Beryl. West Yorkshire Playhouse at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 30-10-15

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Samantha Power as Beryl Burton. Production photograph by Keith Pattison.

Beryl Burton was not born to be a great athlete, she became perhaps the greatest cyclist that Britain has ever produced by sheer hard work and force of will at a time when cycling- however good you were- did not bring huge fame and money. Maxine Peake’s play, Beryl, tells her life story, showing us how an ordinary Yorkshire lass without the advantages of money or good health became someone truly remarkable. I don’t believe in the trite adage that “you can achieve anything that you want to” but Beryl’s story is enough to make you wonder.

The writing itself, which is cleverly structured and well done, but not especially memorable in itself, does a simple job of telling a story which is well worth hearing. What does make the play memorable is the stagecraft and the teamwork of the four actors. Samanth Power, Rebecca Ryan, John Elkington and Dominic Gately. They get the tone exactly right, down to earth, sparky and friendly. It is harder to bring off than it seems, full of quick timing, hard physical work, fast changes of mood and technical details which the actors need to be aware of. The writing uses this aspect of the play self-consciously and it is full of wit and charm. Alongside this we need to see real, believable characters who we can get behind, or it might have seemed an empty technical exercise, and right from the start, smiling at us as they get things ready, the cast make sure that we are on their side. Beryl herself is a gift of a part and Samantha Power is both likeable and engaging- a convincing embodiment of everything that we hear talked about. Take away the cycling and there really isn’t much drama in Beryl’s life. She was poorly with Rheumatic fever as a child, worked incredibly hard to achieve and maintain fitness, had a long, happy marriage and a daughter who followed in her footsteps. She finally died on her bike at the age of 59 having pushed herself to the limit all her life. The drama within the cycling, which has to be at the heart of the play, is cleverly staged using back projection and real bikes on stands and it works beautifully. This is down to some really clever direction from Rebecca Gatward which is at least as important as the writing- not something that can be said often.

This is an unashamed tribute to someone who thoroughly deserves it, a roll call of a life well lived and her considerable achievements. One of Beryl’s records still stands today in spite of all the advantages of modern cycling. We were not just applauding a piece of theatre at the end, we were applauding the spirit of a great Yorkshire woman and there’s nothing we like doing better than that here in Yorkshire.

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Beryl Burton in 1967.

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Henry IV Part Two. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. BBC image.

The second part of the BBC’s Henry IV is a real gem, building on everything that was established in the first part, developing the characters and allowing some powerful pay offs from the work that has been done in the early scenes, while also introducing new things to admire. If you are looking for any criticism I’m afraid that you are not going to find it here. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff shows new facets of a complex man. He is very moving indeed in the scene where he takes his leave of Doll Tearsheet (played quite beautifully by Maxine Peake) and also, at times, deeply dislikeable. I would have liked more humour, but this part is a difficult trick to pull off for an actor and perhaps you can’t have everything. There are two particularly delightful supporting performances, from David Bamber as Justice Shallow (one of my favourite minor Shakespearean characters) and Geoffrey Palmer as the Lord Chief Justice. The scene where Shallow is looking back with Falstaff at the “days that we have seen” made me ache for their past and what they have lost, and it was good to see Geoffrey Palmer fleshing out the bones of a deeply dislikable, pragmatic politician. One look spoke volumes. Lovely work. I am also going to give a cheer for young Billy Matthews as Falstaff’s page. A very truthful and mature performance.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. BBC image.

But my goodness what about Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal! The scene where Hal tries on the crown, thinking that his father will never wake again, and then has to face his dying fathers rage at what he has done, talking him round and gaining his trust, was simply outstanding. It is great writing, one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes, and he just took it and ran with it. There is nowhere to hide when you are being filmed in close up and we saw every thought. When he made his great speech to his father we already knew that he meant every word because we had seen it in his face as he tried on the crown. He had managed to make Hal’s thoughts visible. There is no doubt in my mind now that Jeremy Irons also gives the greatest performance of his career. The two of them strike sparks off each other. At the end of the play, when Hal disowns Falstaff, we see the results of this epithany. It is an action without spite. He knows what he has to do, and he knows that it has to be done publicly. It is the Lord Chief Justice who finishes the job with brutal efficiency on behalf of his new master. Hal has taken on the heavy duty and responsibility of a monarch and while he admits to his brothers that his new role doesn’t suit him as well as it may appear to do there is no doubt that we now have a hero who will fulfill it and make England proud.

The settings are quite beautiful, richly textured and atmospheric, and the whole thing is beautifully shot with some wonderful close ups that lead us into the heart of the characters. Evocative of a timeless England and a whole society which is still recognisable to us today. Great directing from Richard Eyre.

There is nothing quite like watching a great production on stage, being there and breathing the same air as the actors, but I am deeply grateful that this Henry IV is on film and on record for all time. It really deserves to be………. and if the RSC cast Tom Hiddleston in anything in the future (something they should just get on with ASAP) nothing on earth will stop me buying a ticket.

Henry IV Part I. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Hal. BBC images.

The first time I saw Henry IV part one it was as part of the English Shakespeare Company’s complete history cycle during a remarkable week at the Theatre Royal Norwich back in the 1980’s. The week ended with a long standing ovation from an audience who had mostly been there all week, sitting in the same seats, and daffodils being thrown. I had never even read the play, although I knew a bit about it as a former English student, and I was pinned to my seat by a sequence of productions which is still what I think of as the finest experience that I have ever had inside a theatre. For the first week of my Easter holidays that year I lived for my trip to the theatre each evening. Those productions were brave, daring, innovative, controversial and absolutely true to the spirit of the plays and the Henrys, where the project started, were by far the best of them. They showed me my own England alongside that of Shakespeare’s, and I recognised it with both joy and pain. One day I shall write about that week in detail as my memories of it are still razor sharp around twenty five years later. Since then I have seen two more great stage productions, both from the RSC, and if I was forced to choose any single Shakespeare play as my favourite Henry IV part I would be it, along with part two. I am not alone in that. From their first performance they were instantly hugely popular with audiences who recognised themselves and their society in them. In particular they loved the quintessentially English character of Falstaff, flawed, charming, untrustworthy, wise and shameless, to distraction. The character of Prince Hal, his troubled relationship with his father, and his growth into a king of heroic stature is also a sure fire crowd pleaser and there is one humdinger of a sword fight at the end to allow the audience to cheer him on. What more could they, or we, want? It’s all there.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. BBC images.

The film of Henry IV part 1 which Richard Eyre has made as part of the BBC The Hollow Crown series is a fine piece of work. He has directed it with great flair, never allowing the pace to drop, ratcheting up the tension in the interior scenes, and bringing both the teeming life within the Boars Head and the claustrophobic court of Henry IV vividly to life. The battle scenes are beautifully shot in empty snow strewn winter fields and both close ups and internalised soliloquies are used to great effect. I particularly liked Falstaff’s speech about honour, heard in voice over as we watch him walk silently through the camp before battle. It is a very clear, well thought out reading of the play and there are some excellent performances, and no weak links. Ton Hiddleston is perfect as Hal, even allowing for the fact that Hal is a very easy character to fall in love with, dynamic, articulate and oozing presence. Right from the start there is no doubt at all that he is one day going to step up and become the hero that his father needs him to be but not now, and not yet. He is making hay while the sun shines. His purpose is absolute and he is aware of the cost there will one day be to him when he fulfills it. When his moment comes he recognises it immediately and it is thrilling to see him come together with his father and accept his destiny. We see both the man and the future king and that was as beguiling for Elizabethan audiences as it is today for those who read hello magazine, find pictures of William and Kate, and wonder about their home life. It’s real box office- always was and always will be. I was thrilled to see Jeremy Irons give a full hearted and honest performance as Henry IV. I don’t think I have ever seen him act so well, there was no relying on style or looks, just a complete understanding of the man he was playing, both as a father and as a king. Simon Russell Beale gives Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and complex characters, a good run for his money. He is everything that the part needs, while perhaps missing a little of the unlikely charm that leavens the character’s unsympathetic qualities, and his scenes in the Boars Head are very fine indeed. I really felt for Hotspur’s wife, a role in life which you certainly wouldn’t volunteer for. Joe Armstrong gives a pile driver of a performance. I’m not even sure whether that is a criticism or not, Hotspur is not exactly meant to be a shrinking violet, but I could have done with a bit of light and shade if it could possibly have been found. These central performances are given context by a wealth of detail from the actors playing the smaller roles. I liked Maxine Peake for instance as Doll Tearsheet and Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy. Two small, underwritten parts where the actor has to do a lot of work to make them live, especially important when there are few women characters in the play.
This film is a great achievement, especially as Shakespeare doesn’t naturally belong on film, and I am already excited about seeing the second part.

The Deep Blue Sea. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 26-02-11

When Terence Rattigan came out of the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and told a waiting journalist that it should have been called “Look How Unlike Terence Rattigan I’m Being” he clearly knew that his time was up. England’s most popular playwright of the late nineteen thirties and forties had seen the future and it didn’t look like he was going to be a part of it. The debonair millionaire lifestyle of the frankly rather flash former Harrow schoolboy was under threat. He was used to success. In 1944 three of his plays had been running in the West End at the same time, two of his plays ran for over 1,000 performances and another four for more than 500, and at one time he was the highest paid screenwriter in the world. He was right to worry. It was a spectacular fall from popular taste and during his lifetime his reputation never recovered. Since then his plays have been seen, but the theatregoers of his heyday would have been astonished to know how little.

2011 is the centenary of his birth and it is a chance to look back, not in anger but with curiosity, to see whether he was actually any good. The first major production of his centenary is the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s revival of The Deep Blue Sea, written in 1952, with Maxine Peake as Hester Collyer. I have seen The Deep Blue Sea twice and I will say straight away that I think it is a masterpiece. The test for this, in my view, is whether what is happening on stage still resonates with people living in a very different culture and time.

Watching Hester’s suffering unfold is familiar to anyone who has loved and lost, however and whenever it happened. That is great writing. Hester’s tragedy is that she “loves with her eyes open”. She has left her kind, well meaning, decent husband, a comfortable lifestyle and any chance of respectability behind for a chance of passion in a dingy bedsit with her ex spitfire pilot lover Freddy. She can see Freddy’s faults, she knows that he is unable to love her in the way that she needs him to, and it makes absolutely no difference. The conflict which this sets up within her leads to the failed suicide attempt which opens the play and precipitates the day of crisis which forms the plot.

Rattigan’s writing is all about subtext, what the characters don’t say, and this makes it far more challenging than it might seem to perform. You need to see the wheels of the characters inner life going round or you are in danger of being left with simply a beautifully crafted melodrama. Some of the minor characters in this production get lost in clipped vowel sounds and period detail and fall into this trap but the central performances more than make up for that. Maxine Peake is a wonderfully nuanced Hester, showing us the characters interior life and turmoil beneath her brittle exterior, and this makes her both engaging and sympathetic to watch. It is a performance full of life, energy and pent up emotion.

Lex Shrapnel is terrific as Freddy. The moment where he leaves a shilling for the gas meter to ensure that any future suicide attempt by Hester will not fail for lack of gas is one of the cruellest moments in modern drama and both times I have seen it you could hear a sharp intake of breath around the auditorium. What is so clever about Lex Shrapnel’s performance is that he also allows us to see the war damaged man behind the cruelty. Freddy’s life “stopped in 1940” and he is searching for a way to find the excitement and purpose that he had then, as time and too much alcohol dull his reactions and nerve. He simply can’t bear the fact that he is unable to give Hester what she needs and when he tells her that they are “death to each other” he means exactly what he says. The suicide attempt is the final straw for him. However much he wants to he knows that he can’t love Hester in the way that will make her happy and if both of them are to have a chance of survival, let alone happiness, it has to be apart. Without this insight into the character Freddy could be seen as merely a heartless young ne’er do well who drinks too much and couldn’t care less, which is far from the whole truth.

There is another fine performance from John Ramm as Hester’s husband William. It is never easy to play a character who is straightforwardly good, forgiving, decent and genuine, and he does this very well, allowing us to feel for him as he tries to find the answers that he needs from Hester and explain the end of his marriage. There are no answers of course. He has given Hester no reason to leave him but passion doesn’t respond to reason or common sense. Love is not always given where it is deserved and that is his tragedy.

The director Sarah Esdaile has a great feel for period and this informs the production throughout, and a fine understanding of the dialogue and the characters which the more experienced members of the cast have clearly fed off hungrily. I like her work very much. Her Death of a Salesman at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year was a great production and this is another very good one. The set is atmospheric and beautifully lit, a down at heel flat set in a ruined wasteland of charred sticks and broken golden cornicing which is a constant reminder of the wreckage that war leaves behind.

Not a pitch perfect production this one, but an intelligent and engaging account of a great play with the major aspects of Rattigan’s best work showing through strongly.