Tag Archives: Bridge Theatre

“Beat The Devil” at the Bridge Theatre

Leading the return to live theatre, Nicholas Hytner has his venue on the South Bank up and running. OK, it’s a season of monologues and we’ve seen a lot of them online during lockdown. And even though seats have been removed, rather than being left empty, the capacity is sadly shrunk. But the season, and this opening piece, are exciting. And it is great to be back inside an auditorium to experience theatre for real.

David Hare’s monologue is based on his own experience of contracting Covid-19. You might share my reservations about the subject matter – enough pandemic already! – but bringing Hare’s talent and intelligence to the subject is valuable. Full of insight and wit, with a perfect blend of humour around this serious topic, provides a healing quality to the show. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I left feeling that things are starting to get a little better.

The show has star appeal, with Ralph Fiennes taking the role of the writer. The delivery is impeccable, aided by Hytner’s confident direction, always aware of the text’s nuance. The balance of humour, humility and serious points is reflected well in the performance. The effects of this “dirty bomb” of a virus on Hare are detailed but contain no self-pity. More noticeable is the “survivor’s rage” when he comes to consider how politicians have been handling things.

It isn’t hard to claim Hare is preaching to the choir. There’s some fun personifying the virus, imagining it targeting Boris Johnson and Donald Trump’s faults. Developing an eloquent disbelief at how incompetent our leaders have shown themselves has considerable bite. As topical as could be, Hare’s anger is hopefully an indication of his full recovery. Holding those with power to account, as he has so many times in the past, is healthy and invigorating.

Until 31 October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" from NTLive

Filming theatre shows for broadcast in cinemas started during Nicholas Hytner’s time as artistic director at the National Theatre. So it’s appropriate that this resource, a defining feature of lockdown for theatregoers, visits and raises funds for Hytner’s new home, The Bridge Theatre.

As for the choice of show, this production of Shakespeare’s comedy, which won acclaim last summer, shows off Hytner’s directorial skills and his venue’s flexibility. It’s one of the best versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I’ve seen. And I even like the way its magnificent theatricality stubbornly refuses to be filmed.

Having small, movable stages and the audience standing in the stalls means the show is “immersive” – Hytner knows the term is a bit naff – with Bunny Christie’s brilliant design featuring beds that come up and down from the ceiling. And there are acrobats! David Moorst’s Puck is amazing to watch. Sometimes the film’s focus on performers’ faces is welcome, the crowd less distracting, and the joyousness Hytner instilled in the show is still present. But being in that crowd can’t be conveyed on a screen.

Fresh ideas and twists fill the play. There are small touches; a suggestion Hippolyta has a magical “power” over Hermia and making the ‘lion’ genuinely frightening (a great turn for Jamie-Rose Monk). Most noticeably is the change of gender over which fairy monarch is tricked – here Puck serves Titania (a wonderfully imperious Gwendoline Christie) to fool Oberon.

Oliver Chris’s Fairy King – who falls for the brilliantly funny Bottom of Hammed Animashaun – is magnificent. Their affair is sexy and funny and – evidence of how skilled both actors are – also moving. It leads to the best dad dancing I’ve seen and a promenade around the audience that is a real highlight. That Chris can get a laugh with the word ‘mulberries’ tells you all you need to know.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Bridge Theatre
The “crew of patches” led by Hammed Animashaun

The joke at the heart of the play can go wrong. But Hytner targets a toxic masculinity it feels good to laugh at. Oberon and Theseus, who Chris also plays and doesn’t slack at, are poked fun of for their (fragile) sense of power. Likewise, the Athenian lovers Demetrius and Lysander are also a source of humour with their young machismo. Magically, it makes all these sometimes boorish men more appealing. Similarly, the “crew of patches” performers are a joke but in a gentle fashion. With a finale where Animashaun commands the stage, there’s just a glimmer that their show within a show is serious! The joke is that Bottom is trying – he even bears in mind that his performance is in the round. Bless. Yes, it makes it funnier that he’s so bad – such delusion could only come in dream. But it gives the production a charm and energy that, by the end, make it feel like a party.

