Tag Archives: Almeida Theatre

“Hymn” from the Almeida Theatre

A sell-out show when streamed live, now available to watch as a recording, Lolita Chakrabarti’s new play is a family drama with shocks and surprises. The story of two brothers, who only met at their father’s funeral, Hymn supplies brilliant highs and lows as we get to know two wonderful characters, masterfully performed.

Adrian Lester plays Gil and Danny Sapani is Benny. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, both performances are marked by a naturalism that is clearly Chakrabarti’s aim. A cautious first meeting, blossoming friendship, and the excitement of starting a business together are all handled without feeling contrived. Seeing the two men get to know one another proves joyous.

The solid script and McIntyre’s light touch mean that ‘issues’ of masculinity, race, age and class never feel forced. Passions and prejudices are part of the everyday lives we see here – providing a sense of modesty to the play’s aims. The piece is more convincing and moving as a result. An extended family, particularly Benny’s mother, as well as the men’s dead father, are all vividly conjured. Even a waitress we never see leaves an impression. It’s all good stuff – easy to recommend.

Danny Sapani in Hymn at the Almeida Theatre

Get ready for a plot spoiler

Because Hymn does not end happily, you might allege that Gil and Benny’s troubles are too well hidden for the dramatic finale – although we know one struggles with alcohol and the other describes himself as “the shooter of blanks” since his businesses always go bust. Plans and lives implode quickly, changing from one scene to another. Clearly that is Chakrabarti’s point – as Benny observes – life is “built on straw”.

It’s to the credit of both play and performers that a death at the end is so upsetting. You really want Gil and Benny’s lives to work out. Having seen how much fun they can have (preparations for a 50th birthday party are a blast) and how much support they can offer one another, things really should be fine. If we feel a little cheated, and want happy endings a little more than usual at the moment, there’s no doubt as to the power of a play that deserves songs of praise.

Until 9 March 2021

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

"Vassa" at the Almeida Theatre

Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1910 play is a suitably irreverent and darkly funny version of a text with revolution at its heart. About capitalism as much as feminism, it provides a magnificent title role for Siobhán Redmond and a range of grotesque characters for a strong supporting cast to have fun with. Both Bartlett and director Tinuke Craig have a keen eye on entertaining their audience and, although the show is uneven, the production has enough humour to make it a success.

Vassa is as much a mogul as a matriarch. As her husband lies dying upstairs, her concern is to secure the family business by fiddling his will. She has to tackle her useless sons and mendacious brother-in-law, who each want their inheritance, along with their various romances, all of which are problematic. Herding these cats is done with a vicious tongue and a ruthlessness that beggars belief. Every acid line and heartless act is delivered to perfection by Redmond, who makes a brilliant villain.

Since it was revived this summer, you might think of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son as an English equivalent to Vassa: close in date, with another tyrannical capitalist and questioning economics. But Gorky, via Bartlett, has a more satirical edge that shows venality in many forms. Yet there’s a fussy feeling to the direction that detracts from how forceful the adaptation is. It’s interesting to see Craig play with elements of farce – notably with Fly Davis’ set full of doors – but unfortunately the comings and goings in this conspiratorial household aren’t that well-handled. Bouquets of flowers that cover the floor for the finale are another example: the idea might delight a florist but the blooms become bothersome.

It isn’t quite accurate to say Vassa only cares about money – her legacy plays a part, too. Any case for her as an arch pragmatist is weakened by this (for the better) while abuses of power for its own sake bubble underneath the text. The results allow a depth to her character that might surprise and that Redmond excels with. The relationship with her daughter, played exquisitely by Amber James, proves fascinating. Likewise her affection for her daughter-in-law Dunya, played by Daniella Isaacs, is developed well. More unhappily, the fate of her maid Lipa, superbly performed by Alexandra Dowling, brings home how high the stakes are.

It’s the men in the piece that let the production down. This isn’t quite Bartlett’s fault, or the performers’ – Vassa dominates the play so much that, when she’s off stage, interest plummets. As her sons, Arthur Hughes and Danny Kirrane have characters a touch too hysterical to deal with. And as Vassa’s potential nemesis, Michael Gould’s Prokhor just isn’t enough of a threat. Thankfully, with a lot of judiciously placed swearing, the text is fresh as well as funny. And the attention to detail is great. There’s a brilliant line about an off-stage character, described as “so drunk he fell over his own arm”. Touches like that aren’t just funny – they convey Vassa’s world so vividly that visiting it proves engrossing.

