Tag Archives: Michael Longhurst

“Constellations” at the Vaudeville Theatre

I’ve loved Nick Payne’s play for a long time – since its première upstairs at the Royal Court in 2012. This exceptional two-hander, using the idea of multiverses from theoretical physics, presents diverse possibilities within one relationship. Deservedly a huge hit, Constellations is a must-see that is getting better with age. I wonder in what universe we can start calling it a modern masterpiece?

With this revival of Michael Longhurst’s production, also seen in the West End and on tour, the headline news is that four groups of performers will tackle the fantastic roles. Take your pick from Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, or Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd. The exciting possibilities reflect the different outcomes within the text – a very smart idea.

A fourth option intrigued me more than the other talented combinations – Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey. Constellations wasn’t written with a gay couple in mind. Would the play or text change? As it happens, tweaks are minimal and the play isn’t altered a jot: it’s just as funny and moving as before. And both performers have taken every advantage of the opportunities within Payne’s script.

It’s not quite fair to say that Tovey supplies the laughs and Omari the tears. The roles point towards this, but both performers embrace the short scenes with different outcomes and swiftly altering emotions that the play features. But Tovey’s comedy skills really are excellent – there are proper belly laughs in the play. And Omari is heart-breaking as Payne develops his theme of mortality with fantastic skill.

The text isn’t just rewarding for performers. If you’re new to it Constellationswill stay with you a long time. Pulling out universals from the multiverses we encounter makes for powerful stuff. Or, appropriately enough, if you have seen the play before, your reactions might change. For me, Longhurst brings home how clear Payne’s text is: for complex ideas about science and free will the exposition is excellent. And maybe it’s my own age, but the play is much more moving than I recall. 

While I remember being moved to tears all those years ago, I cried even more this time around. And I wasn’t alone. A sell-out show with no social distancing, the production received a fantastic reception from the audience. A keenness to talk as soon as the lights come up is, like the show itself, a thrill to experience. Nearly ten years on, there’s still a fantastic buzz about – in my universe anyway – this modern masterpiece.

Until 12 September 2021

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Blindness” at the Donmar Warehouse

All hail Michael Longhurst and his Covent Garden venue for staging a show during the lockdown. Not a performance exactly – the description is a ‘sound installation’ – as it is a recording of Juliet Stevenson that the audience listens to through those fancy headsets. It’s still a chance to get back into a theatre. That, alone, is worth applauding.

Simon Stephens’ adaptation of José Saramago’s novel is close to home – it’s about an epidemic, albeit one where the population suddenly goes blind. But there’s still escapism and entertainment in the far-fetched story. It’s exciting at first – a tale of the unexpected with creepy touches that Stevenson narrates exquisitely.

Close your eyes…

…for a bit of plot spoiler. As the disease becomes rife, Stevenson moves from being the storyteller to a doctor’s wife, who joins him in suitably gothic quarantine, pretending to be afflicted herself. Too quickly, Blindness becomes too generic. The script is well constructed and full of strong imagery. As with the last motif of the play, Saramago’s writing has a certain grace. And it is always impeccably directed by Walter Meierjohann. But it is not original. This is a very standard sci-fi societal breakdown: surely such views convince less and less? The only surprises come from not encountering familiar tropes; why isn’t the one woman immune investigated and what about those who are already blind?

You can open them again…

Few would be thrilled to go to the theatre for a radio play. OK, maybe I am desperate enough. But, with sound design from Ben and Max Ringham and the sculptural work from lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, this piece comes closer to immersive than many that aim for that label. 

Along with a sense of excitement from the solicitous staff, there’s also the irreplaceable connection of watching as part of an audience. With the hope that none of this talented team is offended, my highlight came at the end, catching the eye of another theatregoer who, like me, wondered if we should clap. Yes, we can, and yes, we did – deservedly so.

Until 22 August 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

“Amadeus” from NTLive

Although mediocrity is mentioned many times in Peter Schaffer’s play, it is not a word to describe the playwright’s masterpiece. The battle between the average composer Antonio Salieri and the divinely gifted Mozart makes for a great combination of drama and history with big ideas around posterity and religion.

This production, energetically directed by Michael Longhurst, dates from 2017. It is notable for the inclusion of the Southbank Sinfonia (which you can also donate to). The musicians move around the stage and interact with the cast as a sense of theatrical complicity – an intelligent response to the text – is carefully nurtured. 

There’s a superb leading performance from Lucian Msamati as Salieri, who conveys the character’s sense of arrogance and pain, always keeping the audience on side. Msamati makes the play’s theoretical (and theological) questions emotive. And he has an easy comic touch. There are also strong turns from his ‘Venticelli’ – servants who bring him gossip – played by Sarah Amankwah and Hammed Animashaun. As an aside, the latter has been a lockdown revelation for me, having revisited, or caught up with, shows he has consistently excelled in.

Amadeus at the National Theatre by Marc Brenner
Amadeus at the National Theatre by Marc Brenner

That Longhurst’s achievements aren’t fully conveyed on the screen is something we should be getting used too. It is hard to appreciate just how well he uses the Olivier stage. Close-up filming has a tendency to make the show look chaotic rather than choreographed. And it is a disappointment that Adam Gillen’s performance as Mozart comes across as shrill and oddly accented: I remember being impressed when I saw him on stage. Again, he is playing for an auditorium and not a camera. 

Any quibbles reinforce what theatregoers love and miss about a life experience. With Amadeus being the final show in the season offered by the National Theatre because of Covid-19 shutting its doors, all those involved can be proud. Seeing a body of work, as the whole world has been able to do, of such diversity and quality has been awe-inspiring. NTLive has been more than welcome – it has been a real light during lockdown.

Until 22 July 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Midnight Your Time” from the Donmar Warehouse

Ensuring we don’t forget one of the West End’s smallest – and enormously prestigious – venues during dangerous times for all theatres, director Michael Longhurst presents a specially commissioned film. Written by Adam Brace, and originally penned for High Tide, it’s very good indeed. And, of course, deserving of donations.

There are many monologues about at the moment and the idea of one based on Skype calls, when a lot of work has gone online, might be the last thing most of us want. But it’s a clever idea, appropriate to the times, and the one-way messages between Judy and her daughter Helen prove engrossing, moving and entertaining.

Set in 2010, as if to remind us that isolation of one kind or another is nothing new, Brace has created an easily recognisable lead that Diana Quick performs with ease. There’s a gentle humour around this upper-middle-class well-meaning Islingtonite that makes the character a touch too naïve. But it’s fun to watch as she is “gazumped” over dinner with an Afghan refugee and makes gaffs, despite her good intentions.

Produced under lockdown conditions, which only increases my admiration, Longhurst and Quick are clearly a great team. The scenes have a nice variety, not just of costumes and times of day, but also of distinct atmospheres. Quick shows her character’s moods marvellously, from being “lighter than air” to angry and upset. There are also nice touches over her hesitancy with the technology – especially when she deletes messages that have gone too far.

Judy’s relationship with her daughter is a fraught one, and Brace and Quick unveil this with great skill. How serious an argument over Christmas was becomes clear slowly and is increasing moving. Although we never get her daughter’s side of the story, Judy’s interference in the young woman’s life would surely be a problem. But, combined with Judy’s loneliness and worries for the future, this is a neat study that raises surprising sympathy and is a great half-hour watch.

Available until the 20 May 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

"Teenage Dick" at the Donmar Warehouse

Joining a slew of strong American plays to reach London this year, the work of Mike Lew receives a British premiere under the energetic direction of Michael Longhurst. Along with its provoking title, this reimagining of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a high-school drama ends up somewhat burdened by its concept. But it is more than just a smart exercise: insisting a disabled actor plays theatre’s most famous disabled character provides a superb vehicle for Daniel Monks, who takes the title role, and brings issues surrounding disability powerfully to the fore.

So, at Rosewood High the war that student Richard Gloucester starts is one for class presidency. He’s unwittingly aided by his friend ‘Buck’ and his teacher Mrs York (great performances from Ruth Madeley and Susan Wokoma) while his rivals are football star Eddie and over-achiever Clarissa (less satisfactory roles that Callum Adams and Alice Hewkin still do well with).

Daniel Monks, Ruth Madeley, Callum Adams and Alice Hewkin in 'Teenage Dick' at the Donmar Warehouse
Daniel Monks, Ruth Madeley, Callum Adams and Alice Hewkin

Such moves are not unfamiliar (Lucy Monroe will tell you about them in the programme) and Lew manages well enough. There are some amusing references to the play, and the meta-textuality (which even the worst of this genre shows) is plentiful. Openly acknowledging Richard’s arcane language (in itself interesting and impeccably delivered) – and how it contrasts with the other characters’ speech – is fun. Trouble is, this game can get tiring quickly.

Siena Kelly and Daniel Monks in 'Teenage Dick' at the Donmar Warehouse
Siena Kelly and Daniel Monks

Thankfully, Lew knows he has to be more than just playful. Both Richard and his love interest, Anne Margaret – who it’s acknowledged deserves a play of her own – provide emotional weight as the play grows. Focusing on Anne Margaret (played brilliantly by Siena Kelly) shows Lew’s strong writing – including a particularly harrowing scene that needs a warning – and the role goes some way to grounding the play.

