Tag Archives: Sophie Thompson

“Little Wars”: a rehearsed reading

As a second lockdown begins, there’s still a chance to get close to quality theatre, even if it is online. It’s hard not to be grumpy, though. This rehearsed reading of Steven Carl McCasland’s play makes it painfully obvious how much better a staged production would be. Nonetheless, the history in the piece is interesting and the event boasts an excellent cast.

Set in the home of Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the scenario at first is a dream dinner party or, rather, soirée. Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Parker are going to pop by. There’s plenty of wit as well as friction to entertain, led by the somewhat dotty old couple who are as eccentric as they are erudite.

Little Wars quickly takes a more serious tone as a war-time spy drama. Toklas and Stein’s final guest is the brave Muriel Gardiner, who smuggles refugees out of Germany on the very night France surrenders. She’s a fascinating character, capably depicted by Sarah Solemani, so it’s a shame that the role feels like a forced foil – a too obvious moral conscience for the play. Unfortunately, McCasland’s plotting is slow, a flaw director Hannah Chissick cannot disguise, as well as heavy handed.

The superb cast adds some sophistication. Debbie Chazen makes an excellent – drunk – Dorothy Parker (tricky on stage, let alone online). Juliet Stevenson is fantastic as the steely Hellman, a role that, like a too-aloof Christie (Sophie Thompson) needs further development. The real treat comes with our hosts. Ably supported by Catherine Russell as Toklas, Linda Bassett’s performance as Stein is astonishing. Full of fury as much as fun, this “rare kind of bird” is dignified, frightening and inspiring. Bassett makes Stein’s poetry sound natural and the way her cold anger is carefully exposed is brilliant.

It’s no surprise that the evening’s conversation never lacks drama or interest. The talk is crammed with detail about the women’s lives that shows a lot of research. It’s fascinating, but McCasland does not wear his learning lightly. A bigger problem comes with efforts to expand from specific biography to broader experiences. There are highlights: a preoccupation with memory arising from Stein’s potential dementia is very moving. But the battle of ideas that McCasland tries to set up as his finale – with Christie and Hellman coming across as downright odd – falls very flat. At least there’s some fantastic acting to enjoy along the way.

Until 8 November

www.littlewars.co.uk

Photo by john Brannoch

“Present Laughter” at the Old Vic

That Andrew Scott’s career is currently at such a well-deserved high adds extra piquancy to his taking the role of actor Garry Essendine in Noël Coward’s play. In a part that’s easily interpreted as the writer’s alter ego, Scott has the star quality to make this study of fame convincing. With such charm and magnetism having everyone run around after him, battling adoration from all and succumbing to temptation time and again, becomes believable and increasingly funny. The joke is on everyone – those chasing and our poor, pursued hero.

Scott doesn’t just get laughs from Coward’s studied script, which is wonderful, but has such command of the stage that every moment is made potentially comic. Showing as much incredulity as élan gives us the oft-cited childishness of the middle-aged man, as well as lot of energy. But Scott has the skill as an actor to make his character’s flaws mean something: for all Essendine’s self-obsession, this is a tender portrayal that appreciates the man’s loneliness.

The production belongs to Scott. Coward made the character – which he performed of course – a mammoth role. Few will complain, in this case. But while the variety of the author’s wit is shown with the various hangers-on around him, the play’s other characters are underdeveloped. The laughs are consistent enough, especially with Sophie Thompson’s performance, but the “adoring and obeying” entourage are mere foils. Only Essendine’s ex-wife can hold her own against him and Indira Varma’s performance benefits as a result: a truly suave figure, her delivery of the world “congealed” is worth attendance alone. Changing the gender for one of Essendine’s lovers – Joanna becomes Joe – barely raises an eyebrow. It’s nice to get the subtext shared by so many of Coward’s plays out of the way and it gives a menace to the role that Enzo Cilenti does well with.

For all the practiced superficiality of the characters and the farce within the plot, the production shows Coward’s depth as a writer. The sweet sorrow that was the text’s original title is given its due – to Scott’s credit – but also through director Matthew Warchus’ sensitivity and intelligence. Each act has a distinct tempo, as a drawing-room comedy becomes sexy before developing a mania that almost becomes grating. Meanwhile, the final act plays with the farce we have just seen before becoming somber. The ending is brave, as the quips that have proved so entertaining alter in tone to become fraught. Essendine’s rants, the overacting we’ve enjoyed so much at, pass into something sad, even dangerous. The play shows itself to be about more than present laughter as Warchus gives it the potential to linger in the mind.

Until 10 August 2019

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

"The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Vaudeville Theatre

A year-long season of Oscar Wilde plays, masterminded by Dominic Dromgoole, draws to a close with the biggest and best: the great man’s famous comedy of misconstrued manners and identities that everyone agrees is a masterpiece. All the productions from the Classic Spring Theatre Company have been fresh and intelligent, with a marked confidence in their material, and this show from director Michael Fentiman is no exception.
A talented cast is inspired to be bold. Fehinti Balogun has real star quality as a particularly dandyish Algernon, while his fellow bachelor Jack is played with amusing bluster by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd. Their love interests are both portrayed as formidable characters, with great performances from Fiona Button and Pippa Nixon. As for the older generation, looking on at the love affairs and ostensibly in charge, every line from Sophie Thompson’s Lady Bracknell and Stella Gonet’s Miss Prism is worth listening to, as Wilde pokes at any and all pretension.
This is as bacchanalian a production as you could wish for Wilde – full of food and sex. Compulsive eating is picked out; watching the cast manage sandwiches and crumpets while delivering such complex lines is its own pleasure. And while remaining credibly fin de siècle, these are the lustiest ladies you could get away with (Button’s “tremors” are beautifully delivered). Meanwhile Balogun plays Algernon with a polyamorous streak that’s blissfully naughty.
The production has a careful eye on class with the servants’ limited lines playing a big part. Algernon’s butler, Lane, becomes part of the family and benefits from a strong performance from Geoffrey Freshwater. Thompson’s Lady B is satisfyingly innovative: there’s no dithering about with that handbag line and there’s a touching moment at the plot reveal. Yes, no matter how silly, Thompson is right to bring a tear to her eye here.
A clean, clear look at a famous text, even one as perfect as this, is always good. The balance with retaining what made it a classic is perfect here. Perhaps the approach can be summed up with the complementary work on set and costume design from Madeline Girling and Gabriella Slade, respectively. The stage is almost bare, free of fussy period details, while the wardrobe is spot on and gorgeous. So there’s nothing to get in the way of the comedy. And nothing to deny the date of the piece either. It’s to Fentiman’s credit that his touches are thought provoking and respectful – and in every case increase the wonderful humour on offer.
Until 20 October 2018
www.classicspring.co.uk
Photo by Marc Brenner

"Guys and Dolls" at the Savoy Theatre

Another hit transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre which, after its production of Gypsy, must be feeling at home in the Savoy. This exquisitely polished show matches the venue’s sophisticated glamour perfectly. New Yorker Gordon Greenberg directs, bringing an appropriate feel for Broadway to Frank Loesser’s “musical fable” of men about town and their much put-upon women.
Great material, superbly executed, the show’s hit songs sound better than ever. At the risk of being ungallant, the guys have the edge slightly, creating a big sound and working together to get the laughs. Greenberg pays attention to the humour in Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book, following two gamblers, the high-rolling Sky Masterson and fixer Nathan Detroit, placing their bets on matrimony to, respectively, a Salvation Army sergeant and a nightclub hostess. Space is created for a series of strong comic performances, especially from Gavin Spokes and Ian Hughes, as Nicely Nicely and Benny – a double act to die for. This gang of gamblers forms a coherent group that’s more than just a background note to the love affairs on offer.
A further highlight is the production’s strong choreography – they’ve got both Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright on board – with a trip to Havana generating a genuine fantasia as well as a spirited fight scene. Peter McKintosh’s design is a simple affair that will serve the production well on tour, but aids the dancers immeasurably. The key is the lighting (bravo designer Tim Mitchell) impressively adding structure to scenes. And special mention goes to the gloriously colourful costumes.
The central performances are superb. These characters are grown-ups and the balance between romance and realism is deftly handled. While Siubhan Harrison stalls slightly as Salvation Army Sarah, failing to exploit the book’s satire, Jamie Parker is a hit from the start as Sky. Charismatic and sounding superb, Parker adds tension to Luck Be A Lady – a revelatory performance of a well-known number. Close to stealing the show are David Haig and Sophie Thompson as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide (we all recognise the cracking chemistry from Four Weddings And a Funeral). Haig is at his most charming and Thompson makes both renditions of her Adelaide’s Lament something to celebrate.
Until 12 March 2016
www.guysanddollsthemusical.co.uk
Photos by Johan Persson

“She stoops to conquer’ at the National Theatre

Any production of a comedy at the National Theatre is likely to be compared to the venue’s most recent success, One Man, Two Guvnors. As Richard Bean’s updating of Goldoni’s play moves to Broadway, and opens with a new cast in the West End, the National’s newest attempt to make us merry is a traditional version of another 18th-century classic, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Remarkably, the National has succeeded again – this is a delightful production with guaranteed belly laughs.

Our hero Marlow is sent to visit his prospective bride Kate, played commendably by Harry Hadden-Paton and Katherine Kelly. But while Marlow can banter with barmaids he is impotent when flirting with women of his own class. A practical joke by Kate’s half-brother Tony Lumpkin (a superb comic creation in the hands of David Fynn) leads Marlow to believe the home of his future father-in-law is the local inn. Exploiting the confusion, Kate joins in the deception, bawdily stooping in class to conquer her diffident suitor.

SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER by Goldsmith
Sophie Thompson as Mrs Hardscastle

Another pair of lovers, Constance (the appealing Cush Jumbo) and Hastings, joins the fun, planning to elope under the nose of the former’s guardian, the pretentious and avaricious Mrs Hardcastle. Sophie Thompson is superb in the role, her deliciously exaggerated performance making her one of the most endearing characters of the piece. But it’s John Heffernan as the foppish Hastings who takes the evening’s comic laurels delivering a master class in buffoonery and raillery.

It’s a relief that director Jamie Lloyd doesn’t try anything tricksy with the play. She stoops to conquer is “old-fashioned trumpery” that doesn’t need a modern take. Lloyd has the confidence to play it straight, knowing he just has to control the action, and the laughs will follow. Mark Thompson’s design provides the doors to slam – the text doesn’t really call for them but they add a reassuringly farcical touch. And the music – all pots and pans and trolololing, provided by Ben & Max Ringham, directed and arranged by David Shrubsole, adds immeasurably to the production. You have to see the ensemble perform it to believe how funny it is – that’s if you can hear it above the laughter.

Until 28 March 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 1 February 2012 for The London Magazine

“Clybourne Park” at the Royal Court

Property is a London obsession, so American writer Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park – the story of a neighbourhood told through the development of one house – has the potential to strike a chord with the audience at the Royal Court.

The house in question is not, like so many in literature, a repository of values. Rather it is blank canvas that, in two different times, characters project their ideas onto. Act one is set in the 1950s with the house about to be sold to the area’s first black residents – cue debate.
Unfortunately, Norris’ vision of the 50s doesn’t ring true. Director Dominic Cooke fails to reign in the sense of parody and the cast (with the exception of Lorna Brown and Lucian Msamati) lose themselves in it. There are some beautiful asides, often taking place just inside the front door, but the forced politeness we are supposed to laugh at is unconvincing.

Act two moves to safer ground, and better things, in the present day. The house is about to be pulled down and two yuppies plan to build a new home on the site. The same actors appear for a community meeting (a more satisfying scenario for discussion) concerning what is now considered the black heritage of the area. Norris’ observation and dialogue is sharp, dark and entertaining, his wit rapacious and cruel.

The performances take off with Martin Freeman justly confident in his comic ability, Sophie Thompson and Sarah Goldberg positively shinning, and Brown and Msamati again wonderful. There are some awkward moments as a series of tasteless old jokes are recited, less to entertain than to test reactions in a contrived manner, but generally this comedy of (bad) manners works superbly well.

A subplot concerning a tragedy in the house becomes lost, making the concerns of the present day characters seem trivial, and the danger is that we start to lose interest in them. The connections between eras, potentially so rich, are not given enough space. Norris’ play, which has been well received in America, needs further development. As it stands, Clydbourne Park should never have been given planning permission.

Until 2 October 2010

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Written 3 September 2010 for The London Magazine