Tag Archives: Linda Bassett

“Little Wars”: a rehearsed reading

As a second lockdown begins, there’s still a chance to get close to quality theatre, even if it is online. It’s hard not to be grumpy, though. This rehearsed reading of Steven Carl McCasland’s play makes it painfully obvious how much better a staged production would be. Nonetheless, the history in the piece is interesting and the event boasts an excellent cast.

Set in the home of Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the scenario at first is a dream dinner party or, rather, soirée. Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Parker are going to pop by. There’s plenty of wit as well as friction to entertain, led by the somewhat dotty old couple who are as eccentric as they are erudite.

Little Wars quickly takes a more serious tone as a war-time spy drama. Toklas and Stein’s final guest is the brave Muriel Gardiner, who smuggles refugees out of Germany on the very night France surrenders. She’s a fascinating character, capably depicted by Sarah Solemani, so it’s a shame that the role feels like a forced foil – a too obvious moral conscience for the play. Unfortunately, McCasland’s plotting is slow, a flaw director Hannah Chissick cannot disguise, as well as heavy handed.

The superb cast adds some sophistication. Debbie Chazen makes an excellent – drunk – Dorothy Parker (tricky on stage, let alone online). Juliet Stevenson is fantastic as the steely Hellman, a role that, like a too-aloof Christie (Sophie Thompson) needs further development. The real treat comes with our hosts. Ably supported by Catherine Russell as Toklas, Linda Bassett’s performance as Stein is astonishing. Full of fury as much as fun, this “rare kind of bird” is dignified, frightening and inspiring. Bassett makes Stein’s poetry sound natural and the way her cold anger is carefully exposed is brilliant.

It’s no surprise that the evening’s conversation never lacks drama or interest. The talk is crammed with detail about the women’s lives that shows a lot of research. It’s fascinating, but McCasland does not wear his learning lightly. A bigger problem comes with efforts to expand from specific biography to broader experiences. There are highlights: a preoccupation with memory arising from Stein’s potential dementia is very moving. But the battle of ideas that McCasland tries to set up as his finale – with Christie and Hellman coming across as downright odd – falls very flat. At least there’s some fantastic acting to enjoy along the way.

Until 8 November

www.littlewars.co.uk

Photo by john Brannoch

"Escaped Alone" at the Royal Court

Sometimes the theatre seems obsessed with youth: plays about teenagers, hot new stars and valiant efforts to attract ‘new’, i.e. younger, audiences. But here’s a play that takes old age and experience seriously, while highlighting another important debate – about women in the theatre. The 77-year-old Caryl Churchill’s new play is for four older women, a brilliant piece confirming that being radical isn’t about age but about sheer skill and vision.
Escaped Alone is short, under an hour, and director James MacDonald tightly controls the duration. It’s worth paying attention to Christopher Shutt’s audio work here, with sounds and silences in the piece as carefully constructed as the impeccable script.
Despite the brevity, Churchill manages more than most playwrights. This is a buy-one-get-two-free play, mixing genres to startling effect. First a group of friends, chatting in the garden – the conversation observed to perfection and their relationships conveyed with marvellous economy – is funny, wise and topical.
Monologues interrupt, revealing the women’s current fears. These are poems on anxiety, depression and regret, each one capable of moving you to tears. Circling around the theme of loneliness, the show is explicit about the “bitter rage” we all contain.

ESCAPED ALONE by Churchill,    , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - James Macdonald, Designer - Miriam Buether, Lighting Peter Mumford, The Royal Court Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/
Linda Bassett

And then there are scenes of storytelling. Dystopian tales of earth, wind, fire and water that Churchill has wicked fun with. The outrageous scenarios bring laughs, but the abject isn’t far away. Absurd suggestions, worthy of any conspiracy fantasist, these apocalypses come close to our darkest imaginings.
Linda Bassett takes the lead in these stand-alone scenes, so she excels among an amazing cast. She’s joined by Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson, who each seem incapable of putting a foot wrong, and it’s hard to imagine another ensemble this strong.
The production marks a stellar beginning to the Royal Court’s anniversary year. The venue’s tagline, ‘sixty years young’, feels appropriate for Churchill’s fresh work. Settling into the home of previous career triumphs, Escaped Alone is just as experimental and challenging, bold both structurally and thematically. Forget those angry young men… it’s time for these wise old women.
Until 12 March 2016
www.royalcourttheatre.com
Photos by Johan Persson

"Visitors" at the Bush Theatre

After an acclaimed run at the Arcola earlier this year, Barney Norris’ Visitors is now playing at the Bush Theatre. Impeccably directed by Alice Hamilton, the story of elderly couple Arthur and Edie, she sliding into dementia, is finely written and superbly acted. It’s hard to believe this is Norris’ first full-length play, it’s so accomplished: a moving family drama full of excellent observation and real heart. The subject matter is difficult, but the play so infused with gentle humour and poetic wisdom that it’s a delight to watch and an inspiring experience.
Two younger characters, the couple’s son, Stephen, and Kate, a recent graduate employed as a carer, serve as entry points for all ages in the audience. It’s clear that Norris aims to examine not just the afflictions of old age, but also how memory links to identity, and the importance of the choices we make throughout life. Stephen’s poor jokes show how spot on the humour in the show really is and, while his mid-life crisis might be a touch predictable, Simon Muller does well in the role. Eleanor Wild is superb as the young Kate, ostensibly the visitor of the title, an intriguing and carefully drawn figure.
The elderly couple is an often uncomfortable memento mori for the younger characters. With little action in Visitors, the play reminded me, somewhat fancifully, of a Dutch still life painting; something demanding careful attention and worth treasuring. Arthur and Edie are in no way clichéd and never patronised. Robin Soanes is utterly believable as the elderly farmer Arthur and Linda Bassett’s performance one of the best I’ve seen this year. Bassett makes good lines great with assured comic touches. As Edie’s observations on life, though obscured by her illness, become increasingly poignant, each line she delivers becomes all the more memorable.
Until 10 January 2015
www.bushtheatre.co.uk
Photo by Mark Douet

"Roots" at the Donmar Warehouse

As you might expect, there is a kitchen sink in Arnold Wesker’s 1958 work Roots. But, for all the washing up, the play really revolves around cooking. It starts with some liver, followed by ice cream, as Beatie comes home to her Norfolk village for a holiday. Jessica Raine instantly establishes Beatie – and her own acting skills – as something exceptional. Inspired by the socialist ideals she has been exposed to from her activist fiance Ronnie, she’s a “whirlwind” to her family. Insisting that they start to think and talk like her, she is a harsh, albeit endearing judge.
Next Beatie makes a cake. It’s Ronnie’s recipe. Her formidable mother is busy cooking something else while being lectured to and made to listen to classical music. The preparations are for Ronnie’s visit, an encounter that Beatie is justifiably anxious about. Linda Bassett shines in the role of Mrs Bryant, bringing much humour to the play and almost threatening to make the focus two women rather one (probably not Wesker’s intention), so fine is her performance.
By the final scene, there has been more food (and a bath in between), including a family feast with a trifle to take seriously, and all are assembled for Ronnie’s arrival. There’s a sense we have over indulged. Director James Macdonald’s production is meticulous and, with the help of designer Hildegard Bechtler, the detail approaches fetishism. The observation of rural working-class life is slow but captivating, and concentrated performances from the large ensemble that make up Beatie’s family are similarly precise and of the highest quality.
As well as being slightly bloated, Wesker’s examination of socialist ideas is a little past its sell-by date. Thankfully, there is also Beatie’s journey of self-discovery, and this is all together more satisfying. Raine’s depiction of Beatie’s development is thorough and gratifying, giving her the passion for life that Wesker writes so well about. As she gets down from Ronnie’s soapbox, admittedly on to one of her own, you start to really listen to her, and one leaves feeling that the end is her delicious new beginning.
Until 30 November 2013
www.donmarwarehouse.com
Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
Written 10 October 2013 for The London Magazine