Angels In America, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Angels in America is operatic in its scale. It has huge universal themes, it takes on religion, politics and the future of the planet. At its core though, are three individual small stories that investigate the meaning of love and abandonment. It can be at times; grandiose, bombastic, histrionic and at others; tender, bitchy or warm. The show is set in 1985 New York at the start of the AIDS crisis, with Ronald Reagan just having been elected for his second term.

It is an awe inspiringly big production. The set is amazing. There are not many theatres in the world with stages large enough to contain the more expansive pieces, but there are also intimate scenes set in small a room or around a single hospital bed. I will be surprised if Ian MacNeil does not win an award for his set design. The direction is very clever, the angel is astonishingly large, when it arrives, yet the scene involving a small puppetry diorama is equally compelling.

The cast is astounding and their performances are excellent. Every single person in the production is at the top of their game, so it almost seems unfair to pick out favourites but…. Andrew Garfield is a revelation, I’d only seen him as Spider-Man before, and this is quite different! Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is fab-u-lous (three full syllables) as Belize, he is given some of the best lines in the show, and he delivers them well.  Nathan Lane plays Roy Cohn and manages to make him cruel, contemptible and charismatic.

This show is a marathon at over seven and a half hours for both parts, but it passes surprisingly quickly. I did not feel the time going at all. I commend its ambition, I admire its uncompromising stance and I revere its wonderful production values. Angels in America one-off theatrical experience.

This Charming Man, Marian Keyes, 2008

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It seems to me, from reviews that I have read, that Marian Keyes is not regarded as a serious author. I suspect that this comes from her novels being easy to read. “This Charming Man” is indeed easy to read, but that is because it is well written and not because it does not approach difficult subjects.

The main subjects of this book are abusive relationships, alcoholism and corruption in politics, with brief forays into living with a cancer diagnosis and isolation of cross dressers in rural communities. Marian Keyes has a deftness of touch and a sense of humour that manages to make this book engaging while still keeping the reader aware of the difficulties of the characters lives.

This is no less literature than Dickens or Austen, she has a great deal in common with Jane Austen in that the book is a good insight into society and the social norms of the time in which it is written. This story is told from the points of view of four different women and this is a structure also favoured by Austen. They also have wit in common and both poke gentle fun at their heroines as a way of pointing out the foibles of the culture in which they live. This novel is set in Dublin, London and County Clare.

Having said that, this particular novel is a little darker than some of her other books, although it is remarkable, maybe even a bit of a stretch, that she managed to tie up the loose ends quite as well as she did.

This Charming Man won the Popular Fiction Prize at the Irish Book Awards. I think it should have been considered for other more seriously regarded literary awards also, because there is no doubt that Marian Keyes’ books are going to be regarded as representative of late 20th, early 21st century literature in hundreds of years time.

 

Don Juan in Soho, Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 2017

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The 17th Century version of this play closed, after only one performance, because of its repulsive and offensive nature. It was not shown in an uncensored form again for almost 150 years. Marber updates the setting to 21st Century Soho, but stays remarkably faithful to the original story.

It is shocking, ribald, offensive but that is the point of the play, Don Juan is not meant to have any redeeming features.  David Tennant is very good as the debauched libertine, who is patronising, misogynistic and self serving.  Adrian Scarborough is fantastic as Stan, his forgiving manservant, who is just as taken is by his master’s guile as any of the women he seduces. Together they make a fantastic double act, funny and argumentative, Stan feels the guilt that his master doesn’t, but yet he cannot help himself from becoming involved in the collusion. Their duet to close the first act was brilliant.

The script is witty and sharp, Don Juan’s diatribe against social media and celebrity culture is funny, and made it feel current, even if it did not advance his argument.  I have to admit that I am not sure what the addition of the dancers in their underwear added to the proceedings, but the use of music is good, the occasional pieces from Mozart’s, Don Giovanni are a nice juxtaposition to the modern score.

This play is always going to a controversial choice, if it doesn’t disturb and distress people, it is not doing its job. It is a brave play for the leading actors to take on because it relies so heavily on the capability and rapport of the two lead characters and if it is not done well, it will always be a mark on their career. However, David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough are both excellent and carry it off admirably.

With the vogue in theatre now, for women to take on roles that have traditionally been played by men, this would be an interesting proposition – and it would go some way to counteracting the misogyny criticisms often levelled against it.

Until that happens, this is a very enjoyable show, an excellent night out and the perfect start to a night of revelry in nearby Soho.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, 1818

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Northanger Abbey was actually written in the final years of the 18th Century but was not published until after her death in 1817. Although it has similarities in style and content to “Sense & Sensibility” and “Pride & Prejudice” there are also some major differences.

It is a comedy of manners, but it is more a satire of the gothic novels that were fashionable at the time. So, it does make gentle fun of the contemporary styles of the day, but this book is more specific in its target than her first two novels. This is not to say that she is not just as funny when pointing out the differences between what is said and what is meant in genteel society at that point in history, but this is not the main thrust of the novel.

The story is laid out in the style of a gothic horror novel, with many things foreshadowing dark happenings in the imagination of Catherine, our heroine. These intrigues usually turn out to be much more mundane, such as her discovering that the scrolls found in the desk are only an old laundry list. The books mentioned in the Northanger Abbey are real novels that were popular at the time and, Austen’s knowledge of their content and style shows that, she must have enjoyed reading them herself.

Catherine Morland is much more the ingénue than the usual lead character in a Jane Austen novel, she takes longer to notice when people are behaving badly towards her. This gives the author the opportunity to write some particularly materialistic and vain characters, she is merciless and sharp with these.

This book feels much less a Regency romantic comedy and more the story of an imaginative 17 year old girl leaving home for the first time. Catherine comes of age by realising that the world she has read about in her books is not quite the same as the world she occupies in real life. This gives it a universal truth that is just as true today as it was when it was first written.

In conclusion, although Northanger Abbey, would probably not be my first recommendation as an introduction to the novels of Jane Austen, it is nevertheless, a fine book and worthy of its place as a classic of English literature.

 

 

 

Much Ado About Nothing, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

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Much Ado About Nothing is probably Shakespeare’s wittiest and lightest play. The banter between Beatrice and Benedick is both quick and sharp. This is The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, originally produced for the 2014 Chichester Festival, transferred to the Royal Haymarket Theatre in London.

This dramatization adds a costume drama aspect to the play by placing it at the end of the first world war. It also emphasises the physical comedy of the show, which is very current in the west end, and at least three scenes are bordering on slapstick. The eavesdropping and stage whisper scenes work particularly well.

All the elements blend together effectively, resulting in a good mix of comedy and drama. The staging is busy and lively and there are a good number of laugh out loud moments.

It can be difficult to add freshness to one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays,  Christopher Luscombe and the RSC have succeeded very well. They have put the emphasis on enjoyment, and there is so much going on here, that you feel you hardly have time to take breath before the next vibrant scene is upon you. The finale/encore dance number was also an unusual and unexpected highlight.

This is a very satisfying addition to the West End theatre and it will be a significant loss when the season ends.

 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Old Vic, London 2017

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“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is funny, thought provoking and enjoyable, all in a single package.

The 3 main actors are remarkably good. I was surprised at what a major part the Main Player is, and David Haig is perfect, giving the impression that he knows the meaning or the outcome, unlike anyone else, but is unconcerned about it.  Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe are a wonderful double act, McGuire having a great verbal delivery and Radcliffe conveying so much with looks, gestures and shrugs. They complement each other very well here.

The play itself is also a star. It really does not feel like a revival, it does not matter at all that it is over 50 years old, it is timeless. The light touch direction was just what the piece deserves, to let the writing itself shine through.

This is a very good production of an excellent play with simple direction in a beautiful theatre. What more could anyone want?

Sense and Sensibility (dir. Ang Lee) 1995

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Sense and Sensibility is a good film, but I believe that it is almost false advertising to call it by that name. The story is so changed from the book that, although the characters have the same names and the final result is the same, it is totally unrecognisable in places as the same story. Some quite major characters have been killed off.  John Middleton is now a widower and their young child no longer in the story.  Lucy Steele’s sister, who blabs the whole story if the illicit engagement, is not in the film. Hugh Grant is far too affable in character for the grumpy Edward Ferrars in the book. Alan Rickman too easily wins Marianne over after her disappointment in Willoughby.  In fact, in this film, almost the least charming character is Willoughby, who in the book wins over Marianne, and her mother, by his easy false charm.

The acting is good, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are very good playing the romantic leads in a costume drama set in the 18th century. Emma Thompson is full of repressed emotion and Kate Winslett is fine as an impulsive teenager falling in love easily and recovering easily. Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie are wonderfully funny as Mr and Mrs Palmer.

There are some great moments of humour, the script has some wonderful lines. It is visually very attractive and there is much to admire in the period detail. A great deal of care and attention went into the making of this film and it shows throughout the movie.

It was nominated for seven Oscars. It won the one for best adapted screenplay. It was hugely popular and led to a revival of sales of Jane Austen’s novels and for these reasons it must be celebrated. I would probably have liked it more had I not read the novel itself so recently.

The film itself is most enjoyable but do go to see it as a Hollywood representation of upper class England in the late 1790s and not as a  faithful adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the book.