Author Archives: Maryam Philpott

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy.

Anatomy of a Suicide – Royal Court

Anatomy of a Suicide - Royal Court

When you think about all the things you’ve inherited from your mother, what springs to mind? A particular physical resemblance perhaps; the colour of her hair, the shape of your nose or your height. Maybe you have characteristics of her personality; a fiery temper, a quick wit or a placid demeanour. Some will receive a troublesome genetic legacy that passes through the maternal chromosomes – male baldness perhaps – but one of the things you rarely imagine your mother could give you was a predisposition to suicide.

Alice Birch’s new play, premiering at the Royal Court, considers just that possibility in the story of three generations of the same family – grandmother, mother and granddaughter – who at a relatively young age consider ending their lives, and the effect this subsequently has on the child they leave behind. Anatomy of a Suicide may not be cheery viewing, and its central premise about the genetic transmission of trauma is scientifically dubious, but Birch’s play is one of the most innovative and exciting pieces of theatre in 2017.

Carol, Anna and Bonnie never properly know each other, yet they are as closely related as it’s possible to be, direct descendants in fact. Each woman’s story is presented simultaneously, and though occurring decades apart, overlap and resonate in what is an ambitiously conceived and carefully controlled narrative. Its visual style is initially overwhelming and trying to concentrate on what seems like three separate stories is distracting, you’re always more involved with one than any other, but give yourself time to adjust to the style and you’re soon engrossed.

The play opens in the 1970s in the aftermath of Carol’s first suicide attempt as she apologises profusely to her bewildered husband while claiming the ingestion of so many pills and slitting her wrists was an accident. Unable to bear the idea of living, Carol is advised to have a child to give her stability and meaning, but will it only delay the inevitable? In the 1990s Anna is a mess, taking drugs regularly and like Carol before her, entirely lost in the world she inhabits. At her lowest point Anna meets Jamie and moves back to her childhood home to start a family, but sinks into a postnatal depression that seems unshakeable. Finally, in the 2030s doctor Bonnie is isolated and troubled by the demands of her job, until she too is drawn to the family home seeking some kind of escape from her loneliness and connection to the past which she cannot control.

One of the most impressive elements of this story is how clearly Birch must have visualised it as she wrote, in order to carefully construct how each story would be unveiled and where particular phrases or experiences would echo across the stage. The technical aspects of playwrighting are commonly underestimated as an art form, and although it is similar to novel writing in giving first importance to the creation of interesting characters and story, a playwright must also have some concept of how their work will look and flow in physical form.

A director will get the play on its feet, but they need strong structures and guidance from the written text, and here the harmonious partnership of Birch and Katie Mitchell brings meaning and credibility to the interaction between the three stories, each getting their own time to develop and create impact, while sitting together as a tightly paced thematic unit. You never get the sense that these three stories are happening in isolation, that they are independent of what’s happening in the scenario next door, and much of that is down to the clarity of Birch’s writing, while Mitchell utilises the small Royal Court space to highlight the similarities between them even though each story occurs in its own confined physical location and separate decade.

Birch’s play is all about women and the outcome of societal pressures to live a certain way, particularly when subverting their own happiness to expectations of motherhood and duty, a theme also examined in the recent film Lady Macbeth which she also penned. Although secondary characters exist in each of three scenarios, they are sketchily drawn in comparison with the three leads suggesting the somewhat muffled engagement each woman has with the world, barely registering anyone else’s existence.

In a two hour show without interval and all three women on stage almost throughout, Mitchell controls the complicated staging extremely well and the pace never slackens. Each story unfolds at different rates with speedy and slow burning elements that keep the audience invested in each while moving between the eras seamlessly. At times conversations from two time periods are overlaid so particular words are said at the same time, or the same phrase is repeated in a different way highlighting the connection between these women. Sometimes, we move rapidly between stories with only a line or two in each decade, while at other times one woman comes more strongly into focus as the key moments in her life are played out uninterrupted. As I mentioned above, for this unusual approach to work successfully, both Birch and Mitchell had to have a strong grasp of the effect they wanted to create and it is this obvious clarity of vision that makes Anatomy of a Suicide so narratively and technically satisfying.

Creating three characters with similar but differently troubled experiences, across three decades while keeping the audience invested in all of them is no mean feat. Hattie Morahan is simply outstanding as Carol, a woman who decides quite rationally that she just cannot go on. Morahan is calm and cool throughout, never resorting to histrionics or overplaying the “woe is me” sentiment, yet manages to convey the deepest struggle and pain of a woman who has no desire to fight for any kind of life. Carol is entirely driven by the need to end her life, and while she conscientiously lives on for the sake of her young daughter, it’s clear in Morahan’s moving and subtly substantial performance that each moment of living is agony to her, and as the years go by her struggle pulls her further and further away from reality.

Fresh from her critically acclaimed role in The Glass Menagerie, Kate O’Flynn plays Carol’s grown-up daughter Anna sent into a torrent of drugs and alcohol abuse to obliterate the events of her childhood. Yet, Anna’s story seems to go in the opposite direction, away from her trauma and towards a more redemptive future as she finds love and family security after addressing her problems. O’Flynn takes Anna from spiralling addiction to the normality of a warm family life, capturing the humour and openness of her character, but shows her inability to deal with sudden knocks that send her hurtling unexpectedly towards her own moment of decision.

Initially with so much to pull the audience into the experiences of Carol and Anna, Bonnie’s much more gently paced story feels almost on the side-lines, but this is purposeful and Birch balances this later in the show when Bonnie’s story is given its place in the light of what we then know about her relatives. With such a family legacy, Bonnie is afraid to feel anything, fearing the consequences of what she sees as an inevitable pull towards the end. Adelle Leonce gives a wonderfully contained performance as Bonnie, who is also somehow distanced from the life she is leading, a figure not in control of her own destiny, trying to limit the knock-on effect for others.

And while the secondary characters have less time to shine, Paul Hilton is excellent as Carol’s exasperated husband, and in the neighbouring scenario, as Anna’s caring father. Birch’s exploration of how lives can be shaped by forces beyond individual control is replicated in the doll-like costume changes as each woman is dressed on-stage by external hands between scenes, which is an integral part of this play’s impact.

Whether or not you believe that trauma can be inherited as easily as the family home that traps these women, Anatomy of a Suicide is a fascinating and emotive experience. Watching three powerful stories unfold side-by-side is unlike almost anything else you’ve seen – although the staging of multiple perspectives has tones of the National’s current production of Part 1 of Angels in America except the action occurs at the same time as well. With three incredibly strong central performances, and a brave approach to a difficult subject, Anatomy of a Suicide reveals how powerfully a single act can reverberate across the decades, shaping the lives of those yet to exist.

Anatomy of a Suicide is at the Royal Court until 8th July. Tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Film Preview: Churchill – BFI Southbank

Churchill Film

It might be hard to believe that we don’t already know everything about Churchill, so often have we heard various interpretations of his story. But his apparent reluctance to commit troops to the D-Day landings in the days before they sailed is the subject of Alex von Tunzelmann’s new film that examines the price of leadership. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’, Shakespeare told us, and that filters through a film that examines the war from the perspective of the people who ran it.

The First World War gave us the stereotype of the bloodthirsty General sending millions of men to die while living in comfort far behind the lines. In this image, war is something that happens to other people, the cannon fodder or collateral damage that vindicates (or not) the strategies of great men. And while that image persists in the public mind, it has been challenged somewhat among history scholars. This film in some ways adds to this debate as it examines the role of leaders in times of crisis and the difficult choices they are forced to make under the exigencies of war.

And surprisingly for a film set in 1944, this is really all about the long-lasting effects of the First World War on military strategy, politics and society. The plot is relatively straightforward, at the start of the film the US and British military forces led by General Eisenhower and General Montgomery agree that the moment is right to launch a retaliatory strike to drive the German army out of Northern France; Churchill alone decries the plan, worried about the loss of life and haunted by the disastrous campaign he led in the Dardanelles nearly 30 years earlier – frequently referenced in shots of the sea. As the moment draws near, Churchill does all he can to prevent the landings and when he can’t, sinks into a depression that leaves him questioning his role and purpose.

