Monthly Archives: September 2020

Romantics Anonymous – Bristol Old Vic

Romantics Anonymous - Bristol Old Vic (Wise Children)

If you want to know what is possible for theatre under Covid-19 restrictions than look to the musicals. Drama is slowly returning with venues like the Bridge and The National Theatre, so far, leaning heavily towards the monologue to simplify the number of people on stage, but it is the musicals where the real creativity is happening. Often unfairly seen as a static medium, since indoor and outdoor performances resumed, it is the directors, choreographers and cast members of these shows who are really pushing the boundaries of innovative technique.

When Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert became the first show in London after lockdown restrictions eased, we were astonished, delighted and deeply moved to see an approach that played with the concept of social distancing to create a production that looked, sounded and felt like theatre at its very best. Experimental and evocative choreography by Drew McOnie, alternate casting and Timothy Sheader’s savvy direction that used the safety measures to deepen the loneliness and isolation experienced by his characters, this was an inspiration to the industry and other musicals have quickly followed suit.

New work has been particularly abundant, the cast of Sleepless in Seattle took daily Covid tests to perform their new show without social distancing, Jack Miles premiered his new piece St Anne Comes Home as a concert in the Actors Church in Covent Garden with a live audience, while the Southwark Playhouse overcame restrictions by casting musical theatre couple Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig in new show Before / After performed live this past weekend in the Little and streamed online. And there is more to come; next weekend Alex Parker and Katie Lam presents another new musical After You performed by Bradley Jaden and Alexia Khadime as part of the streamed Tonight from the London Coliseum concert series while Andrew Lloyd Webber has given over the Palladium to a revival of Songs for a New World in mid October after an online sing-through during lockdown.

Last week, the Bristol Old Vic added their innovative approach with a ‘regional tour’ of Wise Children’s Romantic’s Anonymous, performed live each night from the Bristol stage by a cast living in a Covid bubble to avoid social distancing, and beamed to different parts of the country  and internationally each night using regional partnerships with local theatres who sold tickets.  So, audiences got to see an ordinary show where actors could sing, dance, touch and even kiss as the story required, once again demonstrating that when it comes to adjusting to the ‘new normal’, musicals are leading the way.

With notable exceptions like the National Theatre at Home series and the Old Vic: In Camera, while many of the big London theatres stayed relatively silent during the period of theatre closures, regional venues worked hard to share archive productions or develop new and interesting content. This ranged from the radio plays and children’s adventure stories of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield to musicals from Chichester – the chance to more fully appreciate great work happening beyond the M25 has been a welcome development.

And it is one that regional companys are beginning to capitalise on with theatre fans returning to their favourite or newly discovered venues without the expense of travel or overnight accommodation as streaming platforms provide a new way to see theatre. In late October they will take  viewers to Nottingham Playhouse for a festival of new work, while last week we journeyed to Bristol for Wise Children’s week-long residency and live performances of their 2017 musical Romantics Anonymous.

The Bristol Old Vic made a lot of fans very happy when they screened a “bootleg capture” of The Grinning Man over the summer – one of the finest new musicals of recent years – and the chance to support this new endeavour was hugely welcome. Unlike the Old Vic’s In Camera productions, Director Emma Rice didn’t make a virtue of the camerawork to create a hybrid stage and screen performance with complicated camera angles or shot selection to enhance the drama, rather, like an NT Live recording, this show focused on the touching story, its unique selling point being the complete avoidance of social distancing.

Set in a pseudo 1950s / contemporary world of chocolate makers, this light romance already has a cult following and for first time viewers it is easy to see why, the story and characters slowly making their way into your heart, shrugging-off the stresses of the week to lose yourself in the sweetly played will-they won’t-they drama of it. Tonally, Romantics Anonymous has much in common with the equally transporting Flowers for Mrs Harris, aired by Chichester Festival Theatre back in April,  as it pays homage to the fantasy of classic Technicolor musicals, the use of Paris as a location filled with glamour and possibility, setting the stage for an almost magical character transformation driven by love.

In some ways, and certainly to the eyes of the critics, Romantics Anonymous is rather thin, the characters and plots have little depth, you see almost  every twist coming from miles away and the whole production is bathed in a sugary sweetness that occasionally works against some of the show’s more complex themes about the central bitterness that makes a chocolate special. In the first 20-minutes, the broad characterisation and proliferation of stereotypes sit awkwardly with modern sensibilities and at a step removed from the production on your screen, it seems there may be little to get your teeth into.

But after seven months of complicated home working, another week of video calls with colleagues and yet another round of confusing government messaging on Covid that may yet see theatres closed within weeks, sinking into something uncomplicated, life affirming and cosy feels like a tonic. After all, knowing that Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden will walk off into the sunset together doesn’t stop you watching Singing in the Rain for the umpteenth time even if their characters are divorced from any kind of recognisable 1950s reality and the lead can have extended fantasies about being a Broadway wannabe who has an affair with a gangster’s moll.

