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.

 

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Kiss Me Kate, Opera North, London Coliseum, London WC2

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Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, Kiss Me Kate is a complex show, some of its numbers are  classic Broadway showtunes, while others have a light opera edge. It has complicated, full company dance routines as well as individual virtuoso displays. It also has a couple of good comedy roles that require great timing and delivery. On top of this, the Coliseum itself, has a big stage that needs a large company to fill. All in all, this is a show, in a venue, which will test every part of the company putting it on, to the fullest degree. I have to say that Opera North have passed this test with honours.

The two operatic leads, Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley, as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate both have splendid voices, suited to their roles.  Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt, as Lois and Billy, carry the more standard musical numbers perfectly. Each of the four of them has at least one great song to show of their respective talent. Lois has possibly the most famous songs in “Always true to you in my fashion” and “Tom, Dick or Harry” but Kate’s “I hate men” and Petruchio’s “Where is the life that I led” are really great songs that show of their vocal abilities. The show’s biggest song, of course, “Too Darn Hot” is sung by the chorus, and the dancers, particularly Aiesha Pease and Stephane Anelli, deliver a truly show stopping performance to this number.

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Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin play the comedy roles of first and second Gunman. They work very well together, their interaction is excellent and they make the most of their comedy duet “Brush up your Shakespeare” – a song more full of puns than I had previously realised. The company as a whole is excellent and you realise that this is going to be a show full of movement and vigour, right from the first song of “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”.

Kiss Me Kate is a big show, and this is a big full-on production of it. The costumes are bright and lavish.  The choreographer has a tough job, with so many people on stage at once, however the dance routines are vivacious and have lovely shape. The set design needs ingenuity too, and is very clever at swapping from front of stage to back of house in seconds.

The director, Jo Davies, has taken the bold decision not to update the show in any obvious way. At times, it felt like you were actually watching a show made in the 1940s, giving the show an interesting post-war period feel. The tap routine, in particular, had a dated, black and white movie quality, which suited the production very nicely. This is a lush and exuberant production of a distinguished show and it fully deserved the love it received from the packed audience at curtain down.

 

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.

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.

 

Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2

 

 

DSC_2999Trafalgar Square is a tourist attraction that is packed with both dramatic architecture and history.  It has a claim to be the centre of London, in both a physical and psychological sense. Other places have claims also; Bank, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus even Hyde Park Corner, but there are a couple of good arguments in favour of Trafalgar Square.

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It has been  the scene of major British public gatherings and demonstrations from soon after its opening right until the present day. It was the backdrop to the Poll Tax demonstrations in the 1990s, CND rallies in the 1960s and ’70s, Chartist gatherings of the nascent Labour movement in the late 1800s and more recently campaigns against Climate Change and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Over the Christmas period it holds London’s most famous Christmas tree, a gift from Norway every year since 1947, as a thank you for Britain’s support during WWII. It was also the traditional gathering place for London’s New Year celebrations until the crowds became too big and deemed too dangerous to have at a single venue.

Trafalgar Square was designed in 1826 by architect John Nash, it did not really begin to take shape until the late 1830s when the National Gallery was built in 1838. It is named after the battle of Trafalgar, a famous 1805 victory over Napoleon.

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The centrepiece of the square is Nelson’s Column; a monument to the leader in that battle. This was erected in 1843 just before the square became a public area. It is a 43metre high, granite column with a 7metre statue of Horatio Nelson on top. The column itself is a Corinthian column, having an ornamental top. This ornament is made from British cannons.  There are also bas-reliefs on each side of the column at the bottom, depicting earlier famous British war victories and these are made from the melted down remains of weapons captured from the French and Spanish armies. Famously, the stonemasons who built the column are reputed to have had dinner served on its top, before the statue was placed.

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The Lions at each corner of the column were designed by Edwin Landseer and were installed in 1867. They are made of bronze and each one weighs over 6000kg. The fountains at either side of the column, were added later. The current fountains were designed by Edwin Lutyens and added just before the start of WWII. Trafalgar Square as a whole is Grade I listed, which is the highest level of architectural protection in the U.K. awarded only to buildings of exceptional interest.

