Tag Archives: Christopher Hampton

“Sunset Boulevard” from the Curve Leicester

This is a Christmas treat for theatre lovers that, thankfully, is carrying on into the new year. Director Nikolai Foster’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is produced especially for a lockdown audience and has the clever idea of using all areas of the theatre for filming. Foster gives us a great show and makes you want to visit his venue at the same time.

Like all good revivals, Foster reminds us of the show’s strengths – in particular, what a sturdy piece of musical theatre Sunset Boulevard is.

The strong story, based on the Billy Wilder film, makes a drama of a former movie star, Norma Desmond, in later life. Sophisticated lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton take us deep into the character and motives of Norma and her new beau, Joe. Lloyd Webber’s score is both adventurous and lush, and musical motifs powerfully build while stand-out songs are plentiful.

Sunset Boulevard Photography by Marc Brenner

Them there eyes

From such a firm base, Foster benefits from a fantastic cast. Both Ria Jones as Norma and Danny Mac as Joe know these roles well, and it shows. The casting (David Grindrod) is superb: Jones looks great in a turban and them there eyes are perfect for the number With One Look. Mac’s matinee idol air fits the Hollywood scenario.

Jones is angry and serious – not easy with such a camp character. Mad, sad Norma is to be pitied for her “folly” and her “scrambled brain”, but Jones provides moments of imperiousness to confirm that Norma is a figure to be reckoned with. And she provides magic. When it comes to the power of the movies and imagination, the years slip from her face, and Norma becomes an innocent ingénue.

This is Mac’s show, though. Joe is a great role, a partial narrator (think Nick Carraway) who becomes a victim: his claim to be an observer of Norma – “watching her sunset” – raises questions from the start. Mac’s mix of his character as an “uppity hack” and “stony-hearted” is balanced by moments that show an ambition for an artistic career that hasn’t, really, disappeared. And Mac’s singing is simply wonderful.

Both leads are aided by superb foils. Molly Lynch’s Betty provides a perky love interest that is intelligent and complex for Joe. Adam Pearce’s bass voice is a knockout and his role as Max Von Mayerling is developed magnificently.

Molly Lynch and Danny Mac 'backstage' Photography by Marc Brenner
Molly Lynch and Danny Mac ‘backstage’

Ready for your close up?

There’s no way to not enjoy this show or these performances. But a reservation has to be raised about the filming.

Seeing the orchestra (performing from the stalls) and camera staff at work adds an element of theatricality – nice – but the editing is sometimes manic. Points of view syncopated to the score is fair enough. But too many cuts to different cameras make it hard to appreciate the work of choreographer Lee Proud (in my experience, that’s a shame). Split screens also confuse. Graphics overlaid on to the action are just unnecessary.

Such caveats fade when considering how Foster has used his theatre. Taking the action into the auditorium works well. Setting scenes ‘back stage’ makes for great moments. Posing Joe in a bank of seats, watching events, then joining in the action is a perfect reflection of his ambiguous role. And to have Norma alone in the circle for her entrance and finale is a stroke of genius.

For a filmed show, Sunset Boulevard makes you crave to get back into a theatre in 2021. And you’ve got to love that! There’s a sense of pride in this very smart-looking venue that makes me regret never having visited it. Given other strong work, such as My Beautiful Launderette and What the Butler Saw, that Curve has shown during lockdown, a trip to Leicester might be my resolution for a sunnier 2021.

Until 9th January 2020

www.curveonline.co.uk

“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

“The Mentor” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Best selling German author Daniel Kehlmann’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is urbane, witty and stylish. It works around the contrived scenario of an elderly playwright, paid by a philanthropic foundation, advising a younger writer, and is an effective conversation piece.

There are plenty of laughs around the arrogance and insecurity of the new wunderkind, Martin. You know he’s in trouble since a critic has called him the ‘‘voice of his generation’’. Daniel Weyman puts a lot of energy into the role, desperately so at times, but his mania is in keeping with the efficient direction from Laurence Boswell who employs a brisk pace that serves the comedy in the piece well.

When The Mentor takes a more serious tone, it is a hostage to fortune; as it’s observed about Martin’s play, Kehlmann’s also ends up containing neither delight nor despair. Battles about realism in the theatre are fun when smirking about shows with cement mixers in them – we’ve all been there – but when Kehlmann adds his own poetic touches they fall flat. Ideas about Art are barely established, let alone explored.

A subplot about the seduction of Martin’s wife, and the presence of the foundations administrator, are both too thin. The performances, from Naomi Frederick and Jonathan Cullen, are good. But the female character here is there only as a foil for the men; watch out for lines thrown in to bolster character. While the administrator’s decision to jack it all in and become a painter is left hanging, after initially treating his aspirations as a joke.

The evening really only works as a vehicle for Homeland and Amadeus star F Murray Abraham. As the eponymous tutor Benjamin Rubin, he gives a magnetic performance that carries the show. It’s not much of show, so maybe that’s not too hard, but it’s noticeable the energy lifts when he’s on stage. Kehlmann has written a great part here – it’s a shame the idea of Rubin’s senility isn’t explored further. But this old goat, arrogant as they come, makes good company. Although haunted by early success, Rubin has grown into taking art less seriously; a mature observation that’s the perfect lesson about this diverting, if slim, play.

Until 26 August 2017

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Simon Annand

“The Truth” at Wyndham’s Theatre

French playwright Florian Zeller’s well-deserved success continues with this sparkling comedy of manners about adultery. As with his previous hit, The Father, Christopher Hampton adapts and the production comes from Bath, this time via the Menier Chocolate Factory. Twisting perspectives and playing with expectations, Zeller’s winning formula engages the audience in an enthralling fashion. This is edge-of-your seat comedy – as exciting as it is funny.

The staging is an austere affair – the flair comes with the writing and director Lindsay Posner keeps the action and performances taut. Four friends and their affairs, the deceit and double crossing, interrogations and revelations, are delicious. The thoughtful overtones of a play so self-consciously about lying are held in check to serve the high-quality humour.

Alexander Hanson, as Michel, gives a gleeful performance as an arch hypocrite who sees guilt as “useless” and lying as the sensitive thing to do. Hanson gets the lion’s share of the lines, followed by the mistress, a convincingly chic Frances O’Connor, her husband, who is his best friend, and the wife. The latter two, played by a wonderfully dry Robert Portal and Tanya Franks (brilliant in the final scene), may be on stage less but it’s testament to the script and cast that this play feels such a firm four-hander. The betrayed have secrets of their own (of course!), providing shocks and laughs.

The circle of lies Zeller constructs is viciously funny and satisfyingly clever. Silly slips and people trapped into telling the truth all happen in a wealthy milieu where discretion is the obsession. With lashes of Gallic sophistication only adding to the fun for a London audience, the wit and irony here is finessed to perfection.

Until 3 September 2016

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” at the Donmar Warehouse

It’s odd that Christopher Hampton’s hugely successful adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel is receiving its first West End revival since it opened back in 1986. Josie Rourke’s production provides an opportunity to see a brilliant transformation to the stage that shouldn’t be missed. Hampton’s delight in the plots of seduction, betrayal and sexual politics, along with the exquisite characters and dialogue, are blissful.

It’s a testament to the strength of this text that Rourke’s direction disappoints by not getting the maximum from it. Arch plotters Valmont and Merteuil, planning love affairs for fun and revenge, are played by Dominic West and Janet McTeer. And, it should be stressed, they are played very well indeed. West brings a forceful sexuality to the role that makes it easy to believe in his character’s success as a lothario. McTeer’s is a more layered performance, having a great deal of fun as she uses Valmont’s sex, as a weapon, against himself. McTeer is playful, a cunning coquette, but when she needs to, reveals the uncomfortable truths Laclos highlighted about the position of women in society. So where’s the problem? Very much star vehicles, West and McTeer dominate the production too much.

True, the other characters are creatures in their games, but smaller parts, especially their main victims Cécile and Madame de Tourvel, should stand out more. Morfydd Clark and Elaine Cassidy struggle to leave a mark, creating surprisingly little sympathy as their characters’ respective innocence and piety are broken. The production makes it hard to believe that Valmont finally falls in love and is uncomfortably blasé about the creepy seduction of a 15 year old.

LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES BY HAMPTON, , WRITER - CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Mark Henderson, The Donmar Warehouse, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson
Dominic West

Which indicates another problem, albeit an unusual one – the production is too funny. The deliciously wicked Valmont and Merteuil gain plenty of laughs. It’s superbly done – Valmont’s brazen hypocrisy is a delight and McTeer makes nearly every line a quotable gem of bitchy cynicism. But there’s a penalty for this, with little tension between the two of them and too little time for the play’s darker overtones. Nearly all end badly but, rather than tense, the evening is simply deflating. Though much of the production is brilliantly done, these liaisons aren’t really dangerous enough.

Until 13 February 2016

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Father” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Florian Zeller’s prize-winning play from France is a superbly performed, structurally interesting piece that explores senile dementia in a manner that’s both smart and stimulating.

Setting much of the action from the perspective of the elderly Andre is a masterstroke and makes the most of theatre’s immediacy – this is a play that couldn’t work in any other medium. As characters and furniture come and go, we share Andre’s confusion and paranoia. Who owns this house and who are these people? Despite little plot, Zeller’s piece is as tense as a thriller.

Translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by James Macdonald with fitting precision, the script is admirably sparse and controlled. There’s no indulgence here and, although you’ll probably leave in tears, there’s laughter, too, along with a frightening assessment of how annoying ageing relatives can be.

Kenneth Cranham is magnetic in the lead role, charming, amusing and imposing, often angry and ultimately heart-wrenchingly frightened. But, like his daughter, struggling to care for him and lead her own life, played marvellously by Claire Skinner, Cranham makes the most of understatement. This isn’t King Lear. These are unquestionably real people dealing with an increasingly common situation. The Father derives considerable power from its topicality, along with its sincere emotional realism. It’s all brave medicine delivered in well-measured doses.

Until 21 November 2015

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photos by Simon Annand

“Stephen Ward” at the Aldwych Theatre

Let’s face it, Stephen Ward is a terrible name for a show and, given that its eponymous subject ends shamed and committing suicide, it’s also an unlikely topic for a West End musical. But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new work deserves the kind words received from critics. An adult affair, looking at the 60s Profumo scandal, the focus is on hypocrisy and injustice – on how revenge was meted out to Ward by the upper classes he once counted as friends.

The show’s credentials are impeccable. Lloyd Webber’s score lives up to his reputation and the book and lyrics are provided by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. This is a complicated story presented in exemplary fashion, with startlingly confident lyrics and efficient directing by Trevor Nunn.

The show rests on the lead and Alexander Hanson is terrific at conveying the complexity of this “man of many parts”. And Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge (above with Hanson) depict the more famous stars of the real-life drama, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, with depth. Secondary characters also satisfy: Anthony Calf is perfect as Ward’s fair-weather friend Lord Astor and there’s a tremendous turn from Joanna Riding as Profumo’s wife. It’s a lovely twist to see the betrayed minister’s spouse get to have her say.

The show isn’t perfect – rousing emotion has to wait until the end (Hanson again delivers) and this seems too late. Attempts at humour when it comes to both Keeler’s Russian lover and the police who frame Ward on a trumped-up charge are frankly embarrassing.

Stephen Ward has a quiet ambition. A concise, penetrating view of British culture, it scores many a hit. The scene of an upper-class orgy may raise eyebrows amongst Lloyd Webber fans but, sensibly, it doesn’t try to shock. There may be some Coco de Mer style accessories on sale in the foyer (a riding crop and silk blindfold) but humour is used well here. Another highlight is a song for The News of the World journalists, set to twist Keeler’s kiss and tell story, demanding she “give us something juicy”. Keller’s lyrics go further than the hacks are willing to print, but Lloyd Webber and his team don’t shy away from the explicit – even crudity is used intelligently in this smart work.

Until 1 March 2014

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 23 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“Judgement Day” at the Almeida Theatre

Odon von Horvath is probably only a household name at Christopher Hampton’s residence. The renowned playwright and translator clearly thinks that this should change. Having translated Von Horvath in the past and made him a character in his own play, Tales from the Vienna Woods, the Almeida now performs Hampton’s translation of a late work entitled Judgement Day.

The work is, on the face of things, a simple morality tale. An unhappy railway stationmaster, distracted for moment by a pretty girl, is the cause of a disastrous accident.  Perjuring himself in court to escape punishment, the stationmaster becomes a local celebrity while his jealous wife, who states the truth, is made a pariah.  Coming to terms with his deceit has further, deadly consequences.

With a large cast that includes a flirtatious girl, her dimwitted boyfriend, the dutiful stationmaster, the spurned wife and malicious old gossips, all living in a small village, we might feel we are approaching twee territory.  However, these people have real passion and are portrayed realistically, so much so that even a supernatural presence in the final scene demands credence.

The script is fast moving and thought provoking.  Miriam Buether’s clever revolving stage serves as both platform and railway line. Furthermore, the cast is uniformly superb.  Notable is Laura Donnelly as Anna, the young girl confident in, and confused by, her sexual allure.  Tom Georgeson is highly effective as her blustering and devoted father.

The moral dilemma in the play suffices, but those who wish to can get their teeth into the thornier issue of how the play fits into its historical context.  Von Horvath fled Germany late in the day. Although not popular with authorities, he was around to observe National Socialism up until 1937.  The station master’s obsession with following orders can easily be seen as a comment on a society the author saw as increasingly incapable of thinking for itself.

Until 17 October 2009

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Keith Patterson

Written 13 September 2009 for The London Magazine