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.

Don Quixote, Royal Shakespeare Company, Garrick Theatre, London WC2

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The Royal Shakespeare Company have gone the whole hog in this version of Don Quixote.  They commissioned James Fenton and Grant Olding to adapt Miguel De Cervantes story for a modern audience and the pair have come up with a show that feels contemporary but true to time in which it was written. With audience participation encouraged and the cast entering and exiting through the stalls, it feels like a show that would have worked very well in the Globe Theatre even in the 17th Century.

David Threlfall is Don Quixote. He plays him as the straight man to Rufus Hounds’ Sancho Panza. This works very well as we care for Quixote, the fantasist who sees the world as he wishes it was. Panza is his faithful squire who sees the real world but makes sure that we are laughing at the situation not at the man. They make a fantastic double act, Rufus Hound improvises and involves the audience while Threlfall is too involved in his windmills to notice.

Audience participation is a large part of the show, it has a panto feel in places. Some of the comedy is slapstick and it is still funny – a sweary monk as he trips over an audience members foot, a bun fight between the cast and the audience. However, there is more to the show than this, it has so much going on that catching it all in one viewing is unlikely. The songs are good and give the piece an Andalusian atmosphere. There is puppetry that is both attractive and clever. The lion is spectacular and the hawk is funny. The horses are brilliant and their interaction threatens to steal the scene on a number of occasions.

The Don Quixote that we see these days consists of two books, the original and the follow up. The second was written roughly a decade after the success of the first, it tells of the exploits of Don Quixote after he becomes famous and this show retains that tradition. Often it leads to a change in tone between the two acts. Here is it handled cleverly by making the Duke and Duchess, nicely played by Richard Dempsey and Ruth Everett, into caricatures of pantomime villains, so their cruel tricks are jokes on them rather than our hero Quixote.

The ending of the story is done well, Rufus Hound has surprising depth, having laughed with him through the show, we feel his sadness at the end. Don Quixote has the last laugh though and we can be moved and still grin at his ascent to heaven.

The RSC have invented posh panto. A show that an Eton educated ex prime minister might take his son to see.  This show is a blast from beginning to end, great fun and a great night out. It deserves to be this year’s big Christmas hit.

 

Romeo & Juliet, RSC Barbican Season, Barbican, London EC2

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Romeo and Juliet was written roughly 420 years ago, but this production makes it feel as though it was taken from stories that we see on the news today. Director Erica Whyman has made bold decisions and taken calculated risks in order to emphasise the similarities and the differences in society in the intervening time.

This is a Romeo and Juliet that deals with gang culture and knife crime. Romeo, Juliet and their friends are young teens dealing with self image, perception and how they wish to be seen. This production highlights how young they are, Shakespeare wrote Juliet as a fourteen year old and I have never before seen a version where I was so aware of their youth and inexperience. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are schoolkids trying to look hard in a world where they and all their peers carry knives.

Karen Fishwick is convincing as Juliet – a feisty teenager, used to getting her own way and not above a fit of defiance when she does not. She is surprised by her depth of feeling for Romeo but trusts it completely. Bally Gill is excellent as a contemporary Romeo. At the start he is mooning over his unrequited love for Rosalind but within a day he is head over heels in love with Juliet, the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. He squeezes comedy out of dramatic text. They make a credible young couple, each feeding off the others love.

The director has made a couple of other interesting decisions too. She has changed the gender of Escalus and Mercutio. Both bring something new to the text, The Prince of Verona being a woman brings new light to the speeches about the posturing of men in order to appear powerful. Mercutio’s change is double edged, she is more aggressive because she has to prove herself in a man’s arena, thereby verifying the effect of the sexism she is trying to dispel. Josh Finan is fantastic as Benvolio, he plays him with a schoolboy crush on Romeo, a contemporary twist that fits the text surprisingly well.

The set is bare except for a metal cube. A very abstract idea, but quite practical. It works as a room, the balcony, a dais for the bed, a wall to hide behind….  Personally, I would have preferred a more specific setting, but it is clever and inventive, and it is always interesting to see new thought provoking designs.

Do not go to see this if you want a historic, late 16th Century, costume drama performed as it would have been when it was written.  Do go if you want to see why this play has endured and why a story written so long ago still has relevance to our society today. I know that this production will not be universally loved but I really enjoyed it. It brings new life to one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays.

