Silk purse/sow’s ear

Cast Robert James Waller’s dazzlingly awful 1992 novel out of your mind. While you’re at it, you might as well forget Clint Eastwood’s almost-as-stinky 1995 film adaptation. This is, yes, still the soapy, predictable story of a four-day love affair between an Italian-American housewife and an itinerant photographer in 1960s Iowa, and until the last ten minutes of the show you’ll be (at least) three steps ahead of the plot. Somehow, though, bookwriter Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Brown have managed to dig behind Waller’s laughably purple prose to uncover a surprisingly effective portrait of two lonely people who find themselves awakened by a chance meeting.

The key – and the element that makes the show a must-see, whatever your opinion of the (dismal) source material – is Brown’s beautiful score. Norman has done an admirable job of stripping away the novel’s (many) excesses so that the story is told simply and clearly, but the songs are the star here. The show was a relatively fast flop on Broadway, but this is among the best theatre scores of the last decade, although it’s not always easy listening. Brown isn’t afraid of dissonance, and he isn’t afraid to experiment with song structure, but this is a lush, lyrical, haunting set of songs that have an astonishing emotional pull. It’s a pleasure, too, to hear Brown’s own orchestrations for a ten-piece band in a space as small as the Menier; under Tom Murray’s musical direction, the band gives a superlative account of this gorgeous but demanding music.

The production, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. There’s no faulting the performances, although neither Jenna Russell nor Edward Baker-Duly have the pristine, lightning-in-a-bottle voices of their Broadway counterparts. They’re both good singers – really good singers – but this music stretches them. That said, the show gains immeasurably from being seen in such a small space, and Russell in particular is quietly heartbreaking, offering a delicate, finely-shaded portrayal that gives Francesca a level of complexity you’d never imagine possible from reading the novel. There’s fine support, too, from Gillian Kirkpatrick as a nosy but caring neighbour, and (in several small roles) from Shanay Holmes, whose rendition of the lovely ‘Another Life’ is the production’s musical highlight.

Less impressive is John Bausor’s overly-complicated set, a combination of turntables and flimsy sliding panels that sometimes threatens to bring this already slow-paced show to a grinding halt. Yes, Tal Rosner’s video projections (a starlit sky, Iowa cornfields, a small-town Main Street) look exquisite against the bleached wood planks of those wooden panels – but at the performance I attended (a very late preview) a truck unit momentarily juddered to a halt before it moved all the way offstage, the two sliding wooden panels wobbled every time they moved in a way that called into question whether they’ll survive the run (I’ll find out, I suppose, I’m going back for the final matinee), the door of Francesca’s fridge kept stubbornly refusing to close, and several ominous crashes were heard from backstage during the (numerous) set-changes. It’s one of those sets that would look great if everything worked, particularly as sensitively lit by Tim Lutkin – and it’s great to see designers trying to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in a venue with so little backstage space, but the show might have been better served by a simpler design.

That said, though, Brown’s score is so lovely, and Jenna Russell’s performance is so exquisite, that any shortcomings in the production surrounding them seem almost irrelevant. I don’t know whether I’d call this a great musical, and I wouldn’t say it was a completely unimpeachable production, but the good elements are so good that it’s more than worth an evening of your time. To draw music this beautiful, and a performance so brimming with yearning, out of a novel as truly, thoroughly, overwhelmingly bad as The Bridges of Madison County is a remarkable achievement. You aren’t going to get very many opportunities to hear a live performance of this score in this country, and Jenna Russell is doing some of the very best work of her career. Don’t miss it.

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Namastaaaaaaaaaaaaaay….

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We’re all familiar by now with preshow announcements about cellphones and smartphones, right? After last Wednesday night’s performance of the National Theatre‘s very, very wonderful adaptation/revival of Tartuffe, I have a new pet hate: smart watches. The lady sitting to my left was wearing one, and while it didn’t make a noise it lit up every time she received a notification – and when I say ‘lit up’, I mean the kind of light you’d use to guide an Airbus onto a runway. It clearly hadn’t occurred to her that the light from her device might be distracting, but then I suppose to her, it’s her world, and everybody else just happens to live in it too. I’m sure these watches are wonderful things – but please, if you’re going to the theatre, take it off, stick it in your pocket, shove it up your arse, leave it at home, or find SOME way of not imposing the light pollution from your snazzy new toy on your fellow audience members. Leave the light show in the auditorium to the lighting designer.

