Tag Archives: Sam Crane

“The Rage of Narcissus” at the Pleasance Theatre

Sergio Blanco’s play is described as auto-fiction. It features events and conversation that may or may not be true. The author is presented as a character – an invention – and the actor introduces himself, thereby highlighting a second fiction. The result is a mind-bending piece that’s heavy with theory but gripping nonetheless – a very special combination of erudition and theatre that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

The strategy, relentlessly playing with the line between fiction and fact – what Blanco may have done and what he has certainly made up – is complicated and not to all tastes. It’s stimulating, puzzling and profound all at once, but it isn’t easy. It’s down to director and translator Daniel Goldman and the sole performer, Sam Crane, to aid comprehension – which they do brilliantly.

Sam Crane in 'The Rage of Narcissus' by Sergio Blanco at the Pleasance Theatre

Yet, in keeping with the play’s remit, Goldman and Crane never miss a chance to enforce theatre’s artificiality: designer Natalie Johnson’s set is mirrored, and the lighting by Richard Williamson takes a dominant role. The audience is destabilised and left continually questioning.

Things only get tougher when it comes to the ideas in the play. At its centre is a lecture about Narcissus that takes us to big questions about ‘art’ with blunt directness. Blanco’s is not a reading list I could keep up with, Derrida and Heidegger are thrown in casually. I wonder if André Gide would be a good one to mention: his treatise on Narcissus includes the idea that gazing at one’s reflection means losing oneself as a result. Which is, maybe, what happens next.

The Rage of Narcissus is more than a metaphysical mystery story, though. Inspired by bloodspots on a hotel room carpet, and a casual sexual partner who becomes obsessed, we get a ‘real’ murder story, too, that’s also of startling originality. It’s not just storytelling that Blanco wants dissecting. Alongside all the theory there are proper goosebumps.

The text has a forensic quality. Crane coldly narrates horrific events and then passionate encounters. A question arises as to the humour that follows. Crane slips into a cheekiness, accompanied by distinctly British giggles from the audience, that jar with Blanco’s frankness. For in tandem with the precision of the writing there’s a visceral quality that engages with all those cerebral concerns. If you think myth and murder is a potent combination, throw in sex and danger, too.

Blanco’s self-reflexive writing is likened to a Möbius strip or Escher drawing on stage. Fair enough, and helpful. But the description of a sex party attended towards the play’s finale struck me more forcefully: “The idea was to keep things moving. To try new things. To mix and combine…”. That could be a description of both the script’s virtues and its excesses. It’s to Goldman and Crane’s credit that all of this is brought out so vividly. Blanco has written an orgy of a text and this production knows better than to try and tame it.

Until 8 March 2020


Photos by Ali Wright

“Sunset at the Villa Thalia” at the National Theatre

You can take the playwright out of Sloane Square and yet, it appears from Alexis Kaye Campbell’s new play, London is never far away. The subject here is the history of modern Greece, the coup in 1967 and its aftermath in the writer’s mother’s home country. But when an arty English couple snap up a second home at a bargain price, it feels as if the London housing crisis is giving rise to debates about politics and intervention.

Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern

Simon Godwin’s tight direction and a superb cast are the best things here. Theo and Charlotte, brilliantly performed by Sam Crane and Pippa Nixon, are a playwright and actress. Yes, the self-referentiality is tiresome, but it’s in keeping with the theme of personal responsibility in the play. Contrasts with an American couple, holiday friends, are fun and Elizabeth McGovern from Downton Abbey is a revelation as the drunken June, who likes her fruit punch without the fruit. It’s June’s husband, a shady American official called Harvey, that Kaye Campbell does best with: he’s a dark figure who claims his dirty dealings secure freedom and enable democracy (with its ‘twin’ the theatre) to flourish. Balancing charisma, intelligence and danger, Ben Miles excels in the role.

Sam Crane and Ben Miles
Sam Crane and Ben Miles

The laudable, openly declared question of ‘What would you do?’ is fair game. Cramming politics into a play is never easy, being blatant is fine. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to dismiss many arguments here as naïve – left or right – even though Miles and Nixon are riveting. The effort is thorough, the play hard working and this surprisingly traditional piece is an entertaining, erudite affair. The playwright within the play is demoralised that his work is “quietly political”. Applying the same assessment to Kaye Campbell might not please him, but the passion often feels contrived, the arguments too easy, and so that label fits.

Until 4 August 2016


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Farinelli And The King” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Any trip to the gorgeous Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is exciting. And it’s commendable that the programming for the venue includes brand new plays. You can see why Claire van Kampen’s work, Farinelli And The King, seemed like a good idea: it’s about the famous castrato who sang for Philippe V of Spain and is perfect for highlighting the venue’s terrific acoustics. The Playhouse doesn’t just look enchanting, the sound here is flawless, unforgiving, actually – you can hear a sweet being unwrapped from any seat. Iestyn Davies and William Purefoy have been drafted in to sing, and are joined by some fine musicians, but unfortunately the play they accompany isn’t strong enough to outshine the venue.

Mark Rylance, Van Kampen’s husband, ensures the play is a hot ticket and gives a masterful performance as Philippe, with a seemingly instinctive grasp of what the space needs. His is a remarkably understated and hugely engaging king, but the role is written far too much for laughs. Philippe’s bipolarity, dramatised as simple lunacy, fails to move emotionally. Sam Crane is wasted as Farinelli, whose the role is grossly underdeveloped – a problem shared with one-dimensional secondary parts. At times, the play is more about Philippe’s relationship with his queen, an impression bolstered by a fine performance from Melody Grove. The opportunity for a triangle of relationships is opened up too late.

John Dove’s direction is swift and forceful but the script is just not good enough, being an inconsistent mix of biography and pretension satisfying neither history nor ideas. The bare bones of Farinelli’s fascinating life are delivered dismissively, particularly at the end when the play really runs out of steam. Far too many highfalutin speculations are made about space, time and morality but none is dealt with in any depth. Throw in some lofty theorising about art and you approach incoherence. The obvious comparison with Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George III is an unfortunate one for this first attempt at playwriting from Van Kampen, who has contributed so much in her capacity as composer for the theatre. Sadly, this is one production to avoid.

Until 8 March 2015


Photo by Marc Brenner

“1984” at the Playhouse Theatre

After a successful tour and sell-out run at the Almeida, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 has arrived in the West End, opening last night at the Playhouse Theatre. It’s a slick affair, all 101 uninterrupted minutes of it, right down to the marketing – rave reviews outside are censored and tickets are on sale for £19.84.

This truly superb adaptation of a classic text is faithful to the original, full of insight and presents a clear interpretation for us to consider. Icke and Macmillan prioritise the appendix to the novel, The Principles of Newspeak, to highlight the text’s status as an historic document read by people in the future.

The show starts with a kind of book club. Anachronistically, our hero (I use the term unreservedly), the ‘author’ Winston Smith, is present and Big Brother looms large. Those discussing the book segue into characters from the story. Orwell has so many ideas, important ones but often abstract, so to extract the drama needed to create a gripping play is an accomplishment. Atmosphere rather than plot is the key and this high-tech production delivers. The set full of surprises, live video work, superb sound and lighting design make this a visceral experience. You’ll want to calm down in a quiet room afterwards.

Not Room 101 of course. The location where the tyrannical regime tortures dissenters is our final destination. From the moment Winston becomes a ‘thought criminal’ to his capture, the play is appropriately, uncomfortably, powerful and not for the squeamish. The way Big Brother manipulates Winston’s fears is both moving and as powerful as Orwell intended it to be. It’s also wonderfully theatrical – cleverly engaging the audience.

The performances are smooth. Sam Crane plays Smith as confused and petrified from the start (well before any mention of rats) and escalates his performance into something remarkable. His love interest is played by Hara Yannas, who perfectly embodies a distinct kind of rebelliousness. And the rest of the ensemble, including a spookily commanding villain in Tim Dutton’s O’Brien, is well drilled. Icke and Macmillan, who shared the direction, evidently make a superb team.

Until 23 August 2014


Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 9 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Bedlam” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Nell Leyshon, the first woman ever to write a play for The Globe, has chosen her subject well. A story set in Bedlam, drawn from research into the Bethlem Hospital, the first and foremost home for the insane. To give us a break from the bard, the action takes place in the 18th century, where the gin flows freely and visitors pay to view the unfortunate residents of the asylum. As an audience we both replicate this morbid tourism and double as the inmates ourselves. The idea is typical of Leyshon’s clever and careful use of the space. While her play could be madder at times, she has a shrewd eye and ear for what works well at The Globe.

Director Jessica Swale also knows how to use The Globe’s distinctive intimacy. Her talented ensemble is given reign to have great fun. Pity those poor Groundlings (the standing audience members) as they have chamber pots poured over them and are dragged on to the stage. You have been warned.

There’s a lot of laughs here and, if mixing humour and mental illness can be tricky, rest assured it is tastefully done. Jason Baughan is the man in charge – having inherited his post he is proud to come from a long line of Mad Doctors. Sam Crane is a poet, trying hard to be pale and interesting and full of machinations. They both make delicious villains. A pleasing amount of fantasy is used to resolve the neat storyline and deliver poetic justice. Predictable maybe, but satisfying.

Where Bedlam really takes off is with its music. Leyshon researched contemporary sources and, with Olly Fox’s composition and Mark Bousie’s musical direction, has added to her play enormously. Sentimental songs are used with restraint and some hilariously bawdy numbers beg an encore. James Lailey is cast as a ‘Bedlamite’, an inmate released to earn his living busking, and given a moving story with contemporary resonance. Alongside him Ella Smith’s Phyllis is the roaming wife of a Bedlam warder, selling gin on the street as if she were a procuress. Smith gives great value for money, delivering an irristible performance. When the rest of the cast join in the singing, Bedlam becomes very special indeed. Treat yourself to a listen, enjoy some uproar, and don’t forget the gin.

Until 1 October 2010


Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 10 September 2010 for The London Magazine

“Henry IV Parts 1 and 2” at Shakespeare’s Globe

This year’s terrific Kings and Rogues season at Shakespeare’s Globe gives us the theatre’s first production of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Under the direction of Dominic Dromgoole, the plays thrive on the clarity and immediacy of the venue. With the cast Dromgoole has assembled the plays receive the complex subtlety they deserve.

First for the king. Suitably careworn from the start, Oliver Cotton’s Henry IV has a fiery temper that encompasses both the passionate young man he once was and the disgruntled father he has become. In plays so concerned with the theme of age, he manages to convey the journey of a life time.

Then there are those who would be kings. Jamie Parker (fittingly, a member of the original History Boys cast) plays Prince Hal with an eye on the time. He has huge fun with the low-life company he keeps but also shows a cold edge that, for all Parker’s charm, is unsettling.
Sam Crane’s Hotspur also plays it for laughs, which makes him less of a foil to the dissolute Prince. His performance has perhaps too much of the puff-chested schoolboy about it to create the required tension as he leads his men into rebellion and bloodshed.

And now to the rogue – Falstaff, that “villainous, abominable misleader of youth”. Like Elizabeth I, we all fall in love with Sir John. Especially this one. Shakespeare gives him a lot to work with, but Roger Allam doesn’t miss a trick – he squeezes every last drop of comedy out of the text and adds some of his own. His Falstaff is urbane, fey and philosophical. He is also crude, reckless and (unusually) sexy. With impeccable timing and joyous physicality he is, oh, such good company.

Allam’s genius is to embrace the theatricality of the character – Falstaff loves being on show and Allam uses the particular intimacy of The Globe to great effect. The character doesn’t just perform in those famous tavern scenes. He also gets turns as wrestler Giant Haystacks in a Pythonesque moment where a superb Mistress Quickly (Barbara Marten) threatens him with a dead fish. And he is a passable Barry White figure, with Jade Williams’ fantastic Doll Tearsheet swooning at his charms. And who could blame her? With Allam in total, joyous control, we are all a little heady from the performance. This Falstaff is faultless.

But Falstaff isn’t irresistible to all. The fun cannot last and in Part 2 we see that the piper, in the form of the recorder-playing Hal, has to be paid. Solemnity sets in as the kingdom in turmoil takes its toll. There are still laughs but they start to sound hollow as the characters succumb to fatigue and stress.

Allam injects an escalating unease. Increasingly sordid and diseased, Falstaff is compelled to continue his charade as a soldier and this is one spotlight he isn’t comfortable in. Estranged from Hal, he is forced into plotting a poor joke against the charmingly doddery Shallow (William Gaunt). He never gets to tell the punchline. Appearing as an exhausted Bacchus, the energy passes to Jamie Parker who returns as a demented Pistol. Behind the euphoria at Hal’s ascendency we sense fear.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are epic plays. The history they write takes in the whole of the country and also the span of man’s life. It is to Dromgoole’s credit that this twin focus is never lost. Lording it over all is the epitome of life itself – Falstaff. In all of his joy and his pain Allam’s rogue is truly magisterial.

Until 9 October 2010


Photo by John Haynes

Written 15 July 2010 for The London Magazine