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The oldest statue is to the South of the square. It depicts Charles I on a horse. This was made in 1633 and sent to be melted down after the abolition of the monarchy in 1653. The brazier to whom it was given, made his fortune selling trinkets made from the melted down statue, but he had kept it intact to return to the crown on their reinstatement. This is also what Trafalgar Square its claim to be the physical centre of London, as it is to the base of this statue that official distances to London are historically measured.

You may have heard that all the distances to London are measured from Charing Cross. This is true. The Charing Cross was one of 12 crosses placed by Edward I in memory of his wife Eleanor. It was originally in the spot currently occupied by the equestrian statue of Charles I. It was destroyed by order of Parliament after the civil war. A replacement cross was built and placed in front of Charing Cross station during the reign of Victoria. There is an original Eleanor cross still standing, from 1294, in Waltham Cross.

Part 2 of the Trafalgar Square post is here: Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.

 

Antigone, Greenwich Theatre, London

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The Actors of Dionysus are touring the UK at the moment with this, a sci-fi tinged modern adaptation of Sophocles’ two and a half thousand year old play. Antigone, a Greek tragedy, has never really been an easy watch, but this adaptation has definitely made it more accessible.

Christopher Adams has written, a well thought out, updating of the play. I enjoyed the conceit of making the chorus of the original into the hive mind of linked computers. I thought the idea of making the soul into a chip that needed to be removed and uploaded worked well and gave us a good insight into Antigone’s motivation and into Creon’s harshness at refusing to allow it.

The stage setting is interesting, I guess touring made the set need to be as simple as it was, and I liked the current touches, the surveillance drones are particularly clever and fitted very well with the story and setting. The simplicity of the set did emphasise the universal themes of the play.

I found the acting good and I enjoyed the way each character pushed their agenda. I particularly liked the change in Creon from harsh dictator to broken soul. The well intentioned but misguided leader delivering tough love for the good of the populace can be a hard sell at times, but he brought it off well.

It is a Greek tragedy, so we cannot expect a happy or wholesome outcome, however it is a tribute to Antigone’s universal themes that it is still being performed over two millennia after it was written and this is as enjoyable and accessible a production as you are likely to see anywhere.  Thoroughly recommended.the

Jekyll and Hyde, National Youth Theatre, Ambassadors Theatre, London

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The National Youth Theatre’s production of Jekyll and Hyde is a deconstruction of the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, rebuilt with a modern feminist twist by writer Evan Placey. Combining Victorian settings and morals with modern day language and values adds a new dimension to the duality theme of the story.

The decision to have a female Jekyll is not only brave but astute, and this production perfectly captures the zeitgeist with the discussion about sexism in film and theatre so much in the news. The writing is forthright, the jolt of the coarse language spoken by the Victorian ladies near the start of the play becomes clear in the second act, there is no doubt that Evan Placey is a talented author, of whom we will hear more in the future.

Aside from the writing there is much to recommend in this production. The acting throughout is accomplished. Jennifer Walsh in particular is excellent as Florence, a young adult coming to terms with the fact that although no one else is going to stand up for her, she has the power to stand up for herself.  Elizabeth McCafferty confidently makes the transitions between Jekyll and Hyde both striking and convincing. Mohammed Mansaray has a funny scene as a priest, which he delivers very well.

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The direction is brisk and contemporary, so that even in the midst of 19th century London, we feel linked to the current day. The director, Roy Alexander Weise, is not afraid to be confrontational, daring to breach our comfort zone in order that we feel the characters’ anger. The costume design is remarkable and clever, the ensemble changes from church house to flop house in the blink of an eye.

 

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Pictures courtesy of Nobby Clark

 

Jekyll and Hyde has a few rough edges, but challenging, thought provoking productions like this are exactly the remit of The National Youth Theatre and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this show.