Imperium, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1.

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Imperium is an adaptation of Robert Harris’ three books on the life of Cicero, into six plays, each just over one hour long. These have been amalgamated into two plays; Conspirator and Dictator, which are running concurrently with the same cast at the Gielgud Theatre. It is possible, if you choose the correct day, to watch the first play as a matinee and the second one the same evening.

This is a Royal Shakespeare Company production which has transferred from Stratford to the West End. Robert Harris is an acclaimed author of historical novels, renowned for making history accessible. Mike Poulton who adapted these novels has recently brought Hilary Mantel’s,Tudor novels to the stage with great success. These three combine well to make a thoroughly entertaining and interesting biography of one of Rome’s less covered  characters.

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Cicero has been written as the hero here although not without flaws. He is honourable and steadfast to his belief in the Republic of Rome. He has great oratorical skills and is politically adept. He is also vain, aware of his talents, but blind to his faults. Richard McCabe plays the part admirably, with charisma – he is self important and gossipy, but witty and likeable still. The other main part in this play is Tiro, Cicero’s slave, who is writing his biography. Joseph Kloska is fantastic in this role, he is effectively the narrator of the story. He is integral to making Cicero likeable and his affection for his master, while seeing his faults, shines through his performance. Both of them are on stage for almost the entire seven hours of the show. The synergy between these two main characters is lovely and is the column around which the whole production is built.

Nearly everyone else is an antihero and a threat to the Roman Republic. Peter de Jersey is a smooth, smiling Julius Caesar – politically adept, desirous of power for personal gain. Joe Dixon is very good as Cataline, all brawn and little brain, who believes that he deserves to rule Rome and is prepared to bring it down in revenge, if it fails to deliver his wishes. In the second series of plays Oliver Johnstone is good as Octavian Caesar. He is cold, calculating and calm, able to bide his time as he is convinced of his own divinity.

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For me, the one misstep was portraying Pompey as a Donald Trump type figure. In historical terms it is likely that they were far from alike politically, and director Gregory Doran did a nice job of drawing our own comparisons with the present day throughout the rest of the show, without us needing any coercion, so maybe we should have been trusted to do the same here. However that is a small quibble, for a production that has managed to walk the line between accuracy and accessibility.

The set too is good, simple and effective. Senate steps that the cast sit upon while listening. Tesserae of watching eyes at the back of the stage. The walls of the senate are built with Roman bricks. There is a huge revolving, reflective, silver globe suspended over the set, that changes hue with events on stage – perhaps a pun on Urbis et Orbis from the city to the world. Anthony Ward has done well making the audience the forum, to whom the senate are speaking and drawing us in to the action.

Imperium is a lovely reproduction of a small part of ancient history. it is witty, funny and accessible, an enjoyable show whether or not you have an interest in the Roman Republic. Robert Harris famously said of his Cicero trilogy that is “The West Wing with Togas”, well this contemporary adaptation turns it into “House of Cards in Ancient Rome”. Surely a Netflix production cannot be far away – and if it is I will surely be watching!

 

 

 

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Sea Wall, Old Vic, London, SE1

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Sea Wall was written by Simon Stephens specifically for Andrew Scott. He first performed it ten years ago at the Bush theatre in Hammersmith. Since that time, both of them have become regarded as leaders in their sphere. Simon Stephens was already very well regarded, being involved with young writers at The Royal Court, but his hugely successful adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” has taken his career to a new level. Andrew Scott has been involved in the big hit TV series, Sherlock, where he plays Moriarty, and his stage performance of Hamlet was one of last years stand out performances. https://reviewdonkey.wordpress.com/?s=hamlet

This particular play has developed something of a cult following, it has been performed in the UK and Ireland and there is filmed version of it available online. I have to say that it is a truly remarkable piece, beautifully written. It plays to all of Andrew Scott’s  considerable strengths. He interacts directly with the audience, his naturalistic style of acting fits perfectly with the writing and one cannot help but be moved by his telling of the story. It was surely imagined for performance in a much smaller space than the Old Vic but Andrew Scott has even this larger audience in the palm of his hand.

The piece is short, only half an hour long, and the tightwad in me, initially felt a little short changed that The Old Vic is charging pretty nearly full price for a thirty minute one man show with no set. However, with perspective, Sea Wall is a very high quality, dense piece and I’m not sure that Andrew Scott, or the audience for that matter, could have kept up that level of intensity for any longer.