Based on Jean-Pierre Améris and Philippe Blasband’s 2010 film Les Émotifs Anonymes, Wise Children’s show, co-written by Emma Rice, Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman, has just enough contemporary styling to ensure the piece feels modern, relevant and relatable. The central character, Angelique, is a master chocolatier prevented by crippling shyness from announcing her skill to the world, but, unlike the models and society ladies of many 50s musicals, Angelique is a more recognisable young woman supporting herself in a difficult world, and finding love won’t change her desire to work or growing appreciation of her own independently forged skills.

Romantics Anonymous is no rescue fantasy, factory owner Jean-Rene doesn’t swoop in and save Angelique from her life of drudgery and marriage in itself isn’t the answer to their problems. While it borrows the clothes of these earlier film musicals, Romantics Anonymous is a story predicated on equality, mutual support and finding your own path as individuals (and as a couple) rather than waiting for someone else to come and save you from your life – implications that after years of rom coms and social messaging is subtly but usefully employed through a charmingly conceived but nonetheless carefully structured story.

That notion also feeds through other aspects of the show, where the fear of change is ultimately overcome when the characters make small but significant alterations to their lives and attitudes that pay dividends both personally and professionally. As the couple endure a series of stilted dates, amusingly envisaged in Rice’s production as an overwhelmed Jean-Rene looks for escape routes involving frequent bathroom breaks or an endless meal, they eventually edge towards a relationship where commitment but not necessarily marriage is the big step forward. This is similarly reflected in the fortunes of the factory where radical alteration is overlooked in favour of slightly adapting their existing process under Angelique’s supervision that reverses the direction of the business.

There is a touch of Kinky Boots here, as the factory in trouble looks for a radical solution to survive while a cast of secondary characters fear for their jobs until a stranger brings some business acumen and creative flair to the flagging business. That side of the show is well developed in the first Act as the arrival of Angelique sets the scene for inevitable change to come, although naturally that must undergo some twists and turns first. But the love plot dominates Act Two meaning the factory story and Angelique’s big reveal as the mastermind is only partially and quietly resolved so we never get to see business booming for the chocolatier once again.

Lez Brotherston- who also designed the visuals for Flowers for Mrs Harris– brings a trademark bright romanticism to the set which sparkles on screen, signalling the flair of mid-century Paris while creating space for the characters to move swiftly between office, street and factory scenes. Costumes too sit half way between the past and present while being suggestive of character, Jean-Rene with a smart yet geeky aesthetic, all knitted waistcoats and well-worn corduroy trousers that speak volumes about his repressed personality, while Angelique is stylish yet modest in a patterned coat and neat dress, a burgeoning butterfly waiting to emerge.

As Angelique, Carly Bawden is a intriguing mix of reticence and determination, a heroine who attends the eponymous Romantics Anonymous self-help group, plagued by a loose-living mother and afraid to trumpet her own chocolate-making talent. She builds her confidence as the show unfolds, ultimately bringing her a professional profile and a shot at love. Bawden’s performance is the audience’s entry point to the story, bringing out all of the tender feelings that make her relationship with Jean-Rene so heartwarnming, while demonstrating the flickers of pain and bewilderment as Jean-Rene’s muddled reactions leave her confused and doubtful. Yet Bawden ensures that Angelique remains a modern heroine, that professional fulfillment and a relationship on her own terms are the outcomes she aspires to rather than just love for its own sake.

Marc Antolin has a harder job to make the troubled Jean-Rene as sympathetic. Haunted by the expectations of a domineering father, he runs away from his emotions at almost every point in the show. Antolin manages the comedy well, never overplaying the ridiculousness of his dating disasters, but shows that his awkward and sometimes cruel behaviour originates in Jean-Rene’s own feelings of inadequacy and fear of change. A man stuck in his ways, Antolin charts the slow change in Jean-Rene, given an inner illumination as he first recognises then pursues his growing feelings for Angelique gaining confidence, with the odd credible wobble, that makes them a perfect match.

The hard-working supporting cast including Me’sha Bryan, Philip Cox, Omari Douglas, Harry Hepple, Sandra Marvin, Laura Jane Matthewson and Gareth Snook play around 20 roles between them helping to transport the story from the friendly factory workers who are much quicker to notice the multiple effects of Angelique’s presence than their boss, to the titular Romantics Anonymous group who give the a lovely texture to the collection of outsiders that the show ultimately celebrates.

By live staging this production, offering a regional tour available to an international audience, placing the cast and crew in a Covid bubble and offering a final hybrid performance with a socially-distanced audience in the room, Romantics Anonymous is proof that musicals are learning faster and smarter than their drama counterparts. How creatives respond to enforced closures and the outcomes of a pandemic that may change the way we view theatre in the longer term is telling, and while London’s major venues play it fairly safe with the monologue, regional theatre is stealing a march. And it is the musical that is proving most adaptable.

Romantics Anonymous was streamed from the Bristol Old Vic via regional partnerships. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Faith Healer – Old Vic In Camera

Faith Healer - Old Vic

‘It can never be the same’, a complaint we hear regularly about the proliferation of online streaming while theatres remain closed or unable to operate at usual capacity, and in many ways it is true. The immediacy and intimacy are lacking on a screen, the buzz of the room as it ripples with the effect of the storytelling and staging decisions, the communal experience as a whole auditorium of strangers holds its breath in anticipation as the comedy, romance and tragedy of human experience plays out in front of you. Streaming, though a worthy and hugely valuable alternative in the last few months, just cannot replicate that feeling of being there. And then the Old Vic’s production of Faith Healer came along and changed everything.

Brian Friel’s incredible play ran for just five performances via the In Camera series and yet overcame all those distancing boundaries to become one of the most vital and affecting experiences of the year. Reconfigured as an online experience, the successive monologue format combined with three outstanding performances and a technical construction that used several innovative film techniques to enhance every aspect of the story. It was  an experience so affecting, so painfully intimate and so beautifully played it felt as though Friel had written Faith Healer especially for this format.

A Memory Play

Faith Healer is one of the most sophisticated examples of a memory play in which each character reflects on their years together and the key incidents that define their lives. Unlike A Glass Menagerie to which the term is most commonly attributed and uses a single narrative perspective that couches events in the memory or fantasy of the protagonist, Friel’s play allows each creation to speak for themselves in lengthy and uninterrupted flows of thought. The writer uses these perspectives to note that among three people who knew each other well, how differently they view the pivotal moments in their lives which are dramatically enhanced or reconfigured by the alternative viewpoints.

What makes Faith Healer such an interesting memory play is the complicated ways in which Friel uses impossible timelines in the retelling of their story. Frank, Grace and Teddy all refer to each other in the past tense, as though remembering events of which they are the sole survivor – an approach that cannot be born out as the true story reveals itself. So just what is the status of these reminiscences, are all of the characters alive, ghosts or other kinds of consciousness? It’s a throwaway concept but one that Friel has chosen deliberately to create drama in his play as the ‘truth’ becomes more ambiguous. That this only enhances rather than undermines his narrative structure is testament to the quality of his writing and the spell it casts on the viewer.

Collectively, these tales form a semi-complete picture in which Friel, like a historian or policeman trying to understand the evidence, encourages the audience to piece together these fragments of experience to find the truth of what occurred between the Faith Healer, his wife and his agent. But this is not a mystery to be solved so much as an exercise in the complexities of human relationships, the emotional damage people casually inflict on one another over many years while still clinging to the stability and sustenance the group offers.

Several recurring themes beat under the surface of this work and, like Translations, Friel is exercised by ideas of Irish identity, of retaining  a sense of cultural self in diaspora and the specificity of place in grounding emotionally or physically transitory characters, providing anchorage as personality becomes fluid. This is particularly felt in the repeated reference to ‘homecoming’ in the first two monologues as Frank and Grace, long absent from Ireland, describe returning both to their original family houses and later to the nation itself, where being among their countrymen proves liberating and fateful.

That these encounters are suffused with death is pertinent and both Hardys recount impromptu returns that foreshadow loss and result in contact with disapproving father figures who shape the outlook of both Frank and Grace in slightly different ways. That the couple contest the other’s version of events only adds to the complexity of unbreakable yet burdensome family ties which is often at the root of Friel’s characterisation, examining how domineering male figures create rebellion and dissatisfaction in their children.

Production Techniques

Matthew Warchus’s approach seems entirely fitting for a play about memory and displacement and in envisaging this production for the screen overcomes the limitations of the streaming platform by using a number of surprising filming techniques. The cast are all experienced screen actors and have an innate understanding of where the camera is and what it is doing at any given moment. This is woven through their performances without restricting their freedom to move around or change tempo as the story demands. Frank, for example, is the only character to stand throughout so Warchus – as with Three Kings – frames Sheen against the empty Old Vic auditorium which only enhances the idea that Frank has always played to empty rooms as what little audience he had dies away.

What is fascinating, though, is how confident the camerawork is and how meaningfully it captures the style of the play. There are no Zoom boxes here nor multiple angles to cut between, just a single camera trained on the protagonists as their confessional plays out. At moments of dramatic crescendo or poignancy the camera slowly focuses-in on the actor, edging nearer as the audience is drawn into their perspective, until the frame is filled by just their face, an intimacy with the production that no theatre experience can offer. Warchus even more daringly takes us closer still, until just the performer’s eyes are visible, a chance to see in painfully close detail where lies, self-deception, suffering and disappointment reside, drawing out the undercurrents of Friel’s play where what characters tell us and what they really feel are not always aligned.

There is a simplicity to this approach that yields remarkable value for the Old Vic, each character is given equal treatment, no one monologue suggested as more true than the others. To enhance the unfolding drama Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown have designed a lighting arrangement that suits the filmic approach, casting different degrees of shadow around the speakers to ground or untether them as the story demands. Grace particularly seems to float in a sea of black behind her, while the comic lightness of Teddy’s version of events is far brighter, picking out the moments of affliction with darkness. But Lutkin and Brown do their best work in the final moments, casting concentrated, almost noirish shadows across Frank’s face as Warchus’s close-up creates a sense first of mania as Frank’s disordered mind explodes before a semi-reverent calm descends on the visuals as the story concludes. How this deep understanding of the play’s rhythms are reflected and enhanced by the filming choices is astounding, the medium adding something new and revealing to an already celebrated piece of writing.


Our first image of Francis Hardy is as actor Michael Sheen walks along a trajectory filled with chairs as though situated in the now empty hall after one of his performance to begin his first 35-minute monologue, setting the scene for everything that is to come. The light dramatically behind Sheen, Frank is already a man fighting with time, overwhelmed by memories of the not-quite glory days while reconciling the disappointments of a dwindling career as he questions what the years of showmanship have really given him.

Frank is not a Faith Healer in the American sense, there’s no evangelical optimism or grandiosity about his personality, instead he cuts a rather tragic figure right from the start, worn and reduced by his time on the road. A consummate performer though, his mediocre gift, which he freely admits only works some of the time, gives him little comfort, and Frank wearily describes the achievements he barely believes in himself. He balks at the word charlatan in a newspaper-cutting but never entirely contests the description, complains of the troublesome nature of the mistress who accompanies him and does an amusing impression of his refined cockney manager Teddy both of whom we are yet to meet. And while his profession should be about the hope and restoration that Frank gives to his audiences, instead we feel his loss, as though something has been taken from him rather than freely given.

Sheen uses far more movement on the stage than the other actors, pacing and turning from the harsh glare of the camera as the character fudges and hides from the truth of his life. At times, particularly in the second part of his monologue as Faith Healer concludes, Sheen has the confidence to turn his back to us addressing the empty darkness of the Old Vic auditorium, the actor perhaps taking the opportunity to perform to the house, but also reflecting Frank’s agitation in that moment. Few actors dare to do this on stage but it becomes part of the naturalism and variety within Sheen’s approach.

He knows exactly where the camera is and how to play to it, showing us more pointedly that Frank is hiding even from himself and having to recite the Celtic names of the towns he has passed as a coping mechanism, a calming methodology to keep him on track. With a soft Irish accent that reverberate’s Friel’s words so beautifully, Sheen’s performance is extraordinary, understanding all of the complexities of Frank’s character that make him a warm and often likeable storyteller, vividly recreating the scenes of his life, but a man at odds with everything he is, capable of great selfishness that hurts others while still reeling from the difficult relationships with his family and travelling companions. As the memories overwhelm and disturb him to such effect, you think it can’t get better than this.


And then Grace’s story is every bit as powerful, delivered in a heartbreaking monologue by Indira Varma who uses stillness to convey her character’s brittle subsistence. But it is the incongruities you will first notice, pulling apart the notions that Frank has implanted in our heads and realigning the audience’s understanding of the nature of their relationship and its chronology. Varma delivers these contradictions with a world-weary resignation, although a hint of frustration creeps in as Grace not only deflates the ego of the man she spent her life with but, for the first time, stakes her own claim to their life together.

It quickly becomes tragic as, hardly moving, Grace recounts the early days of their married life and her own complicated relationship with her father that seems to shape her experience as she buffers between the three men that feature in her story. Grace has the darkest experience in many ways and Varma is subtle in drawing out the small hurts and daily contempts that erode the character over time and as she sits unassumingly in her chair fiddling with a cigarette she never lights, her downcast eyes speak volumes about the life she has chosen and subsequently endured.

As she borrows Frank’s technique of naming the places they’ve travelled through, they become a form of lament, as though each place mired her further, inescapably and inevitably building to Grace’s moment of tragedy in a small Scottish town, the name of which powerfully links the monologues together. This part of the speech is devastatingly played by Varma, descriptive yet the effect on her suddenly ashen countenance is distressing to watch and the audience sees how entirely Grace is trapped in that place and time, an event from which she never recovers. With Sheen and Varma on such extraordinary form, you think it can’t get better than this.


And then David Threlfall casts all expectation aside with a performance of comic acuity that upends your expectations of where this play is going. Again, it is Friel’s control of the facts that you will notice and, having dismissed Frank’s monologue as semi-fabricated in the light of Grace’s testimony, far more of the Faith Healer’s story is shown to be true. Employing a refined cockney accent and absorbing the mannerism and speech patterns of a man long-part of the showbiz world, Threlfall pitches his interpretation of Teddy perfectly to contrast with the intensity of what has gone before, seen from the perspective of the outsider to the marriage.

