The Deep End

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It’s brief – under forty minutes – so this will be too. As Alex, the speaker in Simon Stephens‘s monologue Sea Wall, Andrew Scott is quite extraordinary. Stephens’s monologue tells a story about Alex’s relationship with his father-in-law, and moves quite quickly from a charming family portrait to a harrowing exploration of grief; it’s written as an intimate confessional and performed on a bare stage with the house lights up (there is only one lighting cue, and it comes at the very end of the piece), and under George Perrin’s direction Scott somehow manages to make you feel he’s telling his story directly to you, even when (as I was) you’re sitting in the back row of the dress circle. It’s a charming, devastating, profoundly moving performance, and a thrilling masterclass in how to grab the audience’s attention and hold on to it without raising your voice or moving more than a few paces. By now you’ve probably read a dozen pieces praising Scott’s performance to the skies, and he deserves all the acclaim and more.

The piece itself, on the other hand, is effective, but it isn’t as good as the performer delivering it here. Stephens has some excellent lines, and he does a very good job of sketching the dynamics between the various members of Alex’s family in the first few minutes of the monologue, but there’s a point where the writing starts to become predictable; when tragedy looms, you can see it coming a full fifteen minutes away, and that’s an issue in a piece that’s under forty minutes long. Stephens does, though, make one genuinely brilliant writing choice, and paradoxically it’s silence. There is a moment where he could have chosen to make Alex say any number of things, all of which would have been plausible, and chooses instead to leave us to fill in the blanks, and that (long) pause is the most powerful moment in the production.

In the end, though, what you remember is Scott standing in the middle of a bare stage, wearing nondescript clothes, playing the audience like a violin and doing it without breaking a sweat. It’s a short piece, but it’s a remarkable feat of storytelling – even if, as I said, you’ve figured out where the story is going a long time before it gets there.

 

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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.

 

(Re)fried Rice

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I saw it the first time around too, but I didn’t want to miss it again. Emma Rice‘s adaptation of Brief Encounter – or rather, or Brief Encounter and Still Life, the short play Brief Encounter is based on – may be (a lot) more Emma Rice than Noël Coward, but it’s (still) a thrilling, sometimes breathtaking, thoroughly memorable theatrical experience, and there (still) isn’t anything else quite like it in the West End.

It (still) isn’t precisely a straightforward adaptation of the film, though the film’s plot points are all present and correct (surely for THIS of all things you don’t need a synopsis, do you?). Rice’s calling-card is a larger-than-life theatricality that is less concerned with simply telling a story than in evoking what the characters in her productions are feeling. Rice doesn’t simply stage the screenplay, and she also doesn’t attempt a precise recreation of the film’s look and feel. Instead, she uses a combination of dialogue, song, stylised movement, and projected film to evoke the intensity of Laura and Alec’s feelings as they fall in love, and as they are forced to part. The action spills off the stage into the stalls, characters walk through a screen into and out of scenes being shown on projected film, at one point Alec swings from a chandelier, and a selection of Coward’s songs are performed in counterpoint as a kind of live underscoring. It shouldn’t work, but it does, mostly triumphantly.

Whether it’s as startling now as it was ten years ago, though, is another question. If, like me, this was your introduction to Rice’s distinctive directorial aesthetic, you may well, in 2007, have never seen anything quite like it. It’s not that the production doesn’t stand up to repeat viewing – it’s still thoroughly entertaining – but inevitably on a second viewing the element of surprise is somewhat diminished. It’s still an utterly charming, delightful evening (well, matinée in this case), but it didn’t blow me away this time the way it did the first time I saw it.

That’s no reflection on the performers; there’s perfectly-judged work from Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon as the thwarted lovers, and behind them a terrific ensemble cast, some of whom also play musical instruments, switch roles and personas at the drop of a hat. It’s (still) sometimes surprisingly funny, although without ever diminishing the emotional core of the piece, and in particular this time around Rice and her cast find tremendous humour and warmth in the relationships between the various people working in the station tea room. The singing, right across the cast, is wonderful, with Jos Slovick’s Go Slow, Johnny a particular highlight.

What’s less wonderful this time around are the ticket prices, which top out at £65, which is more than double the show’s £29.50 top price at the same venue ten years ago (in terms of inflation, £29.50 in 2008 would be worth a few pence under £39 today). It’s no secret that ticket prices across the West End have been on a sharply upward trajectory over the past few years; wonderful as the show is, £65 is a lot of money, and while London has always been a very expensive city it stretches credulity beyond breaking-point to suggest the cost of producing theatre there has risen so much faster than inflation over the past decade when wages, to say the least, have not. What’s going on here is a crude form of dynamic pricing: I sat in a seat that is on sale for next week’s Wednesday matinée for £65, and I paid significantly less than that (I paid less, though not much less, than the 2008 top price of £29.50). Discounts are available if you shop around – but only if you shop around, and not for every performance. The top price, presumably, is set where it is in order to allow more room for the possibility of discounts. This show is well worth seeing, particularly if you missed it first time around – but do your homework before you book, because the best price isn’t necessarily going to come from the theatre box office. Go and see it, by all means – it’s (still) wonderful – but purchase carefully.

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Fingers on the buzzers, please!

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Remember the coughing Major, Charles Ingram, who was tried for and convicted of cheating on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by getting signals from plants in the studio audience via the sound of their coughs? You do? I don’t. I was living abroad at the time, and the whole thing passed me by. Whether it’s a good thing to come to Quiz, James Graham‘s new manipulative theatrical stunt play, with no preconceived notions about the central character, is questionable; the show is clearly very carefully designed to take the audience’s preconceptions and toy with them, and it may be a more compelling experience if you actually have some preconceptions going in. If you know next to nothing about the case and you’re hoping for more depth than you’d find in, say, a Wikipedia article, revise your expectations downwards. Sharply downwards.

Having said that, it’s fun. Graham’s conceit is to take the prosecution and defence cases and present them, one per act, in the style of a high-stakes gameshow, allowing the audience to vote (via digital remote controls attached to each seat) at the end of each act on whether the Ingrams – his wife was also implicated, which I might have known if I’d paid any attention to news stories about the trial, but which had also passed me by – are guilty. Graham’s writing is fast-paced, often very funny, and glib; the form dictates the content here, so information is delivered mostly in carefully-packaged bite-size chunks that slot in neatly between Keir Charles’s Teflon-smooth impersonations of a cheesy TV warm-up comedian and various gameshow hosts. The production, which is designed to the hilt by Robert Jones to look as if it’s taking place on the set of a gameshow in a TV studio, is a tremendously entertaining theatrical experience, but there’s a more probing play to be written about the people at the heart of this scandal – the Ingrams, yes, but also the behaviour of the TV executives and lawyers behind the show, which appears to have been far from beyond reproach, particularly in terms of how they presented their evidence against the Ingrams and their alleged co-conspirators – and this is not it. This, instead, is a clever exercise in manipulation: we see the prosecution case in the first act, and are invited to vote on the Ingrams’ guilt after the summation, and the result is inevitable – and then in the second half, we see the defence case, are invited to vote again, and the result is clearly expected to be somewhat different (it wasn’t as different at the performance I saw – the matinee on April 12th – as it apparently usually is at most performances). There are points to be made about the perils of trial by public opinion and – in particular – the vast, yawning chasm between whether someone actually committed a crime versus whether the prosecution proved the case against them beyond reasonable doubt, and Graham mostly glosses over them – but again, to give the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Graham’s point of view, if it extends beyond simply showing how people can be manipulated, comes across more clearly if you know more about the case going in than I did, which wouldn’t be difficult.

The play, then, might not be a masterpiece, but Daniel Evans‘s production of it, which has now transferred to the West End after a successful run last year at Chichester, is pretty much perfect. It is difficult to imagine the play working at all without all the bells and whistles – the devices allowing the audience to vote (a show of hands wouldn’t generate the same tension, because you would be able to see the result all around you as you voted), the video screens, the garish Saturday-night-on-ITV light show, the music and all the rest of it, and Evans manages the difficult trick of orchestrating all of these very, very LOUD elements in a way that doesn’t overshadow the cast. More than that, he draws a very fine, very dignified performance from Gavin Spokes as Ingram, and a carefully calculated did-she-didn’t-she turn from Stephanie Street as Diana Ingram, the Major’s possibly-duplicitous wife. The supporting roles are more caricatures than characters, but the show has a terrific ensemble cast and everyone gets a couple of moments in the sun. There’s some mild audience participation – if you want to avoid being called out, DON’T sit in the front row of the onstage seating areas – but it’s all slick, carefully-managed, good-natured fun, which is also a good-enough description of the show as a whole. It isn’t earth-shattering, and you may emerge longing for an analysis of this story that has a bit more depth to it, but you’ll have a good time.

Oh yes, one more thing – a big shout-out to the usher covering the house-right door into the Royal Circle at the matinee on April 12th. It was just fabulous for those of us sitting near the door to hear you talking into your headset all the way through both acts. I’m sure James Graham designed his play very carefully so that it would be enhanced by the sound of a boorish usher holding a non-work conversation with colleagues over her headset while sitting at the back of the house while the lights were down. It really added to the experience. Well done to the house manager at the Noel Coward Theatre – you’ve clearly trained your staff beautifully.

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Only Connect

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One may as well begin with the reviews – or rather, with the drool-covered mash-notes several London critics have written to Matthew Lopez, the American playwright whose two-part adaptation of a very English novel appears to be turning into The Theatrical Event of the Year. In the Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish tells us it’s “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far”. Even the least effusive reviews are mostly very, very good indeed. Lopez is all but unknown in this country, and this is quite a debut: the rest of the run is sold out bar a (very) few rush tickets, the production is certain to have a life beyond this initial run at the Young Vic, and word-of-mouth is generally very strong indeed. The Inheritance deserves the avalanche of superlatives, as far as I’m concerned – it’s a dazzling, audacious, breathtakingly clever piece of writing, expertly performed by an astonishing cast under the flawless direction of Stephen Daldry – but it also demands closer scrutiny than that avalanche of superlatives might suggest. There’s no question that this is a work of unusual brilliance, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without faults.

For a start, I don’t know how well it works if you aren’t at least a little bit familiar with E.M. Forster‘s Howards End, and with a few biographical details about Forster’s life and literary output. I’m sure the play can stand on its own, but I’m one of those people who always does their homework and I reread the novel the week before I saw it, which means I didn’t come to it clean. In terms of plot, Lopez’s play is more an extended riff on top of Forster’s novel than a direct translation of it; Eric and Toby, his surrogates for Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are lovers rather than siblings (there is no Tibby in the play). Eric works for a liberal/progressive NGO run by a friend, Toby is a one-hit-wonder YA novelist in the process of adapting his book for the stage. Lopez, it’s fair to say, takes the characteristics of Forster’s characters and amplifies them, so that Eric is thoroughly kind and decent and Toby is equally thoroughly self-absorbed; the play opens with a raucously funny story about Toby’s ignominious exit from a party hosted by wealthy friends Walter and Henry Wilcox (it involves Meryl Streep and the inevitable consequence of far too many Martinis), quickly follows it with Eric and Toby’s engagement, and then takes off on an epic journey through the post-AIDS landscape inhabited by New York’s gay community, with pit-stops at most (though not quite all) of the major plot points in Forster’s novel. There’s a misplaced umbrella, a thwarted inheritance, a meal at an only-for-carnivores restaurant at which the host orders for his guest of honour, a marriage, a country house, a meadow, a tree with teeth in the bark, and lots and lots of debate about art and politics and privilege, and a good number (though by no means all) of the piece’s laughs come from references to Forster’s novel. At the same time, Lopez puts E.M. Forster onstage as a character – “Morgan” – and keeps him front and centre in part one as a kind of writing coach, prompting the young men in Eric and Toby’s group of friends to revise their individual narratives and clarify the meaning behind their stories.

Despite the running time – the two parts together clock in at over six hours of stage time, over seven and a half hours including intermissions – the pace rarely flags, and you’ll need to work to keep up, because this is a piece that operates on several levels. It’s a gay Howards End AND an ongoing left-vs.-right political debate, a treatise on the tragic losses sustained by the gay community during the 1980s and 1990s, a moving eulogy for those lost, a lecture about the history of AIDS, a metatheatrical examination of the ways in which we construct our lives into narratives, a play about what each generation gives to and takes from the next, a meditation on the intersection(s) between love and politics and sex, and a comedy of (sometimes very bad) manners. Usually it’s several of those things in the same scene. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster ride, superbly sustained through the full length of the piece, and it’s well worth the effort, but there’s a lot going on and a lot to take in, and the sheer breadth (and, let’s face it, length) of the piece, the constant shifts in focus between complex, intertwined plot strands mean The Inheritance is inevitably a somewhat dizzying theatrical experience. For some, I suspect, it will gain an extra dimension if you see both parts back-to-back on the same day (which is what I did); others, certainly, will be glad of an extended break between the two halves.

And the writing, certainly, is not unimpeachable, although that shouldn’t be taken as a suggestion that Lopez’s achievement here is anything less than remarkable. The biggest fault, probably, is also a fault of the source novel: Lopez’s characters, like Forster’s, exist in an insular, seemingly self-contained (and self-absorbed) world in which interlopers are not always treated kindly. This is an (almost) entirely affluent, privileged (notwithstanding the profound sense of loss underpinning the play), white strata of society. There are two actors from visible minorities – out of a cast of fourteen – on the stage in a play set in Manhattan whose first scene takes place somewhere around mid-2015, and we don’t encounter a woman until midway through the final act of part two. This is a play inhabited very nearly exclusively by  a clique of gay men who all have similar backgrounds, and who (almost) all trade in the same cultural and political references. Lopez’s writing is undeniably virtuosic, and he’s created an engaging, funny, sometimes very deeply moving collection of characters, but this is still, for better or worse, a play about people who mostly only ever talk to people like themselves. Over more than six hours of stage time, given the scope of the social history Lopez is trying to navigate, that is an issue. AIDS was never simply an upper-middle-class disease, and New York’s gay community always encompassed every point on the social spectrum – but here, the two black actors in the cast play relatively minor roles, and the one character who isn’t middle-class or wealthier is a more-or-less homeless prostitute.

It’s also fair to point out that Lopez, all the way through, relies on third-person narration in the manner of a third-person novel’s omniscient voice, with characters stepping outside of scenes to tell us the story. It’s not as if this has never been done before, and it’s not as if you can’t build a successful piece of theatre around this technique (step forward, Lin-Manuel Miranda), but this is a very, very long two-part play. It contains a lot of plot, and a surprising amount of that plot is narrated rather than dramatised, told rather than shown. That isn’t going to be a problem for everyone – but if you don’t like that technique, or even if you’re ambivalent about it, sitting through six hours of it might prove to be a slog.

It’s bold of Lopez to stop the action in its tracks, more than once, to allow characters to let rip with a full-blown political debate, and it’s also bold of him to make the most unpleasantly self-righteous character in the biggest, most significant debate scene an angry, passionate left/liberal/progressive-leaning Clinton supporter, and to strenuously avoid making his billionaire Republican opponent – yes, Henry Wilcox, the only character in The Inheritance to take their name directly from his analogue character in Forster’s novel – into either a stereotypical Log Cabin Republican or a Mitt Romney clone. There’s a plot-related reason why Jason – the liberal character – is so rude in his reaction to the revelation that Henry Wilcox has donated to the (then-current) Republican Presidential candidate, but the debate – as a debate – would be less predictable if Jason attempted to refute Henry’s arguments rather than simply condemning them out of hand. It’s a fine, fiery scene, and it plays like gangbusters in the hands of Michael Marcus and John Benjamin Hickey, but Lopez’s handling of the politics behind the characters is noticeably less smart here than it is through most of the rest of the play.

And then there’s the E.M. Forster conundrum. Lopez’s play is tied very closely to its source material, even though it sometimes departs from it very significantly, and there’s an immensely touching essay in the programme in which Lopez talks about his love of a novel set in a world that is quite sharply different from the small Florida Panhandle town where he grew up. Putting Forster himself onstage proves to be a triumph; it therefore seems not only churlish but actually disrespectful to allow, in one of the play’s debates, Lopez’s young, comfortably middle-class, privileged characters, (almost) all of whom exist in the kind of monied/western/bourgeois-bohemian/liberal bubble in which LGBTQ rights have largely been embraced by the mainstream, to turn on Morgan for not publishing Maurice during his lifetime. Or rather, the accusation is perhaps fair enough, and so is the thinking behind it – it’s not impossible that the publication of an unabashedly homosexual love story from as major a figure as Forster might have helped pave the way for wider, earlier acceptance of LGBTQ rights by the public at large – but it seems churlish and disrespectful for Lopez not to permit Morgan to defend his decision. It also arguably is an indication of the potential pitfalls of an American writer putting words into the mouth of a real English literary figure, because I doubt a British writer would have failed to make the point that to publish the novel in 1914 with the ending Forster intended would quite possibly have put Forster in prison. At that time, it would have been publishable in Britain only if it had ended in the imprisonment or suicide of one or other (or both) of the two central characters; for a mainstream fiction press to publish a homosexual love story with a happy ending would have been more or less unthinkable, and for Forster to pursue publication of the novel would have required reserves of strength and bravery and self-sacrifice that, frankly, are not evident among most of Lopez’s characters in The Inheritance. It’s probably the least sure-footed passage in the whole of the play.

The ending of part two, as well, could stand a little sharpening. Partly that’s because the ending of part one – an equivalent of the scene in the novel where Margaret first sees the meadow at Howards End – is so beautifully written and so exquisitely moving that it’s very difficult for the ending of part two not to suffer at least a little in comparison, but partly it’s because we’ve all seen the final episode of Six Feet Under and some of us have seen (or at least read) Terrence McNally‘s Love! Valour! Compassion!, and the specific narrative gimmick Lopez pulls out in his final sequence has been done before, and done better.

Questions of milieu and the (nearly) all-male cast (I mean, really – do none of these people ever speak to a woman?) aside, though, those few hiccups amount to no more than a couple of scenes out of a mostly splendid piece of writing… although having said that, there is very little in theatre (and film) that isn’t improved by editing, and that’s certainly the case here. I don’t mean a hacksaw, but each of the play’s six acts could comfortably stand to lose a few minutes (by the time I saw it last week, part two had already lost ten minutes or so of running time from the timings reported while it was in previews), and in the second part the audience really needs more than a five-minute breather between the second and third acts.

Not that your attention will wander, because while the writing is not entirely unimpeachable, Stephen Daldry’s production is just about perfect. Elegantly staged on Bob Crowley’s rectangular white platform set – a blank page, if you like – against a black backdrop which occasionally parts to reveal another room, or a tree, or a model of the upstate house at the centre of the plot, Daldry’s staging is strikingly minimalist and, as lit by Jon Clark, often quite beautiful. He’s done, too, a superb job of rendering Lopez’s complicated, sprawling, multilayered plot with absolute clarity. More than anything else, he’s drawn wonderful performances from his cast. Kyle Soller’s Eric is an astonishing six-hour tour-de-force – Eric is our way in to the play, the most wholly sympathetic character onstage, and Soller’s work is simply stunning. Without grandstanding, and without ever chewing the scenery (not that there’s much scenery to chew), Soller provides a quietly moving portrayal of a genuinely good, kind man who slowly comes to understand that he must use his privilege to help others. Andrew Burnap is equally good as the self-absorbed/charmingly obnoxious writer Toby, and when we’re (finally) shown Toby’s inner demons (after being told about them for five whole acts) Burnap doesn’t overplay the moment. Samuel H. Levine is mesmerising as the play’s stand-ins for Leonard and Jacky Bast – Adam, an overprivileged, culturally-undereducated would-be actor, and Leo, a rent boy who (we are told) looks remarkably similar to Adam. Paul Hilton is simply lovely as Morgan, and as Walter, the play’s equivalent of Ruth Wilcox. John Benjamin Hickey’s Henry Wilcox, a billionaire gay Republican who finds himself becoming closer to Eric after Walter’s death, is a far more compelling figure than the Henry Wilcox in Forster’s novel; Hickey is very moving indeed as a character whose losses during the early years of the AIDS epidemic were so profound that he’s been left emotionally crippled by what amounts to a form of PTSD, but he also makes Henry’s growing relationship with Eric absolutely believable, and he and Lopez, to their enormous credit, avoid more or less all the obvious Republican! Billionaire! clichés (which, to return to an earlier point, is why it’s startling that the writing for Jason #1, the Committed Progressive among Lopez’s cast of characters here, is so jarringly one-note). The supporting performances – all of them – are excellent; everyone apart from Hickey, Soller, Burnap, and Vanessa Redgrave plays more than one role; this is an ensemble performance, and the performances right across the ensemble are flawless.

That leaves Vanessa Redgrave, whose appearance is held back until almost halfway through the show’s final act. She’s frail and fragile and heartbreaking, and very quiet as a kind of Ruth Coker Burks figure – a woman who rejected her gay son while he was healthy, and then devoted her life to providing palliative care for AIDS patients as a kind of penance after his death. Given her connection to the Merchant-Ivory film of the source novel, Redgrave’s appearance more or less amounts to stunt-casting, but she has remarkable presence; you may occasionally wonder whether the character is overcome with grief or the actress is struggling to remember the next line, but she supplies a great deal of the final act’s emotional force. Lopez gives her character what amounts to an extended monologue about the sickness and death of her son, and in Redgrave’s hands it becomes a masterclass in the value of stillness onstage. It’s a phenomenal performance, and a late highlight in a phenomenal piece of theatre.

So, yes, those reviews – where we began – were absolutely justified…but. The thing about reviews like that is that they create impossible expectations, and also, sometimes, a sense that the work is somehow above criticism by regular mortals. To be absolutely clear, The Inheritance is a staggeringly talented piece of writing. This is an extraordinary, dazzling, wonderful play given a flawless production. Several reviews have compared it directly to Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America; it withstands the comparison, and that is very, very high praise indeed. It is going to have a life, probably a very significant life, beyond this production (although sorry, Dominic Cavendish, it is simply too soon to say whether it’s the most significant new American play of the century so far). Kyle Soller deserves every award out there for his performance, and Lopez deserves every award out there for a script whose highs are spectacularly high. Of course it’s a must-see, and probably a must-read too – but while you’ll be thrilled, moved, and thoroughly dazzled by The Inheritance, you’ll also find yourself picking holes in it for days afterwards.

 

 

 

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.