Tag Archives: Jonathan Cullen

“Noises Off” at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

The delicious irony that lies behind Michael Frayn’s classic is as effective as ever in this new revival. Taking us behind the scenes of a farce, from disastrous rehearsals to the exhaustion of a show that’s been on the road too long, actually demands great technical skill. Every deliberately forgotten line or missed cue, each slapstick move and faulty prop needs executing to perfection. Director Jeremy Herrin and his cast have the know-how and, with that in place, the audience can sit back and laugh.

Without diminishing Herrin’s achievement – as well as the coming-and-going of the farce being performed there are the backstage shenanigans going on – Frayn’s play is so perfectly written you can’t fail to get caught up in it. It’s clear from the midnight rehearsal we start at that all is not well. In Act Two, which takes us literally behind the scenes, tensions within the company come to the fore. And by the end of the show those naughty noises we can hear, from the exasperated performers, are nearly drowned out by audience laughter.

If a trick is missed, maybe Lloyd Owen could make it clearer that his character, the exasperated director of the show, is the company lothario. Likewise, the love interests – on stage the actress Brooke (Amy Morgan) and behind the scenes the stage manager Poppy (Lois Chimimba) – could benefit from more laughs from the play’s love triangle. But all the cast are incredibly hard working. For once in the theatre it pays to show the crowd that you are breaking into a sweat, and results are fantastic.

Leading the laughs are Deborah Gillett and Meera Syal as old hands Belinda and Dotty, who are full of endearing gossip. Syal flips from formidable to vulnerable as her elderly character, who has put money into the tour, has to work increasingly hard for a return. There are fantastic turns, too, from Daniel Rigby and Jonathan Cullen as two nice but dim actors who quibble about bags and boxes or questions of motivation. Every ‘love’ or ‘darling’ gets a giggle and, as affection turns into aggression, the play gets funnier and funnier.

Showing the show deteriorate as tensions mount is beautifully done – remember we’re seeing pretty much the same thing three times here! The perspective alters, of course, quite literally when we are behind the scenes, but it’s the creation of a mood by all the cast that does the work. Each scene may be manic but the characters have different paces as exhaustion and desperation sets in. Command of the piece’s tempo means that Herrin gets the final applause. Listening to his onstage counterpart, the advice is to deliver the show with plenty of “bang”. We have that, but the action never escalates into something incomprehensible. As a final accolade for Herrin and his crew, the sense of tenderness towards the theatre in Frayn’s play is clear. The commitment that the show must go on, even if that’s just for the “small crowd at the front of the back stalls”, is unquestioned. Admiration abounds for all involved with a fantastic play that’s brilliantly delivered.

Until 3 August 2019

www.lyric.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“The Mentor” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Best selling German author Daniel Kehlmann’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is urbane, witty and stylish. It works around the contrived scenario of an elderly playwright, paid by a philanthropic foundation, advising a younger writer, and is an effective conversation piece.

There are plenty of laughs around the arrogance and insecurity of the new wunderkind, Martin. You know he’s in trouble since a critic has called him the ‘‘voice of his generation’’. Daniel Weyman puts a lot of energy into the role, desperately so at times, but his mania is in keeping with the efficient direction from Laurence Boswell who employs a brisk pace that serves the comedy in the piece well.

When The Mentor takes a more serious tone, it is a hostage to fortune; as it’s observed about Martin’s play, Kehlmann’s also ends up containing neither delight nor despair. Battles about realism in the theatre are fun when smirking about shows with cement mixers in them – we’ve all been there – but when Kehlmann adds his own poetic touches they fall flat. Ideas about Art are barely established, let alone explored.

A subplot about the seduction of Martin’s wife, and the presence of the foundations administrator, are both too thin. The performances, from Naomi Frederick and Jonathan Cullen, are good. But the female character here is there only as a foil for the men; watch out for lines thrown in to bolster character. While the administrator’s decision to jack it all in and become a painter is left hanging, after initially treating his aspirations as a joke.

The evening really only works as a vehicle for Homeland and Amadeus star F Murray Abraham. As the eponymous tutor Benjamin Rubin, he gives a magnetic performance that carries the show. It’s not much of show, so maybe that’s not too hard, but it’s noticeable the energy lifts when he’s on stage. Kehlmann has written a great part here – it’s a shame the idea of Rubin’s senility isn’t explored further. But this old goat, arrogant as they come, makes good company. Although haunted by early success, Rubin has grown into taking art less seriously; a mature observation that’s the perfect lesson about this diverting, if slim, play.

Until 26 August 2017

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Simon Annand

“Love the Sinner” at the National Theatre

Playwright Drew Pautz has set himself a challenging task in writing Love the Sinner. His new play, premiering at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium, takes as its subject matter internal politics within the Anglican Communion. This is not, for many of us, the hottest of topics.

Thankfully, the play opens up rather beautifully. The debate, taking place in Africa, questions the role of religion in the modern world. The African delegates stand in contrast to their European counterparts. For them, religion is a powerful force, and they have a faith that might be commended by Kierkegaard. The church should take a stand – preservation not progress is needed. Discussions are ostensibly about the rights of homosexuals in the church and, when a volunteer at the conference has a sexual encounter with one of the hotel’s porters, Pautz begins to explore how abstract arguments impact on personal conscience.

Jonathan Cullen plays Michael, the volunteer who finds himself in a distinctly awkward post-coital conversation with a hotel staff member. Joseph, touchingly insistent on his name being remembered, is desperate and dangerous. Described subsequently as a Furie, Joseph is played by Fiston Barek with a febrile energy. Cullen, by contrast, risks being too meek to be believable.

Anxiety follows Michael back to England where, to the detriment of all, religion becomes an increasingly important part of his life. Charlotte Randle is a highlight as his wife Shelly. So obsessed with having a child that having a husband seems an annoyance, she is exasperated by the man she now lives with who, seems to just ‘sweat and pray’. As the distance between them grows, Randle crafts a moving portrayal. At work, a skilful mix of embarrassed glances and confrontations make for an amusing farce whose comedy is tempered by melancholy. And Michael’s problems have really only just begun.

Joseph finds his way to England and Michael providing a skilfully written, tense final act. Here, Scott Handy is superb as the church’s PR man who sees realism, not God, in a situation, while Ian Redford does well as the play’s liberal bishop.

What the Bishop and Michael both want is reconciliation. An agreement, at least, to disagree. Throughout the play, such a step seems impossible and, if God can’t provide it, then it is unreasonable to expect that Drew Pautz can, no matter how satisfying it would be for an audience. The effort made by Joseph to progress past the shame he is supposed to feel ultimately fails to convince. It seems inevitable that this thought-provoking play leaves us feeling unreconciled and unresolved.

Until 10 July 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 13 May 2010 for The London Magazine