All posts by Edward Lukes

“The Glass Menagerie” at the Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory’ play, The Glass Menagerie, is one you won’t forget. Introduced as a play that gives “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”, Hill-Gibbins and designer Jeremy Herbert develop Williams’ emphasis on the theatrical with crystal clarity.

With a curtain that goes down as well as up and musicians integrated into the action, the workings of the story are exposed to all, entrancing us with its telling.

Not that this illusion is really all that pleasant. Our narrator Tom relates the tale of his escape from home but never disguises the fact that he is abandoning his mother and sister. Leo Bill plays this unsympathetic character, who haunted from the start. It is a surprisingly physical portrayal with a palpable sense of anger and despair.

The urgency of Tom’s leaving is well established by Deborah Findlay and Sinead Matthews in the roles of his mother Amanda and sister Laura. The danger of their self-illusion is subtly conveyed and is all the more powerful for the way it creeps up on you.

Even in Williams’ day, the chivalry of the South was a thing of the past. Nowadays, Amanda’s delusions and Laura’s timidity can seem not just deluded but silly. Findlay does well to establish her character’s ideas without alienating the audience. This is a lesson Matthews has chosen to ignore. Some actresses play Laura with a stubbornness about her fantasy life that is missing here. But, in neglecting this, Matthews is all the more moving and as fragile as the glass animals she collects.

The play’s fourth character, Jim the gentleman caller, is “an emissary from the world of reality” and arrives through a door marked with a star. Kyle Soller gives an excellent performance, fitting Tom’s description of him perfectly and adding a sincerity that cannot fail to move. He becomes central to Hill-Gibbins’ sensitive direction of this masterpiece and in bringing emotion to the fore leaves us as haunted as the characters left abandoned in their fantasy world.

www.youngvic.org

Until 15 January 2011

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 22 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“Fabrication” at The Print Room

The Print Room is a new theatre for London – and that, in itself, deserves applause. Artistic directors Anda Winters and Lucy Bailey, and BBB Marketing, which owns the building, should get a standing ovation for what they have achieved.

The Print Room’s first production, Fabrication by Pier Paolo Pasolini, is directed by Bailey. She is a bold director, intelligent and inventive. Indeed, Bailey’s only shortcoming seems to be her misplaced passion for Pasolini.

A caveat – I have never enjoyed Pasolini’s work. The Print Room has the coup of premièring his plas in this country, but it is hard not to resist the flippant response that we can see now why nobody else has beaten them to it. It turns out that Pasolini has a lot to say about theatre. But then he has a lot to say about everything. Trouble is, he doesn’t say any of it very well.

Despite Jamie McKendrick’s poetic translation being frank and direct, it cannot get past Pasolini’s perversely Baroque approach, which forces so many ideas on the audience they become opaque. There is no doubt an argument in the text for this. Pasolini toys with irony and the idea of a meaningless tragedy, just as he plays with plenty of other notions. The problem is that none of his arguments is satisfactorily developed.

What makes the evening all the more frustrating is how good the acting is. Jasper Britton gives a stunning performance as a Milanese industrialist who falls in love with his son, who is played with great passion by Max Bennett. Geraldine Alexander and Letty Butler are both wonderful as the mother and girlfriend who attempt to engage with this twisted Oedipal story. Martin Turner plays Sophocles in appropriately ghostly fashion and remarkably transforms himself into a beggar for the play’s final scene. Janet Fullerlove also has a great turn as a fortune teller, giving a highly nuanced performance that manages to add genuine drama.

All perform within designer Mike Britton’s clever set – a rectangular pen in the centre of the theatre that the audience peers into. And yet we return to the problem of what they are asked to perform: Fabrication is wilfully obtuse. But everything else about this production bodes well for the future of The Print Room, and supporting the venue cannot be endorsed enough. I just can’t wait for a different play.

www.the-print-room.org

Until 4 December 2011

Written 19 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“Fela!” at the National Theatre

Fela! arrives from Broadway with much fanfare and celebrity endorsement. The story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, legendary Nigerian musician and political activist, even has its own exclamation mark – which at least saves me from adding one. Like Fela’s life, this show has a spirit of revolution and is filled with so much energy it will take your breath away.

Fela invented Afrobeat, a musical genre of great sophistication enriched by the heritage he embraced. A potted history lesson at the start of the show sets this out clearly and, even if the songs aren’t to your taste, the performance of them is so electric they are sure to win you over.

Not everything about the show works: direct addresses to the audience and an attempt to give a dance lesson fall rather flat. Even if a British audience does join in, they don’t really want to. There must also be a worry that, given the average age of the patrons at a National Theatre matinee, attempts to shake hips during afternoon shows might well result in serious injury.

Thankfully Fela! is not just a tribute show. The music is superb and the choreography by director Bill T Jones is stunning, but it is the story that surprises. As Fela is about to leave his country after suffering political persecution, he has to justify his actions to himself and to his dead mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti (Melanie Marshall), who was an inspirational figure. We also meet another important woman, the American Sandra Izsadore (Paulette Ivory), who furthered his political education. The performances from both women are outstanding and their voices sublime. Exploring these relationships makes for riveting drama.

As Fela recounts his own life, the tendency to hagiography is inevitable, but this is clearly signposted. Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the title role on Broadway, treads the fine line between showing us a real person as well as revealing a genius. It is a performance showing such talent it becomes easy to see why so many followed Fela and so great you will be tempted to do the same.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Until 23 January 2011

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 17 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“An Ideal Husband” at the Vaudeville Theatre

We sometimes forget what a political writer Oscar Wilde was. An Ideal Husband is the story of a successful MP whose corruption comes back to haunt him. A crime he once committed, and upon which his fortune is based, is used to blackmail him in a play that is as much a comedy of morals as of manners.

This is a luxurious production. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s golden sets deserve the applause they receive, and are all the more impressive for not being slavishly historical. Lindsay Posner’s direction is similarly lavish, the pace is leisurely, so that we can fully savour Wilde’s delicious ironies.

Alexander Hanson and Rachael Stirling play the couple that faces ruin from the unravelling scandal. Both work well with the play’s occasional melodrama, and inject real emotion into their very Victorian marriage. Samantha Bond excels as, “that dreadful Mrs Cheveley, in a most lovely gown” who is, “as large as life and not nearly so natural”. Bond is fresh and deliciously wicked as this crinolined thief and blackmailer.

Elliot Cowan’s performance as the Viscount Goring is revelatory. Goring is the Wildean dandy we all expect but Cowan not only delivers his aphorisms admirably, he adds a depth to the character that includes a truly steely edge.

Both Goring and his fiancée Mabel, charmingly performed by Fiona Button, tackle Wilde’s epigrams with just the right amount of knowing glances, for some of them are silly. But one line resonates: “Always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it.” My advice? Get a ticket for this classy production as quickly as you can.

Until 26 February 2011

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 12 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“Saturn Returns” at the Finborough Theatre

Saturn is the god of the harvest, associated with celebration and also time. In Noah Haidle’s Saturn Returns we meet Gustin Novak at three stages of his life, each focusing on the moment of his greatest happiness – a time he sees as a golden age that he paradoxically lives to regret.

Novak is played by three actors. Richard Evans performs the character in his old age. Irascible and with a wry sense of humour, he is so desperately lonely that he can’t even take advantage of a free airline ticket to anywhere in the world.

He is joined on stage by his middle-aged self, played by Nicholas Gecks, who brings a frightening intensity to a man bereaved long ago, but still in deep mourning. Christopher Harper plays Novak when young, passionately in love and with his future before him.

All three interact with each other under strong direction from Adam Lenson. They argue amongst themselves and waltz around the stage as they re-enact the past, returning to “the beginning of unforgetting” when tragedy entered Novak’s life. This dance to the music of time is often funny and frequently moving.

This trio achieves a remarkable sense of common identity, but it is Lisa Caruccio Came who just manages to steal the show. She plays Novak’s nurse, his daughter and his wife in different scenes and not only establishes the connections between the characters, but also manages to distinguish them with great historical intelligence.

And this drama has two other stars. Noah Haidle writes with a wonderfully light and poetic touch. This play is bleak but with an underlying tenderness so evocative it borders on the sentimental and is sure to resonate emotionally. A much-lauded writer from the States, it is to the The Finborough’s credit that Haidle receives his UK debut here. Praise must go to artistic director Neil McPherson for once again sharing with us his far-sighted talent spotting.

Until 27 November 2010

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Dan Chippendale

Written 8 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“Macbeth” at the Barbican

If the thought of Macbeth accompanied by Korean musical instruments, Corsican chants and martial arts-inspired dancing makes you raise an eyebrow – prepare to raise the other one as well, because Polish company Song of the Goat’s production is truly astonishing.

Director Grzegorz Bral makes this bizarre combination work. How exactly is surely a case of theatrical magic. And hard graft. Macbeth is ‘devised’ by the company. This can be a dangerously indulgent technique but Bral and his ensemble have produced a 75-minute show that is as taut as a kayagum string. And if you want to know what that sounds like, it’s yet another reason to see the show.

One proviso – you do have to know Macbeth well to follow what is going on. But this feels like a fair assumption and the intense collaboration process, bringing performers so close to the text, has resulted in great drama. The characters seem to know their fates from the start, which can be unsettling, but means that Gabriel Gawin’s virile Macbeth is deeply moving and both Ian Morgan and Ewan Downie get more out of the roles of Macduff and Banquo than I have ever seen.

There is only one witch in this production but Anu Salonen does enough work for three. More enchanting than supernatural, she dances around the stage manipulating characters and handing them wooden swords and bamboo canes that are used with frightening precision. Salonen grapples with Anna Zubrzycki’s Lady Macbeth, seeming to transform her into the provoking accomplice of her husband and then comforts her after she has been impaled on enough sticks to look like a game of human kerplunk. Both women join the men in striking combative choreography and have stunning voices, deeply melodic and playful or shrill as the need arises.

It is the music that really sets this Macbeth apart. The ensemble performs a variety of polyphonic chants and when they apply this musicality to Shakespeare’s verse the result is breathtaking. This Macbeth is beautiful, not a word you normally associate with the most bloody of plays. The Barbican’s bite festival has more than lived up to the advice that we should ‘do something different’.

Until 20 November 2010

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Grzegorz Hawale

Written 4 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“Absent Friends” at the Union Theatre

Producing Alan Ayckbourn’s modern middle-class drawing-room drama beneath a railway arch is a fairly brave act. But the Union Theatre in Southwark is a fringe venue not known for its timidity – with some excellent results. Thanks to impeccably sourced props from designer Holly Best we are back in the 70s in a well-appointed home and, with director Ben De Wynter in charge, ready for a deliciously poignant comedy of manners.

Absent Friends is the story of three couples preparing to meet with an old mate who has recently suffered bereavement. Giles Fagan plays the mourning Colin in a suitably perky manner, for Colin has learned lessons from his tragedy his luckier chums have missed out on, and consequently embraces life with a gratitude that makes the others look absent.

Chas. Early and Gillian McCafferty play Paul and Di, a couple on the edge, who fall apart on stage. McCafferty gives a brave, simply riveting performance while Early is slickly lecherous. His latest conquest joins them for tea and a lack of sympathy – Olivia Busby is the monosyllabic Evelyn and gets more laughs than you would have thought possible from a simple yes and no. To add to the embarrassment, Evelyn’s husband is present as well. Shaun Stone shows a talent not just to amuse but also to annoy with his nervous coin-jiggling curling toes. And finally there is Marge, on her own as hubbie Gordon is sick off stage. Fiona Gordon manages to let us all know it’s her character who is going to make the biggest gaffs – the comedy is no less sparkling when the promise comes to fruition.

De Wynter’s intelligent direction perfectly suits Ayckbourn’s subtlety. There are moments when this tea party becomes riotous, but Absent Friends isn’t a farce. Having couples argue over a eulogy just to score points against each other is painful, yet the humour also feels light. This production captures Ayckbourn’s gentle melancholy so perfectly it is strongly recommended. Make friends with the Union Theatre as soon as you can.

Until 13 November 2010

www.uniontheatre.biz

Written 1 November 2010 for The London Magazine

“Men Should Weep” at the National Theatre

Josie Rourke, renowned for her work at the Bush Theatre, is canny in her choice of play to mark her directorial debut at the National. Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep is a social drama with a large cast enacted on an intimate level. Rourke uses her experience of small venues while exploiting the Lyttelton’s resources to create the play’s larger world. Her skill envelops the audience; her talent is a fresh approach for the National Theatre.

Bunny Christie’s magnificent set reflects the claustrophobic squalor of the 1930s tenement in which the play is set. It’s impressive, but Rourke is never distracted by it. Lamont Stewart’s slice of life story receives the respect it deserves. The playwright worked in the Glasgow library and hospital during the depression and her text has an authentic feel that is captivating. The language maybe daunting, but might only prove a problem for the truest blooded Sassenach.

Men Should Weep is full of great roles for women. Sharon Small plays Maggie Morrison the matriarch of the family, around whom the story revolves. It is a demanding role performed with aplomb. Jayne McKenna is wonderful as her sister, a brittle, regretful woman. The younger generation fight against their poverty any way they can, with excellent performances from Sarah MacRae and Morven Christie. Thérèse Bradley puts in a great turn as the miserly sister-in-law, “so hard they dug her from a quarry”. These are women not to be messed with, but the mess their lives are in makes you understand why.

What of the men who should be weeping? Robert Cavanah plays John Morrison. The character’s faults make him a difficult man to sympathise with but love of his family and intelligence are always behind Cavanah’s performance. John says that poverty bends a man over double and makes him like “a human question mark”.