There is a shabby gentility to Teddy who addresses the audience with a conversational ease as he describes the acts he has managed in the past, though none of them remotely glamorous or above the level of variety performers. In fact, in Warchus’s otherwise timeless setting, there are nods to The Entertainer in Threlfall’s approach, a lifetime in the theatre but an end of the pier grubbiness that never escapes the shabby rooms that Frank resents. A characterisation that Threlfall holds onto superbly throughout his piece.

Threlfall is able to switch the mood from comic to tragic in seconds, a technique he employs in Faith Healer to considerable effect. This Teddy, revealingly, drinks ale incessantly throughout and is clearly troubled by the events he has been part of, things he seems to have run away from until the play takes him back to the village in Scotland and later to the police station in Paddington where the two key events of his interaction with the Hardys takes place. Watching Threlfall remove Teddy’s surface layer and travel back into these painful remembrances is very touching.

Collectively these three storytellers are particularly adept at recreating the events in an almost visual conjuring of memory with Sheen, Varma and Threfall becoming their characters so entirely that when they describe an earlier scenario, Frank, Grace and Teddy lose themselves in the the physical existence of the place they describe, physically gesturing to the ghost of a companion sitting across from them or referencing activity in another part of the room with such conviction that the audience too is absorbed by it.

With an appreciation for the vivacity of Friel’s language and its value in building character, place and emotional heft this production of Faith Healer was an affecting experience and we can only hope that someone pressed record on the Zoom feed to retain it for posterity. Reworked for live relay, these wonderful actors delivered a hybrid stage and screen performance that took your breath away and across 2 hours and 20 minutes gave the audience an intimate experience that being in the room wouldn’t have delivered so equitably. Streaming ‘is not the same’ of course, sometimes it is even better.

Faith Healer was available via the Old Vic In Camera until 19 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Shrine and Bed Among the Lentils – Bridge Theatre

The Shrine and Bed Among the Lentils - Bridge Theatre

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues primarily written in 1988 and 1998 are the blueprint for every single-character piece that has followed and while many have emulated the form, few have bettered it. The genre is also perfect for our pandemic-affected theatre industry looking to restart performances while mindful of the safety of performers and audiences. The same thought that led to the BBC films of the series in early lockdown has now brought a selection to the Bridge Theatre stage in a collection of monologues designed to safely revive live performance.

Eight of Bennett’s plays that encompass the three different decades in which they were constructed are represented from the twelve filmed recently for television (and still available on the iPlayer), each performed by the same actor who, presumably thanks to disrupted filming and other committments, are all free to reprise their performances live on stage. Sold in batches of two and interspersed with David Hare’s new work  Beat the Devil enacted by Ralph Fiennes, and soon to be joined by Inua Ellams An Evening with an Immigrant and from mid-October Yolanda Mercy’s Quarter Life Crisis and Zodwa Nyoni’s Nine Lives, the Bridge Theatre has created a theatrical pick n’ mix.

But why offer shows based on a series so recently presented on television and still freely available? The monologue is a quick win for most theatres and while other venues successfully experiment with Covid bubbles (Sleepless in Seattle), live streaming new work (Three Kings) and innovative choreography to create socially distanced musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar), the enduring quality of Bennett’s writing and this collection of performers is hard to argue against. There is an added fascination in seeing director Nicholas Hytner undertake a rare stage to screen to stage translation, taking a production that was designed initially for the different kind of intimacy that television offers and finding ways to both rearrange the elements of each piece to suit the demands of a very large auditorium and the expectations of a live audience.

Where film offers shot selection, cuts and opportunities for cameras to pan, track or close-in on the nuances of an actor’s interpretation, the physical experience of live theatre is quite different and an actor must both expand and contain different aspects of their performance. Gestures and changes of pace must be big enough that the whole room can see or feel them, while the credibility of characterisation, scenario building and connection with an audience on three sides and on three levels is quite a different skill than playing to a couple of cameras that capture the barest flicker of feeling.

To that end, in what is arguably the pick of the Talking Heads pairings, the Bridge Theatre’s most savvy decision is in teaming The Shrine with Bed Among the Lentils, placing together two of our finest actors who effortless and regularly transition between stage and screen – Monica Dolan and Lesley Manville. The monologues also represent Bennett’s oldest and newest works, one first presented among the original set of 1980s stories and the other written in 2019, but they also contain thematic links looking at ideas of marital loneliness, the expectations of middle age and the effect of religious iconography and ritual in the domestic sphere.

Hytner has envisaged both stories with considerable care, gesturing to the confining worlds in which the characters spend their lives with simplified sets that hint at the understated neatness of the homely middle classes with video backdrops designed by Luke Halls to aid with the transition between places or references. Unlike their televised counterparts which made an impact in a slightly different way, the injection of physicality into these stories makes them both funnier and more tragic. Never underestimate the power of a character standing in front of you confessing the emptiness of their lives.

