Je suis émotif

r a g 1

I’d tell you to rush to book a ticket, but the run ended two days after I saw it, and that was two weeks ago. Oops. Romantics Anonymous is a tiny, perfect little gem of a musical. It has magic chocolate (no, really), a glorious score by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, a witty, moving book and fabulously clever staging by Emma Rice, gorgeous performances, Lauren Samuels as a self-help tape with major attitude, and a radio-controlled model 2CV. It’s wonderful, flawless, utterly charming, and the perfect antidote to a crappy grey British January.

And it closed. Never mind. What did you miss? A lovely, tentative love story between a chocolatier who is so painfully shy that she faints when people look at her, and a chocolate factory owner so repressed that he spends half his life sitting on the floor of his office listening to self-help tapes with the blinds closed. It’s based on (and much better than) a French film called Les Emotifs Anonymes; the title comes from Angélique-the-chocolatier’s therapy group. It’s a romantic comedy, so of course on one level it’s absolutely predictable: you know just from looking at the poster that Angélique-the-chocolatier and Jean-René-the-factory-owner are going to end up together, and that whatever impediments to true happiness block their path along the way will be magically resolved by the finale. The journey, though, is so thoroughly delightful that it doesn’t matter if you can see each plot twist a mile away.

Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh are sweet but never too sweet as Angélique and Jean-René; the show tells us more than once that the magical element in chocolate is the note of bitterness behind the sugar, and in both performances there’s a hint of deep unhappiness just beneath the surface that prevents the material’s inherent sweetness from ever becoming cloying. They both sing beautifully, too. Around them, the hardworking ensemble – they all play at least three roles – never put a foot wrong, with standout turns from Joanna Riding as a factory book-keeper, Angélique’s flinty, oversexed mother, and a therapist, and from Gareth Snook as the riotously funny just-escaped-from-an-Italian-opera confiseur Mme. Marini. The production, overall, gives you the full Emma Rice experience – there’s airborne acrobatics, neon, too many witty visual gracenotes to count, tremendous warmth, generous humour, and even a square of “magic chocolate” so that we can miraculously hear French characters as if they were speaking English. It could all so easily have been painfully twee – except, again, there’s always that note of bitterness, of real unhappiness, underneath. Kooman and Dimond’s score – unfortunately no list of musical numbers in the programme – is sublime; as an extra treat, if you’re in the lobby during the intermission you’ll hear Philip Cox as Jean-René’s overprotective father singing a very funny song about all the horrible things that could happen to you before you go back to your seat (don’t go into the courtyard, you might get struck by lightning). The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse imposes a certain aesthetic on the production, but Lez Brotherston’s gorgeous neon-and-venetian-blind set bridges the gap between the replica-Jacobean woodwork and the show’s contemporary setting with considerable flair. Romantics Anonymous is lovely to watch, to see, to listen to; as Angélique and Jean-René fall in love with each other, you can feel the audience falling in love with the show.

Which – on a final, rather bitter note to (again) undercut the sweetness – makes the machinations that brought about the rather public ending of the artistic relationship between Emma Rice and the Globe all the more baffling. Rice, by now, is an established director, not some obscure fringe figure. She’s developed her own aesthetic, her work with Kneehigh attracted a great deal of positive attention, and the Globe’s board presumably knew who she was and what she does when they hired her. To recruit an artistic director with a very individual, idiosyncratic theatrical aesthetic and then balk when she brings that aesthetic into her productions in your venue is beyond perverse, and sets an uncomfortable precedent for Michelle Terry, Rice’s successor. In terms of this particular production, too, it seems particularly strange: a new musical with a contemporary setting may not be precisely the kind of show the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was built to house (the bum-breaking, backless seats suggest it wasn’t built for anything longer than about forty minutes, but that’s another gripe for another time), but at the performance I saw there was a more or less full house, and people left the theatre, to quote the finale, ‘dancing on air’. This show makes people happy; it also, I imagine, brought quite a few new patrons into the venue for the first time, which of course should make it easier to bring them back to see other productions in future. I don’t see any downside – but presumably this kind of work wasn’t what the Globe’s board wanted. As I said, baffling.