This show really enhances the reputations of both the actor and the writer. From Andrew Scott we really do get a masterclass in captivating an audience. He managed to make a thousand seat auditorium feel like a private conversation. I think that after he has finished the run here, there is life in the show yet and, I suspect that it is likely to be performed at other venues in the future. If not, I believe that you can watch the show on film at  http://www.seawallandrewscott.com/ I haven’t watched it yet, but if it is half as good as it is live then you are in for a treat!

Translations, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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Translations is set in Donegal in the 1830s. Ireland is under British control, but most of the population do not speak English. It is at a time before the famine has set in, but people know of the blight and are aware of the damage that a potato crop failure can do to a  community. Ordinance Survey has sent teams of men to map the countryside and to standardise place names. Education had not been allowed for Catholics, so the practice of illegal hedge schools operated throughout Ireland. One of these schools is the precise setting of this play.

This is a play about language, the effect language can have on culture, how we can communicate with it and also about how we can communicate without it. This makes it quite an intimate piece and the Oliver Theatre, The National Theatre’s largest space and stage, does not appear to be a natural home for it. However, Rae Smith, the set designer has done an amazing job and used the space to great advantage. The hedge school is a small, low walled area right at the front of the stage and the rest of the area is peat bog stretching out into the distance, covered by the gently rolling mist that is prevailing climate of the region. Thus, we have the intimacy of the small school and the expanse of the area that is in the process of being mapped.

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Brian Friel was, he died in 2015, a wonderful playwright and Translations is a virtuoso display of his skills. The play itself may be about the power of words but the main love scene is between two people without a common language. It consists mostly of lists of place names, and is still a very moving piece of theatre. The director, Ian Rickson, has taken great care of the action, every entry and exit feels considered and the lines are all delivered deliberately, making you feel that each word has been carefully chosen.

The acting is of the highest calibre, Ciaran Hinds is as good as you would expect – and those expectations are high indeed. Colin Morgan is also very good, showing that he is aware that he is taking both sides, while denying it to all. Dermot Crowley, as Jimmy Jack Cassie, is a revelation, in a part as a humorous fantasist, who has to be credible to be funny. I also loved Michelle Fox, who managed to get us to feel a wide range of emotions even though her part has very few lines.

The thing that makes this production stand out for me, though, is the extraordinary way that Ian Rickson handles the final scene. The mechanism he employs, comes out of the blue and is gone in a flash, it adds a current reference to the play and suits it well. All in all, this is a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully presented and performed and I will consider myself to be very lucky if I see anything as good this year.

 

Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

Consent, National Theatre, South Bank, London

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The reviews for this show had been so good, but it was sold out. I know that NT have a few restricted view seats that they sell at 9.30 on the day. I got there at 9.20 and BINGO! I was in. The seat was £15 and I wouldn’t have called it restricted view at all. Apparently some are less good, but I was only second in the queue, and the view was perfect.

The reviews are well deserved, the writing is dazzling. Nina Raine is a huge talent with a wonderful ear for dialogue. She tackles some really complex subjects and manages to make you aware of each different person’s point of view,  see the validity in it, and even make it funny! We are going to hear a lot more of Nina Raine as a playwright.

Of course, this writing would come to nought if the actors weren’t able to deliver, and here we have six main characters of talent, all on top form, and all buoyed by the knowledge that they have great material to work with. Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin are excellent as the couple, Kitty and Edward, managing to make us loathe some of their actions while still understanding the reasons behind them. Adam James is brilliant as Jake, the husband who is able to rationalise his bad behaviour, and Priyanga Burford is perfect as his witty intelligent wife, who is laughing at herself for accepting it.

The set is simple and clever; an array of lights hang above the stage, and different ones lower and light, to convey which home we are in. The direction is uncomplicated; allowing the dialogue to speak for itself. Everything about this production is top quality.

I loved this play. I know it is sold out, but it is worth going along in the morning; to see if you can get day tickets, or if you hear of it getting a transfer or a revival; make sure that you are quick off the mark.

Obsession, Barbican Theatre, London, 2017

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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.

Funny Girl (dir. W. Wyler) 1968

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“Hello Gorgeous”

Barbra Streisand won the Oscar for best actress for this film in 1968. This film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards in total. It is almost always included in lists of all time best musicals.

It is too bright. It is melodramatic. It is both camp and kitsch. Omar Sharif does not sing well…….but the film is about succeeding by overcoming faults and making the most of what you do have.

This movie has Barbra Streisand, who is amazing in this film, the role could have been written for her and she grabs it with both hands and wrings every piece of emotion out of it. It has some fantastic, powerful songs that still sound great almost fifty years on. It also has a line that is often included in lists of most memorable movie quotes:”Hello Gorgeous”

If you like musicals or are interested in cinema history you have to see this film.