On screen, the strength of these two monologues came from their static nature, Lorna and Susan trapped by habit, fear and happenstance in lives that accelerate beyond their control, leaving them almost more unhappy at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. The stillness that Dolan and Manville conveyed on screen offered a sense of their characters squeezed and unwilling or unable to break free.  They go through the motions of tea rituals, flower arranging sessions and carrying on, painfully aware that while everything has changed around them, they will remain always in that room and that state of being.

As discussed in the earlier essay The Women of Talking Heads, Bennett has a particular feel for the experience of anonymity and writes especially well for those who seem to pass unnoticed through the world. Marriage is show to stifle and contain, all too rarely bringing that communion with another soul that newlyweds – in popular culture at least – seem to aspire to. What we see in the Talking Heads monologues are couples who fail to truly know or understand one another, and while these are primarily female perspectives, neither party appears guiltless, except the narrators’ position is limited by social circumstance and the label of “wife” while the husband or primary male character is daily in the world.

The Shrine

The Shrine has exactly that scenario, a grieving wife learning that her husband Clifford and the man known to his biker friends as Cliff were not quite the same person. Staged for the first time at the Bridge, Lorna is placed in a representative kitchen in which the domestic rituals – performed with a habitual precision – are the stuff of her life, even replacing a meaningful relationship with her partner long before his death. Lorna’s routines, making tea in a proper pot even though it is just her, the use of a milk jug returned promptly to the fridge lest it spoil, washing her single plate, china mug and cutlery before drying them with a pristine tea-towel, these are the rites that comprise her day.

That Bennett introduces a temporary hiatus in the period of this play does not prevent Lorna from returning to these patterns and Dolan makes this subtle aspect of her personality the anchor of her performance. The visits to and protection of the titular shrine are an extension of her pre-existing desire for order and regularity, and Dolan grounds Lorna within these boundaries, knowing exactly when to say a line or reveal a new part of the story by tying the delivery to the activity her character is then engaged in while never losing the freshness of the moment, as though we are the first people she has ever confided in. Our only complaint that the performance at under half an hour is over too soon.

The new physicality in this performance also gives Dolan the freedom to move around the stage, not excessively but enough to draw some bolder lines under the moments of discomposure, upset or stress that ensure the performance breaches the significant demands of the sizeable auditorium. It is a fine balance, one which Dolan achieves with ease as the unassuming but determined Lorna fights for the memory of her husband. That she confesses an inability to feel a wailing sorrow at his absence is belied by her obsessive attention to the crash site and this is purposefully the place that Clifford died, not the cemetery where he is buried. And Bennett it seems is commenting on the religious ritualisation of death that may not be overtly Christian but remains ensconced in the deification of the departed, Clifford assuming an almost sacrificial role in Lorna’s mourning process.

Dolan quietly earns our attention and our empathy and it is her very ordinariness that has the biggest emotional impact. This is not an event that creates a disproportionate or melodramatic response, but one that almost takes her by surprise as she learns more about her husband’s real life and her own reactions to it. There are untapped reserves of strength in Lorna that emerge carefully across the performance, a fluttery woman who becomes far surer of self, almost released by Clifford’s death without understanding that a change has occurred when she seems happy to remain the widow in the kitchen.

Bed Among the Lentils

Bed Among the Lentils in a way is almost the opposite as its character Susan seeks any kind of escape from the stultifying experience of being a vicar’s wife, whether through alcohol or an unlikely affair with a much younger shopkeeper. Instead of the everyday routines giving her comfort and stability, they erode Susan whose world-weary voice with a vicious lash is one of Bennett’s finest creations. The scenario is beautifully drawn and the gaggle of eager volunteers keen to supplant her position in the church are created with wonderful clarity, acting as a barometer for Susan’s relationship with her husband, but more importantly with herself. And while she scorns their opinion and way of living, her underlying sadness and eternal dissatisfaction with herself is buried within the humorous observation of her rivals.

In translating this monologue to the stage, Hytner makes the slightly awkward decision to have several visible stagehands move the set between chapters which rather breaks the flow, and while the original play changes location (although the recently televised adaptation did not leave the house), the Director would do better to rely entirely on Manville to transport the audience through the performance. An actor more that able to captivate an audience for 45-minutes, it is to her credit that these activities to reposition a few chairs that imply home, church and hall, barely break the spell Manville so brilliantly weaves.

Like Lorna, the addition of physical movement brings out a nervy quality in Susan that progresses the character from the powerful and defeated stillness of her screen version, to a more rounded creation whose exasperation is given a bodily expression that makes this live performance no less devastating. And while the screen Susan embraced a small physical transformation during her affair with Mr Ramesh leading to a subtle change of clothes and a carefree manner, on stage Manville expands on the idea of the affair as light in the darkness of Susan’s experience, smiling girlishless to herself at the memory of their encounters, as though taking every opportunity to mention his name to us, hardly aware of the effect he has on her countenance.

This is a masterclass in quiet tragedy from Manville who pitches Susan’s hopeless desperation quite perfectly, wringing every ounce of comedy from the silly scenarios and outcomes of her increasing alcoholism while never detracting from the endless emptiness of her experience. And Susan is not a character who is especially self-pitying or particularly seeks the audience’s approval so Manville plays her as a woman perhaps trapped, but spiritedly refusing to play the game as other demand it.

Dolan and Manville are so wonderful in these roles, using the broader canvas that theatre offers to find wider and deeper meaning in their character’s experience and to burrow deeper into various aspects of their original performances. The monologue may be a live theatre staple for a while yet and while staging the Talking Heads monologues so soon after their television airing may seem unnecessary, the chance to see two great actors delivering Bennett’s finely calibrated short plays is impossible to refuse.

Talking Heads is running in repertory at the Bridge Theatre until 31 October with The Shrine and Bed Among the Lentils finishing on 22nd September. Tickets are available from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Three Kings – Old Vic: In Camera

Three Kings - Old Vic Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

Good things come to those who wait, an axiom that applies in duplicate to Stephen Beresford’s latest play Three Kings screened via the Old Vic’s innovative In Camera series for just five performances. Delayed in late July due to cast illness, this beautiful piece of new writing appears just as theatre more generally is taking its first tentative steps back to live performance. After a Spring and Summer of free archive shows and Zoom Shakespeare, we have reached the hybrid phase, a mixed-model of socially distanced productions in reduced capacity venues such as the Open Air Theatre’s extraordinary Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert and the Bridge Theatre’s monologue season beginning with Beat the Devil, and  paid-for screenings of shows performed live with no audience of which Three Kings is an exemplar.

With Bristol Old Vic’s ‘regional tour’ of Romantics Anonymous playing live and available by geographical area in late September with the cast living together as a Covid bubble to circumvent social distancing requirements, Nottingham Playhouse announcing a festival of new work in late October that will simultaneously perform live to a reduced capacity audience and be live streamed, and another Old Vic: In Camera production scheduled for two weeks time (Brian Friel’s Faith Healer with Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall) this is a fascinating period of transformation and potential democratisation for a sector newly warmed to the possibilities of an international audience exceeding the limitations of venue capacity and ticket pricing.

Three Kings suggests there is every reason why new approaches to the creation and sharing of theatre content should work, a vividly drawn yet sensitive 60-minute piece about the lasting influence of a carefree absent father and his impact on the children he abandoned. Told from the perspective of eldest son Patrick (a name he shares with his father and, later, his half-brother), Beresford taps-into a noticeable thematic interest in masculinity, father-son relationships and the genetic legacy of behaviour that has been present in other work appearing on the 2020 stage.

Comparisons with Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s equally fascinating The Death of England – which will soon be followed by a companion piece at the National Theatre – are particularly striking and while Beresford’s play has no overt political angle, the complex attachment between parent and child, the inability to fully recognise or express their emotional connection and the notion of inherited characteristics passing between the generations resonate through both works. It is particularly notable that the protagonists of both these single-perspective plays, Patrick and Michael, feel a sense of powerlessness, somehow drawn to the charisma of the older man without fully understanding why or attempting to analyse that troubled yet alluring power.

Patrick and Michael are young men shaped entirely by their father’s influence, replicating their patterns of behaviour and even their modes of interaction without noticing how completely that relationship has shaped their own personality. They convince themselves they are separate, possibly even better men with liberality in their views and an ability to recognise their respective father’s shortcomings. Yet, neither can prevent a  semi-idolisation of their faulty dads, and while desperate to be different become frustratingly aware that they will never be quite the man their father is.

Beresford’s writing is particular good at building the power of absence and the painful longing it creates, the terrible behaviour of Patrick senior and lengthy intervals between meetings with his son have a greater impact than his ever-present mother and sister who receive scant mention in the monologue. In a single character play, it is essential that the writer establishes a strong physical presence for unseen characters, allowing the audience to really believe the scenario, understanding both the personality, reality and even obsession with the missing subject which Beresford achieves with skill.

Throughout Three Kings, Patrick’s amusing impressions of his father’s slightly fey and dismissive manner, the carelessness of his action and thoughtless selfishness, allow Beresford  to convincingly create the impression of a man hardly known to his son but nonetheless a significant force in his life. Just who Patrick is, his job, lifestyle, personality and history are left unsketched, the relationship with his father, anecdotes about their meetings and reflections on himself through memories of his father fill his mind and this story with considerable potency.

Time is fluid in Beresford’s writing and while the story is roughly chronological, Patrick is reliving it from a point of future knowledge. These are memories recalled, conversations recounted and wounds reopened while sometimes couching recollections within each other. Patrick’s honesty with the audience, his willingness to reveal close-cutting truths ebbs and flows throughout the play as he weighs-up the things he wants us to know, the traits he is prepared to accept in himself and the truths he’s not quite ready to face.

