Although Christmas 2020 is sure to be very different, theatres are trying their best for the festival season. There are pantos out there (at the National Theatre, the Palladium and the Hackney Empire) and plenty of other versions of Charles Dickens’ perennial favourite are on offer. But Nicholas Hytner’s venue always promises good value and this neat, concise version, adapted by Hytner himself, does not disappoint.
The production boats an excellent cast. Simon Russell Beale as Ebenezer Scrooge would be a must see at any time – he is excellent and takes the role as seriously as he would any Shakespearean lead. Joining him to narrate and perform all other roles are Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo, both showing a masterful physicality and excellent portfolio of accents. The trio form such a superb ensemble, it’s hard to imagine you need more performers to bring the story to the stage.
The key to the show’s success is good old-fashioned story telling. Aided by Jon Clark’s lighting design and an effective set from Rose Revitt, there’s a cosy feel of the tale unfolding. And suitably spooky touches for each of the ghosts who arrive to teach Scrooge the meaning of Christmas. The almost obligatory video design (from Luke Halls and Zakk Hein) is good but hardly necessary with story tellers this proficient.
There’s fun (and even Christmas jumpers) as Hytner’s adaptation injects plenty of humour. Figueiredo adds some lovely comic touches throughout. But the trick is to take the show seriously; Russell Beale’s Scrooge is carefully distanced from caricature. Seeing Dickens’ complex character sincerely brought to life makes a refreshing change that adds considerable drama.
Now is the time for comfort theatre and Nicholas Hytner knows it. Injecting just the right amount of nostalgia into proceedings strikes a fine balance of escapism into Christmas pasts just as the present one might not be so great.
Provided during lockdown via the National Theatre, Benedict Andrews’ acclaimed production of the Tennessee Williams classic was a big hit for the Young Vic back in 2014: don’t forget there are two places to consider donating to this week! Intense and innovative, it reflects the spirit of its author and is a strong revival of a classic.
The legendary role of Blanche DuBois, the archetypal Williams heroine – a deluded, down-at-heel former Southern Belle – makes a star role for Gillian Anderson. The issue with such an iconic part is the struggle to make her appear new, and Anderson achieves this with a fraught interpretation full of pain that focuses on alcoholism and mental health.
Blanche is charming and sexy. Anderson makes her funny, too. But she is also imperious and her arrival and stay with her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, along with a romance with their friend Mitch, is full of condescension as well as tension. Blanche’s “awful vanity”, which Anderson does not share, make her unappealing and her attraction to young boys is downright creepy. The desire for “temporary magic” doesn’t convince as it might, but Anderson still makes Blanche a heart-rending figure.
Andrews’ use of a revolving stage made the production memorable, but Magda Willi’s design is downplayed in the recording in favour of close-up shots. This is to the benefit of all, as the fine work from director and cast is, literally, clearer. This Streetcar Named Desire is presented as a real four-hander.
Vanessa Kirby’s Stella is at her best when showing sisterly concern, which she does with consistent skill. Ben Foster’s Stanley is entirely brutal, given none of the glamour sometimes associated with the role. He’s all “animal force”, which makes his final outrage against Blanche (a scene not for the faint hearted) terrifying; the predestination he claims – “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” – is chilling. Foster’s performance is stark but fits Andrews’ brutal vision. Violence pervades the show, domestic abuse is taken for granted, and even Blanche’s suitor Mitch moves from having a “sensitive look” to being a threatening presence in a brilliant performance from Corey Johnson.
Williams, like his creation Blanche, goes for “strong bold colours”, a preference literally reflected in Jon Clark’s lighting design and one that sums up Andrews’ approach. As the “evasions and ambiguities” Blanche has been living with lead to a total breakdown, there’s the suggestion that Stanley, as with every other man she has encountered, has gaslighted her. It’s a bold and enlightened way of bringing out Williams’ questions of “deliberate cruelty” that make this production even better on a second viewing.
Here’s a little idea: in times of cultural crisis, heroes are needed, and for Liberals they don’t come bigger than EM Forster. In Matthew Lopez’s play, about America but receiving its premiere in London, the Edwardian novelist appears on stage – portrayed with extraordinary skill by Paul Hilton – mentoring a group of young gay New Yorkers as they tell their stories. The clash of cultures is fun, adding a light touch to serious content that ranges far and wide. Played over two parts, with a marathon running time of nearly seven hours, perhaps the highest praise is that not a moment is wasted or uninteresting.
The Forster classic that the play is so very consciously in dialogue with is the 1910 Howards End. Lopez has characters narrating, shaping, scripting and performing events, a method that comes close to a combination of novel and play that is formally innovative and highly engaging. Action follows the book closely as sensitive artistic types (the Schlegels for Forster) come into contact with the world of commerce. Negotiating an update is full of wit. And thought provoking, too – when parallels become too forced, characters fight against what comes next. A reservation: it’s essential to know the book well to appreciate all this. The rewards include the novel’s titular abode transformed into an informal AIDS hostel – a stroke of imaginative genius that proves particularly moving.
The house is the base from which Lopez explores the inheritance in his title: the legacy of the AIDS epidemic and its relation to the gay community. History is alive and hauntingly literal for Lopez, which results in a truly stunning ending for Part One. Arguments are laid with ferocious intelligence and passion. A sense of fear about the current political climate results in inspirational calls to action – this is a play with a mission. It’s clear director Stephen Daldry is on board, treating the text with reverence: every joke is played for all its worth, each rallying speech given space. Daldry’s staging, imbuing more grandeur than the text requests, emphasises what an event the show is. Beautiful, too, bathed in a golden light by Jon Clark. Similarly, the conviction of the performances is humbling, as a strong ensemble creates a chorus of supportive friends, loved ones and artists.
One Eric Glass is the emotional heart of the piece (the lead Schlegel, if you will) and a hugely appealing creation that makes for a career-defining role for Kyle Soller, who is riveting throughout. Lopez retains the name of Henry Wilcox, transforming him into a billionaire property developer, giving the character great weight, and the performance from John Benjamin Hickey does this justice. Oh, and Vanessa Redgrave has a part, too – an extended version of the housekeeper Mrs Avery. Of course, it’s exciting to see her on stage (and a blissful nod to the Merchant Ivory film) but, no matter how small the role, it’s testament to the production that even Redgrave can’t overwhelm the play.
Lopez gets tricksy when it comes to the role of Forster’s clerk Leonard Bast. Some elements of his role are shared out, his famous umbrella threw me, and taking on some of his aspirational characteristic is Toby Darling, rendered vividly by Andrew Burnap. Playing a self-destructive writer, trying hard to win an award as the ultimate narcissist, there are plenty of laughs. Toby’s own inheritance, an abusive childhood, lingers over the play and, while Burnap handles the scenes well, they feel like a loose end. Meanwhile, the parts of Leo and his doppleganger – a wealthy actor called Adam – are both performed by Samuel H Levine. All actors play more than one role but the flipping between parts for Levine shouts his talents deafeningly.
In the novel, Leonard is pivotal to deflating authorial grandiosity. The character retains his dignity and questions the role of art. Abandoning this, Lopez takes on a pious tone. Leo’s life as a member of an underclass – a prostitute who gets involved with drugs – brings us the play’s darkest moments, coming close to misery porn. While Leo’s end is ultimately happier than Leonard’s, it feels unrealistic. And it gives rise to surprisingly crass points on inequality. An earnestness pervades the play – it’s a fault some find in Forster, too – that makes it all a touch High Table. The humour that seeks to compensate doesn’t have Forster’s bite or finesse. The dialogue, rooted in contemporary privilege, might sound as foreign to English ears as anything Edwardian – which is interesting in itself – but some scenes, surely destined for auditions, feel like contrived set pieces.
While the conversation with Forster’s novel is fascinating, a final assessment of Lopez’s play rests on what he does with his inspiration. Current political concerns, social injustices and Trump trauma are all thrown in, sometimes messily. The legacy of AIDS, so sensitively handled, engulfs the play. Connections to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America are clear, but that’s another blog! An epilogue, which doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house, is when we arrive at a fantasia and when the play becomes its most aspirational. Concerning itself with the widest of societal connections through the personal, struggling so hard to connect the prose and the poetry – in the here and now – is the biggest lesson learnt.
The usurping Duke Frederick’s court is a surveillance state in director Polly Findlay’s new production of Shakespeare’s comedy. The colourful but cumbersome office setting thankfully disappears when our heroines, Rosalind and Celia, escape the city – chairs and desks ascend, transforming into the Forest of Arden. Lizzie Clachan’s Cornelia-Parker-inspired vision is a breath-taking use of the Olivier auditorium – a design to applaud.
The forest, brilliantly lit by Jon Clark, is sinister and cold, but romance is at the heart of the show, ensured by strong performances from the young cast. Rosalie Craig is captivating as Rosalind, with an immaculate transformation into her disguise as a man, while Joe Bannister matches her in appeal as a boyish, modern Orlando. Patsy Ferran makes a strong Celia and the two women’s relationship is satisfyingly explored. All three leads are on top of Shakespeare’s comedy, making this a production of big laughs rather than the usual small smiles. Joining in, Gemma Lawrence is an energetic Phebe, Mark Benton a convivial Touchstone and there’s a superb cameo by Siobhán McSweeney as his love interest, Audrey.
Findlay has no shortage of ideas. A choir fills the forest with music and bold sound effects; Orlando Gough’s score buoys the whole show. A scene where the vast cast perform as sheep in Arran jumpers is memorable – flirting fills the flock, too. The “shade of melancholy boughs” the forest casts is probed with style but unfortunately this leaves Paul Chahidi’s Jacques making less of impact. There is also a big problem in the production’s notable lack of tension. Some suspense is sacrificed for laughs (that Orlando’s wrestling match is a Mexican one means he is never in danger) while both Dukes suffer from roles that feel truncated and a little flat. Findlay’s forest looks great and her take on the play is fresh, but journeying into these woods isn’t as interesting as it should be.