Tag Archives: Bridge Theatre

“White Noise” at the Bridge Theatre

An African American man volunteering to be the slave of his white friend is the core idea that guarantees Suzan-Lori Parks’ play is memorable. Is it brilliantly provocative, instantly horrifying or a gimmick? That Parks acknowledges all possibilities is to her credit.

Coming after a police assault, Leo says he will be safer as the wealthy Ralph’s property. Commentary doesn’t come more damning. Parks uses the experiment to raise the issue of inherited trauma and invites scepticism – Leo’s an artist and there’s the chance his project is a performance.

The ramifications, set over 40 days, prove dizzying even if they are well handled. Even the harshest critic couldn’t say White Noise has just the one trick. In exploring the ‘virus’ of racism Parks thinks big and commands respect.

There is an intelligent contribution on the topic of ‘woke’ culture. As the men’s partners, Dawn and Misha – a YouTuber and a lawyer respectively – try to make the world a better place, and Parks documents their trials and hypocrisies with a steely eye and a keen ear (the verbose dialogue is something else).

The idea of privilege is examined, too – forcing all the characters to ‘check’ themselves. This high-achieving quartet of college graduates seems to have no money worries. Instead, there is a cloying concern for status. And there’s the superb conceit of a – literal – ‘White Club’ that Ralph ends up joining. A conspiracy I found particularly creepy.

The play fizzes with ideas – but not the stage. Of course, the experiment ends badly – that’s no surprise – but the effects on all disappoints. Despite the efforts of a strong cast – Ken Nwosu, Helena Wilson, Faith Omole and James Corrigan – the friends fall apart too quickly and feel like puppets for Parks.

Ken-Nwosu-in-White-Noise-Photo-by-Johan-Persson
Ken Nwosu

The confused relationships and affairs between the four prove tiresome and predictable. A desire to be comprehensive and even-handed results in four excellent monologues (Nwosu’s comes first and is especially strong), but these make the show very long indeed. Each character spends too much time thinking about themselves to be appealing. With all the self-awareness, much of dialogue sounds like a mission statement.

Director Polly Findlay respects Parks’ considered arguments and adopts a slow, even pace that compounds the problem. The scope and insight of Parks’ writing is impressive, but more focus might make a better play.

Until 13 November 2021

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Bach & Sons” at the Bridge Theatre

The biography of composer Johann Sebastian Bach that informs Nina Raine’s new play is interesting. And a star turn from Simon Russell Beale as the musical great makes this play entertaining. But, despite director Nicholas Hytner’s valiant efforts to tell the story, the playwright’s ambitions become a problem.

Raine and Russell Beale – he really is fantastic – make sure we enjoy a character both angry and vulnerable, with a sharp tongue and quick wit. An obsession with “order in all things” and his religiosity show a complex character. All good stuff. But the contrasts in Bach’s temperament find a too-fast parallel in discussions of his work.

The debate about life and art is held, noisily, with his sons – Wilhelm and Carl – composers moving into a new era and men living in their father’s shadow. But it’s the former, rather than a family drama, that is focused on. These sons almost disappear in the discussion Raine wants to start. And the ideas aren’t new or elaborated on particularly well. It’s only the sincerity in the delivery of the argument, from Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin, that makes any of this interesting.

Pandora Colin, Samuel Blenkin, Simon Russell Beale and Douggie McMeekin in Bach & Sons photo by Manuel Harlan
Pandora Colin, Samuel Blenkin, Simon Russell Beale and Douggie McMeekin

There is more Raine starts to investigate – the idea that a great artist doesn’t have to be a good man. It’s a notion that seems common sense to me but is increasingly debated, so input is welcome. Bach’s family suffers from his obsessions with telling the truth. His wives most of all. There are strong performances from Pandora Colin and Racheal Ofori as Mrs Bach 1 & 2. Raine has written fulsome roles that make these scenes more successful.

Raine tries to mix the high-flown ideas on art with down-to-earth comments (mostly about weight), but the efforts feel like a gesture. Saying one of Bach’s Passions was received like a “turd in a tureen” gets a laugh… but too briefly. Bach & Sons does build in power, there are moving moments with Russell Beale’s uncanny ability to show his character aging. But all the discussions of music and meaning, counterpoint and chaos, end up close to platitudes. The result is a piece that is disappointingly one note.

Until 11 September 2021

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“A Christmas Carol” at the Bridge Theatre

Although Christmas 2020 is sure to be very different, theatres are trying their best for the festival season. There are pantos out there (at the National Theatre, the Palladium and the Hackney Empire) and plenty of other versions of Charles Dickens’ perennial favourite are on offer. But Nicholas Hytner’s venue always promises good value and this neat, concise version, adapted by Hytner himself, does not disappoint.

The production boats an excellent cast. Simon Russell Beale as Ebenezer Scrooge would be a must see at any time – he is excellent and takes the role as seriously as he would any Shakespearean lead. Joining him to narrate and perform all other roles are Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo, both showing a masterful physicality and excellent portfolio of accents. The trio form such a superb ensemble, it’s hard to imagine you need more performers to bring the story to the stage.

The key to the show’s success is good old-fashioned story telling. Aided by Jon Clark’s lighting design and an effective set from Rose Revitt, there’s a cosy feel of the tale unfolding. And suitably spooky touches for each of the ghosts who arrive to teach Scrooge the meaning of Christmas. The almost obligatory video design (from Luke Halls and Zakk Hein) is good but hardly necessary with story tellers this proficient.

There’s fun (and even Christmas jumpers) as Hytner’s adaptation injects plenty of humour. Figueiredo adds some lovely comic touches throughout. But the trick is to take the show seriously; Russell Beale’s Scrooge is carefully distanced from caricature. Seeing Dickens’ complex character sincerely brought to life makes a refreshing change that adds considerable drama. 

Now is the time for comfort theatre and Nicholas Hytner knows it. Injecting just the right amount of nostalgia into proceedings strikes a fine balance of escapism into Christmas pasts just as the present one might not be so great.

Until 16 January 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Nine Lives” at The Bridge Theatre

Of the many recorded offerings during lockdown, Zodwa Nyoni’s play about a gay immigrant has been a highlight. Now this beautifully written, politically urgent piece has a short run as part of Nicholas Hytner’s season of monologues. And, Nine Lives is even better in real life.

The power of Nyoni’s writing was clear on the screen. Her character of Ishmael involves us in his struggle in a moving way while retaining a sense of humour. The issues around gay rights and immigration, looking at Ishmael’s past as well as life in his new home, are deftly handled.

Nyoni’s sophistication becomes all the more powerful when seen in person. Benefitting from this chance to see the show in a theatre is director Alex Chisholm, whose careful work is even more obvious. And gaining most is the show’s star Lladel Bryant. It’s fantastic to see Bryant hold a stage (and The Bridge is a big space) with such ease, drawing his audience in and making us care so much. And laugh too – moments when Bryant takes on extra characters that Ishmael meets have a magical charm.

Nyoni’s text has the refrain “some of us…”, calling forth lives other than Ishmael’s on to the stage. It serves as a reminder of the dangers fled from and the treatment of people in need of help. Reminders of group identities and responsibilities are why it’s so important to see Nine Lives with others; to have witness born in public, in front of an audience is something theatre offers that screens cannot. Community runs through the play and that is something best experienced together.

Until 31October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Adam Robinson

“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

“Talking Heads” at the Bridge Theatre

Four out of eight… that’s not some strange rating for these shows, far from it, but the number I’ve managed to see in this series of Alan Bennett monologues. The tickets are reasonably priced, the staff on top of social distancing, and creative director Nicholas Hytner’s idea of bringing his lockdown TV shows to the stage (where they clearly belong) is a simply brilliant.

The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils

First up is Monica Dolan’s brilliant portrayal of a grieving widow. Learning about her husband’s life – after his death – her version of Clifford the bird watcher has to expand to include Cliff the biker. The Shrine is sensitive and often funny. It’s classic Bennett territory, with plenty of wry observation. And an important point about how individual bereavement is.

The accompanying piece has Lesley Manville’s turn as an “upstanding Anglican lady”. Battles with her husband the Vicar, and his fan club parishioners, start well. But does competitive flower arranging sit uncomfortably alongside the AA meetings the character ends up at? It’s Manville who makes the extramarital affair here seem something magical. Another performance not to miss. Both pieces are directed with a sure hand by Hytner.

The Hand of God & The Outside Dog

Another piece is also mostly noticeable for its performance. Did you ever imagine Kristen Scott Thomas could ‘do’ frumpy? The Hand of God is a touch predictable but, with an affecting melancholic air there’s no doubt this is another of Bennett’s strong characters. Playing a small-time antiques dealer, with humour coming from her snobbery, is a real achievement on Scott Thomas’s part.

More impressive – as the performance is excellent and the writing surprising – is The Outside Dog where Bennett moves to less familiar ground. A serial killer’s wife, a role Rochenda Sandall gets lots from, in a script that twists like a thriller. It’s plot driven but note its brevity. While the TV might drag a serial out of something like this (and we’ve all seen plenty on Netflix lately) Bennett and director Nadia Fall cram mystery, drama and emotion in a quarter of an hour – fantastic!

There are four more big stars to come – Lucian Msamati, Imelda Staunton, Tamsin Grieg and Maxine Peake – in two more double bills. This may be bite size theatre, but the season is a big achievement.

Until 31 October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Zach Harrison

"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

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