If you’re lucky enough NOT to find yourself sitting next to Ms. Fuck-The-Rest-Of-The-Audience-I’m-Not-Taking-My-Watch-Off, you’ll have a great time – at least, if you manage to get to one of the last two performances, because the last night is on Tuesday. John Donnelly’s script is more a contemporary riff on Molière than a direct translation of him, and it’s none the worse for that – it means the production can hit a slew of topical targets (Brexit, new-age spirituality, political corruption, police violence, and many more) without the references feeling forced. Donnelly’s script is fast, funny, and very clever – I bought a copy on my way out of the theatre, and it reads as well as it plays – and so is Blanche McIntyre’s production. It takes place very firmly in the present, and very firmly in England – Highgate, to be precise, which allows Donnelly to skewer a richly deserving, spectacularly insular/up-itself tranche of affluent North London (and make a splendidly snide but absolutely on-the-nose joke about Archway, which is icing on the cake). There’s a not-very-subtle and richly-deserved swipe at people who made money out of the 2016 referendum by short-selling the pound, Robert Jones’s living-room set has great fun with the ridiculousness of what interior design magazines pass off as expensive good taste, and McIntyre and her cast keep things moving at an impressive clip.

And sorry, but I’m now going to have to take a week off and build some kind of shrine to Olivia Williams. My fault, the only thing I remembered seeing her in before this is Dollhouse, I had no idea she had such extraordinary comic timing. Her Elmire – Orgon’s second wife (I mean, do I really have to give a synopsis of Tartuffe?) – is the funniest thing in a pricelessly funny production, and the funniest comedic performance I’ve seen in a long while. She shoots one-liners like arrows from a bow, throws herself all over the stage during some spectacular physical business, and manages to be many times larger than life without ever sacrificing the character’s essential emotional truth (yes that’s a wanky phrase, deal with it). She gets huge laughs, but she gets them by being believably real, even when she’s doing something utterly ridiculous (watch what happens – oh wait, you can’t unless you go tomorrow or Tuesday – when she forces Orgon into a concealed compartment in a coffee table so that he can eavesdrop on her when she’s “alone” with Tartuffe).

There should probably be some kind of shrine built to everyone else in the production, but Ms. Williams’s performance was the biggest surprise. Denis O’Hare goes for broke in the title role, and it pays off; his pronounced-but-indefinable somewhere-in-Europe accent can make the word ‘namaste’ sound like a devastating put-down, the sequence in which he washes himself (yes, including down there) with ice-cubes out of a champagne bucket is indecently funny, and he somehow manages to make his Tartuffe into a ruthless opportunist and a genuinely plausible guru (he tells Orgon he’s “never pretended to be anything I’m not”, and you believe him). Kevin Doyle’s Orgon is clearly capable of being a ruthless opportunist – it’s implied he made his fortune by using inside information to play the markets against his own government – and he’s clearly (chastely) besotted with Tartuffe to a degree that stops him seeing Tartuffe’s machinations until it’s far too late, but there’s a sweet sadness to him too, and his search for some kind of redemption for business transactions he describes as “treason” is quite touching.

There are sharp comic turns, too, from Kathy Keira Clarke as all-seeing, all-knowing housekeeper Dorine, from Kitty Archer as Orgon’s spoilt-brat-with-a-backbone daughter Mariane, from Enyi Okoronkwo as Mariane’s nice-but-dim brother Damis, and from Geoffrey Lumb as Mariane’s boyfriend Valere, reinvented by Donnelly as a socialist street poet who believes rhyme is an insult to the Revolution. Everyone manages to negotiate a sharp shift in tone in the final scene – there’s a lot more blood visible than you’d usually expect in a production of Tartuffe – and the shift in tone works well; this is essentially a contemporary play based on Molière rather than an English translation of Molière’s words, and Donnelly has a definite point about inequality and injustice in modern Britain, and (in that final scene, after Tartuffe is arrested) about the way this country treats foreigners, but he makes his points without driving them home with a sledgehammer: this is a pitch-perfect production of a funny, funny script, and if I lived closer to London I’d be back tomorrow night to see it again before the end of the run.

