Tag Archives: Almeida Theatre

“The Doctor” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

It’s not hard to make theatre contemporary; cram a work with topical concerns at your peril. This play, transferring from the Almeida and created by Robert Icke, has it all: abortion, anti-Semitism, Alzheimer’s disease, medical ethics, euthanasia, politics, racism, religion and sexism. And above all comes the hot topic of identity. The unusual thing about The Doctor is that it can boast rigour and passion in equal measure, making it a phenomenal work.

“The best way to die”

The action, in a play which is mostly people talking, starts with a priest refused access to a dying young girl. This begins a battle between medicine and religion that is a big enough topic on its own. The contest isn’t just fought on social media (although Icke’s insight here is strong and could make another play of its own) but shows divisions within the hospital staff that create the atmosphere of a thriller.

Icke opens up issues that connect to the medical dilemma of what a patient wants and what the best treatment is – and he refuses to edit. The head of the hospital, Ruth Wolff, and the institution she founded come under the spotlight and stakes escalate to great effect. The question becomes how much impact identity, including beliefs and background, does or should have – or is all that just  “biographical nonsense”?

“Crystal Clear”

Icke doesn’t make any of this simple – quite rightly. Wolff, depicted by Juliet Stevenson who gives one of the best performances on a stage I’ve ever seen, wants to be “crystal clear” but is an ambiguous character. Her dry humour and self-awareness will appeal even if her opinions do not, she commands respect even with her flaws. But the character’s private life is deliberately confusing on stage; her partner (played with great sensitivity by Juliet Garricks) and a young person who comes to visit her home are puzzles. There are reasons, and as we learn more the emotional impact is great. Just be prepared.

Now for a big spoiler.

The race and gender of many characters is not the same as that of the performers cast in the role. It’s a debate in theatre, touching on opportunity and authenticity, brought to this stage with particular effect. In terms of drama, the revelations about characters are startling. The difference between differences we can and cannot see could not be made more starkly. The casting makes an intriguing point in a play where identification is so central.

“Do groups really matter”

It’s essential to Wolff that she compartmentalises her professional and her private life. Icke reveals how difficult this has become. Does Wolff’s reserve deny something to others? Does she really have the option of keeping her own heritage or sexuality to herself? As pressure mounts, Wolff chooses to defend herself on TV (a ruthless device to present a variety of views as well as a humiliating experience for the character). Woolf’s privilege becomes an explosive focal point. Whether there is any justice in this scene or merely martyrdom for Wolff will keep you thinking late into the night.

A lot of The Doctor is extreme. From the patient whose tragic death starts everything to the radical opinions and articulate characters that we meet. Woolf and her colleagues are brilliant people working to cure dementia (another subject matter powerfully handled). The rage and fury in the play – from everyone – is palpable, culminating in a scene of Stevenson running in circles which feels close to a panic attack. There’s certainly the danger of leaving the show with a headache – everyone shouts an awful lot.

This much conviction can be scary, but does the obstinacy of the characters become unbelievable? Icke tries to shut down the potential comfort of dismissing so many of them as bigots; the (somewhat flat) roles of a Government minister and the hospital’s PR manager (well performed by Preeya Kalidas and Mariah Louca) aim to be practical or calm…but prove useless. Little can be dismissed outright, rather, there are divisions here that cannot be overcome. There is little hope, despite the play searching for just that quality. Icke sees a polarized world – one that may strike you as contrived, but without doubt, makes for intense drama.

Until 11 December 2022

www.thedoctorwestend.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“The House of Shades” at the Almeida Theatre

Beth Steel’s new play is a working-class family history with politics… and ghosts. The story is bold – scenes include a home abortion – but overblown, and the overall effect is powerful, if messy.

The family, whose house we watch through the years, is an unhappy one. The events they live through, personal and political, are depressing. Plays normally provide light relief no matter how much time is spent around the kitchen sink, but humour here is, like the characters, bitter.

Steel is brave to make her lead, Constance, so unsympathetic. But despite an abusive background and frustrations around her limited opportunities, the character is impossible to care for. It’s a full backstory for Anne-Marie Duff, who excels in the role, but might Steel alienate us from Constance too much? With a series of scenes that challenge belief, the character is simply monstrous.

There’s no reason why all the spite and anger in House of Shades shouldn’t make good drama. But Constance causes an imbalance in the play. The other characters are reduced to reacting to her or mouthpieces for political positions. Only Stuart McQuarrie, as the long-suffering husband, manages to hold his own.

As for the politics (a big part of the play), a potted history of the Labour party all the way up to Brexit tensions is just a rehash of old arguments. Agree with them or not, there’s too much shouting (which director Blanche McIntyre should have stomped on) and nothing new to hear.

So, what about those ghosts? It is stated that “Death silences no one, least of all the dead.” which might strike you as just silly… but let’s go with it. Having characters reappear and have a say when they are deceased leads to strong moments. These scenes are the best of McIntyre’s generally fussy direction (at least all the messing around with plates and food stops).

Yet well before we get an appearance from Aneurin Bevan (who would be haunted by him?) it’s clear that a good idea has been used to little effect. Like the presence of a chorus style figure (well performed by Beatie Edney) who makes an appearance in two very different guises, there is little new to the drama or argument. There’s no shock, call to action or addition to the debate – just a long play that ends up saying nothing new.

Until 18 June 2022

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Helen Murray

“Spring Awakening” at the Almeida Theatre

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical about teenagers is now 15 years old. In the crowded field of coming-of-age stories it’s still startlingly original. This strong revival by director Rupert Goold embraces the novelty of adapting Frank Wedekind’s fin-de-siècle play and harnesses the energy of a superb young cast.

Let’s start with that talent. The production boasts Laurie Kynaston in the lead role of Melchior. It’s easy to see why he won the Evening Standard Emerging Talent award, and his performance shows an uncanny ability to suggest a whole range of complex emotions. Similar skills are present with another award winner, Amara Okereke, who ensures the role of Wendla holds equal focus. Stuart Thompson’s moving performance as the troubled Moritz – whose suicide needs to be highlighted in a show sure to draw a young audience – completes a trio of superb leads.

There are snatches of other stories in Spring Awakening. Goold makes sure these don’t confuse. The whole cast get a chance to shine (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea and Zhen Xi Yong are both memorable) but are best at working together. The ensemble sounds fantastic – its work as a chorus is particularly strong. With the musical direction of Jo Cichonska, Sheik’s score sounds better, more mature, than ever.

Goold’s secret for the show’s success is the choreography from Lynne Page. Every movement shows the frustrations the teenagers are experiencing. There’s a fantastic energy, as you might expect, but it is the suggestion of containment that creates incredible tension.

In less uncertain times I’d put money on this production transferring – it is top notch. Goold is clearly keen for a transfer. Miriam Buether’s staging is effective but screams for a bigger venue (to many seats have a poor view) – let’s hope the show gets one.

Until 22 January 2022

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“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