Tag Archives: Young Vic

“Oklahoma!” at the Young Vic Theatre

Setting down some of what happens in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic might help with appreciation of this new production. Remember, the romance between Laurey and her cowboy beau Curly includes an auction for her affections (those lunchboxes are fooling nobody). And Curly’s rival, Jud, is a sinister misfit afforded a vigilante trail upon his death. While many just love Oklahoma! It isn’t hard to see that the show is, as they say nowadays, ‘problematic’.

Whether you share concerns about the plot or not, what directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein do for this revival, which took a Tony in 2019, is fascinating. There’s a brooding air to the action and considerable tension – much of it from Scott Zielinski’s superb lighting design –that’s sure to take any audience by surprise. By highlighting Jud’s mental instability, all the characters become more interesting and the piece more nuanced.

Patrick-Vaill-in-Oklahoma at the Young-Vic
Patrick Vaill

Maybe the production isn’t quite as edgy as it aims to be. John Heginbotham’s choreography is desperate to appear outré. Blackout scenes and live video feeds feel self-conscious and ultimately pointless. But the basic idea of showing problems behind the optimism of the original is great. And the cast – Anoushka Lucas, Arthur Darvill and Patrick Vaill, as Laurey, Curly and Jud respectively – embrace the fuller roles superbly with impassioned performances that highlight strong acting skills.

Adding more sex and a more knowing humour is the production’s forte. There’s real passion between Laurey and Curly, indeed the whole soon-to-be State seems brimming with sexual tension. How these women handle corncobs, let alone the innuendo throughout, is brilliantly done. The second love story, another triangle with Ado Annie, Will Parker and Ali Hakim is a real joy. Performances from Marisha Wallace, James Davis and Stavros Dimitri come close to stealing the show.

All this and no mention of the music? Here is surely the biggest surprise. A stripped-back score, arranged by Daniel Kluger and supervised by him and Nathan Koci (also credited with additional vocal arrangements), is Oklahoma! as you’ve never heard it before. Injecting a country music feel along with a touch of rock is all a long way from the sweeping romance you might expect. But the music is expertly delivered and appropriate to the project’s exciting freshness as a whole.

Until 25 June 2022

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Best of Enemies” at the Young Vic

James Graham’s new play centres around the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. at the 1968 U.S. party political conventions. At opposite ends of the political spectrum, and personally loathing one another, these intellectual heavyweights with big personalities make great theatre.

Initial praise must focus on Charles Edwards and David Harewood who bring Vidal and Buckley to life. These aren’t impersonations, although Harewood might have a lead with Buckley’s odd facial expressions. Instead, the conviction and intelligence of both men comes through. If Buckley has opinions most of us shy from, Harewood (and Graham) still make him credible. Edwards has Vidal’s charm and waspish humour to a tee. Seeing Vidal’s sense of mischief turn to increasing anxiety is brilliantly depicted. For both performers, revealing fragility is the key.

Bringing these historic debates to the stage would be enough. But like the documentary that inspired the show, by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, Graham wants to do more. The playwright has handled politics and the media before. Here, turbulent times and cultural shifts are efficiently highlighted. Best of Enemies, and the political conflict that Vidal and Buckley embody, comes to be about “the soul of America” – grand claim with terrific dramatic potential.

With the help of director Jeremy Herrin, the play becomes the portrait of a year. The legend that is 1968 is explored in depth with video projections (Luke Halls) and a collection of cameos that serve as a potted history. It’s hard to believe that there is a cast of only ten as riots and famous faces come and go at speed.

There’s a lot to enjoy with the different historical figures who appear. But it’s James Baldwin, depicted with fantastic skill by Syrus Lowe, that I’d argue is the show’s lynchpin. Baldwin’s observations, when talking with Vidal, are disquieting. The theme of privilege is one of many topical notes that show Graham’s skill at interpreting history.   

As for connections with the present – does Graham seem too keen? He makes a good case with references to division and violence. But Vidal appears more prophetic than he deserves. The brief appearance by a media studies academic isn’t needed. And the play’s conclusion disappoints. Even at its weakest Best of Enemies works well. Graham’s great skill is to show both Vidal and Buckley as human beings. The psychology may be simplified, even predictable, but these are the last men you imagine feeling sorry for and Graham manages to make you care about them both.

Until 22 January 2022

www.youngvic.org

“Hamlet” at the Young Vic

The star casting of Cush Jumbo in the title role of Shakespeare’s tragedy does not disappoint. One of the finest Hamlets I’ve seen, Jumbo gives a stirring performance of clarity, considerable humour and intelligence. This is the philosopher prince, keen to debate and discuss – a wit with a love of words.

In case you’re wondering, Jumbo plays Hamlet as a man (there’s no change of gender in the text). It’s how convincing she is as a swaggering youth that surprises, balancing bravado with insecurity just like many a teenage boy. The humour is excellently handled. Let’s be honest, not all the jokes in Hamlet work – some need a little extra help – and Jumbo seems to know exactly when to provide this.

Tara Fitzgerald in Hamlet credit Helen Murray
Tara Fitzgerald

Surprisingly, beyond casting a woman in the lead, director Greg Hersov’s commendable production ends up conservative, in the sense that it is restrained. Firstly, some performances are strikingly muted. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is a forceful study in minimalism. Incredibly understated, he barely raises his voice. The performance is all the more powerful for its control. The same praise can be given to Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude. Her delivery of Ophelia’s death, and even her own death, are remarkably flat. The royal couple are so repressed they are frightening.

Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell
Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell

As a contrast, Laertes and Ophelia carry much of the burden of emotion in the play. Hersov reminds us that Hamlet is the story of two families. Along with Joseph Marcell’s appealing Polonius, Norah Lopez Holden and Jonathan Ajayi create the sense of a family unit with remarkable speed and efficiency. 

This Hamlet is an austere affair, from Anna Fleischle’s minimalist design to the sparse modern touches. There’s an edit, too – a bold one – as Fortinbras is excised. It’s all to focus on how cerebral both character and play are: this is a Hamlet for thinkers.

Plotters, too, of course. There’s Hamlet’s procrastination – but note how Jumbo carefully lays out thoughts. Hersov emphasises what a bunch of thinkers this court contains. Claudius doesn’t really try to pray; he’s working out why he can’t. And the scene of his plotting with Laertes is a proper sit-down meeting.

The production is a move away from those that have emphasised performance and acting. The travelling players suffer a little as a result and action is minimalised. But, as an interpretation focusing on argument and discussion, Hersov starts a debate about the play that this excellent production wins.

Until 13 November 2021

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Helen Murray

“A Streetcar Named Desire” from NTLive

Provided during lockdown via the National Theatre, Benedict Andrews’ acclaimed production of the Tennessee Williams classic was a big hit for the Young Vic back in 2014: don’t forget there are two places to consider donating to this week! Intense and innovative, it reflects the spirit of its author and is a strong revival of a classic.

The legendary role of Blanche DuBois, the archetypal Williams heroine – a deluded, down-at-heel former Southern Belle – makes a star role for Gillian Anderson. The issue with such an iconic part is the struggle to make her appear new, and Anderson achieves this with a fraught interpretation full of pain that focuses on alcoholism and mental health.

Blanche is charming and sexy. Anderson makes her funny, too. But she is also imperious and her arrival and stay with her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, along with a romance with their friend Mitch, is full of condescension as well as tension. Blanche’s “awful vanity”, which Anderson does not share, make her unappealing and her attraction to young boys is downright creepy. The desire for “temporary magic” doesn’t convince as it might, but Anderson still makes Blanche a heart-rending figure.

Andrews’ use of a revolving stage made the production memorable, but Magda Willi’s design is downplayed in the recording in favour of close-up shots. This is to the benefit of all, as the fine work from director and cast is, literally, clearer. This Streetcar Named Desire is presented as a real four-hander.

Vanessa Kirby in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Vanessa Kirby

Vanessa Kirby’s Stella is at her best when showing sisterly concern, which she does with consistent skill. Ben Foster’s Stanley is entirely brutal, given none of the glamour sometimes associated with the role. He’s all “animal force”, which makes his final outrage against Blanche (a scene not for the faint hearted) terrifying; the predestination he claims – “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” – is chilling. Foster’s performance is stark but fits Andrews’ brutal vision. Violence pervades the show, domestic abuse is taken for granted, and even Blanche’s suitor Mitch moves from having a “sensitive look” to being a threatening presence in a brilliant performance from Corey Johnson.

Ben Foster in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Ben Foster

Williams, like his creation Blanche, goes for “strong bold colours”, a preference literally reflected in Jon Clark’s lighting design and one that sums up Andrews’ approach. As the “evasions and ambiguities” Blanche has been living with lead to a total breakdown, there’s the suggestion that Stanley, as with every other man she has encountered, has gaslighted her. It’s a bold and enlightened way of bringing out Williams’ questions of “deliberate cruelty” that make this production even better on a second viewing.

Available until Wednesday 28 May 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk, youngvic.org

Photos by Johan Persson

"Fairview" at the Young Vic

This Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Jackie Sibblies Drury is a challenging piece that explores racism in such a bold manner that it makes for uncomfortable viewing. There’s no doubt that Fairview is startling theatre – its potency and originality are embedded in its very structure. Beware plot spoilers as the action, sturdily directed by Nadia Latif, is deliberately – and brilliantly – disorientating. It’s impossible to forget that its award is American: many of the references are culturally specific and the final fourth-wall-breaking scene may have a different response in the UK. But, sure to prompt plenty of discussion, it will be fascinating to see if a work about cultural divisions can cross the Atlantic divide.

The cast of "Fairview" at the Young Vic
Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Nicola Hughes and Rhashan Stone

First, we see an African American family dinner, played as a light sit-com that becomes surprisingly tiresome. The scene is then repeated as mime while we hear another set of actors debate race. The later dialogue proves truly excruciating – increasingly so as it becomes clear that they are talking about what we are watching.

Using those theories about the gaze so admired by cultural studies (and turning the tables on an audience) certainly makes the play powerful. The toe-curling talk presumably plays at being even-handed – regardless of the politics of those overheard, they are all pretty awful. So, you might think Drury is a little tough on a well-off liberal? Or that the treatment of an ignorant French speaker is a little silly? Maybe you’ll get nervous about the cultural appropriation of a third talker who later appears as a drag queen? And I’d rather just skip the fourth ‘shock-jock’ style interlocutor. The dialogue, and its interaction with what we see on stage, is often funny but also infuriating.

We have to get back to that drag queen. The voices heard – who turn out to be Caucasian performers – come to the stage as family members. The resulting action is frantic and a sense of chaos not quite controlled by Latif. Fairview is obsessed by performance – from films and dancing to how we behave in front of others – and generates bold questions, notably about the fluidity of identity, that Drury is brave to raise. Writing of such intelligence creates a daunting number of layers to negotiate.

The only caveat is that the play deconstructs so much that the result is bewildering. And a heartfelt finale, led by Donna Banya, where members of the audience identifying as white are asked to go on stage, makes what can come next a daunting question. It becomes hard to know what to take away from Fairview – aside from being hugely impressed. The production is undoubtedly superb: Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Nicola Hughes and Rhashan Stone give brilliant performances. And Fairview is imminently theatrical; it engages with an audience as only live theatre can. I couldn’t argue with the pessimism Drury highlights, but it results in a cold response to the work. With a suspicion that it is not the desired intention, respect (and a touch of confusion) is the best I can muster.

Until 23 January 2020

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Marc Brenner

"Death of a Salesman" at the Piccadilly Theatre

Successful revivals – and this is one of the best – tend to present a classic text with reverence or remodel it for the current day. Trying to do both – respecting and reinventing – usually pleases nobody. But just such a combination has been achieved by co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell with Arthur Miller’s classic story of Willy Loman’s demise. It’s like no production of the show before, but presents Miller’s concerns for the working man with utmost conviction. The result is marvellous. 

Casting the Loman family as African American is the most obvious difference. The consequences are profound, rippling through the show, continually adding layers to Miller’s text. Take Willy’s subservience to his much younger boss – more painful than ever. Highlighting the play’s concern with Willy’s breakdown is novel, too: since Miller’s day appreciation of mental health, including dementia, and how distressing it can be for victims, has grown. Flashback scenes, with bold lighting design from Aideen Malone, add a distressing air that increases sympathy for Willy. The production takes modern sensibilities into account and fills the play with new questions and tensions.

Meanwhile Miller’s political concerns are amplified. Rather than connect Willy to buzzwords (“the squeezed middle” or the “precariat”), ideas about the dignity of work, perhaps old fashioned, are explored as the writer intended. Likewise, the aspirations that obsess Willie, maybe even drive him mad, are given space. A period atmosphere is aided by Femi Temowo’s compositions and musical direction – I don’t think Miller’s ever been this cool. The brilliant design, by Anna Fleischle, makes the family home, just about to be purchased, a frame: a perfect reflection of how transparent these lives become to us.

Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell Pierce in 'Death of a Salesman'
Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell Pierce

As if all this weren’t enough, this production also boasts some of the most fantastic performances you could witness. The whole cast is impeccable, even the smaller roles who add to the music in the show. Victoria Hamilton-Barrit and Matthew Seadon-Young excel, despite their characters coming close to being devices. The Loman brothers are vividly depicted by Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Natey Jones with performances that complement each other – as they should. The tension for one bubbles under while the other’s anger proves explosive.

Making a West End debut that will surely be remembered for a long time, Wendell Pierce takes the lead role with astonishing skill. Willy is not an appealing character, rather a tin-pot tyrant who’s easy to condemn. But Pierce makes him a man you can warm to – and a surprisingly diffident person that you feel for. Adding a purity of intention, focusing on his sons, he becomes a noble character whose end is truly tragic. 

As his wife Linda, Sharon D Clarke recognises the role as the lynchpin of the play. Often quite literally centre stage, Clarke has the presence to make the role major. For Linda is also the play’s moral compass and Clarke gives a performance of dignified intensity that becomes heart-breaking. Finally, the chemistry between the two leads is something really special – adding an urgency to the drama and, again, an emotional impact that makes this the most moving Miller I’ve ever seen.

Until 4 January 2020

www.atgtickets.com

Photos by Brinkhoff & Mogenburg

“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” at the Young Vic

Prison dramas are pretty much a genre in their own right and this play from the year 2000 by Stephen Adly Guirgis must rank as one of the best. Tackling faith and justice, it’s a big issues piece with brains that leaves you with plenty to think about. It’s also full of compelling stories with a great plot. Entertaining and intelligent, what’s not to admire?

Guirgis writes the most wonderful roles and dialogue. Still, in presenting a debate, no matter how smart, each part could become a mere mouthpiece. With the help of a strong cast and expert direction from Kate Hewitt, every character is compelling and believable.

Ukweli Roach and Oberon KA Adjepong perform as two convicts thrown together during the one hour outside their cells allowed to them. It’s a simple enough device, but the detail provided by Guirgis is used to great effect by both men. Roach gives an emotional performance as the young Angel Cruz that shows the strain of incarceration gradually and wins sympathy carefully. As Lucius, you might guess that Adjepong gets the best lines, but the combination of charm and mania with which they are delivered is magnificent.

Unwell Roach and Dervla Kirwan

On the other side of the “cage”, Dervla Kirwan gives a great performance as Angel’s lawyer, driving the plot with excellent story-telling skills. The prison guards, played by Matthew Douglas and Joplin Sibtain, present moral ambiguities in a way that feels natural, respectively relating to the criminals in a personal and psychopathically macro level. These three, presumably the characters we are supposed to identify with most, pose provoking challenges to the audience.

Guirgis presents a fallible justice system and religious questions while avoiding the quagmires of moral relativism or scepticism, which means we can get some real-world thinking done! Any revival of a play this good is worth checking out. Hewitt’s production is certainly stylish. In a sense, she works harder than she has to. Using bright lights and discordant jazz in between scenes proves wearying and the set from Magda Willi, while effective, is a little showy. But the most important job, namely understanding and doing justice to the text, is precise and impeccable throughout.

Until 30 March 2019

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Convert” at the Young Vic

Trying to tackle colonialism and religion, along with sexism and education, could easily overwhelm a play. But this assured work from Danai Gurira, directed with inspired steps by Ola Ince, takes all these big topics in its elegant stride.

The key to success might come from specificity: the play focuses on the distinctly Catholic experience of a single woman, Jekesai, alongside the history of one uprising in the Zimbabwe of 1896. The characters are all local and their culture is explored in detail, with complex results that are rich and satisfying. It’s an in-depth look, from many angles, complemented perfectly by the decision to stage the show in the round.

Letitia Wright makes Jekesai’s conversion believable – and that she sees the opportunity for power and representation through religion is an exciting spin, as Christianity literally saves her from a marriage of convenience. Quickly becoming the protégé of Mr Clifford, who aspires to be a priest, this is a central relationship that’s as moving as it is layered. Clifford is given a superb realisation by Paapa Essiedu. Full of repression and conviction, for all his weaknesses he’s a hero of sorts. With the pair seen as collaborators of the colonists, and therefore targets, the theme of religious persecution is given a forceful twist. Two strong female characters accentuate the complexities of locating dissent. Pamela Nomvete plays a servant who pays only lip service to her master’s religion, while Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo is the blue-stocking Miss Prudence ready to provide a feminist perspective.

The one exception to a generally old-fashioned feel is to include a lot of a local language, which highlights linguicism with great dramatic skill. Gurira bolsters the point, again skilfully, with the Queen’s English that the play’s westernised characters speak. There’s humour in mistakes in syntax and endearing precision, but the connection between power and language is clear and thought-provoking. The struggle with speaking is one of many carefully developed investigations of imperialism. But views never feel forced on characters (true a “signifier” slips in once) and a believably late Victorian feel indicates thorough research alongside theoretical thinking.

Among all the issues, Gurira hasn’t forgotten the basics, and The Convert is a well-crafted, traditional piece. There’s a set of strong characters that the performers get their teeth into and a powerful plot that builds tension marvellously. In short, it’s a gripping story about people you really care for.

Until 26 January 2019

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Marc Breener

“The Inheritance” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Inspired by EM Forster’s novel, Howards End, Matthew Lopez’s epic play, in two parts, develops the novelist’s dictum of “only connect” in almost-present-day New York. Combining important ideas with big characters and plots that pull at the heart strings, it is soon to be on every best-of-the-year list – mine included. A transfer from its sell-out run at The Young Vic means more people have the chance to see this unmissable piece. Or, if they are lucky enough to have seen it already, spot any differences the move to the West End might have brought.

Packing both parts into the same day was my (unnecessary) excuse for going again, leaving me even more in awe of the amazing cast. Paul Hilton ends up the star of the show, primarily through his skilled depiction of Forster. The Edwardian author joins a group of young men to help tell their stories, and is coaxing and commanding in turn as we learn about their lives. This premise, which is such a delight, means we miss the great author too much in Part 2. Hilton’s second role is as Walter, who uses his home as a refuge for the sick during the AIDS epidemic. This story serves as the finale to Part 1 and guarantees not a dry eye in the house.

Paul Hilton and Kyle Soller

During the second part, the story of Walter’s heir, Eric (a career-defining performance from Kyle Soller), takes over and would more than satisfy in any other play. But, despite Soller’s efforts, Eric doesn’t fascinate in the way Forster did. While his story is also moving, it’s far less entertaining. There’s a cruel irony – and a call to action – as, despite improvements in gay rights and the treatment of AIDS, as we come into the Trump era the play becomes more fraught and less joyous. Lopez struggles with the privilege many of his characters possess, while the misery that comes with the stories of Toby Darling and Leo (two more superb performances, from Andrew Burnap and Samuel H Levine) start to feel a touch overblown.

Samuel H Levine and Andrew Burnap

Some of the exaggerations may come from the show’s new location. While the leads are superb and Stephen Daldry’s direction fool-proofs the show, some smaller roles are too exaggerated. The result on the night I attended was whoops of joy from the stalls at political observations. It’s nice to hear such enthusiasm, but the sentiment seems misplaced. Surely Lopez isn’t as partisan as some of his characters? But guessing (which might be presumptuous) that the West End audience was less well acquainted with the original source material leads to a new joy. Instead of nudges at recognition with the book there was shock at revelations in the plot. A gasp from a crowd is always exciting and illustrates the story-telling craft behind the clever ideas here. It’s Lopez’s attention to detail, his rigour, alongside his ambition, that will, let’s hope, result in this play serving as an inspiration and having an inheritance in its own right.

www.inheritanceplay.com

Until 19 January 2019

Cast photo by Johan Persson. Production shots by Marc Brenner.

“Fun Home” at the Young Vic

Jeanine Tesori’s Tony award-winning musical is deceptively simple. It’s a modest story of family tragedy, a shell marriage and a suicide that is never overplayed. The lyrics, by Lisa Kron, are seldom flashy but always smart. Tesori’s music is beautiful, but folksy rather than symphonic. Such restraint takes sophistication. And the show’s aim, of a truthful search into the past, gains sincerity and emotional power through prudent understatement.

Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, it is the artist’s wish to paint “a picture of my father” that we are privileged to see performed. Bechdel is a lesbian and her father slept with men. Rather than supporting one another, in the style of the Gay Union Bechdel joins at college, repressed embarrassment and his frustrated life remain the consistent note. The roles make great parts for Kaisa Hammarlund and Zubin Varla, who are commanding throughout. But note: there are no sentimental pleas for understanding, no claims for revelations. Instead, what’s special about the tone of the piece is that no apologies are made. And there is a refreshing joy about Bechdel’s sexuality, with two songs of discovery – as a child and at college – that are highlights. Bechdel’s mother gets a fair turn, too, brilliantly portrayed by Jenna Russell. Again, there are no answers or explanations as to why she would stay in this marriage, but a bare dignity that is deeply moving.

The production from director Sam Gold is exemplary in its understanding of the piece – nothing distracts from the excellent storytelling and there isn’t a soap box in sight. And Gold gets strong performances from his child performers – indeed the acting all around is superb. Final praise goes to designer David Zinn for a stunning set that embodies the show: a rotating circle of furniture shows Bechdel’s obsession with bird’s-eye views, then a section in New York uses lighting to create comic book style panels, and finally the family home is revealed like a doll’s house. In each case, the point is clear and direct, forceful and impeccably well drawn.

Until 1 September 2018

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Marc Brenner