Tag Archives: Soutra Gilmour

“Twelfth Night” from NTLive

As another example of its diversity, this week’s offering from the National Theatre is Shakespeare. The interesting idea driving Simon Godwin’s production, which dates from 2017, could also be said to be diversity – challenging this most famous of gender-swapping comedies by openly acknowledging LGBTQ identities and gay marriage. The results of such a contemporary spin are mixed, but a strong cast makes the show solid.

To illustrate Godwin’s conceit, take Oliver Chris’s excellent Duke, who falls for Viola when he thinks she is a he. You expect jokes from the confusion, often pretty childish ones, but such laughs are held back. It’s a credit to Chris’s comic skills that the role is still funny. Likewise, Antonio’s feelings for Viola’s twin, Sebastian, are openly romantic… I remember that at school this was only coyly suggested.

A more eye-catching example of Godwin’s transformations comes with his star casting of Tamsin Greig and the turning of Malvolio into Malvolia. The female steward’s open adoration for her mistress Olivia (a role Phoebe Fox does very well with) doesn’t bat any eyelids. Nor is it a source of schoolboy fun. Of course, it shouldn’t be either. The joke for Shakespeare was one of status anyway, but note – this is a gag that Godwin ignores.

As with Chris, it’s down to Greig to still be funny and that she is – very. She gives a brilliant performance it is hard to praise enough, getting laughs with every line, working the audience to perfection. A nod to Mrs Danvers from Rebecca is genius. And there’s more. Grieg and Godwin don’t let us forget the religion in the play. Also, they tackle the character becoming “common recreation” exceptionally well. Let’s face it, the practical joke played on Malvolio/a ain’t funny. Greig makes sure the character retains some dignity and there’s a hard edge to her promise of revenge that is welcome.

Greig makes this Twelfth Night worth watching and it is clearly a work with intelligence behind it. Unfortunately, lots of ideas seem motivated by trying to make the show modern – and none of these are things we haven’t seen before. There’s a car on stage, a hospital monitor, a nightclub and a hot tub, while the Duke has a personal trainer and a birthday party. To all of this you can say, why not? But you can also say, why? Along with an ugly set from Soutra Gilmour, which highlights that both she and Godwin have used the auditorium poorly, and some inane music from Dan Jackson, the production does not equal its cast.

Twelfth Night at the National Theatre credit Marc Brenner
Tim Mcmullan, Doon Mackichan and Daniel Rigby

What of the play’s supposed heroes, the shipwreck-separated siblings, Viola and Sebastian? Amongst a good number of comics – Tim McMullan, Daniel Rigby and Doon Mackichan all need to be added here – the twins are, ahem, reduced to straight men. Both characters are only acted upon, robbed of agency, which you could argue is fair enough. But it’s only strong performances from Tamara Lawrance and Daniel Ezra that stop the characters from being boring and introduce any emotion into this interesting but inert production.

Available until Wednesday 29 April 2020

To support visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

"Evita" at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

This production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic must surely be the musical revival of the year. Recruiting director Jamie Lloyd has resulted in the biggest ever box-office success for Timothy Sheader’s open-air venue.

Lloyd’s irreverent streak suits early Rice/Lloyd Webber surprisingly well. It’s useful to remember that Evita started out as a concept album – free from the constraints of staging. Lloyd presents a stripped back version, akin to a concert, where the paraphernalia of politics relies on Soutra Gilmour’s costume design along with balloons, cheerleaders and confetti cannons galore. There isn’t much sense of place or period – instead we get a naked examination of power that feels it could be set any time or place… including now.

While ostensibly a biography of Eva Perón, néeDuarte, the controversial First Lady of Argentina between 1946 and 1952, Evita is really the story of two people – or should that be two approaches to government? The titular lead’s relationship with the show’s narrator, Che Guevara, is symbiotic as much as adversarial and Lloyd brings this out fearlessly. There’s a creepy scene suggesting a ménage with President Perón and the characters are made to share physical discomfort. At other moments, their intimacy suggests a twinning and is heartfelt. The duo proves fascinating.

Samantha Pauly as Eva Perón and Trent Saunders as Che in 'Evita' at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Samantha Pauly as Eva Perón and Trent Saunders as Che

Lloyd’s appreciation of Evita and Che is brought out wonderfully by his leads Samantha Pauly and Trent Saunders. Saunders is a magnetic presence who commands the stage; never mind the character, you could have him on a poster quite easily. With Pauly, at first, freshness is the key; she presents a young girl who is quick to laugh, even giggle. It’s only when the middle-classes are mentioned that Eva gets mad, frightening, in fact. She’s a political animal, which highlights the misogyny she experiences to great effect. As her health declines, Eva’s even angry with God. The contrast, if this isn’t insulting shorthand, is that Che is Rock while Eva is inspired by Pop; both are stars but the differences raise interesting questions. You may have heard the roles sung with more nuance, maybe with more beauty, but these are intelligent performances delivering Lloyd’s requirements.

