Tag Archives: Martins Imhangbe

“Dear Elizabeth” at Theatro Technis

Theatregoers get used to professionalism and perfection. This blog is full of questions about choices and quibbles about generally (very) good shows. So the idea of a production with the cast coming cold to the script – with different performers every night – has a peculiar appeal. A deliberate move away from polish is novel and oddly exciting.

Visiting North London from the Gate Theatre, Dear Elizabeth is a presentation of letters between American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It is love story, of sorts, that takes the decades and complexities of an original romance in its stride. But the performers don’t know what the letters contain or what the ending will be. The result is a sense of adventure – and fun.

Game for the challenge the night I attended were performers Martins Imhangbe and Roberta Livingston. The run will pair an established actor with a recent graduate – a nice idea. But I suspect the readings will generally remind those of us who hate the idea of speaking aloud that actors – through their training – are a different breed! Imhangbe and Livingston were both assured and charismatic, and showing how much they were enjoying themselves proved contagious. Receiving packages of letters – including instructions – and props throughout, they always had the audience on their side.

Of course, there were more stumbles over words than usual. But with beautiful speaking voices and some magical ability to inject emotion into phrases off the bat, we almost need reminding that Imhangbe and Livingston hadn’t seen the text before. And here is where the skill behind the show comes in – that spontaneity is cleverly controlled.

Only the cast is unprepared! The carefully constructed script by Sarah Ruhl bring us close to the poets’ lives and love affairs with ease. All kinds of topics – focusing on health and work – are skilfully covered, providing considerable insight. And Ruhl has a careful eye on the ethical implications of her project with a brilliant section that has Bishop criticising Lowell for using another person’s biography in his art. 

Director Ellen McDougall, with the aid of designers Moi Tran, Jessica Hung Han Yun and Jon Nicholls (set, lighting and sound, respectively) retains a surprising degree of control. Paying special attention to the pace of the performance, factoring in time for the actors to work out what the hell they do next, without pausing the action, is brilliantly done. 

The performers and audience are together in taking cues at the same time – the music and lighting point us towards responses simultaneously. The concept behind Dear Elizabeth only goes part of the way to ensure the evening is a success. But making theatre so immediate – so in the moment – is especially timely after we’ve missed the stage for so long. The show also reminds us how varied the talents behind any production are. And I hope all involved take this blog as a kind of thank-you letter.

Until 18 September 2021

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

“Absolute Hell” at the National Theatre

It’s a brave actress who takes on a role made famous by Judi Dench but as Christine, the alcoholic autophobic landlady of Rodney Ackland’s play, Kate Fleetwood brings her usual consummate skill to the job. Like her club, which remained open throughout the Blitz, Christine is falling apart just as World War II ends and most people are starting life again. Acclaim should be shared with Charles Edwards as Hugh, a too-regular-regular and once promising author who remains sympathetic despite his scrounging and whining. The couple’s love lives and drunken desperation power the play into a dark territory that makes this a fascinating piece.

Charles Edwards and Jonathan Slinger
Charles Edwards and Jonathan Slinger

The members of La Vie En Rose club create the kind of ensemble show the National Theatre excels in, and the size of the cast alone is impressive. Sinéad Matthews does well as the louche Elizabeth, carrying on an affair in front of her long-term partner Siegfried (Danny Webb), while Jonathan Slinger’s gloriously camp film director Maurice Hussey attempts to live up to his name. If Martins Imhangbe doesn’t quite convince as the object of all affections, the fault lies with the writer – the earnest GI’s sincerity has no place amongst all this narcissism and nastiness. Which isn’t to say you won’t enjoy watching the club’s habitués: there’s a strong collection of comic cameos, including Liza Sadovy as an heiress dubbed The Treacle Queen, and Lloyd Hutchinson’s mad artist.

Everyone is escaping, and it’s a theme Ackland is less than subtle with. The play’s first incarnation was in the 1950s and overtones of Existentialism overpower it. Director Joe Hill-Gibbons decides not to restrain the piece and excesses occur, including poor Rachel Dale as local prostitute Fifi forced to walk around the stage all night – surely a little too literal? Lizzie Clachan’s set design does not serve the play well. There’s a lot of coming and going here and using the whole of the Lyttleton stage as well as giving the club three flights of stairs makes it all rather exhausting to watch.

Both play and production make up for problems with the humour on offer. Above all, it’s startlingly original. This cruel look at war-time Britain isn’t the kind of thing we are used to – no wonder it shocked so soon after the events depicted. As a satirist, Ackland is a harsh master. As insult and faux pas fly, characters become increasingly diminished in the audience’s eyes. Is there anyone to root for here? There are certainly no failings that aren’t ruthlessly exposed. The humour is out-and-out biting, vicious and extreme. And, by delivering absolutes, the play becomes heaven rather than hell.

Until 16 June 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson