Tag Archives: Gielgud Theatre

“Sweat” at the Gielgud Theatre

After rave reviews and a sell-out run at the Donmar Warehouse, the transfer of Lynn Nottage’s play is especially welcome. A political play about blue-collar America and trade unionism isn’t your average West End fare. Brilliant performances and excellent direction count for many stars awarded by the critics. But, above all, it’s the marvellous work from an exceptional writer that makes this one of the best plays I’ve seen in an age. Oh, and it won a Pulitzer Prize.

At the heart of Sweat’s success are a series of characters that we come to know so intimately. As a trio of work friends whose jobs in a steel factory and threatened and then lost, Jessie, Cynthia and Tracey make for wonderful studies that Leanne Best, Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton all excel in. Their history established with speed, when Cynthia moves from shop floor to office door we get a moving moral dilemma brimming with conflict.

The action takes place in the women’s local bar, and the manager’s bar-room philosophy and news commentary, skilfully delivered by Stuart McQuarrie, add to the sense of a whole community, maybe the whole US. The complex picture is created with such a natural touch it seems effortless on Nottage’s part – and appreciated by director Lynette Linton – but what technique!

Let’s not be naïve. Focus on the women in the factory and ethnic minorities working in the bar could feel tokenistic. Here, it’s what it is – real life. And the characters are all the more remarkable when we come to consider how functional each role is. Each represents a response to or facet of economic meltdown. NAFTA, the rise of nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric, even self-medication and the opioid epidemic are all issues raised. And, handled with such humanity, Nottage makes them personal.

If Sweat still sounds dry, exceptional plotting makes the delivery anything but. There’s a thrilling mystery here surrounding two of the women’s sons, Jason and Chris, and a crime that occurs. Beginning with their release from prison we’re left guessing what happened, even who the victim was. With yet more tremendous performances, from Patrick Gibson and Osy Ikhile, we see a once close friendship and the disturbed characters both men have become. During the second act, Linton ratchets up the tension: who does what to whom is unexpected, the cruelty of events ripping a community further apart.

When racism rears its head, it is especially poignant as we see a friendship destroyed. Yet understanding how violence has escalated shows the play has important insights. As well as examining the systemic in society, Nottage takes into account an element of chance. Think of the characters, to various degrees, as unlucky and it’s sure to change any moral judgements you might make. Sweat ends as a challenging piece, preventing us from condemning any of its protagonists too quickly. It creates an uneasy sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’ time after time in a way only the very best theatre can.

Until 20 July 2019

www.sweattheplay.com

“Company” at the Gielgud Theatre

Marianne Elliott’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical gained great press when it was announced that the gender of the lead would be swapped. Bobby, the still-single thirty-something, pressured and puzzled by commitment, becomes Bobbie. The change adds an urgency to debates about marriage that the show explores, adding the pressure some women feel to have children. But the joyous surprise is how remarkably easy the alteration feels. If you didn’t know the piece you wouldn’t guess at any fuss. A frequent argument in theatre is resolved conclusively. And that’s just the start of this show’s many virtues.

Rosalie Craig, Alex Gaumond and Jonathan Bailey
Rosalie Craig, Alex Gaumond and Jonathan Bailey

Rosalie Craig is in the spotlight and she is brilliant. Even though she’s barely off the stage, and everyone is talking about her character, Bobbie has to take a back seat as her friends’ marriages are examined through fantastic songs. Craig achieves this with, well, grace – I can’t think of a better word. Throughout the show, and even when it comes to her big numbers, Craig brings a coolness to the role that ensures her character’s questioning is communicated. Frequently looking to the audience, exclaiming ‘Wow’ more than once, she shares the oddities she sees with us. It’s a perfect reflection of Sondheim exploring friendship and love with complexity and openness.

Patti LuPone in Company
Patti LuPone

 It’s another achievement on Elliott’s part that a star as big as LuPone fits the show so well. There’s a Broadway feel to the production that’s appropriate to the story’s location, but which surely has an eye on a transfer – it deserves one. If there’s a tiny cavil, the pace occasionally feels driven by a desire to display value for money – even if every minute is enjoyable, a couple ofscenes are drawn out. But Company is as close to flawless as anyone should care about. Bunny Christie’s design is stunning– this is a set that actually gets laughs. Rooms, outlined in neon, connect characters in the manner of a farce, while playing with scale gets more giggles. Elliott employs an Alice InWonderland motif that is no laughing matter.

With the couples watched, there isn’t a poor performance. Mel Geidroyc and Gavin Spokes are great fun as the squabbling Sarah and Harry – will karate help their relationship? While Jonathan Bailey gives a show-stopping turn as Jamie, in a panic on his wedding day. Previously Amy, his relationship with Paul (played by Alex Gaumond) is a delicious modernisation. But the biggest casting coup? The legendary Patti LuPone takes the part of the acerbic Joanne and is simply unmissable. Every line from LuPone lands. Every gesture captures the audience. And her rendition of TheLadies Who Lunch is revelatory – to make a song like that your own takes real class.

 It’s another achievement on Elliott’spart that a star as big as LuPone fits the show so well. There’s a Broadway feel to the production that’s appropriate to the story’s location, but which surely has an eye on a transfer – it deserves one. If there’s a tiny cavil, the pace occasionally feels driven by a desire to display value for money – even if every minute is enjoyable, a couple ofscenes are drawn out. But Company is as close to flawless as anyone should care about. Bunny Christie’s design is stunning– this is a set that actually gets laughs. Rooms, outlined in neon, connect characters in the manner of a farce, while playing with scale gets more giggles. Elliott employs an Alice InWonderland motif that is no laughing matter.

It isn’t just Bobbie’s gender that has changed – she is now a Millennial. There’s no crude casting as a snowflake, but one wonders if she might be infantilised? There are party games at her 35th birthday, after all. Elliott makes a point about life – now – that is subtle and topical. Credit to Sondheim’s piece, of course, so full of themes ripe for development. But it is the production that makes it hard to believe the piece is nearly 50 years old – Bobbie and her crowd always feel contemporary. For all the joys of the show, it is seeing a director use a piece with such skill and invention that makes this Elliott’s triumph.

Until 30 March 2019

www.companymusical.co.uk

Photos by Brinkhoff Mogenburg

“The Ferryman” at the Gielgud Theatre

Superstar playwright Jez Butterworth’s latest drama was a hit before it even opened: the West End transfer was announced simultaneous to its sell-out opening at the Royal Court and a new cast will soon take the show into 2018. This long harvest day’s journey into tragedy is the story of the Carney family, farmers in Northern Ireland whose connections with the IRA haunt them. This is a big family drama – and not just due to the size of the household, but because of Butterworth’s exquisite writing.

There’s a luxurious feel to the show – although this is a working-class world – created by Rob Howell’s design and director Sam Mendes, who resists the temptation to rush a single moment. Three hours is a long running time for a new play, but every minute holds you. Above all, a huge company, including some extraordinary younger performers, are awe-inspiring. It really shouldn’t be possible to have so many characters so clearly delineated by their own compelling stories.

There’s a lot of laughter in the family, a real sense of warmth, and not a few Irish stereotypes. This has been commented on by Sean O’Hagan, better qualified than myself. To be sure, there’s a lot of whisky drinking and some gags around children swearing seem cheap, if effective. But the stories told, swirling around the discovery of a murdered family member’s body, broaden the play’s themes beyond the Troubles.

Myth and history populate the play. The past preoccupies Aunt Maggie Far Away, “visiting” from her dementia, and obsesses Aunt Pat, whose brother died in the Easter Rising: two brilliant roles engendering stunning performances from Bríd Brennan and Dearbhla Molloy respectively. Meanwhile Uncle Pat has plenty of anecdotes while, with another strong performance from Des McAleer (pictured top), enforcing the play’s theme of death, which escalates with such foreboding.

Tom Glynn-Carney
Tom Glynn-Carney

There’s a point to all the marvellously crafted yarns – The Uses of Story Telling, if you’re looking for a dissertation title. The tales form a link to violence inherited by the young. A terrific scene with four youths, led with febrile energy by Tom Glynn-Carney, shows them captivated by accounts of IRA leader Mr Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and the 1981 hunger strikers. In the shadows (there’s plenty of eavesdropping in this play – stories morph into rumour and hearsay, after all) is an even younger “wean”, skilfully depicted by Rob Malone, who is driven to desperate measures.

Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly
Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly

At the heart of the play is a love triangle that leads to star performances. A repressed affair between the play’s patriarch Quinn, performed with charming assurance by Paddy Considine, and his bereaved sister-in-law Caitlin, a role Laura Donnelly articulates marvellously, leads to some of the best dialogue. Although appearing relatively late, Quinn’s wife Mary is given her due through Genevieve O’Reilly’s quiet performance. The unrequited emotions of all three create an unusual love story that thrums with excitement. As Quinn’s IRA past rears its head with a tension that would please any thriller writer, Mendes’ strengths shine. The fear of what might come next hangs over the final hour of the show. Butterworth manages to juggle all this with enviable dexterity, producing a work of complexity and popular appeal.

Until 6 January 2018

www.TheFerrymanPlay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Strangers on a train” at the Gielgud Theatre

Most people know Strangers on a train because of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film. As with the director’s earlier work, Rope, it was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Hitchcock must have been a fan, and it would be nice to think he would approve of writer Craig Walker adapting the book, rather than the movie, for the stage.

Presenting Highsmith’s take on the ‘perfect murder’, with two strangers killing for one another, thereby securing alibis and depriving investigators of motive, it’s a disturbing journey worth taking.

It’s a shame that director Robert Allan Ackerman’s production contains so many frustrations. After a bold move away from the screen, continual projections make us feel we are watching a movie and some frankly hammy music sets a period feel in the worst possible way, being both clichéd and melodramatic.

Imogen Stubbs (Elsie) in Strangers on a Train credit Brinkhoff and Mogenburg
Imogen Stubbs

The first act is taken at a disconcertingly swift pace: this is Highsmith on a high-speed train. It’s all so quick that the performances disappoint a little. Laurence Fox and Jack Huston are the strangers, Haines and Bruno, who kill an unwanted wife and a father holding back a legacy. Fox’s accent slips as he rushes the lines and there are times it is difficult to hear Huston. The possibility of homoeroticism, so potent in Highsmith’s work, is also an issue. These are remarkably sexless performances (was this a conscious decision?). Of the secondary characters, only Imogen Stubbs, who plays Bruno’s mother with a knowing nod to Blanche DuBois, giving us an impression of what Marilyn Monroe might have become, stands out.

Everything improves greatly in the second part – ironically as the steam runs out, and the pace slows. Now we have the psychological outcome of the murders, the realisation of how dangerous Bruno is and Haine’s descent into instability. Fox and Huston have the chance to show themselves as fine actors, the tension is higher and the finale surprising.

Throughout, the show looks stunning. The revolving design from Tim Goodchild is worked for all it’s worth and the impressive number of sets is remarkable. A monochrome palette is deployed, with superb costumes from Dona Granata, making the show lavish. It would have been great if the suspense matched the style. But Highsmith’s ideas and the sheer power of her storytelling go a long way and Warner has done well to bring so much of this forward.

Until 22 February 2014

Photo by Brinkhoff and Mogenburg

Written 21 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“Lend Me A Tenor: The Musical” at the Gielgud Theatre

A musical farce is a tricky thing to pull off, but Lend Me A Tenor shows us how it’s done. The book is the important thing. Based on the play by Ken Ludwig, Peter Sham’s adaptation of a star tenor’s guest performance is as simple as a farce is able to be. Confused love affairs, disguises, behind-the-scenes dramas and onstage shenanigans at a Midwestern opera house are combined with ease and plenty of laughs.

Sham’s lyrics are a model of clarity and hilarity. And if it takes guts to rhyme the name Tito with “indeed-o” then it pays off. Brad Carroll’s intelligently nostalgic score is easy on the ear. So what if you can see the mechanics? It works.

Despite the manic action (with the doors on Paul Farnsworth’s impressive set naturally getting a satisfactory amount of slamming), Ian Talbot’s direction seems effortless. With this cast, he can afford to be confident – Lend Me A Tenor has plenty of experience on stage and it really shows.