The show’s dream sequence (the Waltz for Eva and Che) has everyone at their very best – it is amazing theatre. While Che is beaten, tarred and feathered with paint and confetti, Evita narrates her illness as under her control – “the choice was mine and mine completely”. Recall that Lloyd Webber and Rice’s previous work was Jesus Christ Superstar and the mind starts to boggle. Note that Che strips himself, while Eva’s saintly status has been played with all along. Lloyd brings out messianic tones of political cults with devastating force.

Samantha Pauly as Eva Perón and Company in 'Evita' at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Samantha Pauly as Eva Perón and Company

In reminding us how political a story Evita is, Lloyd focuses on protest. Filling the production with menace raises questions about populist regimes that are regrettably pertinent. Lloyd’s greatest ally is choreographer Fabian Aloise, who should surely be looking forward to awards season given his fantastic work here. A crack ensemble of dancers, integral to the action, power the show. Performing as the aristocracy and military one moment and then the descamisados the next, they fight for and against Evita with the most exquisite movements. Aloise deserves full praise for contributing to Lloyd’s astounding vision.

Until 21 September 2019

www.openairtheatre.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“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

“Romeo and Juliet” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Emma Rice’s second, and sadly final, season as creative director on the South Bank opened last night with a bold, experimental show directed by Daniel Kramer. Not for all tastes, and far from flawless, the production brims with intelligence as well as tricks – if originality is what you seek, it is plentiful.

The Montagues and Capulets are made up like clowns – “alike in dignity” indeed. Missiles hang in the sky and coffins abound as doom and death pervade the arena. Subtle it ain’t. Nearly every line is wrung for all its worth, with exaggerated delivery or incidental action. Even Romeo changing his trousers can mean missing a plot point. It’s exhausting, but always engaging. And such bombast makes the masque scene unmissable: karaoke ‘Y.M.C.A’? Why not? And Mrs C’s Fay Wray fancy dress is to die for.

Some of Kramer’s ideas are a puzzle. Why does Lady Capulet double as the apothecary? And why are there so many guns when knives and poison are specified? Other ideas have unfortunate consequences: the make-up and incredible costumes, a cohesive part of Soutra Gilmour’s design, make it difficult to differentiate characters. Which leads to the production’s biggest fault – a sense of performers struggling to stand out, leading to a kind of hyperinflation.

The notable exception is Golda Rosheuvel’s Mercutio, whose recasting as a woman adds tension to her friendship with Romeo. Rosheuvel embodies Queen Mab in unforgettable fashion and her death scene is shocking. In the title roles, Edward Hogg energetically follows Kramer’s strategy, using every inch of the stage. Kirsty Bushell’s Juliet is more captivating. The lovers present some of their venerated lines as hackneyed – a startling move that accentuates the often ridiculous and embarrassing nature of teenage love.

Kramer’s vision of the play is bleak right to the end –it’s about dying kids, after all. Anger fills the show, with a lot of running around. There’s a fantasy execution of parents and in-laws by Romeo, and Juliet’s lust is violent, too. Both scenes are riveting. The only quiet moment is the marriage night, during which Bushell and Hogg magically introduce a sombre tone. These lovers are more star defying than star crossed, leaving little room for any other emotion.

Kramer’s most exciting idea is conflating scenes. Joining Romeo and Juliet’s marriage with Mercutio’s fatal encounter with Tybalt adds poignancy. Playing scenes two and three of Act III simultaneously creates a riff on the theme of banishment and death that is inspired. It’s a shame these interpretations are more successful than the production’s emotional impact. Yet they are brilliant insights, shaping the way we see the play and, in my eyes, redeeming many of its faults.

Until 9 July 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Robert Workman

“Guards At The Taj” at the Bush Theatre

Reopening after a year of refurbishment and looking very smart indeed, artistic director Madani Younis’ reinvigorated west London venue is off to a brilliant new start. An award-winning play from American writer Rajiv Joseph combines with two big UK names: director Jamie Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour.

Joseph’s play is a marvel of economy – 80 minutes packed with ideas, emotion, comedy and tragedy. Two guards on the Taj Mahal construction site are forbidden from seeing the mausoleum before its completion, by decree from Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The tension between despotic whims and these average guys escalates into horrific acts that are the stuff of myths (the play has its share of gore) and raise profound questions about aesthetics and the individual in society. Yet Joseph deals with his themes lightly – no matter how dark and dangerous the drama gets.

Lloyd embraces the play’s contemporary feel, following instruction in the script that dialects are not to be used and highlighting every possible moment of relief in shocking circumstances. The performers – Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan – both deserve the highest praise. Kuppan makes it impossible not to love his character Babur’s “fancies and prophecies and inventions”. The more pragmatic Humayun more slowly grows on us (through our appreciation of his family life) a feat Ashok manoeuvres to give full force to both men’s tragedy.

Gilmour’s industrial aesthetic, recalling for me the work of Richard Serra or Richard Wilson’s 20:50 installation, looks fantastic. Working alongside lighting designer Richard Howell, this set is a real stunner. And Beauty, with a capital B, is important here. There are moments of wonder at architecture, also nature. And a beautiful friendship: touching scenes between the two men do more than lead to the final trauma. Babur and Hamayan’s dream of a different life produces that ingredient of hope that provides a “wow” to the play as a whole.

Until 20 May 2017

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Les Blancs” at the National Theatre

Lorraine Hansberry’s ambitious play, unfinished at the time of her early death, has been polished to perfection for director Yaël Farber’s stirring production. Combining theatrical realism with a yen for Greek theatre that makes the Olivier auditorium a perfect venue, this is a political drama that goes to the dark heart of human nature.

There’s a lot going on and the play is long. A white reporter and a returning local chief’s son arrive in an unspecified African country under colonial rule and become embroiled in a struggle for independence, trapped by their sense of responsibility – one to write a truthful story, the other to fight for freedom.

This isn’t a new play, so, the arguments against colonialism and exploitation are depressingly familiar. It’s in the debates intelligent presentation that the work becomes urgent while the passionate delivery makes the production excellent. The Whites of the title are impressively nuanced: centred around a hospital, doctors (engaging performances from James Fleet and Anna Madeley) wait for the return of their missionary leader, along with his wife, a magisterial role for Siân Phillips. Their opinions leak out under the journalistic gaze of Mr. Morris. In an angry performance by Elliot Cowan how much Morris has in common with the well intentioned Westerners is clear, but there’s a suspicion more subtlety could be plumbed.

The focus is the story of Tshembe Matoseh, a reluctant rebel fighter, “ravaged” by history, superbly portrayed by Danny Sapani. His two brothers (well delineated by Tunji Kasim and Gary Beadle) provide more perspective on the complexity of colonial rule. The anger and violence that overwhelms their family is firmly controlled by Hansberry’s text. A non-speaking woman, depicted impressively by Sheila Atim, accompanies Tshembe, allegorically adding to his burden, and the his inevitable descent into a tragic, you might say biblical, crime is shocking.

With all the argument in the play – several long speeches that could easily have defeated less able actors – it is a triumph that Farber has created such a theatrical and emotive show. Aided by Xhosa singers and Soutra Gilmour’s impressive set, we get not just politics but epic drama.

Until 2 June 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Urinetown” at the St James Theatre

Finally receiving its London premiere 13 years after it was such a success on Broadway, Urinetown The Musical opened this week at the St. James Theatre. The dystopian satire, by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, earned a host of awards in the States. Although it struck me as strangely dated, a standing ovation at the performance I attended makes it clear that there’s an audience desperate to go.

The unprepossessing premise is that an ecological disaster has resulted in a world where people pay to pee. There’s surprisingly little toilet humour actually. Instead it’s a satire on politics and the musical form itself. I say it’s old fashioned since the mischief and the tastelessness now seem predictable, but the second act provides some memorable musical numbers and it’s always nice to see a musical trying a little bit of politics.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the production – indeed it makes the show worth spending your pennies to see. Jamie Lloyd’s direction is deft and dark, Soutra Gilmour’s design crying out for a West End transfer and the performances from a top rate cast are strong.

Urine Town
Jonathan Slinger

Jonathan Slinger is a revelation as the narrator and police officer Lockstock, ably abetted by Adam Pearce as officer Barrell. Police and politicians are merely the henchmen of business baddy Cladwell, performed archly by Simon Paisley Day, who is ultimately willing to sacrifice his daughter Hope, played by Rosanna Hyland. Hyland is joined by Richard Fleeshman, whose character Bobby Strong leads a Les Mis-style rebellion (wearing a pre-shrunk T-shirt despite the water shortage), both young leads look the part and sound great. Stealing the show, though, is the excellent Jenna Russell, who gives such a spirited performance as Mrs Pennywise she stops you thinking she’s wasted in the role.

As the characters’ names will have indicated, and direct addresses to the audience make clear, Urinetown is all very knowing. The conventions of musicals are prodded mercilessly, and this joke, though performed well, tires. Maybe the final irony is that the show shoots itself in the foot – if it doesn’t take the genre seriously then why should we? It’s clever, but not that funny and sacrifices serious points. After all, it’s difficult to say that much with your tongue in your cheek all the time.

Until 3 May 2014

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 13 March 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Commitments” at the Palace Theatre

The Commitments isn’t the kind of show that recommends itself to reviewers – I can’t think of a more lamentable coupling than a jukebox musical riding on the tails on a popular film. But the critics have been kind. And the public has already voted with its feet. The Commitments is now booking until September this year.

Roddy Doyle’s book (the film came in 1991) is set on a council estate in Dublin well before any talk of Celtic Tigers. A group of locals form a band and, well, that’s it, really. There’s plenty of class-consciousness and the generally inspiring idea is that music changes lives, but very little else.

It’s no small achievement that director Jamie Lloyd manages to mask how thin the whole thing is and make it entertaining. Working at a terrific pace, he brings out plenty of humour and utilises Soutra Gilmour’s stunning set so that the whole thing has a slick West End feel.

And the performances will win you over. Denis Grindel has great stage presence as the band’s instigator and manager – you really believe he could get this thing going. Killian Donnelly gives a tremendous performance as Deco, the most naturally accomplished performer, with the arrogance to match. Joined by a host of talented others, including Sarah O’Connor, Stephanie McKeon and Jessica Cervi, who all sound great, and the band’s skinhead bouncer (Joe Woolmer), who gets the biggest laughs. It’s an achievement for such a large cast to individuate themselves.

As billed, The Commitments is hard working and there’s plenty of noise and action, with lots of crude gags that are more hit than miss, even if the ratio is a close call. Quickly into the second half any idea of a story is abandoned in favour of a concert. It seems an honest move that could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if adopted from the start. From hereon in, if soul music is your thing, you are bound to join in the fun.

Booking until 19 April 2015

http://thecommitments.london

Written 23 February 2014 for The London Magazine

“Antigone” at the National Theatre

As if to remind us that Greek woes are nothing new, the National Theatre’s new production of Antigone shows a state in danger of becoming incapacitated by chaos. And the bankers can’t be blamed on this occasion. Sophocles’ drama continues the tale of the Oedipus clan – it’s the story of the clash between his daughter and Thebes’ new ruler, Creon. Easily read as a conflict between the individual and the state, it could be set in pretty much any time and place. Polly Findlay and her designer Soutra Gilmour opt for a 70s feel that works well: distant, yet recognisable.

Don Taylor’s eloquent version drips with Shakespearean references: it’s speedy, clear and entertaining. But what to do with the chorus? As in many modern productions of Greek tragedy, the chorus is turned into a group of individuals with their own characters. The result here is that the commentary of this group of civil servants and military types often comes too close to office tittle-tattle. The move allows Findlay to get the most out of her ensemble and adds weight to some brief but effective observations about the sexism within the play, but despite all this, these aren’t fully developed characters and that can be unsatisfying.

But given the strength of the main performances, this is a minor gripe. Jodie Whittaker is tremendous in the title role. Full of convincing indignation about the fate of her family, she has a manic edge that gives some credence to the idea of her as “an enemy of the state”, adding drama and giving her character depth. Christopher Ecclestone’s performance as the tyrannical Creon is not to be missed. Powerful and controlled, for a portion of the play Creon seems admirably rational, and Ecclestone reveals his hubris with remarkable skill.

Until 21 July 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 1 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“The Duchess of Malfi” at The Old Vic

The stage is set for high drama at The Old Vic with Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Duchess of Malfi. Soutra Gilmour’s set excites at first, with accomplished lighting from James Farncombe, but it quickly tires. This gothic fantasia lacks subtlety and isn’t versatile enough – at one point it seems to snow inside a palace and, worse still, it has a cardboard cut-out feel that is unfortunately reflected in some of the performances.

Placing the focus on John Webster’s text, shouting the play’s complexity and trying to challenge our ideas about Jacobean revenge stories, Lloyd creates an exceptionally clear production. Clarity isn’t usually a fault but you can take anything to an extreme: much of the cast’s delivery becomes heavy and laboured. Lloyd is too good a director to make The Duchess of Malfi tedious but what should be a gut-wrenching ride of a play is too often halting.

There are important exceptions. Mark Bonnar plays the villainous Basola with great complexity. His treachery towards the Duchess and her steward (a fine performance from Tom Bateman), whom she has secretly married, is multilayered.

In the title role, Eve Best’s performance is never less than superb. It’s clear that for Lloyd her character is more than the victim of gruesome torture – she is a shinning light of humanity. Best is impressively natural, given the difficulty of the part. Believable as a real woman as well as a symbol of dignity, her performance saves the play.

Until 9 June 2012

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 29 March 2012 for The London Magazine