Tag Archives: Russell Tovey

“The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Henry Filloux-Bennett’s excellent new show is only loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s classic novel – and is all the better for that. Yes, Dorian sells his soul for eternal youth but, in the neatest of twists, it is only beauty that exists online. With skilful direction from Tamara Harvey, Filloux-Bennett uses the story for a stirring and topical condemnation of social media, focusing on its impact on mental health.

The plotting is strong, with a lot packed into 90 minutes. The conceit of an interview provides an effective framework and a nice cameo for none other than Stephen Fry. As we try to work out what has happened amongst a group of social media stars, there are elements of a mystery thriller, a touch of horror (as we get to see what happens to Dorian) and also romance. 

The love story provides highlights for the show’s titular lead, played by Fionn Whitehead, and gives his co-star Emma McDonald a chance to impress. The pumped-up part for McDonald’s Sybil Vane is excellent, her performance superb. Sybil’s chance for fame leads to heightened emotions McDonald makes deeply moving. And Sybil is just one of the characters, familiar from Wilde’s original, the show does so well with.

A gallery of portraits

Alfred Enoch in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Two older men take Dorian under their wings and Filloux-Bennett makes the most of this fascinating triangle. With Alfred Enoch’s version of Henry Wotton, the idea of an ‘influencer’ is brilliantly elaborated: the role would suit Wilde himself! Aided by cheeky crudity on top of appropriated epigrams, the role confirms Filloux-Bennett is unintimidated by his source. Enoch is sexy, scary and just human enough in the part to make you question Wotton’s every word. Russell Tovey’s Basil Hallward uses the tension of his character’s potential homosexuality especially well, and brings a sinister edge to the part.

As for the triangle’s third member, there might be some quibbles about Dorian’s much discussed “dazzling” charm. Might it be a mistake to see the Instagram pictures that create so many followers? How much are we supposed to fall for him? Whitehead does best when confronting Dorian’s mental breakdown, with conspiracy theories that enforce concerns about social media, and a vicious streak that is frightening.

Joanna Lumley in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Joanna Lumley

A further strong move from Filloux-Bennett comes with the character of Lady Narborough, played by Joanna Lumley. For Wilde, a hostess who “treats her guests exactly as an auctioneer treats his goods”, the character surely becomes Filloux-Bennett’s authorial voice (he deserves one): decrying the “devastating consequences” of going viral and living life online. Lumley brings plenty of nuance to a part that does a lot of explaining – the roles of philanthropist and mother figure to Dorian are both interesting complications.

While this Picture of Dorian Gray may not need to be set so specifically during lockdown, it is a benchmark for its times. Of many excellent shows provided, or even especially produced, to watch at home, this is one of the few that doesn’t make you feel you are missing something and would rather just see it live. The show has collaborative credits – Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley, New Wolsey, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd – are all involved. It’s a welcome irony that, as theatres are starting plans to reopen (fingers crossed), so much has been achieved with their doors closed.

Until 31 March 2021

www.pictureofdoriangray.com  

“Pinter 1 & 2” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Director Jamie Lloyd has an unerring ability to surround his projects with excitement. His latest scheme is to present short works by Harold Pinter in a six-month-long series of carefully curated and stylishly packaged shows (they really should sell a T-shirt). The project boasts an array of stars – young and old – which indicates that everyone wants to work with Lloyd and offers the chance to see rarely performed works.

The season – and Pinter 1 – get off to a bang courtesy of confetti cannons and Press Conference, which stars a commanding Jonjo O’Neill as a sinister politician. It sets the scene for a first half of plays that show a variety of dystopias. Sometimes the shorts come across as dated, too simplistic and full of conspiracy. Or should we see the paranoia as prescient? A Donald Trump impersonation in The Pres and an Officer, a newly discovered satirical skit, suggests Lloyd does.

Maggie Steed and Paapa Essiedu

The way Pinter encapsulates the most basic fears surrounding the breakdown of society makes them raw and moving. Mountain Language reduced me to tears, with Maggie Steed as an elderly mother confronting her tortured son and forbidden to speak to him. And the tension Pinter can create becomes almost unbearable with One for the Road, which stars Antony Sher as a truly chilling interrogator, alongside Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn as his victims. The paranoia moves into a domestic setting for the evening’s finale, Ashes to Ashes, which sees a couple recounting an affair and an atrocity, both products of a deranged mind. It’s a too puzzling piece, held together by the direction of Lia Williams and passionate performances from O’Flynn and Essiedu.

Pinter 2 is a double bill of plays that look at infidelity. Both from the 1960s, first up is The Lover, where a squeaky clean couple discuss their affairs over breakfast and perform a bizarre role play. Surely this once appeared more challenging than it does today, and the point seems overplayed – even at just under an hour, the play drags. The boredom isn’t Lloyd’s fault – his direction is snappy and the whole show stylish thanks to the saturated colours of Soutra Gilmour’s designs. But while the piece is a comedy, the absurd is emphasised to a fault. Hayley Squires and John Macmillan perform well, but their characters are flattened, reduced to puppets. In fact, their shadows catch the eye more than they do (Elliot Griggs’ lighting design is superb).

John Macmillan and Russell Tovey

This second evening improves a little with The Collection, where Squires and Macmillan benefit from meatier, if shorter, roles taking on another suspected affair and a confrontation between the husband and the man his wife says seduced her. Russell Tovey plays a wide boy who taunts the cuckolded Macmillan while his flatmate, David Suchet, looks on. Lloyd employs a broad brush again, and the cast clearly has fun, but a degree of tension is retained. The older man and his younger counterpart, from the slums it is said, make for a disconcerting mix of sex, class and violence that’s the real deal.


Until 20 October 2018

www.pinteratthepinter.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Angels in America” at the National Theatre

Any production of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece is a cause for celebration. Presented in two parts, totalling nearly seven hours, and combining the AIDS crisis with speculation on America’s history and its future, epic is an apt word. Add the stellar cast and it’s hard to be inured to the hype surrounding this revival on the Southbank. The difficulty of getting tickets, plus ecstatic reviews and a sense of responsibility towards the play, whose premiere at the National Theatre in 1992 is fondly remembered, create palpable anticipation. And the production is superb – a theatrical event – even if it struggles under the weight of expectation.

James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior)
James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior)

For unmitigated praise we can begin with the cast. Andrew Garfield plays Prior Walter, who reveals his HIV status at the start of the play to his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), who promptly deserts him. Both grippingly portray their relationship breakdown – McArdle does a great job creating sympathy for his unlikeable character. As Prior’s health deteriorates, Garfield takes the lead with a combination of dignity and no-nonsense that perfectly reflects the text. When it comes to Prior’s encounter with angels – and in this play they are real – the juggling of fear, amazement and humour is superb.

Denise Gough (Harper) and Russell Tovey (Joseph)
Denise Gough (Harper) and Russell Tovey (Joseph)

Another couple in trouble are the Pitts, two Mormons living in a sham marriage. Russell Tovey plays Joseph, tortured by his sexuality, with sensitivity. An affair with Louis comes as a revelation to him and fills the theatre with tenderness, while the betrayal of his wife, Harper, is moving and complex. It’s another triumph for Denise Gough, as the pill-popping spouse whose religious background and secretive husband are driving her insane. There’s that Kushner combination again – of humour and self-awareness – that Gough reveals expertly. Someone should save us all time and hand her another Olivier award now.

Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize)
Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize)

A final duo deserves a mention: Broadway legend Nathan Lane, who brings a startling humour to the role of closeted lawyer Roy Cohn, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as his nurse Belize. Their sparring matches, as Cohn lies dying of AIDS, are a highlight. Stewart-Jarrett impresses throughout, excelling as a foil to Prior and Louis, and deftly carrying the weight of Kushner’s concerns over racism.

Angels in America is hard work, especially if you are lucky enough to see both plays on the same day. It isn’t trying to be easy, of course: the emotional journey taken by its many characters is harrowing, but the scale and scope of ideas needs controlling and the fear is that director Marianne Elliot has herself become overawed. There’s not enough “mangled guts” here – the play’s visceral text, so full of struggle, is sanitised as a ‘classic’.

Connections between the characters, clear enough in the script, become laboured. There are few light touches, literally so when it comes to Paule Constable’s lighting design, which dominates Part One in particular. A claustrophobic feel, pinpointing scenes in spotlight, is presumably to create focus, but the result is soporific.

It’s not the play’s length that is the problem – the plotting is impeccable – but the pacing, which flags. The main culprit is a cumbersome set by Ian McNeil, with props moved around by a collection of ‘Angel Shadows’ who become distracting. This choreographed troupe does stronger work as skilled puppeteers with the arrival of The Angel (the always superb Amanda Lawrence). But even here their scenes feel protracted. Elliot’s reverential air brings us down to earth, even if most of her production is heavenly.

Until 19 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Helen Maybanks

“The Pass” at the Royal Court

This month former Premier League footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed that he is gay. It adds some topicality to John Donnelly’s new play The Pass, currently showing at the Royal Court, which examines a footballer’s sexuality in three scenes during his career. But if you caught the news, you probably weren’t that bothered. And this is where Donnelly really scores: The Pass only uses its characters’ sex lives to explore something we find much more interesting nowadays – fame – and it does this in exemplary fashion.

At first it’s all juvenile fun: two teenagers in a hotel room, reeking of hormones. The banter is disgraceful, no surprise, but an uneasy twist comes with the suggestion that Jason is toying with Ade’s affections: literally using sex as a weapon to put his fellow fledgling player off his game. Things take a darker turn as Jason’s career takes off. Exploiting a cliché, a one-night stand with a table top dancer, Donnelly adds enough twists and turns for a thriller. Already corrupted by celebrity status Jason has become a monster, albeit one with an indefinable charm, and like all scary villains he has plenty of plans.

the pass-142
Gary Carr and Russell Tovey

There are minor issues with the text that even John Tiffany’s skilled direction can’t quite hide but a talented cast ensure they don’t become irritants. Gary Carr deals remarkably with the years separating his appearances, transforming from a boy into a confident man. Lisa McGrillis is superb in her scene, keeping you on the edge of your seat. All eyes are on Russell Tovey in the lead role. Few do matey straight roles better than Tovey: his comic skills are perfect, but the play’s time scale and his character’s development give him the chance to show great depth. Maybe his performance will be enough to get the show a transfer (apologies).

While Tovey never falters, The Pass doesn’t keep up the wonderfully high standard of its first two scenes. The introduction of a fourth role, a young boy who works in a third and final hotel, marks an able debut from Nico Mirallegro, but the character, who shows the same faux naivety Donnelly uses so well elsewhere, fails to convince. Jason’s connection with reality becomes a little too strained now he is a megastar. But admittedly the tension continues and The Pass still thrills. A reunion between Jason and Ade brings us more power games and moral questions – the price of fame and failure – formulated in an insightful fashion.

Until 1 March 2014

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Written 19 January 2014 for The London Magazine