Director Robin Herford’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s classic is a well-crafted and high-quality affair. Much like the play itself.
Young Greg and Ginny, who we meet first, become rapidly engaged despite his suspicions and her worries. Taking the roles, Christopher Bonwell and Lianne Harvey convince and intrigue as young things in love… if warily so. Random gifts and phone calls cause confusion.
An older married couple, Philip and Sheila, come next. The relationship is equally well observed, with long-standing power struggles exquisitely performed by Rachel Fielding and James Simmons. Philip’s affair with Ginny is the cause of her anxiety and a dilemma: she wants it over with and he doesn’t.
When the couples meet, confusion ensues and the comedy really gets going.
A slow start, then (and a pace Herford doesn’t rush), but one that builds to a farce that is original and quietly subversive. As an early Ayckbourn, from 1967, some social mores need to be recalled: confusion about Ginny’s illegitimacy isn’t going to get many laughs nowadays. But it’s still clear how bracing the satire is intended to be. And it should be noted that the two roles for women are excellent, their empathy for one another moving. Our sympathies firmly lie with the naive Greg and the long-suffering Sheila – a fact Cromwell and Fielding exploit well.
Ginny is complex and Philip a clear villain. With both roles, you might suggest Ayckbourn wants to question how funny a comedy about adultery should be? The dramatic irony, ridiculous coincidences and assumptions mount up. But these laughs have a queasy edge. After all, there are incestuous implications and an attempt at blackmail. There’s more to Relatively Speaking than meets the eye (or the genre), which makes the play fascinating as well as funny.
The West End’s smallest stage has big plans now that theatres are open again. Jermyn Street Theatre’s ‘Footprints Festival’ has drama, as well as cabaret and poetry, to enjoy in real life or online. As part of the programme, this visiting production from the Watermill Theatre affords a welcome chance for London audiences to see an already well-received show.
Lone Flyer is a fascinating biographical play about an inspirational woman – the aviation pioneer Amy Johnson. An (almost) rags-to-riches story that takes in escape from a small town, a desire for celebrity and independence, plus a tragic end that could easily move you to tears, Johnson’s life had it all and writer Ade Morris crams in the details. But the truly clever idea is that any life story is really about the people someone loves. Bringing out those other lives makes Johnson’s story bigger, more relatable and ultimately more moving.
So, the story is told well – credit to director Lucy Betts as well as Morris. First, Johnson’s childhood is seen in tandem with the trip that ended her life. Then the same fatal journey is paired with her most famous exploit, flying solo to Australia in 1930. It’s a neat device that provides tension throughout – just like that final flight, Amy’s story and success seem continually precarious.
“risks and rewards”
Adding depth to the action, Morris elaborates on the “risks and rewards” of fame and the sexism Johnson had to fight. Throughout, the pilot’s charisma is clear, and it all makes a fantastic role for Hannah Edwards, who holds attention magnetically. Is Johnson’s desire to be independent really a desire to be alone is a fascinating open question that Morris introduces carefully and balances well. If there is a short fall, the “black moods” Johnson suffered from aren’t explored enough – although they provide highlights in the performance. The scene recounting Johnson’s sister’s suicide is a magnificent one for Edwards, but a question about Johnson’s possible manic depression hangs over the show.
Fantastic as Edwards is, the pleasant surprise in Lone Flyer comes with her co-star Benedict Salter. Performing all the other roles, including some female, Salter excels. From Johnson’s father and early first love (a commitment-shy Swiss man), to the engineer who helped her, each role is a gem. And there’s the fascinating relationship with husband Jim Mollison. Is the fellow pilot a “glamourous shadow” or a man who gets as much publicity out of the affair as Johnson does? The marriage could make a play of its own.
Best of all, Salter is essential to the production’s theatricality – sure to be especially appreciated right now. Betts’ work comes into its own as we travel the world and skip back and forth in time with clarity and concision. Full of neat touches, effective lighting and sound (Johanna Town and Justin Teasdale, respectively) – the numerous scenes are so engrossing that the action (I almost made it to the end without a pun) flies by. With just a few props and a lot of imagination, Lone Flyer is the kind of show that makes you happy to be in the theatre.
It’s easy to see why this programme of short plays by Samuel Beckett is already a sell-out hit. A superb cast and direction from none other than Trevor Nunn make it a very special treat. The chance to see a famous piece – and two that deserve to be better known – makes it perfect for Beckett fans and newbies. Check out the theatre’s gala performance on the 30 January if you’re flush, or its 5@5 day tickets if you’re youthful, and here’s hoping for a transfer!
First up, the most famous piece, Krapp’s Last Tape is presented is with taut precision. As its titular hero listens to a recording he made in the past, the idea that we become very different people during the course of our lives is palpable. James Hayes takes the role and gives a performance of remarkable variety – not a nuance of Krapp’s interaction with his past voice is missed. It really is theatrical perfection.
For me, the big thrill comes next with Eh Joe, which has Niall Buggy listening to another recording, this time an imagined voice from his past. Buggy gives a tremendously focused performance – he doesn’t say a word – but his character disintegrates as his memories haunt him. In a nod to its origin as a piece for television, his face is filmed, adding to a sense of paranoia. The accusing ghost from his past is a voiceover performed by Lisa Dwan. Reminding him of affairs and failings, it becomes truly terrifying. While Joe tries “throttling the dead in his head” he also needs them – when the voices end so will his life – the past defines us and the only escape is death.
It might be a bit of a relief to end
the programme on a lighter note. While The
Old Tune continues the themes of memory and old age the tone is very
different. Buggy makes another appearance, joined by David Threlfall, as two
old acquaintances reminisce. Or at least try to… Beckett mixes up stories and
dates as the two become confused to surprisingly gentle comic effect. A melancholy
is still prevalent, and both performers effectively maintain this.
It’s not in curating the selection that
makes this a great offering from Nunn; there’s no overstating connections
between the plays and the direction shows a discipline and precision that makes
the most of the brevity of each. Working with some long-standing contributors
and clearly revelling in the intimacy of the venue, the approach to all three
matches Beckett’s own confidence and vision for them.
Howard Brenton’s long engagement with
the master playwright August Strindberg has proved thoughtful and fruitful,
with results here that are spectacular. No stranger to controversy in his own
plays, Brenton is almost contrarian in his respect for his predecessor. And
presenting Strindberg’s tale of a mistress who has an affair with her father’s
valet so simply, with no burdening concept or take on the text to push, is a
mark of confidence in the original that allows it to both shine and shock.
The direction from Tom Littler is
masterful. With some boldly slow pacing that enforces naturalism and an
impressive attention to detail, the play is gripping from the start. We first
see the aristocratic household’s cook, Kristin, about her chores and waiting on
that valet, Jean, who is also her fiancé. Establishing character through
mundane actions is one of those things they teach you are drama school isn’t
it? But I’ve seldom seen it done with more success that Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s
efforts here. Based on the smallest gestures, the character fascinates,
carefully becoming a complex and ultimately triumphant figure. Myer-Bennett’s
close study pays off marvellously.
Along the way, we have the drama of
Jean’s one-night stand with Julie. It is to Brenton’s credit that both get
equal focus, aiding the theme of class conflict that powers his version and
reflects Strindberg’s troubled relationships with women. The performances from
Charlotte Hamblin and James Sheldon are excellent as they take us through
Strindberg’s “serious game” of seduction with such precision. Sheldon works
magic with his mercurial character, hot with anger and coldly rational by
turns. And Hamblin is a true star in the title role, building Miss Julie’s
mental instability for the first half, then going all out to become frightening
and pitiful in equal measure.
Let’s not forget the importance of sexual chemistry – this is an erotic show and, as a mark of how smoothly Littler handles the twisted kinks, little skin is on show. It is also testament to the exactitude of the production that Kristin and Jean are such a believable couple: the shared cigarette or help with a bow tie become captivating touches. Their relationship raises the stakes and makes Julie’s plans for escape all the more fantastical. The mix of misandry and self-loathing from our heroine becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the small, one-room world Littler brings to life. It’s always an effort for a modern audience to appreciate the shame of a ‘fallen’ woman, so Brenton’s skill lies in showing this a play about more than sexual politics. And his triumph comes in making Miss Julie’s actions seem radical and tragic once more.
