Tag Archives: Bridge Theatre

“John Gabriel Borkman” at the Bridge Theatre

Lucinda Coxon’s new version of Ibsen’s 1896 play gains power from its terseness. Played without an interval, at rapid speed, the story of disgraced banker and his complex family, is an existential exploration conducted in a refined manner.

Borkman’s love of money isn’t quite the kind of capitalism we get nowadays, and Coxon refuses to map some kind of Ponzi scheme onto his actions – bravo. This businessman is a more of mystic. His relationship to the earth, albeit exploiting resources, can’t help but seem odd. Taking the title role, Simon Russell Beale manages to make the character’s conviction believable. And the more we hear from Borkman, the more amazing Russell Beale’s achievement becomes.

Along with astonishing misogyny and arrogance come Borkman’s pleas for his innocence (years after finishing his prison sentence). He lives estranged from his wife, Gunhild, in the same home, which is actually owned by her sister, Ella, who is the women Borkman really loves. And it’s not just a love triangle. Ella turns up to ‘claim’ her nephew, hoping he will reject his parents in favour of her. So much for the traditional family unit.

The bizarre dynamics could leave supporting roles out in the Nordic cold. Strong work from Michael Simkins, Sebastian De Souza and Ony Uhiara (as Borkman’s friend, his son and the latter’s lover) avoid the roles being lost. The psychodrama is fascinating… if extreme. But any melodrama is avoided by a dark sense of humour and Nicholas Hytner’s energetic direction. The sparse staging in monochrome tones in Anna Fleischle’s design contrasts with these colourful personalities. 

Two shadows and a dead man

Ella compares herself and her sister to ghosts accompanying the long-deceased Borkman. But her description is wrong – both women are vivid and Borkman full of life. The performances show this admirably. Clare Higgins’s Gunhild is a study of rage, her scorn tremendous. Lia Williams as Ella conveys resignation and desperation in turn, creating a role that’s riveting to watch. Russell Beale is as good as ever as a man utterly deluded yet compelling; Borkman is a caged animal, a wolf, his wife says, containing tremendous power while possessing… none. The bleaker the situation for all three, the more potent the play becomes.

Until 26 November 2022

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Southbury Child” at the Bridge Theatre

The nice surprise in Stephen Beresford’s new play is that it isn’t just a vehicle for Alex Jennings. Taking the lead as wayward vicar David Highland, Jennings is – as always – excellent. But the show boasts a superb ensemble, impeccably directed by Nicholas Hytner, who all make the most of a play that tries very hard.

The scenario comes (deliberately?) close to silly: the vicar puts his foot down about balloons in his church for the titular child’s funeral. All the fuss (about hot air) becomes serious because of social media. Threats are made and Beresford does well with menace. It turns out the real issue is “integrity” – unfortunately, it’s Jennings and not the script that makes this convincing.

It’s a neat enough central dilemma to work a drama around, in the style of Ibsen. Highland is a flawed character but still wants to take a stand. His long-suffering family, the church and the wider community are quick to accuse him of hypocrisy. Of course, that doesn’t change the strength of his argument. I’m just not sure the argument is that good in the first place.

Beresford looks at balance, questioning and compromise – or at least his characters say they want all this. These aims shouldn’t be a surprise… this is the Church of England. But too much time is taken over disgruntled views of the modern world and ‘woke’ culture. To be generous, it seems the motivation is comedy. But that humour is a problem.

There are laughs in The Southbury Child. Quite a few, actually. But the jokes are painfully effortful. The treatment of Londoners, the politically correct or class differences are all clichéd. You can see every punchline a mile off. And, when in doubt, Beresford just makes the vicar swear. Jokes are forced on characters and into a script that so wants to be funny it feels desperate.

Phoebe-Nicholls-in-The-Southbury-Child-credit-Manuel-Harlan
Phoebe Nicholls

Beresford tackles plenty of issues. All the characters are given a chance as adoption, adultery, alcoholism and gay marriage are mentioned. These lead to strong performances from Racheal Ofori and Jo Herbert as Highland’s daughters, while his wife, played by Phoebe Nicholls, is stunning. There are stumbles with the working-class characters (the family whose child is to be buried) but further excellent work from Josh Finan and Sarah Twomey, who take the parts. The acting is five-star quality.

Yet it feels as if characters are assigned problems to represent – so that we come close to ticking off a plan of action. It’s not that any of the scenes are bad, more that they add up to something both confused and rigidly planned. The play loses focus and spends a long time looking for topicality and offering cheap gags. There’s a point made – that life is messy. But the vicar wants to make a claim not for mess but – nuance – and The Southbury Child lacks that very quality.

Until 27 August 2022

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Straight Line Crazy” at the Bridge Theatre

You might not think town planning is the most interesting subject for a play, but David Hare makes the most of it. Tackling the career of Robert Moses, ‘the man who built New York’, Hare elaborates themes of the state versus the individual, as well as the nature of aspiration and ambition, in this tale of parks, recreation and roads.

The history is interesting – honestly – but the key to Straight Line Crazy is character. Hare’s biography of Moses is what makes his play. And it provides a stellar role as the starchitect Moses for Ralph Fiennes.

On the side of the angels

Fiennes has the charisma to depict the maverick Moses, making him suitably magnetic as well as complex. That this is a man with a mission is an understatement. The drive to constantly build kept Moses in motion for 30 years. But his desire to improve the lot of many, by giving them access to fresh air and the countryside, is more complicated than it seems.

Using the methods of the devil

Moses stopped at little to get what he wanted. Fiennes conveys the astounding arrogance of the man convincingly. A viciousness that disregards how anybody else feels is enforced relentlessly, and the performance is suitably powerful. But, too often, Hare treats imperiousness as a joke. And the punchlines are poor.

The show is hampered by some unstable accents (even Fiennes’) and too many characters are simply shadowed by the central role. Moses’ assistants (played by Samuel Barnett and Siobhán Cullen) are an effort to correct this fault but aren’t well-rounded characters.  Even Danny Webb’s crowd-pleasing Governor is only an amusing foil.

Ralph Fiennes and Danny Webb

There are more problems I’m afraid, which even Nicholas Hytner’s confident direction cannot hide. After the interval we only see more of the same. Yes, Moses faces objections to his plan of driving a road through Washington Square Park. But getting so much building done was never going to be easy. An obsession with cars starts to be questioned. And Hare highlights that the plans’ new opponents are middle class – claiming they are more organised and powerful than the big business names Moses took on earlier in his career.

The conflict is, dramatically, a repetition. We’ve seen the arrogance and determination already. Attempts to highlight the personal toll Moses’ work took arrive too late. Like the traffic on the roads Moses was obsessed with constructing, Straight Line Crazy just doesn’t go anywhere.

Until 18 June 2022

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“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