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Going Home

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In the closing moments of the first act of Local Hero, the new musical based on Bill Forsyth‘s 1983 film, Texan oil executive Mac steps outside a pub in the run-down Scottish village of Ferness, looks up, and sees the Aurora Borealis for the first time. If you know the film, as I suspect most of the audience did, you’ll have been expecting this moment. What you might not have been expecting – I wasn’t – is to feel a tear running down your cheek as Mac telephones his boss in Houston (yes, via a red phone box) and breathlessly describes the changing colours in the sky above him. Local Hero is one of those films that seems to be universally beloved, and with good reason, because it’s just about perfect. It’s a charming, quirky, intelligent fish-out-of-water comedy with a terrific screenplay, fine direction and cinematography, and flawless performances, but it has never moved me to tears, and I don’t think it’s designed to draw that kind of response from an audience. It never struck me, either, as a film that cried out to be adapted as a musical. It’s lovely, but Forsyth’s screenplay is notably lacking in obvious song cues, and you don’t – at least, I don’t – get the sense that the characters in it need to sing.

And yet somehow, miraculously, this musical adaptation is an absolute joy. In adapting the screenplay, Forsyth and playwright David Greig have made a series of very smart choices, preserving (most of) the film’s basic plot but carefully refocusing it so that the musical isn’t simply a step-by-step retread of the screenplay with songs – by Mark Knopfler, who supplied the film’s score – shoehorned in at regular intervals. The story still revolves around Mac, an oil executive sent to a remote coastal village in Scotland to buy the land it sits on so that the corporation he works for can build an oil refinery there, and who finds himself slowly falling in love with a place he initially finds utterly alien, but some of the surrounding characters and stories are significantly changed. The plot strand involving (in the film) Peter Capaldi as the oil corporation’s local operative and Jenny Seagrove as a marine research scientist is completely gone, and not much missed, although their scenes in the film are absolutely charming. The role of hotelier/accountant/jack-of-all-trades Gordon’s common-law wife Stella, tiny in the film, has been significantly expanded, to the point where she drives a great deal of the plot in the show’s second act. The musical does a better job than the film, too, in showing the hardships involved in carving out a living somewhere so remote, and much more weight is given to the environmental impact of building an oil refinery in such a relatively unspoiled place. Throughout, the musical is a little less whimsical than the film, but only a little, and Greig and Knopfler tread a careful line, keeping the tone relatively light through most of the first act so that Mac’s epiphany when he sees the Northern Lights feels like a surprise even if you’ve known for the last hour that it’s coming. The musical locates a well of deep yearning that the film only hints at; most musicals would hit you over the head with it, but Greig, Forsyth and Knopfler let it creep up on you instead, and the show is all the better for it.

It’s a gorgeous production, too. Director John Crowley lets the piece’s momentum build slowly, and makes the brave choice not to allow applause after each musical number – applause releases tension, and that emotional moment at the end of the first act happens partly because nothing has been allowed to, well, break the spell. This is in some respects the anti-Brigadoon – Ferness may be fictional, but it’s drawn from and firmly located in the real world and isn’t going to disappear into the mist (and Local Hero is very obviously written by people who know and love Scotland, while Brigadoon’s book and lyrics, equally obviously, are written by a man who had clearly never been within five hundred miles of the part of the world he was writing about in that particular show), but this is still a show about an American outsider who finds himself in a remote Scottish village and slowly falls under the place’s spell, although in Local Hero the village is believably real and there’s none of the hyper-romanticised, cloyingly ersatz bagpipes-and-tartan Visit Scotland bollocks that makes Brigadoon so insufferably twee onstage. Scott Pask’s jetty-and-model-village set is picturesque without being kitsch, and is surrounded by corrugated metal walls of the kind you’d find in an industrial estate – of course, because this is a blue-collar working village, not a place out of a made-up fairytale. The recreation of northern Scotland’s expansive sky – and the Northern Lights – is accomplished via a flown cyclorama, Luke Halls’s projected video, and Paule Constable’s lighting; it could easily have looked ridiculous, but it’s stunning. This isn’t an overblown spectacle – a helicopter features in the plot, but nobody (thank God) drops a helicopter onstage – but the show’s physical production is beautifully evocative, and it’s wonderful for once – hi, Kinky Boots! – to see a musical adaptation of a film in which the creative team didn’t simply set out to dumb down the screenplay and throw a heap of glitter at the stage.

