Tag Archives: Richard Eyre

“Little Eyolf” at the Almeida Theatre

A marriage not so much on the rocks as already wrecked is the focus of Ibsen’s 1894 play. Alfred and Rita are an odd couple of obsessive personalities struggling to share their lives and loves. Along with a ‘sister’, Asta, who creepily shares a pet name with their son, this is a peculiar, unstable love triangle that’s intense from the start. When their only child dies, pressure mounts and the play doubles as an examination of grief.

This is Richard Eyre’s third time adapting and directing Ibsen at the Almeida. Living up to the reputation of his Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, the production is made all the more remarkable by Tim Hatley’s stunning set – never has mid-century modern felt so claustrophobic – and some strong performances. Jolyon Coy and Lydia Leonard take the leads. Coy gives a nimble performance, on the surface a repressed academic, cold and plotting for his wife’s money, yet toying with the idea he might be our hero. Leonard is the sexiest Ibsen heroine you’re likely to see. Embodying a sensuality that has a serious point, she displays a moving, almost scary raw emotion. Eve Ponsonby’s Asta has the trickiest job – doting on the family while the tension surrounding her own desires builds magnificently.

The honesty between this trio is unrelenting and shocking. Home truths that would destroy any family are shouted out – it’s difficult to hear a mother say she wishes her son hadn’t been born. The observation that the parents are “vile and cruel” feels like an understatement. And Ibsen’s view of the human condition –reinforced by a book Alfred is writing on the “law of change” – is pretty grim. When hope enters the play, it feels natural and welcome. This hope may be only a glimmer, an exhausted sigh after all the crying, but it arrives just in time to secure the show’s status as a triumph.

Until 9 January 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

“Mr Foote’s Other Leg” at Hampstead Theatre

Biographer Ian Kelly has literally written the book on Samuel Foote, one of the 18th century’s most celebrated performers, and his expertise shines out in this new play. You’d be in real trouble if you couldn’t find the humour in a comic called Foote, but no fears here, as the jokes come alarmingly fast and varied: Shakespearian in-gags, bawdy banter and downright silliness. It’s an absolute treat for anyone with a love of the theatre.

Simon Russell Beale, Dervla Kirwan and Joseph Millson
Simon Russell Beale, Dervla Kirwan and Joseph Millson

Indeed, the theatre forms the backbone of the play – scenes are either front or back stage or in a medical lecture hall – all skilfully handled by director Richard Eyre, with Tim Hatley’s design cramming in the atmosphere. David Garrick and Peg Woffington, superbly rendered by Joseph Millson and Dervla Kirwan, are here, as is a long-suffering stage manager, Mrs Garner (a terrific role for Jenny Galloway). Comradeship and rivalry are exquisitely depicted, including in an unmawkish three-in-a-bed-death scene.

When it comes to biography, the play is as brilliant as its subject. Simon Russell Beale takes the lead, giving a dynamic performance that’s at first understated, comes alive whenever Foote is ‘on stage’, then becomes deeply moving when his sense of mischief grows dangerous as his mental health deteriorates.

 Forbes Masson as John Hunter at work with Colin Stinton as Benjamin Franklin taking notes
Forbes Masson as John Hunter at work on Mr Foote’s leg, with Colin Stinton as Benjamin Franklin taking notes

More than the history of an actor, or acting, this play is the portrait of an age. The distinguished surgeon John Hunter amputates Foote’s leg (ruined by a riding accident), while Benjamin Franklin lectures us on science. Prince George dabbles with performance and ascends to the throne (Kelly takes the role, reminding us his talents aren’t just literary). There’s American Independence and insanity as well – the madness of Mr Foote dominates the second act, ruining the pluckiest of comebacks.

Enthralled by the spirit of the times, Kelly isn’t shy of manipulating history for effect. Hence, he appropriates Dr Johnson’s servant, Frank Barber, to be Foote’s dresser, giving us a fine performance from Micah Balfour and a sub text that serves to illustrate Foote’s liberal iconoclasm. Like everything in the play, scenes with the two of them work astonishingly hard.

