Tag Archives: Sam Yates

“A Separate Peace”from Remote Read

Welcome as the recorded shows helping theatre-lovers on lockdown are, a live stream is a lot closer to what we really love. It’s exciting even to wait for something to happen, let alone watch in real time.  Albeit a brief half hour show, labelled a reading rather than a performance, this offering from the Remote Read project is warmly welcome.

The choice of Tom Stoppard’s short, from 1964, shows itself as appropriate to our current situation gradually – it’s about a man who wants to do nothing. Arriving at the “A1” Beachwood Nursing Home, willing to pay to stay, Mr Brown wants “privacy and clean linen” in his search for a safe space. Stoppard develops a mystery, then a romance, and his patient with patience intrigues throughout.

There’s a lot of talent – working remotely, remember – to bring out the best in the piece. Director Sam Yates has done an excellent job with a starry cast. David Morrissey takes the lead as the “likeable” Brown, bringing out a lovely humour with suitably gnomic remarks working hard. Denise Gough introduces considerable tension as a Doctor trying to work out what is going on, with Ed Stoppard as the vaguely exasperated Matron. A subtle love interest with young nurse Maggie, played by Jenna Coleman, is made tender and touching. Coleman and Morrissey build up a great sense of togetherness – all the more remarkable when you remember they aren’t in the same room.

It is still hard to forget this is a Zoom meeting, no matter how different it is from one you’d have for work. Performing against a white background isn’t without problems, and I’d like to know if the number of screens viewers are shown can be controlled better. But these are mere technical glitches, and the storytelling in the show undoubtedly works. Behind the questions of Brown being “a crook or a lunatic”, which Yates allows to be explored so well, he is a challenging figure. Stoppard leaves open suggestions of background trauma, such that his character retains an air of enigma. Brown’s search for peace makes him something of a mystery, and hugely suited to puzzling over under imposed isolation. 

www.theremoteread.com

“The Starry Messenger” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Reprising his mammoth role in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2009 play proves an undoubted triumph for Matthew Broderick. As Mark, a “pedestrian” teacher of astronomy classes, Broderick delivers the text’s wit perfectly and sparse moments of emotion are superbly handled. But consider what an odd creation Mark is, being notable for dead-pan defeatism, extraordinary patience and unbelievable politeness. It’s a bizarre idea for a play to revel in how boring the main role is. Broderick meets the challenge with winning appeal and remarkable control. Yet nothing can make time with this character and his mid-life crisis stellar.

Lonergan’s odd strategies are clear in his dialogue, too. Ruthlessly pursuing a mundane realism means that long conversations go nowhere and are filled with pointless details. It’s an achievement of sorts but hard work for an audience. And, in case you’re wondering, we’re not talking metaphors here – Mark is insistent about that! As for the play’s plots, to have so many stories covering so many themes – death, divorce, family, faith and education – then not to develop them must be deliberate. The quirkiness has a certain charm, which director Sam Yates does an expert job in delivering. And yet… Presenting us with the cosmos and dry cleaning – big themes and minutiae – may take us close to everyday life, but it makes for pretty dull theatre.

There’s plenty to appreciate as Lonergan downplays the various dramas he sets up. Yates garners superb performances from a talented cast that form a collection of scenes with memorable moments. Elizabeth McGovern does well as Mark’s long-suffering wife, while Jim Norton gives a strong performance as a man at the end of his life. Even Mark’s pupils are well delineated (Jenny Galloway and Sid Sagar) although far too much time is spent in these scenes. And Rosalind Eleazar nearly steals the show as a nurse in training who starts an affair with Mark. Managing to make her passion for the man believable is no small achievement.

There’s a warm glow from all the characters – more or less reasonable, articulate and well-motivated – which indicates Lonergan is making a point, again. It’s another way to stifle drama. Most of us walking in on an illicit kiss would surely react a little more pointedly than we see here. For The Starry Messenger it all seems to be something to shrug at. That life has no meaning is a little too clear, and religion and spirituality are dismissed too repeatedly – at least to make good drama. But, like it or not, most of us search for insights from a play. What this one has to say about morality and mortality ends up slim. Three hours is a long time to point out that people are insignificant specks in the universe. Such a message is hardly out of this world.

Until 10 August 2019

www.starrymessengerplay.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Phlebotomist” at the Hampstead Theatre

There is a great excitement around playwright Ella Road and her first impressive play. After a sell-out premiere last year and a transfer from the venue’s studio space into the main house – with an Olivier nomination under its belt – congratulations are in order. Road’s ear for dialogue is sure and the production strong. It’s a shame that control of the subject matter is lost in this sci-fi romance. Ultimately, the genre ends up manipulating the writer, rather than the other way around.

The scenario is that a system of genetic ratings based on blood tests changes our not-too-distant future. Road has no shortage of ideas, and a series of films crowds the show with news reports or fake adverts. But none of this is particularly novel or hard to foresee, so the play as a whole becomes predictable. While the testing is initially to assist in healthcare, its application in jobs, dating and then eugenics appears quickly. Each could be the focus of a play in its own right but, crammed together, the topics feel thinly explored. There are too many questions and some silly inconsistencies, while tacking on environmental concerns doesn’t help either. There’s a reason sci-fi has so much detail – without the geeky touches, the future world we find ourselves in fails to convince.

Road escalates outrage at a steady rate but with little change of pace in the structure of her scenes, so the show feels slow. By the time we’ve got the legalisation of “post-natal abortion”, attempts to challenge the audience feel more than desperate – they are naïve. Tasteless or provocative? That might depend on your view of human nature. But it seems fair to suggest it’s a dramatic own goal to curtail a plot about the fight again “rateism” so quickly. Only one figure (and a couple of news snippets) attempts to challenge this nightmarish system. A subplot about dealing in blood is carefully contained as a matter of financial corruption. The characters are worryingly lacking in morality or even agency.

For all the problems with the plot, the production is good. Road benefits from ambitious direction from Sam Yates and a superb cast that laps up her well-written lines. Mark Lambert makes for an intriguing impartial observer in his role as a hospital porter. Kiza Deen does sterling work as a protestor who develops Hodgkin disease during the course of the play. The Phlebotomist is essentially a love story between Angus – played by Rory Fleck Byrne, who reveals his character marvellously – and Bea. She holds the occupation that gives the play its title, and the role shows Road’s strengths. A brilliant performance from Jade Anouka – who demands both our sympathy and revulsion – makes her the highlight of the night.

Until 20 April 2019

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Glengarry Glen Ross” at the Playhouse Theatre

The American playwright David Mamet has plenty of fans. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work from 1984, filmed in 1992, has lines so famous this revival’s smart advertising campaign quotes them. Until now, I’ve never been a huge admirer, finding Mamet’s themes blunt and his language, while powerful, too brutal. But here, Sam Yates’ direction exposes the author’s subtlety, making his production a terrific show for all.

Three intense duologues open the play, introducing us to Chicago real estate agents and their cut-throat world. The scenes are close studies on the part of Yates and his superb cast. Kris Marshall plays the office manager, who has power over the lists of leads he distributes, and he does well in distancing his character from the other workers. Due to the unfortunate indisposition of Robert Glenister, Mark Carlisle takes up the role of a particularly desperate salesman, and proves impressively up to speed, working well in his scene with Don Warrington. The plots hatched and bargains struck are funny in their transparency but there’s no doubt the stakes are high. It’s the brevity that impresses with this trio of sketches – so much atmosphere and characterisation so very quickly.

The star of the production is the fictional company’s top salesman, Ricky Roma, played by Christian Slater, who convinces as someone who could sell the proverbial brick to a drowning man. Slater’s charisma makes for perfect casting, and his mischievous, arch delivery brings out the play’s wicked humour. But there’s more: the real focus of the play is veteran salesman Shelley Levene, nicknamed “the machine”, and next to his old mentor Slater shows an impressive restraint.

Stanley Townsend gives a superb performance as Levene. Technically brilliant, his understanding of Mamet’s rhythm is marvellous, he gets great laughs but also makes the play moving. The brief mentions of his daughter, like all the women in the play never actually named, creates a powerful emotional undertow. This is “a world of men”, but look how troubled it is. Yates draws out the desperation and pressure underlying these workers’ lives, with a nod to the tradition of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. It’s intelligent insight, convincingly delivered, that makes this a revelatory production.

Until 3 February 2018

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Murder Ballad” at the Arts Theatre

This tale of adultery and death is deliberately downbeat. In the hands of director Sam Yates the realism aimed for casts a spell. With just four characters, who sing throughout, a strong cast creates a greater intimacy than the show really deserves. Distracting from Juliana Nash’s music – efficient with imaginative touches – are too many poor lyrics. Acknowledging truisms doesn’t make them clever. Making stereotypes a theme doesn’t make them interesting.

The cast is superb. Wicked star Kerry Ellis clearly wants to show a serious side and she succeeds, despite nonsensically singing that her character “shouts silently”. Ellis plays Sara, who is in a love triangle with Tom and Michael (Ramin Karimloo and Norman Bowman). The two men in her life sound great, establish their thin characters miraculously – and fans will be pleased that Karimloo takes his shirt off. The latter rises above the fact that he has to sing about the one that got away – literally – moving on to a better number where he gets to be creepy. Shame it occurs so late. Worse, it’s hard to get over Sara and Tom being described as “two cats in a fish bowl”. How big a bowl? How did they get in it? Why don’t they just climb out?

Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo
Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo

The show belongs to a fourth character, played by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, who acts as a narrator and brings a cooler edge, observing proceedings, with cynical sophistication. She also gets the best song, which compares the tawdry tragedy on stage to the glamour of the movies. Yates takes his cue from this cinematic reference, creating a noirish feel, with admirable use of projections that adds tension and style. It’s the atmosphere Yates crafts that allows us to examine the “roles assigned” – husband, mother, lover – with wit and intelligence. That’s how you work with clichés.

Until 3 December 2016

www.murderballadmusical.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The El. Train” at Hoxton Hall

Hoxton Hall has been transformed for a short run of three one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill. Billed as The El. Train, with the action set beneath the bustle of the New York Subway at the turn of the century, there are no long journeys to endure here as the short pieces run right on time. O’Neill’s bleak themes of desperation are easily recognisable, but this is an night of drama and action, backed by a superb jazz soundtrack, with original music from Alex Baranowski, that adds a satisfying unity to the evening.

The first two plays, Before Breakfast and The Web, are superbly directed by Sam Yates. Both star two-time Olivier Award winning Ruth Wilson who gives versatile performances as a downtrodden wife and an abused prostitute. Before Breakfast serves as a commanding monologue, produced with gripping precision from both director and actor. Special praise goes to the carefully delivered humour brought out in the production – a clear indication of the intelligence behind the whole evening. The Web is an even darker exploration of a criminal underworld. The unbelievable cruelty of a pimp, portrayed effectively by Zubin Varla, an heroic rescue, and a baby thrown in for extra emotion – there’s a little too much going on for its own good. But Yates does a superb job to embrace and pace the action. Wilson’s reappearance in this role, as a consumptive streetwalker, close to death, is tremendous.

A transformation marks the finest theatrical moment of the final piece as well, with Nicola Hughes metamorphosing into an elderly woman as she sings between the plays. In The Dreamy Kid, Hughes’ Mammy Saunders is on her deathbed, waiting to say goodbye to a beloved grandchild. He is being watched by the police and his visit will be a trap as his crime catches up with him. The play marks Ruth Wilson’s directorial debut, a cleverly modest one, which takes a lead from Yates’ work and maintains the high standards and exciting tension.

And to round off a fine evening, an accompanying bar benefits from the atmosphere the talented musicians on stage have established so well. The Hell Hole Saloon is a pop-up venue that ostensibly takes its inspiration from the Golden Swan saloon O’Neill frequented. It’s much nicer really, with themed cocktails, including a delicious hot buttered rum which is perfect for the season, and fantastic service under the supervision of award-winning bartender Joe Stokoe.

Until 30 December 2013

Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 14 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“Cornelius” at the Finborough Theatre

The latest “rediscovery” of a play from the Finborough Theatre is Cornelius by J.B.Priestley and it’s a real gem. A rich text, full of ideas, humour and drama, it is not to be missed. Not content with revealing this hidden treasure, last performed in London seventy years ago, director Sam Yates gives this superb play the excellent production it deserves.

Cornelius is at first a gentle, office-based comedy, with a cast of amusing characters sure to entertain. In a strong ensemble special note has to be made of Beverley Klein who takes on two roles with great skill. Yates handles the comedy superbly with a masterful nod at what a modern audience makes of the more dated moments. Similar intelligence is seen dealing with the social themes that so engaged Priestley: Cornelius runs a business in trouble, in dire economic times, with work interrupted by desperate salesmen and creditors. Cleverly, Yates handles any parallels to our current state with the lightest of touches.

What really interests is Cornelius himself; a fantastic creation, Yates and his lead actor Alan Cox understand him wonderfully. Bluff and blustering, appealing in his modesty and humour, Cox is perfect in bringing out nuance and adding the touch of poetry that makes his character fascinating.

There’s romance for Cornelius but his relationships with the devoted Miss Porrin and the down to earth Judy, finely performed by Annabel Topham and Emily Barber respectively, show two sides of unrequited love that makes the piece feel refreshingly real.

Cornelius contains a touch of mystery and tragedy as well, coming from his business partner, the intense Murrison remarkably portrayed by Jamie Newall, giving rise to dark observations, such as the “scheme and scratch” nature of office work, that are sure to ring true with many. But there is hope in Cornelius that the production embraces in proud style. Yates brings great focus to a tight script, making Cornelius a riveting work and this production is not just the finest on the fringe but one of the hottest tickets in town.

Until 8 September 2012

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Robert Workman

Written 17 August 2012 for The London Magazine

“Mixed Marriage” at the Finborough Theatre

Mixed Marriage at the Finborough Theatre is a centenary revival that makes sense. St John Ervine’s 1911 play about sectarian violence and industrial action in the north of Ireland strikes a chord in our troubled times, while a love story across the religious divide concerns the timeless conflict between the personal and the political.

Director Sam Yates observes the period of the play meticulously. More impressively, he opens up the drama wonderfully. Masterful pacing gives the audience time to draw parallels without forcing them. The “fighting and wrangling” for money, and the use of fear as a tool of division, are highlighted subtly and seamlessly.

A romance between a young Catholic girl and her Protestant neighbour is moving, but I suspect a sleight of hand here. Yates skilfully circumvents any melodrama in the text, making the dilemma the couple faces – the possibility that their union could literally cause a riot – heart-stoppingly tense. The final scene is as gripping as it is grim.

Yates’ cast responds superbly to his sure direction. Christopher Brandon and Nora-Jane Noone are fantastic as the young lovers. Joel Ormsby and Damien Hannaway play their siblings in fine style. The older members of the cast take the lead, though, with Daragh O’Malley and Fiona Victory as Mr and Mrs Rainey – a Protestant couple caught between her homely appeal to tolerance and his fiercely stubborn preference for political loyalties.

Mixed Marriage is at once remarkably concise – it’s a meaty 80 minutes with no interval – and admirably clear. Excellent direction and performances allow the ideals of St John Ervine to ring out – the inspiring notion that two people in love can be “bigger than the world” is cause for celebration.

Until 29 October 2011

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Written 7 October 2011 for The London Magazine