As historian and writer Alex von Tunzelmann explained at the Q&A that followed the film, this is quite a different picture of Churchill than the one we imagine in World War Two, an image largely taken from his defiant speeches during the Blitz three years earlier. By 1944 however, he is shown to be more fearful and considerably more fragile, both physically and emotionally, as the strain of war and the need to balance social and military control take their toll. For some this will be a frustrating film to watch because of that, and the conflation of events presses months and even years of decision-making into a few days leading up to the landings.

This is a very quiet film in many respects focusing tightly on the emotional build-up to the last big push amongst a small group of senior figures, a theatrical staging with debate at its heart. And we never see any of the consequences – no shots of boats sailing into action, no soldiers on the beaches – this is not an action film but a tightly focused study of leadership. Is it accurate history, well there are plenty of reviews that will tell you it’s not, but it does have something to tell us about the psychology of leadership in times of crisis, a subject too rarely covered by history scholarship.

Many actors have played Churchill – Richard Burton, John Lithgow, Robert Hardy and Albert Finney among them – and there will be more to come including Gary Oldman’s interpretation in Atonement director Joe Wright’s forthcoming The Darkest Hour. At the BFI event accompanying this preview, Brian Cox likened his Churchill to King Lear, who at this point in his premiership is far from the strong leader he once was. Now, Churchill is a man who’s lost his way, actively standing in the way of war strategy in his attempts to delay the D-Day operation. And so the film sets up two distinct versions of leadership, that represented by Churchill – emotional, sulky and blinkered – and a more recognisable style exemplified by Eisenhower and Montgomery, men who knew what had to be done, arranged their facts and decided it was a risk worth taking for the greater good.

In scene after scene we see Churchill behave irascibly, taking his frustration out on the secretaries and isolating himself from the support around him including his wife, played with headmistressy charm by Miranda Richardson. And as events escalate we see him develop crazy ideas about leading the men into battle as a way to soothe his conscience. But while many scenes are told from this perspective, it’s far from a one note performance as Cox invests his interpretation of Churchill with a deep conscience and torment about the consequences of strategic decisions on the men who have to carry them out on the ground. It may not be the historical truth, but it gives Cox a chance to explore the madness of leadership that links to Lear and how the pressure of it can become infantilising when the once-influential leader is side-lined by more powerful voices.

The structure of the film also gives us a chance to see leadership in other ways, as Montgomery gets to give his version of an inspirational “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech to his men before they set sail, to which they respond enthusiastically. Julian Wadham’s approach here is less jingoistic and more sensitive, recognising their fear but using the experience of a war leader to call on the courage of his troops and their reliance on each other for support in the fight. Camaraderie is one of the motivators for men in combat, and in this brief scene the audience is shown the human side of a leader inspiring and calming his army all the while knowing what lies ahead for them. Montgomery is a realist about war, he sees what it will be, but has the ability to look them in the eye and ask them to be brave.

Equally interesting is the figure of Eisenhower, played by John Slattery whose wry style seems an unlikely choice. The parallels with Churchill are writ large throughout and Eisenhower is shot in several lonely poses as he bears the burden of responsibility; while Churchill walks the beaches, Eisenhower stares out to sea on the hill. For much of the film he seems a cold and distant figure, calculating the right time to strike and, despite Churchill’s pleas, refusing to countenance the impact on fighting men. But this version of Eisenhower is just another type of leader, a step beyond Montgomery who shuts down all emotion in order to make the most difficult decisions of the war. It’s not that he is unaffected by them, he just refuses to display those doubts in public, and in a well depicted moment as the decision to proceed with D-Day is given, Slattery allows dread to cross his face for an instant and has a tear in his eye for what’s to come, before he continues his lonely vigil on the hill as battle commences. By the end of the film, Eisenhower is no longer the heartless monster we saw 98 minutes earlier, but man alone making an impossible choice for the greater good.

