Runyonland, uptown

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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.

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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?

 

 

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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

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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

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“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.

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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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Ready for her close-up

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She’s ba-ack!

From Glenn Close’s understudy to headline attraction in her own right, Ria Jones‘s (very belated) big break is an irresistible showbiz-dream-come-true story. She’s always been wonderful – twenty-five years ago, she was a thrillingly-sung Fantine in the first Manchester run of Les Misérables, twenty-one years ago she was flawless in the two leading roles in the chamber musical Romance/Romance at the Bridewell, and she’s toured all over the place and done concerts with just about everyone – but she’s always been one of those people who should be a Great Big Star, and somehow isn’t.

Until now. This time, thanks to the spectacular word-of-mouth that followed the four performances last year when she stood in for an indisposed Glenn Close in a revival of Sunset Boulevard that had basically been packaged and marketed as The Glenn Close Show, it’s Jones’s name above the title on the posters. This production, too, is being sold around the star – and this year’s star is last year’s understudy (which must feel especially sweet given that Jones, in fact, was the first person ever to sing the role of Norma Desmond in a workshop a few years before the original London production). The show itself is what it always was – some good stuff, a lot of musical wallpaper, some real clunkers among the lyrics, and overall a very imperfect adaptation of a more-or-less-perfect film. While the writing isn’t unimpeachable, though, it’s undeniably a great star vehicle. Jones, STARRING as opposed to playing the lead, is superb as Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent movie star whose entanglement with a young writer ends very, very messily indeed; these cut-price touring productions are often faintly dismal affairs, but the production director Nikolai Foster has built around his star is far better than anyone had any right to expect, and in several respects it’s streets ahead of both Lonny Price‘s concert(ish) staging last year and Trevor Nunn‘s overblown original at the Adelphi.

In terms of her strengths in the role, Jones is just about the polar opposite of Glenn Close, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Close’s power in the role came from her immense charisma: she’s a very good actress, but she’s also the kind of Great Big Movie Star whose effortless presence commands an audience’s attention. Her singing, on the other hand, is not her strongest suit – she got away with it, but that’s just about the best you can give her. Jones, on the other hand, is a good actress and a magnificent singer, but she doesn’t bring that kind of movie-star magnetism to the table. Strangely, that’s a combination that turns out to work very well for this role: some of Jones’s predecessors, including Close, were so loudly FABULOUS! that it was difficult to see why Norma Desmond had been forgotten by the public (it’s not as if the transition from silent to talkies was impossible to negotiate: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard all managed it). Jones avoids the trap (hi, Betty Buckley!) of getting too crazy too quickly, giving us a carefully-mapped descent into madness. She’s absolutely believable as a lonely, lovelorn woman, she sings the living hell out of Norma’s big numbers, and she manages to put her own spin on that monologue in the final scene (and a very smart spin it is too – when her Norma announces that she can’t go on with the scene because she’s too happy, Jones’s Norma genuinely is. She’s completely out to lunch, of course, but she’s happy, not suicidal, because her grip on reality has finally completely snapped). It’s not necessarily the most subtle account of the role you’ll ever see (and I suppose I might mention here that my favourite Norma, as much as I loved Close last year, Jones in this, and Elaine Paige in the original production, is probably Rita Moreno, who delivered an astonishing acting performance and, like Close, just about got away with the demands of the score), but that final scene still raises goosebumps, and I doubt anybody has sung As If We Never Said Goodbye better than Jones sings it in this production.

Opposite her, Danny Mac is a strong Joe Gillis – and for once, in this production, it’s clear that Norma is a character in Joe’s story, rather than the other way around. He sings well, and captures the character’s corrosive self-loathing better than anyone I’ve seen since Kevin Anderson in the original London cast. Molly Lynch is a sweetly girlish Betty Schaefer, Adam Pearce is a just-creepy-enough Max, and there’s nothing to criticise in any of the ensemble performances (some of the casting is a little young, though: whoever plays Hog-Eye, the spotlight operator, needs to look as if he’s been in showbiz for a hell of a lot longer than three decades. Two-and-a-half decades ago, the actor playing the role in this production was a zygote). There’s a superbly evocative Hollywood soundstage set by Colin Richmond (who also supplies the perfectly-apt costumes), enhanced by Douglas O’Connell’s sometimes subtle, sometimes dazzling video projections. The car chase sequences, in particular, work better here than they did in either last year’s revival or the original staging, thanks to cleverly-timed use of rear-projection.