Matthew Kelly takes the role of Henry Saunders, harassed opera impresario, in his stride. Michael Matus is the star singer with a believably great voice and the kind of Italian accent you only get on stage. This team knows there is only one thing funnier than an outrageous accent… another character faking an outrageous accent. Stepping into the tenor’s shoes is Damian Humbley as mild-mannered Max, who gets the show’s big tune, ‘Be Yourself’, just as he is going onstage to masquerade as the divo.

With its female leads, Lend Me A Tenor, also excels. Maggie (Cassidy Janson) is our ingénue, and the opera’s resident diva Diana DiVane (Sophie-Louise Dann) is the “not so ingen-new”. Both are infatuated with Tito the tenor for romantic and professional reasons: Maggie wants to borrow him for a fling before she settles down, leading to the show’s romantic title tune, DiVane sees him as a kind of bridging loan to the Met and has a show-stopping ‘audition’ number. The superb Joanna Riding plays Tito’s long-suffering wife with delightful comic timing.

This cast is so strong that the performers might seem somewhat wasted; it’s an enviable position for any production to be in. But a musical needs more – that special something that critics are loath to describe as ‘heart’, and Lend Me A Tenor is such an enchanting piece that it’s clearly in credit.

Until 6 August 2011

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 1 July 2011 for The London Magazine

“Hair” at the Gielgud Theatre

Hair is an important show. It was the first rock musical, first production to feature nudity on a British stage and the first US show to give equal billing to black performers. A huge success, it came to symbolise the counter culture movement of the late 1960s. Yet while the cast sing about the dawn of the age of Aquarius many astrologer’s say it happened in 1997. Hair might be important, but is it worth reviving?

New York’s Public Theater, who have arrived in London en masse, obviously think so. The energy and conviction of this production is clear from the start and it never wavers. This in itself is intoxicating. Add all the wonderful songs, skilfully orchestrated by their composer Galt MacDermot, with strong singers and you are sure to have a great night out.

Hair isn’t going to shock anymore. Actors taking off their clothes and swearing won’t even raise eyebrows. But director Diane Paulus knows this. The nudity is handled in a tasteful, almost dismissive way. The sexual explicitness is cleverly played for laughs. What Paulus seems to have used this bawdy content for it to bring together the huge cast so that they convincingly play ‘the tribe’ that Hair is all about – there is a fantastic sense of this group as a community.

This exploration of a society is more important than the plot, which after all is thin. Claude, played by Gavin Creel, is about to be drafted. A modern day Hamlet, he finds his obligations pressing down on him as his youth comes to an end. Responsibilities weigh on him to the extent that he wants to become invisible – his particular articulation that his too solid flesh should melt. Creel is outstanding in portraying this angst and his character’s journey. That’s a big achievement given the similarly gifted performers who share the stage.

Will Swenson’s Berger has the crowd on side from the first with some inspired adlibbing. His physicality and almost animal presence make his role as the tribe’s resident stud entirely believable. (I always suspected some people did better out of free love than others and now I have proof). As a further qualification for the role he has magnificent hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming hair – which he puts to great use. It almost made me wish I still had long hair myself. And there would have been plenty of opportunities to join in. The cast are continually addressing and mingling with the audience. There is even the chance to go on stage at the end (albeit with health and safety restrictions dutiful observed). Although all this running around can seem slightly lost in the Edwardian grandeur of the Gielgud, it’s a great deal of fun and a real crowd pleaser.

What’s important about all this audience participation is that the emphasis is on sharing – the tribe want us to experience with them. This makes the evening joyous and also, as Claude’s story comes to its end, surprisingly poignant. Although contemporary events are never alluded to, the fashion in soldiers’ uniforms doesn’t change much and it must be in everyone’s mind that young Americans are still dying in battle today.

It’s easy to knock the hippies. If you aren’t a child of the baby boomers then those lauding the 60s can seem annoyingly insistent. Even if the spirit that Hair embodies so well can sometimes seem naïve, this revival serves to make us question any superiority we might slip into. Are we really more rebellious than those who broke down so much social conformism? The question becomes; how does the age of Aquarius that we live in compare to the one that was so compellingly sought.

Until 4 September 2010

Photo by Joan Marcus

Written 19 April 2010 for The London Magazine