Tag Archives: Harry Hepple

“Rutherford and Son” at the National Theatre

While Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play has long been acknowledged as an important text, Polly Findlay’s new production reveals the work to be a true masterpiece. No doubt old-fashioned, being driven by a strong plot featuring excellent characters and dripping with detail, the piece contains bigger concerns that feel remarkably contemporary. The story of a tyrannical patriarch who lives for his factory at the expense of his family, the obsession with legacy and reputation may be removed from our times, but Rutherford’s business model is easily recognisable.

At the centre of the play is Rutherford himself – a mammoth role that Roger Allam takes in his stride. Allam is so good he can allow humour into the part, which is important as the sexism, snobbery and bullying are hard to swallow. And, for all the awful things Rutherford says and does, Allam manages to inject a compelling charm. It’s easy to imagine his workforce and family being devoted to him. Rutherford’s character is revealed slowly – notably he is talked about a great deal before we meet him, which gives us a complex person rather than a caricature. Given his cultivated pretence of reasonableness, you may find yourself agreeing with him more than you’d like, even when he’s at his most outrageous.

Justine Mitchell

Allum is amazing, but it’s Findlay’s triumph that, unlike Rutherford, he isn’t totally in charge. A superb supporting cast moulds the focus of the play from scene to scene. Harry Hepple and Sam Troughton play the hapless sons, a mix of timid piety and privileged bluster that’s increasingly unattractive. There’s a brilliant performance from Justine Mitchell as the daughter, Janet, who provides evidence of the cruelty brought to all the siblings’ upbringings. The outcome of her story, containing a shock and a mystery, is deeply moving. It’s in his daughter-in-law, Anjana Vasan’s Ann, quiet for so much of the play, that Rutherford meets his match, with a finale that makes ruthless bargaining a riveting drama.

Rutherford and Son could so easily be dismissed as all about repression – hence less relevant to our times. But there’s actually plenty of confrontation in the play and presenting both shows Sowerby’s genius. The characters aren’t pushovers – they wouldn’t convince if they were. Rather, quiet moments, in particular the depressing resignation the women often display, create a distinct rhythm for the piece that builds in power. Although bleak, there’s a sense of satisfaction that Rutherford is justly rewarded. Given that he’s a glass manufacturer, a profession Lizzie Clachan’s gorgeous set emphasises, the danger of throwing stones should be clear. Or maybe that’s wish fulfilment on my part? The finale has a Rutherford heir who isn’t quite the son anyone presumed. Questioning what might come next is Sowerby’s aim, highlighting motherhood makes this a play focuses on the future far more than for the past.

Until 3 August 2019


Photos by Johan Persson

“The Daughter-in-Law” at the Arcola Theatre

For fans of DH Lawrence the chance to see one of his seldom performed plays is unmissable. So everyone should fight for a ticket to this fascinating family drama of an overbearing mother and a marital breakdown. The work dates from 1913, but didn’t receive a premiere until Peter Gill’s season dedicated to the author at the Royal Court in 1967. The gap in time might be understandable, as Lawrence’s naturalism would have alienated audiences for a long time, but that this strong play isn’t a rep regular is great shame.

The script’s dialogue might daunt some companies and audience members. Faithfully replicating the speech of Lawrence’s home town of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, these are – literally – voices from another time. Expertly coached by Penny Dyer, it is to director Jack Gamble and his cast’s credit that, despite the number of colloquialisms, the action is intelligible. The accents and archaic constructions fix us firmly in a different time and place. As an act of linguistic archaeology, it’s a remarkable achievement. Oh, and the sound is also intoxicatingly beautiful.

The dialogue itself is also stunning. The sentiments may be far removed from our own time, but not a line spoken is incongruous and the piece flows marvellously, ensuring the play works as engrossing drama. The Gascoyne boys, one living at home and the other battled over by wife and mother, cut sorry figures. This is toxic masculinity from the turn of the century. It’s testament to a charismatic Matthew Biddulph, as Joe, and an impressively understated Harry Hepple, as Luther, that they hold our interest. But it’s the women – the boys’ mother, and Luther’s wife Minnie – who captivate. The men are just children, their petulance a fantastic source of tension.

Matthew Biddulph and Veronica Roberts
Matthew Biddulph and Veronica Roberts

Arguing for Lawrence as any kind of feminist is beyond my ability. His views on sexuality were too, let’s say, idiosyncratic. Gamble presents the author in all his occasionally bizarre complexity, including suggestions of domestic violence and odd views on keeping house. But there’s no doubting the power of the women as he has written them here. Veronica Roberts gives a stunning performance as mother Gascoyne, as formidable a matriarch as you could wish for. Ever sensitive to class, Lawrence writes former governess Minnie, who has married into the close family, as a shrew at first, before evolving her into a demanding, sensual character, fully realised by Ellie Nunn. A series of electric confrontations with Minnie as catalyst are written with such authenticity, and produced here with such care and attention, that the play transports us back in time.

Until 23 June 2018


Photos by Idil Sukan

“A Taste of Honey” at the National Theatre

Having started the year with a fantastic production of King Lear, the National Theatre has a second must-see show in as many months. The revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is the finest work from director Bijan Sheibani that I’ve seen. This important and influential play, as much about dreams and aspirations as any grim-up-north reality, is given its due in a deft production that subtly injects moments of fancy, revealing the rich inner lives of its poverty-stricken characters. Sheibani indicates, rather than shouts, how shocking Delaney’s 1958 play must have been when first shown.

The performances are superb. Kate O’Flynn takes the role of Jo, surely one of the most fascinating parts for a young actress (and famously written when Delaney herself was only 19). She brings out the ‘ill-starred’ schoolgirl’s mercurial quality; spotlighting her innocence, and the worldly wisdom that comes with her upbringing. While dealing with her mother’s fancy man, her own brief affair with a black sailor and then homemaking, while pregnant, with gay friend Geoffrey, O’Flynn is captivating. Meanwhile, the male supporting cast – Dean Lennox Kelly, Eric Kofi Abrefa and Harry Hepple – convince while avoiding sensationalism.

But it’s Lesley Sharp’s performance as Jo’s mother Helen that steals the show. The role is presented as hugely overblown – exaggerated; outrageous; camp in its truest meaning – and the result is remarkably rich. With eyes and hips rolling like Mae West, Sharp makes Helen sexy (something Dora Bryan, for all her skill, didn’t attempt in the 1961 film). Seen as a virile middle-aged woman, her selfishness makes more sense. And she’s funny – ferociously so. The original Broadway cast of the show had Angela Lansbury in the role, and it would be lovely if she could catch Sharp’s performance while in rehearsals for Blythe Spirit (and even better to know what she thinks of it).

Delaney’s text still startles. Poetic and provocative after all these years, it now appears more direct, and more focused, than those by her equally angry contemporaries. Delaney wrote her ground breaking ‘minority’ characters with striking maturity, and her political aims remain inspiring. While you might admire works by Arnold Wesker and John Osborne from a similar era, you fall in love with A Taste of Honey and Delaney. She should take the final bow.

Until 11 May 2014


Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 20 February 2014 for The London Magazine

“Pippin” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

As its history of transfers to the West End and Broadway demonstrates, The Menier Chocolate Factory has an enviable reputation when it comes to musical theatre. This is a team that knows what it’s doing and their new production of Pippin confirms just that. If ‘updating’ a story about the son of ninth century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne into the computer game era sounds mad, fair enough. But it works to perfection.

The 1972 piece by Stephen Schwartz, now famous for his success with Wicked, follows the eponymous hero’s quest for a meaning in life. Pippin’s efforts to lose himself in fighting, sex or politics, are presented as levels in a computer game. Along the way he is accompanied by the sinister ‘Leading Player’, constantly nodding at a metanarrative that sits happily with the new production’s conceit.

Credit goes to Director Mitch Sebastian’s confidence and determination to follow the idea through. From the zapping noises that greet the audience upon arrival, to the faces of texting monks lit up in the gloom, there’s such attention to detail you can’t help be impressed. Best of all is Sebastian’s decision to base his choreography on the original work by the legendary Bob Fosse. It is the core of the show: bold, articulate and wonderful to watch.

Using computer games to add a ‘boys own’ feel to the show allows designer Timothy Bird’s imagination to run riot with projections as witty as they are dazzling. Similarly, Jean-Marc Puissant’s crazy costumes – part Visigoth, part Tron – are something you won’t forget in a hurry. This is a sexed-up Pippin with an intelligent eye for the crass aesthetics of adolescence.

Harry Hepple’s performance as the lead is commendable. With more than a touch of self-pity Pippin’s search to stop feeling “empty and vacant” often seems indulgent but Hepple manages to retain our sympathy and his voice is great. Hepple doesn’t even get a break in the interval as he continues to play his computer game in the corridor as the audience files past. Frances Rufelle’s rendition of Spread of Little Sunshine is revelatory and there is an outstanding performance from Louise Gold as Pippin’s “still attractive” grandmother that is a genuine crowd pleaser.

Pippin is very much a musical lovers’ musical. You need to be able to laugh at lines like, “it’s better in a song”, as well as adoring catsuits and jazzhands. While Schwartz can write a good tune and a serviceable lyric, providing plenty to hum on the way home, much of Pippin is so firmly rooted in the 70s it can be painful. Unusually it is Sebastian and his cast that should get the credit, transforming a musical that could be damned with faint praise into a fantastic night out.

Until 25 February 2012


Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 8 December 2011 for The London Magazine