Monthly Archives: November 2021

Cabaret – Playhouse Theatre

Cabaret - Playhouse Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

We’ve all spent far too long sitting alone in our rooms so the cabaret is exactly where we need to be. What emerged as a delicious theatre rumour a few months ago has not only become a real production but a dream come true experience. Theatre closure was long and ruinous for many but Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret is our long-awaited reward. It may still be some time until press night but you may as well hand this company a truck load of Oliviers right not because this production is why theatre matters so much, staged at the newly refurbished Playhouse Theatre which welcomes audiences for the first time since March 2020 – you won’t want to go home.

The venue has undergone a remarkable transformation, taking a theatre with some of the poorest sight-lines, particularly from its steeply raked upper circle, to create a central in-the-round space that is far more visible, building on the original stalls to place cabaret tables around a small, circular stage. The effect is quite something and incredibly atmospheric, with the carpentry and creative team give it a Music Hall style design that feels historic, lived-in and cosily intimate.

There is no sawdust and paint aroma as you might expect and, with strategic use of drapes, a new box space has been added on either side of the original dress circle to house the musicians. This former proscenium-arch theatre has been completely opened-up which gives Frecknall the freedom to use the entire playing space for performance, underscoring the central thesis that characters exist beyond their Kit Kat Club persona, intermingling with and reflecting the very real people who have come to see them.

The experience begins from the moment you enter the theatre with the creation of a labyrinthine tour through the corridors normally out of bounds to the public but now dressed as basement bars with crinkly gold leaf and low lighting. Before finding your seat, catch a performance from members of the Kit Kat Club in a warm-up act danced on the foyer bar. Pause, marvel and enjoy as suggestively dressed artists create the mood, priming the audience for the main event.

It is a clever approach to immediate immersion that continues as you take your seat with music and dance performances carried through to all levels of the theatre – the fact that everyone looks a little worn, generating a middling enthusiasm is all part of the tone that Frecknall is creating, one that adds a seedy melancholy in which the show is so carefully poised. These are not so much creatures of pleasure determined to fulfil the fantasies of club members, but exhausted dancers struggling to summon the enthusiasm for yet more careless clients, the Underbelly artists perfectly capturing the mood of disdain.

There was always something about this production from the moment of its announcement to the atmospheric visual imagery adorning the posters. In offering a seedy glamour, this Cabaret was always going to be a bit special. And so it proves. We have come to expect a particular style from Frecknall’s work, a way of investigating text and character that finds the crucial emotional beats beneath the surface and gives her productions an almost musical rhythm where pace, tone and style rise and fall like dance or orchestration.

Applying her techniques to an actual musical brings a greater resonance to Cabaret exploring the ways in which songs and story create character insight and narrative development while re-examining the emotional shading in those elements to create a darker and less celebratory interpretation of a world ending and a brief sanctuary that can no longer withstand the political context assailing its walls.

Frecknall’s interpretation looks to works like Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Somerset Maughan’s Of Human Bondage in its exploration of the waring effect of poverty for both men and women in this era as the characters shuffle from club to boarding house. One particularly astute observation is how rapidly the sheen of glamour wears off, leaving behind a feeling of oppression that grows weightier as the story plays out, suggesting not only the growing political dangers around the characters as society begins to shift, but also the grinding effect of poverty from which individuals struggle to pick themselves up time after time.

In some of the productions more powerful moments, Frecknall elucidates an understanding of the fruitlessness of the characters’ dreams of escape, the hope – as Sally herself suggests – that this time it will be different, but knowing all the while that it never will. In staging this, there are tones of Bob, Jenny and Ella from Hamilton’s novel, creations whose hopes of distraction and escape are inflamed but eventually extinguished, leaving them, at best, the same, but often worse off then before, emotionally if not financially. What Frecknall does so well is to situate the lives of her characters in this broader context, and while we may only encounter them in Kander and Ebb’s songs and the few dramatic scenes between them, these people seem to exist beyond the confines of this night at the Kit Kat Club and even this musical.

In a show filled with some of the most beloved musical theatre numbers and an attachment to how these should be staged using Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography, Frecknall’s triumph is to set aside the performance history of Cabaret – much as Jamie Lloyd did with Evita – to reconsider the integration of music and dramatic scenes as a continuous emotional journey with both serving a clear and consistent vision for the show. Frecknall has made that balance especially compelling, giving equivalent emphasis to character interaction and development while repointing the usually exuberant and ‘big’ approach to staging the song and dance numbers, using them to reflect the changing mood of the club and the advancing political tide that will consume them all in the months and years to come.

The skill that choreographer Julia Cheng and set and costume designer Tom Scutt bring to the staging is to make that shift feel entirely organic, so that not only do we realise that we have been missing a trick all these years by not seeing the possibilities of this small, contained, narrative interpretation, but making it so beautiful and affecting, a grand inevitable tragedy, that operates simultaneously on a large and small scale.

As with Summer and Smoke, it is the emotional beats that Frecknall makes so devastatingly effective, injecting a kind of thrumming life blood into each character that amplifies their wants and needs beyond their role as a performer or neighbour. This is particularly notable in the relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz whose shy flirtation in a reasonably bawdy household is at the heart of the show, tracking their late-blooming love and its consequences with a melting tenderness that will warm and eventually break your heart as circumstances conspire against them.

How this is reflected in Cabaret’s few character numbers (i.e. those not doubling as performances at the Kit Kat Club) is very skilful, capturing all the hope, loneliness and fear of the lovers in a consistent journey from spoken interaction to musical exposure of their soul, taking the audience with them entirely as both kinds of theatrical expression reflect and enhance each other, creating a completeness that is very moving.

And this production’s biggest coup is to do exactly the same thing with the Kit Kat Club songs, repositioning them as reflections of inner turmoil and a changing relationship with the nature of performance as their ‘real life’ offers and sometimes shuts-off avenues for development and personal changes that shape how songs are then performed. The greatest example of this is Sally’s version of the title number close to the end of Act Two, the once gloriously upbeat and defiant anthem in which the singer gives her all in the place she feels most at home, here becomes a sarcastic song of broken defeat in which Sally rails against the disappointments of her life, culminating in this cry of pain.

Performed by Jessie Buckley, it is an agonising, seductive and show-stopping moment that entirely captures the end of a trajectory for Sally that has taken her through confidence and self-satisfaction, hopes of a ‘normal’ life to a sad and painful disillusion that casts her lower than she was ever high. And this is not a singular moment but something Frecknall weaves throughout the show, allowing every song to bring that kind of insight and leaving the audience holding their breath in anticipation as every character’s depth and ache is felt through these songs from the saucy Don’t Tell Mama where Sally is on form but still a product of her circumstances, to the Emcee’s pointed interpretation of Money that so clearly emphasises the underlying melancholy of working class life with the long spectre of the First World War shaping Germany’s existence and a vision of the deaths to come, to the bitter chill of Tomorrow Belongs to Me as exuberant individuality is slowly sacrificed to a besuited uniformity – something which creeps across the show, chasing away the light as fascism descends.

This reinterpretation casts a more incisive perspective on Sally’s character, breaking away somewhat from Liza Minnelli’s more buoyant approach, taking life’s knocks on the chin, and in Buckley’s performance charting the slow erosion of Sally as each new encounter and every song chips more and more from her ability to endure. Yet Buckley still makes Sally charming, grubbily alluring in her musical performances and pragmatic, a different kind of woman, able to withstand any fresh circumstances and turn them successfully to her advantage.

Yet beneath the surface, Buckley carries a deep well of soulful agony, a desire for more that makes the elusive Sally a desperate dreamer both craving a new, more certain life with the promise of something to love, but so afraid of the reality that she becomes a self-destructive force. It is a beautiful performance, fragile and strong at the same time, and filled with such pathos for Sally and the endless cycles of her life that burrow deep into your consciousness and emotional responses.

Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee does something similar, playing against type in a role that demands a showmanship and transformational physicality that shapes and directs the narrative. It couldn’t be further from his work for film and big franchise, and like Buckley, this may be the greatest performance of Redmayne’s career, presenting that visually dazzling outward face of the club while internalising all of Frecknall’s themes about the toll of long-term poverty and public performance in a dangerous unstable political climate.

Redmayne’s Emcee is a deliberate oddity, with a hunched-over flexibility that allows him to stalk the stage, creating not just an androgynous feel but also the impression of a creative quite distinct from everyone around him. Always dressed in careful but elaborate style including clowns, sailor suits, skeletal soldiers and slick businessmen – and particular kudos to Scutt for his impeccable contribution to character creation – Redmayne’s capacity for metamorphosis is extraordinary while visually and vocally guiding the audience through the sensitively changing tones of this story.

There is superb support from Omari Douglas as the American writer wanting to be corrupted, Stewart Clarke as the personable Nazi supporter whose influence affects the sweet affair between Elliot Levy’s Herr Schultz and Liza Sadovy’s Fraulein Schneider, while the very small company of Kit Kat Club dancers Theo Maddix, Daniel Perry, Andre Refig, Christopher Tenda, Bethany Terry, Lillie-Pearl Wildman and Sophie Maria Wojna bring each number to life, roaming around the revolving and multi-level stage with a slinky but stained glamour.

Frecknall’s Cabaret is truly astounding, a show that will take your breath away from the second it begins and leave you thinking about it for weeks afterwards. The veil of interwar social melancholy is wonderfully pitched, leaving you wondering what Frecknall might make of After the Dance as a future project. The major tragedy here is that so few people will get to see it with prohibitively expensive ticket prices. Cabaret should be seen, it is a true advert for the beguiling, life changing power of theatre that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice a week’s salary for. It is profoundly moving and entirely consuming, it repositions a show we know too well and finds all kinds of new depths, meanings and resonances so our relationship to it will never be quite the same again. As well as accessible tickets deals, let’s make this work of art available affordably online and in cinemas, book the NT Live cameras now because everyone should have the chance to be transfigured by it.

Cabaret is at the Playhouse Theatre until 14 May 2022 although cast changes are likely from February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Four Quartets – Harold Pinter Theatre

Translating poetry to the stage can be challenging for both performer and audience, the importance of the language while alive and vivid on the page can feel verbose or intangible, even static, when read aloud. Get it wrong and it can feel stilted and incomprehensible, get it right, even with the most complex poetic imagery, and it can be a magical, inclusive experience that takes us back to the simplest and most pure forms of communication – a single person telling a story. And of course, much will depend on the verse that’s being adapted; whether it contains multiple characters given distinct voices who can be dramatised even within someone else’s narrative, or whether it is a singular collection of thoughts, impressions and philosophies through which the speaker moves alone or in conversation with the silent reader.

The National Theatre produced a marvellous version of Under Milk Wood earlier this year, arguable a radio play for voices but still poetic in vocal style in which Director Lyndsey Turner gave a deep emotional resonance to Dylan Thomas’s words by pitching it as a memory play, wrapping the central poem in a wider narrative about reconnection between a father and son. Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a tougher proposition with no storyline as such, only the protagonist-poet reflecting, like Thomas’s piece, on the relationship between past, present and future, as well as the existence of history and the changing seasons in a thoughtful one man show.

Opening at the Theatre Royal Bath earlier in the year and arriving at the Harold Pinter Theatre after a brief tour, Four Quartets is not quite a play but more than a dramatic reading, and, across 80 rather swift minutes, Fiennes extracts the many changes of tone and pace, as well as shifts in energy across Eliot’s work that give the show a dramatic purpose and propulsion. While there is no need to understand every phrase, there is a lovely clarity to the questions that the poet is posing about the nature and circularity of time that carries the audience through the knotty reflections as the traveller explores some kind of meaning for his existence in the present.

In doing so, he reaches for a multitude of examples from the physical and very tangible reality of nature in the rose garden where the poem begins, through to familiar references to particular London locations as he imagines the dark trying to creep through Camden, Hampstead and Clerkenwell, while Edgeware Road is mentioned later. The contrast between nature and the city is a frequent refrain, with these earthier matters balanced against grander explorations of man’s place in a wider philosophy of existence that looks to gods and creation as well as religious duty and understanding.

Drawing these strands into a coherent theatre piece is certainly difficult especially as each poem was constructed separately before and during the Second World War, where it would be tempting, perhaps even terribly obvious, to stage them in the guise of Eliot himself reading the works he created and drawing allusions with the changing political and military circumstances in Europe. Just as The Wasteland is associated with the disillusion after the First World War (although not in Eliot’s view), so too could Four Quartets be interpreted as a direct reaction to the shadow of death and destruction sweeping the continent at the time of writing in which he reinforces a certain patriotic notion of green and pleasant England.

Fiennes, who co-adapts with James Dacre, however chooses to make this dramatisation independent of the work’s original creative context and instead places it in a visual no-man’s land, dominated by two giant stone blocks that seem like tombstones which he rotates and moves to signify shifts between the four poems. The rest of the set designed by Hildegard Bechtler has just two chairs and a table which, in a show he has also directed, gives Fiennes places to move around, changing height and location while using the empty seat to indicate the mystical past or future.

Each segment of the production has its own individual style, opening with the gentler reflections of Burnt Norton written in 1936 which places the speaker in his garden musing on the circularity of existence, not only the cyclical seasons that affect the visual and aural cues of the landscape as well as the scents he detects, but also the merging of past, present and future into a single moment. Here Fiennes beautifully conjures the physicality of the garden, relishing Eliot’s colourful rendering of the warm autumn night, the bird the speaker chases and the dark brown pool at its centre.

There are tones of the Romantics in Burnt Norton, of a mind absorbing the beauty of nature but distracted, even abstracted, by the wider concerns of life and its meaning, a sense of old and new worlds colliding and how humanity can make sense of it. In delivery, Fiennes gives these debates a richness, pausing to let each thought settle before pursuing the next line, and while it can be difficult in a one-man show not to race through without the safety of other actors to ease the burden and pressure of audience expectation, here Fiennes is entirely at ease with the space, letting the words fill the auditorium and unafraid of the silence in between where Eliot leaves room for meaning to emerge.

The second poem, East Coker from 1939 opens with the famous phrase ‘in the beginning is my end’, a refrain that recurs throughout this chapter of the show, momentarily reflecting Ecclesiastes’ A Time for Everything, with several lines based on the same ‘there is a time to’ sentence structure in its consideration of the most appropriate time to live, for the wind to blow and for building homes. Again, Eliot draws associations between the grandness of the natural landscape being enveloped and the ‘underground train, in the tube, [that] stops too long between stations’ as passengers confront their mortality for a fraction of a second. And this is something which Fiennes and Dacre’s adaptation does well, emphasising the fragile structures of humanity against the elements, all facing a similar process of death and rebirth.

But Eliot here is also interested in darkness and as the lights slowly dim in the theatre, Fiennes employs an effectual full blackout to recite the passages in which the late November night consumes the living, referencing death and silence as the wealthy and influential go the same way as everyone else regardless of their status. It’s a haunting moment and not repeated, reinforcing the power of Eliot’s words to create strong impressions and images in the collective mind of the audience in what is a momentarily immersive effect.

The Dry Salvages is perhaps the most dramatic segment, focusing as it does on the allusion of man and the sea, the remoteness of the city-dweller from the vivid brown water of the river and the notion of allowing a life to drift until it is cast upon the rocks. There is much here for Fiennes to draw out in the performance from the onomatopoeic reading of ‘soundless wailing’ to the low ring of a naval bell in the distance, the creation of atmosphere around the third of the quartets is particularly enjoyable, gently guiding the audience through the changing imagery.

This segment also considers man’s desire to predict the future and the need to think ahead or look to the past rather than live in the present. Given the context of war at the end of 1940 when this poem was composed, Eliot is exploring notions of spiritualism and destiny that bring comfort and meaning to the powerless. Fiennes articulates this section particularly well as Eliot talks of conversing with spirits, horoscopes, omens and tea leaves as natural reactions in moments of distress, extending his overall thesis about the intersection of different time periods and the spaces between them that we fail to recognise or understand.

The finale of the quartet is entitled Little Gidding and is built around the soothing notion that ‘all will be well’ which recurs throughout. Written in 1942, Eliot is again drawn back to imagery of the English countryside and the garden, as he was with Burnt Norton, referencing burnt roses and ash which gives a balance and completeness to the Four Quartets as a performance as well as a poetry collective, underscoring once again Eliot’s emphasis on the cycles and destructive effect of time as humanity fights for survival.

This section also gives Fiennes his only chance to play a second character as it contains a story of two strangers meeting on the road, one huddled from the cold as the actor sinks into his jacket while the other is commanding like a god or powerful spirit urging transformation in the other. Their interchange, which is well dramatised here, sets-up the remainder of the poem exploring the compression or relativity of time, acquainting the lifecycle of a yew tree and a rose while noting that ‘history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.’ And just like that, it’s over

None of these separate poems are named in the piece and Fiennes never overtly indicates the change between them in what becomes a continual monologue. Instead, the rhymes and indeed the separate verses within them are punctuated by music and Tim Lutkin’s often spectacular changes of light, the turning of the stone tablets and the actor relocating around the stage. And while that may sound overly self-conscious, it flows effortlessly between Eliot’s thoughts – we may not fully understand or spend time investigating all of the complex imagery in the piece but the emotional range of it is reflected in both the staging and Fiennes’s changing delivery.

In fact, the actor delivers a quite mesmeric performance, drawing out the nuances of tone, emphasis and imagery with a crisp clarity. Fiennes is always at ease with complex language and linguistic structure which has made him such a great performer of Shakespeare and Ibsen, and here he takes a piece that ordinarily exists as a collection of words on the page and only comes alive in the imagination, and gives it an expressiveness that is almost like dance, helping the words move around the auditorium with a power and resonance that becomes quite beguiling.

Four Quartets is perhaps more an experience than a performance, a series of musings and philosophical wonderings that grip as often as they elude. But Fiennes and Dacre have made this more than an intellectual exercise, and while its intangibility can be frustrating, even puzzling, there is real feeling and purpose to the application of a dramatic construct that makes Eliot’s poetry come alive on stage.

Four Quartets is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 December with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Drifters’ Girl – Garrick Theatre

The Drifters Girl - Nimax Theatre

The nostalgia musical is back in full force with crowd-pleasing easy listening stories that looks back to the 1950s and 60s for their inspiration. Structured around the biography of a particular band, these shows prioritise the music, offering opportunities for audiences to relive excerpts from concerts, studio sessions and TV-appearances by the Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls and now the Drifters. Slightly more than a jukebox musical, where a band or individual’s music is used to frame an unrelated narrative, these productions tend to celebrate both the art and gruelling cost of performance as fame, touring and managerial expectations to keep the money rolling in take their toll on the personal lives and stability of the individuals struggling to remember who they once were.

While there are considerable similarities with its counterparts, The Drifters’ Girl also has a slightly different approach in which it attempts to tell the story of this band partly through the changing membership in which the brand rather than its personnel are the key focus of both ownership and identity as the group attempts to move out of the R’n’B chart and into the mainstream Top 100, while it also tries to capture a rarity in these stories, the perspective of a female manager, one who struggles against sexism and racism in the development of the band and its musical direction. Faye Treadwell is the titular Drifter’s Girl and offering her perspective on a male group in a male-led music industry, fighting for recognition in a male-led justice system is an interesting angle but one the show struggles to fully maintain as it tries to balance narrative drive with musical performance – the latter wins out.

Co-created by the cast with a book by Ed Curtis, the idea is a sound one. Framed around a major court case in which the determined Faye fought for exclusive ownership of the Drifters’ name against a producer who formed a subsidiary group by reuniting ex-members, the story of how the Drifters came to be and the challenges they faced over three decades is told in flashback with Faye speaking to her young daughter in preparation for telling the same story to the Judge. It becomes, then, a personal and professional story as the unswerving manager reflects on the creation of the Drifters collective and of Faye’s own family, falling in love with and eventually marrying the Drifters’ manager and working alongside him in equal partnership to cultivate the band.

And there are lots of positives in this approach that give clear, overarching shape and direction to the story, guiding the audience through the episodic content towards a defined conclusion that adds drive to Director Jonathan Church’s production. In what is essentially a progressive, chronological approach wrapped in a flashback, the team create plenty of space for the songs that everyone has come to see, merging two kinds of musical theatre styles using the Drifters tunes.

First, there are the pure performance-based segments in which the actors recreate the band’s appearances in concert style, singing their songs as the Drifters direct to the audience with choreographed movements. This largely provides some context about where and when this particular Drifters performance has taken place, who was the lead singer of the moment, as well as the tour experience or event. The second approach gives characters (usually Faye and husband George) songs in off-stage moments that reflect their emotional state and burst spontaneously from them in place of dialogue. That balance sits a little uneasily within the show and, performances aside, the considerable success of the Drifters segments has a price, confusing the rest of the story about the depth of its female perspective.

And those Drifters performances are flawlessly managed and each number is sensationally staged. From Under the Boardwalk to Little Red Book, Kissin; in the Back Row of the Movies to Saturday Night at the Movies, There Goes My Baby and Rat Race there is flair and energy in the harmonious vocal and performance approach. Like Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls, much of this takes place in front of microphone stands with Karen Bruce’s choreography and Fay Fullerton’s unified costume design recreating that 60s group feel with matching suits, small-scale but carefully-timed doo wop movement and synchronised stylings that bring the music alive on stage.

With a cast of just five, four of whom play all of the Drifters’ members, the show explores the frequent, almost comic turnover of singers passing through the band who are drafted into the army, let go for bad behaviour or fail to meet Faye’s exacting standards in an Act One montage sequence included largely to underscore the legal argument that the brand rather than the singers is important. Names are flashed-up on the rear wall and replacements introduce themselves within Faye’s recollection of the story, but the audience isn’t expected to keep up and when that introductory roll call fades away, for the rest of the show it’s no longer clear who is in the band at any one time, and while that may cause some confusion, it isn’t meant to matter.

In fact, it may be the point as the Drifters become an entity, a quartet bigger than individuals, so as that membership changes, each actor takes the lead on a new song giving Adam J. Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Mau the opportunity to display their incredible range performing different tempos and variations in the musical style as the decades pass and the band evolves. The exactness of their performances, not in mimicry but homage to the original sound is extraordinary, sometimes playing with the song to make it a little more their own but delivering the high-quality, powerful performances we have come to expect from nostalgia musicals. And these plentiful restagings are the continual high point of The Drifters’ Girl giving the audience exactly what they wanted and expected to see.

Yet, maintaining a consistent point of view becomes problematic and while Faye is meant to be the focus, her own story feels thinly realised and hugely overshadowed by the Drifters’ numbers that steal focus from her. It doesn’t really feel as though the show is about the Drifters’ Girl at all and while those show-stopping songs are impressive, they need to be reorientated so that we see them through Faye’s eyes if the show wants her narrative voice to be the central perspective. This would mean pushing them into the background a little and looking at what Faye is doing during these moments or how she has shaped and directed the performance the band then give.

One way to do this could be to leave Faye onstage throughout these segments, assessing and reflecting on what they do, perhaps shown in conversation with technical staff in studios or TV stations about how she wants her band to be presented. She could be cutting deals for future appearances that demonstrate her ruthless, business-minded side that got and kept her in the business while evolving an internationally famous music group. With Faye so often absent, the show currently runs on what can feel like two parallel tracks – the story of the Drifters in performance and the slightly separate role Faye played in that.

The book is looking in the wrong direction and this is where further development could bolster the show and give it a stronger backbone. While Faye is given scenes where she berates the band off-stage, much of what is presented for her is a love story with George as the initially determined but green young woman gets off the bus in New York, joins the team and finds the man of her dreams. It happened but it’s not really the most interesting thing about Faye Treadwell who needs greater character depth to explore the wider questions the story raises but never really answers about her.

We aren’t told why Faye wanted to be in the music business, why did the Drifters matter so much to her and how did she really climb the ladder? Because the narrative is built around the songs and covers such a long period of time, by necessity it skips quickly over many of the events around them at the cost of Faye’s psychological portrait. We never really understand what drove her and why she sacrificed so much, including a relationship with her daughter – here portrait as cookie-cutter sweet – to keep the band going when so much was stacked against her.

The show tries to tackle the racism she faced as a black woman in the industry as well as the suspicion the band experienced as they toured the American South, involving run-ins with the police, and in a frantic UK tour where they were turned away from hotels or forced to pay upfront for their accommodation. These are fleeting scenes treated too comically that only nod to the socio-political context but could be the dark heart of a show exploring the underbelly of an industry and predominantly white audience that, as Sam Cooke notes in One Night In Miami, expected black musicians to only exist on the stage or in the segregated R’n’B chart. That Faye took all of this on as a woman is doubly admirable and while it’s clear she wasn’t a saint, The Drifters’ Girl could say so much more about this context and it feels hollow without it.

By keeping it light and continually returning to the nostalgic loveliness of the Drifters’ music, the production misses a trick, undercutting its emotional and more complex moments to quickly take the audience back to the safety and feel-good nature of the songs, blunting the very edges the show should sharpen. And this happens not just in the reactions to the band but in the staging of their personal tragedies as well, added to the story to create depth but too quickly forgotten as we drift on.

While it’s true that the band did just that, some sense of the burden of it all, the effect of constantly finding new members and how that changed the dynamic within the band would bolster a story that feels surprisingly lacklustre. How did the band members feel about each other at any given point in time, it certainly can’t be as easy going as presented in The Drifters’ Girl with the changing line-up just accepted without question. There must have been resentments, fights and more bad behaviour than we see, so how did Faye control all of that to keep the show on the road for as long as she did?

And for a musical about her it seems almost inexplicable that Faye has less than half a dozen songs in two hours and twenty minutes. Beverley Knight is spectacular in all of them, she is completely in Faye’s head and her vocals are spine-tingling, filling the auditorium with an outstanding emotional power that has made her one of the West End’s favourite leading ladies. So only imagine how great she would be if her character was better fleshed-out and given the central focus in almost every scene that she is supposed to have. Knight makes absolutely everything she can of Faye and underusing her feels like a criminal waste of her luminous talent.

The Drifters’ Girl is still in preview for another week or more but while the show will tighten up, the underlying structure won’t change. What Church has been able to do with a cast of just five adult performers is remarkable in a fast-paced production (although theatre’s a tendency to overly favour stage right will create greater restricted view issues in some parts of the house), while Antony Ward’s set design of moveable vertical and horizontal neon tubes, black panels and variegated walls has a feel for the era and the tone. This is a great idea for a nostalgic musical that will please fans of the Drifters but you can’t help feeling that the Drifters’ Girl herself could have had more bite.

The Drifters’ Girl is at the Garrick Theatre until 26 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Film Review: Death of England: Face to Face

One of the great theatre series of the past eighteen months, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ The Death of England universe adds a new perspective by bringing together characters Michael and Delroy for the first time in a hybrid film, Face to Face, given a one-night only cinema release ahead of its free Sky Arts broadcast on 25 November. Building on two fierce monologues premiering either side of the first lockdown, this latest edition extends the vivid world of two friends struggling to connect when race, identity, family ties and concepts of Britishness come between them. Filmed in the closed Lyttleton Theatre, Face to Face joins the the National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet as a co-production with Sky Arts that blurs and extends the boundaries between theatre and film, being made available to audiences for free in one of Dyer’s first projects as Deputy Artistic Director.

Although a piece that can standalone, there is value in some familiarity with the preceding plays with the story picking up shortly after the conclusion of Death of England: Delroy which memorably (and briefly) reopened the National Theatre last autumn and christened the Olivier’s in-the-round space. Fascinating explorations of working class masculinity and legacy, the separation of the two friends stems from Michael’s rant at his father’s funeral, directed at his best friend, and from Delroy missing the birth of his baby daughter due to an officious police stop and search detailed in his monologue.

The expectation that Face to Face will involve a decisive clash between Delroy and Michael is part of the set-up as Dyer and Williams look to explore notions of male rage and the recourse to violence that stems from feelings of isolation and otherness that merely perpetuate rather than resolve issues. Filmed in Delroy’s flat during the course of several hours in which Michael unexpectedly brings his niece to see her father for the first time, Dyer and Williams’ third instalment is primarily a linguistic piece in which (as is their style) both characters report events in retrospect while dramatically reproducing voices of other unseen characters and each other’s. As a director, Dyer retains this approach to a point but uses film techniques to create drive and visual interest by placing multiple versions of Delroy and Michael on screen simultaneously.

We see the pair in the present speaking to the viewer and casting aspersions on the other’s testimony while at the same time looking back to hours before to replay the scenario they are describing. Only, when Michael remembers these events, he continues to speak for Delroy with his voice coming from Delroy’s lips and vice versa, linking back to the original stage plays in their use of mimicry to tell multi-character stories. It’s a technique that takes some getting used to, but is used sparringly enough that it rarely jars but references the particular theatrical language of Dyer and Williams’ writing style.

The version control of Michaels and Delroys at different points in time is also drawn from this context, and a feature of both earlier Death of England stories has been this tendency to talk about events in retrospect during which the individual slips into dialogue as though it were the dramatic present. In Face to Face, that idea is given a visual signature by editing and layering shots of the actors together to imply the present and past versions co-existing rather than using flashback techniques or a more simplified chronological structure. Here, it also creates a jauntiness that highlights the comedy in the writing, where Delroy or Michael can comment on their own behaviour in the recent past and, crucially, each others by raising an ironic eyebrow or appearing from unusual places.

The overall effect can be hit and miss but it does two important things; first in utilising camera techniques unavailable if this were purely a stage piece that offer an alternative visual means to tell this story, while, secondly, questioning the veracity and integrity of the storyteller. One thing audiences have learned from meeting Delroy and Michael separately are the areas where their accounts complement or contradict one another through the information they choose to share or omit. As a theatre studies exercise, placing these three plays side-by-side like oral history testimonies highlights these differences, suggesting an ultimate truth lies somewhere between all of them while acknowledging the validity of individual interpretations and, most importantly, noting that each successive play offers character as well as dramatic development in the overall story.

There is an integral he said / he said structure at work, but both Delroy and Face to Face chronologically move the story on, so while Alan’s funeral and Michael’s speech as well as Delroy’s confrontation with Michael at the hospital where his daughter is born are continual references, key turning points in the friendship and the narrative, each new play takes place months later, giving the story fresh momentum. The comprehensiveness of this universe and the vivid nature of the surrounding characters is such that new scenarios for them appear to grow organically from what has gone before. By the end of Face to Face, we know both men a little better, not only how they have dealt with the consequences of their individual stories, guilt and separation, but the audience is shown their friendship, how they interact and respond to one another when their pal is physically present in front of them which moves the Death of England series from memory plays in which individuals look backwards, to a construct where activities in the present equally shape the outcomes and suggested future direction of their relationship.

We see this shift from past to present, from reflection to forward-looking across the film through the change in their friendship, which seemed hostile and broken beyond repair, moving first to common ground and rapprochement and then to camaraderie and mutual support as the pair must unite to take care of the baby and deal with the persistent angry neighbour upstairs. And it is a slow thawing as the issues of identity, race, family and betrayal play out, so while these were already rich and multifaceted characters, from their interaction, the banter and teasing, comes an extraordinary affection as well.

These two people know each other incredibly well, best friends for more than half their lives and as the previous instalments have demonstrated, they can hurt each other more deeply than anyone. But underneath the bile, outrage and anger, these men are forever connected, not quite two halves of a whole but a partnership that may change or even lapse yet remains solid at its foundation. Face to Face reminds Michael and Delroy that for all the things they have allowed to come between them and to distinguish them, ultimately they are more the same than different, grown in the same soil of their East London neighbourhood and better together than apart. And while all of that may sound grandiose or even overly romantic, Dyer and Williams rarely make it so in practice, couching their tale in explorations of male violence and the effects of bandwagoning when so much else is at stake.

When we meet them in Chapter 1 entitled ‘The Aftermath’, Delroy’s flat is in considerable disarray as though an altercation of some kind has taken place. With it comes certain expectations about the cause of that disruption against which Dyer and Williams must work, managing and subverting our expectations about the next 80-minutes. And, eventually, there is a well-staged confrontation that looks at why men commit violent acts, notions of tribal loyalties and the results of these encounters which only ever escalate rather than resolve a dispute.

More interesting though is the impulse control the leads experience in which the tendency to violence erupts instinctually and almost in spite of themselves. Too limited time is ultimately given to this debate but there are character insights into the nature and cultural expectations of modern masculinity, particularly when juxtaposed with a nurturing or caring role for Delroy’s new baby. This muddies the waters for them all and suggests a future direction for these stories exploring manliness in transition as age and responsibility alter their view of themselves and their primary purpose as men.

Face to Face is a chance for Giles Terera to return to a role that ill-health prevented him from playing and was instead assumed by his understudy Michael Balogun who gave an astonishing performance to reopen the National Theatre with Death of England: Delroy – now both actors are touring in a two-character piece. Terera has lost none of his feel for Delroy and here the character has somewhat mellowed, taken beyond the painful and incendiary circumstances that preceded the birth of his child. Stuck alone in lockdown, Delroy is now calmer, more at ease with his paternal status and ready to revisit his feelings about the Fletcher family.

Terera plays the street-smart Delroy as a man maturing as the story unfolds, able to put the past into a different perspective to find the long connection to it, the integrated experience of shared memory and friendship with Michael and sister Carly that will continue to shape his future. But Delroy is also concerned with legacy and the world that he is creating, so while Terera finds comedy in the appearance of Alan’s mouth on his baby which links seamlessly with the conclusion of the previous play, he also acknowledges the impact of the baby’s presence in defining not just who Delroy is but who he now needs to be.

Neil Maskell also inherits the role of Michael from Rafe Spall who launched the series in terrific style with the powerful series opener in February 2020. But Michael too is a different man now, chastened and regretful about his past actions and seeing his niece as an opportunity to make amends with his best friend. Maskell’s Michael is almost a broken man by this point, certainly some energy or feeling within him has died since the manic funeral oration that severed his friendship. We got an inkling of someone trying to turn their life around through Delroy’s earlier monologue and Maskell gives him an inner calm and compassion, a man who has learned things about himself that he doesn’t particularly like and now wants to atone.

He feels like the junior partner sometimes, waiting for Delory’s lead but while ashamed, he recognises the value of this long friendship in defining who he is now, their shared memories and experiences integral to Michael’s personality and confidence. But Michael is still haunted by his overbearing parents and we briefly glimpse both mother and father in cutaways – played by Maggie Saunders and the wonderful Phil Daniels. These flashes of memory and unresolved issues with Alan continue to shape the lives of both men, while Maskell also draws on the greater exploration of the relationship with sister Carly (Amy Newton) who now connects the friends. This strong Fletcher family dynamic drives Maskell’s Michael, seeing their new blood link as a means to repair the relationship and, while tentative, Michael is the most forward-looking of the two as he seeks reconciliation and a more stable future connection, something he is prepared to physically fight for.

Death of England: Face to Face may be most meaningful to those with an understanding of the character histories but does offer both a satisfying conclusion and future possibilities for the series. Should Dyer and Williams turn their hand to a female voice, then Carly seems an obvious choice, although domineering Alan may eventually earn his own prequal. Primarily, the continuation of this story in a new hybrid format after showing Delroy for free during the second lockdown, further emphasises the growing adaptability of the Death of England collection as it explores the changing demands of British identity.

Death of England: Face to Face was screened in cinemas on 2 November and will be broadcast via Sky Arts on 25 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida Theatre Live Stream

The Tragedy of Macbeth - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

With the return to live theatre and the excitement of season announcements running months ahead, the energy and enthusiasm for hybrid approaches has noticeably died down. Perhaps that is inevitable given the long period of closure, but it hasn’t disappeared completely, particularly among smaller venues whose limited physical capacity can be considerably expanded with live streaming of sold-out shows. And the model for this is something venues are quietly experimenting with, enhanced by the National Theatre’s recent announcement that its NT Live cinema screenings will resume in 2022. The question for theatres is how to find a judicious balance between in-person and other forms of content that valuably enhance its artistic programme and access requirements.

At present, venues are taking quite different approaches to providing online content. The Donmar recently recorded its Constellations series performed at the Vaudeville Theatre and is now offering them in a rentable ‘as live’ archive format, much as the National Theatre has done with its past production catalogue available via its subscription service National Theatre at Home. But these two organisations are also joining forces to bring Kit Harrington’s February turn in Henry V to a cinema audience in a mixed model approach.

Over at the Young Vic, there is a commitment to screening all of its big shows at some point during the run, offering a selection of dates once public performances have begun and looks to the NT Live approach of having in-person and online audiences simultaneously, something that requires careful organisation and camera placement to give both an equally weighted experience. The Old Vic managed this with its version of The Dumb Waiter, although future support for the In-Camera series, of which it was becoming quite adept, remains uncertain with no plans to broadcast future shows as yet.

The Almeida, however is taking an entirely different approach again, providing a Half Term week of online-only performances for its immersive and atmospheric but oversubscribed production of The Tragedy of Macbeth starring James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan. The theatre is relatively new to the live stream programme, but it made a sparking entrance into this new market place with its debut online production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn which was later fully staged once the venue reopened. And with this live-stream-focused Macbeth, it offers director Yael Farber a very different medium to present her three-hour show, giving the cast four nights to play to the camera rather than trying to divide their attention between the house and your house. The result is a focused piece with a cinematic flair that merges film and theatre forms to create a truly hybrid experience.

But let’s start with Macbeth and the production choices that the camera is attempting to capture; Farber’s interpretation is a representative version of Scotland with a simplified militaristic design that favours clean lines and plain, unpatterned fabrics. Although not announced in advance, the production seems designed with the cinema screen in mind, a feature of Farber’s decision-making generally in the creation of symbolic hinterland spaces where the focus can be on character and text. The blue and white colour scheme gives The Tragedy of Macbeth a noir quality without the melodrama that looks rich and shadowy on screen, especially when punctuated by stark white light, while retaining a warmth that draws out both the darkness and passion in the text. With water and plastic screens used to create self-reflective surfaces, there is a painterly visual language that is strong and deep, translating well through the camera by creating a captivating and claustrophobic space in which to situate the drama.

Crucial to the success of any Macbeth are the character choices the Company make which determine how the play should function. Here, the leading couple are driven by pure ambition and while the be-suited three witches plant the seed, the ensuing drama emerges, quite consistently from the couple’s actions and their unforeseen consequences. With characters on stage throughout (which would be more visible to the theatre audience as the close-up camera only captures them fleetingly), the Wyrd Sisters are used to focus our attention on the couple and crucial private moments where decisions are made and where the course of events is determined.

As Big Mama points out in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, the marriage bed is the rocks of the relationship and what happens in it affects the unity of the couple. And so it proves here as Farber stages intimate scenes of conspiracy and the growing distance between the Macbeths in their bedroom. The Wyrd Sisters are seen to hold on to their bedsheets between scenes and are ritualistically tasked with making the bed before the couple use it. It is a clever piece of symbolism that aligns the unity of the couple with their own eventual destiny, and as Macbeth is increasingly absorbed into his own paranoia, the once physical and passionate relationship observed on his return from war becomes about two isolated people driven apart by their ambition as well as their differing responses to the crime, all emerging from and reflected in the state of their marriage bed.

Productions often struggle with Macbeth’s character trajectory which is wavering and uncertain throughout the play so unlike most Shakespearian villains, Macbeth is plagued with deep conscience and is not a character who announces his dastardly resolution at the start as Iago or Richard III do while inviting the audience to sit back and watch a malicious plan unfold. Instead, Macbeth uses his soliloquies to examine his own feelings of guilt that constantly attack his purpose, preventing a linear progression from soldier to murderer to tyrant-king. And this is something that Farber’s approach recognises, building in these moments of doubt and confusion as Macbeth moves through the story.

It is also notable how Shakespeare uses ghosts in this play to enhance those questions of culpability and regret. Justin Kurzel’s exemplary 2015 film took a PTSD angle showing a warrior already steeped in the blood of men who died under his command in battle who reappear to him throughout. Farber’s production doesn’t emphasis this but notes the value of Banquo’s ghost in determining Macbeth’s mental state and as a manifestation of his guilt that rapidly affects his sanity. And while the ghost-figure in Hamlet appears not to his murderer but to the avenger as a prompt to action, here, Farber reinforces the connection between conscience and Macbeth’s fluctuating development that constantly second-guesses itself, retreating and advancing in ways that add depth to the production.

So, McArdle’s protagonist travels well through these complex stages, bringing out the changing psychology of the character which suits the intimate proximity of Farber’s cameras which weave in and around the action, barely acknowledging the theatrical space in which it takes place. It takes the audience right into the emotional and mental experience of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is the driving force – another clear decision – in the first part of the play, shaming her husband into action and questioning his manly resolution. Later, as the rewards of their horrific deed become tangible, McArdle opts for an instant plunge into madness that explores Macbeth’s fractured thinking while couching his subsequent tyranny in these terms, as a mind beyond reason.

Less successful is actually encouraging the audience to like or to care about Macbeth as an early antihero, and this interpretation though convincing in its presentation of the ambitious warrior driven to madness by his own lust for power and his failure to calculate the consequences of achieving it, doesn’t quite capture the comradely charisma that made Macbeth not only a beloved leader of men in battle but subsequently the obvious and entirely unchallenged choice for monarch following Malcolm’s flight into exile. There is something deeply alluring in the character of Macbeth, a man somehow not beyond redemption through his self-awareness, making him fascinating and enduringly appealing to actors and audiences centuries on.

This separates him from Claudius, Iago or Richard III who have a love-to-hate quality, but there is nothing of the soap opera villain about Macbeth and instead his very human failings give him some of the hero-protagonist characteristics of self-reflection, moral consciousness and even a linguistic dignity and gravitas that Shakespeare instils in his other leading characters that encourages the audience to contemplate aspects of their own behaviour. Despite an otherwise nuanced and thoughtful approach, McArdle’s Macbeth doesn’t quite reach that attractive leader of men quality and so the viewer is never fully on his side despite ourselves which makes a three hour performance hard to sustain.

There is also a lack of romantic chemistry between McArdle and Ronan that is quite exposed onscreen and, in fact, the performances are far stronger when the leads move apart in the second half of the production. Ronan, making her UK stage debut is clearly an accomplished film actor and brings some interesting depths to a slightly expanded role of Lady Macbeth that takes over occasional lines from other roles that reinforce the development of a character trumped by her own ambition. Ronan is too light ahead of Duncan’s murder, with insufficient grounding to talk of regicide in the same tone as planning a dinner party, but Ronan builds the character from there.

A very meaningful decision places her at the home of the Macduffs and forces her to witness a slaughter she has failed to prevent – much as Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is present at an equally brutal scene in Kurzel’s film. With little explanation in Shakespeare’s text for her madness, the slow detachment from her husband and her horrified reactions to his tyranny make perfect sense for her character and Ronan is excellent in presenting Lady Macbeth’s destruction as the consequence of unexpected and graphic violence emanating from her husband’s loss of control. Although the wife of a soldier in active wartime, Ronan makes clear the protected life she has led in comparison, with Duncan’s ruined corpse her first taste of the terrible acts that her husband is in theory far more used to ordering and seeing.

The onscreen experience gives the supporting roles plenty of space and there is greater clarity in the factions that spill out from Duncan’s murder with Malcolm and particularly Macduff given a solid purpose in trying to restore the balance in Scotland’s government. Emun Elliott s Macduff is particularly affecting, a once loyal friend turned bitter enemy. Showing the close and loving family playing together around the court and good friends with the central couple as well as the implication of a loving marriage with Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff is well captured on camera and vital to explaining Macduff and Lady Macbeth’s development. And in a production in which male emotion is embraced, Elliott brings a visceral intensity to the scene where he learns of his family’s brutal demise that transcends the screen, displaying a considerable range and suggesting he might be well cast as Macbeth himself.

This approach to The Tragedy of Macbeth feels incredibly rich and, despite a slow start, once the first murder has taken place, the show builds considerable tension on screen. It’s not perfect but it is cinematic, and the Almeida’s decision to pause in-person performances for a week to produce this live stream has offered interesting possibilities in the staging and style that doesn’t need to find compromises that suit simultaneous presentation in two different forms. With live streaming potentially allowing more people to see the show internationally in one night than across the entire run, and the chance to rent it as an archive show subsequently, there may be different creative approaches to how hybrid theatre now operates in practice, but the model continues to evolve as venues find their feet.

The Tragedy of Macbeth was live streamed on 27-30 October and runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

%d bloggers like this: