Summer and Smoke, Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2

Summer and Smoke

Summer and Smoke had a successful run at the Almeida theatre earlier in the year. The reviews at the time were ecstatic but tickets were impossible to get, so it was great news to hear that it had been given a West End transfer. When it was first produced, in 1948, it was the follow up to “A Streetcar Named Desire” but it did not match that play’s success. There have been revivals in the intervening years, but the only successful one has been the off Broadway version, with Geraldine Page as Alma, that was eventually made into the film with Laurence Harvey as John. Geraldine Page received an Oscar nomination for that part.

The set is a bare brick wall with seven pianos set in a semi circle facing it. These are played at the start, finish and at dramatic moments through the play. The rest of the stage is basically empty, save a few chairs brought on and removed as they are needed. The setting is the American deep south in the early 20th Century, classic Tennessee Williams territory. The story is too, a tale of unrequited love struggling against unbridled lust, set in a small American town in the sweltering heat of summer’s sultry climate.

Director, Rebecca Frecknall, has taken the decision to make this production revolve totally around Alma Winemiller. She is almost always on stage and on the rare occasions when she is not central, we are thinking about how this will affect her state of mind. This is a bold directing decision, but perfectly vindicated by Patsy Ferran’s performance as Alma. She is phenomenal, it is a career defining role and she drags us through every high and low. One of the toughest things for an actor to do is bring the audience with them when they have a life changing epiphany which totally reverses their world view, Patsy Ferran does this remarkably well, and if she does not win awards for her acting in this play, then I cannot wait to see the performance that beats it.

The rest of the cast are excellent too and provide brilliant support. There are a couple of moments where music is used to heighten the drama. Both of these are chillingly good. Anjana Vasan has a beautiful blues voice, when she sings in the casino. The slow motion sequence during the shooting, which I think used a Portishead track, has an ethereal, poetic quality that raises the production to a more abstract, surreal vision than we are used to seeing in a Tennessee Williams play, and this worked very well.

I enjoyed this production, it was brave enough to approach Tennessee Williams in a more lyrical manner than usual, the added musical dimension, although lightly used was very effective and it will endure in the memory for the amazing performance of Patsy Ferran in the leading role.

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A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Once upon a there was a very talented author. His name was Martin McDonagh. Everybody loved his work and he wrote some wonderfully funny plays and some wonderfully clever scripts for films. However, Mr McDonagh had a terrible secret!

Do you remember Shakespeare’s infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters? Well, Martin had stolen the most talented of Shakespeare’s monkeys. He kept it chained to the typewriter and in reality, it was this monkey, who ghost wrote all of his stuff. It was really the most clever monkey, that had the brightest and funniest ideas, and all that Martin McDonagh had to do was to make sure that he edited them carefully.

Well, one day Mr Shakespeare realised that one of his monkeys was missing. He wasn’t sure which one, because he did have an awful lot of them, but he counted them up and, sure enough, he had infinity minus one! Impossible? Impossible but true! He could not let this happen so he determined to spend eternity looking for his monkey, and sure enough, after 300 years, he found that the missing monkey was living in the office of Martin McDonagh’s house.

Shakespeare decided that he would expose Mr McDonagh’s secret by putting a spell on him, which would impair his editing abilities. This would allow, just one time, the monkey’s writing to be issued straight to the world exactly as it was written, with no oversight at all. Shakespeare turned out to be a very clever magician, the spell worked perfectly and Hey Presto! in 2018 “A Very, Very, Very, Dark Matter” was issued upon the world!

As it happens, this show is not all bad. Granted, you will leave the theatre thinking, “What have I just witnessed?”, but the show is full to the brim with ideas. Some of these are funny and clever, some of them less so. It is a touch of genius using the voice of Tom Waits as narrator, his resonant, off beat tone suits the storyline perfectly.

Phil Daniels is wonderful as a foul mouthed Charles Dickens, but it is shocking to hear his young children using the same words, an interesting juxtaposition, I suppose.  Jim Broadbent plays Hans Christian Anderson as an amiable buffoon with deep psychological scars and sadistic overtones. This would be an impossible task for a less talented actor.

Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles makes her debut here in a starring role as Marjory. This is the most troubling part in the play and she carries it off very well, you would never know that it is her first major role. Martin McDonagh is always able to attract the highest quality actors and the depth of talent throughout the cast is the strength of the show.

This play has so much going on that it is impossible to make sense of it all. At points, it seems like a random jumble of weird toys thrown together by a wayward child. It has  many different ideas running around, some of which will make you uncomfortable, but one thing you can say about Martin McDonagh is that he never plays it safe. This is probably not going to be the most coherent show you will see this year, but I can guarantee that you will not be bored.

Hogarth’s Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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The Art of Success was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986. it was written by Nick Dear, he has now written a companion piece, set 30 years later and they are being presented as a double bill at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, under the title “Hogarth’s Progress”. The first play depicts Hogarth’s life at the time just before the copyright act came into force when he had just done “A Harlot’s Progress” and before he started “A Rake’s Progress”. The second will depict him in later life. They are meant to complement each other and still work as stand alone plays.

Set in London in the 1730s, “The Art of Success” is a ribald and raucous story, telling of the partying antics of many of the renowned people of the day. These include Hogarth himself, the satirist Henry Fielding, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, brothel keeper Elizabeth Needham and even George II’s wife Queen Caroline. Many scenes are salacious and slanderous, reflecting the satirical plays of the time that led to the passing of the Theatrical Licensing Act. Hogarth was instrumental in causing the engraving copyright act to be passed and there is a subtext to this play about the ownership of art and about how art develops in times of social change, which chimes with the present day challenges for art in the different forms of social media.

Having said all that, the main thrust of the play is a bawdy farce about an epic night on the town and is meant to be enjoyed as just that. In this respect it works well.  It has funny jokes, although it occasionally veers into Carry-on territory. It is merciless in lampooning the aristocracy and it has enjoyable characters. The cast is spectacular, every performance is good.  Jasmine Jones is excellent as Sarah Sprackling, she manages to get a great balance between comedy and pathos. Jack Derges as Henry Fielding is both funny and loathsome. Bryan Dick does a fantastic job of holding it all together as runs about the town in various stages of disrepair.

The set is ingenious, I liked how contemporary it manged to be while still displaying the 18th Century. I cannot imagine that they had the ability to use the effects on display here when it was first produced 32 years ago, and I enjoyed the little nods to modern technology in the direction. “The Art of Success” is a play that you continue to appreciate after you have left the theatre and I am looking forward to seeing part 2 “The Taste of the Town” when it opens next week.

 

Girl from the North Country, Old Vic Theatre, London

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Girl from the North Country contains three or four intertwining stories. These are slight, almost sketches really, but are beautifully told so that we care about the people we see on stage. It contains about twenty songs from Dylan’s back catalogue. These are used, in  an abstract way, to accentuate the drama rather than to move the narrative forward. It would be misleading to call this a musical, it is more a play with musical accompaniment.

The prose and the songs complement each other very well. Given the quality of the cast, the strength of the acting is no surprise. The singing, orchestration and choreography are the revelation. There are some amazing voices in the ensemble. Shirley Henderson and Jack Shalloo, in particular, shock when they sing, but every song is delivered well. The impact of a downtrodden, beaten character suddenly opening their vocal cords is not to be underestimated. Even the songs that I already knew, appeared to be given new life in the context of the play.

The reception of the audience was good, it is not too often that the whole audience stands at the end. I enjoyed this show, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan are a combination that go together very well.

This was a real dream that I had last night.

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I realise this post is off topic, but last night, I had an odd dream and I feel compelled to share.
Tessa Jowell’s autobiography arrived in the post. I was surprised as I had no interest in her or her policies. The book had a very nice cover; it was bright yellow with embossed gold fleur-de-lis.
I opened the book and inside the dust cover was a matching dress, the pattern was a bit more garish in a dress than on a book, but nevertheless, I decided to put it on – in order to understand her mindset better. The dress was restrictive, uncomfortable and made me unhappy. However, even worse, the zip was in the middle of the back and I could not get it off. I had to ask friends to help me remove it.
Kerryjane, said “it’s just like the plot of a Disney move”. I asked which one, Catty said “Beauty and the Beast, of course, that’s Emma Watson playing Tessa Jowell. Justine told me that she was writing an aria for the soundtrack and said “It has to have a heavenly choir and Dick on harmonica” Jayne said that Black Radish was supplying the globe artichokes. Kelly said that she had brought me some underwear in case I wasn’t wearing anything underneath. She said “They belong to Olly, but I’m sure he won’t mind, if you really need them – you don’t have to give them back” I assured her that I was fine, I had put the dress on over my normal clothes.
Just then, Fiona arrived carrying a gigantic pair of shiny blue scissors and cut the dress off, much to the relief of everybody involved.
Apologies to anyone who made it to the end, I know how dull other peoples dreams are, but just writing it down was very cathartic!