The Best Man by Gore Vidal, Playhouse Theatre, London WC2, 2018

the-best-man-01

First produced on Broadway in 1960, The Best Man points at the flaws in the democratic system that we had then and that we still have today, namely that those who crave political power are the last people who should be given it. It is really interesting to note how it manages to be a period costume drama and a commentary on the machinations of political life today. The period part comes in the fact that political drama in the early 1960s was a much more static affair than we are used to now. Since “The West Wing” and “House of Cards”, rarely do we see anyone actually sitting and talking political ideas.

Gore Vidal is a fantastic writer, and even almost 60 years on, “The Best Man” is full of provocative ideas and stinging backhanded compliments.  It is insightful and witty and has a stellar cast. Martin Shaw shows great balance being righteous without being too pompous, he carries himself as though he believes he is better than the people who he hopes to vote for him, but has to work hard to avoid showing it.  Jeff Fahey is the Machiavellian, but he makes you understand that he realises this, and it is ok because he is doing it for the right reasons. Jack Shepherd almost steals the show as the outgoing President – this is a fantastic part, he gets to deliver some nice home truths to both sides and he plays it perfectly.

This being the early 1960s one would expect the women to be ancillary to the action, but Vidal was ahead of his time here, and the three leading ladies all have relatively meaty roles, and are aware of their importance in the political machine. Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks have very different roles as the respective senators wives but both are very convincing in what they do. Maureen Lipman is hilarious in a beautifully written cameo as Mrs Gamadge, who promises to bring “the women’s vote” to the candidate of her choice. She plays it so well and so much as we know her that it feels as though it could have been written for her.

Simon Evans has done a good job as director by ensuring that, although the play was written with one senator being the more honourable and the other being more murky, we see the faults in both. Apparently there was film of this play made in 1964, I will certainly be on the lookout for it because it will be interesting to see the difference 54 years has made in our perception of its ideas.

Unfortunately, I have come to this show late and it is about to close in London, but if it goes on tour after, I urge you to try and catch it, especially if you have any interest in politics – either American or British, and either current of historical. Recommended.

Advertisements

Chess, The Coliseum, London WC2

Chess

Chess at the Coliseum is part opera, part rock concert, but full on spectacle. It has a large orchestra, positioned in full view, above the stage. It has fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerial silk dancing, a company of fifty people. There are video screens, pop concert style, at each side of the stage; showing the current singer in close up. There are video clips showing American capitalist advertising and Russian communist iconography. They have lavished both money and attention on this show and it has not gone to waste. Sometimes, it is good to see a big production and the extravaganza that can be delivered when no expense is spared.  The music and performances need to be strong to cope with these distractions, and luckily here that is the case. When Chess was written, it was set in the near present, however the world has changed so much sine the 1980s that now it has become historical period drama, and this has given it has a timeless quality that it did not have at that time.

Music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, the songs are memorable and emotional. It is clever that the American characters have the more rock style songs. Tim Howar has the perfect voice for these songs, unsurprising I suppose, as his day job is lead singer with Mike and the Mechanics – a classic ’80s rock outfit. Alexandra Burke is Svetlana, the Russian wife, not many songs but she sings them very well. Cassidy Jansen plays Florence, which is the bigger part and she also has an amazing voice. Their duet “I Know Him So Well” is beautiful. Michael Ball is Anatoly, the lead character and is just as good as you would expect him to be. All four main singers are artists at the peak of their careers and they bring out the full potential of the songs. Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal, as Molokov and The Arbiter respectively, also have lovely rich voices.

The choreography is clever and witty. I particularly liked the British dance, with the suited, bowler hatted, umbrella wielding civil servants doing their homage to the swans in swan lake, while the typing pool work away in the background. There is so much going on, all the time, in this production that, no doubt, there are elements that I missed, however, rarely has two and three quarter hours flown by so quickly. The Coliseum is a venue that is more used for traditional opera than modern musicals and Chess fitted in very well. Seeing it here, and hearing it with the benefit of the ENO chorus, one realises that this is a show that could be performed in a venue such as this for centuries to come.

The Fall, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Southwark Playhouse, London

The Fall

I really look forward to seeing what the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain bring out each year. It is always interesting and thought provoking. They rarely disappoint and this show is no exception. This is a triptych of plays with a common theme, aging and how we treat the aged. All three are written by James Fritz, they have funny and intelligent dialogue. Directed by Matt Harrison, the bed in the centre of the stage is the single focal point, it cleverly has different implications in each scene.

The first is the most conforming of the three, the story of a couple of horny teenagers who use an old man’s flat to have sex while he is away.  Jesse Bateson and Niyi Akin are both excellent, showing off teenage attitudes to old age, with humour and occasional compassion.

The second is also a two hander.  A couple age from teenage to late middle age in the course of twenty minutes, as they cope with looking after their son and an aging parent. Sophie Couch is really good, we are unsure of her actions without ever being unsure of her motives. Troy Richards as her partner does a great job of keeping us guessing as to whether he believes her because he trusts her or because he just chooses to without any real justification.

The third is set in an old peoples’ home, in a future where virtual assistant apps control the looking after and their only company is each other. The only outside human interaction appears to be a liaison officer, played with cool dispassion by Lucy Havard, offering voluntary euthanasia. Jamie Ankrah does a good job of playing the archetypal “Grumpy Old Man”.  Jamie Foulkes evokes compassion for his decision and Madeline Charlemagne is great as an octogenarian with a sense of fun. Josie Charles is fantastic as the last old person left, measuring out her days by turning on her room lights. Joshua Williams is excellent as the Nurse, one of the few people in the cast who gets to play his own age, whose job now is doling out death, but at least trying to do it with compassion.

Every year the NYT of GB do a season of shows in both off West End and West End theatres. This is the first time that they have been at the Southwark Playhouse, it is a venue that will work well for them, in that it is both intimate and adaptable. The plays put on by the National Youth Theatre are always innovative, interesting and entertaining and they are very competitively priced.  The production values are great and you are sure to see some stars of the future, either in acting, direction or choreography.

Fanny and Alexander, The Old Vic, London SE1

the-cast-of-fanny-alexander-the-old-vic-photo-manuel-harlan-045

Fanny and Alexander is a play to luxuriate in. Sit back, relax – and let three and a half hours of rich storyline, beautifully performed, draw you away into another world. Don’t feel guilty about it, for – as the moral of this tale has it – it is good for the soul to give in to pure pleasure occasionally.

The acting in this show is a wonder to behold, it is full of larger than life characters, but there is never a hint of pantomime or showboating. The play (and the audience too, on the day I attended) is crammed with the best actors that London has to offer. Penelope Wilton is amazing as the matriarch with a past, holding the family together. Jonathan Slinger is excellent as a slightly sleazy but unapologetic sybarite. Kevin Doyle brings out the best (and worst) in the ascetic bishop. Michael Pennington is fabulous as Isaac, the puppet master bringing the action together, seemingly from the periphery, but not as detached as he appears. Guillermo Bedward played Alexander in the show I watched and he was very good, both funny and serious.

Much of this play is set around various dinner tables, often accompanied by a list of the food on the menu. Fanny and Alexander itself is a feast of all the best that London theatre has to offer. You will be transported, indulged and you can wallow in an evening of rich extravagant entertainment. The set is simple but clear, I really liked the austerity of the room in the second act. The choreography is clever, just organising the many scene changes with such a large cast must have taken careful organising. It was a pleasure to watch great theatre unfold before your very eyes. I loved this show and the time flew, it was one of the most rewarding afternoons that I have ever wasted!

Zigger Zagger, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

©NOBBY CLARK
+44(0)7941-515770
+44(0)20-7274-2105
nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

From the second the opening whistle sounds and the cast of 50 begin their football chants, the audience is dragged in – to a world of youth tribalism, disaffection and tough choices. Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect size for this play, large enough that the cast doesn’t outnumber the audience, small enough that the cacophony of sound envelops you to feel part of the crowd.

Zigger Zagger is a late 20th century parable, ostensibly about football hooliganism but also about loyalty and fitting in. The protagonist, Harry Philton, excellently played by Josh Barrow, is a school leaver searching for belonging and is drawn to the local football terraces. He is aware of its limitations as a life choice so investigates the alternatives.

Among these are: Police, Army, Religion, Apprenticeship and, settling down. These options are caricatured, often in musical or poetic form. Adam Smart is particularly funny as the Youth Careers Officer. In between each option we are brought back to the terraces for a song and each time we feel the allure of being part of the crowd.

The soundtrack is great, T.Rex, Mud, Bay City Rollers even the Sex Pistols. The crowd songs are classical and traditional, with some chanting thrown in for good measure. Zigger Zagger is a boisterous and entertaining evening, with some great performances, and an interesting reminder of a specific moment in this country’s development.

 

Late Company, Trafalgar Studios 2, London SW1

xlatecompany-pagespeed-ic-d7h0sbiznu

Late Company is an intense, intimate play, perfectly suited to the small Trafalgar Studio 2, whose three rows of seats all feel right in the heart of the action.

The parents of a teenager who committed suicide, invite one of his teenage tormentors, and his parents, to dinner. Brave, is one word you could use, to describe the sending of that invitation, and equally brave to accept.  Presumably one set of parents is hoping for some kind of closure over the death of their son and the other parents are hoping for some kind of redemption for theirs.

The result is an awkward dinner party of epic proportions; raw emotions unsuccessfully reined in over pasta and salad, broken occasionally by moments of dark humour. The play is beautifully written and wonderfully acted. The writing is very even handed, you can understand the pain and resentment of each character as they speak, and yet you can also understand why the others cannot forgive.

The acting is key to this play, all five are brilliant, but David Leopold as Curtis, the accused bully, is exceptional, his part is a great one, and he delivers it perfectly. I love writing that encourages us to examine our prejudices, and this is a play that complicates the allocation of blame.

Jordan Tannahill, who wrote this at the age of 23, shows all the hallmarks of a very talented new playwright and I will be looking out for more of his work when it comes to London.

Obsession, Barbican Theatre, London, 2017

obsession-halina-reijn-gijs-scholten-van-aschat-chukwudi-iwuji-and-jude-law-image-credit-jan-versweyveld-549x357

Obsession is well acted, Jude Law and Halina Reijn are both moody and muscular, in fact, all six actors are good. The direction is classic Van Hove, there is a big sparse set, both the stage and the actors get very messy during the course of the show, and there is innovative use of both technology and sound. The story is good, it has, after all, spawned three quite different and successful films.

So, I’m not sure why this stage production was not to my taste. Maybe, it was too abstract. I did feel that everything was full of symbolism, but that there were some symbols that  I didn’t understand. Why did Joseph sing opera? Why did Anita bare her breasts at Gino at that precise moment? Why did Johnny meet nicer people at the seaside?

I have few individual criticisms of the play. I felt the nudity was gratuitous and possibly  sexist. Why was Hanna nude but not Gino? There had been a very well done and sultry sex scene earlier where they were both clothed, so I’m not sure why they changed this for the bathing scene. Either both naked for both scenes or neither, just to have the woman nude felt uncomfortable.

Obsession has some great moments, and the ending is dramatic. I really enjoyed Ivan Van Hove’s trademark touches.  However, this show was less than the sum of its parts, it did not hold my attention throughout, and ultimately, I left the theatre disappointed.