There’s also a set of gorgeous performances, with lovely work from the central trio – Damian Humbley as Mac, Matthew Pidgeon as Gordon, and Katrina Bryan as Stella – and sharply individual character turns from the rest of the company. The musical introduces us to a few more villagers than the film, which tends to use the villagers as a kind of human backdrop, and Mark Knopfler’s score includes a couple of very strong ensemble numbers – notably ‘Filthy Dirty Rich’, in which the villagers give in to unbridled glee at the prospect of a lucrative deal with Knox Oil, and ‘Never Felt Better’, a morning-after-the-night-before number in which they all try to hide their terrible hangovers from each other. Knopfler has supplied a mostly terrific debut musical score; his lyrics are conversational rather than showy, and none the worse for it, and there are some terrific melodies here: yes, of course ‘Going Home’, the principal musical theme from his score for the film, but there’s also a lovely folk song called ‘I Wonder If I Can Go Home Again’, a memorably sly Johnny Cash pastiche, and a moving opening ballad for Mac called ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’. You’ll hear ‘Going Home’ more than once before it finally shows up in full at the end of the show – that’s not a spoiler, it’s inconceivable that a musical adaptation of this property with a score by Mark Knopfler wouldn’t end with ‘Going Home’ – but the rest of the score is at the same level. Sooner or later – pretty please, sooner if possible – it’s going to make a thoroughly enjoyable cast album.

While the musical in places departs significantly from the film, it keeps – again, not really a spoiler, because how could it not? – the film’s iconic final shot of the phone box on the quayside in Ferness. Again, it’s a measure of how well this works that a moment that registers as sweetly touching in the film gains a great deal more depth in the theatre. I didn’t expect – and I knew how the piece was likely to end – to be so moved by the sight/sound of a ringing telephone in a red phone box on a deserted stage, but that’s the last in this musical’s series of small, delightful surprises. This is something very special; fingers crossed the elements that make this show so special won’t be diluted in the move south to the Old Vic next year (yes of course I’ll see it again), and also keep your fingers crossed that they keep Damian Humbley, Matthew Pidgeon and Katrina Bryan, because it’s impossible to overstate how perfect they are.

And in the meantime… did I mention that I want a cast album? I mean, yesterday?

local hero lyceum

Fasten your seatbelt…

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Actually, this time the ride could be bumpier. In describing Ivo van Hove‘s fascinating stage adaptation of the classic 1950 backstage drama All About Eve, it’s possibly helpful to start by defining what it isn’t: while it sticks very close to Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s (peerless) screenplay, it’s not precisely a straightforward translation of the film to the stage. That screenplay is packed with endlessly quotable zingers and the film starred Bette Davis, who could deliver a zinger like nobody else, but if you arrive at the Noel Coward Theatre expecting a camp bitch-fest you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be disappointed, too, if you’re expecting a comedy, because van Hove directs his cast to play down the laughs. And the source material should probably make this a given, but if you’re looking for emotional catharsis this isn’t the show for you. It’s utterly gripping, but you won’t be moved.

What you’ll get, in fact, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an adaptation of this particular film by this particular director, and if there’s any criticism it’s that the evening could use a few more surprises. There’s a blank, stylised set and cooly stylish lighting by Jan Versweyveld, the action isn’t located precisely in period, there’s anachronistic electronic music between (and sometimes during) the scenes (the composer is PJ Harvey), and van Hove elicits very fine but impeccably restrained performances from his leading actors. It’s a smart, elegant, ice-cold presentation of the material, a surgically-precise theatrical meditation on the nature of celebrity and the space between the private and public spheres. There’s plenty to think about, and plenty to admire, and for some people that’ll be enough. It was for me. Some, though, will undoubtedly wish there’d been more fireworks, more heat, less to think about and more to feel.