As for the show itself – can somebody please make a cast recording? Pretty please?

 

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“You’ve just crossed over into…”

twilight zone

Eight episodes of a TV show cut into bits and glued into a theatrical collage by the playwright who brought us Mr. Burns. An assortment of aliens, murderers, childhood traumas, a portal into another dimension, possible nuclear annihilation, plastic surgery, a ventriloquist’s dummy, space exploration, suspended animation, insomnia, a seductive singing cat-woman, all thrown together on the Almeida‘s not-especially-large stage. It’s one of those shows that has the potential, on paper, to be either brilliant or catastrophically bad.

Fortunately the result is closer to the former, although it’s not an unqualified success. Under Richard Jones’s witty, endlessly inventive direction, the terrific cast hit exactly the right just-arch-enough tone; they don’t quite wink at the material, but they don’t play it entirely straight either. Washburn does a very clever job of dismantling eight separate stories and reassembling them into a two-act montage; the stories she chooses are mostly about fear, paranoia, and memory, and those themes certainly carry at least as much resonance today as they would have when the series originally aired, but she and Jones preserve the wide-eyed, deadpan playfulness of her source material. There’s a terrific infinite-space set by Paul Steinberg, unimpeachable costumes and lighting by (respectively) Nicky Gillibrand and Mimi Jordan Sherin, and Sarah Angliss’s score is exactly right – sometimes lush, often unsettling, and a persuasive homage to the music from the TV show. The pace never flags, the production looks and sounds great, the show is sometimes very funny and it delivers a couple of real jolts, and Jones’s direction throughout is masterful. It’s thoroughly entertaining.

Or rather, it’s thoroughly entertaining until the last five minutes, when Washburn brings on a narrator – John Marquez, who (like everyone else in the cast) plays several other roles – in the persona of Rod Serling, the creator of the original TV series, to tie everything together and underline the present-day relevance of the mind-bending period-pieces we’ve just seen. It isn’t the actor’s fault, but this closing monologue just doesn’t work; the show suddenly becomes static and didactic, and seems to grind to a halt. It’s not a fatal blow, but it does leave you walking out of the theatre wondering if you’ve just spent two hours watching Eight Plots in Search of a Point.

If you’re looking for something with an overall arc, then, rather than what amounts to a series of sketches, you may well walk away disappointed. The show clearly wants to use a pop culture artifact as a jumping-off point to explore something more complex, and it sometimes succeeds; it’s probably best, though, to approach it as a theatrical equivalent of a fairground ride. It really is great fun; it could and should have been more than that, but it delivers more than enough entertainment to make it worth the cost of the ticket. And if you find yourself taking an inner journey during that final monologue, then… well, maybe your next stop really is the Twilight Zone.

 

Dazzling jewels by the score

follies end

Yes, I went back.

It’s still breathtaking, I still have some reservations about some specific choices, and some elements made a little more sense the second time around. So… random thoughts, because it’s been a long week and I’ve written about this production already.

  • Follies is an incredibly complex piece, and there is never going to be an absolutely perfect production of it. On second (live) viewing (I saw the NT Live screening too), this comes as close as anyone is likely to manage these days – provided you’re willing to go with Dominic Cooke’s choices.
  • The single greatest achievement of Cooke’s staging is that he appears to understand the rhythm of the piece, and therefore stages the show as a constant tapestry of action taking place all over the derelict Weismann Theatre rather than as a succession of scenes taking place on the Weismann Theatre’s stage.
  • The character work, right across the cast, is enormously detailed, even though the script basically gives us a parade of archetypes. That was true at the last-but-one preview, and the performances have only got stronger since then. Every single detail, even those that go against the way this material has been played in earlier productions, can be justified by the text, and every single actor is listening. That doesn’t happen as often as it should when everybody’s a few months into a run.
  • Imelda Staunton’s Sally is possibly (even) more startling now than it was the first time. Her Sally is no simpering, deluded romantic. She’s full of resentment, she drinks, and she’s fuelled by her barely-suppressed rage – but based on information we’re given in (this version of) the book, it’s a plausible interpretation. This Sally could very believably get on a plane and fly a few hundred miles to pick a fight with her children.
  • I’m still not won over by this production’s staging of Losing My Mind, but I was somehow far more moved by the moment this time than I was back in September. That might be because this time I was sitting close enough to see the whites of Ms. Staunton’s eyes, rather than halfway back in the circle, or it might just be because I wasn’t seeing it for the first time. I still think the song (and the character) really demands a lusher singing voice, and that the moment works better when the song is performed rather than acted, but when you cast a Sally whose singing voice isn’t up to doing the heavy lifting in this number there are inevitably going to be compromises.
  • Sally’s dress in the book scenes is blue. It looked blue from the circle, it looked blue from the front stalls… but somehow it looked a bit more teal-ish in the NT Live screening.
  • Philip Quast’s breakdown at the end of his big Loveland number is better now – much better – than it was in September. Other people have made larger acting choices in that moment, but Quast’s Ben appears to deflate before your eyes.
  • At some point before the NT Live screening last month, the two men playing “Margie” and “Sally” in Buddy’s Blues were replaced by women. It makes all the difference, the song now plays like gangbusters, and Peter Forbes is giving a very, very fine performance which has been somewhat overlooked by some critics in their rush to praise everyone else.
  • Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here is now simultaneously darker and more celebratory than it was the first time around, and it’s still an extraordinary performance. The prominent positioning of Young Carlotta watching the song from the side of the stage isn’t in the stage directions, but (still) works beautifully; this Carlotta appears to fling the final verse of the song at her ghost, and Young Carlotta stands, I think in admiration, during that final verse. Carlotta is the show’s survivor – the character who has somehow managed to break free of her past. I’ve never seen that come across more strongly than it does in this production.
  • The dialogue exchanges between Janie Dee’s Phyllis and Quast’s Ben are even more electrifying now than they were in September. This time, I was sitting in the front row; my phone was in my pocket, and I swear they recharged it.
  • Zizi Strallen and Alex Young (respectively Young Phyllis and Young Sally) are both superb. The actors in these roles are often overlooked, and they shouldn’t be.
  • Somewhere on Youtube, there’s a clip of Blythe Danner doing The Story of Lucy and Jessie in the 2001 Broadway revival. It will give you new appreciation for Janie Dee.
  • And speaking of Janie Dee and Lucy and Jessie, this time I really liked the inclusion of Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis in the number. Phyllis’s folly – her big problem – is the great big yawning chasm between who she was when she was in the Follies and the brittle sophisticate she’s moulded herself into. Of course it makes sense to put her younger self alongside her in her Follies number – and Dee and Strallen are sensational.
  • The Loveland drops don’t look as flimsy from the front stalls as they did from the circle.
  • Sitting a few feet from Josephine Barstow as she sang One More Kiss seemingly right at me was as transfixing an experience as I’ve ever had in a theatre. I saw the show on Wednesday afternoon and it’s now Saturday night, and I still have goosebumps.
  • I still don’t love Bill Deamer’s choreography for Who’s That Woman, and I particularly don’t love the part where the older women leave the stage and are ‘replaced’ by their ghosts – even though it makes sense in terms of the way this production uses the ghosts. There’s no faulting Dawn Hope’s performance, and the number still stops the show, but we’ve all seen Michael Bennett’s original choreography (other productions have used it and there’s footage on Youtube), and this just isn’t as effective.
  • The final scene is heartbreaking – not cheap, manipulative, let-us-all-now-shed-a-tear-for-these-people heartbreaking, but quite deeply moving, again in a way that it wasn’t in September (I mean, I found it moving the first time, but not that moving).

I thought the first time I saw it that this production would make fans of the show argue – and it has, and there are people who have loathed it. I think that possibly says something about the material: this show says something quite unpalatable about age and regret, and there are a lot of things in it that can justifiably be given more than one interpretation. Dominic Cooke makes a succession of very definite choices, and has his actors commit fully to the heightened, far-from-naturalistic tone of James Goldman’s dialogue. I found that choice enormously effective, but it’s a choice you’ll either buy or you won’t. For me, while I (still) don’t think everything about this production is perfect, I suspect it’ll be a very long time, if ever, before I see another Follies that’s as in tune with my personal reading of the text as this one is… so it’s a good thing I’m going back a third time before it closes.

Runyonland, uptown

rx gd4

I have a (very) short list of musicals I think, as writing, are just about perfect, and Guys and Dolls is very close to the top of that list. It’s a glorious American classic, one of the shining jewels of Broadway’s golden age, and it works beautifully. It doesn’t need anybody messing with it.

This production – a co-production between Manchester’s Royal Exchange and the Talawa Theatre Company – messes with it. The setting is booted 90-odd blocks uptown from Times Square to Harlem, the score gets a swinging Harlem Renaissance makeover from (re)orchestrator Simon Hale, and A Bushel and a Peck – one of the show’s most famous numbers – is dropped and replaced (as it was in the film) with a lesser (Loesser?)-known song called Pet Me, Poppa. This is the point where the purists start swooning onto their fainting-couches; swoon if you like, but while I wouldn’t want to see most (or really, any) of these changes in a more traditional revival, the result is more or less a complete triumph.

Because of Talawa’s involvement, some kind of reexamination of the piece was inevitable. This isn’t the first production of Guys and Dolls with an all-black cast, but it’s the first in the UK. The (relatively slight) shift in setting (and, let’s be fair, the nine-piece band imposed by a relatively small budget) mean it makes sense to arrange the score for a jazz band, so bye-bye strings. In a nightclub in Harlem, Pet Me, Poppa perhaps makes a little more sense than a quasi-striptease performed by a gaggle of “farmgirls”. And the venue itself imposes a certain performance style; the Royal Exchange is completely in the round, with the audience placed very close to the actors, so the frenzied, (much) larger-than-life comic tone adopted by (to give an example I actually saw) Jerry Zaks’s 1992 Broadway revival isn’t going to do the material any favours here.

rx gd5

That’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned: this is a show that works best when it’s about people rather than schtick. Under Michael Buffong’s tremendously subtle direction (‘tremendously subtle’ is not a description you always get to apply to revivals of this particular show), we’re allowed to see more than just a parade of archetypes – and yes, I know there’s more than just a parade of archetypes on the page, but depending on a director’s choices that’s sometimes all you get in the theatre. Here, the romance between Ashley Zhangazha’s Sky Masterson and Abiona Omuna’s Sarah Brown is as lovely as it’s ever been – he’s genuinely surprised by how hard he falls for her, she’s whip-smart and absolutely sure of herself, and the moment they first melt – in a gently swinging I’ve Never Been In Love Before at the climax of the first act – is very touching indeed. Ray Fearon’s Nathan Detroit is a heavy with a heart of gold, and there’s a wonderful warmth between him and Lucy Vandi’s sweetly rueful Adelaide. Of all the principals, Vandi probably strays furthest from the mould in which her role is usually cast; her Adelaide’s Lament is a bittersweet, humorously reflective character solo rather than a comedic tour-de-force, and it’s an interpretation that you’d think really shouldn’t work – but it does, and she’s wonderful, and her fabulous rendition of Pet Me, Poppa just about blows the roof off the joint.

There are gains and losses, of course – the laughs (and this applies right across the cast) are all there, but they’re maybe not as big as they have been in other revivals of the show – but Buffong and his cast offer a startlingly fresh look at very familiar material; if you’re willing to submit to a reading of the show that isn’t what you’ll have been expecting, there’s a great deal to enjoy here. There’s muscular choreography from Kenrick Sandy (Luck Be a Lady is as big a showstopper here as it’s ever been), riotously colourful costumes from designer Soutra Gilmour, evocative lighting from Johanna Town. The singing is splendid right across the board, the supporting performances are flawless, Ako Mitchell sings the hell out of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat, and Buffong – thank God – lets the song stop the show, but then doesn’t milk it by subjecting the audience to 37,000 encores of the last 16 bars (yes, I still bear the residual scars from the National Theatre revival, in which Clive Rowe flogged the dead horse to a degree that makes the Brexit negotiation process look imprudently brief). This is as good a Christmas show as you’ll see this year, and probably as good a revival of Guys and Dolls as you’ll see anywhere; it’s different, yes, but for this production Buffong’s approach pays dividends. These are clichés, but they’re all true: it’s a joy from beginning to end, it will sweep you away, and you’ll leave the theatre walking on air.

And it’s a crying shame productions from the Royal Exchange don’t generally get cast recordings, because have I mentioned already that Lucy Vandi is fabulous?

 

 

She’s got it! Yeah, baby, she’s got it!

venus in fur

As Vanda, the young woman who dominates (sorry) this limp two-hander, Natalie Dormer offers a ninety-minute masterclass in how to rise above your material. Nothing – and I mean nothing – else is anywhere near as good as she is, and she’s more or less the only reason to buy a ticket.

David Ives‘s undercooked play, a riff on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch‘s 1870 novel Venus in Furs, offers a few very funny lines but is never as clever or as edgy as it thinks it is. The setup is simple: Thomas, the writer/director of an upcoming (we assume way off-Broadway) adaptation of the novel, has spent the day auditioning bad actresses to play the central character. Just as he’s about to leave, a brash, apparently inexperienced young actress named Vanda Jordan appears (accompanied by thunder and lightning) and persuades him to let her audition – and when she starts to read she assumes the character she’s playing eerily quickly,  and it soon becomes obvious that she knows far more than she initially lets on about the novel, Thomas’s unpublished adaptation of it, and Thomas’s relationship with his (unseen) fiancée. What follows is supposed to be a nail-biting battle of the sexes in which Vanda and Thomas, following the pattern set by the characters in the source novel, each try to establish dominance over the other. There’s no interval, so basically the only nail-biting element here is how badly you’ll need to pee by the time the curtain comes down. There are twists and turns, certainly, but you’ll see them all coming a mile off, and the final big reveal – who Vanda really is – is unfortunately kind of spoiled by the tagline on the banner on the front of the theatre. This, I’m afraid, is a Bad Play, and it appears to have been written with little intent other than to objectify the actress playing Vanda, who gets to spend a big chunk of the performance wearing bondage gear and flirting with her leading man. There’s little insight and less tension, the writing tends towards the repetitive, and the script, overall, exudes all the sexual heat of a used teabag. No, not that kind of teabag.

Bad Plays, however, can sometimes be fun, and that’s true here – at least, up to a point. You’ll laugh – intermittently – but Ives’s script will probably mostly leave you rolling your eyes. Patrick Marber‘s staging is efficiently unshowy, and he probably gets as much out of the material as anyone could. And there’s nothing at all wrong with David Oakes‘s Thomas, except he fades into the background whenever Natalie Dormer’s Vanda is onstage, which unfortunately for Mr. Oakes encompasses all but the play’s first two-and-a-half minutes. Ms. Dormer, switching back and forth with dizzying ease between pungent Noo Yawk and a cultured, actressy RP, has dazzling comic timing and the sort of presence no drama school can teach, and her spectacular star turn eclipses pretty much everything else, from her costar and director to the set and the lighting. She can’t quite manage to turn a lousy play into a good one, but she keeps you entertained (lucky, because nothing else will), and she even manages to sell Ives’s howlingly camp ending.

Actually, the script as a whole could do with rather a lot more of the kind of camp you see in the last three minutes.  Dormer is sensational, and this isn’t selling well so there are discounts around; it’s well worth the £15 you’ll pay on Today Tix. Nearly all the way through, it’s simply far too safe. It may – MAY – work better when there’s an actor with more presence (or any presence) playing Thomas, but that still wouldn’t disguise the biggest problem here: Ives’s script is decaf Nescafé when it should be a triple espresso.

 

Poisson Strange

big fish 1

Or, a tale of the good, the bad, and the unmemorable.

Big Fish, based on a 2003 movie I haven’t seen, really wants to be an enchanting, heartwarming family musical about what fathers pass on to their sons. It also wants to be a celebration of fantastical storytelling, and sometimes the stage equivalent of a Lifetime hospital drama. Will Bloom (Matthew Seadon-Young) has grown up listening to his father Edward (Kelsey Grammer) tell impossibly tall tales about his past. When Edward becomes seriously ill, Will goes back through the stories to try to separate fact from fiction, and uncovers a huge secret. There’s a deathbed scene, the opportunity for a good cry in the second half of the second act, and the potential for a series of great big production numbers in the fantasy sequences. You can see why the show’s creators were drawn to adapting it as a musical – but while there’s possibly a wonderful musical buried somewhere in this source material, this really isn’t it. In terms of the material, what you’re getting here is basically the equivalent of a tuna sandwich from a hospital cafeteria: it’ll keep you going, it tastes OK, and you’ll remember very little about it afterwards.

What you will remember – and he’s probably the reason you bought a ticket – is this production’s above-the-title star. As the storytelling Edward, Kelsey Grammer is the real deal. He’s charming, very funny, and has effortless stage presence and a better singing voice than you might expect. This is a proper old-fashioned star turn, and he’s more than worth your time and money. The trouble is, he’s far more interesting than the show itself. John August’s book, even in the fantasy sequences, is predictable – bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the film, it was a quarter of the way into Act Two before I wasn’t two steps ahead of the plot. That might not be a problem if Andrew Lippa’s score was at all memorable, but it isn’t. It’s always pleasant, but it’s always bland; outside of a couple of  Andrews Sisters-type pastiche numbers (one in each act), there’s very little you’ll remember afterwards. The lyrics are technically proficient, although they tend to announce emotions as if they were headlines, and the music is always superficially attractive, but if you try to dig into the heart of the score – with the exception of one song sung by Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife – there is no there there.

And that might not be a problem if there was anything inspired about Nigel Harman’s direction, but there isn’t. The Broadway production (which flopped) was apparently too overblown, so this, in response, is the cut-down chamber version; it isn’t a bad idea to set nearly the entire show in Edward’s hospital room, but once you’ve taken the decision to do this show small, the fantasy sequences need an injection of theatrical magic. Not necessarily a big budget or huge set-changes – just imagination and a sure sense of fun. Here, both are notably lacking, despite the herculean efforts of Forbes Masson as a circus ringmaster and Dean Nolan as a misunderstood giant. They’re both terrific, but the songs they’re given aren’t; Harman’s direction and Liam Steele’s choreography don’t hit any clunkers, but they also don’t have the kind of flair that can sometimes elevate tepid material.

It doesn’t help, either, that Jamie Muscato’s Story Edward – the version of Edward Bloom who appears in the older Edward’s fantastic tales – is so singularly charmless. Muscato is a very, very talented performer. He’s a good actor, he can move, he has a wonderful singing voice – and he is absolutely miscast here, to the point where his character and Grammer’s barely seem related to each other. Muscato doesn’t have Grammer’s effortless presence and charm – at all – and without them Story Edward comes across as an egotistical con-man. Muscato works very hard indeed, and it isn’t his fault, but unfortunately it’s this performance that holes the show below the waterline.

Matthew Seadon-Young, though, is a genuinely moving Will Bloom, and Clare Burt is even better as his mother. Her one solo number, ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, is by far the best thing in the score (and just about the only song in which the emotional subtext isn’t announced at the top of each verse), and she sings it with devastating restraint. It’s a lovely, truthful, absolutely heartbreaking performance; she, like Grammer, is worth the cost of the ticket.

And having said all this, it’s fair to say that a lot of the (more or less capacity) audience seemed to like the show a lot more than I did. There’s a fine set of supporting performances,  decent production values (set and costumes by Tom Rogers, lighting by Bruno Poet), and for all that the material is bland, it is also moving, at least in the second act – though it’s also rather manipulative, and if you’ve experienced losing a parent the final scenes push buttons that are more or less guaranteed to provoke a response. As I said, though, there’s a memorable musical located somewhere in this source material, and this is not it. You’ll leave the theatre remembering Clare Burt’s face when she sings ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, Matthew Seadon-Young’s final scenes, and (especially) Kelsey Grammer, but the score will have evaporated by the time you get to the tube, and Harmon’s direction might have evaporated before you’ve finished watching it. Go for the cast – they’re worth it – but go with low expectations. And if you want a really memorable fish, try the aquarium.

 

 

 

One message, medium-rare

NT Network 1

“Fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” No, wait, sorry, that’s Ivo van Hove‘s next show. This week, we’re all  going to be mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Possibly with dinner, if you paid for the onstage seats. With all due deference to Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies, which is currently playing two flights of stairs up, Network, adapted by Lee Hall from Paddy Chayefsky‘s screenplay, might be the theatrical thrill-ride of the year. Even if you know the screenplay quite well, you’ll be on the edge of your seat; this is a big, bold, wildly inventive, viciously satirical theatrical extravaganza, and Mr. van Hove appears to have thrown his entire bag of tricks at the Lyttelton stage – including the kitchen sink. And a full kitchen, and a bar, and a restaurant. Add an ingenious set by Jan Versweyveld, an endlessly inventive, eye-popping video design by Tal Yarden, a mirrored floor, a lot of video screens, cameras, a control booth, make-up chairs at the back of the stage in full view of the audience, live-action footage projected on a screen above the stage, and a quartet of musicians at the top of the stage pumping out a Kraftwerk-esque electronic score, and you’re pretty much getting the full Ivo van Hove. A seatbelt might actually come in useful: this production is a rollercoaster, and it never lets up.

NT Network 3

I’m not always a fan of flamboyant directorial trickery, and last year I felt van Hove’s production of Lazarus worked far better as performance art or as a gig than as theatre. This time, the technological cleverness, the design, the prominent positioning of audience members eating onstage, the look, the feel, the music, the (very, very fine) performances, are all working in unison towards the same purpose… and here is where a certain kind of purist may snarl, because that purpose isn’t quite simply about telling the story.

Lee Hall’s adaptation, in fact, stays very close indeed to Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay, although it strips away much of the terrorist subplot. This is still, as projected text informs us at the very top of the show, the story of Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston), a veteran newscaster whose on-air nervous breakdown precipitates a spectacular ratings spike for his third-rate television network, which in turn sets off a battle of wits between a driven, more-or-less psychotic producer from the entertainment division determined to exploit Beale’s ratings potential, and the president of the network’s ailing news division, who is deeply wary of the consequences of conflating news with entertainment. The action still takes place in the mid-1970s, although the tech elements use equipment that is light years ahead of anything available “in period”. The production delivers the story with admirable clarity, but there’s more than that going on here: above all else, this is an extended theatrical examination of the way we consume media, or perhaps the way media consumes us. Accordingly, van Hove places the entire show in a fully-functioning television studio that encompasses the entire Lyttelton stage. At home, we sit and flip channels, and shift our attention from the TV to a laptop to a tablet to a phone and back again without thinking about it, so there’s a constant tapestry of action onstage with the main focus constantly moving from live action to the screens and back again. There’s always several things going on in the background; van Hove does an exceptional job of directing your eyes to look where he wants you to, but if you look elsewhere you’ll still pick up relevant information, or at least an amusingly kitsch 70s TV commercial. We consume news as background noise while we’re eating or drinking or talking, so there are tables onstage where we, the audience in the traditional seats, can see an audience consuming food and drink as they watch the play. Several times, the actors play all or part of a scene right in the middle of the onstage audience, and at one point, the play completely breaks the fourth wall and the action moves into the stalls – at which point a camera is directed into the auditorium, and the view from the stage of the Lyttelton is projected onto a screen.

The line between live action and film is constantly blurred; one scene even begins (on screen, but live) outside on the South Bank and moves seamlessly indoors through the National’s corridors until it ends up in the onstage bar area. A warm-up man encourages the audience to join in at key points by shouting out that line – a weirdly uncomfortable experience, since you’re basically being asked to cheer a nervous breakdown. At one key moment video clips, solicited via Twitter, of members of the public shouting that line are projected onto the walls above the stage. Literally and figuratively, it’s an electric theatrical experience, and every element is designed to underpin Chayefsky’s satirical thesis about how people can be manipulated by a corporate-driven media when the boundaries between fact and entertainment start to break down – although the point isn’t made explicitly until a brief video montage shown after the curtain call at the end of the show. Over a couple of minutes, we see clips of  the inauguration of every US President from Nixon to the current incumbent – and that’s all it takes to make the dangers of reality-based entertainment blindingly obvious.

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What you’re getting, then, is a big dose of Marshall McLuhan wrapped up in a lot of shiny electronics and slick stagecraft (television, incidentally, is not the medium, it’s the hardware that delivers the message). It’s a dazzling spectacle, but the spectacle somehow never overwhelms Bryan Cranston’s astonishing performance as Howard Beale. It’s not simply that Cranston effortlessly holds your attention in the middle of a two-hour fireworks-display of a production, even from parts of the stage where you can’t quite see him. It’s that at the centre of an overwhelming, in-your-face production in which every element is designed to reinforce a satirical point about the dehumanising effect of mass media, he perfectly captures Howard Beale’s raw vulnerability and the pitch-black satirical comedy that runs through the heart of the show like the letters in a stick of rock. The “…mad as Hell” monologue is a tour-de-force; in a production packed from wall to wall with eye-popping directorial flourishes, nothing is more memorable than Cranston’s star turn. There’s equally fine work from Douglas Henshall (in the William Holden role), Tunji Kasim (the Robert Duvall role), and Caroline Faber (in the relatively tiny role that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar). Michelle Dockery deploys her two facial expressions to far better effect as Diana Christensen, the psychopathic TV producer (originally played by Faye Dunaway) who will go to any lengths in her quest for ratings, than she ever achieved in Downton Abbey. Surrounding the leads, there’s a stage full of supporting performers, technicians, cameras, and – oh yes – restaurant patrons; it’s a dense, sometimes overwhelming experience to sit through, but it works.

It’s also sold out, even before the reviews appear (I saw one of the final previews; press night is tonight, and in terms of sales the reviews are just about irrelevant). It’s worth lining up for day seats; this production raises a lot of serious questions, and shows us over and over again how terrifyingly prescient Chayefsky’s original screenplay was, but it’s also tremendous fun. As I said, this is a wild rollercoaster of a show, an edge-of-your-seat theatrical joyride that isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year. Even if you’re dubious – as I am – about self-consciously tricksy directorial flourishes, go. For once, the gimmicks work – and quite apart from the gimmicks, Bryan Cranston’s performance is one for the ages.

Just maybe do a vocal warmup first – there are signs in the lobby warning that the production “contains loud noises”, but they don’t mention that you’ll be making some of them yourself.

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