Tag Archives: Trevor Nunn

"Beckett Triple Bill" at the Jermyn Street Theatre

It’s easy to see why this programme of short plays by Samuel Beckett is already a sell-out hit. A superb cast and direction from none other than Trevor Nunn make it a very special treat. The chance to see a famous piece – and two that deserve to be better known – makes it perfect for Beckett fans and newbies. Check out the theatre’s gala performance on the 30 January if you’re flush, or its 5@5 day tickets if you’re youthful, and here’s hoping for a transfer!

First up, the most famous piece, Krapp’s Last Tape is presented is with taut precision. As its titular hero listens to a recording he made in the past, the idea that we become very different people during the course of our lives is palpable. James Hayes takes the role and gives a performance of remarkable variety – not a nuance of Krapp’s interaction with his past voice is missed. It really is theatrical perfection.

Niall Buggy at the Jermyn Street Theatre credit Robert Workman
Niall Buggy

For me, the big thrill comes next with Eh Joe, which has Niall Buggy listening to another recording, this time an imagined voice from his past. Buggy gives a tremendously focused performance – he doesn’t say a word – but his character disintegrates as his memories haunt him. In a nod to its origin as a piece for television, his face is filmed, adding to a sense of paranoia. The accusing ghost from his past is a voiceover performed by Lisa Dwan. Reminding him of affairs and failings, it becomes truly terrifying. While Joe tries “throttling the dead in his head” he also needs them – when the voices end so will his life – the past defines us and the only escape is death.

Niall Buggy and David Threlfall at the Jermyn Street Theatre credit Robert Workman
Niall Buggy and David Threlfall

It might be a bit of a relief to end the programme on a lighter note. While The Old Tune continues the themes of memory and old age the tone is very different. Buggy makes another appearance, joined by David Threlfall, as two old acquaintances reminisce. Or at least try to… Beckett mixes up stories and dates as the two become confused to surprisingly gentle comic effect. A melancholy is still prevalent, and both performers effectively maintain this.

It’s not in curating the selection that makes this a great offering from Nunn; there’s no overstating connections between the plays and the direction shows a discipline and precision that makes the most of the brevity of each. Working with some long-standing contributors and clearly revelling in the intimacy of the venue, the approach to all three matches Beckett’s own confidence and vision for them.

Until 8 February 2020

www.jermynstreetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Robert Workman

“The Bridges of Madison County” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

It’s easy to see why talented composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown would be the go-to man for this project. His masterful The Last Five Years was a similarly simple love story that he managed to make interesting. But here the source material is Robert James Waller’s surprise best-selling book – a soppy affair of little promise. So, while the musical is wonderful and the production, from director Trevor Nunn, consistent with this venue’s high standards, the story is too thin and the show just a little dull.

In Iowa, which we’re too frequently reminded is a boring location, while housewife Francesca’s family is at the state fair, she has an affair with Rick, a photographer on assignment from National Geographic. Francesca’s dedication to her family means the romance is doomed. And that’s it – although on stage this brief encounter doesn’t exactly speed along.

A good deal of the problem comes from the men in Francesca’s life. Her husband, despite Dale Rapley’s efforts in the role, really is boring. And her lover, while initially charismatic, ends up pretentious and annoying. Edward Baker-Duly sounds good as Rick but the character is flat and the performance suffers as a result. Talk of his art, let alone his back story, grates. By the time he starts using his hands to frame a picture (which I’ve never seen a real photographer do), you wonder why Francesca isn’t planning to run away from both of them.

Mercifully, Marsha Norman’s book focuses on Francesca and the piece becomes her story. Since Jenna Russell takes the role – and is, thankfully, barely off stage – the show is pretty much saved. Russell sings every song to perfection and many of her numbers are superb. While Francesca is written as a touch too much the martyr, Russell has the presence to make her seem courageous. And she also injects some humour into the role, allowing us to warm to the character. Unfortunately, Russell is the only cast member that gets even a smile (sorry, the nosey neighbours and squabbling teenage kids don’t cut it).

With a score this intelligent, much can be forgiven: it’s a smart mix of Americana, with a controlled period feel, and delicate Italian touches indicating Francesca’s heritage. But not even Robert Brown’s brains can escape from the clichés in the story and his lyrics are, unusually, pedestrian at times. The whole piece is deliberately underplayed, which Nunn appreciates, and as a strategy that is understandable. This is supposed to be a story of everyday lives. When romance arrives, the score is lush but any heady moments are the only speedy thing here; the result is humdrum and humourless and the show ends up a frigid affair.

Until 14 September 2019

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Alastair Muir

“Fiddler on the Roof” at the Playhouse Theatre

It’s great to see the Menier Chocolate Factory back in the West End. Tickets for this revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical sold out quicker than a Brick Lane beigel for its home run near London Bridge, so a bigger venue means a welcome chance to see this excellent show. One word of warning, though – behave as if you were a rich man and treat yourself to a good seat.