 

Pinter 2, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

 

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In December 2018 it will be 10 years since the death of Harold Pinter. In celebration of his legacy, the Jamie Lloyd Company is producing a season of all 19 of his one act plays at the Pinter Theatre. There will be 7 different programmes each containing either 2, 3 or 4 of his pieces. The cast list for the season has to be seen to be believed, stellar is no over-estimate of their quality.

Pinter 2 contains two plays, The Lovers and The Collection, both comedies and both written in the early 1960s. The Lovers has John MacMillan, Hayley Squires and Russell Tovey. The Collection has these three and David Suchet. The Lovers is a one room play set over a couple of days in the living room of a married couple. The dialogue is, in true Pinter fashion, bright and stilted. The set and conversation are pastiche early TV sitcom. This works really well, it makes the subject matter funnier, darker and pinpoints it in time perfectly. John MacMillan and Hayley Squires are the husband and wife, Richard and Sarah. Their comic timing is impeccable. The piece lasts about 50 minutes, it starts off light an funny. The story is inventive and the writing witty. In short, this is classic Pinter done well.

The Collection is a four hander, this time about 2 couples, set in 2 living rooms. This one is more sinister, right from the start. It is still very funny though. David Suchet and Russell Tovey, play Harry and Bill, the other couple are Stella and James, played by Hayley Squires and John MacMillan. Although there is nothing explicit anywhere in this play, it must have been quite shocking when it was first performed in 1961, and I can imagine that the censor would have taken an interest in how it was produced. It is beautifully written, in that, there is nothing overt in the manner of their relationships, however we are in no doubt as to what is going on. For it to work this well, the actors have to be well attuned to the writing. All four of them are wonderful. David Suchet gives an acting masterclass in this play, he knows perfectly when to be larger than life and when to rein it in. Russell Tovey too, gave a nicely nuanced performance delivering funny double-entendres with an ominous undertone.

The set is simple and clever, spot lit areas move us from one scene to another. Jamie Lloyd directs both plays sympathetically, he allows the writing and acting to shine. This play is also just about an hour long. I am beginning to think this might be Pinter’s perfect length. This pair of plays are pure joy to watch and now I am left with the quandary of how to get hold of tickets for the other 6 in the season.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

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This is a new adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel. David Harrower has changed the telling of the story, in some ways it is closer to the book than any of the previous adaptations have been. It is told in flashback rather than the flashforward of the book, but the main roles from the book are all here and their character foibles are more to the fore than in the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith.

The Jean Brodie of this play is more obviously manipulative, but still charismatic. She is a talented teacher, hugely influential, on the children she teaches. However, with great power comes great responsibility and the story is really about whether her personality allows her to use her talent to its best effect. There is no doubt that Jean Brodie is a fantastic role, although Maggie Smith – with her best actress Oscar for the part, makes it a brave soul who would be prepared to take it on. Lia Williams is amazing in the role, she really makes it her own. She shows us why the girls are so in her thrall, and she gives us an insight into why this is not necessarily always in their best interests.

The cast is small and all are good. Angus Wright is excellent, as usual, as Gordon Lowther, the music teacher whose love for Jean Brodie is not returned. His part, in particular, is more compassionately written here than in other versions, this works well as a contrast to the more dissolute role of Teddy Lloyd.   I really enjoyed seeing the role of Joyce Emily brought forward in this adaptation. Nicola Coughlan is really good in the part, I think we will be hearing that name much more in the future.

The set is simple with clean lines and cool colours, reminiscent of Rennie Mackintosh. There is also a kind of Japanese Shinto influence with different bells arranged around the set, ringing intermittently before the start and during the interval, ensuring that we are all in a state of relaxation before the action begins.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a great book and this is a lovely new adaptation of it. The dialogue is crisp and clear, the characters are sympathetically written, and the acting is top class. It is playing until the end of July, I know the Donmar has a tendency to sell out very quickly, but if you can get your hands on a ticket, then I would recommend that you do.

Macbeth, National Theatre, Southbank, London

Macbeth

This is more Mad Mac than Macbeth. This play is so different to what we usually see put on as Macbeth, that it would not have been too much to change the title as well. At least then we would have had a little more idea of what to expect. I was not amazed at the number of people who did not return for the second act, because for many people, this will not have been the show that they came to see. It is certainly not Macbeth as we know it, the set, costumes and music fight to overwhelm one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays, but thanks to strong lead performances Macbeth just about wins through.

I admire Rufus Norris’ audacity here, he makes Macbeth into a gory, post apocalyptic, horror show – with zombies. The party is a grimy, drugged-up car park rave, ripped plastic bin bags are the height of home decoration and the future of clothes care clearly doesn’t involve any kind of washing. The world he presents is ugly, violent and harsh.  It begins with a particularly brutal beheading that warns you that this will be a difficult watch at times, and there are other moments in the production that transcend even the gore, slash/ horror genre that was in vogue in 1980s. It has a punk ethic that sets out to shock, and the visceral disgust of the moment when Lady MacDuff is presented with the bodies of her mutilated children in clear plastic bags is something that will not be soon forgotten.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear are both good, despite all the eccentric distractions going on around them. The actors here have a hard job, it’s almost as though Rufus Norris has decided that the lines of the play are secondary to the action on stage, so often he has them doing strange things while delivering famous lines. Why is Porter giving this speech clinging on to a pole at the back of the stage, why is Macbeth removing his socks after killing Duncan? Even when Rory Kinnear is alone on stage, he has to contend with avoiding the furniture on a spinning set.  This vision has some wins and some losses, the point in the second act where all the dead characters are lurching around the stage in crazed zombie mode is a big contrast from the performances of Kevin Harvey and Steven Boxer in the first act as Banquo and Duncan. As Macduff, Patrick O’Kane’s reaction to the news of the murder of his family stood out, all the more, for being so restrained in the sea of lunacy surrounding him.

This is not a Macbeth that I would ever have envisioned, and it is not one of my favourite interpretations. I don’t believe that this production was made to be liked, it was made to alarm, astound and to be talked about – and if that is the case, it surely achieves what it set out to do. What is certainly true, is that this Macbeth is one that I will remember and, for that,  I am pleased not to have missed it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1

Harry Potter

I guess that I had better begin by explaining where I am on the Hogwarts spectrum. I enjoy the Harry Potter franchise. I read the first three books and really liked them. I have watched all the films, including the fantastic beasts one, although I couldn’t say exactly what happened in which film, especially the ones towards the end of the series. So, I know all the main characters pretty well, but I’m not a person you would invite to be on your team in the Harry Potter trivia quiz.

This play is written by Jack Thorne, although it is based on a story by him, JK Rowling and John Tiffany. However, it does really feel like it is written by JK Rowling because it is, first and foremost, a really good story and she does know how to construct a good story. I’m not too sure why it is separated into two plays, because it is a single adventure and I suspect that if you were to just see part two, you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on at the beginning.  So, if you are planning to book, do see both parts and do see them in the correct order. Never have I been to the theatre and been warned so often about revealing the plot; luckily, I prefer leaving the storytelling to the playwright so rarely reveal plot twists in a review.

The story is great, not particularly complicated or cutting edge, but it is told in convincing detail over the course of five and a half hours. We know most of the main characters already, having lived through their adolescence, and I have to say it is interesting to see them all fully grown up with children of their own. The actors playing these parts have a tough job, taking over characters with whom we are already very familiar, but needing to bring their own ethos to the role. They all cope admirably with this challenge, Rakie Ayola and Jamie Glover are good as Hermione and Harry. I loved the reimagining of Ron Weasley; Thomas Aldridge’s character probably did have a little more of a free rein for development given his incidental part in the story, but it is very funny and he delivers it well. The new people are really the stars in this show, Theo Ancient is very good as Albus Severus Potter and Samuel Blenkin is fantastic as Scorpius Malfoy. April Hughes has a wonderful, scene stealing cameo as Moaning Myrtle.

The magic and special effects are spectacular, it is one thing seeing them on film as we are used to, but seeing them around you in the theatre really adds to the excitement. The effects are constant throughout the show and they are all top notch. The sets are clever and engaging, there is always something new to attract your attention, not an easy achievement over the course of such a long play. The choreography felt clunky at first, with too many flourishes, but you come to realise that this is necessary to help the magic along, and by the end I was full of admiration for the choreographer – with a company of 43 people, military precision must have been crucial.

These were the most expensive tickets I have ever bought, so it needed to be good, but I have to say that even so, I still feel that they were good value for money.