Southern Gothic

Razor-sharp, ice cold, meaner than a box of snakes, and VERY funny. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s thermonuclear family drama goes off with the force of a fifteen-kiloton bomb. We’re in a plantation mansion in Alabama, the family patriarch has died, the house is rotting at the seams, and his three children are sorting through the house’s contents and getting ready to put the place up for auction. The discovery of an album of photographs of lynchings, and then a box full of – let’s put this delicately – associated memorabilia is the catalyst for a series of explosive revelations. To say too much more would be to give too much away; every character has some kind of secret, and of course the defining feature of this kind of play is that by the end, every secret has been exposed. The shockwaves keep coming, and continue even after the actors have all left the stage; Ola Ince’s perfectly-pitched production is a two-hour white-knuckle ride, and it’s fascinating to see how Jacobs-Jenkins uses the framework of a one-set family drama to construct an explosive critique of the way white (southern) Americans interact with black America’s history. This is one of those plays where you’ll come out wanting to buy the script, so save a little money and buy it with your programme as you go in (there’s a combo deal). As Toni, the (astonishingly) embittered oldest sibling, Monica Dolan is first among equals amid a superb cast – she somehow manages to make you feel for Toni despite the character’s rage (and in one scene, blatant racism), AND to make you laugh. I could gush for several more paragraphs, but you’ve got the point already: this is as good as anything I’ve ever seen at the Donmar.

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Small ones are more juicy!

No, this isn’t an orange advert from 1985. Playing catch-up again: three small musicals, in (coincidentally) diminishing order of size, seen over the last month or so.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Yes, the second attempt at a musical based on the great Sue Townsend’s greatest creation. It’s slick, funny, and tuneful, and you’d be hard-pressed not to have a good time – but perhaps it plays up the laughs at the expense of the source material’s underlying pathos a little bit too much, and it certainly sands a lot of the sharpest edges off Townsend’s social satire.

It is, though, absolutely charming, Luke Sheppard directs it with enormous panache, the children are spectacularly good, and Rosemary Ashe is a one-woman riot as Adrian’s hyper-judgmental grandmother. Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s score works beautifully in context, but you won’t necessarily walk out of the theatre humming the tunes… apart from Doreen Slater’s magnificently brassy New Best Friend, which is sung to the hilt by Lara Denning. Is it a problem that a relatively incidental character gets (by far) the best number in the show? Maybe.

Blues In The Night

A revue by Sheldon Epps built around a glorious stack of American jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s – Bessie Smith, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Alberta Hunter et al. It’s a small show, first seen in London over thirty years ago – I am just about old enough to remember watching the original London production on television, it was broadcast on (I think) BBC2 somewhere around 1989 – in which the songs are carefully but rather loosely strung together around four characters (three women, one man) in a hotel in Chicago. You come to this show for the songs rather than the plot.

Having said that, director Susie McKenna has clearly done a lot of detailed work with her cast; the four central actors in the show all clearly have a story, even if it’s clearer to them than to us, and there’s a clear narrative arc here. Given how thin the show’s structure is, that’s an achievement. And these singers – Sharon D. Clarke, Debbie Kurup, Gemma Sutton, and Clive Rowe – are simply magnificent. Sitting in the front row as Sharon D. Clarke tears into Lover Man about four feet away from me might well turn out to be the biggest theatrical thrill I get this year.

Musik

A one-hour cabaret with a script by Jonathan Harvey and songs by Pet Shop Boys, featuring Billie Trix, a character they introduced in their musical Closer To Heaven (no, I didn’t see the recent revival), and performed here by Frances Barber, who originated the role in Closer To Heaven 18 years ago. You don’t need to have seen Closer to Heaven to ‘get it’ – fortunately, since I haven’t – and you also probably don’t need to be a Pet Shop Boys fan, although (all but one of) their songs here are excellent. Harvey’s script packs in more laughs per square inch than you’d think possible, and Frances Barber nails them all.

This is a masterclass, actually, in how to take one joke – really, just one joke – and spin it out for an hour. Billie is a fabulous creation, a grizzled, ageing rock chick in the Nico/Marianne Faithfull mode – but her schtick is that throughout her life, while she’s enjoyed a miraculously Zelig-like ability to land in the right place at the right time, everyone she’s ever encountered has stolen her act. And that’s everyone, from Nico to Warhol to Tracey Emin to the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Barber delivers the studiedly outrageous lines – one joke about a K-hole left my neighbour gasping for breath – with an absolutely straight face, and is all the funnier for it, and her singing is, well, unique. Imagine the love-child of Carol Channing and Tom Waits after three bottles of whiskey and an unfeasible quantity of smack and you’ll be in the ballpark. It’s a brilliant star turn, and when she rips into the climax of Friendly Fire – one of the two songs borrowed from Closer to Heaven – the force of her performance pins you to your seat.

Bitter lemon

Oh, come on. You didn’t think a David Mamet play about the Me Too movement with a thinly-disguised Harvey Weinstein figure as the central character was actually going to be good, did you?

Please.

YES, Bitter Wheat is a thoroughly, utterly, completely dreadful play. Once upon a time, David Mamet might have been capable of writing a pungent, sharply funny satire about horrible Hollywood people doing horrible things and then trying to evade the consequences of their horrible behaviour. That time, on the evidence of the fiasco currently lumbering through a summer run at the Garrick, is long past. The plot is predictable enough – Barney Fein, producer and all-round sleazeball, invites/entices jet-lagged young Anglo-Korean film-maker Yung Kim Li into his apartment and attempts to Do Nasty Things To Which She Doesn’t Consent, she sets off the fire alarm, and the scandal finishes his career – after which, God help us, wacky hijinks, or what Mr. Mamet believes are wacky hijinks, ensue in the final scene. Mamet seems to be somehow under the impression that he’s written a comedy. To say he hasn’t is a breathtaking understatement.

It’s not the scenario, actually, that’s at fault here. It would be as good a starting-off point as any for a satire about the repulsive behaviour of a powerful Hollywood shitbag-in-a-suit. Mamet, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be attempting anything as evolved as satire here. Bitter Wheat, it turns out, is less a play and more just an over-the-hill reactionary prick ejaculating sexist/racist/unpleasantly right-wing comments over the stage for 85 minutes, interspersed with feeder lines from a cast of (very good) supporting actors who all have too little to do. That might be OK, or at least not completely excruciating to sit through, if Barney Fein’s verbal diarrhoea was funny; there are two or three reasonably big laughs in the first half of the play, but it mostly isn’t.

And that, in turn, might not matter so much if the production’s above-the-title star seemed to be in any way awake. John Malkovich – an astonishingly potent stage actor when he wants to be, as anyone who saw him in Burn This (also far from a first-rate play) years ago will tell you – is phoning it in here. And by ‘phoning it in’, I mean he seems to be faxing his performance over a dodgy connection from a small town somewhere in Uzbekistan. It can’t be easy to take a starring role and then have to get up eight times a week in front of a less-than-completely-enthusiastic audience, wearing a laughably bad fat suit, to deliver an incoherent string of witless lines in a slack mess of a play sloppily directed by its entirely too self-regarding author, but when hundreds of people per performance have paid mostly to see him it would be nice if he could give the impression that he is actually in the building when he’s onstage. Apparently that’s too much trouble.

The supporting actors, while they don’t have enough to do, all emerge with their dignity intact. Matthew Pidgeon is lucky – he has nothing to do between the first scene and the curtain call, which means he’s spared having to navigate the (considerable) worst of his brother-in-law’s writing – and Teddy Kempner, whose epic beard is worth at least a couple of bonus points, does as much as he can as Fein’s slightly dubious doctor, a role Mamet possibly wrote while unconscious. Doon Mackichan, as Fein’s PA Sondra, makes by far the strongest impression, and she’s the most interesting person onstage – a woman working for a man she knows is a serial sex abuser, who disapproves of his behaviour but has made a great deal of money because of him, who has never been on the receiving end of that side of him herself, and who isn’t inclined to rat him out to the FBI when the shit hits the fan. Somewhere within those contradictions there’s a much better play, and a much more insightful look at how people like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away for so long with behaviour everybody knew about. The key, probably, would be to keep the Weinstein character offstage for as long as possible, rather than wallowing in his repulsive behaviour for 85 minutes of stage time. Twenty-five years ago, that’s a play Mamet could possibly have written. Twenty-five years is a long time… as you’ll learn in the twenty-five-minute second act of Bitter Wheat, which feels like it.

Sweet sorrow

See all those stars on the poster? Matthew Warchus’s stellar revival of Present Laughter deserves every last one of them, and so does Andrew Scott. This is a blissfully funny, absolutely pitch-perfect production of one of Noel Coward’s better plays: every laugh lands, Scott finds the undercurrent of melancholy underpinning washed-up matinĂ©e idol Gary Essendine’s preening, the supporting cast are faultless, and the gender-switching of a couple of key characters works spectacularly well (if you haven’t seen it – it’s on for another week and a half, I saw it a month ago and I’m playing catch-up again – it’s getting the National Theatre Live treatment, but not until November). And the fabulous high-waist wide-leg trousers designer Rob Howell gives Indira Varma’s dryly hilarious Liz Essendine deserve an Olivier award of their own.

NOT so stellar, unfortunately, is the visitor experience at the Old Vic, and I don’t mean the outside toilets. The usher in the section where I was sitting – dress circle left – took an unfeasible amount of pleasure in yelling at anyone she suspected of taking a photograph. I do get why they don’t want people taking pictures of the set, although if you don’t want people taking pictures of the set one very simple solution would be NOT to build the stage out beyond the proscenium so that you can’t hide the set behind the curtain until the lights go down – but I’m afraid I take great exception to being scolded as if I was a naughty schoolboy, in public, for taking a photograph when I wasn’t. I’m the first one to say theatres should put a bit more effort into policing audience behaviour, but if you’re going to tell someone off you damn well make sure they’re actually doing whatever you’re telling them off for. I complained to the house manager, he apologised – the usher didn’t – and the theatre made a conciliatory gesture, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place (and a couple of conversations on Twitter and elsewhere suggest I’m far from the only person who has been yelled at for no reason by this particular usher). We’re customers, not cattle; as I said, I do understand that certain audience behaviours need to be policed, but there’s a fine line there between what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and this usher went way over it.

The thing is, theatre is ephemeral, and the visitor experience contributes to whatever it is you take away from the show. In THIS case, what I took away from the show is that it’s a really, really terrific production – and that I paid for a theatre ticket (admittedly not a particularly expensive one), and for train tickets (more than double the cost of the theatre ticket) on top, for the privilege of getting a bollocking for no good reason from a surly usher who appeared to be on some kind of power trip. The house manager apologised, the theatre took steps to make amends – but I didn’t get the experience I paid for, and since I live 200 miles from London it’s not like it’s easy for me to go back and see the show again. That, I’m afraid, is a waste of my money.


FIVE REVIEWS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!!!!!

Yes, five: the UK tour of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I in Manchester, Fiddler on the Roof, the last night of the National Theatre revival of Follies, and The Play That Goes Wrong in London, and Sweeney Todd in Liverpool. All seen around the middle of May – but the rest of May and most of June have passed by in a blur, and here we are. So, a quick catch-up – capsule reviews, bullet points, all in one post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I find a reasonable definition of ‘normal’.

THE KING AND I

* Gorgeous set and costumes.
* Pacing sometimes glacially slow.
* Superb performance from Jose Llana as the King.
* Competent performance from Annalene Beechey as Mrs. Anna. Never bad, but also never interesting.
* Cezerah Bonner’s Lady Thiang is the best thing in the show, and her ‘Something Wonderful’ is thrilling.
* Out of kindness, I won’t name the actors who played Lun Tha and Tuptim. Screech-o-rama.
* At these prices – a bit lower than the West End, but only a bit – and in a theatre this size, it’s taking the piss to have just fourteen musicians in the pit.
* The member of the front-of-house staff who rolled the very noisy shutters on the stalls bar (actually in the auditorium) up and then down again during the overture has no business working in a theatre.
* These days, the show’s colonialist point of view looks – let’s be kind – rather patronising.
* The score is marvellous, but this is, I’m afraid, my least favourite of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, and this revival didn’t change my mind.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

* A Menier production, booted into the West End – but this time, they’ve done a reasonable job of taking something tiny and building it up.
* They’ve built the set out into the Playhouse’s proscenium, with a runway through the stalls on which actors enter and exit. It pulls you right into the village, and you do, in the stalls at least, have a sense of the show happening all around you.
* Whoever designed the new layout for the seats in the stalls didn’t bother to take into account the fact that people have knees. Ouch.
* Andy Nyman’s Tevye warm, real, moving. Particularly enjoyed the way the deedle-deedle-dums in If I Were A Rich Man became sighs as he washed himself at the village pump.
* Judy Kuhn is vocally massively over-qualified for the role of Golde; it goes without saying that her singing is flawless, but it’s a wonderfully spare, austere acting performance. She’s remarkable.
* Too bad you missed her, she was replaced by Maria Friedman a couple of weeks ago.
* Decent turns in all the supporting roles, too.
* While it’s beautifully acted and designed, director Trevor Nunn doesn’t manage to tap into the piece’s contemporary relevance in the way that, for example, Gemma Bodinetz did in her (even smaller) revival at the Everyman in Liverpool a couple of years ago.
* Selling Anatevka-themed cocktails in the bar before the show is remarkably crass, even by the standards of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

FOLLIES

* Yes I know I’ve written about this production before. I saw it six times. Deal with it.
* I’ve already said that this year’s return engagement was better in nearly every respect than the production’s first iteration in 2017. This final performance was as thrilling an evening as I’ve ever spent in a theatre.
* Thunderous applause as the ladies walked down the staircase in Beautiful Girls; I tend to find that kind of mid-show ovation easy to resist, but this time you couldn’t help get carried along with it.
* Thunderous applause, too – deservedly – for Claire Moore’s Broadway Baby, Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here, and Joanna Riding’s astonishing Losing My Mind.
* My God, Janie Dee. The most dazzling jewel in an evening that provides, as the song has it, ‘dazzling jewels by the score’. And she was clearly thoroughly moved by the audience’s response at the curtain call.
* Good as Felicity Lott was earlier in the run, it was wonderful to see Josephine Barstow’s heartbreaking, intense Heidi one last time, and she and Alison Langer gave a more-or-less definitive One More Kiss.
* This is a production Sondheim fans will be arguing over for years; for me, even though director Dominic Cooke made a few choices I wouldn’t have made myself, it stands as one of the National’s landmark achievements. It’s certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there.


THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

*A masterclass in how to take one joke – JUST one joke – and stretch it over two full acts.
* It’s not a long show, and it needs to lose fifteen minutes.
* At best, it’s very funny indeed. The second act is better than the first.
* I didn’t see the original cast, but I can’t imagine them being any better than the current one.

SWEENEY TODD

* Possibly even more austere than the Everyman’s revival of Fiddler on the Roof a couple of years ago.
* Set in the present, and definitely an austerity-era Sweeney Todd. This is a startlingly angry production, and the piece’s statement about social (in)justice has possibly never been clearer than it is here.
* It’s in the round and in your face; there’s very little set apart from a few chairs, the turntable stage is moved by the cast, and the costumes are straight out of Primark. And it works.
* It’s not – by far – the best-sung Sweeney Todd you’ve ever seen, although Liam Tobin’s Sweeney and Kacey Ainsworth’s hard-as-nails Mrs. Lovett are stronger singers than most of the supporting players.
* Kacey Ainsworth’s Mrs. Lovett is extraordinary – yes, she sacrifices some of the role’s laughs, but it doesn’t matter: she’s utterly terrifying, a backstreet capitalist who will do literally anything to get ahead, and she’s this production’s driving force.
* In such a small production – there’s a cast of just nine – I’ve no issue with there being just four musicians in the band. Tarek Merchant’s arrangements, though, are ham-fisted and not particularly subtle, and there are places – many places – where different choices might have resulted in less of the score’s musical texture being lost.
* And that’s the issue with this production: there’s brilliant work from director Nick Bagnall, from the designers, and from the cast – but it’s a musical, and while I understand the production has limited resources to play with, there’s only so far you can strip back the instrumentation before you start diminishing the piece’s richness. Here, that line is crossed far too frequently, and it needn’t have been, even with just four musicians.

So… there. All caught up. Four musicals, one play, one blog post. As I said, normal service will be resumed… sometime.

Welcome to the Rock

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On paper, Come From Away looks wince-inducing. A musical set against the backdrop of 9/11 following the story of people stranded in a small town in Newfoundland when their flights were forced to land there after US airspace was closed following the attacks looks like a terrible idea. I thought it was a terrible idea, and I was living in Canada on 9/11 and the story the show tells is part of the narrative I watched unfold as I (like everyone else) spent day after day glued to the news. Given the magnitude of the events behind the events the show portrays, it’s easy to assume a musical covering this territory would have to be essentially reductive, that a tidal wave of sentimentality about Canadian niceness, eh? would somehow wash away the horror everybody felt during that week.

Then I heard the Broadway cast recording, which – while it isn’t complete – includes enough material to challenge that original perception. Based on the album, I bought a ticket to the show’s London production – and, yes, I admit I was absolutely wrong. There are holes you can legitimately pick in Come From Away, but it works. It doesn’t trivialise the horror behind the events it portrays, the writers and director do a very careful job of keeping any sentimentality firmly in check, and the show, to my complete surprise, is a powerful snapshot of a moment in which the ground shook under everybody’s feet. We have some distance from those events now, and we’ve become used to seeing images from the surrounding events that at the time seemed to stretch our understanding of the word ‘unimaginable’. What Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the show’s writers (they both wrote all of it, collaborating on book, music and lyrics) achieve is something quite difficult: without showing any imagery at all from any of the attacks, without wallowing in the nightmarish scenes the whole world saw on the news, they manage to evoke how it felt to wake up in a world that had been suddenly and irrevocably changed by a series of grotesque acts of violence. Even more remarkably, they manage to show people finding strength and humanity in the face of that horror without bathing the audience in a vat of treacle – or rather, given that it takes place in Canada, maple syrup.

The show’s great strength is the illusion of simplicity with which Sankoff and Hein (and director Christopher Ashley) tell their stories, all of which are real stories drawn from interviews with residents of Gander, Newfoundland and the passengers and flight crews who found themselves stranded there. There’s a relatively bare stage with furniture brought on and off as required by the cast, and the actors slip seamlessly between characters (and accents, and between narration and dialogue) at the drop of a hat or a jacket or a prop. Everybody in the cast plays several characters; the show’s structure is quite intricate, but the storytelling is absolutely clear all the way through. Among a fine ensemble cast there are standout turns from Clive Carter as (among other things) Gander’s mayor, from Cat Simmons as a New Yorker trying to trace her firefighter son, from Robert Hands and Helen Hobson as two middle-aged people who find a mutual attraction after they are stranded together, and above all from Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass, a pilot (in fact, the first female captain employed by American Airlines) whose flight is diverted to Gander. It’s to Tucker’s advantage that Me And the Sky, Beverley Bass’s song in the show, is by far the best thing in the score, and in her hands it’s a tour-de-force.

The rest of the score is… well, the kind word is ‘functional’. It works in context, the musical palette (largely rooted in folk-rock) is appropriate to the setting but not as varied as it could be, and some of the lyrics clunk a bit, and rely slightly too much on predictable rhymes. This is, though, one of those shows where any criticism of the technical aspects of the writing is more or less irrelevant, because the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts: look too closely at the score and you’ll start to pick holes, but – as I said – as a theatrical experience this show just works.

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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.