Under Paul Bogaev’s musical direction Bock’s music sounds great, Sheldon’s lyrics are always a treat and director Trevor Nunn has a careful appreciation of Joseph Stein’s book: the structure is kept tight, the characters vivid and the jokes are great. Famously recounting the story of Jewish life in a Russian village just before the revolution, the lead role of Tevye has been career defining before and, taking the part here, Andy Nyman does not disappoint. The poverty-stricken patriarch struggles with his wife (a strong performance from Judy Kuhn) and the marriages of his three eldest daughters. Taking these roles Molly Osborne, Nicola Brown and Harriet Bunton do a fabulous job of injecting youth and energy into the show, and their opening number is a real delight. Each of the troubled romances convinces, mixing sweetness and poignancy with strong songs.

It really is worth splashing out on a posh seat, though. While Robert Jones’s set design – evoking Chagall but with a restrained colour palette appropriate to the piece’s surprisingly somber tone – deserves praise, projecting the stage into stalls causes problems. A lot of seats have been sacrificed (hence the ticket price?) but little account taken of the view from the balcony. Nunn should know better than this. Thankfully Matt Cole’s choreography, based on Jerome Robbins’ original work, is still strong enough to thrill; not just the acrobatics but the way dance is used to illustrate the close community and the struggles with modernity that it faces.

Fiddler on the Roof really fascinates. It’s funny, a simple story, well told, that feels solidly old fashioned. But, while focused on tradition, the theme of the show is actually change. New and old are both present in the 1964 piece itself. Much of the first half seems very Broadway – the format is conservative and almost predictable. But, as a concern for history takes over, the show become bravely dark. As the approaching Cossacks move from a threat to a reality, Tevye shows the limits of his own tolerance (Nyman is an excellent here). There’s a combination of pain, incomprehension and dignity in the characters and the story that the production embraces, moving us from high-class entertainment to a questioning and emotionally turbulent finale.

Until 2 November 2019

www.fiddlerwestend.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Cats” at the London Palladium

As if its original run of 21 years weren’t enough, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has added on a few extra lives this year at the Palladium. For the newest instalment of the revival, Beverley Knight follows Nicole Scherzinger and Kerry Ellis as Grizabella, providing some star appeal. Knight is a superb performer and feels a little wasted in the role, but she gives a strong interpretation of perennial favourite ‘Memory’ and provides as good a reason as any for checking out the show.

Beverley Knight as Grizabella
Beverley Knight as Grizabella

A lot of people dislike Cats because it doesn’t have a story. Combating this prejudice is futile. T S Eliot’s poems merely provide Lloyd Webber and choreographer Gillian Lynne with a platform for song and dance numbers. Directed by Trevor Nunn, the whole show runs like clockwork and is an entertaining spectacle. The dancing is top notch – it’s hard to believe these guys are the same species as the rest of us (especially Mark John Richardson’s Mr. Mistoffelees). And it’s nice to see care taken to include the audience in the stalls, as the cats prowl amongst the crowd, delighting any kids you take along.

And yet the piece has aged badly. These days we’re used to musicals with a knowing edge and Cats comes close to taking itself seriously, it’s so doggedly humourless. These crazy cats have some hippy ideas about their Jellicle tribe meeting for a moonlight reincarnation ritual, led by the god-like Old Deuteronomy, and it all comes across as just spaced out. The music feels lost in the late 1970s with tinny electronica and rock guitars (as for the updated rap version of Rum Tum Tugger, it seems only polite to gloss over it). While admittedly catchy, the songs are reprised too frequently and the show feels desperate for praise. This is a score that should be rescued and put in front of the fire with a nice saucer of milk.

Until 2 January 2016

www.catsthemusical.com

Photos by Alessandro Pinna and Matt Crockett

“Les Misérables” at the Queen’s Theatre

For a lot of Londoners, Les Mis is as much a landmark as a musical. Something that’s just there: a show seen long ago and now for tourists. The statistics about its success are on the dot matrix outside the Queen’s Theatre – and they are impressive. But the real phenomenon is how, despite knowing the story and songs, having seen the film and bought the t-shirt, Les Mis moves as much as ever.

Speculation about the show’s success has existed since it surprised critics and started selling tickets. Never forget how crazy adapting Victor Hugo’s epic of post-revolutionary French history must have seemed. First up, the tale itself: a good old-fashioned yarn that’s sentimental and exciting. As for the telling – by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel – it doesn’t stop, with an impressive pace that belies the show’s three-hour duration.

Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music is big and best described as filmic. Though the many hits are worth waiting for, the score has a satisfying coherence. With leitmotifs that emphasise themes as well as characters, it builds emotion so effectively it borders on exploitative; pretty much the whole of the second act guarantees goose bumps. OK, I confess, I was teary before the interval.

Carrie Hope Fletcher as Eponine and Rob Houchen as Marius. Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench

The music demands massive voices and the current cast are superb. From the start the strength of the male chorus is hugely impressive. Both leads, Valjean and Javert, with their personal stories embodying a divide between law and justice, are given powerhouse performances from Peter Lockyer and David Thaxton. Looking to the younger characters, whose story culminates on the barricades of the June Rebellion in Paris, both Rob Houchen and Carrie Hope Fletcher are tremendous as Marius and Eponine. More tears I am afraid.

John Napier’s design is surprisingly simple; mostly a matter of smoke with David Hersey’s excellent lighting (and the revolving stage so brilliantly parodied in Forbidden Broadway). Directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird handle the crowd of a cast with exemplary skill, directing audience emotions as much as anything; the best example being ‘Empty Chairs At Empty Tables’ – Marius’ lament – which sees his martyred friends breathtakingly emerging into view.

Like any work of theatre, Les Mis can’t be frozen – a live crew makes it work. The cynical might see its success down to reputation – it’s a safe bet and visitors tick the ‘done that’ box. But believe me, nobody working the performance I saw was resting on any laurels. But the real key to the success is both simpler and more profound: Les Misérables moves you. It’s still one of the best theatre experiences around.

www.lesmis.com/uk

Main photos by Johan Persson

“Relative Values” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

A new production of Noël Coward’s Relative Values has arrived in London from the Theatre Royal Bath. It’s another sparkling comedy for the West End, boasting star performances from Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin, and with respectful direction from Trevor Nunn that is sure to please aficionados of the author.

This is the one where Lady Marshwood (Hodge) finds her son has gone and got himself engaged to a film star (the perfectly cast Leigh Zimmerman), who happens to be the estranged sister of her maid Moxie (Quentin). It’s simply not on. Hodge and Quentin are spot on, making the most of each acerbic line and convincing as two women who have grown close despite the class divide.

As one line in the play points out, this is a comedy idea not to be sniffed at – especially when Moxie, to avoid awkwardness, receives a promotion from maid to companion/secretary. Cue excruciating after dinner drinks and an explosive confrontation between Moxie and her sister that will have you in stitches. All this is aided by the butler, naturally a clever chap with a philosophical bent, performed by none other than Rory Bremner, who makes a great West End debut.

You certainly get your money’s worth. Relative Values is long and Nunn does little to speed it up. It’s a valid decision but I am not sure films introducing each act, providing historical background, are really needed. Some minor roles could be pepped up. But the whole thing, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set included, drips quality.

Never underestimate Coward. Producers don’t – look at Blythe Spirit  packing them in at the Gielgud. It now seems barely believable that he was once regarded as an unfashionable writer. His observations about class and the changing times of the early 50s, that Nunn takes Coward’s lead in emphasising, leave me cold but then I sometimes feel pretty lonely in these Downton Abbey obsessed times. Coward’s insights into human nature are still pointed and serve his comedy marvelously well. And at the heart of this play Quentin and Hodge make a great team: queens of comedy reigning gloriously.

Until 21 June 2014

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 15 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“Stephen Ward” at the Aldwych Theatre

Let’s face it, Stephen Ward is a terrible name for a show and, given that its eponymous subject ends shamed and committing suicide, it’s also an unlikely topic for a West End musical. But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new work deserves the kind words received from critics. An adult affair, looking at the 60s Profumo scandal, the focus is on hypocrisy and injustice – on how revenge was meted out to Ward by the upper classes he once counted as friends.

The show’s credentials are impeccable. Lloyd Webber’s score lives up to his reputation and the book and lyrics are provided by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. This is a complicated story presented in exemplary fashion, with startlingly confident lyrics and efficient directing by Trevor Nunn.

The show rests on the lead and Alexander Hanson is terrific at conveying the complexity of this “man of many parts”. And Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge (above with Hanson) depict the more famous stars of the real-life drama, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, with depth. Secondary characters also satisfy: Anthony Calf is perfect as Ward’s fair-weather friend Lord Astor and there’s a tremendous turn from Joanna Riding as Profumo’s wife. It’s a lovely twist to see the betrayed minister’s spouse get to have her say.

The show isn’t perfect – rousing emotion has to wait until the end (Hanson again delivers) and this seems too late. Attempts at humour when it comes to both Keeler’s Russian lover and the police who frame Ward on a trumped-up charge are frankly embarrassing.

Stephen Ward has a quiet ambition. A concise, penetrating view of British culture, it scores many a hit. The scene of an upper-class orgy may raise eyebrows amongst Lloyd Webber fans but, sensibly, it doesn’t try to shock. There may be some Coco de Mer style accessories on sale in the foyer (a riding crop and silk blindfold) but humour is used well here. Another highlight is a song for The News of the World journalists, set to twist Keeler’s kiss and tell story, demanding she “give us something juicy”. Keller’s lyrics go further than the hacks are willing to print, but Lloyd Webber and his team don’t shy away from the explicit – even crudity is used intelligently in this smart work.

Until 1 March 2014

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 23 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“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

“Birdsong” at the Comedy Theatre

Sebastian Faulks’ much-loved 1993 novel, Birdsong, was one of those books you saw everyone reading on the tube. A page-turner with depth, it seemed to cry out for an adaptation. Rachel Wagstaff’s version, now showing at the Comedy Theatre, is a dutiful effort that should please fans of the text.

The stage version certainly doesn’t plod. The first act deals with our hero Stephen Wraysford’s affair with Isabelle Azaire. They fall in love while he is staying with her and her husband in northern France, run off together and then separate, all in fifty minutes. Action then moves to the trenches of the First World War, where we see Stephen as a broken man. The Armistice heralds his final encounter with Isabelle, culminating in a tenuous yet beautiful sense of reconciliation.

Wagstaff packs too much of the novel into the evening and should have been more adventurous with her selection. Like John Napier’s clever design, which literally emphasises the book, the three-hour show seems intimidated by the novel’s success. You start to think a mini-series might have been a better idea: TV would have more time for the story and it would solve the problem of canned birdsong, which is never going to ring true in the theatre.

Trevor Nunn’s direction is fascinating. Nunn has learned lessons from his recent success at the Menier Chocolate Factory where the small size of the venue led to an intense production of A Little Night Music. Now, in Birdsong, he concentrates on the intimate scenes appropriate to a love story. The danger is that these occasionally look a little lost on a West End stage, but the strategy is sound – he is playing to the production’s strengths, namely, the cast.

Birdsong brims with quality performances. Nicholas Farrell plays Isabelle’s betrayed husband and then the Captain who tutors Stephen in the trenches, and handles both roles marvellously. Iain Mitchell has less to do, playing a local French dignitary and the regiment’s Colonel, but he provides some much needed light relief and should be satisfied that he gives the impression of being wasted in both roles.

It’s the leads that make the evening. Ben Barnes plays Wraysford and Genevieve O’Reilly Isabelle. Their chemistry is fantastic and free of period cliché. O’Reilly manages to show the stifling home life she escapes from without protesting too much and maintain sympathy when her actions seem brutal. Barnes is even better, playing a passionate man without giving any time to nonsense about stiff upper lips and coming across as a true individual we warm to. These fresh performances give the play its necessary emotional punch. They are so powerful that suddenly the birdsong sounds genuine after all.

Until 15 January 2011

www.ambassadortickets.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 1 October 2010 for The London Magazine

“Aspects of Love” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Aspects of Love was a bold musical departure for Andrew Lloyd Webber back in 1989. Following the success of Phantom of the Opera, it seems the composer was determined to produce something different – a small, intimate chamber piece with a simple theme and storyline.

Reports of the original production at the Prince of Wales Theatre suggest the musical was somewhat lost in the West End. It faired even less well on Broadway. Now its original director, Trevor Nunn, is back to have another go and, thankfully, at the Menier Chocolate Factory the whole piece comes alive.

As we follow the characters’ lives and loves, through infatuation, betrayal, amity and familial affection, we cannot resist being pulled in. And David Farley’s clever set is the perfect minimal setting in which to develop the drama and embrace events and emotions.

Nunn’s rather indulgent direction takes a slower pace than we might expect. He clearly revels in the musical’s many tête-á-tête scenes. The care taken, combined with the strong cast assembled, pays off.
Katherine Kingsley plays Rose Vibert, and Rosalie Craig is Giulietta Trapani, and both make convincing love interests for the men of the piece. Kingsley has the difficult task of playing an actress who might have fallen for her own press, but she still manages to be appealing. Craig’s magnificent energy results in the most electrifying number of the night, the funeral celebration of both women’s lover, George.
The role of Sir George is played by veteran musical theatre actor Dave Willetts. He gives a vintage performance full of energy and technical knowhow. At the other end of the spectrum, we have a great stage debut in Rebecca Brewer as George and Rose’s daughter, Jenny.

Best of all, and it really is a close call, is the London stage debut of Michael Arden. He assumes the lead role of Alex with such charm that he is in danger of winning us over a little too much. From gangly adoration of Rose, to crazed passion and then a cool melancholic acceptance of her betrayal, his performance is as rich as his mellifluous voice. Just like the wine enjoyed on stage throughout the show, this is a fine performance within a full-boded production that’s a delight to savour.

Until 26 September 2010

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 23 July 2010 for The London Magazine