That’s true, too, of the two above-the-title star performances. Yes, this is a star vehicle, and yes, there’s stellar work here from Gillian Anderson as established star Margo Channing and Lily James as the scheming Eve Harrington, who insinuates her way into Margo’s household and then uses her newfound position as a base-camp as she sets out to claw her way to stardom. Anderson is a formidable stage presence, absolutely convincing as an old-fashioned STAR, and manages to offer a completely fresh, consistently fascinating take on the role, which is a more difficult task than you’d think when at least two-thirds of the audience can probably imitate most of Bette Davis’s most famous line-readings from the film on command. She’s simultaneously regal and vulnerable, and a sequence in which she looks in her dressing-room mirror and, via the miracle of Alex Uragallo’s video animation, her face (projected on a screen above the stage) appears to age before our eyes is one of the production’s few genuinely moving moments. James, for her part, knows how to deploy her essential sweetness to lethal effect; her wide-eyed enthusiasm is totally plausible until the mask drops and we see the ruthlessness behind Eve’s ingenue act.

There’s strong work, too, from Monica Dolan as Karen, the playwright’s wife who finds herself caught up in Eve’s schemes against Margo, and from Stanley Townsend as sharp-tongued critic Addison DeWitt. Too many of the supporting cast, unfortunately, fade into a kind of blur against the technical cleverness of van Hove’s staging: as your attention moves between screens and the stage, between the apron and some corner at the back of the set, between public space and private space which we’re shown from an angle via live video, there’s not much room to appreciate whatever nuances there may be in the individual performances. Nobody is bad, but even such reliable presences as Julian Ovenden (as director Bill Sampson) don’t get room to make much of an impression.

What’s left, once you cut through the cleverness of the staging, is the cat-and-mouse between Anderson’s Margo, James’s pretender-to-the-throne, and Monica Dolan as the woman caught between them. They’re worth the cost of the ticket and two hours of your time – but if you know the film, you’d be forgiven for expecting a roller-coaster ride, and that’s not what this is. It’s a fascinating piece of theatre, and you’ll be talking about it for hours afterwards – but if you want a white-knuckle experience, look elsewhere.

 

 

Welcome to the land of Lola

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It’s probably damning Kinky Boots with faint praise to say that it’s one of the better recent-ish musicals adapted from recent-ish films. It might also raise your expectations slightly too far. The 2005 movie about a man who saves his late father’s ailing shoe factory by manufacturing a range of outrageous stiletto boots for drag queens has a lot of very obvious song cues, and they’re duly ticked off in Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper‘s very obvious adaptation. The good news is that unlike, say, Legally Blond, not all of this show feels like it’s been written on autopilot. The bad news is that the parts that do are nearly all in the first twenty minutes.

Once you’ve sat through those first twenty minutes of not-very-interesting exposition, the show kicks up several notches with the entrance of Lola, the fabulous drag queen who inspires Charlie-the-owner-of-the-shoe-factory-that’s-going-down-the-toilet to shift production towards a new demographic. Cyndi Lauper, making her debut as a composer of musicals, has great fun with Lola’s material, the big production numbers are choreographed to the hilt by Jerry Mitchell, and Callum Francis’s Lola is one of those great big star turns you’ll be talking about all the way home.

The trouble is, next to Lola everything else looks a little bit drab. This touring cast features very strong performances from Joel Harper-Jackson as Charlie, from Adam Price as factory foreman George, from Demitri Lampra as Don, the unreconstructed bigot who clashes with Lola on the factory floor and learns a big lesson as a result, and especially from Paula Lane as Lauren, the factory worker with a secret crush on her boss, but only ‘The History of Wrong Guys’, Lauren’s showstopping diatribe about her tendency to fall for inappropriate men, has as much impact as Lola’s big production numbers.

None of it – after the first twenty minutes, anyway – is bad which is to say that the production is excecuted with a great deal of professional competence. Jerry Mitchell’s staging is impressively slick, David Rockwell’s set moves efficiently from a factory in Northampton to a drag club in London to a catwalk in Milan, Kenneth Posner’s lighting is riotously dazzling when it needs to be, and the ensemble is full of sharp, funny performances in the minor roles. You’ll have a good time. You may not want to compare Harvey Fierstein’s stage script too closely with Tim Firth and Jeff Deane’s screenplay for the film, though, because Fierstein’s adaptation is sometimes numbingly simplistic. Nearly all of the nuance is gone from the relationship between Charlie and Lola, to the point where the plot simply doesn’t make sense: in the film, Charlie doesn’t entirely overcome his prejudices until the very end, whereas Fierstein has Charlie accepting Lola for who he is from the beginning and then berating Lola for not being properly masculine halfway through Act Two. Nicola, Charlie’s upwardly-mobile fiancée, is reduced to a boo-hiss villain. Fierstein almost completely glosses over the question of Lola’s sexuality, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions; the screenplay makes Lola/Simon unequivocally straight, which is a far more interesting choice in terms of confronting the audience’s preconceptions about drag performers. Throughout, the musical replaces nearly all of the film’s grit with glitter, and the film didn’t have that much grit to begin with. The result is a show that is great fun, at least once you’ve sat through those first twenty minutes, but which could have been a great deal more than that.