Playing in repertory with Howard
Brenton’s version of Creditors until
1 June 2019
Maud Dromgoole’s play is inspired by
the real-life story of ‘Barton’s Brood’, where a fertility clinic run by Mary
Barton, with her husband as one of very few sperm donors, resulted in the
world’s biggest family. Updating the action to the present day and imagining
efforts to reunite a complex network of siblings, some of whom don’t want to
know each other, and a couple who have already got too close, provides plenty
of plot that this short show manages to explore in surprising depth.
Thirty-one scenes are well-paced, and
director Tatty Hennessy does a good job with their variety. Despite the help of
Anna Reid’s design, which lights up characters’ names when they are on stage,
things are still confusing at times. Sorry to be a bit dim. Some scenes
are unnecessarily gnomic, playing with who’s who when the facts are already
complicated. And although the play is funny, with Dromgoole handling sensitive
issues boldly, not quite enough jokes land. Nonetheless, there’s some excellent
characterisation and the dialogue sounds fresh, if not always believable. Two
big puzzles come with the only characters not named: a registrar of births,
marriages and deaths and, bizarrely, a grieving ventriloquist. The humour here
falls flat and the motivation is a real question. Both scenes indicate an
overall lack of polish.
While the script is interesting, the
performances are superb. This is a play about a large number of people… with
only two performers! Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens take on 17 roles each –
male and female, of different ages and backgrounds (more credit to Dromgoole
for how many issues this raises) and they do so impeccably. The accents do a
lot of work, of course, but it’s hugely impressive to see some characters
really stand out. Kieran, the “lynchpin” bringing the family together, is
skilfully highlighted by Stephens, while Fielding makes a nurse who interacts
with several characters a vivid role. In one party scene, nearly everyone
appears, providing a heady theatrical moment where the play’s ambition and
execution come together in memorable style.
It’s all out for entertainment with Tom Wentworth’s take on the historic villains, Williams Burke and Hare. While facts from their 1828 trial provide some chills, the overall aim is comedy. A mix of shameless bad jokes and great theatricality, with a few songs thrown in, means the show has something for everyone.
The ‘true’ story of murderers (rather than grave robbers, as is popularly assumed) who provided corpses for the medical profession in Edinburgh piques interest, and a period feel is well conveyed. Events are presented by Dr Alexander Monro, whose rivalry to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox – Burke and Hare’s main customer – is a great source of fun. Monro has hired a couple of actors to help him tell the story and much is made of their limited numbers. In the style of The 39 Steps, they take on all the roles: the murderers, their associates and their victims. The joke is overplayed, contrived, of course… but it works. The show is funny, with some good tasteless touches, while carefully suitable for the whole family.
Wentworth has done his homework, but dissecting what makes an entertaining show with such deliberation makes this one a little cold at times. It’s the production, from director Abigail Pickard Price, that injects life: balancing a sense of improvised chaos with a script that requires great timing in a very small space, and creating a camaraderie amongst the cast that is contagious.
Personalities behind the roles are quickly established, adding real warmth, and the cast look as if they’re enjoying themselves. Alex Parry gets a special round of applause for all his swapping of roles. Hayden Wood has an amiable stage presence that’s a real asset and deals with an episode of audience participation superbly – even if you hate it when people are called on to the stage (and I do), you can’t be annoyed with him. Finally, Katy Daghorn shines playing not only Monro but the love interests for both murderers. Her accents are a hoot, while differentiating the roles shows fantastic skill. This talented trio creates the atmosphere and energises the show, making it a lively treat.
