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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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.

 

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

The Host

“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!

 

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s Theatre

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Six catholic schoolgirls in uniform arrive on stage to sing a hymn, Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes”. They have angelic voices, it is beautiful. After the song they begin to talk, the language is sinful and the subjects are carnal. The juxtaposition is funny and moving.

This play is the story of their day trip to Edinburgh to sing in a choir competition. Over the course of this twenty four hours they meet various characters from the places they visit. These characters are played by the girls themselves and this combined with the strong accents and dialect made following the action hard work in places. However, the script is witty and coarse and the singing is fantastic, especially the classical pieces and hymns. Many of the rock songs are Electric Light Orchestra covers.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is a well observed play. It is insightful, in that it makes us aware of the difference between the world that their convent schooling is preparing them for and the actual world that they will inhabit when they leave. This play makes you question how qualified ecclesiastic schools are at preparing children for a life in a secular society.

An entertaining and thought provoking show, with a very talented cast. I am sure we shall hear of many of these actors again.

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.

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.

The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre, London 2016

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This is a play that will stay with you after you leave the theatre. Terrence Rattigan is the ultimate playwright if you wish to see quiet desperation. It starts out by seeing the bitter humour in a suicide attempt that fails because the money in the meter ran out and it gets darker from there.

Hester Collyer is surely one of the best parts written in the 20th Century and the anguish that Helen McCrory has seeping through her “stiff upper lip” is palpable.

We see the easier options that she has available to her, yet we also understand why she chooses not to take them. There is lovely interaction between her and Peter Sullivan, who plays her estranged husband. It could be so tempting to go back to him, but it would not be honest. On the other hand, her love for Freddie will ruin both of them in long term.

In the end, she is strong and does not take any of the easy ways out, but I have to say, this is one of the saddest happy endings you will ever see.