That Monks is hemiplegic undoubtedly makes a difference to the story we know and leads to powerful scenes of Richard dancing and debating. Disability is stated as the reason for the character’s unpopularity – a stark suggestion – and from this comes his platform to change the “order of things” in school society. Unfortunately, whether his pledge is for the better or just for power gets a little lost.

Throughout, Lew plays with our expectations of Richard the character and of people with a disability. The layering effect seems less interesting than the mix of pity, hate and fear that the contemporary teen experiences. That’s the bit we’ve not seen before, while the Shakespeare seems a distraction. Lew’s exploration is seldom subtle – but it’s frequently effective. The challenge, that the audience assumes Richard can’t be the hero – and so must be the villain – raises problems too frequently ignored.

Until 1 February 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

"The Son" at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Playwright Florian Zeller has had phenomenal success bringing his brand of smart French panache to the British stage. But this new work, another hit and this time a transfer from the Kiln Theatre, is different. With plays like The Father, Zeller experimented with perceptions of reality, while his comedy about adultery, The Truth, used twisting perspectives and audience expectations to get grown-up laughs. For The Son, Zeller abandons any tricksy touches: he presents a stripped back, almost simple, play that is a harrowing story of mental health.

The acting is irreproachable. Taking the title role, Laurie Kynaston gives a career defining portrayal as troubled teen Nicholas. Like the text, and Michael Longhurst’s direction, Kynaston shows great control. There are outbursts of anger but bad behaviour is in the background. Nicholas’ problem is an inexplicable unhappiness he simply can’t articulate and that makes it all the more frustrating and moving.

Laurie Kinston in 'The Son'
Laurie Kynaston

The adults dealing with his illness suffer too. If Zeller hadn’t already used the title previously, this piece could easily be named after Nicholas’ father, a major role that John Light excels with. As with the mother, played by Amanda Abbington, there’s a sense of panic and fear that adds tension to the play. Both parental roles, complicated by their recent divorce, are depicted with care and attention. 

Arguably the pivotal character, who has, like the audience, a little more distance from Nicholas, is his step-mother Sofia. It’s a fantastic part for Amaka Okafor who shows a woman trying to warm to the youngster, who unexpectedly ends up living with her, but who is also scared of him. The awful moment when Nicholas overhears what she thinks of him is balanced by her steely resolve not to let him babysit his new born step-brother. 

Sofia shows how Zeller has mined the psychological complexity in his scenario. The characters’ reactions aid an uncanny ability to make the most mundane questions fraught. Longhurst’s direction compliments the technique and the tension is frequently uncomfortable. If ever a play needed a trigger warning this is it, and I suppose a plot spoiling alert is needed too…

John Light, Amanda Abbington and Laurie Kynaston
John Light, Amanda Abbington and Laurie Kynaston

This is a tale of teenage suicide and in the play the outcome comes as no surprise. Given that Zeller can cover the tracks in a plot better than most this must be deliberate. That the play is so predictable adds a sense of doom from very early on. But while it seems a trivial point in this context, that doesn’t help the play dramatically. The outcome is particularly grim and some key decisions made by the adults in Nicholas’ life are, let us hope, unrealistic. Nicholas only becomes increasingly inexplicable – a fair point but one that is truly dismal. Of course Zeller doesn’t have to sugar any pill, but he also raises hope to dash it in a final scene which comes across as cruel. There’s no doubting the power of Zeller’s writing here – all the five star reviews have recognised it – but in abandoning his usual brilliance for the sake of a brutal power, a warning about the play does need to be issued.

Until 2 November 2019

www.thesonwestend.com

Photos by  Marc Brenner

"Appropriate" at the Donmar Warehouse

Newly appointed artistic director Michael Longhurst has his first big find for the Donmar with this excellent play by American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. The production is impeccably directed by Ola Ince with a precise hand which complements the depth of the script. Set over a fraught weekend, as the Lafayette siblings fight over the sale of their family home, the play looks at legacy – historical, financial and emotional – hitting on important themes. But Jacobs-Jenkins has a steely eye on the present and his touch is comic. Appropriate is a smart satire, all about behaviour far from befitting. But first of all this is a play with real belly laughs – a super strong comedy not to be missed.

The former plantation house, containing some trigger warning trash, serves as an appropriate location to consider ghosts from the past. Ince provides the spookiness suggested in the text superbly. A hint of horror amongst the comedy adds fun but is also a warning note: no matter how bad things get, a house with its own slave graveyard has seen worse. In the present, and without catastrophising – there’s plenty of that from the privileged characters – the Layfayette’s make a sorry lot. When they see a chance to profit they rush to take it. With questions of appropriation left aside. Meanwhile, the hang-ups and addictions of three generations crowd the stage. It’s quite the crisis for what used to be the elite; as we move from family drama to state of the nation play, dysfunctional is the word.

Monica Dolan, Steven Mackintosh and Edward Hogg in Appropriate
Monica Dolan, Steven Mackintosh and Edward Hogg

These “misfit disaster people” are awful enough to get a lot of laughs; prepare to gasp at what they say when their blood is up. But Jacobs-Jenkins makes sure none of them are irredeemable. There’s a reason for older brother Bo’s greed and Steven Mackintosh’s performance in the part carefully shows us a man under pressure. Meanwhile Edward Hogg, as prodigal son Frank, is appealingly offbeat – until how much of a delinquent he really was is revealed. As their partners, Jaimi Barbakoff and Tafline Steen both excel with themes of nurture and motherhood, flipping from sensible concerns to exaggerated fads. Both characters are sources of fun – sensitive, privileged and modish, they’re easy to mock – but the women can hold their own. No matter how silly or objectionable the opinions shouted by all, it’s not easy to dismiss these people

Ahead of them all is big sister Toni, both formidable and fragile. It’s the role of a lifetime for Monica Dolan who impresses with every line. Toni is “disgusting” plenty of times – rude, racist, overbearing and oversensitive. But there’s no doubt that she has borne the brunt of looking after the family and her father. Sharp as a knife and nearly always funny, with her common sense up against political correctness (always popular), Toni has the play’s most moving moments too.

Plenty of theories and trends meet the messiness of real life here, which proves emotional as well as entertaining. The characters’ pain always convinces and causes us to pause. Since everyone is selfish, it’s harder to take sides than you might think. Jacobs-Jenkins makes us laugh and leaves us thinking, as you try to work out if anyone is ever acting appropriately. And what your proper response to what you’re watching should be.

Until 5 October 2019

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Caroline, Or Change” at the Hampstead Theatre

Well done to Edward Hall for bringing this Chichester Festival production to London. Director Michael Longhurst’s modest treatment of this major musical, about racism in the American south, has an intimacy that increases its intensity. The talents of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori are awe inspiring, and this work ground breaking. The piece is sung throughout, so there’s a case for calling it an opera, but the genre doesn’t matter – this is simply something everyone should see.

Caroline, Or Change is at heart a “small domestic tragedy” about a middle-aged black maid, her children, and the family she works for. It’s a given that Sharon D Clarke would be good in the title role, but it’s a thrill to see just how great: her voice gives goose bumps and she portrays Caroline’s tough life, and harsher attitude, unflinchingly. Making Caroline heroic is interesting in itself, and seeing her through the eyes of Noah, the young boy she works for, is a brilliant device. She is not a wholly sympathetic character and Clark’s triumph is to balance the dramatic tension that results from this.

Following Caroline’s day, the washing machine, dryer, radio and bus she travels on all get songs. That might sound like Disney, but the music is for grown-ups and powerfully performed by Me’sha Bryan and Ako Mitchell, while T’Shan Williams, Sharon Rose and Carole Stennett make up a 60s-style singing trio. When allowed to keep coins Noah leaves in his laundry, Caroline’s struggles to take the child’s money. And all is played against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. So there’s change, big and small, with a heroine so poorly equipped to deal with either it becomes heart-breaking.

Kushner is a big ideas man, and there’s plenty of challenging thinking here. But these lyrics must count as some of the most extraordinary written. Along with propelling the plot, extending the family dramas and explicating historical events, the complexity of emotions expressed is remarkable. There’s wit, which makes many lines laugh out loud funny, and breath-taking imagery. Much of the text is pure poetry.

Matching Kushner’s skill with words comes the music of Jeanine Tesori. It’s a huge achievement that these lyrics never feel compromised: always clear, not a word out of place. The musical references have to be various, there’s a clash of cultures to evoke alongside a period feel. With gospel and blues comes Jewish folk music, the American anthem and Christmas carols. Weaved into all of these, with massive intelligence, are motifs for characters that provoke huge emotional impact.

Kushner and Tersori are smart and know great works require originality. Caroline, Or Change isn’t quite like anything else. It’s not just a matter of quirks – although it has delightful surprises – or contrariness. The audience goes home on a high (as it should). But Caroline’s fate is realistic, and any feelgood comes from the legacy of her children: led by her daughter Emmie, who wants to embrace the new and is given a suitably inspirational depiction by Abiona Omonua. Caroline herself can’t change. Given her life, could you? But putting such a fallible figure against dramas big and small is an important triumph of its own.

Until 21 April 2018

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Amadeus” at the National Theatre

One of several artistic greats to die in 2016, Peter Shaffer’s association with the National Theatre serves as a reminder of the institution’s nurturing role. Away from the West End, the playwright’s vision, creating ambitious works filled with myth and history, flourished. Returning to the Olivier stage for the first time since a legendary premiere in 1979, this new production of one of his best works, directed by Michael Longhurst, has the energy and originality to qualify as a fitting tribute.

There are plenty of big ideas to be voiced, about art and religion, arising from court composer Antonio Salieri’s battle against the God-given genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Longhurst’s particular skill is to make sure the play’s entertainment value is clearly heard: balancing the drama and humour. Music too, obviously, and also movement, both coming from the onstage presence of the Southbank Sinfonia. The 21 musicians’ interaction with the cast forms a commentary that is visual as well as auditory.

Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Excellent smaller roles provide a lot of laughs: praise for Tom Edden and Hugh Sachs as, respectively, the emperor Joseph II and the imperious head of the Viennese Opera. But most of the fun comes from an exuberant performance by Adam Gillen in the title role. Joined by Karla Crome as his wife Constanze, who also gives a powerful performance, Gillen has charisma and a clear connection with the audience. Mozart is presented as a spoilt rock star, complete with “vulgar” clothes including pink Dr Marten boots – just one element of Chloe Lamford’s excellent design. This Amadeus is so exaggerated he occasionally irritates, but the portrayal is consistent and makes sense.

If Gillen tips the balance of sympathies from Amadeus to the real lead of Salieri, well, those scales are weighted from the start, affording Lucian Msamati star status. From the opening scene, where he invokes a future audience and the lights in the auditorium rise, he commands attention. A deadpan tone shows comic skills while the awe and grief felt at Mozart’s achievements are convincingly passionate. Msamati has a clear control of Shaffer’s themes and plays them perfectly. Salieri may claim to be the patron saint of mediocrity, but Msamati’s performance is the antonym of that.

Until 18 March 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“They Drink It In The Congo” at the Almeida Theatre

Adam Brace’s new play looks at the troubles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and its first achievement is not to make the awful history, and terrible current conditions, overwhelming. A politically charged piece, its masterstroke is to set debate in the UK. The characters include a violent fighter against the Congolese government, performed with charisma and intelligence by Richie Campbell, and those working to help their home country, with the lead campaigner given appropriate dignity by Anna Maria Nabiyre. The point of conflict is a Congolese festival, organised by a well-meaning PR, Stef, who co-opts her former boyfriend (a great role for Richard Goulding). ‘Congo Voice’ is to be an awareness-raising, ‘non-political’ but PC-riddled arts event. Disaster, predictably but entertainingly, ensues.

Richard Goulding & Fiona Button
Richard Goulding & Fiona Button

Brace’s play is well constructed and director Michael Longhurst has done a smart job. We are in PR land with some comfortable satire and good jokes. The audience is forgiven potential ignorance surrounding the DRC and there’s a potted history to get us up to speed (thank you). Best of all is the well-written heroine; sharp as a knife, and a brilliant role that Fiona Button excels in. I fell for her totally.

Naturally things get grim. A harrowing scene, set in the Congo, is necessary if difficult to watch. And we get a flashback that fills in Stef’s story swiftly. After the interval, the incongruity of being back in party mode is a good twist, although violent threats to the festival lack tension. Better dealt with is the play’s grown up cynicism – healthy but never overpowering. Further comment comes from a chorus figure, a kind of master of ceremonies, who follows Stef around but is not seen by the characters. Sule Rimi (pictured top) cuts a dash in the role but it seems superfluous, possibly a kind of living Nkishi for those who study comparative religion?

It isn’t giving too much away to say Stef’s event doesn’t happen. The play has too realistic a tone to allow that. But there is a traditional festival of sorts: a Congolese wake for a father, an absent figure whose paternal influence mirrors Stef’s complex relationship with her own history. For his strong female roles, Brace roots his play in the universal of the family, bringing this complex work closer to its audience as well. He does what (little) a dramatist can, carefully manoeuvring the difficulties of a European commenting on Africa. There are faces and stories attached to this country now. Something to celebrate.

Until 1 October 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner