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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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.

Oh, you know. Just hanging around.

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Another one ticked off the list. I first read Arthur Kopit‘s Wings maybe twenty-five years ago, and I’ve been curious to see a production ever since. An odd, distinctive, fiercely intelligent and unsentimental play, it offers a unique portrayal of a stroke victim trying to feel her way back towards a world she can no longer understand, and in which she can no longer make herself understood. It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, and it’s hardly the kind of entertainment where you can just sit back and let it wash over you – but it’s a fascinating piece of writing, and it isn’t often produced in this country.

As far as I’m concerned, Natalie Abrahami‘s astonishing revival at the Young Vic more than does it justice – but it does appear to be something of a Marmite proposition. This is not a straightforward revival, although it doesn’t (as far as I can tell) mess about with the text. Kopit gives Mrs. Stilson, his stroke victim, an interesting past: in her youth, she was an aviator and wing-walker in aerobatic shows. Accordingly, Abrahami uses flight as a visual metaphor to underline Mrs. Stilson’s disconnection from the world she’s known up until her stroke: in a bravura performance, Juliet Stevenson‘s Mrs. Stilson spends almost the entire show suspended on a wire, only sporadically making contact with the ground in the character’s more lucid moments.

In Kopit’s script, language fractures around Mrs. Stilson, so that there’s a gulf between what she’s trying to express and what she thinks she understands. The wire conceit/gimmick emphasises the character’s physical removal from the world she’s always lived in, in that it (admittedly not subtly) reinforces the point that a stroke can impose physical as well as mental constraints. For much of the performance, Mrs. Stilson is trapped outside the world the rest of the play’s characters inhabit – sometimes six inches above it, sometimes six feet, sometimes the full length of the stage away. Her mental contortions as she tries to piece together her fractured mind are expressed via aerial movement – swoops, somersaults and all the rest of it. It’s spectacular to watch, and breathtakingly effective – if it works for you, because this appears to be one of those stagings where you either love it or don’t buy it for a second.

As for Stevenson herself, she’s flawless, magnificent, superb – this is a remarkable actress giving as remarkable a performance as she’s ever given. The text doesn’t sentimentalise the character or the situation and neither does she, but Stevenson negotiates the script’s difficult language flawlessly, and creates a memorable, intense, deeply moving portrayal of a woman shattered by her inability to communicate. It’s an astonishing physical performance, too – negotiating seventy minutes of aerial movement, some of it quite acrobatic, is no mean feat (the movement is choreographed/created/set by Anna Morrisey, with flying effects from Freedom Flying), and the result adds a spectacular new dimension to a fascinating text.

It’s often beautiful to look at too, with Stevenson soaring and swooping through a surreal dreamscape created by Guy Hoare’s lights and Will Duke’s projections. Aside from Lorna Brown as a therapist, the supporting cast don’t have much to do – for at least two-thirds of its length, the play is essentially a fractured monologue – but they do it well enough, and Brown’s performance is lovely. It’s Stevenson’s show, though – for all the spectacular flourishes of Abrahami’s direction, the thing you’ll remember most clearly is her voice, trying to find a way back towards a world she recognises. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe her performance; if it works for you, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe Abrahami’s staging either – but it may not work for you. As I said, this appears to be a Marmite proposition. Lucky me, I like Marmite.

 

 

Drugs are bad, OK?

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Nina is an actress. Nina takes drugs. Nina drinks a lot. Nina believes there is no objective truth. Nina’s life story rather strongly resembles the plot of ‘Hedda Gabler’. Nina is afraid she doesn’t have a personality of her own. Nina is called Emma. Emma is called Sarah. Emma’s therapist looks like Sarah’s mother. Nina’s doctor looks like Emma’s mother. Emma tells lies. Emma needs help. I need an aspirin.

Jeremy Herrin, who directed People, Places and Things – now beginning a short tour at Manchester’s Home (yes, that’s a stupid name for a performing arts complex) after successful runs at the National and in the West End – is a genius. The outstanding moments here, and there are a few, occur when his staging (recreated for the tour in collaboration with Holly Race Roughan) finds a visual translation for the physiological horrors Emma/Sarah undergoes on her path towards recovery. When Emma’s perception of reality blurs as she goes through withdrawal, we see a stageful of Emmas, all experiencing the same symptoms. Subtle shifts in music and lighting (respectively, by Matthew Herbert and James Farncombe) suggest when Emma’s perceptions are altered by “substances”. Andrzej Goulding’s projections on the walls of Bunny Christie’s crisply clinical white box of a set, again sometimes together with Herbert’s electronic music, take us inside Emma’s highs – and the crashes that follow. It’s an extraordinary production, and for that – and sometimes for that alone – it deserves to be seen.

Whether it’s an extraordinary play is more open to question. Duncan Macmillan’s script is packed with ideas, and the central one – that there’s a strong parallel between the theatrical rehearsal process and a twelve-step programme, and (related, and more obvious) that Emma/Sarah’s drive to become an actress and her attraction/susceptibility to narcotics both stem from a need to escape the constraints of her own rather nondescript personality – is certainly compelling enough. When the action calms down, though – when the directorial flourishes and the lightning-fast references to Foucault and Derrida and Barthes recede and we’re left simply watching Emma/Sarah submit to treatment – the result, unfortunately, is a bit too movie-of-the-week. There’s a lot of dazzling stagecraft here, but few new insights into the nature of addiction.

That may partly be down to the casting. At the National and in the West End, the (exhausting) central role was played by Denise Gough, in what was apparently an astonishing performance. Here, Emma is played by Lisa Dwyer Hogg, and she’s very good. She makes Emma’s breakdown and recovery absolutely believable, she finds all of the considerable black humour in the writing, and on one level it’s difficult to fault her performance. What she can’t quite do, unfortunately, is pull the play’s scattershot flow of ideas and split-second shifts between reality and an altered state together into a completely coherent whole. The role needs – and in this production’s original incarnation, apparently got – the kind of thousand-watt star turn that can paper over the cracks in the script. This isn’t that kind of performance; when Macmillan’s writing becomes repetitive, when the insights about the nature of addiction and the recovery process veer a little too close to trite sloganeering, when the writing fails to live up to the dazzling physical production, Hogg doesn’t inject the kind of charismatic spark that might make you look past the shortcomings of the play itself. She’s perfectly fine, but that isn’t enough.

That’s also true of the impeccable supporting performances. They’re faultless, with particularly strong work from Andrew Sheridan as a fellow addict and Matilda Ziegler as Emma/Sarah’s doctor, therapist and mother, but the supporting characters are all – yes, every last one of them – badly underwritten. I suppose the point, which is reinforced in the climactic confrontation/meeting between Sarah and her parents, is that addiction creates narcissists: the play creates Emma/Sarah’s world, and other people simply enter and leave it, but unfortunately that lumbers the other nine actors in the cast with roles that mostly could have been written on flashcards. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of the performances, but the writing doesn’t give the actors much to play with.

The bottom line: it’s worth seeing. The production, as I said, is sensational – but if you go in, having read the reviews from the Dorfman and the West End, expecting it to be a can’t-miss theatrical event, you may be in for a disappointment. This is a dazzling production of an interesting but flawed play – worth seeing, but not the earthquake you might have anticipated.

 

Anyone for waffles?

NT Oslo

Yes, it really is that good. J.T. Rogers‘s new(est) play, Oslo, arrives at the National Theatre trailing stellar reviews and a truckload of awards from its two runs at Lincoln Center in New York, accompanied by advance publicity that draws extravagant comparisons with Shakespeare, Coward, Stoppard. No, Rogers isn’t Shakespeare or Coward, but this is, for once, a great big stonking hit that more or less completely lives up to the hype.

It’s also, in terms of subject-matter, rather an unlikely great big stonking hit. Oslo follows the process via which Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, two (married) Norwegian diplomats, facilitated the secret, unofficial negotiations between the PLO and the government of Israel that eventually led to the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accord, a tentative first step towards a peace process between Israel and Palestine. The play could easily have ended up as a rather dry theatrical history lesson – or, worse, considering that it premiered in New York, where even the mildest criticism of the (frequently appalling) actions of the Israeli government can make otherwise sane observers completely lose all sense of reason, become a one-sided diatribe presenting Israel simply as the misunderstood target of a terrorist organisation. Mercifully, it’s neither. Using the studied neutrality of the Norwegian central characters as a way into the story that allows a balanced view of both sides of the negotiating table, Rogers has (miraculously) managed to fashion a play that sits somewhere between a political thriller and a culture-clash comedy of manners, with a recipe for (apparently) the world’s best waffles thrown in for good measure halfway through the first act. Rogers’s offers an intricate examination of the process that brought the Oslo Accord into being, and it’s anything but dull; it’s fast-paced, admirably clear, often surprisingly funny, and utterly absorbing. Big political plays don’t get much better than this.

Bartlett Sher’s direction – on Michael Yeargan’s elegant unit set, aided enormously by projections by 59 Productions which transport us in a blink from Oslo to the play’s various other locations (the West Bank, Tel Aviv, Cairo, the White House, Stockholm) and into various relevant news stories (mostly but not entirely related to the West Bank and Gaza) – keeps the action moving at quite a clip, and delivers the play’s rapid jumps between locations with remarkable clarity. Sher understands how to play the audience without seeming like that’s what he’s doing; his fine ensemble cast deliver all the humour in Rogers’s text, tread a very careful balance so that we never favour one side over the other (no mean feat, given that the PLO was founded with the aim of delivering the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle), and in their hands the handshake between Palestinian finance minister Ahmed Qurei and Israeli diplomat Uri Savir that marks the start of formal (secret) talks is genuinely moving, as is the final moment of agreement between the two sides. Sher draws fine performances from all his actors, some of whom play multiple roles; in the leads, there’s very strong work from Philip Arditti as the swaggering, whip-smart Savir, from Toby Stephens as Rød-Larsen, and particularly from Lydia Leonard as the self-effacing, cooly intelligent Mona Juul. Towering above all of them, there’s a tremendous performance from Peter Polycarpou, whose Qurei is a (justifiably) angry man whose intransigence begins to melt when he sees a real possibility of achieving some kind of peace. The writing will move you, but Mr. Polycarpou might move you more; if there’s any justice, and in theatre there often isn’t, next year there should be a shelf full of awards with his name on them.

In the final scenes, Rogers (unusually) takes pains to remind us that this is a period piece; the negotiated peace turned out to be too fragile to hold. Part of what makes Oslo so gripping and so moving is that Rogers shows us the way tensions between individuals on both sides of a conflict can slowly come to find a common humanity if they’re forced to sit in a room together and talk; in the final section of the play, we’re reminded how tenuous and fragile the balance between inflamed political passions and that understanding of a common humanity can be. It’s three hours long, but the time flies by; yes, Oslo is a history lesson, but it’s also – more importantly – a masterclass in the art of grabbing an audience’s attention as the lights go down and not letting go of it until the curtain call.

Tainted Love

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Short, sharply funny, and (if you’re sitting in the front row) right in your face, the Octagon‘s more-or-less flawless revival of Andrea Dunbar‘s Rita, Sue, and Bob Too – a coproduction with Out of Joint – offers a bracing, fiercely unsentimental snapshot of the underside of Thatcher’s Britain. Rita and Sue are still at school; they babysit Bob’s children, and are also – together – having an affair with Bob, conducted mostly in his car as he drives them home. Bob’s wife suspects, and so does Sue’s mum; for Rita and Sue, it’s a way to escape, at least briefly, the tedious hardships of life on a sink estate.

We’re squarely in Ken Loach territory, then, and the play’s frank, unvarnished depiction of underage sex has become (even) more uncomfortable since the 1980s; we’ve all seen the news stories about Jimmy Savile, grooming rings and all the rest of it, and inevitably that colours our reception of the play. Dunbar never presents Rita and Sue as victims, and does carefully make the point that the affair could put Bob in prison, but while she writes Bob as a walking groin with a one-track mind, she stops short of condemning him as well; the defining feature of her writing, aside from her wonderful ear for dialogue, is the remarkable lack of artifice in her work. This is fiction (albeit with more than a little autobiographical content), but it has the feel of reportage. Dunbar was from the place she wrote about, and she believed that “you write the truth, you don’t lie“; you won’t find a more authentic portrait of life at the sharp end of 80s Britain than this.

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And in Max Stafford-Clark and Kate Wasserberg’s production, Dunbar’s dialogue slams across the (metaphorical) footlights with all the force of a filthily comic hurricane. From the opening scene, in which Bob gives Rita and Sue an athletic sex education lesson (they’ve told him they’re virgins; they aren’t) in the reclining seats of his car to the explosive confrontation when their secret is inevitably revealed, the actors tread a very careful line, finding all the laughs without overplaying the drama or (crucially) commenting on their characters (the fatal flaw whenever Mike Leigh has placed characters in this kind of setting). Stafford-Clark and Wasserberg keep the action moving quickly and fluidly, with Bob’s (brown velour, of course) car seats almost the only furniture; in Tim Shortall’s set, the open moorland where Bob drives the girls to conduct his trysts is framed by council flats on Rita and Sue’s estate. The dialogue is fast and very funny, the performances are absolutely ideal, and the production makes a strong case that this is just as important a picture of the Thatcher era as, say, The Secret Rapture or A Small Family Business or Top Girls. The film had indelible performances from Michelle Holmes, Siobhan Finneran, and George Costigan as Rita, Sue and Bob; Gemma Dobson, Taj Atwal, and Jason Atherton find their own distinctive take on the material, and their opening seduction scene in the car is a tour-de-force. There’s very strong support from Samantha Robinson as Bob’s wife Michelle, a sharp-tongued vision in teased hair and C&A frocks, and from David Walker and the wonderful Sally Bankes as Sue’s dysfunctional parents.

How good is it? I’m picky, and there’s more or less nothing to fault here. If you’re expecting the film’s ending you may be disappointed – the film ends on a note of slightly contrived wish-fulfillment and the play does not, and there are some significant differences between the screenplay and the stage script  – and the music choices in the dancing-to-80s-hits scene changes are a little bit too on-the-nose (I could happily go the rest of my life without ever hearing In the Air Tonight again), but this is, overall, just about as ideal a revival as you can imagine. Dunbar wrote the play when she was just 19, and died young, at 29; she was an original, distinctive voice, and this play holds up remarkably well thirty years after it first premiered. It ran a scant 80 minutes at yesterday afternoon’s performance, but that’s more than enough: it’s a cliché to describe a show as a roller-coaster ride, but this one really is. It’s touring into next year, and it shouldn’t be missed.

 

Like a rolling stone

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a Bob Dylan jukebox musical or a play with Bob Dylan songs? Well… no, no, and take your pick. The programme lists twenty Dylan songs, drawn from every corner of his career, but this isn’t a greatest hits show, and you won’t hear Blowin’ in the Wind. The songs don’t function the ways the numbers would in a conventional musical; instead, they serve more or less as a live soundtrack to Conor McPherson‘s grab-bag of stories about Duluth (of course, Dylan’s birthplace) during the depression.

On paper, it probably shouldn’t work. McPherson’s script throws together a disparate collection of People With Problems in a rooming-house that is basically the Minnesota equivalent of the Last Chance Saloon. Nick, the owner (Ciaran Hinds) is mortgaged up to his eyeballs and the bank is about to foreclose. His wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has dementia, and her lucid moments are few and far between. Their son Gene (Sam Reid) is an unemployed drunk, and their daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim), a black foundling they adopted, is mysteriously pregnant. Throw in a sexy widow, a boxer, a malevolent, blackmailing Bible salesman, an on-the-lam apparently middle-class family with a really dark secret, a shoe salesman, and the widowed family doctor, and you’ve got basically the full deck of depression-era clichés crammed together under a single roof for two acts. It could easily be deadly.

That it isn’t is partly down to the performances and musical arrangements, and partly due to the clever way McPherson uses the songs to amplify or comment on the content of the surrounding scenes. The result is a show where the point is less the story itself and more the unlocking of the delicate poetry inside Dylan’s songs – poetry which is only sometimes (there are people who’d throttle me for saying this) apparent in his own performances. It’s hardly a spoiler, given the nature of McPherson’s plot, to say that by the climax of the second act, pretty much everyone’s chickens have come home to roost, and there isn’t much incident in the show that you won’t see coming ten minutes ahead – but what you won’t necessarily expect is the sheer beauty that McPherson, his fine cast, and orchestrator/arranger Simon Hale find in the characters, the songs, and the setting. There are four musicians – keys, violin/mandolin, guitar, and upright bass – onstage, and a couple of members of the cast take turns playing drums when needed, and it’s as if a play and a concert are sharing the same physical space. The music is almost all presented diegetically, with the actors not singing the lead in a given song providing backup vocals; the play and the songs are carefully woven around each other so that while each could stand alone, they’re immeasurably stronger together. At the close of the first act, when the remarkable Shirley Henderson grabs the microphone and tears into Like a Rolling Stone, it’s as if she’s giving voice not simply to every character on the stage, but to an entire era. McPherson’s play offers a collection of characters on a collision course with life, and the song amplifies their frustration in a way that dialogue simply couldn’t match. It’s a mesmerising performance – simultaneously chilling and intensely moving.

There are fine performances, too, from Arinzé Kene as the boxer, Debbie Kurup as an impecunious widow waiting for her ship to come in – her Went To See The Gypsy is another musical standout – and especially from Sheila Atim as the pregnant Marianne. Atim gives the character an extraordinary, quiet dignity; you can’t take your eyes off her, and her gorgeously understated performance of Tight Connection to My Heart may well be as felicitous a meeting of singer and song as you’ll hear in a theatre this year. Ciaran Hinds is very good indeed in a role that doesn’t stretch him. Rae Smith’s spare, suspended-in-space set, with moody projections of Minnesota landscapes on flown-in flats, is tremendously evocative, and McPherson’s detailed but unshowy direction somehow manages to make a piece that probably shouldn’t work at all make perfect sense.

If you walk into the theatre expecting a performance that works along the lines of a traditional musical, then, you’ll probably be disappointed. The best way to approach Girl from the North Country is probably as a kind of two-act theatrical tone poem. Taken alone, the stories McPherson tells about these characters are too thin to sustain two full acts. Paired with the Dylan songs – and with Hale’s hauntingly lovely musical arrangements – the whole is much, much greater than the sum of the parts. You’ll pick all kinds of holes in the script afterwards, but as an experience this show is – surprisingly – moving, memorable, and genuinely beautiful, none of which are words you’d usually expect to apply to a jukebox musical.

Just keep your fingers crossed for a cast album. Once you’ve heard them once, these are performances you’ll want to keep.