Framed by a trick with three coins learned from his father, Patrick explains that “the force of the one ricochets through the other two” and this becomes a metaphor for the play itself, as the lead explores the unavoidable similarities between his father, half-brother and himself. This concept of personality as legacy that equally interested Dyer and Williams becomes the driving force of Beresford’s story as the concept of the Three Kings trick and the blood-link between the three men is elaborated. The idea that genetic inheritance comes regardless of desire or active attempts to reject a predecessor’s way of life troubles Patrick increasingly as temporary bouts of bitterness give way to emotional confusion, even deterioration as an abiding love for the man he barely knew commingles with the fear of becoming just like him.

Director Matthew Warchus has taken an unusual but potentially resonant approach to staging this play, setting the action backwards on the stage to capture the lovely interior of the empty theatre in the background and utilising the over-familiarity of Zoom boxes to create several intriguing split-screen effects that vary the presentation of the monologue as the strands of the story and Patrick’s mental distraction evolve. Using one wide-screen camera at first, Warchus keeps the focus high and tight on the actor’s face, bruisingly intimate from the start, as Patrick recounts his first childhood encounter, glancing-upwards as though looking at a much taller grown-up.

But, in the second section of the play, we see Andrew Scott in two side-by-side boxes, the camera positioned at slightly different angles; one close-up of his face, the other a longer shot that helps to create the impression of physically filling stage and screen. It results in a two-fold effect and this section includes extended conversations in Spain with his father’s friend Dennis and later with a former lover called Trisha who runs a Salsa bar. Warchus uses the boxes to artificially create the feel of those conversation occurring, eliciting those sections of interaction from Beresford’s writing and giving the impression of back-and-forth on screen.

But, secondly, it draws attention to an underlying psychological split in the character of Patrick, as though the ghostly shadow of his father was permanently following him, not quite the same person, but virtually mirroring his actions. This intriguingly underlines Patrick’s inability to escape from or overcome his errant father’s influence and in the final section of the performance this expands to three boxes as Patrick discovers a third shadow self in his half-brother. Beresford notion that force of one resonates through the other two is given visual cognisance by this filming technique.

Warchus positions the cameras to capture these slightly different angles of Andrew Scott’s performance as well as employing variation in close-up and scale between the two or three box format to maintain the intimacy of Patrick’s monologue but also its breadth as he encounters a wider international community of characters. Given the limitations of live Zoom recordings and the film-like grainy-quality of the stream, it lacks the visual polish of a National Theatre Live operation and some of the musical choices in the scene changes momentarily make the 2-3 box format feel like a jaunty 1960s detective drama, yet the approach successfully contributes to the production in a way that feels genuinely purposeful.

Scott is a vivid creator of scene and his management of the unfolding story is particularly adept, transporting the audience to different time periods and locations with ease. As Patrick moves between Dublin, Spain and places in between, Scott evokes the physical and emotional separation from a father whose allure becomes increasingly fascinating to the son he hardly knows. The actor also creates a series of vocally distinct secondary characters whose speech he relays to the audience including the colourless monotone of Dennis, the viscious cool of Trisha and particularly the louche dismissiveness of Patrick Senior demanding his son impresses him, the hint of an adult Lost Boy always looking for the next big adventure.

Patrick, in his way, is almost as unknowable and Three Kings deliberately provides little biographical detail to situate the character in a specific era. Scott is always so good at getting under the skin of his characters and, as with his Hamlet for the Almeida and his Garry Essendine in the Old Vic’s Present Laughter, here he gets beneath and between Beresford’s lines to find a complicated mixture of pain, regret and quiet despair, a son discovering the price of love for a man he can never really know. The absence Patrick’s father leaves takes physical form in Scott’s performance, creating a hollow in the centre of our protagonist that will never be filled. As he listens to a voicemail from a lover outlining his own relatable faults and hears similar tales from his brother, the parallels between the three men psychologically resound and suddenly we know them, see the trajectory and pattern of their lives, three lifetimes of empty encounters.

It is hugely empathetic work from Scott that both grips and moves the audience. As with Seawall, the actor is adept at these slow-burn narrative pieces that develop to an emotional crescendo as the fragile central character confronts difficult personal truths. Scott skillfully anatomises Patrick’s relationship with his creator charting a path from a youthful desperation to impress to anger and resentment as a grown-up, trading email insults during a series of mini-betrayals that sour their interaction. But Scott never allows Patrick to entirely disconnect from the need to be loved by his father, so when the final chance is gone we see just how lost and broken he is and will always be.

By championing the world premiere of Beresford’s poignant play the Old Vic is supporting an international audience hungry for new work, and with its programme of new writing and freshly staged revivals the Old Vic: In Camera series is leading the way. There is a long way to go for most venues and we can expect to see a hybrid model of socially distant and live-streamed performances for some time, but the commitment to staging new work at theatres around the country is a positive sign as the sector slowly begins its recovery. With a touching and meaningful performance by Andrew Scott, Three Kings is a play we are sure to see again and again.

Three Kings ran via the Old Vic: In Camera until 5 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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