In what is by far the best scene of the film, Churchill also has an interview with the King who has a word or two on a different kind of duty to impart to his Prime Minister. Here James Purefoy plays against his usual type as the gentle monarch with subtle touches of the speech impediment that continued to affect him. It’s a powerful scene driven by the idea of public duty in which the King convinces Churchill that he can best serve his people, not by being on the boats in battle, but as a figurehead, a focus for hope and inspiration, a role the King acknowledges is the only useful purpose that either of them can have during the conflict. It’s a surprisingly touching speech about the sacrifice of personal ambition and desire for a life of public service which Purefoy delivers superbly and, despite no more than 5 minutes of screen time, he anchors the film’s multi-perspective examination of the different kinds of responsibilities that come with leadership.

Churchill may not be an accurate representation of the hours before D-Day, it is a little repetitive at times, and without any battle scenes it does make all these discussions look quite divorced from the experience of war that divests them of their narrative drama, but in considering the difficult strategic choices being made at the heart of government, it does begin to unpick the stereotype of unfeeling Generals having a high time behind the lines. With more movies to come, the nature of Churchill himself and the characteristics that fashioned his leadership of the Second World War will continue to fascinate us as we strive to understand the man often cited as the greatest Briton.

Churchill is in cinemas nationwide from 16 June and visit the BFI website for more preview events. Follow this blog on Twitter @cuturalcap1


42nd Street – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

A dastardly diva, conniving chorus girls, the spikey director and the talented young ingenue with little experience who just wants to be a star – it can only be a classic Hollywood musical. The 1933 film of 42nd Street became a bone fide Broadway musical in 1980 and is currently enjoying a glitzy run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Maybe it’s the long years of austerity, maybe the political polarisation that led to Brexit, but the West End is a pretty nostalgic place to be right now with An American in Paris, Dreamgirls and even Love in Idleness transporting us back to a mythical time when all that mattered was love, music and dancing. Any night of the week you can be swept away by showtunes, glitter and misty sentiment, and it’s no bad thing.

There is a darker side to all this of course which most of these shows choose to gloss over; for someone to be the star they have to push someone else aside first, and Hollywood loves to explore the, predominantly female, battle between the established luminary and the bright young thing snapping at her heels. It’s a trope used in All About Eve, as Bette Davis nurtured a calculating young fan who sets about stealing her life – a much anticipated stage version will arrive in London next year starring Cate Blanchett – we saw it too in Phantom of the Opera as diva Carlotta must make way at the Paris opera for the more innocent Christine, in Black Swan as Natalie Portman replaces old hand Winona Ryder as prima ballerina, and even Dreamgirls is the story of supressing one band member’s dream to sell another. Showbiz is a brutal world and the next big thing is waiting in the wings wearing your costume.

42nd Street takes a slightly gentler view of this process of replacement, but the outcome is the same. At an audition for a new show called Pretty Lady hardnosed director Julian Marsh is putting the chorus through their paces when Peggy Sawyer arrives late. Initially sent away, Marsh reconsiders when he sees Peggy dance and invites her to join the troupe who head to Philadelphia for tryouts. Meanwhile, unable to dance as well as she sings, star of the show Dorothy Brock’s poisonous attitude and arrogance manages to rankle with cast and crew alike, especially as her private life threatens the show’s finances. On opening night in Philadelphia, Peggy accidentally scuppers Dorothy’s performance, paving the way for a new star to take her place. As Peggy tries to hide from the responsibility and pressure, will the show go on in New York?

The choreography in 42nd Street is what you’ll remember and, as with the balletic style of An American in Paris, this tap-focused show is at its best when all 50 dancers are on stage delivering one stunning routine after another. Like many shows of its era, we get to see both behind and in front of the curtain as song and dance numbers from ‘real life’ are mixed in with ones from the fictional show they’re creating, which means the plot is essentially paper thin, and don’t ask me what the point of Pretty Lady was meant to be, but you do get a range of sequences that take in everything from 30s Busby Berkeley and Vaudeville to 50s MGM classic musicals with their everyday singing-in-the-street charm.

As the start, the curtain goes up just a few inches to show a line of tap-dancing feet, and from here on in it’s a riot of sound, colour and cartoon-like characters, painted backdrops, gold lamé and good wholesome fun. The very best sections come from the faux musical including the Busby Berkeley-inspired Keep Young and Beautiful in which the dancers lay in a circle on stage, like synchronised swimmers, using their arms and legs to create a series of intricate patterns, while a large mirror is lowered from the ceiling so the audience can see both the stage and aerial view which is a lovely touch – although if you’re sitting higher than the Royal Circle you won’t see the full reflection.

Equally delightful is the I’m in the Money section as chorus girls dance on with their own round podia made to look like coins which they place on the floor and tap on top of, while the male dancers fill in the gaps in top hat and tails. It’s a dazzling spectacle of white, silver and gold that showcases the increasing complexity of Randy Skinner’s choreography that builds on the original work of Gower Champion, which the cast executes with faultless precision.

But it just gets better and better, building up to the final scene in Pretty Lady, the title song 42nd Street which references the fantasy sequences in several Gene Kelly films. Beginning on a black stage with a spotlight on Peggy, it rapidly becomes the street itself with neon theatre signs advertising shows up and down the famous street while mini-stories of New York life are told around the stage; the sailors, the party girls, the Park Avenue set. The pace and movement build frantically until a gunshot clears the stage and a set of steps unfolds. If you’ve seen enough classic musicals you know what happens next, a show-stopping tap routine with steps that light-up as the full ensemble delivers a rousing finale.

Just like An American in Paris, there is so much joy in the dance sequences that any other problems the show has – including its somewhat old-fashioned and sexist instance on youth and beauty –  just evaporate, and with so many musicals really focused on the singing, it’s refreshing to see two in quick succession that remind audiences what a great choreographer can do, and, in our pared back times, the effect of a stage full of people performing completely in sync.

Given that this is essentially a caricature, outside of the musical numbers the characters haven’t much personality of their own which gives the performers very little to cling on to. Clare Halse’s Peggy is perky and talented with no malice in her. She aches to be a star but the slightest knock has her scampering back to her small-town home. Still it’s hard to dislike her and Halse’s tap talent is genuinely impressive. Stuart Neal as Pretty Girl’s male lead Billy sings and dances beautifully but has little to do backstage but make an early pass at Peggy that goes unremembered for the rest of the show.

Tom Lister finds depth in the second act as scary director Julian Marsh, and although he has no chemistry with Peggy, his discovery of her talent and growing affection for her is well charted, while Lister’s voice is delightful. Stealing the show musically is Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock, relishing every sneering put down and hissy fit as the diva, but finding real emotion and sympathy in her love songs as she aches for lover Pat in tunes like I Only Have Eyes for You and You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me which are as touching as they are melodious, and prevent her from being a two-dimensional villain.

The pros and cons of a particular show may seem trivial in light of this weekend’s events, and the previous attacks in Westminster and Manchester, but arts and culture have an important social role; they bring us together and reflect our communities back at us, they create empathy, understanding and the ability to see things from another perspective – not just of people half way round the world but sometimes also the ones right next door – and the more we know about something, the less we fear it. So, shows like An American in Paris and 42nd Street may not have any searing political insight to offer, but they tell us that right now we’re missing something, something we almost certainly never had – sometimes we want to escape to a world in which love, singing and dancing is all that matters. And, honestly, what’s so wrong with that?

42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 10 February 2018 and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Echoes Across the Century – Guildhall Art Gallery

Echoes Across the Century - Guildhall Art Gallery

The memory of the First World War continues to be hotly debated. From the moment it finished to the present day, just who owns the idea of “true experience” has led to considerable discontent as individuals demanded their chance to be heard. In the immediate aftermath, many veterans felt sidelined by a national female grief – given physical monument in the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – that prioritised the loss experienced by mothers, wives and girlfriends whose menfolk never returned. But the with the proliferation of servicemen memoirs from the late 1920s and its 1960s rediscovery that returned the emotion and sorrow of the First World War to public consciousness, the only truth historians and national ceremonies wanted to tell was that of soldier experience.

Now, a hundred years on, the centenary commemorations have created space for other voices, for the millions of people who were daily affected by a consuming conflict that dominated Europe for four years, and whose impact lasted long after the Armistice. Whether fighting in khaki, in the air, on the sea or enduring the privations of the Home Front, there has been a drive to understand the first total war from a variety of perspectives. Latest among them is Guildhall Art Gallery’s new show, Echoes Across the Century that puts the issue of female grief and loss back at the forefront of exploration.

Jessie Ellman was a nurse whose schoolteacher fiancé, William Hicks, was killed in 1917. Her response was a lifetime of devoted devastation and although she married again, many years later published a death notice in The Times to remember him. Channelling Ellman’s sorrow and lost hopes, artist Jane Churchill had created a number of fantasy artworks that visualise a dream world in which Jesse is reunited with William, and, with no formal grave, Churchill attempts to give him a more fitting and beautiful final engagement with nature. In each 3D box scene, Churchill has cut out various types of landscape using card and plastic, and inserted a small soldier figure – in one she also adds a figurine woman to represent Jessie. These beautiful pieces are both romantic and intensely sad, exploring the personal effect of every single death, and the ways in which women spent a lifetime responding to it.

Jane Churchill - Jessie Ellman's DreamworldWhile each has its own emotional charge, particularly skillful is a three-layered scene of trees cut from single sheets of plastic arranged one in front of the other to give a sense of perspective. In the centre at the back of the box is the figure of William staring up at the moon. It’s wistful and romantic but tries to visualise the nature of grief in the interwar period, the effect of absence in daily life and the ongoing interaction with its collective memory.

Churchill also uses the cut-out idea to create a series of butterflies or moths that look like an anthropologist case in a dusty Victorian museum. But each individual creature is carefully cut from war-related newspapers, maps, photographs or letters, and labelled to represent individual fatalities or particular regions of fighting. The fragility of death is strongly evoked, particularly in the section where Churchill pins a single model soldier into the wings of the butterfly to form the central body – a scathing commentary on the way in which First World War deaths become pinioned and encased, ripped of their original meaning, like specimens to be studied rather than living breathing men whose deaths had consequences for those around them.

Jane Churchill - Butterfly CollectionEmphasising her idea that our connection to distant events comes through the transference of an emotional memory, Churchill also grapples with ideas about grief in more traditional ways. She uses memory boxes and cabinets of tears to think about what mementos and the everyday objects people kept to remember their loved ones, and some of these are on display. Again, in one she uses the story of Ellman and Hicks to visualise the Ellman’s sorrow by bottling her imagined tears as she thinks back to special moments in their lives together, and labels each accordingly. There’s something ritualistic, almost religious, about the type of memorialisation which Churchill is exploring, and asks questions about the comfort these give in the grieving process.

Arguably, as art it’s certainly sentimental and as history it’s presumptive, particularly in the appropriation and supposed interpretation of Jessie Ellman’s private memories – who are we to really know what Ellman felt and imagined in the years after William’s death – but that aside, Churchill’s intent is particularly interesting, and using art to examine complex ideas of remembrance, especially beyond living memory is a successful outcome of this show. How and who we decide to remember is a question that runs through this exhibition and, as the centenary events have demonstrated, after a 50-year focus on soldiers in the national collective memory, so many other aspects of the war had simply been written out of the story.

To reinforce this idea that art can help to create and embed memories, even other people’s, the second part of Echoes Across the Century hands the baton to over 200 secondary school pupils who have developed their own responses to Churchill’s work and assumed memories of the First World War. This room, designed like a trench, is broken up into various segments that display the art by category, and for the first time takes the viewer into wider and unexpected aspects of warfare. Primarily concerned with the supply chain, there are paintings, models and sculpture that think about the concept of total war and the variety of supporting mechanisms that kept the show on the road.

Above all, war is a system, and while we continue to prioritise the experience of soldiers who by far bore the brunt of fighting and loss, this part of this exhibition gives a much broader picture, even for those who know the subject well. In the first section, pupils have created some memory boxes, like Churchill’s, to commemorate Hospital Ships with pill bottles, tins and stained bandages, each with an explanation of the artist’s intent to understand what inspired their choices.

Most fascinating is a section on spectacles, supplied to some soldiers to keep them fighting, but here take on a sinister aspect. One A-Level pupil from Dunraven School has painted a headshot of a soldier with what from a distance looks like dark round sunglasses. But as you move closer you see that his entire eye-well has been cut out entirely and all that remains are the frames and arms of the glasses. Instead at the back of his eyes, looking through layers of cut out card that link to Churchill’s dream boxes, are a scene of smoke and destruction in his right eye, and one of calm moonlight in the left. It’s a bold and unusually sharp piece about the vast difference between men’s noble expectations of war and the grim mechanised reality.

Horses, the air force, rations tins and saddlery all get the artistic treatment, and while not explored in much depth are a worthy reminder that the provision of basic necessities to every man fighting was a huge industrial process that had to be managed and controlled. It concludes with hundreds of individually created butterflies in cases that echo Churchill’s focus on personal memory and returning to individual impacts of warfare. Echoes Across the Century may not always reflect the bigger-picture history as carefully as the individual stories, but it does remind us that while the First World War may feel remote, its emotional impact continues to be felt. And in a period where we’ve begun to think about the war from multiple perspectives, restoring the expression of female grief to the story helps us to understand why this is a war that, as a society, we will not forget.

Echoes Across the Century is at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 16 July. Entrance is free and the gallery is openly daily. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Love in Idleness – The Apollo Theatre

Love in Idleness - Eve Best & Anthony Head

One of the hardest things for any child to learn is that their mum is an entirely separate person, that they have their own thoughts, their own life and their own needs outside their role as a parent. Discovering that is part of the transition to adulthood, and understanding that your mother is not just protector and provider but has emotional depths, plans and wants that you may never have seen as a child, transforms the relationship. Becoming more like equals is part of growing up and it’s something that Terrence Rattigan explores in his Second World War comedy Love in Idleness that considers the seemingly modern concepts of second marriage, blended family and a teenager coming to turns with his mother’s human needs.

Once dismissed as staid and old-fashioned three or four act drawing-room melodramas about rich middle England, Rattigan’s work has the kind of emotional truth that continues to resonate with modern audiences, and since the Rattigan centenary in 2011, his plays have become a more regular feature on the London stage. However frivolous or occasionally farcical his characters, like all good comedy writers before and since, there is always a streak of deeply felt pain, particularly at the unevenness of love, that runs through his work and allows him to switch from light to dark in an instant. It’s a technique he uses sparingly in Love in Idleness, transferring from the Menier to the Apollo, but opens-up the heart of the characters quite suddenly.

In most fiction, we’re given a rose-tinted view of love with two people caring for each other equally, whereas, in reality, one person usually loves more than the other, and this is something Rattigan’s plays are often concerned with. Last year’s beautiful production of The Deep Blue Sea at the National is a perfect example and while Helen McCrory’s Hester was shamefully overlooked by the Olivier panel – it should have been a straight fight been her and eventual winner Billie Piper as the only two genuinely luminous performances that season – it was a perfect study of a couple whose relationship is doomed because Freddie cannot begin to match Hester’s consuming love.

In Love in Idleness the tragedy is that the central couple – Olivia and Sir John – are perfectly matched but another kind of love, that for her son Michael, challenges the sustainability of their relationship. At the start of the play dentist’s widow Olivia Brown is ensconced as the mistress of Sir John in a well-to-do apartment, but far from ‘living in sin’ the couple are respectably accepted by society and Olivia is wife in all but name. Into this domestic idyll comes her son Michael, back from school in Canada, who resents his mother’s change of circumstances and is even more disgusted to learn she is involved with Sir John, a cabinet member of whom Michael disapproves. During the course of four acts this left-leaning young man attempts to come between them, by shaming his mother and restoring her mere parental role in his life.

Trevor Nunn, whose production of Flare Path reignited our passion for Rattigan, takes a traditional approach to staging this early comedy but mixes an earlier draft of the play with what later became Love in Idleness. The result is a comic battle not just between son and lover, but also between high society ideals, consumerism and the love of life’s comforts, and the socialist enthusiasm of youth as Michael battles against a “business-as-usual” post-war future. Although it takes about 15 minutes to get going, these concepts are well handled in Nunn’s interpretation, and once the production is on its feet, it is entertaining and engaging throughout its 2 hr and 45-minute run time.

I have to confess to an initial bout of dispirit as the curtain went up to reveal yet another 1940s-middle class drawing room set with lovely sofas for which the phrase ‘elegantly appointed’ was designed. And while I don’t subscribe to the idea that the content of Rattigan or even Noel Coward’s plays are dated, sometimes the staging can give that impression – although the National neatly overcame that problem last year. We are spoiled in London by the funds and freedom to innovate, but directors like Ivo van Hove and Jaime Lloyd are throwing out the rule book on staging the classics, so how fascinating would it be to see a stripped back version of these plays – no cornices, no rugs and absolutely no artfully arranged furniture – just the pure emotional drive of the text itself and the excellence of the actors in bringing it to life.

However, Rattigan’s writing is far too clever to be oppressed by the set, designed by Stephen Brimson-Lewis, and as the production wears on you see the story and its themes fight successfully against the underwhelming presentation; here we have ideas about how closely big business should be involved in government, a situation played out daily in American politics, there are ideas about defining middle age and its expectations, of changing attitudes to sex and marriage, of different kinds of families emerging, of young people trying to understand the world and find their place in it, and the ongoing effects of war on everyday society. These things trouble us as much now as they did in the 1940s and it is this that makes Rattigan’s work so relevant – because human behaviour doesn’t change, people still need to find and cling to the people they love, and that will always come at a cost.

Rattigan wrote female characters so well and in the lead role Eve Best skilfully explores the mixture of contradictions, pride and parental affection that make-up Olivia Brown. Her first appearance in party-planning mode is almost overwhelming as she trills enthusiastically on the telephone and seems persuasively in command of everyone around her. At this pitch, she would be unbearable if the whole play was the same, but the arrival of Olivia’s son gives Best a chance to explore the ways in which this challenges her happy life, as she charts the genuinely touching demise of Olivia’s hopes.

In some ways, she’s a character who lives on the surface, at one point openly admitting that her love for John is also bound-up with the trappings and comforts of the life he offers, but, crucially, Rattigan wants us to see that this love is no less valid and brings her a happiness and contentment she has never known before. Best conveys all of this superbly moving effortlessly between a woman who cannot keep up with the intellectual pursuits of her menfolk, and one resignedly broken by the decisions she is forced to make, sacrificing herself for others. The scene in which she begins determined to make one decision and ends up making quite another is flooring in its raw and unexpected emotion, and Best is superb in showing the audience the cost in that moment.

Anthony Head as the Canadian businessman-turned-politician may have a variable accent (sometimes Canadian, sometimes Irish) but he brings a gravitas to the role which makes him a suitably commanding figure. Challenged, but not threatened, by the arrival of Michael, John bites his tongue frequently and Head conveys the awkwardness of being around someone with whom he has nothing in common but must “play nice” for the sake of his relationship. The scenes in which he and Michael let loose over politics are among the best and most comedic, as two unlikely opponents square-off against each other. While the depth of Sir John’s feelings for Olivia were always clear, they are genuinely touching in the final act as the extent of his actions is revealed.

In the slightly more difficult role of surly teenager, Edward Bluemel has to blend lots of purposely exaggerated huffing and puffing – accused in the text of giving his Hamlet – with a little boy lost routine that sees his cherished memories of his childhood slowly dismantled over the course of the play. And to all this Bluemel adds the self-conscious arrogance of politicised youth that seems so certain and so naïve at the same time. It’s a great comic performance that gives way to occasional moments of almost hysterical feeling as Michael goes through the awkward process of seeing and accepting Olivia as someone other than just his mother, and having to entirely reconfigure his relationship with her.

Although Love in Idleness may look like another tired old drama about rich people living in shabby gentility, don’t let that deter you from seeing it. Rattigan’s writing about the complexities of the human heart and the pain it causes us, is still incredibly poignant. Although not his best play, many of the themes that recur in his work germinate here as his characters struggle to find their place, trapped between a national and personal past and future. As Olivia faces an impossible dilemma between lover and son, she might make you think about our own mothers and the unreasonable demands that grown-up children make of them, asking them to stay just our we want them instead of who they really are.

Love in Idleness is at the Apollo Theatre until 1 July. Tickets start at £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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