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.

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The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1

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The Ferryman is a kitchen sink drama with an epic storyline. Apart from the prologue, it is totally set in the large kitchen of a family farmhouse outside Derry. The action is a day and a half in the lives of the extended family that resides there. But, the themes are huge, its about family and war, about love and loyalty, about freedom fighting and terrorism, and it tells these stories through short interwoven family interactions that come and go throughout the play that gradually meld together to make a complex tapestry.

Jez Butterworth has been spoken of as one of the best writers around today, and with  The Ferryman he delivers. The language and the narrative are superlative, it is the writing of someone both confident and ambitious. He is brave to wind traditional songs and ancient stories through the dialogue and he is talented pull it off so well.

The direction is awesome, there are 17 characters in this play, without counting the live goose, rabbit or the baby. Just moving them all around the stage must have been a major task but, Sam Mendes makes the whole setting feel real,  natural and, even simple.

The cast is also fabulous, lots of lovely performances from so many different actors. Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly are great as Quinn and Caitlin, but right through the cast there were great turns. I loved Rob Malone as the troubled Oisin. Brid Brennan had a scene stealing part as Aunt Maggie Faraway and she played it perfectly. Dearbhla Molloy and Des McAleer are wonderful as Aunt Patricia and Uncle Pat.

As you can tell, I loved this show. I have to finish because I am about to run out of superlatives. This is a play that will become a classic piece of literature that will be on school curricula.

 

 

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

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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

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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.

God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee) 2017

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God’s own Country is a simple love story. A gritty, realistic, unsentimental love story. It is set in surroundings that are bleak and that sometimes seem hopeless. It is peopled with characters whose lives reflect that environment.

It is not an easy watch, Francis Lee, the director, has chosen not to airbrush the harsh realities of farm life on the Yorkshire moors, so there are scenes of birth, death, blood and gore. The characters, too, are depicted in a brutally honest way. They do not talk a great deal and when they do they are often spikey and abrasive. However, the occasional tenderness displayed seems highlighted because of this.

The four main actors are all great, both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe appear to bare their soul for the camera and Gemma Jones is great as Nan. Ian Hart is outstanding, with a beautifully nuanced performance as Johnny’s Dad, Martin. He can be harsh and  blunt, but beneath it all what he wants is his son’s happiness.

This is a film that is defined by the place in which it is set. Not only is this a very British film, it is a northern film, in much the same way that the band, The Smiths, were, when they were at their best. Sometimes the diamond shines all the brighter for being in a rougher environment, and that is certainly the case here. It is a very simple love story made sweeter by being found in such a hopeless place.

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) 2016

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I enjoyed Arrival, it has a lot of interesting ideas. It took me a little while to adjust, because, having seen the posters of huge alien space ships hovering over major cities,  I went in expecting a Hollywood sci-fi special effects blockbuster. This is more of an indie film given a larger than usual budget. Once I had realised that and changed my expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The story is good, both thought provoking and positive. Normally, I like linear narrative, but on this occasion the oblique storytelling suited the tale and the mood of the movie. The lead character is a little two dimensional, but beautifully acted by Amy Adams. The direction is fantastic, Denis Villeneuve has the confidence to make it very slow and deliberate, unusual in the sci-fi genre. He also had the bravery to open himself to the possibility of ridicule, by showing us the alien ships, showing us the aliens, defining their method of communication. This could have seemed preposterous, but in the end, they seemed believable and, particularly in the case of the writing, even beautiful.

The cinematography is lovely, very clever juxtaposition between the wide open spaces of Montana and the cramped confines of their camp. The soundtrack is exceptional, worthy of listening to even without the accompanying film. Everything about this film is high quality, however, the bang that you get for your buck is much more cerebral than is usual in a Hollywood Sci-fi blockbuster, and you should be aware of that before you decide to go.

Arrival was nominated for 8 Oscars at the 2017 Academy Awards, including best movie, but the only one it won was for achievement in sound editing.  It appears in many best of year lists for 2016, topping some of them.

The Host, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, The Yard Theatre, London

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“The Host” is an up to the minute play, set in a council block in Croydon. Nominally about refugees and our response to them, it is also about the meaning of family, and about cultural identity.

It is a well written play with colourful, but current, language. It is excellently performed by the 5 member cast. Rebekah Murrell and Zakary Douglas-Zerouali have a great chemistry as the two leads Yasmin and Rabea. Rebekah plays Yasmin with a nervous intensity, full of (mostly) repressed anger. This is balanced well with Rabea’s more resigned accepting nature.

Nessah Muthy, the playwright, is on this year’s BBC new talent hotlist. On this form, you can see why, although some of the issues felt unresolved, and the finale felt a little like the end of the first act, the script is good and she has a great ear for the rhythms of conversation.

The set and direction are good, the messy, claustrophobic flat is simply set up and, having the offstage cast on view at the back made us feel that we were never far from our neighbours.

This is the final play in the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s enjoyable East End Season at the Yard Theatre. I hope they repeat the idea next year.  However, they are doing a revival of “Zigger, Zagger”, the play about football hooliganism at the Wilton’s Music Hall early next month. I am looking forward to seeing it!