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.

The Winter’s Tale. Cheek by Jowl. Live relay from Silk Street Theatre, London. 19-04-17

Eleanor McLoughlin as Perdita. Production photograph by Johan Persson.

A Cheek by Jowl production is always full on and very theatrical, the company thrives on ideas and effects which can only be done in a live setting, using physical theatre and always prepared to take chances. Their production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale which was live streamed from Silk Street Theatre in London was no exception. I had some reservations- that almost always comes alongside risk taking- but overall it was an exciting and vibrant account of the play which resolved itself beautifully into harmony and forgiveness at the end.

There was no problem with Leontes sudden irrational jealousy in the opening scenes as it was made very clear by both the staging and by Orlando James fine performance that Leontes is suffering an episode of mental illness of some kind. He creates his wife’s infidelity in his own head and this is symbolised by having him create pictures of what he imagines by moving the bodies of Hermione and Polixenes into the compromising positions which he describes. It is a very effective device and Orlando James has extraordinary technical control as he does it while acting at a full pitch of emotion. His son Mamillius also has behaviour problems and Hermione’s quiet attempts to calm both of them- something that is obviously part of daily life in their household- are very telling. It really works, making sense of the difficult opening scenes and drawing us into a family that has been ready to implode for a long time. The first half zips along as we watch that implosion take place. Natalie Radmall- Quirke’s Hermione was especially strong and moving in the trial scene. It’s a gift of a scene for any actress and she made the most of it.

In the second half we were given a more decadent and wilful Bohemia than is usual. You could easily see why Florizel’s father was worried about his son leaving court to spend time there. There was danger, violence and licence at the sheep shearing celebration, these were not just well meaning homely peasants enjoying the simple life. There is always a dangerous side to Autolycus- the picker up of other people’s trifles- but in this production it spills over into brutality. While I liked Ryan Donaldson’s performance I wasn’t sure about that decision. I missed that open hearted freedom of Bohemia which is such a relief after the grey, irrational, claustrophobic court. Thankfully there was a wonderful Perdita, Eleanor McLoughlin, who had a strong, calm presence, absolutely believable as the daughter of Hermione.

The final scene where things are resolved and Hermione’s statue comes to life after all Leonte’s hope has gone and he has learned his lesson after long years of pain have passed was as magical as you could wish it to be. It was simply staged by candlelight, which is all it needs, and the reactions of all the company were true and heartfelt. The calm after the storm.

Declan Donnelan’s direction- particularly in those opening scenes- is masterly. It is always clear what he is aiming for and it never gets in the way of the performances. Cheek by Jowl has a long tradition of getting excellent young actors to work with them and it is easy to see why they would be attracted to the company. Nick Ormerod’s design is stark and simple, three raised wooden stage areas with wooden slatted drop down fronts behind an empty space. They are flexible enough to allow a variety of effects but there is nothing that isn’t needed- Edward Gordon Craig would have been proud. I have never seen the exit pursued by a bear done better.

It was a great treat to be given the chance to see the production by live relay without paying a penny. As ever I wish I could have been there but you can’t have everything.

Fiddler on the Roof. Liverpool Everyman. 11.03.17

Patrick Brennan as Tevye. Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

Fiddler on the Roof is a great show. It has one of the greatest opening numbers- Tradition- and one of the greatest lead characters- Tevye- and it draws you into the heart of a small, tight knit community before breaking your heart as you watch that community being torn apart. In a world where we have been watching this happen too often in recent years it has great resonance and poignancy. It’s a wonderful choice for the opening production of the Everyman’s new repertory company, popular and familiar without being trite or hackneyed and perfect for a small, intimate space- especially when it is set up in the round. Great writing doesn’t date and nor do characters whose humanity and relevance still remain strong. It is just over fifty years since it opened in New York, won nine Tony awards and went on to become what is still the second longest running show on Broadway. It is set in Imperial Russia in 1905, but the kind of human tragedies that it deals with have never gone away and they never will and this truth has led to it being performed all over the world ever since.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

There are no great West End voices here and no star performances- that would have unbalanced a delicate, spare production set in a small, intimate space. It is an ensemble piece by the newly formed repertory company and it is this company- and above all the theatre itself- which is the star. The actors know their characters perfectly and their energy and conviction is both charming and utterly believable. At the heart of the show is Patrick Brennan’s Tevye, a fine performance which shows us a real, conflicted man whose humour and warmth sits alongside a deep, uncompromising faith. He has the best lines, especially when talking to his God, and we are allowed to see what he is thinking.

The staging, by director Gemma Bodinetz, is simple and direct and the audience is close to the action, so close that we can almost feel part of the community that we are watching. This is not musical theatre as spectacle, where we watch from afar and marvel at lumbering stage machinery and great set pieces, it is musical theatre with heart and soul where people sing because words are no longer enough and we see the concerns of real human beings- our own concerns- reflected on stage.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

This is the first production in the new, award winning theatre by a company who have big boots to fill. Last time the Everyman had a rep company it produced a group of young actors and writers who became household names and the delight of the audience was obvious. Even for those who had been regulars at the old theatre this will still have been one of their first sightings of the new space in action and there was a real sense of joy in the air as they found that their beloved rep company had been given back to them in a theatre made magically young and beautiful again. For those involved in that process it will have been a delicate task, but they have given Liverpool back one of its treasures. It was very moving to be part of the standing ovation at the end, an ovation for the cast and the show- of course- but it was also a welcome back for the Everyman rep from a delighted city of Liverpool.

Pygmalion. Headlong/West Yorkshire Playhouse/ Nuffield theatre Southampton at Liverpool Playhouse.

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

I love Bernard Shaw’s work so if you are going to play with the text and leave out/ rewrite/ distort whole scenes of one of his best known plays, Pygmalion, and expect me to like it you are on dangerous ground. I haven’t read the reviews of the co-production I saw at Liverpool playhouse between Headlong and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but I’m quite sure that some people will not like that idea at all, however well it is done, and if the production hasn’t worked it will sink without trace. It’s a brave thing to do and the director Sam Pritchard has expected a lot of his actors and laid himself on the line. Once or twice it made me lay back my ears a bit but it still managed to carry me along and kept me onside.

Shaw himself was not afraid of comparing himself to Shakespeare and part of me thinks that he would be outraged at not being able to hear every word of his precious script. Another part of me imagines that the man who campaigned for a new phonetic alphabet would have been delighted at the playfulness and attack of the cast as they juggled accents, lip-synched recorded voices and distorted their lines in the opening scene. He would also have been delighted that his best writing was still there exactly as he wanted it and shone as brightly as ever. Doolittle’s great speech, Mrs Higgins disastrous at home- a comic masterpiece- and the moving scenes at the end between Higgins and Eliza were all (literally) showcased and given full weight allowing the actors to fly. Natalie Gavin and Alex Beckett were both heartfelt and true to the original characters and it was this that held the show together. Without their belief and commitment there would have just been two hours of a director enjoying being clever. Audiences need to have people on stage that they can relate to and understand. My heart lifted at the end when the two of them were given space to spark off each other and show some real emotion as that always impresses me far more than directors imposing their own ideas on a play. I also liked Liza Sadovy as Mrs Higgins and Raphael Sowole as Colonel Pickering very much.

The design by Alex Lowde works very well, especially the giant vitrine on stilts, which forms the set for Mrs Higgins front room and later her conservatory. It was both beautiful and appropriate for a play which is all about appearances and social conventions.

In short they were flying close to the wind to make this work- we even heard a bit of My Fair Lady from Eliza as she rode in a taxi on screen- but thanks to some truthful acting and the fact the fact that they left the best of Shaw’s writing alone they got away with it and this is a really interesting and thought provoking new look at a play that is over a hundred years old.

Broken Biscuits. Paines Plough and Live Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Production image from Paines Plough.

It’s a shame that there are not more plays like Tom Wells’ Broken Biscuits. It is a warm,touching piece of theatre that tugs at your heartstrings without ever tipping over into sentimentality. Thanks to his gift for writing strong, vernacular dialogue it all feels completely real and absolutely believable and there is also a strong structure which comes from the counting down of the weeks as the three would be band members rehearse for a Battle of the Bands contest and their relationships ebb and flow. They are sixteen and about to leave school after having an undramatically unhappy time. They have never been the cool kids- this is their chance to arrive in college with style and gain new respect from others, but also, above all, from themselves. They are a gay lad, Ben, who is trying to work out what this means for him and whether he will ever fit in anywhere, Megan, a loud, overweight steamroller of a girl who doesn’t understand how to work with others and lead but desperately wants to, and Holly, a geek, who is pretty and clever but held back by being a gentle soul with no confidence. They are an unlikely threesome who have only come together in Megan’s shed simply because there is nowhere else where they can find friendship and acceptance. They are all very touching characters, especially for someone looking back at teenage years from quite a distance.

I am guessing that the three actors must be a little older than sixteen but the first thing that impressed me was how believable they all were as teenagers; vulnerable, raw, well meaning, and so likable that you really felt for them and wanted them to succeed. I particularly loved Grace Hogg-Robinson as Holly. There were many times where you could see what she was thinking and her performance of her song about the lad in the supermarket was a real highlight. It had been cleverly written by Matthew Robbins, good enough to work as a song but not so good that it wasn’t credible for Holly to have written it. Faye Christall also had some nice moments as Megan, so anxious to be a leader, prove her worth and have friends but with no real idea how to achieve this and Andrew Reed as Ben was a delightful mixture of vulnerability, eagerness and misery waiting for his chance to grow. This is a coming of age story for all three of them and we have all been there in our different ways. It is rare for the average theatregoer to have teenage characters put in front of them and that in itself was refreshing, but when they are as well written as these three it is a absolute joy.

The set, Megan’s shed, is an old style slice of realism, meticulously designed by Lily Arnold, and there are a lot of small clever details and changes through the course of the play that mark the passage of time. The play moves forward quickly and has plenty of pace thanks to the direction of James Grieves and the fast, sassy dialogue which the three actors are able to relish. All in all it was a real treat and we were lucky to see it on its short tour. The group of teenage girls in the audience who were there in their school uniforms, chaperoned by their teacher, loved it and came out energised and talking to each other about it. It might have been an afternoon of nostalgic reminiscence for me but for them it had been a slice of the life that they were living right now and that’s probably the best compliment Tom Wells’ writing could get.

And Then Come the Nightjars. Theatre503 and Bristol Old Vic at the Stephen Joseph theatre. 20-10-16

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David Fielder as Michael.

We were very lucky to have the chance to see Bea Roberts’ award winning play, And Then Come The Nightjars, up in Scarborough. Usually new plays disappear quite quickly, however good they are, and this revival was part of a short two month tour from Bristol Old Vic. Its roots are firmly in the West country so we are a long way from its home but country people up here understand the devastating subject matter all too well. It is set during the foot and mouth outbreak which swept the country in 2001 and describes an unlikely friendship between a veteran dairy farmer, Michael, and his local vet, Jeff, who is battling a drink problem and the break up of his marriage. When the farmers healthy herd of pedigree cows has to be culled, by law, to help form a buffer against further spread of the disease it is Jeff who is called on to do it. This appalling crisis both deepens and challenges their friendship and there is great sensitivity in both the acting and the writing as the plot plays out. It is moving, tender and heartfelt with a welcome dry wit running through even this darkest of times.

I’m sure that Nigel Hastings, who did a fine job as Jeff, will not mind me saying that David Fielder was astonishingly good as Michael. It is a lovely part and he grabbed it with both hands. He was tough, funny and open hearted- much like some Yorkshire farmers who I met when I was teaching up in the Yorkshire Dales. He meant every word- his every thought was clear as a bell. Playing a two hander of this kind is intense and difficult and the two of them worked together quite beautifully. It was delightful to watch in a small space like the McCarthy.

During the question and answer session after the matinee that I saw the two actors said how delighted they were with the set and I don’t wonder. It was completely realistic in every detail, a ramshackle cow barn, designed by Max Dorey, and nothing else would have worked. It was also beautifully lit by Sally Ferguson, so beautifully lit that there were times when you could sit there and just take pleasure in the changing light as it fell through the roof slats. Quite simply this production gets everything right, and it’s not often you can say that. It had to. There are some subjects that you stay well away from unless you can do justice to people who went through terrible times and lost so much. I know some of them so there was gratitude mixed in with my admiration. They have been given the play that they deserved.