Tag Archives: Lesley Sharp

“The End of History” at the Royal Court

Jack Thorne’s new play is a somewhat traditional affair, and far less tricky than many seen at this venue. But the Royal Court embraces all kinds of writing and, while this family drama may seem superficially simple (low stakes, even), it’s a piece of great skill that raises interesting questions and leads to fantastic performances.

The play’s focus is Sal, a left-wing school teacher who talks too much but always means well. Thorne has created an idealised figure – for all her oversharing and eccentricity it’s surely impossible not to like her. And taking what must be a dream role, the always excellent Lesley Sharp delivers every line to perfection. With the help of John Tiffany’s direction, her scenes become very funny indeed. I don’t know who, if anyone, Sharp and Thorne had in mind when working on Sal, but the character and depiction is one of great tenderness and humanity.

Sal’s husband David is just as much the firebrand, but with a crueller edge that David Morrissey handles impeccably. He’s a mix of anger and frustration, ever keen to lecture, which creates surprising tension. All the cast impresses as the play’s three acts cover three decades, but Morrissey shows us his character ageing in a profound and moving manner. And the passage of time is a triumph for Tiffany, too, as choreographed scenes between acts highlight the mundanities of family life and emotions are glimpsed as the years pass by on a calendar.

Kate O’Flynn, Sam Swainsbury and Laurie Davidson

As for the couple’s children, each character and performance is wonderfully detailed. Kate O’Flynn, Sam Swainsbury and Laurie Davidson show the nuances of their characters at different ages and the complexities of sibling rivalry. The one person who marries into the family makes a final great role for Zoe Boyle, who segues from an embarrassed guest meeting her in-laws for the first time to becoming thoroughly sick of them all. It’s notable how vulnerable all the younger characters are, arguably, in some cases, a little catastrophising. But their problems convince as well as providing plenty of laughs along the way.

Zoe Boyle

The End of History isn’t all funny. Each act contains a dramatic bombshell delivered with a deceptively light touch. In its structure and intelligence, the piece is reminiscent of David Hare’s Amy’s View, carefully refocused and with Thorne’s distinctive sense of humour. Convictions here are often a source of fun – from awkwardness to incredulity – but they are also ideas put into practice. Socialists like these are literally a dying breed, hence the title reference to Francis Fukuyama’s book. And their extreme ideas about inherited wealth may say more about our society than their logic – it certainly shocked some of my fellow theatregoers. Presenting Sal and David as figures from the past, with a fragile legacy, leads to a melancholy finale. But getting to know both, which Thorne allows us to do with such skill, gives this understated play its power.

Until 10 August 2019

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by to Johan Persson

“The Seagull” at the Lyric Hammersmith

Simon Stephens is a busy man. This week his play Heisenberg received its UK premiere and his new version of Anton Chekhov’s classic has opened. Dauntlessly tackling the 1895 piece, full of unrequited love triangles, the passion and depression in the original comes into focus. There’s no period frippery – not a samovar in sight – no agendas and the sometimes ponderous discussions of Art (capital A) feel unforced. The language is efficiently modern and startlingly down to earth: “get a grip,” says one character. Stephens has grabbed Chekhov ferociously.

There’s plenty of fresh insight and energy all around, abetted by Sean Holmes’ direction and a strong cast. The production is marked by direct addresses, admittedly not all successful, that illustrate a determination to engage the audience. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin has an indie rock star vibe (despite the classical mix in the show’s excellent soundtrack) that makes him feel modern. His unrequited love, Nina, gains a similarly contemporary touch from Adelayo Adedayo’s performance. The character is desperate for fame, fame, fatal fame. But when that dead seagull is presented by Konstantin in a plastic bag she wallops him with it: good girl! Getting in the way of their love, Nicholas Gleaves plays the writer Trigorin with a dash of aloof celebrity that aids the coherence and relevance of Stephens’ approach.

Cherrelle Skeete as Marcia
Cherrelle Skeete as Marcia

The real star of The Seagull is the actress Irina, and Lesley Sharp grasps this part magnificently. While her desperate love for Trigorin is clear, and explicitly depicted, the production calls for her comic skills and Sharp delivers. This snobby Sloane gets laughs for every “darhling” she utters. There are a lot of laughs all around in this production, with the play’s many characters each getting a turn, as desires battle with a cynical cruelty that’s surprisingly funny. Stephens has a great eye for eccentricity and the crazy things this boho crowd gets up to. As the depressed Masha, renamed Marcia with an impressive performance from Cherrelle Skeete, observes: “People are just odd.”

Humour is maintained for a long time. I suspect it might annoy some people. But we know The Seagull is a tragedy and changing key is Holmes’ biggest achievement. For the final scene, mental health issues come to the fore. We see how obsessive, in their own ways, all these characters are. A lot of anger is revealed and not just in the case of our young lovers. The delusions and detachments we’ve been laughing at become dangerous amongst such fragility and an acute sense of the toll time has taken on all. Stephens appreciates the complexity of Chekhov’s vision and has orchestrated it in a new and exciting manner.

Until 4 November 2017

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“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

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 20 February 2014 for The London Magazine