Monthly Archives: December 2017

Theatre Review of the Year and What to See in 2018

2018

After the political surprises of 2016 it was easy to assume that 2017 would be defined by the fallout. For those in the liberal London bubble, the direct collision of old and new Britain, demonstrated at the ballot box last year, caused a shift in the way we see ourselves, a rethink that put concepts of nationalism, power and societal influence back under the microscope, Naturally, facing what felt like a significant and unbreachable rift, instability and economic downturn was the likely outcome, which for the arts, could only mean one thing –  cultural depletion  – as audience seek safety in comfort and nostalgia.

What actually happened in 2017 theatre couldn’t be further from that prediction, and while the revival of great American dance-led shows continued apace, looking back at this year’s very best productions, they were strikingly new. It has been an outstanding year for fresh, and predominantly political, writing with a West End transfer for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, an ambitious technical accomplishment if not entirely emotionally satisfying play about the encroaching effect of the 1980s hunger strikes on a rural Irish family that opened at the Royal Court in May, before making it to the Gielgud shortly afterwards, where its changing cast has led to two run extensions so far.

Just a tad more fulfilling was the first UK production of Oslo, arriving with its Tony Award winning headline from Broadway and a new British cast. Opening at the National Theatre in September before a prompt move to the Harold Pinter the following month, Oslo is a superb and very human examination of the personalities that created an unlikely peace process, dramatizing the complexity without undermining the entertainment value, an exceptional piece of writing by J.T. Rogers.

Undoubtedly, and for productivity and consistent quality alone, this year has belonged to James Graham with two new plays in neighbouring theatres, and a third announcing a transfer in the Spring of 2018. Labour of Love is one of the few new plays to open cold in the West End this year, premiering to much acclaim at the Noel Coward Theatre in September and innovatively charting the history of the Labour Party since the mid-1980s to the present day through the eyes of grass-roots membership, using a reverse then forward chronological structure.

Unpicking established historical scenarios and carefully controlled construction are Graham trademarks, both perfectly demonstrated in his biggest hit, and, personally my favourite show of the year, Ink, establishing the tabloid newspaper’s current powerbase rooted in its quest for populism in the sales war of 1969. A wonderful and unexpected surprise in its first outing at The Almeida in June, Ink promptly arrived at the Duke of York’s in September cementing Graham’s influence on modern political writing and paving the way for his next big show, and my first 2018 recommendation, Quiz, which is heading to the Noel Coward from April after a successful Chichester try-out, focusing on the power of the television media and the nature of modern justice, framed by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire coughing-Major scandal.

Another stand-out piece of new writing this year was a personal examination of the impact of suicide on three generations of the same family that placed women’s experience front and centre. Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide opened at the Royal Court in June and ambitiously reimagined traditional narrative approaches by telling the three separate but inter-related stories side-by-side, upping the emotional investment, while The Barbershop Chronicles at the National was an invigorating examination of black male experience around the world distilled through a visit to the local hairdresser. And finally, The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios arrived in the West End from the Bristol Old Vic just in time to be crowned this year’s best new musical, reimagining Victor Hugo’s dark tale of mutilation and injustice. Genuinely magical, it swept the audience up with its heightened fairy tale quality, charting the story of a tragic outsider to quietly devastating effect.

Emotional and quietly devastating also describes 2017’s best revival, the Sondheim classic Follies that united Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee at the National Theatre. From the very first night of previews, the show ached with regret, disillusion and nostalgia for lost youth that filled the sizeable Olivier auditorium and never has a production suited the awkward space so well. Twice this year, the National has arguably produced definitive productions that will certainly preclude other major revivals for at least a decade, and joining the genuinely heart-rending Follies was the epic Angles in America (Part 1 and Part 2).

Tony Kushner’s two-part 1990s ‘gay fantasia’ was much trailered this time last year, and when it finally opened in a mammoth seven and half hour production it more than lived-up to expectation. Director Marianne Elliot balanced the multiple narratives and hallucinatory elements convincingly, while leads Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in particular gave the performance of their lives as men ravaged by HIV.

Andrew Scott also gave a career-best performance in this year’s superstar Hamlet, opening in February at the Almeida before transferring to the Harold Pinter. Robert Icke’s production was a modern, strongly conceived production that despite a few loose ends and some underpowered interpretations of Claudius and Gertrude, gave its leading man the space to deliver one of the most heart-breaking Hamlets of the 21st century.

Another former Hamlet returned to the stage this year and having established a devoted fan-base as a much-loved TV character and a respected Shakespeare performer, blew it all up to play a dastardly lothario with only his own pleasure in mind. David Tennant’s performance in the revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho divided critics and audiences alike with its crude and gleeful take on an unrepentant wastrel. But Tennant’s joyous interpretation, perfectly matched by Adrian Scarborough’s put-upon servant proved irresistible, making it one of my favourite and most uproarious nights in a theatre this year.

With another cracking Imelda Staunton performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter, Daniel Radcliffe impressing in the Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and charming returns for An American in Paris and 42nd Street, 2017 has been a cracking year for top-quality theatre. But as we say a bittersweet farewell to one of the strongest years for mainstream theatre in a long time, we can take comfort in knowing that 2018 is already filled with possible treats.

The new Bridge Theatre opens the year with an all-star promenade production of Julius Caesar – one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – starring Ben Whishaw as Brutus and David Morrissey as Mark Anthony which should be an interesting take on well-known tale of power and corruption. The National follows suit in February with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in a new Macbeth that could be the best stage version in years, while more must-see Shakespeare is planned for September with a much anticipated version of Anthony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo also at the National.

Another early highlight is the much acclaimed transfer of Long Day’s Journey into Night starring Jeremy Irons and the wonderful Lesley Manville pitching-up at the Wyndhams in January, while in the same month Kathy Burke directs Lady Windermere’s Fan, the second in Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville, and soon after Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins take the lead in Bryony Lavery’s thriller Frozen, opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.

The late spring and summer months also promise much, with a revival of Red starring Alfred Molina also heading to the Wyndhams, while, following the London run of James Graham’s Quiz from April, all eyes will be on the Noel Coward Theatre in July where Martin McDonagh’s the Lieutenant of Inishmore will mark the West End debut of Poldark star Aidan Turner, timed to coincide with the next series of the hit show.

And that’s not even the half of it; later in the year Jim Broadbent will star in Martin McDonagh’s new play about Hans Christian Andersen at the The Bridge Theatre entitled A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the National has announced a version of Brian Friel’s Translations with Colin Morgan, the first London run of the trilogy of plays about Lehman Brothers directed by Sam Mendes who follows his wonderful control of The Ferryman with more new writing, while there is a new play from The Flick writer Annie Baker, who returns to the National with John, and the Royal Court welcomes Carey Mulligan in a new show Girls and Boys, while the Gielgud hosts a gender-swapped version of Sondheim’s Company from September.

So, it may be sad to leave a year of really great theatre, but 2018 has plenty to offer, and looks set to continue the investment in new writing that has been such a feature of the last 12 months. With a constantly shifting governmental landscape and ongoing uncertainty, it’s comforting to see mainstream theatre responding with sophisticated political writing and greater attempts at diversity – that some of the approaches that have long been a feature of the Fringe are finally filtering up. It’s far from perfect and there’s still a long way to go, but with the work of 2017 setting a high bar, the theatre year ahead looks full of promise.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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The Grinning Man – Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

However much theatre you see, it is rare to find something that is truly magical, and in the week before Christmas few things will gladdened the heart as completely as Bristol Old Vic’s production of The Grinning Man now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. If you’re not a panto person, can’t face another version of A Christmas Carol and are by now shouting “humbug” at a festive period that started in earnest in October, then this glorious adaptation of Victor Hugo’s dark tale hits all the right notes to tally with your mood, melting your icy exterior with its focus on pain, rejection and injustice.

There is something very distinctive about a Victor Hugo story and even when translated for the stage, the essential characteristics are the same. Whether you’ve read all 1000+ pages of Les Misérables (and you should it’s stunning), or seen the musical, or even watched versions of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, Hugo’s writing manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, covering grand sweeps of history and decades in a character’s life, giving anatomies of entire cities, while focusing on the slog of every day living, the physical and emotional fragility of individual characters, rich or poor united by a common humanity.

The Grinning Man does exactly that, weaving together high and low in a complex story of brutalisation and loss of innocence. As a child Grinpayne is savagely mutilated with his face sliced from ear to ear in a permanent grin. Hidden beneath bandages and orphaned, the boy finds a baby crying in the snow where the two are taken in by a local man who raises them as his own. Years later, at the palace, the three bored children of the King find themselves captivated by the ugly-beautiful face they see at the local fair and set out to know him better. But the man’s history starts to emerge, and very soon the Grinning Man will find out who he really is.

The success of this production lies in the sincerity of Carl Grose’s text, supported by an emotive score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, and an absorbing vision from director Tom Morris that marries a shabby travelling circus aesthetic with warped fairy tale quality. Working with Jon Bausor’s design, and while seemingly set in the eighteenth-century, this is a far cry from the cliched vision of downtrodden urchins in designer dirt. Instead we’re offered a semi-fantastical world driven by the characters rather than the period setting, in which the macabre moments are perfectly balanced with humour and romance. It’s never allowed to be either too maudlin or too light, but is constantly full of complexity as characters, divested of their innocence, aspire to be more than they are.

The notion of dreams runs through the show, uniting the key players in their desire to be someone different, a desire that is shared equally among rich and poor, whether it’s the wealthy royal children craving real emotion and escape from the imprisonment of their privilege, or Grinpayne’s adoptive father Ursus (Sean Kingsley) exploiting his son to take them all to a better life in the new world.

Morris’s production implies a permanent night in which characters and sets appear abruptly from the surrounding darkness. It has benefited from some revision and a slightly shorter run time since its first outing in Bristol, but still focuses on all the classic Hugo themes – a sense of personal injustice, a lifelong quest for truth, father-daughter relationships, the transition between the generations and spiritual uplift in moments of political upheaval – and shrouds them in a carefully conceived gothic wrapping that draws together a variety of innovative techniques to keep the audience enraptured.

Initially, the story of the Grinning Man is told to bored Prince Dirry-Moir who escapes to see the fair, but he soon becomes involved in Grinpayne’s life along with his lustful sister Josiana. Using Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie’s child-sized puppets, primarily in the first half, the history of Grinpayne’s tragic childhood is brought engagingly to life, partially operated by his grown-up self, played by Louis Maskell. The addition of a giant wolf that the Ursus family keep as a pet, superbly rendered by combining a mask head and front paws with performer Loren O’Dair as the hind-legs, will impress fans of the War Horse puppeteers. This is highly sophisticated work that seamlessly blends marionettes with the real actors to keep the show on the border of unreality, underscoring Morris’s heightened vision.

The audience is told repeatedly that all who look on the Grinning Man are entirely compelled by him, and Louis Maskell’s performance as Grinpayne is the heart of the show. His lower face is covered by a prosthetic sling and, for the most part, a bandage, so Maskell is only able to use his eyes and voice to deliver all the complexity and suffering of a social outcast, pushed beyond the bounds of normalcy by his disfigurement. It is also an intensely physical performance, and Maskell uses his full body to convey the deep-rooted anguish that has shaped Grinpayne’s character, and you frequently see the strain ripple through his neck and upper body, as he conveys an endless contortion of soul.

Yet, he retains an essential innocence, a purity that raises him above the other characters despite his physical shape, reinforcing Hugo’s notion that external appearance and goodness are not always aligned. Maskell’s voice is extraordinary, with a range and depth that display the complexity of his experience, and in a powerful performance he manifests the combination of loss, fear, determination, love and self-discovery that mark his development as the plot unfolds, demonstrating Grinpayne’s charisma and appeal to the audience. It is extremely skilled work to convey all of this with only half a face.

Of the surrounding cast, there are notable performances from Amanda Wilkin as the sex-crazed Duchess Josiana and Mark Anderson as comically arrogant Prince Dirry-Moir, both living a lifestyle of high hedonism but unable to feel real emotion. And while there is plenty of saucy humour in the female role which Wilkin elicits, she avoids making Josiana entirely cartoonish and instead hints at a woman equally pained by her circumstances, as both she and her brother seek a kind of liberation from their encounter with Grinpayne.