Nikolai Foster’s staging emphasises Hollywood’s artifice: because the whole production takes place on a soundstage, the detritus of moviemaking is always visible somewhere on the stage, even when we’re supposedly in Norma’s mansion. Towers become walls, Norma’s staircase splits into pieces to become other buildings in other locations, there’s usually a camera visible somewhere on the stage, and O’Connell’s projections keep reminding us of the Los Angeles that exists outside Norma’s mansion, which makes the mansion feel all the more claustrophobic. It’s all accomplished on a much smaller budget than the gargantuan, eye-popping original, but it actually makes a better case for the show than Nunn’s production did. The writing is still uneven – the strongest director couldn’t save a number as weak as The Lady’s Paying, though we’re mercifully spared the limp-wristed, lazily-stereotyped camp caricature of a performance that accompanied the song at the Coliseum last year – but the focus here is firmly on the people rather than the set, and the people are worth your attention. Granted, they’re interesting mostly because of Billy Wilder (and Ria Jones and Danny Mac) rather than Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black, but in a Lloyd Webber show you take what you can get. It’s a pity there are only sixteen musicians in the pit – this music really needs a big string section, and it doesn’t get one here, which means the instrumental passages sound anaemic – but that’s really the only major criticism. It may not have happened without the publicity generated when Jones stood in for Glenn Close last year, but this, it turns out, is a very, very fine revival indeed.

Oh yes – before I finish, a shout out to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, and particularly to the three of you who spent the last fifteen minutes of Act One during Wednesday’s matinee holding a conversation in the aisle right behind the back row of the dress circle. It’s not like the customer experience in this venue is ever good – but my expectations are very low indeed, and you surpassed them. Well done.

A view from the Bridge

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This week, a shiny new play in a shiny new theatre. The Bridge Theatre‘s publicity machine would like us to believe that it’s the first new commercial theatre to open in London in several decades, which it isn’t unless you follow the statement with several caveats, but I suppose a certain amount of creative exaggeration in the marketing material is justified: the theatre is gorgeous. Located in the shadow of Tower Bridge, in the base of the kind of half-empty cash-receptacle apartment building where you have to prove you’re a bona fide oligarch before the estate agent will hand you the particulars, the theatre itself is a not-so-little gem. There’s a spacious lobby with plenty of seats, more than enough toilets, classy catering options, free water fountains, and a lovely, welcoming atmosphere – which isn’t the easiest thing to achieve in that kind of building.

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More importantly, while it’s great that they’ve mostly got the hospitality side of things exactly right, the auditorium itself is wonderful. It’s understated and functional rather than ornate – a flexible space which can be configured as a traditional proscenium theatre, a thrust stage, or a theatre in the round, with three tiers of galleried seating surrounding the lowest (stalls/stage floor) level. It’s a purely commercial venture that will operate without Arts Council subsidies, but – admirably – there are inexpensive seats at every level, including in the stalls, and the house is carefully designed so that there should be a good, clear view from every level and every price bracket.

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Nobody is going to find themselves sitting behind a pillar, or in a seat where you can’t see over the head of the person in front of you. It seats around 900, but feels more intimate.

And, being cheap – I live about 200 miles from London, which means I spend more on train fares than on theatre tickets – I particularly appreciated the theatre’s best bargain: the folding strapontin seats in the stalls, which are perched on the ends of alternate rows in the centre seating block, and which allow those of us whose budgets preclude buying top-price tickets all the time to see the show from the centre stalls and sacrifice a (tiny) bit of comfort in order to save a (bigger) chunk of cash.

 

For a saving of £40, you get a slightly narrower seat base and no armrest. The regular seats would be more comfortable, but this was hardly the kind of arse-paralyser you get at, for example, Wilton’s Music Hall. It was a perfectly acceptable seat – and as someone who often finds myself sitting upstairs near the back, or at some angle where seeing the whole of the stage leaves me with a crick in my neck, it was great to be able to see a show from fifth-row centre without making my Visa card scream in agony when I made the booking.

