Monthly Archives: July 2021

The Two Character Play – Hampstead Theatre

The Two Character Play - Hampstead Theare (by Marc Brenner)

Described by the author as the most beautiful play he had written since A Streetcar Named Desire, the London premiere of The Two Character Play in 1967 left Tennessee Williams in a fit of despair in what was one of the playwright’s darkest periods. Although rewritten for its first American outing in 1971, its remains a rarely performed piece and one of Williams’s most challenging, claustrophobic works. Sam Yates offers a fresh interpretation now back where it all began at the Hampstead Theatre to conclude a season of work celebrating notable plays like The Dumb Waiter and Death of a Black Man that debuted at the venue.

We think we know Tennessee Williams both on and off the stage – the alcoholic writer with an intense lifestyle who ploughed his troubled family relationships into the heart of his work, and biographers love nothing more than drawing parallels between Williams’s sister and the fragile Laura in The Glass Menagerie or the dominance of his mother in every singsong Southern belle. His work, we think, is full of tension, heat, bubbling resentments and family spats that finally, decisively boil over as the rains eventually come to wash away all that mendacity, leaving raw emotional truth in its place.

Yet the work produced in London in recent years has sought to look beyond these surface impressions of Williams’s plays and the rotating triumvirate of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that have entirely defined his work, to demonstrate the different kinds of writer he could be. And this revival of The Two Character Play follows Rebecca Frecknell’s celebrated Summer and Smoke that properly kick-started a reappraisal and mining of Williams’s lesser-known plays, followed by the King’s Head Theatre’s Southern Belles, two one act pieces in which the writer openly considers identity, sexuality and violence contrasting the city and country living.

The Two Character Play is in some ways a typical Williams piece, a brother and sister pairing, chained together eternally and finding the real world an unbearable place to be. They seek escape from the confines of their lives but simultaneously rely on the familiarity of their routines to maintain their stability while their permanent performance is a classic Williams trope in which characters adopt a public face either shamed or unsure of their own.

Yet this play is also like nothing else he wrote, a collection of grotesques in an almost Beckettian hinterland waiting for something to end and Williams is clearly influenced by the rise and structure of absurdist forms which affects not just the sharpened interplay between Felice and Clare but also the void-like existence of the play itself. Like Hamm and Clov in Endgame, the audience is given no sense that any reality exists beyond that created for and between the siblings and unlike his memory plays or the emotional and bodily realism of his more famous works, the context for The Two Character Play comes from its hall of mirrors approach in which the protagonists perform their own play for what we are told is a theatre audience.

For anyone more used to seeing traditional approaches to Williams, then this play may feel somewhat strange and deliberately disorientating as Williams moves the action continually from the backstage relationship to the brother-sister story dramatised in front of the curtain with the boundary increasingly blurred between these worlds This first happens as the play itself starts to go wrong, when Clare’s mutinous behaviour slices through the story and then in the close alignment between the lonely pair dealing with the legacy of their parents’ relationship, unable to leave their house, and the possibly contiguous backstory for Clare and Felice who find themselves unable to leave the theatre.

While characters often feel isolated and even lonely in Williams’s plays largely resulting from a lack of sexual love, there is abandonment in The Two Character Play of quite a different kind as children learn to face an existence without parents who have by circumstance or deliberate choice left brother and sister to care for one another. Whether its rejection, desertion or even renunciation – leaving open the possibility that the children rather than the parents are beyond help – there are depths of betrayal that seep through every scene and fundamentally damage any form of rational relationship with other people.

At the beginning of the play Felice must tell his sister that the entire Theatre Company has left the tour and the decision to perform to the audience regardless is the motor of The Two Character Play, something Felice chooses from his own repertoire as it can be performed (somewhat chaotically) without help. This mirrors the plight of the characters in Felice’s drama who feel confounded by the contempt of the townspeople and are left to themselves, even receiving food deliveries from behind a closed door. This lack of external human contact in both scenarios only increases the disorientating effect Williams creates and the heightened delusions of all four creations where reality becomes something that is described like a faded memory but never experienced.