Sean Turner’s Ursus must navigate an equally interesting path through the show, taking him from the lonely and noble widower who houses two abandoned children, raising them as his own, to a man who exploits his mutilated son to win the chance for them all to escape abroad. Turner unfolds the intricacy of Hugo’s character, a man shaped by the circumstances of his life, making bad decisions, often for good reasons, with a similar need to find redemption and atonement.

Hugo’s writing rarely has outright villains, and one of the things he shows so well is how characters are driven by different beliefs and purposes that cause them to clash. Grose stays faithful to this idea with Barkilphedro, the sullied clown and servant to the Royal Family, who in Julian Bleach’s performance is a sinister and resentful figure whose unrewarded loyalty drives the machinations of the plot. By contrast, Hugo includes a highly angelic, if deeply insipid, young love interest – think Cosette in Les Misérables –  and here Sanne den Besten assumes that role as Dea, the blind child Grinpayne rescues from the snow, who grows up with him and becomes his intended. den Besten sings beautifully in what is a bland role and the relationship between Dea and Grinpayne is the only duff note in the show. For the more cynical it may be too much to believe that a virtual brother and sister with so unevenly weighted characters are a perfect pairing.

The Grinning Man may not a be suitable for children (it has an age limit of 12 years), and it’s certainly not a Christmas show in any way, but within the grotesque world that Grose, Morris, Teitler and Phillips create there is a rare and genuine theatre magic. Amidst the endlessly enforced Christmas spirit, it is in this half-way world between fantasy and reality that something entirely unexpected happens, a genuine festive warmth emerges from this tale of broken humanity, sending even the most hardened audience members home with thoughts of goodwill to all men. So, kudos to the Bristol Old Vic, the creators and cast of The Grinning Man, you have achieved what no one else ever has, you have broken London and made it a better place… well, at least until the New Year. Happy Christmas!

The Grinning Man is at Trafalgar Studios until 14 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1.


Belleville – Donmar Warehouse

Belleville - Donmar Warehouse

In a year of great new writing, the less perfectly constructed plays somehow seem more obvious. From the Norwegian-managed peace talks between Israel and Palestine, to rural Ireland in the early 1980s, to the birth of a powerful tabloid on Fleet Street in 1969, this year’s best new work may have been geographically and topically diverse, but they have been carefully constructed with strong characterisation and skewering political messages. But, because this is an exceptional year, imperfections seem more glaring, plays that haven’t quite found their rhythm are more obvious, and Amy Herzog’s new play Belleville, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, relies on excellent central performances to cover its dramatic weaknesses.

Set in contemporary Paris, a seemingly perfect young American couple rent a flat from their Senegalese neighbours. But Abby is an actress and yoga teacher who lives in a permanent state of high nervous excitement that makes her stay in Paris far more of a trial than she is prepared to concede. Abby idolises husband Zack who works as a doctor for an international aid organisation and speaks eloquent French, but coming home early one-day Abby finds Zack not working. The perfect exterior begins to crack, and some surprising truths emerge; why are they really in Paris, how well does Zack really know the neighbours, and why can’t they leave for Christmas?

Herzog does well to create a set of characters and a scenario that, initially at least, the audience can invest in. The first two scenes are a portrait of Abby and Zack’s marriage which are both engagingly written and subtly revealing; there is an interesting flow to the interaction between the characters that feels like natural conversation and gives a sense of the companionship and frustration of living with a long-term partner. In minutes, their conversation moves smoothly from general catch-up on their day, to affectionate intimacies, to fairly amiable bickering and back again, in what feels like a detailed anatomy of marriage.

And, at the same time, the audience is given a glimpse of the difficulties of their partnership when Zack speaks openly to landlord Alioune early in the play about the intensity of Abby’s moods and how waring it is to be with someone refusing to take their anti-depressants. Herzog is constantly asking us not to take the characters at face value but to see them through the eyes of their partner, so we see Zack’s strength and Abby’s weakness based on conversations when the other isn’t around, and it is only later in the story that the audience is forced to re-evaluate those judgements.

There are also some intriguing themes and questions which are solidly established in Herzog’s writing, and, alongside the dissection of marriage, there is early implication that Belleville will also take-in father-daughter relationships, the long-term impact of grief, how well we really know the people we’re closest too, the strain of living far from home and, to some extent, the failure of the American dream. It’s a huge amount to pack into a 100-minute show, and the play’s inability to deliver on its early promise, satisfactorily managing the issues and character insights it raises, means too many aspects of the story are left unresolved.

Instead, as the plot unfolds across the next few scenes, Belleville feels rather half-hearted and unable to successfully marry the plot and the themes together, almost as though the ideas have become too big for the story and, having thrown everything into those early scenes, finding a way to bring all the strands back together has been rather elusive. In particular, aspects of the characterisation should have been seeded much earlier to make the sudden and almost melodramatic switch at the end seem more likely. Similarly, Abby’s reliance on calls to her father and the reasons the couple left the USA have considerable dramatic potential, going to the root of her relationship with Zack, and should be better used to tease out the idea that their relationship has been one long deception.

Herzog is trying to show a snapshot moment in their lives, one that turns-out to be crucial, but for the ending to feel meaningful and credible, these earlier questions about who they are and why they are in this situation also need to be more fully answered. It’s not enough for a character to have an eleventh-hour about-turn, this must be carefully woven into the play from the start and make psychological sense. There are some great moments of tension, but too much time is wasted on empty stages and superfluous detail that doesn’t make this short show as slick and tense as it really should be – particularly a wasteful final scene which is just 5 minutes of stage-tidying that has virtually no relevance to the plot, before fading out.

In Belleville, these hints are too small to make the outcome believable and, in their final scene both Zack and Abby suddenly act in ways that are unlikely based on their earlier behaviour. For that to work, these aspects of their character, or at least the conditions that create that possibility have to be built-in, otherwise it just feels like a hasty and appended conclusion.  Like Against at the The Almeida in August, Belleville would benefit from another 6 months of preparation to address the play’s inconsistencies, and perhaps moving it to the end of the Donmar’s Winter / Spring season would have allowed more time to decide the nature of the piece – is it a domestic drama or a something darker – and utilise the detail of those first two scenes to better effect.

With press night this week, however, what makes this a worthwhile are the two central performances from James Norton and Imogen Poots who bring credibility to their characters and help to disguise some of the weakness of the material. Actors, of course, do far more than read the words their given, with this show being a case in point, and in large part, the audience investment created at the start of the show, comes from their ability to breathe life into Abby and Zack, encouraging your interest in what happens to them.

Poots in particular is excellent as the neurotic and talkative Abby, and from the first moment she appears chatting veraciously to Alioune, thoughts skipping from one to the next, you get a clear picture of a warm and friendly young woman, eager to please but unable to control her impulses. There are undercurrents of obsession and paranoia that Poots picks out quite carefully, subtle at first but amplified as the story unfolds. And while Abby’s actions are less credulous in the second half of the play, Poots has created a real and conflicted person.

Early on, we learn Abby is almost constantly connected to her father, receiving calls from him several times a day, and Poots shows a woman willingly, but not happily, distanced from her family, concerned for them and homesick, but wanting to support her brilliant husband. Slowly she introduces the idea that life is not as perfect as she wants to believe, struggling with the language and intimidated to go out alone – the flat is largely her entire experience of living in France, and it’s a shame the writing squanders the opportunity to explore these ideas in more depth. Building on her acclaimed work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earlier in the year, Poots manages to make Abby sympathetic, with an inner reserve, while making it clear that being around her would be exhausting.

Zack by contrast has an easy confidence and sense of being the “grown-up” in the relationship. Norton exactly grasps Zack’s slightly controlling nature and, while the surface may be calm and charming, their lifestyle is driven by his needs. The unsavoury aspects of Zack’s character are frequently pitted against his perfect image as the child-saving doctor, but Norton is able to veer between the two while revealing a man equally unhappy and insecure in the life they have built.

From the start as Abby catches him watching porn, Norton’s Zack struggles to maintain the fiction he presents to his wife, and the various ways in which he deflects her attention from the truth are rapidly discovered by the audience. The frequent drug-taking mirrors Abby’s dependence on her father’s calls, and in these moments Norton reveals Zack’s anxiety, becoming increasingly boxed-in by his own desperation. More of this needs to be supported by the script however, and too often the reasons for Zack’s responses are glossed over or not fully explained, and while Norton does the best he can with the general placidity of the character, he has considerably less depth to work with than Poots. He needs to be either more hapless or more deliberately sinister, and without the proper backstory it’s difficult to understand why he ends as he does.

The role of the neighbours, played by Malachi Kirby as Alioune and Faith Alaby as wife Amina, is potentially interesting but underpowered. While there is clearly a more ominous connection between Alioune and Zack, it never becomes clear what that is. And although well performed by both – Alaby entirely in French – they could be better used as a counterpoint to the ‘perfection’ of the central couple, and arguably, with a young family, two properties, a business, and also living away from their cultural origins, are the more successful pairing, a point that could be better emphasised.

Belleville does have a lot of potential, but it hasn’t yet been fully developed. Tom Scutt’s set evokes European-style apartment living, but the Parisian location could more completely draw out the discomfort of strangers in a strange land – frankly they could be anywhere. Michael Longhurst’s direction is swift if not always as deft as it could be, and despite some strong moments between the two leads, tension tends to dissipate rather than build in the interim. With a bit of revision, Belleville could be either a tight one-hour thriller or a more expansive anatomy of a destructive relationship, but until it can answer the questions it asks at the beginning, it cannot compete with the quality of this year’s best new plays.

Belleville is at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 February. Tickets are largely sold-out but at 12pm each Monday the Donmar releases £10 Klaxon tickets for the week ahead. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Cellmates – Hampstead Theatre

We are endlessly fascinated by spies and the nature of betrayal. For those who knew the men spying for Russia in the mid-Twentieth Century, more than country or ideology, it is the personal treacheries that still rankle. Even now, many decades after they were unveiled and defected, it is impossible to separate the professional and personal, as secrets shared meant friendships smashed and trust destroyed in the very concept of the English gentlemen.

Even more interesting are the stories of disappointment and disillusion that followed defection, that, for some born and bred Englishmen, the youthful communist verve that sustained them through years of treachery, passing information through shadowy contacts, was unprepared for the truth of Russian living. The dream and the reality couldn’t have been further apart; public gratitude from the Soviet government was accompanied by endless private suspicions about double agents, restrictions on their freedom and the fear that one day they too may ‘disappear’ as many had before. Knowing there was no way back to the life they known in the UK drove them to alcohol and despair.

Operating at much the same time as the Cambridge Five, and later known to Philby and Maclean in Moscow, George Blake’s story remains equally audacious and shocking. Born in the Netherlands to Dutch and Egyptian parents, Blake was a British citizen serving in the Dutch army and later the Dutch resistance in the Second World War, before joining the Royal Navy and the Secret Intelligence Service in the final years of the conflict. But it wasn’t until Blake became a prisoner of war in Korea in the early 1950s that he converted to Communism and volunteered to work as a double agent for the KGB, a role he would perform until his discovery in 1961.

Simon Gray’s play Cellmates picks up Blake’s story in 1966 as a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs where he is serving a 42-year sentence and meets petty thief Sean Bourke for the first time when offering to write for the literary magazine that Bourke edits. Within minutes a plan is hatched for escape, a journey that will take the two new friends from their cells, to a crumbling safehouse and sends Blake to Moscow. But life isn’t as easy as the two men supposed, and when Bourke arrives in Russia for a visit the two men find themselves trapped in each other’s company for longer than they ever imagined, while personal betrayals test their friendship.

Cellmates is by no means a perfect play, and its first outing in 1995 was overshadowed by Stephen Fry’s sudden departure after poor reviews. This new production at the Hampstead Theatre is its first revival since then, and its dramatic weaknesses are just about papered over by some fine performances from leads Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne. But there are several aspects of the play that leave the audience unsatisfied and underwhelmed, not least that much of the excitement happens off-stage, so we are only shown the bits before and after the escape. Even in the Moscow sections, characters frequently talk of interesting events that have happened to them beyond the walls of the set, without fully bringing the excitement and danger of Blake and Bourke’s experiences to life.

Instead, the play focuses – largely successfully and certainly in this production –  on the unlikely and deep-rooted friendship that grows between the two men, taking its dramatic queues from the shifting patterns of engagement between them and exploring the nature of guilt, gratitude, fear and companionship that mark their years in close confinement. Gray never quite finds the right tone however, so the action seems to uneasily rattle between light farce, tense drama and social commentary without deciding which to be, and without really telling the audience much about the motivation of the two men at its centre. Why Blake betrayed his adoptive country, what he really thought of Russia and why Bourke risked his freedom for a stranger is never fully explained, leaving the actors to fill in the gaps for the viewer.

Geoffrey Streatfeild specialises in emotional exuberance, and while a lesser performer could seem stagey or unconvincing, one of Streatfeild’s key skills as an actor is the ability to lend credibility to histrionics that reveal the deeper feelings of the character, often fighting against a staid or repressed exterior. He effortlessly alters the tone of a scene in an instant, moving seamlessly from comedy to anguish with a gravity that makes the transition convincing and often quite touching.

His previous work as the rakish lead in The Beaux’ Stratagem who finds himself hopelessly ensnared in his own plots, and as the tragic Ivanov, both at the National Theatre, have demonstrated this ability to balance comedy and pathos, and here in Cellmates, Streatfeild brings much more to the role of George than the text allows, or arguably deserves. It’s a role that, in the first Act at least, varies considerably scene by scene, and George’s initial appearance is in prison where Streatfeild plays him as timid and cautious, the very image of the buttoned-up and rather diffident Englishman – imagine a cross between George Smiley and John Major, an unlikely fit for a master deceiver but a quietly internal person.

In the slightly odd second scene, Streatfeild’s Blake is in the safe house suffering from a head wound received while trying to escape a few hours earlier. He veers between lucidity and confusion, often appearing needy, unable to separate reality from TV programmes and having to be looked after. While Streatfeild manages of all this well, the peculiarities of Gray’s text in which supportive friends, a disgruntled doctor and unexpected estate agents pop by, barely accord with the idea of Blake as a professional spy. And, it’s not really until the action moves to Russia just before the interval that the play really begins to come together.

As the plot settles, Streatfeild is able to bring all his experience into play, constantly treading the line between optimism, public compliance with his new life in the Motherland, and a deeper sense of regret, homesickness and even the slightest hints of shame at having lost the life he had while involving his cellmate and rescuer Sean in the process. Some of the production’s very best moments are in the way Streatfeild contrasts what Blake says and how he feels, allowing momentary outbursts of feeling to break through the façade of acceptance, and the genuine sorrow that seems to sit just below the surface of every action. If you need a reason to stay beyond the interval, then watching Blake start to acknowledge his fear of loneliness, and the almost desperate need for friendship that lead to a surprising betrayal are worth retaking your seat for.

Emmet Byrne as Sean Bourke has a less complex path through the story, an almost naïve character who takes most things at face value. Bourke is a more obviously comic character than Blake, and Byrne brings a sense of how quickly he becomes out of his depth in the scale of wider events, and, having been the driving force in early scenes, the power shifts remarkably quickly which Byrne traces well.

The text is rather light on explanation, and, as it’s still early in the run, Byrne has time to help “colour-in” some of the missing character motivation to help the audience understand why, with no prior connection between them, he wants to help Blake and agrees to stay in Moscow; the reliance on the friendship seems a little too one sided at present, and Byrne could further explore how much Sean Bourke needed George Blake to add more depth to his portrayal.

The Second Act is largely more successful than the first, and while Michael Pavelka’s sets are impressively detailed taking the action from Wormwood Scrubs to Soviet Russia, they are cumbersome to change, leaving director Edward Hall with an uneven approach, bringing the curtain down on overlong scene breaks in Act One that interrupt the flow, while leaving the curtain up in Act Two while the audience watches stagehands rapidly rearranging the furniture – neither makes for an elegant solution.

This new production of Cellmates fares better than its first outing, but doesn’t entirely resolve some of the play’s core problems, and doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a comedy or a serious drama – the inclusion of Philip Bird and Danny Lee Wynter as menacing comedy Russians, although well performed, are the embodiment of the play’s inability to be quite one thing or another. It starts as a heist with a touch of farce in the safe house, before becoming a more serious attempt to examine the consequences of betrayal. The tone varies considerably across the night – largely the fault of the text – but with Press Night looming there are issues to resolve in production as well. Cellmates is just about saved by Streatfeild’s meaningful portrayal of Blake as a man to whom treachery was a habit, and whose real punishment was to live in the country he spied for.

Cellmates is at the Hampstead Theatre until 20 January. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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