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The show itself? Well, bear in mind that you’ll be sitting in, essentially, a temple to middlebrow entertainment. This is a commercial establishment; if your idea of a play about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels involves a two-hour treatise on dialectical materialism, this is not the show for you (and you must be a real hit at parties). Young Marx is – or at least starts out as – a boisterous comedy, rather than a Serious Drama. The first act is a rowdy rollercoaster ride through the perils of Victorian poverty: struggling to pull in enough money to pay the rent, feed his family, and (not the least of these priorities) go out on the piss, Rory Kinnear’s Marx spends the first act being pursued by policemen, baliffs, and other contributors to the revolution (they want to kill Queen Victoria, Marx just wants to sink a pint in every pub in Tottenham Court Road), and trying to keep his wife (a very fine performance from Nancy Carroll) on side. It’s often very funny; Bean and Coleman are experts at this kind of stuff, and – up until the interval – the show is pretty much exactly what you’d expect of a play about a young Karl Marx co-written by the author of One Man, Two Guvnors. There’s a chase across Soho’s rooftops, a lot of hiding in cupboards/up chimneys, a fair amount of anachronistic commentary (particularly in relation to the nature of policing in Victorian London), a scattering of groaners, and a vast assortment of variations on the theme of drunken staggering, and the banter between Marx and Engels often resembles a music-hall comedy duo, to the point where they occasionally break into comic ditties, one of which, blissfully, is sung to the tune of ‘Ode to Joy’ (ten minutes into the show, you’ll be in no doubt as to where Bean and Coleman stand on the Brexit issue). Nicholas Hytner’s fluid direction effortlessly mines every laugh, every double-take, every reaction; it’s tremendous fun, but it’s also, despite the fine performances, a little predictable.

Halfway through the second act, the play takes a sharp turn towards the serious; Bean has taken a few licences here and there, but he sticks broadly to the truth of Karl Marx’s life circa 1850, which means there’s an event he can’t work around – and it’s at this point, unexpectedly, that Young Marx becomes a much stronger, much more interesting play. The second act is not without one or two memorable comic set-pieces – an extended fight scene in the reading room at the British Museum (Charles Darwin is involved – and later contributes a hilarious conjuring trick involving a toy rabbit) is a particular triumph, not least for Kate Waters, the fight director – but the later scenes are genuinely moving, and the play ends on a moment of quiet resolution that feels absolutely earned. Kinnear, Carroll, Oliver Chris (Engels) and Laura Elphinstone (Nym, the Marx’s housekeeper) adroitly negotiate the play’s sudden three-quarter-turn: the comedy in the first act is always grounded in emotional truth, and the seeds for the second act’s shift in tone are very carefully sown earlier in the play. In less assured hands, it wouldn’t work – but here, it works beautifully.

There are fine production values, too – a revolving, unfolding cube of a set by Mark Thompson that makes the (many) scene changes look deceptively simple, appropriately moody lighting from Mark Henderson, and appropriately anarchic electro-punk (until the play’s tone changes) music from Grant Olding. There’s a large cast – fifteen adults, two children – and a faultless set of performances; this is a quality production of a play that turns out to be a lot more interesting than you’d guess from the first act (so it’s a pity the lady sitting immediately to my left left at the start of the interval, but that’s her loss). There aren’t that many holes to pick – except for one rather big one that, unfortunately, is simply a reflection of a much bigger cultural issue. There are fifteen adult actors in the production. Commendably, they’re not all white – but among the supporting actors, the non-white performers are assigned to play, respectively, a turncoat (and the prime villain of the piece), a Prussian spy, a comically clichéd foreign revolutionary, the bailiff who repossesses the Marx family furniture, and a bumbling halfwit. There’s nothing wrong with any of the performances, but assigning all those roles – amid a large ensemble – to minority-ethnic performers is simply plain old-fashioned economy-sized lazy stereotyping, although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. In 2017, we should be able to do better than that.

Otherwise, this is pretty much a faultless production of a play that is stronger and more complex than it first appears. As we saw last year in the National’s dazzlingly foul-mouthed revival of The Threepenny Opera, Rory Kinnear makes a sensationally compelling antihero, and that’s even more the case here: he’s giving a great big glorious star turn, and he’s worth the cost of the ticket on his own. As for the play, it’s undeniably true that on one level it doesn’t run particularly deep – but while you might not learn much about Marx that you didn’t already know going in, you will be entertained (well, assuming you aren’t the hatchet-faced prune who was sitting on my left during Act One on Saturday afternoon). If this is an indication of things to come, Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s tenure at the Bridge is off to a flying start. The venue itself is a triumph, and so is the opening show. That this is a commercial venture is all the more remarkable. It deserves your support, and it deserves to succeed.

Up the jungle

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Last week a stroke, this week Alzheimer’s. I hadn’t planned to see two plays (partly) about aphasia back-to-back, it just happened. Terry Johnson‘s Prism, which is coming to the end of a run at the Hampstead Theatre, is a wildly different kind of play than Wings; unfortunately the comparison doesn’t flatter it.

In Prism, Johnson presents an examination of the celebrated photographer and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the man responsible for some of the most iconic photographs of Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall. The play shows him in (we assume, but are never quite told) his 80s, in the grip of Alzheimer’s, only sporadically able to distinguish the present from the past. Johnson sets up a situation with four characters: Cardiff, his (younger) wife Nicola, his son Mason, who wants him to hurry up and finish an autobiography before he completely loses his marbles, and a care-worker named Lucy. The prism of the title is an essential component of the three-strip Technicolor process, of which Cardiff was an early adopter: a prism inside the camera split the incoming beam of light into green, magenta, and blue streams, each of which was recorded on a separate strip of film; when the three negatives were combined, they captured a far wider spectrum of colour than had been possible using earlier processes.

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Johnson wisely gets the technical explanations out of the way very early on; the prism, here, is a metaphor for the way Johnson’s Cardiff’s vision splits between the present and the past. We’re shown, more than once, that when Cardiff looks at his wife he sometimes sees Katharine Hepburn; Lucy, the carer, is sometimes confused with Marilyn Monroe, and Johnson’s son is sometimes Arthur Miller, sometimes Humphrey Bogart. In a spectacular coup-de-théâtre, Tim Shortall’s set takes us from the memorabilia-packed garage/studio where the bulk of the play is located to the Congolese jungle location where scenes from The African Queen were filmed, and then later to a Hollywood soundstage where Cardiff photographed Marilyn Monroe. The conversations in these imagined landscapes recall and even overlap with conversations in the play’s present day – indeed, Cardiff’s Act Two conversation with Marilyn Monroe is a word-for-word retread of an earlier conversation with Lucy (both, of course, are played by the same actress). It’s a fascinating idea, and Lindsay, while he’s two decades too young for the role, offers a gripping performance as Cardiff – never quite sure where or when he is, proud of his accomplishments, frustrated by his inability to keep track of anything, fighting his way through imaginary jungles that once were absolutely real, and terrified of losing his sight. Johnson’s great gift has always been the ability to find comedy even in the most unexpected places, and that’s still true here (this is his first full-length play in ten years); compared to his earlier work, though, the tone is elegiac, even though there are big laughs scattered all the way through the play. Lindsay is sometimes tremendously moving – but audiences expecting an out-and-out comedy along the lines of Dead Funny (still, I think, his best play) or Hysteria are likely to be disappointed.

But then, they may well be disappointed anyway. The underlying idea is fascinating, and Lindsay and Claire Skinner (as Nicola and Katharine Hepburn) are giving tremendous performances, but the play as a whole, I’m afraid, comes across as a parade of interesting ideas and lovely moments that never coalesce into a coherent whole. It’s short – two hours and ten minutes including an interval – and somewhat slight, and at the end you’re unfortunately left with the impression that what you’ve just seen is two scenes short of having a point. The supporting performances don’t help; Barnaby Kay is blank space as Cardiff’s son and Arthur Miller, and actively bad in his brief scene as Humphrey Bogart; Rebecca Night’s Lucy, meanwhile, is saddled with the kind of terrible generic northern accent that can only come from someone to whom the north (by which I mean anything beyond the top of the Northern Line) is little more than an abstract concept. To be fair, neither is given much help by the script; as written, Mason is basically a device to enable Lindsay’s Cardiff to give us exposition, and Lucy is a walking cipher. In the second act, we’re given hints of something awful in her home life, but the information (that she has a child who has been taken into care) comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, which doesn’t give Night enough to play. And while the set design is superb, some of the wigs are truly scary; presumably someone has to take the one Skinner wears as Hepburn out for a walk between shows, because it looks like it might otherwise break free and attack the front row.

A frustrating play, then, that circles its subject without quite landing on a reason for telling us this story, but at the centre of it Robert Lindsay is giving a genuine star turn. It’s just a pity his vehicle feels like an unfinished prototype – some nice lines, some interesting details, but too many bumps along the way, and it’s never quite clear what kind of play this is supposed to be. Having said that, though, Johnson is incapable of writing a dull play. Prism doesn’t work – at all – but it’s a fascinating ride.