This low-key play from John MacLachlan
Gray and Eric Peterson tells the true story of a Canadian WWI pilot and makes
for a surprisingly gentle commemoration in the Great War’s anniversary year. Our
hero, Billy, is pleasingly unusual: an unwilling recruit, accident-prone yet
“gifted” and achieving a record “score” for kills. For most of the play, he is
shockingly callow. It’s really Charles Aitken’s commandingly affable
performance throughout that makes him watchable. Aitken grafts like a real
trooper and carries a heavy burden. From caddish bounder to troubled boozer
(and doubling as a couple of female parts along with way), he forces energy
into a flat script again and again.
Oliver Beamish joins as an older
Billy. Director Jimmy Walters allies the roles well, with solid work
throughout, but the Billy who looks back at his youth is wasted and simply
wallows in nostalgia. It’s with a small number of cameos that Beamish can come
into his own, injecting, possibly too much, humour into the story. The japes
around Billy’s scrapes go on too long and are repetitive, with weak jokes. The
rest of the time Beamish accompanies on the piano – this is a play with music –
but sadly the refrains are poor and the lyrics awful.
The play doesn’t get serious until after the interval – fair enough – maybe that was Billy’s personal experience. But then we get more music… and it doesn’t improve in quality. Walters highlights the play’s most interesting features – the role of Britain’s colonies in the war and the idea that the motherland likes its heroes dead – but the play itself doesn’t explore either enough. Worse still, Bishop’s “bloodthirsty” battle lust, so honestly admitted, is left unexamined. The drama and the horror of war are insufficiently evoked. In one sense, this is a useful corrective aside from the more prevalent glory-or-guts narratives of conflict. But the thrill of the kill should lead to a chill in the theatre that is conspicuous by its absence.
On the day of the London marathon, an award for endurance is deserved by director Tom Littler, the mastermind behind this revival of one-act plays by Noël Coward. Presented as three trilogies – that you can happily attend separately and in any order – the chance to see these seldom performed works classes as a Theatrical Event. With nine actors preforming 75 roles, everyone should agree it deserves those capital letters.
The groups differ from Coward’s original selection but still showcase his writing perfectly. As a comedian, Coward is seldom bettered, his plays full of wit and delicious satire driven by great observations. But we also have Coward as a writer of romance, with insight into the power and pain of love. And he’s an artist full of original ideas. Littler’s skill is to treat each text seriously, to understand the complexity of its construction, and every play benefits from this intelligence and respect. See one, or even better see all three; it’s tough to recommend a favourite but here are some highlights based on the groups as titled.
This set stars with a sparkling comedy. Suffice to say the scenario of a group of actors trying to perform as a charity committee is as funny as it sounds. Theatrical back-biting and pretentions abound and nearly every line gets a chuckle. The whole ensemble appears and shows how even their abilities are. In subsequent plays, Boadicea Ricketts and Ben Wiggins fill a variety of smaller parts, but their roles here reveal them both as strong performers.
Musical hall veterans The Red Peppers make an appearance in the second play, the roles are ably performed by Rosemary Ashe and Jeremy Rose. But the piece hasn’t dated as well – a regional variety show isn’t something many people have experienced and it’s unclear how much respect we are supposed to have for our leading couple. But what comes next is unmissable: Still Life is the play that became Brief Encounter. It’s full of familiar characters, jokes and lines. Littler brings an admirable freshness to the piece and garners superb performances from Nick Waring and Miranda Foster as the star-crossed couple who sacrifice passion for the sake of their marriages. The chemistry between the two is so fantastic that it is transporting to watch them.
Waring and Foster flex their comic skills in Ways And Means as a scheming couple down on their luck. It may be slight but it’s still pleasing. Another strong pairing comes with Ian Hallard and Sarah Crowe. First, there’s a take on Brief Encounter that’s purely for comedy with love at first sight, on the dance floor, followed by an oh-so civilised discussion about what to do next and a suitably cynical end.
The confirmation of Hallard and Crowe’s comic skills is clear, but later, in Shadow Play, they perform as a couple with marital problems that tugs at the heart strings. For all the cut-glass accents and wealthy posturing that often gets a laugh, both performers remind us that these are people we can relate to. A love gone cold and a struggle to remember happier times come together in a review of their relationship via a sleeping pill-induced dream that shows a surprisingly surreal Coward. The singing and score are startlingly contemporary. The whole piece is a revelation.
