Tag Archives: Anna Francolini

“Twelfth Night” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

This sparky new production is bold and zippy. It marks the welcome return of Shakespeare to this gorgeous venue – apart from a brief Romeo and Juliet in 2021, productions have focused on younger audiences. Director Owen Horsley offers a big, luxurious show with lots of fun and music.

Everything happens in a bar, named, in neon, after our heroine Olivia. The characters are either customers or her entourage, musicians dressed in Ryan Dawson Laight’s clever sailor-inspired outfits. Fabian is renamed Fab Ian (which tickled me no end) while Sir Toby is a drag performer and takes to the mike, along with Olivia’s fool, Feste.

It’s all eye-catching, a drunken atmosphere isn’t a bad idea, and although sometimes the single setting proves cumbersome, it isn’t a bad innovation. But underneath, the production is a traditional affair. It is spoken wonderfully. The shipwrecked twins who arrive and cause havoc, played by Evelyn Miller and Andro Cowperthwaite, sound especially good.

Music should always play a big part of Twelfth Night. And music suits this venue well. The production goes all out and composer Sam Kenyon has been busy. The band adds atmosphere and pace, with Shakespeare set to song very nicely. It’s a shame the quality of the delivery isn’t consistently high, even if Jule Legrand’s Feste and Michael Matus’ Sir Toby have plenty of charisma.

Like all good productions, Horsley searches for insight, to show us something new. Here it is with Olivia and, thankfully, Anna Francolini, who takes the role, meets the challenge. Olivia is the star turn in her own bar, getting the best of Kenyon’s numbers, carrying her brother’s ashes around in an urn, overt in her attraction to Viola, and often bizarrely dressed, she is a larger-than-life character who threatens to unbalance the show. For instance, Raphael Bushay, as would-be suitor Orsino, doesn’t seem to stand a chance. And Olivia ends up alone… with the idea that Sebastian stays with Antonio. I did wonder if this Olivia might be a little too mad… but Horsley is on firm ground, after all the character questions her own sanity.

Anita Reynolds

It all makes for more laughs than romance. But Horsley doesn’t shy away from the melancholy of many characters or more vicious moments in the play. “Sad and merry madness” is the key. It should be no surprise that the balance between the two can be stark. So, while the tricks masterminded by a particularly strong Maria (Anita Reynolds) are nasty, Richard Cant proves a sympathetic Malvolio. It’s all a gorgeous night out, but, as it should be, a thought-provoking one too. Great, grown-up fun.

Until 8 June 2024


Photos by Richard Lakos

“Our Town” at the Almeida Theatre

David Cromer’s production of Our Town, which has arrived at the Almeida after great success in America, is a strange night at the theatre. The play is famous in the US but, for an English audience very possibly encountering Thornton Wilder’s text for the first time, it seems an odd affair. It’s not unusual to make us aware of the fabled fourth wall that separates actor from audience but to abandon it, as Wilder did in 1938, is startling. The town is Grover’s Corners, a deliberately ordinary place with deliberately normal inhabitants, thereby challenging our ideas about what makes a good drama. And yet, despite being initially disconcerting, Our Town is a magical journey about life.

Cromer takes the part of the Stage Manager. In charge at all times, setting the scene and interrupting the action, his stage presence is vital to the success of a show that has no scenery and just a few tables and chairs. A sardonic, Garrison Keillor figure, Cromer never patronises and always demands one’s attention. The warmth of the play (which occasionally nods at the twee) glows but is carefully tempered by a sense of reportage that adds an intriguing layer.

The cast is large. The actors wear contemporary clothes and speak with their own British accents – moving us from a specific American town in 1901 into England and the present day. The demands on our suspension of disbelief, with a great deal of miming, are forceful and a connection to the generic is established. These lives are like our own – not famous or important – but nonetheless moving and worthy of attention. The performances are understated, sometimes to a fault, but care and control are evident. Kate Dickie and Anna Francolini stand out as two matriarchal figures, while Laura Elsworthy and David Walmsley give convincing performances as their children Emily and George.

So at first Our Town is all quite strange. And, given that the house lights stay up for the first act, a little uncomfortable. Dealing with ‘Daily Life’ the deliberately humdrum action starts to settle and then become almost soporific. The best is certainly to come. After establishing the scene, we move to ‘Love and Marriage’ with Emily and George’s courtship depicted tenderly and intelligently. We follow the couple through their schooldays to their wedding and, even if an ice-cream soda is involved, the balance holds between sentimentality and a colder observational tone.

And the final scene of Our Town is fantastic. As Cromer says, we guess it will be about death, but this distinctive vision of the afterlife is both painful and reassuring. A coup de théâtre is created as the newly deceased Emily, going against the advice of others now dead, returns to observe one day of her life. The scene is hugely poignant and makes you appreciate how attached you have become to this fiction. Her ‘haunting’ allows Emily to join the other residents who have passed away, now sitting resignedly in graves. While she takes up her position as an impassive watcher of life, the audience moves on, maybe altered a little by our visit to this special place.

Until 29 November 2014


Photo by Marc Brenner

“Victor/Victoria” at the Southwark Playhouse

Blake Edwards’ joyous, gender-bending musical comedy – with music and lyrics by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse – is sure to please. The story of a soprano who disguises herself as a man performing in drag, Thom Southerland’s new production at the Southwark Playhouse, is a bold rendering full of expert touches and an abundance of talent.

Staged in traverse, and superbly designed by Martin Thomas, Southerland and his choreographer Lee Proud make the most of the show’s cabaret numbers. No tunnel under London Bridge ever looked this good; it’s a most welcoming cabaret, with a fantastic atmosphere from start to finish.

Taking the title role, Anna Francolini makes the most of this star vehicle and her performance has an emotional edge that is genuinely affecting. It helps that she sounds fantastic, too, and can deliver a tricky dance routine. The show stopping numbers, Le Jazz Hot! and Louis Says, are a  delight and the ensemble are superb.

Matthew Curtis plays her love interest who, Orsino-like, is puzzled by his desire for the ‘man’ he sees on stage. Curtis delivers his challenging solo number marvellously. But it’s Victor/Victoria’s impresario and best friend, performed by Richard Dempsey, who steals the show. Camp as Christmas and loving every gloriously silly moment, the incorrigible, Shakespeare-quoting, “Toddy” charms all and gets the loudest guffaw I’ve heard in the theatre this year. But, I won’t spoil the joke – buy a ticket to make sure you don’t miss it.

Until 15 December 2012


Written 2 November 2012 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