Tag Archives: Samuel Barnett

"Allelujah!" at the Bridge Theatre

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.

Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett
Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett

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.
Until 29 September 2018
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" at the Menier Chocolate Factor

Four decades is a long time in sexual politics, but it makes this revival of Manuel Puig’s story all the more interesting. There’s no shortage of clichés about gay life surrounding the imprisoned Molina, some of which might make you feel uncomfortable. But, as the relationship with his cell mate Valentin develops into something ‘beyond’ masculine and feminine, we see more clearly now than ever the original intention that Molina is a transgendered character. Missing the opportunity to cast a performer who identifies as such in the role is a debate I leave to others better qualified to discuss. But this timely new version, by José Rivera and Allan Baker, provides the kind of detailed depiction of human sexuality many crave to see on stage.
Jon Bausor’s ambitious design visualises Molina’s fantasy life. As he passes the time recounting and embellishing old movie plots, there are projections on to prison corridors and sound effects. The space surrounding the couple’s cell come into use: as love blossoms, the men start to venture outside, each step they take dramatically thrilling, leading to a magically poignant finale of escape through death. Sorry for the plot spoiler, but it would be surprising if anyone thought the play, set in a police state and full of torture, would end happily. The important point is a victory, of sorts, with both men’s spirits unconquered.
The show is a triumph for its stars, on stage without a break for just shy of two hours. Declan Bennett, well known as a musical theatre performer, shows his strength an actor playing Valentin. He’s a political prisoner and, while this element of the plot, and the tension surrounding it, is downplayed, Bennett convinces as a man of powerful integrity and intelligence. Samuel Barnett takes the role of Molina. He may ham up the more theatrical moments a touch, but he is never less than magnetic. Molina bargains with his captors, acting as a double agent, and there could be the suggestion of more complex motivations on his part. But the strategy is to present Molina wholly sympathetically and, pursuing this, Barnett secures affection for his character, making the show deeply moving.
Until 5 May 2018
www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photo by Tristram Kenton

"The Beaux’ Stratagem" at the National Theatre

A Restoration comedy of love and manners, so steeped in cynicism that its heroes plot to marry for money, George Farquhar’s classic is a snapshot of 18th-century society that brims with life and adventure. Replete with desperate gentlemen, crooked innkeepers and comedy highwaymen, Simon Godwin’s revival feels credible and fresh.
Samuel Barnett and Geoffrey Streatfeild make appealing leads as Aimwell and Archer – the “marksmen” out to hunt rich women. Pippa Bennett-Warner and Susannah Fielding are similarly engaging as their love interests. Fielding carries the part of the miserably married Mrs Sullen well – tricky in a production that seems extravagantly enamoured of her. Mrs Sullen is pivotal, yes, and Fielding embodies her with sense and sensuality, but the production halts, shouting “This is important” so loudly that it becomes patronising.

Jpeg 16. Geoffrey Streatfeild (Archer) and Samuel Barnett (Aimwell)_The Beaux' Stratagem_credit Manuel Harlan
Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer and Samuel Barnett as Aimwell

There are some great insults in The Beaux’ Strategem: I look forward to being able to use “prostrate engineer”. And Farquhar’s similes are superb, describing marriage as “two carcasses joined unnaturally together”. The cast, along with music, provide nice comic touches, but Godwin blunts the play’s momentum: smaller parts aren’t tamed enough and the initially impressive set by Lizzie Clachan becomes cumbersome.
There’s a great swashbuckling fight where we see how Archer “fights, loves, and banters, all in a breath” and for a moment the show lifts off. But we’re back to down to earth, with added sentimentality, as our heroes become disarmed by love. Maybe it’s Godwin’s ponderous build-up to these unexpected changes of heart that has slowed things down? If there is a strategy here, it has failed. The whole show feels too… thorough. That should be praise, but a lack of spirit and spontaneity means that the production just isn’t funny enough.
Until 20 September 2015
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Having to write about a play can spoil watching it. Many a schoolchild has been put off Hamlet, trying to fathom out what happens, conscious they will be examined on it. It’s a relief to find that in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the characters are in the same situation; baffled by the unfolding plot and their role in it, their predicament creates a special affinity with the audience.

Tom Stoppard, of course, knows exactly what is going on, in his hands we never feel too scared – just highly entertained. Stoppard’s first masterpiece, from 1965, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, doesn’t feel dated in the slightest – its intelligent humour shines forth. Seeing the events in Hamlet unfold via once minor, now major characters, we are introduced to the theme of free will, with speculation on aesthetics, and dazzling verbal badinage.

Stoppard’s dexterous writing is well served in director Trevor Nunn’s superb production. Having missed out on the chance to direct the plays premiere, Nunn relishes the opportunity now. There is an appropriate exuberance in his direction that does him credit.

Arriving from the Chichester Festival the production is already polished. The Players that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter make a convincing ensemble of tatterdemalions. Times are tough for performers, they will “stoop to anything” to entertain, and as their leader Chris Andrew Mellon conquers, hilariously guiding our heroes around the artifice of the world they are trapped in.

In the lead roles, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, the one-time History Boys, are reunited, and this duo needs no lessons in comedy. Parker explains their predicament marvellously: seeking logic and justice in the theatre, fate means they are condemned to “death followed by eternity”, with their roles puzzled over forever more. But Barnett literally runs rings around his colleague, getting every laugh going and showing that Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is a very lively affair indeed.

Until 20 August 2011

www.trh.co.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 22 June 2011 for The London Magazine

“Women Beware Women” at the National Theatre

Harriet Walter is a woman to be scared of, at least, she is in the National Theatre’s current production of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. She plays Livia, gifted and cursed with a demonic persuasive power. Through deceit she organises an incestuous affair between her brother and her niece and engineers the rape of a newly married neighbour. Yet she does it all with a great deal of charm. She’ll manage to persuade you that she isn’t all that bad.

Her victims are Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) and Isabella (Vanessa Kirby). They transform from young, innocent women in love into killers bent on revenge. It’s a delicious change, and one the actresses clearly relish. Taking their lead from Walter, they adopt a cool, clever and cynical approach to marriage while passion boils inside them as they plot murder. As their metamorphosis occurs, Livia falls in love herself – she decides to take Bianca’s husband as a toy boy. Unfortunately for her, the transformation allows emotions to begin clouding her judgement.

And what of the men? They should have plenty of reason to beware these women, but their own arrogance and hypocrisy make them oblivious as to how they are manipulated. Richard Lintern is suitably villainous as the Duke who abducts Bianca, and Raymond Courtauld genuinely creepy as the uncle who loves Isabella. If Samuel Barnett seems slightly miscast as the man who manages to get Bianca to elope, he makes a good show of playing the doting husband and gets his fair share of laughs.

Focusing on the melodrama as a strategy for getting humour out of a revenge tragedy might seem like a risk. Making characters less rounded than they are written only works if you have a strong cast. Fortunately, director Marianne Elliott is working with fine actors and the payoff is a great deal of fun. Elliott has great skill as a storyteller and can cut through complicated plots to provide refreshing clarity. She is also visionary when it comes to staging and here the production takes off.

Designer Lez Brotherston’s set is magnificent. A decadent mixture of art deco glamour and baroque drama, it manages to reflect the grand and intimate, rich and poor, while evoking the games and perils of seduction. And it works in more than one way. Making the most of the Olivier’s revolving stage, the final scene of murderous mayhem is perfectly choreographed and truly thrilling.

Until July 4 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 29 April 2010 for The London Magazine