This set boasts two comedies and a fine drama. For Family Album, Coward’s target is the hypocrisy surrounding funerals. Victorian vibes through a stunning wardrobe make it a good place to mention the consistently strong work from costume designer Emily Stuart. The satire is biting and musical director Stefan Bednardczyk serves as a scene-stealing butler. Again, it’s the music Bednardczyk plays that provides the surprise, with songs serving to show snatches of memory and fleeting moods in a bold manner. There’s more comedy with Hands Across the Sea, a personal favourite, where Coward takes aim at the Britishers’ attitude to their own colonial cousins: it’s bright, snappy and eminently quotable.
As a finale, a psychiatrist is driven mad by love in another drama of infidelity that is riven with tension. Foster and Waring are paired again, and the result is explosive. Their intelligent characters are full of “clear cold sense” in a play of surprisingly raw emotion. The unexpected makes for a theme of much presented here. As with all the offerings in Tonight at 8.30,this is a humbling demonstration of Coward’s talents, produced and performed by an impeccable team.
At the risk of damning with faint praise, Lanie Robertson’s play is more informative than it is profound. But art collector Peggy Guggenheim is a great subject to learn about. Following a story of modern art, alongside events in an extraordinary life, Robertson’s collation of anecdotes and vignettes is concise and entertaining.
Peggy was one of the ‘poor’ Guggenheims – her family were millionaires, not billionaires. With the realisation that it wasn’t healthy for artists to starve, her patronage, notably during World War II, built up a collection that spotted modern masters. Taking art seriously, while being flippant about sex, she slept with many of the artists along the way. Robertson sensitively balances the anti-Semitism of the age with dark moments in Guggenheim’s personal life, and, under the direction of Austin Pendleton, Judy Rosenblatt gives a convivial performance that shows Peggy as good company. The show is a 90-minute monologue – that’s a long time for one performer – but Rosenblatt makes it seem easy.
It’s a shame the opening conceit of the audience being guests at Peggy’s home isn’t retained; the “Mio palazzo, Sui palazzo” invitation is neat. Subsequent scenes talking to her daughter off stage, or conducting negotiations about her estate over the phone, seem clumsy in comparison. It’s with the more pedestrian moments that Rosenblatt carries the piece, juggling Peggy’s loneliness and uncompromising self-knowledge with a scandalous sense of humour and an attraction to men in “baggy trousers”. There are too few moments of reflection overall but a final pianissimo moment means we leave on a high, achieving insight into an exceptional woman.
A new company, Damsel Productions, gets off to a swimming start by bringing Ruby Rae Spiegel’s play across the pond from America. Set almost entirely in a high-school locker room, two girls on a swim team plunge into topics of teenage dreams and sexuality along with a brutal, but brilliant, examination of abortion, in this intelligent coming-of-age drama.
Hannah Hauer-King directs. The tension between the friends is terrifically handled and the harrowing scene of Amy’s internet-purchased abortion appropriately difficult to watch. There’s a suspicion the play itself is funnier than Hauer-King allows: two smaller roles, well performed by Charlotte Hamblin and Dan Cohen, perhaps suffer a little from this. A gallows humour pervades the text – depressing given the characters’ ages. And, to be fair, Spiegel’s craft lies in making the jokes painfully ambivalent – it somehow feels inappropriate to laugh at these girls. With such a sensitive subject matter, the naivety here may be just too dangerous to be a funny.
Marvellous performances deal well with the subtle script. The dynamics of an intense friendship fascinate, with Aisha Fabienne Ross’ sensitive Ester winning sympathy from the start while Milly Thomas’ “not nice” Amy has her troubled personality slowly revealed. Combining a cruel humour and dash of desperation on the girls’ part, the play sums up teenage angst for a new generation. Dry Land is a dive into young lives that may give some parents nightmares but should be seen by all.