“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

“Hamlet” at the National Theatre

It’s not just theatre critics who have seen a lot of Hamlets – pretty much everyone has. So, as with all directors, and all Hamlets, Nicholas Hytner and Rory Kinnear face the challenge of pinning down the complex text and the temptation of adding a new twist. The National’s first Hamlet since 2000 sees them juggling these demands to produce an enthralling night out.

The production is clear, thoughtful and delivered with commitment. This Hamlet isn’t mad (so that’s one examination question sorted) and the decision to have him truly ‘put on’ his antic disposition turns the pretend insanity into a dramatic political act. This Denmark is a surveillance state with a secret service continually present. The heavies may be ineffective (think of the body count at the end) but they add tension, a topical twist and make Hamlet’s soliloquies all the more precious.

Overall, this is Hytner’s most disciplined direction for quite some time, and yet there are digressions that feel like desperate attempts to impress the teacher. Ruth Negga as Ophelia suffers most. Adding a feisty modern touch to this sensitive character is confusing and the implication that she is murdered is frankly silly. Costuming Kinnear in a tracksuit and adding rave music is distracting  – he is too old for it. And it is unecessary.

For this is a Hamlet with everything. Kinnear’s performance is remarkable and exciting. His Hamlet is the chameleon he proclaims himself as, with an over-arching concern for what this changeability might mean. Making full use of the character’s wry humour and intelligence, Kinnear’s grand delivery is perfect for the prince with a penchant for performance. At times he is quite literally in control of the spotlight and he always convincingly fills the stage.

As if Kinnear weren’t thrilling enough, this Hamlet boasts the finest Gertrude for many years. Clare Higgins gives a cracking performance with more than a touch of Joan Crawford (you can bet the bodyguards’ smart suits are hung on wooden hangers). This Mommie Dearest is formidable and believable – it is clear where a son’s complex comes from. A less confident director than Hytner might try to stem her scene stealing glances. But they add immeasurably, showing not only her ability but also Hytner’s confidence that his production explicates Hamlet in a riveting fashion.

Until 9 January 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 8 October 2010 for The London Magazine

“Or You Could Kiss Me” at The National Theatre

A London theatre audience can be a tough crowd – we think we’ve seen it all before. Puppets acting with humans in plays? Of course. Gay puppets? Plenty of times. But The Handspring Puppet Company (of Warhorse fame) can still do something to stun even the jaded. The puppets in their new show Or You Could Kiss Me are so alive, even the most cynical will be profoundly moved.

Devised with writer and director Neil Bartlett, Or You Could Kiss Me is the story of lovers at the end of their lives. Ravaged by illness and old age, they struggle with the knowledge that they will soon be parted.

Set in the future, the production uses the almost uncanny device of placing puppeteers on stage to control their fictional counterparts. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, along with their ensemble, work Mr A and Mr B. What this must do for their psyches is difficult to say. Their bravery is clear to all.

But it is the puppets that are the stars. Bartlett’s achievement is to have written a play for them. The ensemble cast perform with the flawless choreography essential for their art to be convincing. Their concern for the characters they operate radiates to the audience; every gesture is articulated with authenticity.

Or You Could Kiss Me is invested with such intensity that at times it feels almost intrusive. Alongside the puppeteers, Adjoa Andoh performs a variety of roles, joining the audience in watching this painful momento mori. She is the prologue, who recites Ovid, and later appears as a doctor, lecturing us about the breakdown of memory in the sick and old. In both instances she represents a common humanity that cannot fail to speak to anyone who has loved and, by extension, feared loss. Or You Could Kiss Me is unforgettable theatre.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Until 17 November 2010

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 6 October 2010 for The London Magazine

“A Number” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

How would you feel if you discovered you had been cloned? Caryl Churchill’s A Number asks this question, focusing on the philosophy of identity, and twisting, like a strand of DNA, between the reactions of children who discover they are clones and the motives of a parent who allowed it to happen.

Jonathan Munby’s minimalist production strips the less than hour-long play down to its essentials, with two protagonists facing each other, strategically placed, and in constant confrontation. Paul Wills’ design invokes the science fiction motif.

The Menier has achieved the considerable coup of securing Timothy West and his son Samuel to work on the play again – they first appeared in it in Sheffield a decade ago. Both performances are impeccable. West senior skilfully reveals his character’s darker side while junior gets to play three cloned versions of himself with terrific subtlety.

The Wests deal with the staccato writing and complex rhythms expertly but the text seems forced and becomes annoying. While you can’t fault Churchill’s ambition or doubt her vigour, there simply isn’t enough of this play to make it work. With so much to develop, the final scene disappoints.

Leaving the audience wanting more seems a risky strategy for a playwright. The early finish has its benefits – you will have plenty to discuss in the Menier’s lovely bar – but it does little justice to the talent involved in this production that they ultimately only serve as the opening speakers in a barroom episode of The Moral Maze.

Until 5 November 2010

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 October 2010 for The London Magazine

“Birdsong” at the Comedy Theatre

Sebastian Faulks’ much-loved 1993 novel, Birdsong, was one of those books you saw everyone reading on the tube. A page-turner with depth, it seemed to cry out for an adaptation. Rachel Wagstaff’s version, now showing at the Comedy Theatre, is a dutiful effort that should please fans of the text.

The stage version certainly doesn’t plod. The first act deals with our hero Stephen Wraysford’s affair with Isabelle Azaire. They fall in love while he is staying with her and her husband in northern France, run off together and then separate, all in fifty minutes. Action then moves to the trenches of the First World War, where we see Stephen as a broken man. The Armistice heralds his final encounter with Isabelle, culminating in a tenuous yet beautiful sense of reconciliation.

Wagstaff packs too much of the novel into the evening and should have been more adventurous with her selection. Like John Napier’s clever design, which literally emphasises the book, the three-hour show seems intimidated by the novel’s success. You start to think a mini-series might have been a better idea: TV would have more time for the story and it would solve the problem of canned birdsong, which is never going to ring true in the theatre.

Trevor Nunn’s direction is fascinating. Nunn has learned lessons from his recent success at the Menier Chocolate Factory where the small size of the venue led to an intense production of A Little Night Music. Now, in Birdsong, he concentrates on the intimate scenes appropriate to a love story. The danger is that these occasionally look a little lost on a West End stage, but the strategy is sound – he is playing to the production’s strengths, namely, the cast.

Birdsong brims with quality performances. Nicholas Farrell plays Isabelle’s betrayed husband and then the Captain who tutors Stephen in the trenches, and handles both roles marvellously. Iain Mitchell has less to do, playing a local French dignitary and the regiment’s Colonel, but he provides some much needed light relief and should be satisfied that he gives the impression of being wasted in both roles.

It’s the leads that make the evening. Ben Barnes plays Wraysford and Genevieve O’Reilly Isabelle. Their chemistry is fantastic and free of period cliché. O’Reilly manages to show the stifling home life she escapes from without protesting too much and maintain sympathy when her actions seem brutal. Barnes is even better, playing a passionate man without giving any time to nonsense about stiff upper lips and coming across as a true individual we warm to. These fresh performances give the play its necessary emotional punch. They are so powerful that suddenly the birdsong sounds genuine after all.

Until 15 January 2011

www.ambassadortickets.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 1 October 2010 for The London Magazine

“Passion” at the Donmar Warehouse

Given the background of the Donmar’s history of brilliantly staged Sondheim musicals, the  production of Passion to celebrate the composers’ 80th birthday should be something of an event. Working once more with James Lapine, the 1994 musical tells the story of a Risorgimento soldier in a particularly 19th-century love triangle.

Passion is very much a chamber piece, well suited to intimacy of the Donmar. Director Jamie Lloyd handles the space superbly, translating the epistolary structure of Lapine’s book. With Scott Ambler’s choreography, the small cast creates the claustrophobia of a military environment and brings out the gothic overtones of Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s original source material.

The superb Elena Roger plays the invalid Fosca, portraying insanity while skillfully avoiding the comedic. Frightening and manipulative (in Giorgio’s dreams she appears vampiric), her intensity convinces him that his happy affair with the radiant Clara (Scarlett Strallen) isn’t the real deal.

David Thaxton handles Giorgio’s initial repulsion of Fosca with sensitivity, and portrays his subsequent decision to abandon Clara with a degree of mania inherited from his new lover. Thaxton’s voice is a revelation, deeply commanding yet retaining the romance of Sondheim’s sweet score.

For, despite the morbid overtones of disease, Passion is a romantic musical. The explorations of two different kinds of love interweave with a satisfying symmetry, though while Sondheim avoids sentimentality, he also loses his sense of humour.

It seems perverse to criticise a composer known for innovation when he changes his style, but in abandoning his usual wry touch in favour of something more heartfelt, the fun is missing and that seems a shame. For all its sincerity, and the quality of this production, it is difficult to get passionate about Passion.

Until 27 November 2010

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 21 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“Wanderlust” at the Royal Court

Nick Payne’s great new play Wanderlust is about love and sex – the absence and surfeit of both, the differences between them, and where the two overlap. The Royal Court has spotted great new writing yet again. This play is very funny and deeply moving.

Tim and his school friend Michelle begin to experiment with sex as a favour (unrequited love for him makes her oblige his anxious curiosity). James Musgrave and Isabella Laughland are instantly believable as the confused teens. The great thing here is that, unlike most 15 year olds on stage these days, they aren’t violent or mentally ill. They are touchingly real as a result. We really hope they don’t develop the same problems as their elders.

Tim’s father Alan is more desperate for sex than his teenage son. Forced abstinence has resulted in a strain that Stuart McQuarrie performs with endearing charm. Even overweight middle-aged men need a sex life (trust me on this) but, given the chance to explore his darker side, he can’t even remember to take his socks off.

Alan’s attachment to hosiery might explain his wife’s lack of interest in the bedroom, but Joy turns out to be aptly named. Dutifully exploring her sexuality to save her marriage results in a transformation Pippa Hayward achieves quite miraculously. From being, “tired, worn out and uptight” she becomes a radiant, sexy woman hoping to start again.

Payne has a refreshing take on the glamour that surrounds sex and youth. We don’t have to put up with kitchen sinks or the fabulously wealthy: his milieu is the middle classes. The humour isn’t gentle and can be painfully embarrassing, but this writing has a great deal of heart. Yet the play avoids sentimentality. While a tear comes easily to the eye, the emotions are complex and engaging. This is a tender tale of socks and sex that is not to be missed.

Until 9 October 2010

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Sheila Burnett

Written 18 September 2010

“Beautiful Burnout” at York Hall

Beautiful Burnout was inspired by a brief trip to a boxing gym. Entranced by the experience, its co-directors, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, set about examining the pugilistic sport and have created an immersive and powerful theatrical experience.

Touring to the York Hall in Bethnal Green, they have found a great venue for their highly theatrical production, they are perfectly at home in this well known boxing venue.

The text, written by Bryony Lavery, is unfortunately thin. Interactions between the trainee boxers, and their formidable coach, are underexplored and the play ends at its most interesting point. Lavery struggles to convince regarding the world of “freely shared opinions and self-promotion” that she has researched. Only the older characters truly convince. Ewan Stewart plays the trainer with great presence and Lorraine M McIntosh almost steals the show as one of the boxers’ mothers.

But when the boxers actually train and fight, you really want to go the full 12 rounds with them. A period of extensive training as part of rehearsals has left the cast glowing as they perform Graham and Hoggett’s intense choreography.

Unlike often superfluous instances of technology in the theatre, Ian William Galloway’s video design adds greatly to the drama. The combination of film and movement is fascinating, supporting tension and emphasising a beauty that can be seen in the sport. While Beautiful Burnout doesn’t quite achieve the complexity it aspires to, it contains some knockout moments of theatricality.

Until 2 October 2010

Beautiful Burnout at York Hall is presented by Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland in association with the Barbican
www.franticassembly.co.uk

Photo by Gavin Evans

Written 17 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“House of Games” at the Almeida Theatre

David Mamet often writes about professionals, including estate agents, and in the entertaining House of Games it’s the turn of therapists and conmen. Tense and comic in turn, Richard Bean’s version of Mamet’s 1987 film, holds your attention over its 90 minutes, but it fails to really convince.

Nancy Carroll plays Dr Margaret Ford and manages to create a strong stage presence despite problems with the role. Harvard-educated Margaret decides to write a book on conmen but without any preliminary research. Clinical to the point of caricature, she jokes about being Amish, yet runs into an affair with Michael Landes’ charismatic card shark like a doting schoolgirl.

Of course we know that Margaret is going to be tricked. Even if the con is predictable it is fun to watch, mostly because of the team of charming shyster’s she encounters. Trevor Cooper manages to be funny while offensive and John Marquez dim yet appealing.

Despite the casts skills at comedy, director Lindsay Posner injects several moments of suspense, many connected with Margaret’s one time patient Billy. Played superbly by Al Weaver, Billy gets the laughs and then becomes frightening. Combined with Django Bates impressive score there are some highly atmospheric moments.

All the conmen identify themselves as skilled actors. It’s a third profession we are supposed to be thinking about, yet this tempting subtext isn’t pursued sufficiently. Margaret moves from writing science to fiction – so she starts pretending for a living too. Her agent applauds this but it seems a wasted coda and an unsatisfying end that leaves you feeling a little conned.

Until 6 November 2010

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 17 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“Deathtrap” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Deathtrap – A Comedy Thriller, is a stylish affair. The smoking gun sign outside the Noel Coward theatre; the set by Rob Howell that looks great in a storm; and there is even the opportunity to praise graphic designer, Adam Wiltshire, for his clever artwork. On top of that, the whole thing is quality entertainment, living up to its claim to be both comedy and thriller.

You’ll laugh, and you’ll jump out of your seat. At some points you may very well squeal. Granted, not a dignified reaction – but tremendous fun. Borne along by Matthew Warchus’ subtle direction, this is an evening to enjoy.

But there will be no squealing about the plot here. It’s only fair to respect the programme’s request – to keep the storyline a secret and not spoil the fun for future audiences. Without dropping any spoilers, a once successful thriller writer, observing that “nothing recedes like success”, is driven to drastic action. Ira Levin’s cleverly crafted play is as much about the theatre as the action in it, but is no less thrilling for that.

Hugely successful on Broadway, Deathtrap’s main draw for British audiences is Simon Russell Beale. Happily, his co-stars are also superb; Claire Skinner sports a jolly American accent and Jonathan Groff makes an impressive West End debut. Estelle Parsons has a great comic turn as a psychic who has moved next door (an uncomfortable neighbour for someone planning a murder).

But it’s Russell Beale who steals the show. A great classical actor with comedy credentials confirmed at the National Theatre’s London Assurance, getting this many laughs while sculpting waves of tension, is impressive even with such a great script. It is proof that there is nothing the man cannot do.

Until 22 January 2011

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Written 15 September 2010 for The London Magazine