Tag Archives: Anthony Ward

“The Height of the Storm”at Wyndham’s Theatre

The new hit from French playwright Florian Zeller, translated as usual by Christopher Hampton, treads familiar ground. It intelligently manipulates audience expectations and is expertly theatrical– to his credit, you can’t imagine Zeller’s work in any other medium. As with hisprevious play, The Father, dementia and the impact on a family of that awful disease are the subject matter. But the love story of a devoted couple, André and Madeleine, one of whom dies, means The Height of the Storm can mine the  depths of even more emotion.

Zeller’s writing seems a gift to directors, and Jonathan Kent’s work here is faultless and attractive to performers. Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley play the daughters of the piece impeccably, never overstating their characters’ differences. And there are two strong performances from James Hillier and Lucy Cohu as strangers who flit between supporting and threatening the family. But the play belongs to André and Madeleine, played by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins – two masterclasses not to be missed. Pryce gives a tender performance detailing the fears of old age, while Atkins magnificently develops her role’s carefully revealed depths. Together their devotion as a couple is utterly convincing and incredibly moving.

While set in Zeller’s typically sophisticated milieu (André is a man of letters and Anthony Ward’s design of his house is retro-boho-chic), the rawness of grief removes us from the urbane characters that can sometimes feel foreign in his plays. The twist is a painful one – we don’t really know whether it’s André or Madeleine who has died. The confusion isn’t just because of André’s dementia. When the couple talk to one another it isn’t clear if the scene is a flashback or a grief-stricken fantasy, and they both refer to the other dying. So, Zeller presents us with both scenarios and the awful question of what would be ‘best’ arises – for you or your partner to die first? And which of your parents could cope best on their own?

Some may find Zeller’s approach opaque, but his skill at crafting the confusion is brilliant. The Height of the Storm opens up a debate about the end of our lives that is urgent and, in privileging the perspective of the elderly, an important contribution. We are taken to the heart of the drama and the issue at the same time and asked to confront both in a personal fashion. The finale emphasises the couple’s love. It reminds us of their agency as well as what is at stake. And, if you haven’t been crying already, you will be by the end.

Until 1 December 2018

www.theheightofthestorm.com

Photos by Hugo Glendinning

“Gypsy” at the Savoy Theatre

Believe the hype. Jonathan Kent’s triumphant revival of Gypsy, coming from the Chichester Festival Theatre, deserves every one of the many stars critics have lavished upon it. And, as for stars, Imelda Staunton’s much lauded performance in the lead really is a triumph, attracting every superlative imaginable.

Of course, it helps that the musical itself is wonderful. Jule Styne’s score has hits and a satisfying coherence that builds power in a symphonic fashion. Arthur Laurents’ book is perfection: powerful family relationships and fundamental emotions elaborated through the story of a pushy showbiz mother, touring America’s dying Vaudeville circuit, and the bitter success of her daughter becoming the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are justly legendary, from ‘Have an Egg Roll Mr Goldstone’ to the phenomenal ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’.

This production of Gypsy has the highest standards. It feels like a bit of Broadway in the West End. Kent’s handling is loving – he knows he’s crafting a gem and creates a tremendous energy. The show sounds gloriously brassy, which is just right, while the detailed, mobile sets from Anthony Ward embody a ‘Hi, ho the glamorous life’ of travelling performers. There are strong performances from Gemma Sutton and Lara Pulver as Momma Rose’s long-suffering daughters, especially Pulver and she blossoms into the striptease sensation that is Gypsy.

Against this flawless backdrop, Staunton excels as Momma Rose. Surely there can be few roles more daunting – remember, the critic Frank Rich described the part as musical theatre’s unlikely answer to King Lear. And think of what big shoes there are to fill. Staunton’s comedy skills are the best around and, in Gypsy, her acting shines. When Staunton wants a laugh – she got it. But Momma Rose is grown with subtlety, her fragility well established before her final breakdown. This makes the famous scene of ‘Rose’s Turn’ startlingly brave and painfully real.

Curtain up until 28 November 2015

www.thesavoytheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“King Lear” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre has rolled out the big guns to start 2014 – Simon Russell Beale as King Lear directed by Sam Mendes. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, or what your budget is like, make a resolution to see this one.

It’s a grand production in many ways. Star director Mendes was widely rumored for the top job at the National Theatre (it went to Rufus Norris), and is clearly at home here. Behind Anthony Ward’s deceptively simple design, the Olivier auditorium is used for all it’s worth. The sense of space is appropriately magisterial and the endlessly revolving stage reflects the play’s conceit of a wheel of fortune. Lear’s kingdom is a noirish nightmare inhabited by gangsters, militia and Blackshirts.

It isn’t just the superb spectacle that makes this Lear memorable. Simon Russell Beale gives the first unmissable performance of the year. His physical transformation is striking – he seems to shrink into the role in a degeneration that accelerates before your eyes. Always an intelligent performer, Russell Beale’s frequent work with Mendes shows how well he interprets the director’s powerful vision. This Lear is scary, a potent psychopath and giving up his throne is acknowledged as inexplicable. It’s a strategy that makes sense of his rages and fills the stage with fear. In a bold move, Lear kills Adrian Scarborough’s thought-provoking fool (in this production he’s even occasionally funny) in an agony of anger.

Matching him in menace, Lear’s daughters are clearly from the same mould. Fantastic casting is made the most of with Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s Regan stealing many of the scenes they are in. Vampish and vicious, they are full of manoeuvres. Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia is also defiantly active, donning army fatigues as she leads an invading force to rescue her father. This Lear is action packed throughout. The plot fuels the tragedy in a way that emphasises that justice isn’t abstract, or the twisted sport of a divinity, but the work of man. From this, the end is even more tragic than usual, with a near unbearably moving performance by Russell Beale.

Until 25 March 2014

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

Written 27 January 2014 for The London Magazine

“Sweeney Todd” at the Adelphi Theatre

Arriving in London from rave reviews at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Kent’s production of Sweeney Todd is the must-see show of the summer. Arguably Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, certainly his most famous work, it’s a musical that’s as intellectually stimulating as it is approachable.

Kent and his team make the most of each show-stopping number: almost to the production’s detriment as the evening is in danger of turning into a collection of hits rather than flowing as the excellent book by Hugh Wheeler intends it to. To be fair this really isn’t Kent’s fault – the audience response is rapturous, the atmosphere fantastic.

There is plenty to applaud. Michael Ball is remarkable in the title role. His transformation into the demon barber of Fleet Street makes him unrecognisable. More to the point, he gets to show what a fine actor he can be and remind us what a great voice he has. He does justice to Sondheim’s challenging score and embraces Sweeney’s tragic predicament in a stark manner that avoids camp.

Sweeney’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, is a role to kill for and Imelda Staunton has a great deal of fun with it. Her comedy is spot on and her voice strong. In love with Sweeney, Lovett’s descent into crime is swift, inevitable and wickedly funny, giving the production great pace. Staunton’s is a cracking performance that never slows and continually impresses.

Several recent productions of Sweeney Todd have been performed by opera companies reverent towards the score and resourced in a manner you might miss here – the chorus seems small and at times unsatisfying. There’s also a suspicion that Anthony Ward’s set feels a little lost on the large Adelphi stage; Sweeney’s London hardly teems with people, even if Mark Henderson’s lighting design creates atmosphere in abundance. But such cavils certainly won’t stop you enjoying the evening. This isn’t the perfect production of Sweeney Todd but it’s within a whisker of it.

Until 22 September 2012

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 March 2012 for The London Magazine