Callum Francis’s star turn as Lola, though, is something to see. He’s the real thing: a fabulous singer, superb comic timing, star presence, and he manages to put back a lot of the emotional heft Harvey Fierstein has so carefully filleted out of the book. He’s more than worth the cost of the ticket, and the show offers a thoroughly entertaining night out as long as you don’t think too hard about what you’re watching. You do, at least, get some sense of what attracted the show’s creators to this source material – again, unlike Legally Blonde – and while it’s a pity that sense of inspiration (very) obviously did not extend to every character or every element of the plot, Lola’s numbers are good enough that they more than compensate for the deficiencies in the writing elsewhere. Don’t go expecting a “great musical”, though. Whenever Francis is onstage, this is great entertainment – but that’s all.

Illyria, W11

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Take one Shakespeare comedy. Fillet out most of the poetry, throw in an eclectic set of songs by Shaina Taub, add a brightly-coloured Notting Hill streetscape (by Rob Jones), a thirty-member community chorus, a fabulous set of singing voices from the leading actors, a great big tap number for Malvolio, chicken-and-pepper canapés, confetti guns, and a white van, and you get… this. A triumphant, joyous, thoroughly entertaining show that puts a smile on your face before the lights go down and keeps it there until long after you’ve left the theatre.

I suppose you could justifiably criticise it for being Shakespeare-lite, but it’s so much fun that to do so would be churlish. Slimming the text down to an hour and forty minutes (no interval) and making room for Taub’s wonderful score means you’ll be disappointed if you came to hear Shakespeare’s poetry, but it’s not as if you’ll have to wait more than about ten minutes before somebody else does Twelfth Night, so get over it. The plot – I don’t need to run through it here, do I? – is entirely present and correct, but delivered at a run, the better to make room for those songs. There’s a shipwreck, mistaken identity, pranks, parallel love stories and all the rest of it, but not the undercurrent of grief that can underpin less sunny interpretations of the text. Purists might hyperventilate; everybody else will be too busy having a good time.

What’s surprising here is how well Kwame Kwei-Armah and Taub’s adaptation, which premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 2016 (and was produced there again this past summer) in a production that evoked New Orleans, adapts to London, where it arrives as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first production as artistic director of the Young Vic. Taub’s score, which cleverly blends soul, R&B, pop, and golden-age-of-Broadway pastiche into a kind of theatrical tossed salad, sits very well indeed in present-day Notting Hill, and the area’s colourful streetscapes are beautifully recreated by Rob Jones on the Young Vic’s wide stage. It’s a joy to see the community chorus, whose members range from teenagers to people who – let’s put this delicately – have clearly had their bus pass for some time – kicking up their heels dancing Lizzi Gee’s artfully artless choreography and obviously having the time of their lives, and you can’t see the join between the ensemble and the (Equity) principal cast.

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That’s high praise, because the principal performances are faultless. Gabrielle Brooks is a fine, feisty Viola. Natalie Dew brings a lovely sweetness to Olivia, and her duet with Brooks is splendidly sung. Gerard Carey’s Malvolio is a comic tour-de-force wrapped in yellow lycra. Melissa Allen’s Feste combines a thrilling voice with drop-dead timing. Everybody is funny, the singing is gorgeous, the cast and chorus obviously love both each other and the material, and by the time the various revelations and weddings roll around in the final scene you’ll be experiencing as pure a theatrical high as you’ll get this year.

Simply, this show works. You lose, as I said, a lot of Shakespeare’s poetry, but it’s a fair exchange: this is a glorious, joyful celebration of theatre, of music, of diversity, of London. As an opening production from Kwame Kwei-Armah, it’s quite a calling card. Set against the increasingly nasty divisiveness in this country’s political discourse, particularly surrounding multiculturalism, it’s also a very definite (and very welcome) statement: a celebration of what is great about modern Britain at a time when we see far too many reminders of what isn’t, in which Kwei-Armah and his cast remind us that diversity and inclusiveness are strengths without ever delivering a lecture. The message is there if you look for it, but nobody ever preaches – which is as it should be when the message is something that really should go without saying.

 

 

 

 

 

I Love Lucy

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I am a world-class nit-picker, so you may want to sit down for this: as performed – gloriously – by the extraordinary Laura Linney, Rona Munro‘s stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout‘s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is a perfect theatrical experience. This is one of those incredibly rare productions where everything works. The only thing wrong with it is that the run is only three weeks so I won’t get to see it again.

Strout’s novel – and Munro’s stage script – presents a woman looking back, first at an experience in the 1980s when she became ill following a supposedly routine operation and was hospitalised for several weeks, during which time she was visited by her estranged mother, and second at her childhood, and at the causes of her estrangement from her family. From these recollections, she pieces together the process by which she acquired the ruthlessness necessary to forge a successful career as a writer. That’s a simplistic summary, because Munro’s monologue is difficult to reduce to a two-line synopsis; it’s a ninety-minute tiptoe through an emotional minefield, and if there can be such a thing as a low-key tour-de-force, this is it.

Lucy’s story, at times, is certainly harrowing. Growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, in the kind of acute poverty that made other children mock her and her siblings for smelling bad, with a war-veteran father suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and a harshly undemonstrative mother, Lucy’s stories of her early childhood recall Dickens without the warmth. The tone is carefully matter-of-fact, without fireworks or histrionics, because this isn’t an I-survived-abuse confessional. Strout (via Munro) offers, instead, a careful meditation on whether it’s ever possible to escape your upbringing, and on the ways in which we sift through our memories in search of a story to tell. There’s more going on, of course – Lucy’s lengthy hospitalisation occurs in the early 1980s, the spectre of AIDS is hovering over Manhattan (there are some fascinating echoes, here and there, of The Inheritance, another play in which the ways we organise our lives and memories into narratives is a significant theme); Munro’s great achievement is to take Strout’s more-complex-than-they-seem characters and ideas and distil them, with remarkable clarity, into ninety minutes of stage time.

Laura Linney matches the writing with an impeccably-judged, quietly astonishing performance which, again, counts as a low-key tour-de-force. There are no big explosions, no bite-marks in the scenery – just a masterclass in how to tell a story simply and clearly, making every word, every breath, every pause, every gesture count. Linney slips between Lucy, who has acquired the manners and voice of a Big Ten-educated New Yorker, and her mother’s spikily flat Midwestern drawl with forensic precision, and finds all the (considerable) humour in her mother’s tales of People Back Home Who Met a Bad End. More than that, Linney navigates Strout’s complicated emotional territory without grandstanding, and without ever succumbing to oh-pity-me melodramatics; she holds back the tears instead of turning on the waterworks, and navigates a clear course through the three levels of Strout’s timeline. Linney’s presence – for want of a better word – is extraordinary: this is simultaneously a blazing star turn and an intimate character study, and there are very few actors who could navigate that contradictory duality as confidently as she does, particularly in a 900-seat theatre.

It’s beautifully directed, too, by Richard Eyre, on a simple, stark set – three projection screens, one behind the other, at the back of the stage, plus a hospital bed, a nightstand, and a chair – by Bob Crowley. Video projections, which take us from a Manhattan hospital room with a view of the Chrysler Building to an Illinois cornfield and back – are by Luke Hills, and the lighting and sound are by, respectively, Peter Mumford and John Leonard. They appear to be working in perfect unison – as in Linney’s performance, there are no flamboyant flourishes here, just a carefully-modulated exploration of every nuance of Strout and Munro’s text.

It’s safe to assume that it’ll have a life beyond the Bridge, although nothing has yet been announced. Behind that unassuming title there’s a quietly shattering piece of theatre, and Linney’s performance is utterly mesmerising. It’s a given that it’ll be seen in New York, and it’s to be hoped that it will be filmed – it would be perfect as a standalone special for Netflix or HBO – and if I lived any closer to London I’d be back before the end of the run. Don’t be put off by the cosily middlebrow poster art; there are no caveats, no buts, no holes to pick, and it’s (at least) is as good as anything you’ll see this year. Linney’s performance may be as good as anything you’ll see this decade.