All of these theatrical devices can feel quite alienating in a play that is ultimately rather circular in that by the end nothing has really changed except that Felice’s two-character play has been performed to a real or imagined audience depending on your perspective. Yates’s production for the Hampstead Theatre amplifies that estrangement, eschewing a period setting to adopt a variety of technical tricks that underscore the performative nature of these creations.

Designer Rosanna Vize has created a ramshackle backstage / on-stage area, a deconstructed set that serves as a multi-playing space in which the various sides of Felice and Clare can interact. Alone, they must construct the small domestic home used for their play by physically dragging walls and furniture into position, while around them the detritus of their ‘real’ lives in bin bags of clothes, random pieces of furniture and spotlights the pair can use to play and to create.

But the real separation from other Williams adaptations come in the use of technology. Borrowing a little from Jamie Lloyd and a little from Ivo van Hove, Yates employs a video camera to capture ‘unofficial’ moments between the siblings but shots deliberately set-up by one or other of them and projected onto the rear wall of the stage to emphasise their eternal performance – even as themselves they appear to be adopting affected behaviours or personas that prevents them from finding real truth in their relationship. Similarly, freestanding microphones are used to deliver parts of the backstage sections – see Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull – which only increases Felice and Clare’s self absorption and total dislocation from anything but their own form of reality.

It is interesting work from video designer Akhila Krishnan and sound designer Dan Balfour who together with Vize create a space that is filled with the apparatus of storytelling and the possibility of escape to other places using these tools, but a place that Clare states, ‘so it’s a prison, this last theatre of ours’. Williams specifies a broken space which this Hampstead production delivers, teetering on the edge of both interpretations of the play, just enough reality to suggest a theatre yet sufficient emptiness to imply a no man’s land with nothing but silence and darkness beyond its walls.

It makes the production intriguing if not entirely satisfying. Partly this is Williams’s own experimentation with theatrical form, layering these parallel and intersecting narratives in such a way that the engineering is almost more notable that the play itself, and certainly Williams makes no attempt to encourage pathos in our experience of these characters. As elaborate and deserving of censure as some of his earlier creations had been, there is always great tragedy in their delusion and although Blanche or Brick behave inappropriately, Williams finds sympathy for their plight. But not so with Clare and Felice, we observe them but we do not feel for them.

Yates heightens some of this detachment, partly with the equipment that hones in on their absurdity if not their souls and partly in the tone he selects for the two interlocking aspects of the narrative. The play-within-a-play is purposefully and effectively exaggerated, adopting the traditional Southern accents we expect from a Williams piece and making the homespun scenario knowingly poor, as though Clare and Felice are substandard actors going through the motions. The backstage sections have greater melodrama to draw out the monstrous Whatever Happened to Baby Jane qualities of these eternal duelists enjoying their game-playing cruelties.

Kate O’Flynn’s Clare is a rather remote figure, fragile of course as Williams’s heroines tend to be, but also certain of herself, a strong-minded woman with expectations befitting – at least in her own consideration – her rank as lead actor in the touring company. There is something of the diva about Clare, certainly a distorted image of herself but Williams jumbles this up with sibling rivalry, the make-believe world that she permanently cohabits with Felice and a deep, almost pathological fear of being alone. O’Flynn finds all of these nuances and while we’re never asked to understand or even really to believe in Clare, there are plenty of layers in this performance.

Likewise Zubin Varla – so recently seen in a rehearsed reading of Name, Place, Animal, Thing – brings his usual gravitas to Felice, a creation with a tendency to fuss and flap as he multitasks as actor, director and wearied stage manager for the company. Much of his anguish comes from preparing for his sister and ensuring the conditions are set for her performance with Varla onstage while the audience take their seats. But there is a similar monstrous ego at play, and Felice’s evident resentment that his play is being cut pits the siblings against each other in a complex battle of wills that is mutually destructive and supportive.

Yates’s production of The Two Character Play is quite busy with lots of activities, movements and techniques applied to almost every moment, mixing straight-forward and heightened realities with a full staging, the stripped back emphasis that microphones bring, video footage and cinematic influences in visuals and lighting denoting melodrama and occasionally noir. This is a writer experimenting with different forms and while it is hard to agree with Williams’s own assessment that The Two Character Play is an equal of Streetcar, this rare revival proves an interesting addition to works that reassess Williams’s impact as a dramatists – an intellectual exercise if not an emotive one.

The Two Character Play is at Hampstead Theatre until 28 August with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Anna X – Harold Pinter Theatre


Who are we and who are the people we meet? These rather profound questions have, in one way or another, been at the heart of Sonia Friedman’s brief Re:Emerge season at the Harold Pinter Theatre which concludes with Anna X. A festival of new writing, Re:Emerge has taken us to deepest America to consider space travel, climate and the conflicting scientific and natural worlds, to Notting Hill where Caribbean Black British identity and heritage ran-up against personal acceptance and cultural appropriation at the Carnival, and finally to the fast-paced, image-centric New York art scene where identity is fluid, mutable and only ever screen-deep. The opportunity provided by empty theatres to try out new work and provide a platform for new voices and experiences has been a valuable reassessment of the West End and just who is (and should be) reflected on its stages.

Anna X is arguably the most philosophical of the three plays under the wider Re:Emerge banner, asking complex and sometimes unanswerable questions about what personality, character and identity mean in the digital twenty-first century, where the notion that we can be anything we choose to be is taken to its extremes through the curation and cultivation of our lifestyles, choices and stories presented on social media platforms.

While the concept that reputational damage and transgressions last forever online, the flipside of that is the opportunity to create false or fantasy impressions of who we are, constructing and reconstructing identities using algorithms that ‘feed’ selective highlights of our lives to the people that we know and to complete strangers – highlights that we have filtered, primed and edited to present the best or optimal version of ourselves.

Into this context comes Anna, a character unlike any other and gratifyingly novel in the way that female protagonists have been written. Anna deliberately builds an identity for herself that moves her into the position of social influencer, using art primarily as the tool to generate cache that in turn leads to real life kudos as she transforms her digital profile. First she lands a magazine job and then ‘it girl’ / socialite status, opening up a plethora of parties, openings and elite gatherings that further build and sustain her reputation. When she meets tech boom millionaire Ariel who created an elite dating app, the beginnings of a modern New York fairy tale are in place.

But writer Joseph Charlton has something far savvier and more interesting to say, because despite Anna’s very public and performative lifestyle, she remains a deeply mysterious and unpredicatable force in the play. Based on a true story, a traditional gold-digger narrative would have been the predictable trajectory of Anna X, yet, proving truth is stranger than fiction, Charlton’s play instead pairs two characters with unstinting access to a rarefied world who are not only conversant with the art of digital platforms but fundamentally employed by or tied to them in their daily lives. Neither is, therefore, dependent on the other to ‘access’ these physical or technological spaces.

Yet, Anna is entirely devoted to the moment, not obviously for money or even the easy gratification of Instagram likes, but for the real albeit fleeting experiences of these events. What makes her so fascinating is the intangible contrast between the fact of her online presence and its real, evidential reality, and the elusiveness of her personality, the refusal to be defined by the massing of information about her. To present a female character in this way with no clearly expressed wants or needs is fascinatingly unusual, her enigmatic qualities and contradictions holding your attention throughout this 80-minute play.

That women on stage are so often defined by love, family or materiality makes Anna so appealing and while Charlton has created this very selective, monied cultural existence, Anna seems never to truly belong to it, always operating at a layer removed. Yet she is still fundamental to it and almost the fulcrum around which everything else is held in balance. She is there but not there, the epicentre of it all yet part of something larger to which she too is drawn but not invested.

To enhance the discomposing effect of his lead character, Charlton does two key things within the play’s structure that continually disrupt the narrative and prevents the audience from identifying too closely or empathising with Anna. The first is to layer the time lines, wrapping present day events in reminiscences and different degrees of memory while using the actors to play a variety of other characters to flesh-out their grounding in New York and the pivotal conversations they have. At all times, Charlton remains firmly in control of the flow, safely navigating the audience through the myriad of information to wherever her left Anna and Ariel.

The two characters frequently break from the scene they are in and are taken backwards in time to explain how they got to this moment or to provide useful context for the viewer. And Charlton chooses to do this at unusual moments in the midst of conversation, so rather than present a linear narrative, he offers up puzzle pieces which the audience must fit together. The effect is enjoyably alienating, allowing us just enough time to peak our interesting in the connection between Anna and Ariel but interrupting their duologues so we don’t become too attached to them.

Charlton’s second technique effectively and thematically enhances the play’s core identity debates by allowing both individuals to tell their version of the story. They break scene to talk directly to the audience and like their social media feeds, there is a feeling of curation to what we are told, each giving us the part of the story they choose to share and want us to hear. Notably, Ariel tends to reflect more on Anna as a personality and an experience than she does on him, but this framing of characters as both narrators and commentators of as well as players in their own lives feels particularly appropriate. At the culmination of this engaging story Charlton’s storytelling approach chimes perfectly with its outcomes as the whirl of parties, dates, meetings and the vibrancy of the New York art and social scene is shown to be superficial and considerably less than the sum of its parts.

Visually, Anna X is exciting and Mikaela Liakata and Tal Yarden’s video-based design suits the tone and pace of Charlton’s narrative exactly, helping to create tens of locations sailing by as rapidly as scrolling through Instagram, referencing the screen-based nature of this lifestyle but giving a tangible sense of buzz, people and energy in a two-character play set in a crowded and constantly moving cityscape. It is an integral part of the action, constructed from cubes that form a flat video wall with protruding or projected sections to create a multifunctional set that the characters can use as seats, tables or raised platforms.

Not the first time a digital set has been used, but the quality of the images here can be deceptively immersive, creating vivid impressions of grotty New York alleyways behind a lively club, the twinkling skyline view from an expensive apartment or its cunningly implied chic interior as actors appear to sit on sofas emblazoned beneath them. There is a technical precision to it and a genuine thoughtfulness about the play’s themes and the illusion of the screen-based surface which is very pleasing.

For Emma Corrin who plays Anna, and Nabhaan Rizwan who is Ariel, there are interesting dimensions to work with, not quite playing their characters as they are but as real life projections of their digital personas in which the person almost becomes an avatar of themselves. Corrin has the harder job – one she succeeds in admirably – having to convey the unreadable woman who is at once open to all experiences, almost chaotically so, but at the same time entirely shut off from emotional connections or really any sense of herself in the past or future. There is a nuance here though and while the hedonism and detachment is fun, Corrin explores Anna’s discomfort when Ariel gets too close, a desire to flee muddied by her own irrepressible need for human interaction and consistency. She is mysterious but not monstrous.

Ariel by contrast is a far more expressive character, a tech entrepreneur inventing ways to bring people together and perplexed by his inability to shake the impression that Anna makes on him. Rizwan gives Ariel a neediness he didn’t realise he had, chasing the shadow of a girl through the New York social scene, all too willing to believe he is seeing her true self – for someone running an online dating service where digital personas are shallow, the irony appears to escape him. But, Ariel also enjoys the accouterments of wealth and the freedom it gives him to access elite spaces. It comforts his ego to believe Anna is equally wealthy because it overcomes a barrier he seems to encounter in the rest of his life, putting them on an equal footing. Rizwan’s Ariel is deluded perhaps, but no more so than anyone else looking for love and Anna is hardly a benchmark of normality.

Based on a true story, Charlton’s play which received a try-out at the Vault Festival, makes a fierce West End debut as part of the Re:Emerge Season, and whether or not you know the outcome, the exploration of identity constructs and the medium through which they are expressed is hugely engaging. Seen in tandem with productions like Cruise and Public Domain that also debuted in major theatres, Anna X is a fitting end to a trilogy of works that, taken as a whole, ask who gets to tell their stories and the scale of the platform they are given to do it.

Anna X runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 4 August with tickets from £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Dumb Waiter – Old Vic

The Dumb Waiter - Old Vic (by Manuel Harlan)

The Old Vic marks its return to in-person live performances with a brief revival of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, a play that marked the 60th anniversary of its first theatrical run in 2020 with a much interrupted restaging at the Hampstead Theatre where it premiered in 1960. Before that, only two years ago, Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman gave lauded performances as hit-men Ben and Gus in the finale of Jamie Lloyd’s transformative Pinter at the Pinter season and suddenly The Dumb Waiter is very much in fashion with now three productions at major London venues in only a couple of years. But the Old Vic brings something a little different, not only the chance to see a great short play with a fine cast but also the opportunity to be part of a truly hybrid theatre experience.

The In-Camera series and its equivalents in the space of a year have reconceived what audience engagement can look like and while going back to full capacity audiences is highly desirable when it’s safe to do so, as venues have discovered there is a whole world out there keen to engage with UK productions through their laptop or Internet-enabled device. An entirely new business plan has emerged for theatres, one that the Old Vic has grasped by offering a season of plays live streamed from its stage that have become increasingly innovative as the months of multiple lockdowns dragged on.

The technical acceleration of the In-Camera series was remarkable, developing from the side-by-side Zoom boxes of the socially distant simplicity of Lungs adapted from the Old Vic’s original production last September to the multi-camera storytelling of the The Lorax in April which included a large cast, magical scenery, puppets and some extraordinary video graphics layered onto the live feed. In just seven months, the Old Vic had almost revolutionised the way that live theatre experiences could be relayed on film, the turning point of which was Faith Healer, staged with such a compelling intimacy that it shattered the barrier between the performers and their captive screen audience.

The Hybrid Experience

All of this has laid the groundwork for The Dumb Waiter – and Baghdad Cafe the next production in the Old Vic’s reopening season which has also committed to digital performances – by offering audiences the opportunity to see the same play live in the room or streamed to your home. For those at the theatre this is the Old Vic as never before, a ‘studio audience’ seated in all tiers of the auditorium with a view not just of the work on stage but also of the process of creating live hybrid theatre with three cameras and a series of screens dominating the stalls area, around which the seats have been distributed in appropriately distanced groupings, simultaneously right in front of the theatre action and yet behind the scenes of the filmed component – fascinating stuff.

How intrusive this is for the in-person audience depends where you sit, ranging from not at all, to probably only marginally as two of the cameras are operated from either side of the stage with one on a plinth in the middle of the stalls. Now, this is also the first time the Old Vic has filmed a production this way round with the actors facing out into the auditorium in the usual way; all of the In-Camera productions have been back to front, filmed largely from the rear of the stage using the decorated Dress and Lilian Baylis Circles as the symbolic backdrop to the performances so Director Jeremy Herrin has needed to manage a physical and technical reorientation of the stage in order to give the in situ and digital audience an equally worthy view of the action.

So while the view of the stage is barely obscured, the Old Vic maintains a canny connection been its two sets of audiences, not only showing the physical audience in the back of shot and broadcasting real applause to the Zoom viewers but for those in the room, additional small television screens have been placed on either side showing the live stream relay – a decision that becomes extremely useful when Gus briefly goes into an offstage corridor to search for the sender of the note which is only visible onscreen (a trick Ivo van Hove applied in All About Eve).

Herrin also gives us something no audience has seen before, the perspective of the dumb waiter itself, placing a camera lens in the opening that allows us to see Gus in close-up as he receives the mysterious catering orders from upstairs at a time when, by necessity, he has his back to the audience. It’s a shrewd move to give the live audience both experiences at the same time and of notable value for the digital audience to know they are receiving (albeit momentarily) content that can only be seen if you’re watching through a screen. That the experience of the Zoom audience is just as carefully planned and is by no means a secondary or lesser option is essential to the success of hybrid theatre endeavours as well as a positive sign for future co-productions in this venue.

Staging the Play

Returning to the Old Vic is a meaningful experience and like many venues its reopening is worth celebrating. For our still uncertain times, The Dumb Waiter is a good choice; practically, it only requires two actors for a brief 50-minute running time while the story about being trapped in the same room for too long, waiting for something to happen while all kinds of unnerving things occur outside feels ever-timely. And while designer Hyemi Shin creates the necessary hinterland feel with accents that speak to the original period setting, right down to the Ben’s newspaper headlines, Pinter’s play is somehow timeless.

The Dyer and Freeman version played with shifting power dynamics to create a greater sense of confederacy between Ben and his junior partner Gus, but Herrin takes a slightly different approach, retaining a formality of rank between the two men, especially on Ben’s part who is given an inevitable world-weariness that offers a different emotional shape to the unfolding drama. The question of how much Ben really knows about the job they are going to perform is fairly ambiguous in Pinter’s text and while the audience remains in the dark until the play’s final moments, there is a strong implication in Herrin’s production that Ben is already aware of which way the tide is turning.

This lends a tragic inevitability to the unfolding drama which is very useful in singling-out this version of the play. Ben’s awareness makes sense of his brusque manner and refusal to engage with his partner’s delirium. The rising frustration that Ben conveys at the constant interruptions seem deliberately disproportionate and Pinter continues to limit Ben’s dialogue to often small, staccato sentences that are infused with the character’s sense of authority and a conscientious employee mentality.

As the shenanigans with the dumb waiter and speaking tube come to a head, actor David Thewlis gives Ben a long moment of introspection as he sits doubled over in what looks like despair or agony – perhaps knowing what’s to come. Throughout, Ben watches Gus carefully, often abjectly but also as though silently wrestling with something, a terrible knowledge or concern about what lies ahead and Thewlis balances the jobsworth tyranny in Ben’s character with this unstated sense of foreboding that make him defensive and worried.

Daniel Mays’s interpretation of Gus compliments Thewlis’s Ben very well, using the same concepts of worry and inevitability as the basis for his characterisation but allowing them to manifest in Gus as a tendency to panic, to ramble and fret throughout the play. Gus is the more human of the two, an everyman in an extraordinary situation and a creation that Pinter has some fun with. An unlikely assassin, Gus is a man who packs for murder like a trip to the seaside with a prepared lunch, box of tea and even some milk in a holdall and much of Pinter’s extraordinary wordplay is devoted to very routine discussions about heating water for the tea that never comes.

Mays last appearance on stage was also in Pinter at the Old Vic in a production of The Caretaker, and his control of the writing style is effortless. He allows Gus to be annoying and sympathetic, jumpy and entirely reasonable, comic and tragic all at the same time, particularly in the haunting sections about the botched killing of a women the men recently performed which Gus is continually visited by. The eventual explosion of nervous energy is convincing even across such a short lead-in time and there are some great comic moments as Mays mines every line for the conflicting light and shadow that reveal his character’s innocence, guilt, complicity and regret all boiling over in this room.

The connection between Thewlis and Mays is quite different to the versions we’ve seen elsewhere recently, creating an isolation around each of the characters that the other can never entirely breach. By making them begrudging partners, a manager and his junior, there are unmet needs expressed in this production as different types of masculinity, of silent and expressive, intimidating and sensitive contend, the claustrophobic and distorting environment meaning both are discomposed by the mysteries of the dumb waiter.

This is hybrid theatre in action and while it is wonderful to be back in the Old Vic with a live, in-venue audience to share the experience of this play with, the presence of the mini-movie studio cameras and the screen relay also created a tangible connection with the hundreds, maybe thousands, watching elsewhere. We may not have been able to see our fellow digital audience members but we knew they were there, making The Dumb Waiter feel like a communal event, all of us in the dark watching together. Hybrid theatre is creating connections and this is only the beginning.

The Dumb Waiter ran at the Old Vic for only five performances. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Cinderella – Gillian Lynne Theatre

Cinderella - Gillian Lynne Theatre (by Tristam Kenton)

Cinderella may well be the most talked about not talked about musical theatre opening in years; during 2020, teaser songs were released, casting announcements were made and the show has been surrounded by publicity since its original West End run was cancelled last autumn and its official Opening Night moved to July. Yet most of the coverage in recent weeks has little to do with the show and more its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who insisted he’d go to jail rather than delay full reopening, sent a public message to the government by refusing to participate in test events without other producers being included and has been rattling sabers all over town. But what is a little controversy? Lloyd Webber has championed theatre throughout the pandemic, trialing audience safety measures and test performances for the press at the Palladium last autumn. But with arts advocacy and politics dominating the headlines, is his new musical Cinderella going to be any good?

Opening with a socially distanced auditorium after all, the show is now ten days into its run with another week before press night, and Cinderella already has quite a few things to offer. Not least, it is a new ‘spin’ on the classic story giving Cinderella and her fellow female characters more agency and individuality than the traditional tale which prioritises beauty as the key attribute that ultimately leads to marriage – the preconfigured destiny for all good fairy-tale women. In fact the obsession with beauty becomes a price to pay for this Cinderella, reimagined as a spirited goth with a wicked wit.

With a book by Emerald Fennell who recently won an Oscar and a Bafta for her screenplay Promising Young Woman, a film that takes a stand against the culture of predatory men, Cinderella tries to flesh-out some of the other female roles as well, replacing the King with a powerful and determined Queen while showcasing the ingenuity and determination of Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother with a backstory that places her and the Queen on par – for these women to shine, however, it means the others must be viewed as pretty but generic or empty-headed, ensuring that for the Prince, it is Cinderella’s alternative approach that stands out.

The idea of perfection becomes a shared obstacle for the male lead as well, contrasting the ideal physical heroism and masculinity of Prince Charming whose loss in battle dominates the opening number with his brother Sebastian who becomes his underwhelming replacement with no grand tales of derring do or rippling muscles to attract a suitor. Applying these same standards of beauty and expected physical shape gives Cinderella a more contemporary feel in a world where the chiseled Marvel superhero is now the standard Hollywood aspiration for men and as equally infeasible as the tiny-waisted sirens long foisted on women. Within the show, this plays out at Court as the warrior-like attendants to Sebastian goad and belittle his lack of strength and machismo while parading their own – much to the delight of the Queen.

With Cinderella and Sebastian made into childhood friends unable to see their true feelings for one another, the story becomes a tale of two people suffering under the weight of external expectations to be something they cannot. That both struggle to live up to standards of feminine and masculine beauty, actively rejecting these traits for something more meaningful but are forced to pursue the wrong course creates new dimensions in a well-worn premise. And while many of the fairy tale’s original pieces are in place – some of the same characters, a ball, a fairy godmother and glass slippers – the narrative is shifted and slightly recast to create a greater power balance between the central couple that relies less on social status and more on self-discovery and appreciation.

Fennell’s book also adds a cheeky wit to the exchanges, the detail of which will go over the heads of any children in the room, to create a few risque moments including barbed exchanges from The Stepmother and a dry sarcasm given to a generally no-nonsense Cinderella that underscores her more broad-ranging personality – there’s no singing to dressmaking mice here or simpering about being rescued from her drudgery. Why she stays to clean for her step-family is less clear and, other than it being her father’s house, the flashes of temper and rebellion sit uneasily against her continued role as the family skivvy – a position someone of her determined personality would have quit long ago.

With the central narrative unlikely to change substantially ahead of its official opening, the overall effect is occasionally patchy. Lloyd Webber’s composition and David Zippel’s lyrics draw on several different music styles as the show evolves, mixing guitar, piano and harpsichord-led numbers that sometimes look to pop and, once or twice, even rap with the fuller orchestration and soaring strings that support the more successful songs. Lloyd’s Webber’s best scores have a compositional and stylistic consistency running across them whether that’s the rock ferocity of Jesus Christ Superstar, the orchestral grandeur of Phantom of the Opera, the tango and Latin rhythms of Evita or the stirring classicism of Sunset Boulevard, and it is their musical cohesion that makes them great, drawing together the big company numbers with the soliloquies and moments of introspection.

Cinderella doesn’t have the same coherent basis for the development of its songs and so it lacks a centre of gravity that pulls all of the numbers together. When they’re good, they are very good including a couple of the pre-released numbers such as Only You, Lonely You sung by Sebastian which is classic Lloyd Webber, filled with those familiar rising strings and room-filling emotion that gives the audience an insight into the character’s emotional state and psychology with a subtle nod to Sondheim’s Loving You. Cinderella’s own post-ball disaster song I Know I Have a Heart is also a big moment as the character realises her feelings for Sebastian are greater than she knew which the song expresses with clarity.

But the best songs really belong to the wider cast and will be a delightful surprise to audiences who won’t yet have heard them. A very fine and spiky duet entitled I Know You between The Queen and and The Stepmother is a comic highlight as two titans battle it out, both revealing something of their shared past, the clamber to the top and refusal to be cowed by it, while a late number Marry For Love provides a nice ensemble moment that fills the stage with big 50s Technicolor movie musical sounds. The Godmother has a fierce pre-interval number in which the real cost of beauty is visited on the naive Cinderella, while the men of the court perform an amusing thigh-slapping number, cavorting around the Queen in homage to the manly memory of Prince Charming.

But not all of the songs have quite the same verve which occasionally flattens the drama. With several big characters among the secondary cast and the chemistry between Cinderella and Sebastian not yet working as well as it could, their sometimes lengthy moments of introspection, including the protagonist’s regretful Far Too Late, don’t quite match the spectacle in other parts of the show. This same variability is also evident in Joann M. Hunter’s choreography with some numbers – particularly those that include ballroom dance sequences – still needing a bit of polish to maximise their impact and harmonisation, although this is a relatively small Ensemble with a lot of ground to cover.

In staging Cinderella, director Laurence Connor generally balances the big set pieces and the individual emotional trajectories very well, easily transporting the show from town square to The Stepmother’s kitchen, the woody rendezvous between Cinderella and Sebastian and the Palace. The latter is a memorable coup de theatre at the start of the second half as the front-on staging transforms into an in-the-round space for the famous ball scene, a smart piece of stage management that emphasises the decisive nature of the event for the characters and offers its audience a bit of magic.

Set designer Gabriela Tylesova creates a half-world somewhere between fairy tale, gothicism and historical fantasy epic to bring Cinderella’s town to life – think a mash-up of The Grinning Man, pastoral ballet and Game of Thrones with touches of contemporary shapes which also infuse Tylesova’s elaborate costume design with cut-aways skirts in bejeweled eighteenth-century gowns, elaborate couture styles and some 1950s and 1980s shaping as well as Cinderella’s distinctive Emo look constructed from black net, firm boots and checked fabrics. Most memorable are The Queen’s outstanding scarlet corseted gown with long tiered skirt, the Godmother’s sharp power suit referencing the Wall Street pinstripe and The Stepmother’s fitted gowns that threaten to trip her up but give her character a style that purposefully contrasts with everyone else.

Carrie Hope Fletcher is building a great character in Cinderella, a more spirited and grounded version of the blandly perfect fairy tale. But this Cinderella is rebellious and often sarcastic which in dress and attitude separate her from the other women of the town. The story explores the simultaneous desire to be different to everybody else and at the same time accepted within the same standards of beauty, and Hope Fletcher’s performance navigates those contradictions well, showing how Cinderella’s head is (albeit momentarily) turned by conventionality.

The chemistry with Ivano Turco’s Sebastian is something to work on and while both sing beautifully, conveying their character’s inner uncertainties and lack of confidence, their scenes together still feel like words being spoken in a play rather than two people unable to express their feelings in the moment. Elsewhere, Turco suggests all the pressures of being the disappointing second son thrust unwillingly into the limelight and forced to question his own purpose in the face of the imposing almost offensive manliness of his attendants. With a couple of great solos and an exciting dance number later in the show, Turco well captures the nuances of a different kind of prince.

There are are some terrific performances among the supporting cast who in many ways dominate the show, not least Rebecca Trehearn as The Queen whose sparkly regal charm belies a firm determination to dominate her son and the kingdom in several impressive song and dance segments. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt channels some late Judy and Liza while performing as The Stepmother, whose traditional wickedness is given just enough of a social climbing backstory to give greater purpose to her scheming, while Gloria Onitiri is fabulous and arguably underused as The Godmother whose main song is a twisted turning point in a show that could use more of her energy to cast darker shadows across the entire piece.

Press reactions may well be mixed when this much delayed show officially opens and this could be one where audiences and critics part ways with early reactions from theatre-goers already quite positive. With social distancing currently slated to end in a few weeks time and a very long run available to book, no one will have to go to jail for seeing this musical and, as a developing production, Cinderella is definitely on its way to the ball. With a week of performances before Opening Night, there is plenty of time to rebalance and smooth out the performance kinks by really polishing-up those glass slippers.

Cinderella is at the Gillian Lynne Theatre until 13 February 2022 with tickets from £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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