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.

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The Best Man by Gore Vidal, Playhouse Theatre, London WC2, 2018

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First produced on Broadway in 1960, The Best Man points at the flaws in the democratic system that we had then and that we still have today, namely that those who crave political power are the last people who should be given it. It is really interesting to note how it manages to be a period costume drama and a commentary on the machinations of political life today. The period part comes in the fact that political drama in the early 1960s was a much more static affair than we are used to now. Since “The West Wing” and “House of Cards”, rarely do we see anyone actually sitting and talking political ideas.

Gore Vidal is a fantastic writer, and even almost 60 years on, “The Best Man” is full of provocative ideas and stinging backhanded compliments.  It is insightful and witty and has a stellar cast. Martin Shaw shows great balance being righteous without being too pompous, he carries himself as though he believes he is better than the people who he hopes to vote for him, but has to work hard to avoid showing it.  Jeff Fahey is the Machiavellian, but he makes you understand that he realises this, and it is ok because he is doing it for the right reasons. Jack Shepherd almost steals the show as the outgoing President – this is a fantastic part, he gets to deliver some nice home truths to both sides and he plays it perfectly.

This being the early 1960s one would expect the women to be ancillary to the action, but Vidal was ahead of his time here, and the three leading ladies all have relatively meaty roles, and are aware of their importance in the political machine. Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks have very different roles as the respective senators wives but both are very convincing in what they do. Maureen Lipman is hilarious in a beautifully written cameo as Mrs Gamadge, who promises to bring “the women’s vote” to the candidate of her choice. She plays it so well and so much as we know her that it feels as though it could have been written for her.

Simon Evans has done a good job as director by ensuring that, although the play was written with one senator being the more honourable and the other being more murky, we see the faults in both. Apparently there was film of this play made in 1964, I will certainly be on the lookout for it because it will be interesting to see the difference 54 years has made in our perception of its ideas.

Unfortunately, I have come to this show late and it is about to close in London, but if it goes on tour after, I urge you to try and catch it, especially if you have any interest in politics – either American or British, and either current of historical. Recommended.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1

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I guess that I had better begin by explaining where I am on the Hogwarts spectrum. I enjoy the Harry Potter franchise. I read the first three books and really liked them. I have watched all the films, including the fantastic beasts one, although I couldn’t say exactly what happened in which film, especially the ones towards the end of the series. So, I know all the main characters pretty well, but I’m not a person you would invite to be on your team in the Harry Potter trivia quiz.

This play is written by Jack Thorne, although it is based on a story by him, JK Rowling and John Tiffany. However, it does really feel like it is written by JK Rowling because it is, first and foremost, a really good story and she does know how to construct a good story. I’m not too sure why it is separated into two plays, because it is a single adventure and I suspect that if you were to just see part two, you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on at the beginning.  So, if you are planning to book, do see both parts and do see them in the correct order. Never have I been to the theatre and been warned so often about revealing the plot; luckily, I prefer leaving the storytelling to the playwright so rarely reveal plot twists in a review.

The story is great, not particularly complicated or cutting edge, but it is told in convincing detail over the course of five and a half hours. We know most of the main characters already, having lived through their adolescence, and I have to say it is interesting to see them all fully grown up with children of their own. The actors playing these parts have a tough job, taking over characters with whom we are already very familiar, but needing to bring their own ethos to the role. They all cope admirably with this challenge, Rakie Ayola and Jamie Glover are good as Hermione and Harry. I loved the reimagining of Ron Weasley; Thomas Aldridge’s character probably did have a little more of a free rein for development given his incidental part in the story, but it is very funny and he delivers it well. The new people are really the stars in this show, Theo Ancient is very good as Albus Severus Potter and Samuel Blenkin is fantastic as Scorpius Malfoy. April Hughes has a wonderful, scene stealing cameo as Moaning Myrtle.

The magic and special effects are spectacular, it is one thing seeing them on film as we are used to, but seeing them around you in the theatre really adds to the excitement. The effects are constant throughout the show and they are all top notch. The sets are clever and engaging, there is always something new to attract your attention, not an easy achievement over the course of such a long play. The choreography felt clunky at first, with too many flourishes, but you come to realise that this is necessary to help the magic along, and by the end I was full of admiration for the choreographer – with a company of 43 people, military precision must have been crucial.

These were the most expensive tickets I have ever bought, so it needed to be good, but I have to say that even so, I still feel that they were good value for money.

 

 

 

Chess, The Coliseum, London WC2

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Chess at the Coliseum is part opera, part rock concert, but full on spectacle. It has a large orchestra, positioned in full view, above the stage. It has fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerial silk dancing, a company of fifty people. There are video screens, pop concert style, at each side of the stage; showing the current singer in close up. There are video clips showing American capitalist advertising and Russian communist iconography. They have lavished both money and attention on this show and it has not gone to waste. Sometimes, it is good to see a big production and the extravaganza that can be delivered when no expense is spared.  The music and performances need to be strong to cope with these distractions, and luckily here that is the case. When Chess was written, it was set in the near present, however the world has changed so much sine the 1980s that now it has become historical period drama, and this has given it has a timeless quality that it did not have at that time.

Music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, the songs are memorable and emotional. It is clever that the American characters have the more rock style songs. Tim Howar has the perfect voice for these songs, unsurprising I suppose, as his day job is lead singer with Mike and the Mechanics – a classic ’80s rock outfit. Alexandra Burke is Svetlana, the Russian wife, not many songs but she sings them very well. Cassidy Jansen plays Florence, which is the bigger part and she also has an amazing voice. Their duet “I Know Him So Well” is beautiful. Michael Ball is Anatoly, the lead character and is just as good as you would expect him to be. All four main singers are artists at the peak of their careers and they bring out the full potential of the songs. Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal, as Molokov and The Arbiter respectively, also have lovely rich voices.

The choreography is clever and witty. I particularly liked the British dance, with the suited, bowler hatted, umbrella wielding civil servants doing their homage to the swans in swan lake, while the typing pool work away in the background. There is so much going on, all the time, in this production that, no doubt, there are elements that I missed, however, rarely has two and three quarter hours flown by so quickly. The Coliseum is a venue that is more used for traditional opera than modern musicals and Chess fitted in very well. Seeing it here, and hearing it with the benefit of the ENO chorus, one realises that this is a show that could be performed in a venue such as this for centuries to come.

Nightfall, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Nightfall is a play by Barney Norris, who has already written many plays and books, winning the Critic’s Circle Award for most promising playwright along the way. From this production, you can see that he has a talent for writing dialogue. It has a realistic feel and there are some lovely moments of insight. However, this is a four hander and all of the characters don’t feel fully developed. The two women in particular are caricatures who, despite the difficulties they battle through, one does not feel much empathy for. The storyline has many twists, some very dramatic, but I felt that we were told about them, then they were forgotten about and had little effect on the characters’ actions.

Having said that, there are positives, the set is amazing and uses the modern stage to its best effect. The Bridge Theatre is a new theatre, less than a year old, and it is beautiful. Bigger than I expected, although it holds almost 1000 people, the design is such that I cannot imaging that there is single restricted view seat in the whole auditorium. The stage area itself is very versatile, it would not have been possible to have a set of this design in a more traditional theatre. I loved the lighting too, it is set outdoors and sunsets and sunrises are done beautifully. Cars arriving and leaving at night were also lit very cleverly.

Ukweli Roach puts in a great performance as Pete. Sion Daniel Young is also good as Ryan and there was an undercurrent of chemistry between the two characters that felt undeveloped. It is interesting to see that one of Barney Norris’ non fiction books is about the theatre of Peter Gill, because there were times when I was reminded of The York Realist.

Overall, although I enjoyed listening to them talk for the two hours, I did not feel that there was any narrative arc or that any of the characters had moved on over the course of the play. Perhaps  the type of nostalgia he was trying to evoke would have been easier to attain if it had not been set in the present, or perhaps it is one of those plays whose real depth will not be apparent until some years after writing.

The Prudes, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1

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The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs holds less than 100 people and every seat has a good view of the stage. It is a small intimate theatre, although perhaps not intimate enough for the act that Jimmy and Jess assure us that they intend to carry out on stage during the play this evening. The set is pink, soft and fluffy, apart from the “Blind Date” style tall stools. Indeed, if Channel 5 were planning to have a competitive sex therapy show, they could come here for ideas.

The Prudes is a two hander about, Jess and Jimmy, a couple who have been together for nearly 10 years but who have not had sex for over a year. They are worried about the effect that this is having on their relationship and have come to the decision that they only thing they can do prevent their breakup is to have sex in front of us on stage tonight. We are not told how come they have reached this conclusion, but we are here now, let’s run with it.

What follows is a discussion about sexual politics, and how the #metoo movement has changed how we look at sex and power in sex. Jonjo O’Neill and Sophie Russell are excellent as Jimmy and Jess, they interact with the audience, they ask for affirmation of their most embarrassing confessions, they are funny and likeable and we can feel their warmth for each other through their difficulties.

The play is witty, it certainly captures the zeitgeist and it poses many questions that are brought to mind by the sexual harassment cases that have been in the news over the past months. I think we are still too close to the events to have a good perspective on how they will change our attitudes, and writer Anthony Neilson doesn’t even attempt to look for answers. This leads to a play that is enjoyable to watch but lacks a little punch in the consummation.

 

Langan’s Brasserie, Stratton Street, London W1

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Langan’s Brasserie has been in Stratton Street since 1976. It was a favourite of mine in the 1980s but I think I haven’t been in over 25 years. I am surprised how little has changed in that time and more surprised at how that pleased me, it was like unexpectedly bumping into an old friend in the street.

Langan’s is smart without being pretentious, don’t expect anything big or flashy, but they do what they do very well. It is the perfect restaurant for a special occasion, or if there is a large group meeting for a meal. On arrival, we were shown to a lounge area, to order a drink while we awaited the rest of our party. When everyone had arrived, the Maître D’ showed us to our table while the waiter transferred our drinks.

The décor, if my memory is accurate, is still as it was in the 1980s. This consists of plain cream walls covered in mixed photos, paintings and magazine sketches. One wall has many large windows, making the room bright and airy at lunch or in the early evening. The tables are set with white linen tablecloths, good quality crockery and glassware. The room feels smart when you enter. The menu is a mixture of French and English dishes all well known. The soufflé with anchovy sauce is wonderful and the Caesar salad is excellent. Both of these are quite substantial for starters. The main course portion sizes are big too, there is nothing too unusual on the list but we had five different main dishes at our table and each one was prepared very well.

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The wine list is extensive, a surprising amount of them are served by the glass. The service was really very good, there are plenty of staff, they seemed unhurried but were always there when we needed them. The actual menu itself is attractive, designed by David Hockney. The restaurant was quite full and, although we ate early, we never felt rushed, or that the table would be needed again at a certain time, I believe that we would been allowed to linger as long as we wished.

Langan’s is not cheap, but it is very centrally located and the food, service and ambience are reliably good. It is the perfect example of a great 1980s London/Paris Brasserie and long may it continue to be so. I hope that I will not have so long between visits in future.