Until 23 November 2019

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Twilight Zone” at the Ambassadors Theatre

Bringing an iconic TV series to the stage must be a daunting project. Rod Serling’s show ran from 1959 to 1964, a third revival will air on American TV later this year, and cult status has to be a factor. Taking the stories seriously alongside their kitsch attraction is a balancing act. But acclaimed playwright Anne Washburn, who has previously used The Simpsons as inspiration, approaches the project cleverly, with a campy air that makes her script often funny and consistently enjoyable.

The production is in the capable hands of director Richard Jones, who adds further wry touches that complement a period feel and gets the most out of running jokes about cigarettes and the moralistic narration that signed off each TV episode. Along with Paul Steinberg’s star-splattered set design, with a crew of stagehands dressed to almost but not quite blend in, this is a stylish affair that keeps eyes peeled and deserves its transfer from the Almeida Theatre.

There are eight stories performed by ten actors. Jones ensures they are a disciplined team and there’s a great deal of fun in spotting the swiftest changes (I think Nicholas Karimi gets the prize for that) and most dramatic transformations (I’ll go for Oliver Alvin-Wilson). Meanwhile, Adrianna Bertola stands out playing a series of younger characters very well and Natasha J Barnes gets to use plenty of her skills, including a great singing voice, in roles that might be the most varied.

Washburn’s big moves are to interweave the tales and try to make them various. If the focus is on missing people and space, with Cold War preoccupations and aliens aplenty, then at least the tone alters. The fruition of a story about an imminent nuclear attack gets very serious, very quickly (Barnes is excellent here), while an astronaut’s return from a 50-year mission is made surprisingly moving by Alisha Bailey.

A meta-theatrical epilogue, which praises the audience’s “can-do” approach for using our imagination to make so many fantastic situations work, is sweet if a touch predictable. Which takes us to a big problem. Even if you don’t know the stories here exactly, the scenarios are the stuff of urban mythology and staples of pop culture. That’s what interests Washburn. It can be reassuring to see them again (reruns have an appeal), but there’s a lack of tension and suspense in the show, and therefore a limit to how creepy it can get. In short, it can’t surprise. This is a strong production full of smart touches but, for all the effort and talent, these spacey trips into other dimensions aren’t going to rock anybody’s world.

Until 1 June 2019

www.TwilightZoneThePlay.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Summer and Smoke” at the Almeida Theatre

The youthful courtships in Tennessee Williams’ plays are usually things of the past – recounted by his formidable heroines. Here the action unfolds before us and whether the affair between minister’s daughter Alma and her next-door neighbour John will evolve is filled with an exciting tension… if you’re an optimist or haven’t seem much Williams. Sense-talking Alma is hugely sympathetic, while John is sensitive and passionate, a doctor making a mess of his youth. Presented as two extremes of spirituality and physicality, a compromise between them would be good for both. It’d be nice if it worked out.

There isn’t a party at the end, sorry, and the 1948 play’s reputation isn’t much celebrated either. But this production is so strong it takes us well into the second act to see why. After an electrifying argument as John’s father lies murdered (I didn’t say there was no melodrama), the play drags its feet, harps on about unrequited love and becomes, well, mopey. Alma was, reportedly, Williams’ favourite heroine – her fire and fierce intelligence makes this understandable – but while the performance here, from Patsy Ferran, does her justice, Alma deserves better than the end she had written for her.

Unlike the play, the production is faultless. Rebecca Frecknall has directed the piece before and her close knowledge proves invaluable. Matthew Needham delivers a fine performance as John, who is filled with sexual frustration and confusion. Despite cruelties and misogynistic remarks, the attraction is clear. Using the play’s motif of doppelgängers Frecknall doubles her cast cleverly, which feels like a defining way to stage the show. And taking multiple roles as various love rivals to Alma means Anjana Vasan really gets to shine. The staging is simple yet beautiful, taking inspiration from Williams’ experimental works. Few props and no costume changes, just seven pianos forming a semi-circle and accompanying music from Angus MacRae that adds to the atmosphere immeasurably.

As for Ferran, she’s so good she gets her own paragraph here. Ferran’s performance is career making: she inhabits Alma but makes us question the character’s self-definition as “weak and divided”. Her physical frailty is painful to watch. Depicting the degeneration of her health is astounding and Alma’s struggle against illness both moving and determined. Ferran can even inject a sly humour, with a suggestive eyebrow that’s a great asset. Cast in a show that’s as smart as she clearly is, the combination is a production that makes as forceful a case for this flawed masterpiece as Williams himself could have wished for.

Until 7 April 2018

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Ink” at the Almeida Theatre

James Graham has made a strong reputation for himself with plays about politics. While similarly concerned with power, his new work has a broader subject matter and relates the genesis and meteoric rise of The Sun newspaper.