Available until Wednesday 1 July2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk, https://bridgetheatre.co.uk

Production poster image by Perou, production photo by Manuel Harlan

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" at the Bridge Theatre

While Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is always a popular seasonal play, 2019 seems to be the summer for ancient Greeks and misbehaving fairies. While the production at Regent’s Park has already closed, you can still enjoy the Globe’s version, or this one from director Nicholas Hytner. It’s not a competition – the text continually proves its versatility and brings out the best of theatrical creativity. Suffice to point out the five-star reviews for this production and confirm that it thoroughly deserves them.

This is a promenade performance with the Bridge’s stalls space converted for standing patrons. I’m not a fan of the format but appreciate that the atmosphere appeals to many and, without question, Hytner manages it masterfully. The danger is distraction, as you have to keep your eyes peeled for potential moves and be more aware of fellow audience members. Some lines are lost during scene changes; rehearsing “obscenely” being a personal favourite that is sacrificed. All the more credit, then, to the impressive cast who command attention and use the crowd expertly. Above all, praise for designer Bunny Christie, who uses small stages that come up and down (seen in Julius Caesar last year) to great effect. The addition of a collection of beds that rise up to the roof and trapeze artists makes the show a visual delight.

Incorporating the audience is a gift to the comedy in the show. Take the play-within-a-play: as the workmen putting on a show account for playing in the round, this scene proves the highlight of a tremendous performance from Hammed Animashaun, who takes the role of Bottom. And there’s a nice self-deprecating note as well – as Moonshine’s torch blinds Hippolyta, Theseus helpfully consoles and explains by saying, “It’s immersive”. The humour may not be subtle (having such a great response to characters taking selfies is vaguely depressing) but it is sure to prove memorable. Touring one of the beds around the crowd or getting everyone to hold hands and circle the action are fun-filled highlights.

Gwendoline Christie (Titania) and David Moorst (Puck)

Along with Animashaun’s fantastic stage presence the production boasts an acrobatic Puck in David Moorst. A little too keen on his ad libs (which the show abounds in) Moorst’s physical performance is hugely impressive. And he brings an interesting cruel edge to his punk-inspired anarchy. This Puck is not entirely likeable or stable. The four Athenians in the forest feel a little too much like his victims and their roles (led by strong performances from Isis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones, as Hermia and Helena respectively) become more moving than funny.

Hammed Animashaun (Bottom) and Oliver Chris (Oberon)

Hytner’s strength is that, for all the fun, he isn’t afraid to make the show serious. There’s real tension in the plight of Hippolyta and the young lovers, a drama led by the excellent Oliver Chris, whose Theseus is steely to the point of sinister. And there’s an air of menace in Titania’s plot against Oberon – no, that’s not a mistake. In a brilliant gender swap, Gwendoline Christie gets the larger role as a Fairy Queen victimising her husband. A swipe at the patriarchy? Maybe, but while Oberon’s affair with Bottom gets plenty of giggles (praise for Chris and Animashaun again) the swap adds another layer of transgression that makes this dream edgy. Gender fluidity in Shakespeare is embraced more than ever at the moment, and Hytner is very much on board. But it’s because his direction recognises there can be bad dreams as well as good ones that his show appears so magical.

Until 31 August 2019

https://bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Alys, Always" at the Bridge Theatre

Harriet Lane’s novel about an unassuming sub-editor called Frances, whose life becomes entangled with a famous author after a car accident, is a quality page turner. Bringing the story to the stage, Lucinda Coxon retains its strong plot and much of the book’s flavour: an air of Daphne du Maurier with a Ripleyesque lead make for a sturdy combination. There’s a stumble over the humour in the piece – Lane has a wry eye that Coxon has blurred – but the show is never less than entertaining.

With a strong cast, including Robert Glenister as the writer Laurence and Joanna David as his agent, there’s insight into London’s literati. But too many stabs at the middle classes become a problem in the role of Polly, Alys’ daughter. This spoilt rich girl is too broadly painted and easy to laugh at – a shame as Leah Gayer, who makes her professional debut in the part, clearly has the ability to make the character more sympathetic. Instead there’s less tension surrounding Frances manipulating the younger woman than there should be.

Even worse, too many jokes set in Frances’ workplace show the parallel plot of her blossoming career being mishandled by Coxon. In place of presenting another side to our heroine’s burgeoning ambition, we get a checklist of woes about the modern media that are both too familiar and unconvincing. Again, the gags have the detrimental effect of making many roles too slight. Frances’ editor and rival colleague Oliver see Sylvestra Le Touzel and Simon Manyonda struggling to fill out their parts.

Thankfully Alys, Always is more drama than comedy. And director Nicholas Hytner has always been good with suspense. He knows how to pace a text and place a body so that a glance between characters crackles with tension. There’s little overt confrontation, but its potential bubbles under in many scenes (Sam Woolf as Alys’ son is especially good). And there’s an impressive eye on the intricacies of class, revealing aspirations that become the catalysts for Alice’s actions. Bob Crowley’s set may be minimal but, along with Christina Cunningham’s costumes and Luke Halls’ video design, the details are precisely focused.

Frances, the unfairly ignored central figure, is key to the novel, which she narrates, and she fits comfortably on the stage thanks to a fine performance from Joanne Froggatt. Ever the underdog, sympathy is won quickly but, as this good Samaritan becomes a sinister gold digger, Froggatt still keeps us on side. From lies that might have a noble motivation, through to tasteless if harmless kleptomania for “talismans”, a combination of worry and repulsion surrounds her. The plots and emotional manipulation intrigue and excite. Even when Frances becomes ruthless, there’s the thrill that her plans might work and a quiet cheer for this special heroine.

Until 30 March 2019

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

"A Very Very Very Dark Matter" at the Bridge Theatre

This world premiere from playwright Martin McDonagh marks the first year of Nicholas Hytner’s new home on the Southbank. McDonagh appeals too many, writing in a tradition the programme labels “Irish Gothic”, yet with an approachable modern tone that gives him a distinctive (and much imitated) voice. Here, fairytales are the material, a clever move as they share a sense of the macabre that is McDonagh’s forte. He proposes that Hans Christian Anderson’s stories were actually written by a time-travelling pygmy imprisoned in his attic who plans to save the Congo from Belgian colonialism… Not everyone could get away with that pitch.

The scenario is rich in oddity but poorly developed. Still, it’s clear that director Matthew Dunster is convinced, taking a reverent approach to the script that results in slow moments despite the short running time of 90 minutes. And the cast look as if they’re having a great time with McDonagh’s irreverence. Anderson’s stupidity and ignorance results in a flouting of political correctness only a psychopath can get away with and Jim Broadbent, who takes the role, makes the most of every joke. His fellow lead, playing the real writer, Ogechi, is a more interesting part. In this role Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles is occasionally too focused on delivering her punchlines. Surely the atrocities of slavery should make the play moving as well as dark? Ackles excels, though, on the play’s ruminations about stories and writings of many kinds. As you might expect, McDonagh provides insight here.

Jim Broadbent as Hans

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is funny. As for the style of humour, nobody can complain about trades descriptions. But along with tackling the grotesque and his ability to make you squirm, McDonagh does rely on expletives. It works, and the laughter is deafening, especially when children are swearing, while Phil Daniels and Elizabeth Berrington, as a foul-mouthed Mr and Mrs Charles Dickens, put in good turns. But these jokes might strike you as easy. Especially when McDonagh can clearly do so much more: language difficulties between the British author and the Danish Anderson are much more inventive.

McDonagh takes on contemporary concerns about the canon and commemoration: cultural giants and statues of King Leopold of Belgium. But debate isn’t added to, so the inclusion of such history ends up puzzling. Humour is the selling point – arguably this can be an effective way of questioning the past and its narratives. But the play’s downfall is that is contains so little drama – unlike McDonagh’s other work there’s a lack of tension. Maybe the story is just too silly? Or too self-referential – pointing out the writing’s structure, to purposely deflate it. There’s never an edge-of-seat moment and, knowing how well McDonagh can write, this becomes frustrating.

Until 6 January 2019

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Allelujah!" at the Bridge Theatre

In his 84th year, Alan Bennett has written his most topical and overtly political play yet. Set on a geriatric ward, this is a heartfelt appeal for the NHS in its anniversary year and a play that is as challenging as it is amusing. Using the term youthful as praise seems inappropriate, but the piece feels fresh and bold regardless of the average age of its cast and creatives.
Allelujah! is full of songs and fun. With a massive cast, of mainly elderly characters, there is a sense of studies rather than fully fledged personalities. The experienced ensemble does well and is always entertaining, but it is great lines rather than roles that allow the likes of Gwen Taylor and Jeff Rawle to shine. Bennett adds life by injecting frank remarks and some swearing. It’s a simple but effective move.
When it comes to those running the hospital, conditions improve. There’s still some flab and flat parts – Bennett’s long-time director Nicholas Hytner could have been stricter. But from the hospital’s incompetent chairman, an excellent performance from Peter Forbes, and the stalwart Sister Gilchrist, a role that Deborah Findlay is superb in, Bennett points out systemic problems and gives them dramatic impact.

Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett
Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett

Samuel Barnett plays another villain, a management consultant, and is joined by fellow former History Boy Sacha Dhawan as the appealing Dr Valentine. The pair are polar opposites – indeed a story about migration feels a touch tagged on – but both do well to make Bennett’s blunt approach work. By the time we get to the plot twist, the whole atmosphere is appropriately spirited – nothing exercises emotions like the NHS.
The sensational storyline might be criticised in a younger writer. Given his pedigree, it seems safe to say that Bennett is aware of any potential drawbacks. Throwing a lot of subtlety to the wind, he joins the often reviled group of angry old men. And good for him. Allelujah! becomes hectoring towards the end; the patients’ patriotic singalong seems jolly enough, but there is little hope or glory around. Yet the anger here is salutary, Bennett wants to shake us up and, as a result, his play is a surprise.
Until 29 September 2018
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Nightfall" at the Bridge Theatre

This is only the third show at the South Bank’s newest venue and the stage itself continues to impress. Transformed again – thrusting out into the audience and with glorious backdrops courtesy of Rae Smith – it’s a clever design for Barney Norris’ intimate new play. But, despite the addition of strong work from director Laurie Sansom, there’s a suspicion that this intergenerational family drama would benefit from a smaller home. And while Nightfallis well-crafted and well-performed it is also, unfortunately, a little bit dull.
Norris is a young writer of exciting promise. Credit to the venue for giving him such a break. As a mother and her adult children struggle as farmers, and fight to shape new lives after a bereavement, there is a lot of potential for emotion. There are secrets and lies aplenty and strong dialogue, although both are a touch predictable. The play’s quality feel makes criticism sound harsh, but this is very much a talking heads affair that combines a streak of sentimentality with a studiousness that is uninspired.
A look at rural life makes a welcome change in a London theatre. So it is frustrating that the setting gets lost, with surprisingly little sense of what a working farm is like and what living on one might entail. Brother and sister, Ryan and Lou, along with their best friend and her fiancé Pete, are well-rounded character studies and Ophelia Lovibond, Sion Daniel Young and Ukweli Roach all acquit themselves well. But there seems too little to distinguish them from their urban contemporaries. The play’s focus is really the theme of grief, which Norris tackles movingly. This is where the real meat lies, with Claire Skinner as the matriarch Jenny putting in a fine performance – although, for my money, Lovibond steals the show. And yet, while the characters are developed they aren’t fascinating. And the plot is involving, but too slim. As the stakes are raised to compensate we arrive at a drama of over-powering mother love too quickly, leaving Skinner lost and the play unconvincing.
Until 26 May 2018
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photo by Manuel Harlan

"Julius Caesar" at the Bridge Theatre

Showing off his new venue’s versatility, director Nicholas Hytner has transformed London’s newest theatre for only its second show. Presenting Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy as a promenade performance, with the pit peopled by theatregoers standing in for the populace, reveals a cavernous space that seems rather empty at first. But as Bunny Christie’s set of rising and falling cubes gets into action we see Hytner’s skill at staging. This crowd control is superbly done, and probably fun if you are in among the action (I paid to sit). But it’s almost too interesting to watch the hard-working ushers moving the crowd around.
In a play that discusses manipulating the masses so openly, there’s a kind of appropriateness to being distracted by the mechanics of the production. There are many instances when it’s clear the show is trying hard to be a spectacle with impressive touches that give it an expensive feel. It’s loud – right from the start when a band opens the show – and Bruno Poet’s lighting design is superb. Scenes of battle include a barricade that appears with stunning speed to divide the space. There’s even a Jeep for a few seconds.

Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw

The performances have to fight against a lot here – with mixed results and plenty of shouting. Those who join the mob seem best placed, including Rosie Ede and the show’s lead vocalist Abraham Popoola. But David Calder’s Caesar seems lost; presenting him as a populist politician may make the production feel topical but it stunts his performance, making the role a box ticked rather than a figure to engage with. David Morrissey’s Marc Antony holds the crowd, he is convincing and a suitable heir to his crowd-pleasing mentor. Ben Whishaw delivers his lines with finesse and his performance is in keeping with a theme of sincere activism, but his Brutus is too meek. Cast as an academic who plays with his spectacles, it’s tricky to see his nobility behind his obscurantism. There are also strong performances from two women cast in traditionally male roles: Michelle Fairley and Adjoa Andoh make an impassioned Cassius and a ruthless Casca, respectively.
It is nuance that is lost in Hytner’s production. The action is clear, often exciting, but rather too black and white. And this is a humourless Julius Caesar. Of course, the play isn’t a comedy but there’s usually a cynicism that delivers a dark wit. These characters are all politicians, after all, manipulating one another as well as the mob, but the tone is one of intellectual conviction. Arguably, it’s in keeping with the times to persist in such an earnest tone. What inspires Hynter is a feeling of youthful sincerity – but this doesn’t make the play particularly interesting or entertaining.
Until 15 April 2018
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Young Marx" at the Bridge Theatre

There’s nothing more exciting than a new theatre. And, bearing in mind that Nicholas Hytner’s new venue is the biggest in London for a long time, its opening night is a major cultural event to really celebrate. In truth, it’s a bit of a box of place – in one of those luxury housing developments you wish you could afford but wouldn’t live in if you could – trying hard to be swish (expensive sarnies) and smelling a bit too new. But the play’s the thing and, to open his new home Hytner, has collaborated with regular favourites to deliver a real crowd pleaser.
The true history of Karl Marx’s early years living in London is fascinating, with a fact-stranger-than-fiction appeal – it seems that Marx was an expert in economics but couldn’t handle his own money. The lead role provides an enviable part for Rory Kinnear, who embraces this larger-than-life, Bohemian (yes, really) philosopher. With One Man Two Guvnors and Dead Ringers writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman at work, the play is, as you would expect, good, old-fashioned funny.
With the excellent Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels, the two revolutionaries make a comedy double act. They even have a piano, until the bailiffs call and, as invited, literally, take a chair. There’s more than a hint of the Marx Brothers here – there’s even a cigar or two. Add numerous emigrés with funny accents (Tony Jayawardena is a highlight as the impoverished family’s doctor) and you have more than enough comedy ingredients. Kinnear is even good for some slapstick. Hytner enjoys this stuff – as do audiences – and his direction is faultless.
Just to make sure all bases are covered, we get some light extrapolation of Marxist ideas to give us something to think about, and it’s pretty evenly handled, with nice touches of hindsight. And there’s pathos: the death of a Marx child is movingly portrayed. The treatment of Marx’s wife and mistress short-changes two excellent actors – Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone – and it becomes hard to believe these women stuck around. And there is angst: that Marx fears unleashing the “virus of hope” with his writing is an interesting idea, but we need to see more of Marx’s power, rather than just being told about it. Maybe that would have made things too serious?
Young Marx tries hard to be a hit – and it deserves to be one. Even with the best reputation and address book in the business, starting a new commercial theatre is a brave move by Hytner and his producer Nick Starr. As new plays go, this is a pretty safe bet. But Hytner understandably has a cautious eye on commercial success. A big show to get people talking is exactly what is needed and my fingers are crossed for just that.
Until 31 December 2017
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photo by Manuel Harlan