It’s grim up north to be sure, but the play is masterfully free of clichés and histrionics. Laughter and love of the family shine forth but without a ‘salt of the earth’ touch. There are no angels or devils here – just difficult circumstances. The domestic violence and vice can be harsh and shocking, but the motivation is desperation, and humour is never far behind. The Morrison children certainly suffer, but these are the sorts of lives the Jeremy Hunts of the world should consider before proscribing how many children people should have. Our current recession differs in many ways from that Lamont Stewart experienced, but her insight into human dignity has important lessons for us all.

Until 9 January 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 27 October 2010

“The Charming Man” at Theatre 503

“The country’s buggered.” So declares David Verrey as political guru Marcus in Gabriel Bisset-Smith’s new play, The Charming Man. In a delicious performance, Verrey lectures on the problems of politics in 2015 in language so colourful that it goes beyond Tory blue, Labour red or Lib Dem gold – into green. Politics has reached such a nadir that the Greens are the only party that might possibly win power.

What the Greens still need is a leader with charisma. Enter youth worker Darren, played so endearingly by Syrus Lowe that it’s easy to imagine him as the political phenomenon he becomes. The public may want the honest, open character Lowe portrays so wonderfully, but is it really ready for a black, gay Prime Minister who used to wear gold hot pants and dance to The Smiths?

If the answer to that seems pretty obvious, you might wonder at the compromises Darren undertakes in order to try and change minds. Yet his well-trodden path to corruption is both funny and moving. His party colleagues, played terrifically by Sarah Berger and Kate Sissons, who lose ideals but get plenty of laughs, tutor him. Their clever performances suggest passion and melancholy in turn. Darren’s partner Luke is left by the way, of course, which seems a shame given the great comedy Sam Pamphilon brings to the scenes he is in.

Much of The Charming Man might seem like a ruder, current take on Yes, Minister with comedy more suited to our times, but a similar eye to conspiracy that doesn’t convince. The idea that those in power can manipulate to such a degree seems to inflate their abilities beyond credulity. Business backing for politicians occurs, of course, but surely never to the extent of Kenny Fox (Christopher Brandon), the arch villain who takes over the Green Party as a plaything.

But there is more to the night than this. Director Paul Robinson is also joint artistic head of the theatre itself and he can spot them; the venue’s reputation for ‘fearless’ new writing is sure to be enhanced by Bisset-Smith’s achievement.

Moving past standard political satire, The Charming Man reaches realms of fantasy that are inspiring. The sillier the play becomes, the funnier it is and the truer it rings. As Fox’s insults against the English increase in pace, Brandon injects a mania that is gleeful. The idea of a TV show called Liberal Democrats on Ice is genius in its absurdity. But could anyone ever really have imagined Tory stalwart Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing? Maybe the future really does wear gold hot pants.

www.theatre503.com

Until 13 November 2010

Photo by Graham Turner

Written 25 October 2010 for The London Magazine

“Onassis”at the Novello Theatre

The life of Aristotle Onassis, self-made millionaire and lover of the world’s most beautiful women, could easily read like a trashy novel – “cheap but unputdownable” as it were. Onassis on stage  is certainly expensive looking. Katrina Lindsay’s stylish set, with its clever projections and well-chosen furniture, ensures that. And writer Martin Sherman invests his play with some impressive talk about gods and heroes that adds weight. He attempts a Greek tragedy of passion and politics that is a rich lesson in history. Given such glittering raw material, it is a crying shame that this new play never quite manages to hold our interest.

Best of all is Robert Lindsay in the title role. Lindsay’s impeccable comic timing quite saves the evening, and he deals movingly with the downsides of being rich and famous. But these tribulations never quite convince most of us. For all his skill and charisma, Lindsay as an actor clearly finds the role more interesting than we do as an audience.

If playing Onassis offers rewards to the leading man, taking on the parts of Maria Callas and Jackie Kennedy have to be daring gambles.

Unfortunately, they don’t quite pay off. Anna Francolini’s Callas, who seems to have passed via Brooklyn, takes Sherman’s theme of nemesis far too seriously. Ironically, her character would probably have done just the same in real life, but although Callas famously lived off stage as if she were still on it, her actions become uncomfortable when transposed a third time back into the theatre. Lydia Leonard’s Jacqueline is very much the Southern Belle and gives a similarly brave performance. Again, the character is too much aware of her place in history to really convince.

Sherman gives Onassis’s loves some great lines, and both actresses deliver them well, but they are often too clever and too contrived.
As for “unputdownable”, unfortunately not so. Nancy Meckler’s direction is poorly paced and the technique of characters addressing the audience starts to look desperate. Maybe the times simply aren’t right for a play about the super rich? To be fair, Meckler always works well with an ensemble and her cast seem to find Onassis a figure worth hearing about. It is a shame their passion doesn’t transmit itself to the rest of us.

Until 5 February 2011

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 15 October 2010 for The London Magazine