Tag Archives: Lyric Hammersmith

“A Doll’s House” from the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

Artistic director Rachel O’Riordan’s brief introduction to this chance to see her superb work online – unfortunately only for one day – was offered with “recovery and hope for the future” in mind. There’s the important call for donations, but also a reminder of theatre’s importance as a place for diversity, inclusion and seeing stories from different perspectives. Her choice of Tanika Gupta’s acclaimed version of Ibsen’s classic illustrates her point perfectly. It’s fantastic theatre.

While O’Riordan points out that the recording was for archival purposes, as opposed to broadcast, so the action is often shot from the Gods – this doesn’t detract from a show that sounds and looks great from the start – with music from Arun Ghosh and gorgeous design by Lily Arnold. And what is on offer here is very special. Gupta takes a plot from Ibsen, an urgent objection to hypocrisy and injustice, and deep psychological insight with complex characters. But transposing Ibsen’s Norway for India ruled by the Raj adds immeasurably – it’s one of the finest ‘new versions’ I’ve seen.

While Ibsen’s period setting is preserved, the extra layer of colonial and racial concerns adds power. Nora, now Niru, is married to a British official, and the prejudice she has faced, along with Indian unrest, form a backdrop for the action. Yet Gupta handles all this with a light touch that O’Riordan appreciates throughout. That’s important – some things said may shock but this would have been the characters’ everyday lives. Nuances of complicity and acceptance as much as anger at injustice are all present. Gupta is blunt about British rule, and particularly justice, but Indians are also criticised. And the patriarchy is a target, too.

If any of this sounds a little… worthy… Gupta also impresses by how exciting she makes the play. There’s a great sense of menace as “past evils and mistakes” circle around every scene. Dr Rank, the at-death’s-door depressive becomes a serious character, the flirtation with Niru queasily upsetting as well as erotic. Niru’s old friend Mrs Lahiri, who admits her jealousy, makes a great role for Tripti Tripuraneni while Das (Krogstad in Ibsen) is just as good. Das is the play’s villain, a “thoroughly nasty specimen”, but he is also a complex character as Assad Zaman adds real fire to the role.

The lead roles share Gupta’s skill with characterisation and the result is a triumph for both Elliot Cowan as Tom Helmer and Anjana Vasan as Niru.

Cowan’s character has a little too much resting on him in this version but it is still an effective disappointment to see how far he falls. His love for his wife, however misguided, convinces. Their marriage is developed with great detail. Vasan’s performance is suitably nuanced and incredibly rich: flirty, sulky, stubborn, hopeful and despairing, the common factor is an intoxicating energy. When it comes to a scene of Niru dancing, on display for Tom’s English friends so that plenty of uncomfortable connotations come to the fore, Vasan is truly riveting.

There is a strength behind Niru that is gripping. As the plot resolves, her dream of happiness is still broken and her “stern” look at Tom is fully justified: he insultingly offers her “classes” but Niru isn’t the playful pupil anymore. Moving to freedom with more resolution than Ibsen imagined, taking what’s best from her literary predecessor, Gupta gives us the ending we really want. 

Available 20 May 2020

To support visit www.lyric.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Faustus: That Damned Woman” at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

We know that Faustus, who famously sold his sold to the devil, makes for a good story. It’s been told often enough. This new version from playwright Chris Bush is a mixed bag, but it does a lot with the tale’s potential, and modern twists make the story approachable and intriguing.

Changing the gender of the protagonist is a good start. The show provides a star role for Jodie McNee who plays Johanna Faustus with gusto. She’s ready to spar with Satan as much as sign Beelzebub’s book, and sexism becomes the big evil in the play.

Part of Johanna’s motive for her diabolic bargain is to be independent – to be her own woman in 17th-century London. Cue witches, corruption and the plague. Bush sets up an entertaining story with interesting ideas.

Director Caroline Byrne does a good job creating an exciting atmosphere, handling historical flavour well. There’s strong support from Katherine Carlton, Alicia Charles and Emmanuella Cole. Line Bech’s costume design also deserves a nod.

But things start to go awry with the show’s humour – there’s a playfulness with the past that doesn’t always work. The jokes are good, but dilute the tension too much. Take Mephistopheles, the devil contracted to serve Faustus: Danny Lee Wynter does well with the wit in the role, but that wit doesn’t help the play as a whole.

A further big idea is sounder – Faustus has a plan to “save the world to shame the devil”. It’s never clear how selfish our heroine is; Bush and McNee do well to keep this question open. But, of course, doing good isn’t easy, and the show becomes more a wait to see what will go wrong. While the passion that drives Johanna has an interesting origin, her anger becomes abstract and simply isn’t hot enough.

As the action moves into the future and starts to engage with technology, this coolness increases. The play gets less surprising and at times a little silly. Messing around with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Marie Curie turns into a diversion rather than a serious point; GM foods and minds uploaded into the cloud follow too quickly. The latter is intriguing in a play obsessed with souls (a tricky topic in 2020) but needs fuller development.

“Wait” is the show’s final word. And I like the way it’s given to Johanna. But by that point it feels as if we’ve seen enough, and Bush hasn’t managed to inject any sense of peril about what might come next. An order to the devil is appropriate for this feisty Faustus – but it’s a damp squib of an end for a play that wants to be fiery.

Until 22 February 2020

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Solaris" at the Lyric Hammersmith

Reading Stanisław Lem’s science-fiction classic as preparation for this theatre trip, the book struck me as full of brilliant ideas but impossible to stage. The titular planet is as much the subject of the novel as the scientists who investigate it. Lem’s description of a global organism that (somehow) thinks, and creates giant structures from its ocean waters, has to be left to our imaginations. Adapter David Greig’s clever move is to refocus the book towards the emotional drama (incidentally, not Lem’s forte) that arises when the investigators make contact with this alien life-form.

Jade Ogugua, Polly Frame, Keegan Joyce and Fode Simbo in "Solaris"
Jade Ogugua, Polly Frame, Keegan Joyce and Fode Simbo

What goes on has plenty of dramatic potential. The scientists have “visitors”, recreations from their memories, who are loved ones long dead: the lead, Kris, is united with an old flame, Ray, while her colleagues are haunted by their mother and daughter. Greig fills out Lem’s scenario nicely but the structure he opts for feels too cinematic – Solaris has been filmed twice – and director Matthew Lutton embraces just that with too much vigour. It’s technically impressive, and Paul Jackson’s lighting design is excellent, but it isn’t just a question of taste that makes me question this filmic quality. Compare the frequent short scenes, which at first provide drama but become tiresome, with that of a drinks party for Ray (pictured above) – a fantastic addition, given time to develop, and far better suited to the stage.

Kris is the narrator in the novel, which leads to a major role performed by Polly Frame. But opening out the story means that Greig does not give her quite enough to work with. Frame shows terror and joy well but there’s little in between and she fails as any kind of sceptic. Jade Ogugua and Fode Simbo play her colleagues: as deep thinkers, the characters bring out Lem’s ideas, but the performances fail to create an emotional resonance. Kris’s visitor Rey has a much meatier role that Keegan Joyce tackles with gusto. The strange state of his almost-human character becomes as moving as it is fascinating. The best performance comes on film as Hugo Weaving establishes his character’s excitement at the scientific discovery being made.

Hugo Weaver and Polly Frame in "Solaris"
Hugo Weaver and Polly Frame

Designer Hyemi Shin keeps the novel’s 1960s sci-fi aesthetic. It’s appealing enough, although all that video tape might puzzle younger audience members, and enforces the production’s stylish appeal. But the show doesn’t engage with science quite enough. No matter how rattled by events, the characters on stage aren’t given the chance to convince us that they’re professionals. One key scene has liquid oxygen kept at the kitchen sink. I’m not sure who, apart from Heston Blumenthal, would risk that.

More seriously, the production unravels towards the end. Like the scientists who study Solaris, the book’s cult following attracts interpretations. It’s all part of the fun and Greig’s input comes with ecological fears and a touch of the Pre-Socratic Thales that highlights the theme of water. Both are interesting enough but arrive too late in the show for satisfactory exploration. The ideas form part of a truncated finale that ignores the adaptation’s strength – its emotional impact. Despite some rich investment from its whole creative team, the abbreviated conclusion means this Solaris ends up as short-change sci-fi.

Until 2 November 2019

lyric.co.uk

Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic

“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

“Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)” at the Lyric Hammersmith

This welcome return of Kneehigh’s much admired reworking of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is ripe for our times. The show is dark – recreating 18th-century villains in a world of corrupt politicians and organised crime, it pushes into pitch black territory. Politically crude and frequently rude, this is a protest piece with anarchic urgency that condemns money, power and the state of the world.

Writer Carl Grose is stark in his views of human nature, which is the key to the show’s satirical punch. The action is led by Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania, who give brilliantly overblown performances as small town mafiosos murdering their way to a mayoralty. For law and order, Giles King’s maniacal chief of police is frightening stuff, flip-flopping between bribery and blood lust. His target is Macheath, a sinister hitman in this version. Rendered cold rather than charismatic in Dominic Marsh’s sterling performance, Macheath brings the personal into politics, deciding between a life of love, a noble death or a career in crime. The result isn’t pretty. Interestingly, the sexual politics in the piece haven’t been updated as much as you might expect. Macheath’s women are still dopey for him, though the roles are performed with spice by Beverly Rudd and Angela Hardie.

Rina Fatania

Maybe the madness for Macheath is appropriate in a show that calls for a touch of chaos all around. Consider the music. All those songs promised in the title are eclectic to an extreme, and composer Charles Hazlewood’s range of references is awe inspiring. There’s a trade off with coherence – and few will enjoy all the numbers – but each song adds to the crazy appeal of the show, and the energy from Mike Shepherd’s direction, with his talented cast of actor musicians, is considerable. The detail throughout is fantastic, not just with Grose’s tongue-tying script – this is a keep-your-eyes-peeled show. With swapping suitcases and plenty of multiple roles (Georgia Frost does especially well here), you don’t want to miss a moment.

While the call for changes in society and for personal responsibility are not convincing enough in this grim vision of our state, they are depicted well through the only character we come close to caring for – Patrycja Kujawska’s Widow Goodman forms the spine of the show (and her violin playing is fantastic). It’s a shame that Punch – yes, as in Judy – gets the last word. While Sarah Wright, who led the puppetry on press night, is fantastic, Punch’s nightmarish commentary ends up overwhelming. That Punch talks most of the sense on stage is downright depressing. We’re not in that much trouble, are we?

Until 15 June and then touring until 13 July 2019

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Steve Tanner

“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

“Herons” at the Lyric Hammersmith

Featuring yet more troubled youths, playwright Simon Stephens’ 2001 play has been revised under the direction of Sean Holmes. Set one year on from a murder (details are deliberately vague) – there are bullies, broken homes and lots of lies. This is a frustratingly slippery, provocatively outrageous play. But by carefully playing with naturalism, Stephens’ unsettling world of disturbing imagery and ambiguity is brought to life.

The direction emphasises Stephens’ oddities too emphatically: think gnomic pauses and sudden shouting. But Holmes has a crisp hold on the play’s tension and it’s exciting even while you scratch your head. Hyemi Shin’s ambitious design, with its flooded stage looking great during fight scenes, is fussy, if impressive. But with the heavyhanded symbolism of a dam wall threatening to burst at a pivotal moment, the set assaults us with metaphor.

The production has, appropriately, a fledgling cast. At times all the strangeness causes problems. The school uniforms are bizarre, the behaviour outlandish. And who on earth walks around with an inflatable doll? The point is that these teenagers frequently behave like infants. Face painting and blowing bubbles one minute, swearing enough to make a sailor blush the next. Do the characters even understand how offensive they are? The play’s most troublesome scene – an anal rape with a golf club handle that’s difficult to justify – leaves the protagonists themselves in shock.
A scene from Herons by Simon Stephens @ Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. Directed by Sean Holmes. (Opening 21-01-16) ©Tristram Kenton 01/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com
Moses Adejimi, Ella McLoughlin and Billy Matthews (above) make a tight trio of bully boys, creating a choral round out of Stephens’ expletive-obsessed script. It’s a shame more wasn’t made of the writer’s lyricism. Matthews takes the lead, reminiscent of Pinkie in Brighton Rock. But, like his nature-loving victim, performed valiantly by Max Gill, extreme reactions place a barrier between characters and the audience; maybe it’s best to think of this as a fence through which we watch a human zoo?

Another bludgeoning simile – films of primates distractingly projected throughout the play – confirms the production as a nature study rather than anthropology. There’s the observation (twice) that the youngsters aren’t allowed to be children anymore but Holmes moves us a long way from social comment: the focus is that “in nature terrible things happen all the time”. It’s a questionable exercise of dubious appeal.

Until 13 February 2016

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Twisted Tales” at the Lyric Hammersmith

Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales is a selection of stories, told to a group of Haywards Heath commuters by a stranger who joins them on their journey. Skilfully adapted by Jeremy Dyson, of The League of Gentlemen fame, they mix suspense with the macabre and, as one would expect, all of them have a twist at the end.

The ensemble cast play a variety of parts as the stories change. Selina Griffiths excels in this diversity, and Trevor White, who plays The Stranger who knows all the denouements except one, is deliciously creepy.

What Dahl knew, and what this team preserves in adaptation, is that “imagination is a ferocious beast”, so it’s best to let the audience do a lot of the work themselves. The bare aesthetic of the design by Naomi Wilkinson is a highly effective element in director Polly Findlay’s atmospheric production. An expert knowledge of how suspense works creates great theatrical moments – sometimes coming from high drama, such as a bet with high stakes, at other times centred around a small domestic detail, such as drinking a cup of tea.

There is plenty of humour in the production but it might not be dark enough for some. Many of the laughs come from period details – that surely wasn’t Dahl’s intention, and it can dissipate tension. But these giggles about accents and class don’t detract from the enjoyment of the evening as a whole. If only commuting was always this entertaining.

Until 26 February 2011

www.lyric.co.uk

Photo by Alastair Muir

Written 25 January 2011 for The London Magazine