In his 84th year, Alan Bennett has written his most topical and overtly political play yet. Set on a geriatric ward, this is a heartfelt appeal for the NHS in its anniversary year and a play that is as challenging as it is amusing. Using the term youthful as praise seems inappropriate, but the piece feels fresh and bold regardless of the average age of its cast and creatives.
Allelujah! is full of songs and fun. With a massive cast, of mainly elderly characters, there is a sense of studies rather than fully fledged personalities. The experienced ensemble does well and is always entertaining, but it is great lines rather than roles that allow the likes of Gwen Taylor and Jeff Rawle to shine. Bennett adds life by injecting frank remarks and some swearing. It’s a simple but effective move.
When it comes to those running the hospital, conditions improve. There’s still some flab and flat parts – Bennett’s long-time director Nicholas Hytner could have been stricter. But from the hospital’s incompetent chairman, an excellent performance from Peter Forbes, and the stalwart Sister Gilchrist, a role that Deborah Findlay is superb in, Bennett points out systemic problems and gives them dramatic impact.
Samuel Barnett plays another villain, a management consultant, and is joined by fellow former History Boy Sacha Dhawan as the appealing Dr Valentine. The pair are polar opposites – indeed a story about migration feels a touch tagged on – but both do well to make Bennett’s blunt approach work. By the time we get to the plot twist, the whole atmosphere is appropriately spirited – nothing exercises emotions like the NHS.
The sensational storyline might be criticised in a younger writer. Given his pedigree, it seems safe to say that Bennett is aware of any potential drawbacks. Throwing a lot of subtlety to the wind, he joins the often reviled group of angry old men. And good for him. Allelujah! becomes hectoring towards the end; the patients’ patriotic singalong seems jolly enough, but there is little hope or glory around. Yet the anger here is salutary, Bennett wants to shake us up and, as a result, his play is a surprise.
This lavish production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical is a triumph for director Dominic Cooke. This is a piece that divides opinion. While its songs have gained fame, the rambling story of past lives, set around a reunion of former Broadway performers, has too slender a book by James Goldman. But in Cooke’s hands this feast of melancholic nostalgia is coherent and compelling. With no small help from the Olivier’s revolve, a static story is made to at least feel dynamic. The tone is serious, suitably so, with any camp fiercely controlled. The cast is huge, the orchestra lush and Vicki Mortimer’s design will surely garner her an award for the costumes alone. The ‘ghosts’ of lives past appear with a gorgeous array of headgear, while the late 1960s costumes of those meeting one last time before a theatre is demolished are just as meticulous and impressive.
Follies provides the irony of performers at the top of their game pretending that their careers are over. Imelda Staunton continues her reign as Queen of Musicals by playing Sally and is matched by Janie Dee as Phyllis. The women performed and dated together but have ended up in sad marriages with the wrong men. Sharing their unhappiness are the husbands, Ben and Buddy, brilliantly performed by Philip Quast and Peter Forbes respectively. The women have the stronger numbers. Staunton delivers the hit Losing My Mind impeccably and her hysterical devotion to the man who got away manages against all odds to be convincing. Dee is the wicked witch of the piece, getting the laughs and showing the emptiness of her character’s successful life with pathos. But of all the mid-to-late-life crisis on offer here (and there’s plenty of it) Phyllis is the only one that entertains. There’s young talent in the show, too: Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig both do well as the immature versions of the men but, while Zizi Strallen and Alex Young ably perform their roles as the younger women, the parts themselves are frustratingly thinly written.
Given its size, Follies is a major investment to stage – a concert production was my only experience so expectations were high. To say this isn’t Sondheim’s best work still makes it head and shoulders above most musicals. But some of the lyrics are strangely flat and a couple of numbers, which take us back the early days of Broadway, of primarily academic interest. It’s the book that causes most problems – much of the show is a series of introductions – that fail to excite – about characters not met again. It’s a poor build up to a prolonged conclusion – the central quartet’s individual “follies” numbers that feel like ground already trodden. The stakes simply aren’t high enough to truly engage and the characters’ angst start to look like whinging. Musicals can cover serious topics – nobody proves that better than Sondheim – but here we just have a collection of personal crises that ends up dispiriting.
An undisputed modern classic, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play explores politics, power and the potential of theatre. Its setting is an 18th-century Australian penal colony, its performers, newly arrived convicts who stage a play. It is a text to spend time with and Nadia Fall’s revival presents the ideas with great clarity. But it should also be a work that entertains and invigorates, and, here, this production lacks consistency.
The show looks great, with Peter McKintosh’s design a mix of Aboriginal art and Anish Kapoor, creating a sense of heat and tension. But this show is a cold affair, distinctly lacking humour and failing to exploit the text’s many ironies. Fall’s pacing slows and rushes – possibly because so much music is introduced. Cerys Matthews, making her theatrical debut as a composer, creates a diverse soundscape with snatches of songs you never hear enough of to enjoy.
There are credible performances from the lead: Jason Hughes plays the soldier tasked with directing the convicts and Caoilfhionn Dunne is the prisoner who becomes his leading lady. It’s a shame there isn’t more sexual tension between their characters – an element missing throughout the show which could have added considerable drama.
Productions often have actors doubling up roles to perform as both guard and prisoner – Fall has a larger crew but the play doesn’t benefit from bigger numbers. Disappointingly, with some of the cast, there is a sense of fighting for attention that should have been checked. The actors that do stand out give the most generous and controlled performances: Ashley McGuire’s down-to-earth Dabby Bryant and Peter Forbes’ bullish Major.
The later acts are better; the violence in the colony is bravely depicted and that raises the stakes. But what might have countered this brutality – camaraderie between the players and what little joy their common humanity affords them – isn’t given its proper place. That the show goes on and the prisoners perform doesn’t leave us as elated as it should.
Zinnie Harris’ new play, How To Hold Your Breath, may sound like it provides answers but instead is ambitiously determined to raise questions. A future financial apocalypse is envisaged and a woman has an affair with the devil, in a work combining current affairs and questions of worth in a puzzling fashion. A modern morality play, with a Faustian twist, it’s a work that intrigues but doesn’t satisfy.
The set up has the confident liberal Dana, clumsily presented as an arch capitalist, enduring the traumatic breakdown of European civilisation. At the start it seems Dana’s mistake was to have a one night stand with a demon – and refuse payment when he mistakes her for a prostitute. Then we see Dana is naïve about the world and human nature. There’s humour in the play’s ridiculous moments but any message or satire is far too blunt.
Directed in workmanlike fashion by Vicky Featherstone, even strong acting can’t save the night. Maxine Peake takes the lead giving a magnetic performance of fantastic stamina and adding a depth to Dana that holds the whole play together. Michael Shaeffer is charismatic as the demon and Christine Bottomley superb as Dana’s sister, who joins a desperate descent through a disintegrating Europe. There’s also a librarian who pops up along the way, played by Peter Forbes, who offers self help books to Dana. I am not sure why.
When Harris strikes an emotional chord it’s powerful, the language and imagery unforgettable (black semen…thanks Zinnie). Dana’s devotion to her sister is moving and a scene of miscarriage harrowing. There’s almost a nasty edge to the play’s relentlessness. Events get grimmer and grimier and the result too predictable. By the end, one of the librarian’s instructional books is entitled Which Charity You Should Give To To Make You Feel Better, so it’s clear we should be feeling pretty bad about our self indulgent lives. As for How To Get A Good Seat In The Theatre? Ouch. A gamble, that, with the all too obvious answer – pick a good play for a start.
Following the success of Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations, Josie Rourke, artistic director at the Donmar, has the coup of presenting his new play, The Same Deep Water As Me. Set in a ‘no-win-no-fee’ lawyers’ office in Luton, it’s a departure for the young writer, moving from intimate personal dramas into the wider world of work. Payne tackles big issues with humour and intelligence and deserves great success.
Superbly directed by John Crowley, the play’s plot, an attempt to swindle large companies via insurance claims, serves to explore the theme of lying. The rather desperate Kevin suggests the idea to his old school friend Andrew, who has made good as a lawyer. In a bravura performance, Daniel Mays takes the lead, deceiving his character’s older colleague Barry and renewing an attachment to his first love, now Kevin’s wife, Jennifer (a charming Niky Wardley). Payne’s strong characterisations emerge as they become embroiled in the scam.
There are some marvellous one-liners here, some of the funniest you’ll hear on stage in London at the moment, and the delivery from Marc Wotton’s Mephistophelean Kevin is superb. Nuanced observations on class are used to particularly great effect when a claim is contested in court: Peter Forbes and Monica Dolan play a sleek legal establishment magnificently and Isabella Laughland’s cameo as a lorry driver is arresting (if a shockingly small role for such a talented actress).
Payne’s writing has a strange modesty that makes for a unique voice – a joke denied a punch line, unstated emotions suggested with restraint – and surely many a dramatist would have opted for the more dramatic criminal court instead of a civil one? Playing down has a purpose: raising questions about access to justice is topical but, providing a further satisfying weight, a Kantian universalizability shows that this is deep water we really are all in together.