Graham’s nose for a good story is as fine-tuned as any journalist’s. The purchase of an ailing broadsheet by Australian outsider Rupert Murdoch, and the hiring of neglected hack Larry Lamb to run it, take on a mythic quality. These are great roles for strong actors: Bertie Carvel is the ruthless, on-the-up tycoon, while Richard Coyle is the editor whose doubts and determination both mount as he chases sales figures.

The triangle between Murdoch, Lamb and the latter’s former mentor and now rival on The Daily Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp, might have been developed further. There’s an excellent performance from David Schofield as the crusading lefty whose paper aims to improve its readers. An idealistic fourth estate is where politics comes to the fore in Ink and, surprisingly, the play’s very few ponderous moments come from this elision.

Director Rupert Goold stages the recruitment of staff at the new paper with a cabaret feel: jolly, anti-establishment, with 1960s cool. And Goold handles the play’s darker territory just as well, with a kidnapping and the launch of The Sun’s infamous topless models: a scenario that leads to strong performances from Sophie Stanton as the paper’s women’s editor, and Pearl Chanda as Stephanie Rahn, the first ‘Page 3’ girl.

Newspapers mark a generational divide – the young really don’t read them. Graham’s skill and research bridge the age gap. I wondered if we needed a scene taking us through the printing process (akin to his excellent précis of parliamentary procedure in This House) but, yes, of course we do! With a touch of nostalgia, reflecting several characters’ romantic notions of Fleet Street, an arcane world of machismo and lots of cigarette smoke is opened. Hindsight raises smiles and big questions about media manipulation.

The result of Graham’s fun groundwork is a delicious surprise – a depiction of Murdoch that shows intelligence and courage. With a little retrofitting, Murdoch is cast as a business disruptor and credited with the idea of user-generated content. Neither role is that convincing but the ideas intrigue. Murdoch’s drive, so perfectly embodied in Carvel’s performance, comes from his wish to challenge and change – recasting an often-demonised figure as a rebel with a cause.

Until 5 August 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Treatment” at the Almeida Theatre

Martin Crimp’s 1993 play is an exploration of truth and lies that uses art like a prism. The key question is who ‘owns’ a story – is it the teller or all of us? It’s a structuralist trope that gives rise to vivid characters who enliven the play’s opaque moments. And it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.

The piece pivots on husband and wife “facilitators” in the movie business, depicted skilfully by Julian Ovenden and Indira Varma. This gloriously devilish duo is working on the eponymous treatment that will become a film. Unbelievable, yet recognisable, the couple and their project turn out to be extremely funny.

Ian Gelder
Ian Gelder

Their treatment is of the ‘real life’ tragic story of an odd woman called Anne, recruiting a struggling writer (the excellent Ian Gelder) along the way. Aisling Loftus produces a figure disturbed and disturbing in Anne, using the role’s cipher-like qualities to advantage. Anne’s would-be amanuensis falls victim to the Shakespearean pretentions he tries to force upon her story (“vile jelly”, anyone?) in a shockingly grisly scene. How could the film being worked on relate to true events this strange? Combine the smart satire around the New York pseuds with Anne’s fragile mental health and art doesn’t stand a chance.

Gary Beadle
Gary Beadle

The film’s progress has a quasi-magical impact on real lives. Scenes of the movie’s planning are interspersed with Anne and her estranged husband (played by Matthew Needham), giving us an alternative view. Similarly, the high-profile actor/producer brought on board – a charismatic role for Gary Beadle – manipulates Anne’s story further. Meanwhile, his claim that “art changes everything” is debunked by the unsettling elision of truth and fiction.

Supernumeraries from the Almeida’s community programme provide a large cast that adds a well-used note of realism. Lyndsey Turner’s sure-footed direction, with Giles Cadle’s stark staging and Neil Austin’s lighting, combines naturalism with the bizarre and exaggerated superbly. A description of the moviemakers’ luxurious world as “allergic” to reality is typically solipsistic. Everyone involved, including the audience, is struggling to get to the bottom of motivations. But there’s fun to be had working out what’s going on – this is entertaining avant-garde.

Until 10 June 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Hamlet” at the Almeida Theatre

With Andrew Scott in the title role, this Hamlet already qualifies as one of the most exciting Shakespeare productions of the year. A consummate and intelligent performer whose lilting accent is a joy to hear, Scott uses the intimacy of the venue superbly. Combining sensitivity and ferocity he makes a strong philosopher prince. He also makes a great team with star director Robert Icke.

Andrew Scott with Amaka Okafor and Calum Finlay
Andrew Scott with Amaka Okafor and Calum Finlay

Scott’s Hamlet is tactile, all hand holding, wriggling fingers and pressing palms to his face – he even hugs his ghostly father (a brilliant performance from David Rintoul). This is a sensual Dane, aided by the casting of Amaka Okafor as Guildenstern (which adds tension for Calum Finlay’s Rosencratz, who sees Hamlet as a sexual rival). It all focuses us on Hamlet’s morbidity – his knowledge of man as “this quintessence of dust” – a cerebral point given theatrical physicality.

Icke is never short of ideas. He has so many thoughts on Hamlet it’s awe-inspiring. The overall tone is far less histrionic than many a past trip to Elsinor – even the furniture has a tasteful Scandi feel. Such restraint has a peculiar power, most notable in Claudius – a chillingly cold figure played by Angus Wright, whose controlled delivery would try the patience of many performers. It’s the first time I haven’t seen the King storm off the stage during the play-within-a-play and it’s brilliantly unsettling.

Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright watch with Andrew Scott
Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright watch with Andrew Scott

Other novel points include the decision to be open about Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. It makes more sense of her madness, giving us a modern woman to relate to that Jessica Brown Findlay exploits well. For Peter Wright’s Polonius there’s the suggestion that the respected government minister isn’t just a bore, but is suffering from dementia. And there are the videos and live recordings that are a bit of a trademark for Icke. Denmark as a surveillance state is fair enough, and rolling news broadcasts save some time, but wouldn’t it have been better for Horatio to take charge of the camera after Hamlet asks him to watch the King?

Not all of Icke’s introductions are as successful. Hamlet’s gun toting seems jarring – is it bravado on his part? While it adds shock to his confrontation with his mother (the magnificent Juliet Stevenson), pointing a gun at Claudius become confusing. The production uses a knowledge of the play heavily – a fair assumption – but loses power. An air of predestination predominates later scenes – like the audience, the characters seem to know the end. For much of the final duel, music predominates (it’s a puzzling selection throughout) while Hamlet’s “I am dead Horatio” is taken literally. Our finale – of ghosts at a party rather than corpses littering the stage – has odd tones of reconciliation. It’s all interesting, unmissable for bardophiles, and frequently brilliant, if a little cold.

Until 15 April 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Mary Stuart” at the Almeida Theatre

Friedrich Schiller’s play, about 16th-century monarchs Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, is full of dramatic speculation about the personalities behind a continually popular historical power struggle, and it is adapted and directed by Robert Icke in rousing fashion. With Mary’s flight into England, engendering a political crisis for her sister Queen, much is made of international law and refugee status. Having two powerful women in charge begs for a study in gender politics. You can’t blame Icke for leaping on the opportunities offered – if hardly subtle, he marvellously stokes the flames within this early 19th century text.

At the start of each show, a toss of a coin decides which role the two leads, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson, will take. That Icke emphasises one of the play’s many debates – the role of chance and fate – with such speedy excitement is indicative of his talents. As for the performances, both are impeccable. The night I attended heads and tails meant Williams played the Catholic monarch with a convincing mix of religious fervour and sensuality. Stevenson’s Virgin Queen was up there with the best – a shrewd executive struggling to hide hysterical fear about assassination plots. Physical threats to both women are highlighted by Icke, an expertly handled tactic that ramps up the drama.

Rudi Dharmalingham as Mortimer
Rudi Dharmalingham as Mortimer

A strong male cast joins Williams and Stevenson, with notably restrained performances. Occasionally the reserve strikes as almost odd. Rudi Dharmalingam’s double-dealing Mortimer presents a coolly controlled fanatic – his attempt to rape Mary is disturbing. Leicester is another duplicitous character who John Light makes it a pleasure to hate. Vincent Franklin and Alan Williams make their skill and experience show as Elizabeth’s loyal advisors, Burleigh and Talbot, who have to present different sides of an occasionally clunky argument about beheading Mary that are.

With brilliant performances, and some sprucing from Icke, this lengthy play, crammed with ideas and long sections of argument, races along. Success comes from the staging, with designer Hildegard Bechtler’s help. Played in the round, a rotating circular stage adds an adversarial air throughout. A climactic scene, utilising the stage’s movement is magical: accompanied by a song from Laura Marling, Elizabeth is transformed into Gloriana – face paint and all (it’s just too tempting for a story teller) – while Mary, in a simple shift, is freed from the “slavery” of the crown and worldly concerns. It’s a tough sell and, if you’re enamoured of Good Queen Bess, you won’t fall for the Marian martyrdom. But presentation of the debate about these women is brought up to date, the story shown at its gripping best, and there’s no doubt that Icke has produced stunning theatre here.

Until 21 January 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Oil” at the Almeida Theatre

Ella Hickson’s time-travelling play overflows with contemporary concerns. Scene one shows the not-so-good life of Cornish farmers in 1889. It’s followed by a trip to Tehran in 1908, Hampstead in 1970 and a couple of forays into the future. All show the consequences of oil, or the lack of, in society. Each scene is played around the dynamic of a mother called May (Anne-Marie Duff), Orlando-like over the centuries, with her daughter, Amy, who appears just conceived, aged eight, as a teen and as a middle-aged woman. You can’t doubt the play’s ambition.

The danger here is in overwhelming your audience. Hickson manages to stop her play feeling like an online search for conspiracies with the help of director Carrie Cracknell’s inventive staging and some deliciously mischievous humour. It’s a self-consciously crazy affair, with an experimental feel that has a certain charm. But there are moments of confusion. The box-of-tricks set by Vicki Mortimer has distracting elements, while repeated motifs that steer the audience are effortful. And there’s also a pop song (by Justin Bieber) – an overused trend I wish would stop.

Sam Swann and Yolanda Kettle
Sam Swann and Yolanda Kettle

The combination of global politics and gender studies is original and startling. Matching empire and parenthood produces some charge, not least an excoriating invective when Amy’s boyfriend (Sam Swann) is dispatched by May – the play’s best scene. But depressingly, the insights here aren’t revelatory, even if they are well delivered. Scenes set in the past don’t privilege historical accuracy, those looking to the future have silly touches; both are a little too obvious about how we live now, giving rise to a sense of naïvety. This is a young writer who sees the world getting worse and is angry about it. Fair enough. An impressive, almost intimidating energy drives the play, but it lacks control.

Oil is grim stuff. Hickson is harsh on all, not just those from the past, and the play’s themes of loneliness and narcissism, allied to the selfishness of Empire, create affecting moments. Trying to help is a confusing thing and the future will be lonely and (literally) cold. Unfortunately, cynicism overwhelms the text. It’s hard to knock a play with so many ideas, a good deal of them well executed. But it’s only Duff, seconded by Yolanda Kettle who plays her daughter over the centuries, who manages to inject some real feeling and provide a reason to see the play.

Until 26 November 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Richard H Smith

“They Drink It In The Congo” at the Almeida Theatre

Adam Brace’s new play looks at the troubles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and its first achievement is not to make the awful history, and terrible current conditions, overwhelming. A politically charged piece, its masterstroke is to set debate in the UK. The characters include a violent fighter against the Congolese government, performed with charisma and intelligence by Richie Campbell, and those working to help their home country, with the lead campaigner given appropriate dignity by Anna Maria Nabiyre. The point of conflict is a Congolese festival, organised by a well-meaning PR, Stef, who co-opts her former boyfriend (a great role for Richard Goulding). ‘Congo Voice’ is to be an awareness-raising, ‘non-political’ but PC-riddled arts event. Disaster, predictably but entertainingly, ensues.

Richard Goulding & Fiona Button
Richard Goulding & Fiona Button

Brace’s play is well constructed and director Michael Longhurst has done a smart job. We are in PR land with some comfortable satire and good jokes. The audience is forgiven potential ignorance surrounding the DRC and there’s a potted history to get us up to speed (thank you). Best of all is the well-written heroine; sharp as a knife, and a brilliant role that Fiona Button excels in. I fell for her totally.

Naturally things get grim. A harrowing scene, set in the Congo, is necessary if difficult to watch. And we get a flashback that fills in Stef’s story swiftly. After the interval, the incongruity of being back in party mode is a good twist, although violent threats to the festival lack tension. Better dealt with is the play’s grown up cynicism – healthy but never overpowering. Further comment comes from a chorus figure, a kind of master of ceremonies, who follows Stef around but is not seen by the characters. Sule Rimi (pictured top) cuts a dash in the role but it seems superfluous, possibly a kind of living Nkishi for those who study comparative religion?

It isn’t giving too much away to say Stef’s event doesn’t happen. The play has too realistic a tone to allow that. But there is a traditional festival of sorts: a Congolese wake for a father, an absent figure whose paternal influence mirrors Stef’s complex relationship with her own history. For his strong female roles, Brace roots his play in the universal of the family, bringing this complex work closer to its audience as well. He does what (little) a dramatist can, carefully manoeuvring the difficulties of a European commenting on Africa. There are faces and stories attached to this country now. Something to celebrate.

Until 1 October 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner