Moving Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy to the 1930s proves a neat idea in director Tom Littler’s new production. Add a cracking cast and some seasonal touches and the show, which would be perfect any time of year, makes a very happy Christmas theatre trip.
This comedy of manners and mistaken identity is well known, but Littler makes it blissfully light. The wit is verbose, surely tongue-tying for performers, but the delivery here is always clear. Dashes of Wodehouse help – the division of town and country and a clash of classes become spiffing fun. And Littler is very much at home working in the round, making sure the action zips along among Anett Black and Neil Irish’s stylish design.
This is an ensemble that looks as if it’s having a great time and every role comes into its own. First up are Mr and Mrs Hardcastle, the country gentry, played by David Horovitch and Greta Scacchi. Horovitch gets a laugh out of nearly every line as the “grumbletonian” patriarch. Scacchi keeps up, despite a less forgiving role – anyone else feel sorry for this doting mum who doesn’t get her trip to London? As her prodigal offspring, Guy Hughes is the convivial heart of the play. He’s great with crowds and the Orange Tree’s community performers who have a lovely pub scene – well done them.
Celebrations continue with the play’s pairs of lovers. Sabrina Bartlett and Robert Mountford are at home as super-toffs plotting to elope, their roles serving as fitting mirrors to our stars, Tanya Reynolds and Freddie Fox. As the leads, the comedy from this pair is perfection. Reynolds is a great flapper. And so is Fox – the perfect “silly puppy” – especially when his “list of blunders” is slowly revealed.
Among the giggles there is sincerity, too. Reynolds shows us the dutiful daughter Goldsmith wrote, as well as the modern woman we want. When she claps her hands at a scheme, you want to join in. But when she starts to fall in love, it’s sweet. And who doesn’t like a rom-com at Christmas?
If Somerset Maugham’s work as a playwright is unfairly neglected, as director Tom Littler suggests, this revival of a play from 1921 should create a lot of interest. The piece is superbly crafted and hugely entertaining – I haven’t laughed so much in a theatre for a long time. And the production is excellent; overflowing with talent, it is a tribute to the text.
The Circle is a relatively simple drawing room drama, albeit expertly explicated. The scandalous Lady Kitty, who eloped with Lord Hughie, returns home to see her abandoned son, Arnold, but has to deal with her husband Clive hanging around. While aristocratic manners downplay the drama, Maugham ups the stakes with the threat that history is about to repeat itself – Arnold’s wife, Elizabeth, has fallen in love with a house guest called Teddie.
The joy of the play comes with the comedy – the script is full of acerbic observations that are funny while creating tension. And every line is delivered to perfection. Much of the bile comes from the cuckolded Clive and taking the role, Clive Francis hides the character’s spite under an air of sophistication that is a twisted pleasure to behold.
After so many years together, Kitty and Hughie have suffered and squabble – which Clive is “excessively amused” by. The scenes of bickering are performed to perfection by Jane Asher and Nicholas Le Prevost. Asher is brilliant at suggesting wounded vanity while even grunts from Le Provost get giggles. The three bring an air of insouciance to the play that makes The Circle delicious and dramatic.
Admittedly, the fun peaks at the interval. The division between Kitty as a Mother or a Woman is made moving by Asher, her character explains she has attended “a bitter school”, but is overstated. And Maugham takes Arnold’s marriage and the predicament of the younger characters a little more seriously than many, nowadays, might. Clive’s plot to help his son isn’t just silly, it is transparent and it jars with what we have seen of young Elizabeth who is a satisfying character. Still, the will-they-won’t-they run away scenario is smartly handled and ambiguous emotions provide depth.
There’s a second trio of performances to enjoy: Pete Ashmore as Arnold, Olivia Vinall as Elizabeth and Chirag Benedict Lobo as Teddie make a love triangle that is convincing with neat comic touches. It is to Littler’s credit that he respects seriousness in these scenes; surely there was the temptation to play looser and carry on the fun? The central idea, that “the tragedy of love is indifference”, is preserved. If The Circle’s conclusion doesn’t quite convince, the revival itself is excellent. And with performances so accomplished, the show left me wanting more Maugham.
Well done to the wag who decided the sign for the toilets should be in both Greek and English at this première of Howard Brenton’s new piece. The bilingualism is indicative of the show’s playfulness and learning – a combination that makes the evening more fun than you might expect.
If you like philosophy in your plays, telling the story of Socrates’ last days is a sure-fire winner. There’s a lot of debate, all of it interesting, and director Tom Littler treats the arguments with swift efficiency. Clarity is appropriate and essential when bringing so much discussion to the stage, and Littler has done a great job.
Socrates’ engagement with future philosophy (more later on how literal this is) provides strong moments for William Reynolds’ lighting design. But, I confess, I found the show increasingly hard work. You’ll spot references to Descartes and Kant and, I think, Deleuze (but don’t hold me to that).
What impresses more is that the constant questioning is given a camp appeal. That Socrates, depicted expertly by Jonathan Hyde, is such a pleasant, genial figure to watch is balanced by the potential threat he poses – combining sincerity with mischievous. It isn’t hard to see why some felt threatened by his famous, continual probing. “But” is said to be a ”lethal” word – and Socrates says it a lot.
When it comes to the famous death, the play lacks an emotional appeal. Again, you could argue that’s appropriate. There is a fine performance from Robert Mountford, who appears as the jailer after having served as Euthyphro, whose eponymous dialogue forms the first scene. The temptation to find contemporary connections, not surprising given the play’s title, pick up pace but raise smiles rather than convince.
Home vs world
The real highlight in Cancelling Socrates comes with Brenton’s focus on women. The characters of Xanthippe (Socrates wife) and Aspasia (who it is suggested was his mistress) make fine roles for Hannah Morrish and Sophie Ward. Both characters feel freer of cliché and fully rounded despite (yet again) presenting two sides to an argument. The scene of them “quarrelling over how to live” is great drama.
The women’s roles take us to the core of an exploration of mysticism and religion within the play, which is a keen reminder of ritual and magic in Ancient Greek culture. Discussion of Socrates “demon” comes with the voice that drives him to argue – the thing that sees him “testing everything to destruction”. This isn’t just a metaphor, but a stage presence, lending some much-needed theatricality to the show. To cram so much into a short piece, with a mostly light touch, is a magical achievement.
Howard Brenton’s long engagement with
the master playwright August Strindberg has proved thoughtful and fruitful,
with results here that are spectacular. No stranger to controversy in his own
plays, Brenton is almost contrarian in his respect for his predecessor. And
presenting Strindberg’s tale of a mistress who has an affair with her father’s
valet so simply, with no burdening concept or take on the text to push, is a
mark of confidence in the original that allows it to both shine and shock.
The direction from Tom Littler is
masterful. With some boldly slow pacing that enforces naturalism and an
impressive attention to detail, the play is gripping from the start. We first
see the aristocratic household’s cook, Kristin, about her chores and waiting on
that valet, Jean, who is also her fiancé. Establishing character through
mundane actions is one of those things they teach you are drama school isn’t
it? But I’ve seldom seen it done with more success that Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s
efforts here. Based on the smallest gestures, the character fascinates,
carefully becoming a complex and ultimately triumphant figure. Myer-Bennett’s
close study pays off marvellously.
Along the way, we have the drama of
Jean’s one-night stand with Julie. It is to Brenton’s credit that both get
equal focus, aiding the theme of class conflict that powers his version and
reflects Strindberg’s troubled relationships with women. The performances from
Charlotte Hamblin and James Sheldon are excellent as they take us through
Strindberg’s “serious game” of seduction with such precision. Sheldon works
magic with his mercurial character, hot with anger and coldly rational by
turns. And Hamblin is a true star in the title role, building Miss Julie’s
mental instability for the first half, then going all out to become frightening
and pitiful in equal measure.
Let’s not forget the importance of sexual chemistry – this is an erotic show and, as a mark of how smoothly Littler handles the twisted kinks, little skin is on show. It is also testament to the exactitude of the production that Kristin and Jean are such a believable couple: the shared cigarette or help with a bow tie become captivating touches. Their relationship raises the stakes and makes Julie’s plans for escape all the more fantastical. The mix of misandry and self-loathing from our heroine becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the small, one-room world Littler brings to life. It’s always an effort for a modern audience to appreciate the shame of a ‘fallen’ woman, so Brenton’s skill lies in showing this a play about more than sexual politics. And his triumph comes in making Miss Julie’s actions seem radical and tragic once more.
Playing in repertory with Howard
Brenton’s version of Creditors until
1 June 2019
On the day of the London marathon, an award for endurance is deserved by director Tom Littler, the mastermind behind this revival of one-act plays by Noël Coward. Presented as three trilogies – that you can happily attend separately and in any order – the chance to see these seldom performed works classes as a Theatrical Event. With nine actors preforming 75 roles, everyone should agree it deserves those capital letters.
The groups differ from Coward’s original selection but still showcase his writing perfectly. As a comedian, Coward is seldom bettered, his plays full of wit and delicious satire driven by great observations. But we also have Coward as a writer of romance, with insight into the power and pain of love. And he’s an artist full of original ideas. Littler’s skill is to treat each text seriously, to understand the complexity of its construction, and every play benefits from this intelligence and respect. See one, or even better see all three; it’s tough to recommend a favourite but here are some highlights based on the groups as titled.
This set stars with a sparkling comedy. Suffice to say the scenario of a group of actors trying to perform as a charity committee is as funny as it sounds. Theatrical back-biting and pretentions abound and nearly every line gets a chuckle. The whole ensemble appears and shows how even their abilities are. In subsequent plays, Boadicea Ricketts and Ben Wiggins fill a variety of smaller parts, but their roles here reveal them both as strong performers.
Musical hall veterans The Red Peppers make an appearance in the second play, the roles are ably performed by Rosemary Ashe and Jeremy Rose. But the piece hasn’t dated as well – a regional variety show isn’t something many people have experienced and it’s unclear how much respect we are supposed to have for our leading couple. But what comes next is unmissable: Still Life is the play that became Brief Encounter. It’s full of familiar characters, jokes and lines. Littler brings an admirable freshness to the piece and garners superb performances from Nick Waring and Miranda Foster as the star-crossed couple who sacrifice passion for the sake of their marriages. The chemistry between the two is so fantastic that it is transporting to watch them.
Waring and Foster flex their comic skills in Ways And Means as a scheming couple down on their luck. It may be slight but it’s still pleasing. Another strong pairing comes with Ian Hallard and Sarah Crowe. First, there’s a take on Brief Encounter that’s purely for comedy with love at first sight, on the dance floor, followed by an oh-so civilised discussion about what to do next and a suitably cynical end.
The confirmation of Hallard and Crowe’s comic skills is clear, but later, in Shadow Play, they perform as a couple with marital problems that tugs at the heart strings. For all the cut-glass accents and wealthy posturing that often gets a laugh, both performers remind us that these are people we can relate to. A love gone cold and a struggle to remember happier times come together in a review of their relationship via a sleeping pill-induced dream that shows a surprisingly surreal Coward. The singing and score are startlingly contemporary. The whole piece is a revelation.
This set boasts two comedies and a fine drama. For Family Album, Coward’s target is the hypocrisy surrounding funerals. Victorian vibes through a stunning wardrobe make it a good place to mention the consistently strong work from costume designer Emily Stuart. The satire is biting and musical director Stefan Bednardczyk serves as a scene-stealing butler. Again, it’s the music Bednardczyk plays that provides the surprise, with songs serving to show snatches of memory and fleeting moods in a bold manner. There’s more comedy with Hands Across the Sea, a personal favourite, where Coward takes aim at the Britishers’ attitude to their own colonial cousins: it’s bright, snappy and eminently quotable.
As a finale, a psychiatrist is driven mad by love in another drama of infidelity that is riven with tension. Foster and Waring are paired again, and the result is explosive. Their intelligent characters are full of “clear cold sense” in a play of surprisingly raw emotion. The unexpected makes for a theme of much presented here. As with all the offerings in Tonight at 8.30,this is a humbling demonstration of Coward’s talents, produced and performed by an impeccable team.
Watching the intricacies of close relationships has an extra charge in the wonderful intimacy of the Gate Theatre. Opening last night, Dances of Death, shows us a marriage long disintegrated into a conjugal competition that is sure to provoke any audience. Howard Brenton’s new version of Strindberg’s influential classic condenses two plays into one evening to create a riveting night of theatre.
At first it seems as if we’re in for a comedy, as Edgar and his wife of 30 years, Alice, bluntly admit their misery, and settle down to a squabbling card game that neither enjoys – they have other games to play of a more sinister kind. Forced to join them is Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft), whose crime of being matchmaker to the pair is something they have never forgiven him for.
Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe establish the main characters with skilful speed. Their continuing contest is convincing, despite obscure motivations and bizarre behaviour. Pennington is marvellous at the captain of a military camp on a remote island; an impressive fabulator, rolling his eyes in a drunken stupor, and a boorish bully with a mischievous edge. Best of all, his depiction of physical illness is superb. Marlowe has a harder task, with a more ambiguous character whose past as an actress gives the whole piece a theatrical air. The performance fits the role, but director Tom Littler shows a questionable bravery in allowing some hands-on-forehead histrionics.
Poor Kurt’s punishment continues into the second play. It’s here that the production is most successful. As Edgar and Alice’s child, performed with a knowing theatricality that makes her very much her mother’s daughter, Eleanor Wyld makes a believable temptress. The innocent “sheep” now is Kurt’s son (a moving performance from Edward Franklin) and as the constraints in their society start to reveal themselves more clearly through the young couple’s relationship, the play starts to matter to us more. Littler’s pacing is bold and James Perkins’ design utilises Strindberg’s paintings to great effect.
It’s still a struggle to really appreciate Edgar and Alice’s relationship – a final admission of affection seems dismissed. The most interesting relationship in Dances of Death is that between its authors – this new version sees two writers, both with very individual voices, somewhat at odds. Brenton’s muscular approach matches Strindberg’s radicalism in many ways and both are visionary artists (interestingly, like Strindberg, Brenton also paints), but Strindberg’s politics are not well served. The writers’ union, like the one on stage, seems uncomfortable, though never less than fascinating.