Tag Archives: Christopher Oram

“The Entertainer” at the Garrick Theatre

Once more stepping into the shoes of Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh is Archie Rice in this final production of his tenure at the Garrick Theatre. Branagh is more than up to the role of Rice – a brilliant fictional creation who somewhat overwhelms John Osborne’s end-of-empire themes – and gives a sterling star turn that provides value for money.

Archie is a “tatty old musical hall actor” on the wrong side of the law. He says he’s never done anything “really dishonest” but, apart from having good taste in beer, he is fairly unsavoury. Branagh doesn’t shy away from the tawdry life of a travelling player plying a dying trade, or the awful way this ageing philanderer treats his wife and neglects his children. Yet he still manages to bring out Rice’s charisma and admirable self-knowledge.

Greta Scacchi
Greta Scacchi

Joining Branagh in the limelight is Greta Scacchi as the long-suffering wife. This is a revelatory role for the actress. Leaving glamour aside, she utterly convinces as the dowdy, down-at-heel shop assistant with a drink problem in a superb performance that combines humour and depth. Then comes Archie’s father, Billy, a more successful performer in his day – a role into which Gawn Grainger injects possibly too much humour. Overall, Rob Ashford’s direction of this family drama is masterfully done.

Tightly focused scenes of tension aren’t Ashford’s only trick. Christopher Oram’s grand set (praise, too, for lighting designer Neil Austin) is all about the theatre. The drawing-room action happens as if in the green room: an effective device to show how Archie is always performing. It’s a brave move by Osborne to insert Archie’s comedy routine into family arguments (these jokes were bad even in 1957) and underscores the unfulfilled existence of ‘the entertainer’ both on and off stage.

Sophie McShera and Kenneth Branagh
Sophie McShera and Kenneth Branagh

Maybe it’s his elders being so apolitical that annoyed Osborne. Archie’s sons provide the contrast, with a tragic tale and a strong performance from Jonah Hauer-King as the next generation, who enjoy a better education but face just as precarious a future. It’s really an angry young woman, Archie’s daughter, played by Sophie McShera, who is supposed to be the key. If her anger at the Suez Crisis hasn’t stood the test of time, it reminds us that we all have political responsibilities. There may not be quite the firebrand spirit nowadays to make this play incendiary, but this fine production is still well worth seeing.

Until 12 November 2016

www.branaghtheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Photograph 51” at the Noël Coward Theatre

The promise of a film star who is just as good on stage is fulfilled in Anna Zeigler’s new play. A-lister Nicole Kidman takes the role of scientist Rosalind Franklin, who made a vital contribution to the discovery of DNA, and she doesn’t disappoint (just as she delighted critics with her first famous foray into London theatre in 1998). In this play, more about sexism than science, the characters remember the actor but not the actress in a production they attend – no one could make such an oversight here.

Kidman commands the stage, her performance as controlled as Franklin’s character and is brave enough not to try to make us like this frosty, determined woman. There are just enough perfectly placed glimpses to show a sensitive side. Equally impressively, Kidman works impeccably with fellow performers. Director Michael Grandage’s male casting is another achievement. Stephen Campbell Moore, Will Attenborough, Edward Bennett and Patrick Kennedy excel as a quartet of scientists Franklin has to deal with, while Joshua Silver is an amiable PhD student who serves as a narrator.

PHOTOGRAPH 51 by Ziegler, , writer -Anna Ziegler, Director -Michael Grandage, Set & Costume Designer - Christopher Oram, Lighting Designer - Neil Austin, The Noel Coward Theatre, London, UK, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/
Christopher Oram’s design and Neil Austin’s lighting.

Ziegler writes with ample characterisation and good dialogue. While period detail about post-war London feels sketchy, the male hostility experienced by our heroine generates outrage that makes the play fizz. Unfortunately Photograph 51 is not exactly gripping. We’ve all seen science on stage done better by Frayn, Payne and most recently Tom Morton-Smith. And yet Grandage and Kidman do a remarkable job of spicing things up, the pace is terrific and Christopher Oram’s startling design, evoking London’s ruined King’s College, uses a light-box-style floor to great effect.

One problem is that attempts to reflect the excitement of discovery are contrasted by Franklin’s methodical behaviour. And the focus is so much on how she was treated that her scientific achievements get lost. Conspiracies against Franklin, with an eye to historical accuracy, have to be muted: Crick and Watson, who ‘won’ the DNA race are “a couple of old rogues” rather than anything more sinister. Franklin is a victim of everyday sexism, which is annoying but not the stuff of high-octane drama. I’m somewhat ashamed to have never heard of Franklin, which is much of the play’s point. It’s good to have my ignorance corrected, but the lesson is more admirable than enjoyable.

Until 21 November 2015

www.michaelgrandagecompany.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Danton’s Death” at the National Theatre

As anyone who has attempted Hilary Mantel’s supernovel on the theme will know, revolutionary France seems to have been a fairly confusing place. All those factions and ideologies and decapitations make our current coalition government look dull. And they can be hard to follow. Fortunately, Howard Brenton’s new version of Büchner’s classic, Danton’s Death, cuts to the chase and is light on history and politics.

It is Danton the philosopher that we meet at the National Theatre. His meditations on mortality and fame just happen to have political turmoil as a background. Unfortunately, thinking and politics don’t mix well for him.

Toby Stephens plays Danton. He shouts against corruption superbly but excels when showing the mania of his complex character. Charges of libertinism seem well founded but he is so full of life and charisma that he is appealing. Stephens is magnetic whether on the soapbox, in the bedroom or in prison with his friends.

It is clear we should be following him. Anyway, the opposition are a tiresome lot. Elliot Levey’s Robespierre is a sibilant schoolboy who holds your interest but is hardly terrifying. His followers do far too much arm waving to rise above pantomime.

More disappointing than our hero’s enemies is his wife. Danton’s philandering doesn’t seem to have disturbed Madame at all. I am not sure what would fluster her, as Kirsty Bushell’s performance is so understated as to be soporific. She might be annoyed at the mess he’s going to make of his collar, but that’s about it.

Thankfully the spotlight is on Danton most of the time. And what a spotlight it is – Paule Constable’s lighting for the production is stunning, working perfectly with Christopher Oram’s cliché-free set and aiding director Michael Grandage’s clear, fast-paced production.

Danton’s death comes quickly and the props department’s stunning guillotine is truly convincing. I panicked for a moment, thinking Toby Stephens had been sacrificed for the sake of his art. That would have been a tragedy indeed – this production can’t afford to lose him.

Until 14 October 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 2 August 2010 for The London Magazine