Bridge theatre is a brave but flawed piece of theatre. It takes some big ideas and a large cast and shows us a time of crisis in a small Northern NHS Hospital threatened with closure. In particular it shows us the ups and downs of life on the Dusty Springfield ward where a group of frail elderly people are hanging in there, not quite ready to give up yet. They are kept going, in spite of pain, frustration and a ward sister who has a sinister list of patients who are becoming too much trouble, by their ward choir and the dedication and kindness of young Doctor Valentine- a lovely performance by Sacha Dhawan. There are some great moments and plenty of trademark Alan Bennett one liners and revue numbers where the elderly patients are set free to dance and sing but I came away thinking that while there was a lot to enjoy what could have been a great piece of theatre just didn’t quite work as it should have done. I am not for a moment suggesting that it is bad- Alan Bennett and his director Nicholas Hytner would have to work very hard to be that- but it felt like it wanted to be The History Boys or Forty Years On and got a bit lost in the attempt. There was good acting, good writing and good staging but alongside this there were moments where you could see what Alleluyah! might have been and when that happens it is never good. In particular there is a scene where a lacklustre work experience lad doing his stint at the hospital turns nasty and it quite simply should have been better written and better acted. The best of the writing- and some of the best of the acting- came in the scenes where the veteran performers were given their chance to shine. It was wonderful to see so many of them on stage seizing their moment with real energy and pathos.

The finest moment came right at the end when Doctor Valentine- now under threat of deportation- spoke directly to the audience with great charm and simplicity. Not many actors can do that in the way that Sacha Dhawan did- it’s harder than it sounds- and the warmth that he got back from the audience in return was genuine. It was for both the play and the NHS itself. If only they had got Alleluyah! exactly right we would have been on our feet.

Amadeus. National Theatre. 13-03-18

Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Mozart in Amadeus at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner

“Forgive me, Majesty. I am a vulgar man! But I assure you, my music is not.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Watching the National Theatre’s revival of Amadeus is an overwhelming experience. I only wish that its author Peter Shaffer had lived to see it. It is a very personal, intense story of jealousy and hubris; a small but marketable talent which has brought social success set against the kind of genius which will always go its own way and scatter everything before it, even when given to a rude, annoying little egotist. However much Salieri, the established “court composer” fights against the young upstart Mozart and puts obstacles in his way to make him suffer there is only going to be one winner. The “voice of God” which pains him so much may come from an “obscene child” but it is still the voice of God and only that can confer immortality.

The play demands two great central performances and Lucien Msamati as Salieri and Adam Gillen as Mozart deliver them in spades. Both characters are deeply sympathetic as well as flawed.

Lucien Msamati appeals directly to the audience from the start (as fellow mediocrities) and we know how he feels. He commands attention alone on stage or rises above a spectacular tumult of music and action seemingly effortlessly. We may not like Salieri but we can understand him. He is our alter ego and who can say that they would not have behaved as badly as he did when provoked by a far greater talent which appeared in the form of someone with no social graces or sense of the politeness and restraint necessary to succeed at court? The rules which he had lived by were being thrown aside. He was good enough to know how far he was surpassed but not good enough to do anything about it and that is a bitter pill to swallow- one that we all have to force down.

Adam Gillen as Mozart is just extraordinary. It is easy to show us the hyperactive, egotistical little upstart and he does, but what makes him extraordinary is that we also see the heart of the music. He is a vulnerable young man who has been denied a normal childhood, made to work frantically with a strict discipline that has left him with a need to let rip. That kind of childhood leaves a scar and he shows us both the genius and the lost child. It is a performance that I will never forget. His costumes are utterly perfect too, which always helps. Adelle Leonce is a perfect wife for him as Constanze- not an easy job- and they make a believable couple.

The director Michael Longhurst took a huge risk in this production and needed all his considerable skills, along with the choreographer Imogen Knight, to marshal both the cast and the South Bank Sinfonia who appear alongside them and play Mozart’s music live. This opens out the text gloriously, making what Salieri is telling us come to life, and allowing us to see the joy and freedom that Mozart finds in his music as he conducts. Their discipline is immaculate and they have been given complex direction, moving around and commenting silently on the action as they play. Their timing is perfect throughout. The design by Chloe Lamford is spectacular. The Olivier revolve and the whole of the space is used to great effect as we are shown different perspectives and viewpoints and the costumes are colourful and witty, period with a twist. It is beautifully organised too- we always know exactly where we should look. This production doesn’t just fill the huge and notoriously difficult space, it commands it and batters it into submission. It is a complex and ambitious concept which was either going to fall flat on its face or soar and it is thanks to the talent and, perhaps even more than that, the discipline of everybody involved that it takes flight.

I think that the biggest compliment I can pay this production is that if I ever see Amadeus again I want it done in exactly the same way and if Adam Gillen can come back and play Mozart again that will suit me just fine.

Hedda Gabler. National Theatre at Hull New Theatre. 18.11.17

Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

As he got out of his seat for the interval one of the young guys sitting behind me said ruefully, “she reminds me of a girl I once knew”. This was probably as succinct a tribute to Patrick Marber’s new translation of Hedda Gabler as you could hope to hear. The National Theatre’s 2017 production is bold, modern and minimalist, full of ideas, and not a word of this new, fresh version jars.

I will admit to being disappointed when I found out that Ruth Wilson, who played Hedda in this production’s sold out run at the National would not be playing the part in Hull, but I needn’t have been. I was on the front row so I had the benefit of seeing Lizzie Rowe’s performance close up and she understood the part perfectly- I felt as though I could see every thought. She lights up when she can see a way to niggle someone and encourages confidences because she knows that the information may be useful to her. Nothing is heartfelt and real except her wish to serve her own ego. In modern parlance you could say that Hedda is a drama queen- everything is about her. She is used to privilege, to being admired and deferred to and this has helped to give her cruel and self centred nature free rein. She really doesn’t give a damn and people who genuinely don’t care about the consequences of their actions are dangerous. They may be beautiful, charming, funny- but they are also very dangerous. It is not a stifling marriage to someone who has not paid her enough attention that destroys Hedda- the seeds are already there, sown in her own nature. She does not have the warmth to accept compliments from a loving aunt or the generosity to give her husband, Tesman, the admiration and support that would draw him towards her in the way that Thea Elvstead, her old schoolfriend is able to do. Kindness is seen as vulnerability and punished. She needs to have power over people but can only exercise it by small acts of cruelty. The fact that nobody has ever faced up to her and stopped this leads her to take her cruelty to a new extreme and when her actions are found out she destroys herself rather than live with the consequences of what she has done; a husband who is finding love and support with someone else and a ruthless man- Judge Brack- who knows her secret and can destroy her any time that he chooses. I agree with that young man- we have all known someone like Hedda- they just haven’t pushed their luck quite as far as she does.

I have to say that I thought Abhin Galeya’s Tesman was a bit of a catch. He is lively, genial and good looking and has the potential to give Hedda the power base that she wants. He may be a second rate academic but with a bit of luck they might have got by as a couple. It was easy to see why Hedda had thought him a good bet as a husband who she could tolerate and manipulate……… until the honeymoon ended. I also liked Annabel Bates as Thea Elvsted. She has a natural, warm stage presence and the character has a genuine goodness which is important to the play, both as a foil for Hedda and as a way forward for Tesman at the end- a shaft of hope.

The production has some fine moments which spring out of the direction from Ivo Van Hove. I loved the sequence where Hedda trashes buckets of flowers and pins them to the wall with a stapler- more symbols of kindness and generosity destroyed. The intercom where we see the visitors before the arrive is a nice touch and there are many times where the action is freed up and allowed to be fast and intense by a light, unfussy approach. It was a good idea to have Berthe constantly at the side of the stage watching, a fine performance by Madlena Nedeva. She knows Hedda too well and with little to say she is left watching the inevitable play out grimly, knowing that all she can do is wait and obey. I would have gone for a different reading of Lovborg and Juliana but what I was given worked very well.

The set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, is a large white box with a plain picture window, stage right, that has the kind of pale blinds often seen in offices in front of it and a patio door. Light is important- Hedda dislikes it- and the window provides some nice effects. There is a feeling of a large, luxurious, unfinished space, the kind of space that people talk about rattling around in, and enough clear floor area for powerful drama to take place on a dramatic scale which focuses on the characters. This is never going to be a home.

I have waited a long while to see Hedda Gabler on stage. I am so glad it was this one.

The Tempest. RSC at the Barbican theatre.

The Tempest 2017. Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I have seen it quite a few times over the years but never like the current RSC production which is gracing the stage of the Barbican theatre. I am going to start by talking about the set and production design- usually a bad sign but not this time. There are moments- whole scenes even- where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In the hands of the designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and The Imaginarium Studios the island becomes a real character in a way that most productions can only hope for. Its noises, sounds and sweet airs become tangible, set amongst shimmering patterns of light and colour. Bravura spectacles are conjured out of thin air. I was able to watch a Prospero who really did seem to be able to do magic- a fact which made the ending all the more powerful as I had seen with my own eyes what he was giving up. It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen on a stage, filling the Barbican theatre with light, colour and illusion. From the moment that the huge ribs of the wooden ship which formed the set began to shake in a fierce sea, an effect created purely by a trick of the light, until Prospero’s perfectly judged, simply spoken, final speech standing in a small pool of white light, over one thousand people were held in the grip of the kind of experience that only live theatre can give you. As the applause started I looked across into the audience, surprised to remember that there were other people alongside me. All that spectacle had been stripped away, distilled down into a single figure on the stage, speaking gently to each one of us individually. If this isn’t the future of large scale theatre I’ll be astonished.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017. Mark Quartley (centre) as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Of course the real wonder of the production lies in Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. It might have been tempting for an actor playing Prospero, set against that kind of spectacle, to overplay, feeling that they had to be somehow bigger, more commanding just to match up to it. Simon Russell Beale asserts himself quietly by using simple honesty and truth. He means every word that he says. He is the greatest Prospero that I have seen- and I saw Paul Schofield be wonderful in the part when I was a teenager. There is power- as in the electrifying moment when he screams in Ariel’s face, realising that Ariel has greater compassion than he can find in himself at that moment and his own magical power is not enough- but there is great gentleness and humanity too. His scenes with Miranda are tender and raw and his relationship with Ariel is both complex and heartbreaking. This is a play about mortality, a play about accepting your own limitations and those of others, a play about forgiving and letting go. It takes an actor with a big heart and great delicacy to stand at the centre of it and show us that.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017 Mark Quartley as Ariel. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Ariel is one of the most fascinating characters in Shakespeare and in this production he is placed centre stage both as a character and within the virtual reality. We see him trapped, we see him as a giant screaming harpie, we see him tease, we see him fly. He truly is a watchful, mercurial spirit, belonging everywhere and nowhere, who is both mysterious and strange, but alongside the virtuoso special effects we also need to see and feel a real presence who sulks, does his master’s bidding eagerly or reluctantly, and who longs for his freedom. This can only come from an actor who is physically present. Mark Quartley gives a fine performance which both acknowledges his alter ego and creates a strong, vibrant, yet ethereal presence on stage. It is typical of the attention to detail which is obvious throughout the production that when he is finally released from his bondage he runs out to freedom through the one exit which has not been used at all during the show. We have no idea where he is going.

Jenny Rainsford and Daniel Easton have some nice moments as Miranda and Ferdinand and the comedy is well played- especially when Trinculo hides with Caliban- but it does seem a little thin in comparison to the wonders surrounding it. Jonathan Broadbent is a loathsome and believable usurping brother who deserves all he gets. There is nobody in the cast who lets the side down. It is particularly good to see the masque performed as it is often cut and it is wonderfully sung and staged. The play makes much more sense with it there.

Special effects of any kind can be a mixed blessing. they can overwhelm and take the place of real feeling and humanity. It is a real tribute to the work of the cast, and to the director Greg Doran’s deep understanding of the play that this never happens here. There is a unity of vision which allows the verse to continue to dominate and have clarity.

Just a few times in my life I have seen a production which makes me feel privileged to be there. When the play is The Tempest, one of the first Shakespeare plays that I saw as a young girl, there is a definitive central performance and my favourite character is allowed to run riot among great beauty………. well it just doesn’t get much better than that.

Noel and Gertie. Frinton Summer Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 20-04-17

Noel and Gertie, Sheridan Morley’s play based on the close working relationship between two of the biggest stars of their age, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, was a lovely, undemanding way to spend an afternoon at the Stephen Joseph, pay tribute to two great talents and wallow in nostalgia. Sheridan Morley knew his theatre- particularly the theatre of this period- and his show is a carefully selected tribute to the range of Noel Coward’s work. Coward was always known as “the master” and his writing could range from high emotion to sharp light comedy in a single scene without missing a beat, as well as being a gifted songwriter and performer. He could do it all. Gertrude Lawrence, one of the biggest stars of her age, both benefited from his genius and brought her own charm and talent to it which allowed his work to shine even more brightly. They had a close, sparky relationship from the day that they first met as child performers until Lawrence died far too early at the age of 54. This relationship is sketched out in between extracts from their stage performances and forms an engaging thread through the show.

The show arrived in Scarborough as part of a short tour all the way from Frinton on Sea and found a perfect home in front of a mostly older matinee audience who loved it. It was performed with real delicacy and emotion by Ben Stock and Helen Powers who manage to bring two icons back to life. Helen Powers clear soprano voice is particularly beautiful and suits the style of that era perfectly- I loved Come the Wild Wild Weather. The extracts from the plays were a reminder of how much things have changed since Coward was writing. There is unashamed romanticism which we see very little of today and it was touchingly played and very well timed- not easy to do. The extract from Still Life, one of the plays from Tonight at Eight which deservedly went on to be expanded and become Brief Encounter was extremely well done and made me wish that I could see the two of them perform it all. The third member of the trio on stage, Jonathan Lee, who was both musical director and pianist provided some sensitive and witty accompaniment and kept everything moving. In short the show was a real treat, fast moving, witty and heartfelt.