Care has to be taken when filling a play with such a quantity of ideas and events, yet here all is enrichment and nothing extraneous. Foote hates cant, declaring it the one word in English that is untranslatable. By avoiding cant, Kelly makes his play as fresh as it is erudite, a balance that makes this a triumph of and about the theatre.

Until 17 October 2015

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Nobby Clark

“The Pajama Game” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Recent closures and current bargains on tickets for some damn fine shows remind us how precious a hit in the West End is. But the transfer from Chichester of Richard Eyre’s superb production of Adler and Ross’ The Pajama Game is a safe bet if ever there was one. This unashamedly old-fashioned musical great is so conscientiously staged that there’s everything to like.

The Pajama Game is the prototype for a small genre of musicals that deal, believe it or not, with industrial disputes. Billy Elliot and the forthcoming Made in Dagenham both aim for a similar blue-collar theme. Here the employees of the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory are about to strike for a pay rise, albeit in a jolly manner. Meetings include entertainment, the hit song Steam Heat, and a rally is really a parade, based on the requested remuneration, with the number Seven-and-a-Half Cents. Life should imitate art sometimes but I fear even Equity isn’t this much fun.

As if commerce and labour weren’t enough, there are love stories, too. One is between a secretary and a jealous time-and-motion manager who used to be in a knife-throwing act – the circus connotation is apt as they are some pretty mad moments here. The other features the love-struck leads: Sid, who runs the factory, and Babe, who deals with grievances for the Union. There’s trouble ahead, obviously, but, for all her feistiness, Babe doesn’t really get that mad, even when Sid sacks her, so there’s no need to worry. It all ends happily with a gloriously silly pajama party at Hernando’s Hideaway.

Just in case it’s not obvious yet, this is one for those who enjoy a song and a dance. If you have ever liked a musical, you’ll love The Pajama Game. The performances are great, the ensemble is strong and there are fine comic turns from Peter Polycarpou (performing until 2 June after which Gary Wilmot takes the role) and Claire Machin. In the leads Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier make a handsome couple and their old-fashioned flirting is a delight. Riding’s Babe is a “firecracker” without labouring the point and is impressively convincing. Xavier’s voice is as strong as any you will hear on stage.

The talented choreographer Stephen Mear steps into the shoes of none other than Bob Fosse. But this version is really a singers’ show, so Mear deserves praise for injecting so much visual joy into the piece. In fact, he ‘gets’ Eyre’s production perfectly, with his honest, uncynical and exuberant approach. I smiled from start to finish.

Until 13 September 2014

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 15 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Ghosts” at the Almeida Theatre

Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts has been a long time in the making – he first worked on the script in 2006. It must be gratifying that now it has reached the stage, opening this week at the Almeida Theatre, everything has come together so eloquently. Eyre’s adaptation is superb, his direction impeccable and his cast faultless.

In this 1881 play we encounter one of Ibsen’s many heroines, Helene Alving, a magnificent character whose long-endured marriage has ended and who hopes she is now “learning to be free”. But, while ironically planning an orphanage as a memorial to her syphilitic, drunken husband, she is haunted by her decision to shield his philandering from her son and the community. As Helene, it is difficult to praise Lesley Manville sufficiently.

Helene’s unrequited love for her Pastor, a ridiculously religious figure made credible by the clever casting of the excellent Will Keen, and her desperate love for her sick son Oswald, played with skill by Jack Lowden, makes things grim and grimmer for her. A radical thinker, Helene has us on her side, but the past and society are against her. The Pastor’s restraint and Oswald’s bohemianism, including his incestuous attraction to his half-sister, trap Helene like a pincer. Manville copes with the intensity terrifically, agonisingly building up the pressure.

The play is set in a single room, Helene’s “university of suffering”, created out of ghostly transparent walls by designer Tim Hatley. Sometimes opaque, at others revealing the comings and goings of the servants the Alvings are intimately connected with, it acts as a claustrophobic canvas for some fine work by lighting director Peter Mumford.

Ghosts caused controversy when it was written and Eyre’s adaptation reminds us why. Swift and brutal, you sense Ibsen’s hunger for life and the truth with a ferocious intensity. The heart-rending finale, where Helene faces a moral dilemma about the euthanasia of her son, could easily find you in tears.

Until 23 November 2013

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 4 October 2013 for The London Magazine

“Quartermaine’s Terms” at Wyndham’s Theatre

This revival of Simon Gray’s 1981 work, directed by Richard Eyre, marks a return to the stage by Rowan Atkinson. A story of schoolteachers, set in the early 1960s, it has plenty of laughs but is really quite a serious affair. A testing vehicle for its star attraction, it might leave some searching for more Mr Bean, but Atkinson rises well to the challenge.

As St John Quartermaine, long-standing staff member of the Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners, Atkinson plays a man blunted by life. The staff-room misfit and an appalling teacher, he’s a likeable nonentity (and, in Atkinson’s hands, sometimes a little too charming?). The problem for Atkinson is how to stop people laughing at him – the urge is almost impulsive – but Gray’s great creation is a strangely blank character that helps to put distance between the actor and his usual personas.


Most impressively, and appropriately, Atkinson appreciates that Quartermaine is a character around whom the action revolves rather than a star turn. His fellow cast members are, to use Quartermaine’s own catchphrase – “terrific”, and this is a strong ensemble piece. Malcolm Sinclair plays the school’s deputy head, a captain of education, with sardonic, steely beneficence. Felicity Montagu is superb as a study in repression and hysteria. And, as her old flame, Conleth Hill gives the real comic turn of the evening, with every gesture getting giggles, as the two flirt over the croquet sticks and lecture notes.

Increasingly “absent” as time goes on, Atkinson manages Quartermaine’s withdrawal with impressive control and intelligence; perfect for a play so concerned with the passage of time. Eyre’s direction has a thoughtful, elegiac quality, mostly arresting but sometimes robbing the play of zest. Yet as the family dramas that have occurred off-stage (they never involve the lonely Quartermaine) come to our attention, both Eyre and his star provide a melancholic sting that’s perfect for the piece.

Until 13 April 2013

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 30 January 2013 for The London Magazine

“Welcome to Thebes” at the National Theatre

We all appreciate how annoying it can be when a phone rings during a performance. At the National Theatre they’ve really had enough of it; the start of its new production, Welcome to Thebes, has gun-toting child soldiers warning us to switch off our mobiles. We then hear the story of how one girl was raped before becoming a mercenary in her war-torn country. This is an uncomfortable mix and it is clumsily done. Unfortunately it sets the tone for the evening. From the very start of this play you might well want to call someone and tell them how bad things are.

Moira Buffini’s play recasts Greek myths to modern day Africa. The inhabitants of Thebes experiment with democracy after a devastating war and look to wealthy Athens to help them out. There can be no objection to reinterpreting myths (indeed there is a prestigious heritage of doing so) but Buffini’s efforts are a worrying failure. The contemporary setting isn’t specific enough to be politically satisfying and the mythical characters seem like lost novelties. Doing justice to the dangerous creativity of Dionysus and contrasting that with the arrogant politics of the Athenians would be enough to aim for without trying to draw unconvincing parallels to current events. To make matters worse, what is universal about myths – their emotive power – seems to have no attention paid to it at all, making the play dull as well as pretentious.

Richard Eyre’s direction makes the production as swift and tense as it can be but he has too much to work against. The cast battle valiantly and produce some good performances. The new government’s cabinet of ministers make up the chorus and the actresses do well to differentiate themselves. The opposition is formed by Pargeia (Rakie Ayola) and Prince Tydeus (Chuk Iwuji) – a fantastic power-mad couple brimming with sex and violence. Thebes’ new boss Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and the visiting Theseus (David Harewood) also work well together and convince as very different types of leaders.

Achieving some electric mixtures of personalities on stage is no small achievement given the script and static set that the actors have to work with. The text varies crazily from the stubbornly prosaic, taking in scraps of poetry, to the painfully clunky. Having been welcomed to Thebes, take my advice and look swiftly for the exit.

Until 18 August 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine