Category Archives: Culture

The View UpStairs – Soho Theatre

The View UpStairs - Soho Theatre

2019 is officially the year of the musical; after a period of so-so revivals and uninspiring new work, London’s musical theatre scene is thriving again with reinvigorated classics and key investment in new productions that enchant audiences and critics alike. Already this year the West End has seen a celebrated Broadway transfer for Waitress with Katherine McPhee, now onto its second cast, the UK premieres of Come From Away and 9 to 5 (which recently announced a UK tour), alongside big-ticket revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium and a third-coming for the Open Air Theatre’s smart and moving version of Jesus Christ Superstar transferring to the Barbican.

Just over half-way through the year and there’s still plenty more to come – Michael Ball returns to Les Misérables to play Javert in an all-star concert version opening shortly while the much-loved original production gets a facelift and a redesigned theatre space, the anticipated arrival of Dear Evan Hansen strolls into town in the autumn and if you needed any confirmation that musicals are now cool again then Director-of-the-moment Jamie Lloyd swaps Pinter for Andrew Lloyd Webber with a new version of Evita.

The success of Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies at the National, which also returned to the Olivier this year, and Marianne Elliott’s re-gendered Company at the Gielgud which extended well beyond its original run changed everything, and musicals are now far more than lively tunes and hyper-real stories playing to coach-loads of tourists. With an ability to transfer serious social messages about the world we’ve created for ourselves and the expectations we place on the lives of others, done well a single song can be far more emotive than three hours of serious drama, so the arrival of Off-Broadway hit The View UpStairs a few weeks after Pride couldn’t be more timely.

Max Vernon’s musical, making it’s European debut at the Soho Theatre and running for just five weeks, commemorates the 1973 arson attack on a gay bar in New Orleans which was the most significant event of its kind until 2016’s Florida shootings. And while the fire and its consequences hang over the action, Vernon’s focus in on the humanity of the men and women inside at the time, the broken community of customers who found solace in the one place they could be themselves against a backdrop of endless persecution and hate beyond the walls of the UpStairs Bar.

Vernon uses a time-travel structure in which an entitled millennial moving home from New York unknowingly buys the bar to turn into his fashion emporium, only to find himself unexpectedly back in 1973 getting to know the regulars. It sounds unlikely but works fairly seamlessly in practice, allowing Vernon to point to the ease with which we all take for granted any of the rights and freedoms hard won by previous generations, and how little we know or appreciate the suffering and fear of discovery  which the pioneers of democratic and social freedoms had to endure.

It is a theme that has echoed through a number of high-profile productions about the history of the LGBTQ+ experience in recent years. Both Angels in America and The Inheritance commented on the longer-term consequences of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in both devastating and galvanising the gay community, while remarking on how the impact of those losses was remarkably little known among the younger generation. Similarly, the TV show Pose which came to BBC2 earlier this did the same for the ball culture scene charting internal divisions within the Trans African American and Latinx Houses and struggles for recognition. Vernon’s new musical however looks beyond the 1980s, to pre-existing hostility and prejudice which he suggests has never entirely disappeared from American society, drawing clear parallels between the violence of the 1973 attack and the erosion of equality as hard-line politicians dominate modern US government.

Lee Newby’s set largely eschews any suggestion of camp exuberance, this is not an era in which the characters could be out and proud even in their own space. Newby’s work has a lot of lovely detail, fitting nicely into the small Soho Theatre stage to create a slightly worn 70s boozer with a sticky-looking tiled floor, tired furniture and heavy curtains. The only concession to the cabaret entertainments occasionally offered by the bar is a large white grand piano, but this shabbiness suits the underground nature of the story, and there’s something inviting even homely about Newby’s interpretation of The UpStairs Bar that grows in stature as the characters’ attachment to it becomes clearer.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps most of the characters on stage throughout the show, even in the opening and closing scenes where the 1970s cast linger like shadows or ghosts keeping the past alive as Wes agrees to buy the building. It’s a musical with 15 songs and dialogue so things move briskly and O’Boyle moves his performers around the space, sitting at different tables and when not participating in the central discussion there are lots of silent vignettes that add texture to the underlying tensions and alliances within the group that become vital later in the story.

The culture clash between 2019’s Wes and the inhabitants of The UpStairs Bar is Vernon’s key device, and it’s one that earns plenty of laughs as Wes’s modern ideas, shallowness and clear naivety about his cultural ancestry clash against the darker reality of the people hiding their sexuality and living in fear of public shame. Smashing Wes’s phone immediately as a spy device and criticising his gender-neutral clothing style are easy wins for Vernon, but Tyrone Huntley’s Wes is not a character who is easy to like. Obsessed with image, sexting and presenting his life as a success on social media, it makes him hard to root for and Wes takes too much of the focus. Huntley is very funny and sings beautifully, giving heart to the growing connection with hustler Patrick (Andy Mientus) that starts to reform him. The point of the show is to see his growth as he begins to understand the importance of the room he now owns, but he’s still a rather two-dimensional creation that may drive the narrative but is ultimately the least interesting thing about it.

Instead, Vernon has created a cast of fascinating 1970s characters who, though sparingly used, form a convincingly disparate group who genuinely seem to care for each other. Across the one hour and 45-minute running time, the audience is able to spend a little time with each one of them individually, spread-out across the show, while catching snippets of their attitudes and personal circumstances that build a broad but satisfying picture of different personalities clinging together. With eight additional characters there’s little time to flesh them all out as fully as we’d expect, but somehow Vernon has shown us enough of their humanity and their complexity that by the end the individual and collective cost of the arson attack is devastatingly realised.

Buddy is a married man with children living a lie for the sake of convention and playing piano at the bar once a week, a night he lives for. Frustrated by his need to invert himself, John Partridge’s Buddy is full of stunted frustration as the man he is is constantly subdued by the man he needs to be to protect his family from retaliatory actions because of his choices. And Partridge sings beautifully, particularly ‘Some Kind of Paradise’ which opens the show with a blusey feel that runs through the music. There’s a gentle tragedy in Buddy that Partridge brings out to great effect, having to weigh his options all the time, and even in the supportive surroundings of the UpStairs Bar he must stay in control – a key theme of The View UpStairs being the eternal debate between violent and peaceful means to achieve change –  even at the cost of his friendships.

Declan Bennett has a great rock voice which suits the role of the troubled Dale particularly well, a character on the periphery of the group, feeling excluded and pushed to greater extremes as the action unfolds. Bennett plays Dale as a bundle of ready aggression, and filled with subtle tics, unable to stay still and rather pointedly fiddling with a lighter at every opportunity. He never seems quite as volatile or “mad” as the other characters imply but Bennett finds surprising reserves of pathos for Dale in his solo number ‘Better Than Silence’, the sadness of his homelessness and prostitution explaining his behaviour as he feels unseen by the others, a cry for help ignored with disastrous consequences.

The smaller roles are also full of colour including the sweet mother and son duo of Latina seamstress Ines (Victoria Hamilton Barritt) and Drag Queen Freddy (Garry Lee) who’ve struggled on when her husband left, finding greater happiness by embracing the unexpected path life gave them. Impressive work too from Cedric Neal as the more flamboyant Willie, with a dancer’s technique and an incredibly soulful voice, particularly in the charming ‘Theme Song’, and Carly Mercedes Dyer as bar owner Henri, a no-nonsense proprietor who keeps everyone in line but refuses to give much away to her clientele, while Joseph Prouse’s non-practicing pastor Richard argues for peaceable methods while trying to maintain everyone’s faith in themselves.

Vernon’s musical isn’t perfect and like a lot of American imports it sometimes prioritises cheese over the gritter experience of the regulars of the bar and our route into the show via the time-looping Wes feels unnecessary, but there is something life-affirming about The View UpStairs and its faith in the essential value of all people regardless of what they have to do to survive that entirely wins you over. In the context of recent shows, it’s also a useful reminder that the AIDS epidemic was neither the first or only battle the LGBTQ+ community has had to fight, and, whatever your sexuality or gender alignment, established political and social rights are always one election away from retrenchment. So, forget what you think you know about musicals, because in 2019 they have much to contribute to ongoing debates.

The View UpStairs is at the Soho Theatre until 24 August with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog    

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The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre

Night of the Iguana - Noel Coward Theatre (by Brinkhoff Moegenberg)

The Night of the Iguana rounds off what has been a fascinating mini season of American drama in London in which the lesser known works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams have appeared alongside and been treated with the same reverence as their most famous plays. Williams in particular is rarely out of fashion and recent productions have shed new light on the depth and quality of his writing. The Glass Menagerie transferred from Watford Palace to the Arcola Theatre, recasting the struggling Wingfields as an African-American family while at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Theatre Clywd’s vibrant production of Orpheus Descending breathed life into this underappreciated work.

Fringe and regional theatre is in love with Tennesse Williams at the moment, a further one-act double bill to come at the King’s Head Theatre as part of its Southern Belles season later this month, but there’s also a big West End revival this summer that’s not be missed. The Noel Coward Theatre has lured Clive Owen back to the stage for the first time in 18 years to play another messed-up character called Larry in The Night Of the Iguana, often described as Williams’s “last great play” based on his own short-story written in 1946.

Williams brings together an assorted collection of personalities who under normal circumstances would never form a connection and only through travel can ever really be thrown together in such an intimate setting; Larry Shannon the feverish former-priest turned tour guide stricken with panic attacks, the sexually predatory widow Maxine Faulk who owns the hotel, Hannah Jelkes the sedate New England artist and her verse-writing grandfather Nonno trying to write his final poem, all set for collision course as a physical and emotional storm brews between them.

Described by the playwright as a story about “how to live beyond despair and still live”, there is a sense in James Macdonald’s production of various strands coming to an end, of the conclusion of a  particular chapter in the characters’ lives as they arrive at the ramshackle Mexican hotel on the hill. By the conclusion of the play the life they have known before will have ended, and a new (not necessarily) better phase will begin. This focus on endings is multi-various, it is the end of the holiday season in Mexico where Maxine’s former life has ended with the death of her much-older husband Frank. When Larry appears at the “end of his rope” what follows explores the end of road for him in particular as he experiences the end of both his faith and his desire.

Through these various interconnections Williams’s concept of spiritual endings plays out across the story using the idea that both sex and religion can be a salvation as well as the ultimate destructive force. So, like the captured iguana of the title, there is a contained wildness in all of these characters who in this transitory place away from their real lives will come to a kind of reckoning within themselves and because of themselves. Macdonald’s production brings an intense slow-burn effect to the competing forces of life and death that drive the play, giving Williams time to weave his magic and the result is compelling and satisfying.

There are plenty of plays that never justify a three-hour runtime, but James Macdonald’s production has an enthralling quality that keeps momentum in a story with relatively little plot, most of which remains in the background as different conversations slowly reveal the backstories and viewpoint of the guests, focusing on a faltering and unlikely connection between polar opposites Larry and  Hannah. But through these repeatedly broken conversations, interrupted by the encroaching outside world of passing tourists, Larry’s busload of angry passengers and the natural environment, Macdonald draws out strands of  loneliness and isolation for two people entering middle age, losing the freedom of their youth and living unmarried beyond normal social expectations.

An experienced director of American drama who’s worked extensively on Broadway, Macdonald knows well how to marshal these long discursive plays. As with Annie Baker’s John and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – both of which Macdonald has directed in the UK in the last two years  – he is particularly attuned to the subtle changes of tone in the writing that slowly reposition the emotional direction of a scene, knowing precisely when and how to emphasise the small crescendos of drama and subsequent calm in each Act, building the layers to create a powerful and climatic overall effect that changes the characters’ lives unalterably as the curtain comes down.

Unlike more recent stripped back productions this is a bold, almost cartoon-like depiction of Mexico with its simple guest huts, backdrop of rockery and plants, and roped staircase carved into the hillside. Night of the Iguana talks about life having a “realistic and a fantastic level” realised through Rae Smith’s hyper-real and unchanging set where every conversation takes place, so the stage is filled with ephemera that it doesn’t really need. The props and scenery look pretty, creating an idea of the alfresco beauty and wildness of Central America that unleashes and reflects Larry’s turmoil, but it’s also a bit heavy-handed in its suggestion of claustrophobia, a distraction from the intensity of the conversations that the actors and Macdonald have to work against rather than within.

But this they do superbly. We have certain expectations of Williams’s characters, they are often fragile, repressed and trapped in their own lives, unable to overcome the limited expectations of society that forces them to cage the natural passion they can barely contain. Williams tends to be more critical of men than women, burying themselves temporarily in alcohol and lust until the pressure and emptiness of their encounters breaks them into conformity. We see this in Summer and Smoke as doctor John seeks solace from the pain of being alive in the local club, a desperate love for his neighbour Alma crushed by the increased numbing of his emotional and sexual life.

Here, Larry starts the play sullied by his many encounters with very young women on his tour and during his single year as a working priest. Recently deflowering a 16-year old who’s now obsessed with him, Larry is bent on self-destruction, a figure loathsome both to the audience and himself. Clive Owen’s performance is full of nervous energy as the strung-out and anxious Larry treads around his own imminent breakdown for most of the play. The nervy disposition he suggests as his unhappy tour group endlessly blast the bus horn, meets a rising panic, hoping that a few days of recuperation at the hotel will soothe him all the while knowing deep down that he is trapped there.

Everyone in Williams’s plays is seeking some kind of salvation and purification, and Owen’s Larry needs it more than most as the weakness of his flesh collides against his version of Christianity that sent him fleeing from the unpalatably mild view of God in the American church. His Old Testament belief in the power of the deity, expressed through the raging violence of tropical storms, entirely reflects the weather-like nature of his own moods – a pattern of behaviour in which a passion for young women clouds his judgement with a violent aftermath.

In a superb return to the stage, Owen’s Larry is a haunted man, pursued by his “spook”, a kind of depression or devil that he can never escape. As his breakdown advances and he waits for “the click” in his head like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to restore rationality, Larry seeks solace in his growing friendship with Hannah, a need to be understood by another person that is desperate but never pitiable. Larry is an unforgivable character and Owen embraces his many sides while still retaining a humanity that makes his need for someone to truly see him rather than his office one of the most engaging aspects of the play. What we see in Owen’s performance is the slow entrapment and reduction of the wild iguana, the taming of a man’s spirit and, like many a Williams hero, the acceptance of a conventional, emotionally confined future, the easy option.

By contrast the leading female characters in Williams’s plays have a towering inner strength that only grows within the crisis of the play, leaving them free to become another kind of being despite their seemingly fragile exterior shell. The chameleonic powers of Leah Williams have delivered some exceptional performances in recent years and here she adopts the saintly placidity of the hustler-artist Hannah Jelkes, travelling the world by selling art to fund her adventures. The unrufflable and saint-like demeanour is reflected in Williams’s carefully controlled refined New England accent, suggesting a woman whose physical passions are almost non-existent in an life driven by intellectual and artistic pursuits that have a spiritual gratification. Slowly she comes into view, the prim restraint replaced with a clear compassion for lonely middle-aged men and a surprising non-judgemental worldliness that makes her the ideal confident and the only person who can bring respite to Larry.

Williams’s Hannah has purity and serenity but there is a resourcefulness in her, a deep-rooted fight that prevents anyone taking advantage of her. Her conversations with Larry are brief at first, invested with so much potential chemistry from Williams and Owen that they tantalise the audience with what’s to come. When they finally speak at length in the long third act it is enthralling. Both actors are mesmerising as the conversation morphs constantly from a polite friendship to something more complex, an almost spiritual connection loaded with unfulfillable desire. Hannah’s long monologue about her romantic encounters is delivered in pin-dropping silence by Williams lost in the memory of the past and while her current existence also ends in this shabby hotel, unlike Larry you know she will continue to grow, to emerge stronger and fuller for the experience.

As hotel-owner Maxine, Anna Gunn is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and before the play begins has determined that Larry will stay with her. Maxine may be openly provocative and blunt, but Gunn also shows her hidden vulnerability and a subtly in her dealings with Larry, knowing not to push him too quickly. There seems to be genuine affection for her late husband despite her dismissal of their marriage in public, and, as with the other characters, while Maxine is not exactly likeable, Gunn suggests a loneliness under the surface, a determination to keep others at arms-length emotionally.

Like the tethered iguana, James Macdonald’s fascinating production shifts and bucks at its restraints until the characters can no longer contain their inner selves. We could do without the comedy Germans and perhaps a slightly less cliched way to present the Mexican staff could have been found, a set of Williams’s creations that feel awkward in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, gripping performances from Clive Owen and Lia Williams, and Macdonald’s slow-burn direction allows Williams’s writing to cast its spell.

Night of the Iguana is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 28 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – The London Palladium

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - The London Palladium

A surprising amount of modern theatre is hugely nostalgic, looking back to what seem to be happier, simpler times. While plenty of new writing reflects the here and now, our deep-rooted connection to writers such as Terence Rattigan, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward are steeped in our love of the past and rarely seen without the period paraphernalia. But there is a more individual nostalgia in theatre that is also deeply personal, one that connects us to the shows we have loved at different times in our lives, shows that take us back to our childhoods.

Perhaps not many people remember the first West End show they ever saw but a primary school aged child taken to see their then hero Jason Donovan make his own West End debut at the London Palladium in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1991 is not something you easily forget, and it’s possible to overlook just what a huge star Donovan was back then. Having only seen regional panto before including Fiona Corke (i.e. Gail from Neighbours – spot the theme!) playing Peter Pan at the Marlowe Theatre, this formative experience in one of London’s most prestigious venues made a lasting impression.

Produce Michael Harrison and Director Laurence Connor understand the emotive power of that nostalgia and the decision to include Donovan in the latest revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s evergreen musical as the Elvis-like Pharaoh is incredibly savvy casting. But Joseph is a show which has always had a kind of childhood nostalgia baked right in, whether from its early incarnations as a school production through the many iterations and revivals since, its light-hearted melodies and almost cartoonish story have captured the imagination of generations of children. Anyone lucky enough to catch Donovan’s brief run in 1991 or any of the subsequent incumbents – Philip Schofield, Darren Day, Stephen Gately, Lee Mead even Gareth Gates – are, 28 years later, hoping to re-live that experience. Even if this is your very first Joseph, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s not easy to create a show that looks backwards and forwards at the same time, that will satisfy an audience with a decades-old memory of it while offering enough modern application to prevent this highly performed musical feeling like a museum piece. Connor impressively manages both, working with Musical Director John Rigby and Choreographer Joann M. Hunter to update some of the music and dance sequences to include more rap and street dance stylings. This gives the overall show a dreamlike urban feel particularly in the vision for Act One finale ‘Go Go Go Jospeh’ and through the characterisation of the Narrator.

Like the Adrian Mole musical down the road in Covent Garden, Connor also mixes child and adult performers together in unusual ways that work extremely well. Of the eight children who form a fireside circle around the Narrator at the start to hear the story of Joseph, they end up scattered through the action as several of the protagonist’s 11 brothers, the snooty aristocrat Potiphar who Joseph works for in Egypt, as well as the Butler and Baker, Joseph’s dream-plagued cellmates. A large pool of young actors will rotate these roles, lending an additional charm to the show including some great solo moments that add to the comedy of the Potiphar scenes as well as creating an opportunity for one little brother to start the wonderful ‘Benjamin Calypso.’ It’s a smart approach from Connor and Harrison who use their young cast members to create a warm family feel while tying the show back to its school hall origins.

But Connor has more tricks for us and creates a hybrid quality-makeshift production. There is a fluid simplicity to the construction here that belies the technical complexity behind the scenes. The result is a show that actively and warmly welcomes in the audience but similar awes them with a spectacle that it wears rather lightly for the most part. Part of that idea is realised by doubling the Narrator character with several additional roles in the story including Jacob, Potiphar’s vampish wife and a fellow prisoner. It is an interesting but very successful choice, deepening the notion that the Narrator is a contemporary master of ceremonies, controlling and conjuring the story before us, while retaining a playful, dressing-up box feel that runs through the set and costume design.

A lot of time has passed in theatre design since the 1991 production and Morgan Large has clearly been inspired by the bold impressionism of big West End shows like The Lion King. Puppetry has advanced apace as well so the show includes two mechanical camel puppets made from bicycles and some comedy static sheep that look like scaled-up children’s toys. The centrepiece of the design is a huge backdrop filled by an enormous round sun (or moon) that moves rapidly across the wall as required, but is tonally altered using arresting block colours to suggest the burning orange heat of Canaan as the brother’s plot against Joseph, becoming blood red as Reuben sings the Western-inspired ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ and even an emphatic blue at the end of ‘Joseph’s Coat’.

It is a very colourful production in every sense, inspired by the fantastic array of shades in the famous technicolor garment, Large has created a forceful and vibrant experience, full of block primary tones that give a heightened feel to the action, referencing the notion of dreams and storytelling that drive the plot. Again, this looks simple with layers of basic shapes to suggest time and place, but the overall effect is strong, with an almost Van Gogh-like intensity in the way colour has been deliberately chosen to change the mood and tone of the show. Notably in Act One, the humbler presentation of the character’s lives uses an arrangement of reddish patterned cloths to form the  tent-like home of Joseph’s family, later contrasted by the elaborate detail of Pharaoh’s gold palace. Together, they form a considered and impactful production design which speaks to the show’s history in school productions while making it distinct from earlier, more naturalistic approaches. It feels memorably modern.

Connor’s production certainly never takes itself too seriously and every opportunity to make the audience laugh or clap along is seized with gusto by the show’s other big-name Sheridan Smith. A decorated musical theatre star, Smith is an energetic and engaging Narrator, encouraging the crowd at every opportunity and refusing to stand on the side-lines of the story she is telling. Using her comedy background, Smith not only takes on multi-gendered roles with the aid of an elasticated beard but utilises her meta-theatrical role above the story to add a few nods and winks in the right places to increase the humorous effect.

Given modern harem-style trousers and trainers, Smith’s Narrator reflects the more urban feel to some of the music by marking and punching the beat. By far the largest role in the production, Smith’s vocals are richly layered, precisely mapping the tone changes across the quiet varied song styles while joining the larger dance numbers that reference styles as diverse as Can-Can, line dancing and hip hop. Smith is a hugely charismatic stage performer and here that warmth is her biggest asset, using humour to connect with the audience while creating a distinct and sparkling personality for the Narrator, setting and controlling the tone to hold this episodic tale together. Removing the artificial barrier between audience and performers, Smith’s approach is a key asset in the show’s success.

With only a couple of appearances in Act Two, the Pharaoh is a small but memorable role, amplified in this instance by the return of Jason Donovan to a show that solidified his megastar status nearly 30 years ago. And with the ‘Pharaoh’s Story’ given over to silhouette, Connor allows Donovan to make a spectacular entrance carried dramatically through the rear doors on a sedan chair to a rapturous applause from the auditorium. Essentially an Elvis impersonation, the role is really an extended cameo, full of camp silliness the extremes of which actors often have a lot of fun with.

Now an established musical theatre star, Donovan certainly makes it his own, adopting the fairly broad but high energy approach taken across the production to maximise the comedy. So while he employs the Elvis low drawl and inward-facing knees, he keeps the impersonation under tight control. The look of exhaustion Donovan throws the audience as Pharaoh slumps into his throne at the end of song provides additional amusement, as do the several reprises of the ‘Song of the King’ he delivers before finally letting Joseph speak to him. Some of the vocals are lost to over-amplification but no one cares, the room is alight, lost in our own circles of personal nostalgia – not bad for a 10-minute appearance.

With two big names to sell tickets, Harrison and Connor cast the unknown Jac Yarrow in the lead role after seeing a student production. Due to graduate on the final day of the run, it proves a canny decision as Yarrow delivers a confident, star-making performance. Joseph is not always a likeable character, arrogantly bragging about his power dreams and Jacob’s blatant favouritism, so you may feel the tiniest bit of sympathy when his brothers set upon him. Yarrow navigates all of this extremely well as Joseph’s fortunes rise and fall across the story.

It’s not a show that allows the central character to let loose very often with only two solos including the, let’s face it, almost painfully schmaltzy ‘Any Dream Will Do’ which Yarrow delivers well. Buy it is in the more meaningful ‘Close Every Door’ that his performance really shines, building forcefully across the number and showcasing the strength of his vocals. The extended applause that follows the song is well deserved and despite the lyrics you can practically hear doors flinging open to Yarrow all over town.

One of the most likeable aspects of the Joseph soundtrack is the variable but unified musical combination of country, calypso and French cabaret which reveal the interior experience of the brothers. Richard Carson as Reuben gives ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers feel that comes through the choreography, while Michael Pickering delivers a brilliant rendition of Simeon’s ‘Those Canaan Days’. There’s good support from the surrounding cast in a variety of guises including the extended central family, Pharaoh’s attendants and fellow prisoners that fill the stage with activity at all the right moments.

Given the rousing reception to this production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and full-house standing ovation for the entirety of the ‘Joseph Megamix’, it barely matters what the press make of this on Thursday. With two much-loved performers in key roles and a bright new talent as Joseph, it’s almost certainly critic-proof. Harrison and Connor may play on our nostalgia, leaning on childhood memories of school productions or Donovan’s run in the 1990s, but the staging and orchestration of the Palladium’s new version looks to the future, as a whole new set of children fall in love with this perennial musical. If Yarrow returns to it in 20 years, his army of new fans will come back with him.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is at the London Palladium until 8 September with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog,  


The End of History – The Royal Court

The End of History - Royal Court

Writer Jack Thorne has one of the most interesting CVs in theatre, filled with eclectic projects as diverse as Channel 4’s sexual predator drama National Treasure and more lighter child-friendly fare including the internationally acclaimed two-part stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that seems to run and run. Thorne is difficult to pigeonhole but his work most often focuses on the micro effects of class, economics and legacy in a subgenre you could describe as the political family drama. His latest project is exactly that, examining the experience of one family over 20 years, beginning with the early months of the Blair administration in 1997 and ending just two years ago in the Brexit vote aftermath of 2017.

Thorne is fascinated by the complex and evolving relationships among groups of people tied to one another over a long period of time. The experience of government policy, social and financial forces are the backdrop to that, helping to shape character responses, but Thorne places personality and small-scale often domestic tragedies at the forefront of his drama. These themes were exceptionally well realised in three series of This is England co-written with Director Shane Meadows which charted the working class experience across the 1980s as political activism, violence and small-town deprivation forced their way into the lives of a group of young friends trying to find their place and themselves as their circumstances narrowed. Harrowing at times, and unrelenting, Thorne (and Meadows) optimism, their belief in the fundamental goodness of most people created characters to invest in.

The End of History takes the same essential principle and applies it to the generational chasm between those raised in the 1970s and their own children muddling through our more commercial and self-interested modern times. Thorne uses the tight family unit to explore the changing social and political expectations of the last two decades, accompanied by lasting shifts in technological connectedness and reliance – almost as pop culture mileposts. But at the heart of the play is also the idea of parenting as a “legacy” endeavour where characteristics and beliefs about the world are passed down to your children in the hope that they will continue your work. Does this become as much a burden to individuals wanting and needing to live their own lives as the financial implications of inherited wealth that Sal and David so forcefully argue is destroying society? Thorne is asking where and should history end in order to create a new beginning.

Strictly as drama, the first two acts of Thorne’s play are more successful than its conclusion; played straight through at 1 hour and 50 minutes there is an incredible richness in two thirds of The End of History which proves compelling viewing and neatly shifts our perspective on the characters as more layers of the story are revealed. It begins with a reasonably conventional set-up, a family preparing to meet their son Carl’s new girlfriend for the first time and speculating on her supposed wealth and class. The very first interaction proves to be a crucial one as mother Sal and 19-year old daughter Polly, returned home from university, awkwardly navigate the semi-reluctant distance that has grown between them. Instantly the audience is pulled into the drama where unresolved tensions and personality clashes bubble beneath the surface in a strong opening exchange.

Thorne elicits plenty of comedy from this early scenario, the overly familiar and too open Sal and David putting their foot in it with the timid and terrified Harriet unable to cope with the onslaught of questions about her family finances and misunderstandings about their social position. The increasing chattiness of Sal in particular is both uncomfortable and amusing as she crosses the line again and again, almost indulging the awkwardness of the situation for her own mischievous and provocative effect.

What follows is carefully constructed to change our perspective, so the true purpose of the play evolves and adapts in front of us. The family focus of Act One concerned with cooking, the testing of social niceties and intrusion of an outsider into an established group making everyone behave differently morphs into a heavily politicised Act Two which, 10 years on in 2007, looks at the effect of parental choices on their adult children’s self-assurance and contentment. Here the primary driver is an impending announcement around which conversation circulates for most of the Act, with the consequences offering interesting dramatic ramifications.

Thorne is more overtly political here, drawing on the play’s title – a theory on whether society can evolve to a maximum state –  to including statistics and more complex economic arguments, but having built character so thoughtfully in Act One, it feels natural that they would speak in this way and are mocked by their children for it. So as David expounds on the horrors of landowning entitlement, rather than a lecture you feel for his silent but slightly horrified children who face the knowledge that their parents have a higher regard for their political views than for the security and contentment of their offspring.

This should come to a head in Act Three but now 20-years since the start of the play, Thorne opts for a far more sentimental conclusion that his writing or these characters really deserve. Avoiding spoilers, what occurs here is in a sense a betrayal of the events and decisions taken in Act Two, but one which the characters barely acknowledge. The action itself is understandable, and perhaps inevitably in a play that deals with familial conflict some parting of the ways must occur to provide a satisfactory conclusion but, in the decade that has now passed in the character’s lives, not enough time is given to explaining to the audience why the revelation of Act Two is no longer applicable.

Instead there is an emotional arc to the story in Act Three that doesn’t sit quite properly with the rest of the play. Still in preview until Wednesday with the Royal Court actively asking for audience feedback some elements may change, but even though the scenario itself is credible, the centrepiece of which is an overlong monologue by David, the tone jars somewhat with the richer and more natural dialogue of the younger characters earlier in the scene. Yet, it is in the creation of character that Thorne excels and, as with his other projects, these are strong and engaging.

The End of History centres on matriarch Sal, played with a finely tuned skill by Lesley Sharp. A long-term activist from Greenham Common to marching against the War in Iraq to local causes, Sal is a collected and shrewd woman, although the first time we see her she’s playing the embarrassing, inquisitive mum to Carl’s new girlfriend. And you do feel she is playing, that Sal enjoys provoking the quiet sensibilities of her children as much as she passionately cares about a variety of social issues.

Sharp’s performance has warmth and genuine care for her children, but rather than an indulgent mother, she’s desperately trying to hide her frustration that she has failed to impart the same degree of social conscience to her two sons and daughter. Yet there are many layers to Sal, a character who is difficult for the others to live up to and prepared to stand her ground, but simultaneously blind to her family’s needs. The amusement of oversharing, Sharp suggests indicates a more deeply rooted failure to recognise the crisis she has created in her children.

Kate O’Flynn as eldest child Polly has the lion’s share of the younger generation’s dramas, resenting the Cambridge education she was forced into and her subsequent career as a corporate lawyer almost deliberately designed to most irritate her parents. More like her mother than she realises, there’s a long-running reference to her singledom and childlessness that Polly turns into a strength, but in the scenes with her brothers O’Flynn suggests the vulnerability of a young woman navigating her emotional needs – including married boyfriends and sexting – a suggestion that Polly failed to find the support she really needed at home. There’s also notable work from Zoe Boyle as the nervously out of place Harriet of Act One who completely transforms into a self-assured and slightly catty member of this dysfunctional group a decade on.

The male characters are less fully explored but David Morrissey is a strong presence as father David, who may only come to light occasionally but has a stronger bond with his children that he cannot properly express, realising only too late that he and they are not what he thought. Sam Swainsbury’s Carl has a more traditional trajectory with a family life of his own, but in Act Three he finally comes into view as he struggles to reconcile the events of the past twenty years and while only in his early 40s fails to see a clear path ahead. Laurie Davidson is a fragile Tom and the events of the play seem harder for him to bear. His Act Two conclusion is rather melodramatic but Davidson gives a wider sense of Tom’s instability and interior angst despite a relatively small role in the overall story.

Grace Smart creates a sizeable middle-class kitchen with portions of the walls exposed or broken through to reveal the abundant garden beyond. In a way it reflects the false reality of this family’s life, but even from the rear stalls some of the brick panels are too obviously fake, lending a cartoony feel to the room that gets in the way of the emotional and intellectual confrontations of the play. A simpler, more impressionistic approach might have worked better in which the problem of the political dominating the personal could be more clearly confronted.

Thorne’s writing is meaningful and engaging, enhanced by the reunion with Cursed Child (and The Glass Menagerie) director John Tiffany who brings a televisual feel to the direction, controlling the movement of characters and adopting a swirling montage during scene changes to play out the passing of the years. In The End of History Thorne shuffles various perspectives within the family, examining their different experiences of the same events from multiple angles, and while these differences drive wedges between them, ultimately and with hope for the future, he explores the ties that keep people together.

The End of History is at the Royal Court until 10 August with tickets from £12.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Present Laughter – The Old Vic

Present Laughter - The Old Vic (by Manuel Harlan)

Noel Coward is a rather misunderstood and misrepresented writer in modern theatre; like Oscar Wilde, these days his work can be reduced to little more than a string of witty epigrams and famous phrases woven together into some increasingly outrageous plot, it’s all rather cosy – light comic farces perfect for an undemanding Saturday matinee. And regardless of whether the focus has a more rural setting or the stylish inhabitants of Paris and London, current presentations of Coward’s work come loaded with nostalgia for the 1930s and 40s, a period sentimentality about clothes and furniture which undeservedly preserve his work in aspic.

But all of this is a distraction from the various currents that flow through Coward’s plays, many of which balance humour and emotion to differing degrees. Coward was a prolific writer and while the West End has seen plenty of Hayfevers and versions of Blithe Spirit in the past decade – with a film version of the latter in production – his more complex works appear with far less frequency and colours our opinion of a more varied playwright than we ever have a chance to see.

The same writer who penned Madame Arcarti’s hilarious trance scene and left Elyot and Amanda throwing things at each other, also revealed the intense despair of drug addiction as mother and son battle with their demons in The Vortex, impressively revived as long ago as 2008 with Felicity Kendal and Dan Stevens. Such experiences reflected the aftermath of the era in which Coward lived, written in 1924 and presaging a time when the Bright Young Things would have to face a darker reality. But Coward’s perspective on relationships was equally revealing and even revolutionary. He may have broken our hearts with the gentle tragedy of Laura and Alec’s doomed love affair in Still Life (later filmed as Brief Encounter) but plays like 1933’s Design for Living involving a ménage a trois were morally and sexually ahead of their time. Let’s not forget that later in life Coward embraced the work of Harold Pinter and saw a kindred spirit eager to reframe the language of theatre.

Clearly Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus agrees and his new production of Present Laughter successfully jettisons a lot of the baggage of a Noel Coward play – the heavy sets, the knowing tone and obvious build-up to the famous lines – to create a production that rides the waves of comedy that Coward so carefully builds into the play’s construction while giving just enough room for the introspective moments that give his characters, or at least his themes, a grounding in reality. Led by yet another astonishingly good performance from Andrew Scott, by giving Present Laughter room to breathe the result is pure joy.

The Old Vic seems to be on a roll, hosting the West Ends debuts of Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman in a memorable version of All My Sons was a huge coup and suddenly there is a new buzz about the place with an unmissable year ahead including a new play by Enron writer Lucy Prebble, a stage reunion for The Crown stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs and Beckett’s Endgame with Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe. Andrew Scott’s return to this theatre as egoist actor Garry Essendine looks set to consolidate The Old Vic’s status as the place to be for the next few months.

An excellent touring version of Present Laughter with Samuel West in the title role made it to Richmond in 2016 but the last West End production was at the National Theatre in 2007 with Alex Jennings. It is one of Coward’s finest comedies, examining the dual nature of celebrity where craved attention ultimately becomes a burden, and Coward simultaneously asks questions about sexual morality. Essendine has a wife he never divorced but he, and his circle, spend most of the play actively bedhopping about which the frustrated Garry speaks honestly in one of his finest speeches in Act IV.

Matthew Warchus’s production adds a modern twist by playing with sexual fluidity, making barely perceptible changes to the text to give Garry both male and female lovers. It works extremely well and if you had never seen the play before it would seem always to have been written this way. While this approach is becoming increasingly commonplace in classic revivals, here there is clear consideration of the wider purpose. Coward has points to make about the complex nature of attraction and how honest people are with themselves and others about their desires. Garry’s whims may come and go, but he is open about his need for one-night stands to bring comfort in his loneliest moments because he is unable to sustain a longer relationship. This exploration of physical desire in all its forms as a means to an end, as a distraction from Garry’s feelings of hollowness and vulnerability are fundamental to Coward’s play, so the gender and sexuality switches make perfect sense for a character desperate to be loved entirely on his own terms.

The tone of this production is quite meticulous and while the farce is allowed to unfold sometimes with considerable exuberance, there is a real confidence in how Warchus manages the build-up to the mini comic climax of each scene as well as the cumulative effect of that across the show. You feel that as director Warchus is fully in control however wild his characters become, succeeding because he well understands the rhythm of Coward’s text and those all-important currents that sit beneath the surface of the play. There is a crucial ebb and flow to the emotional responses in Present Laughter and Warchus’s skill is to recognise the ultimate poignancy of a play which occasionally creates a cartoonish silliness but is brilliantly counterbalanced by moments of genuine reflection and fear in which the characters come up against the emptiness of their lives, sometimes suddenly, sometimes creeping slowly across the scene until it starts to make sense of everything else that happens.

There is never an easy Andrew Scott performance, he’s not an actor to sit back and there is an intensity to all his creations. However lightly he wears it, he always finds the tipping point in each of the characters he plays, carefully pushing the balance as the production unfolds. It may seem like mania or wackiness but there is always a deep understanding of the intellectual and emotional drivers that create a real humanity in his performances, giving Scott the freedom to explore the absurd but also to dig into the more moving emotional distress beneath the surface to explain extreme behaviour.

Scott’s Hamlet was an intensely visceral experience, an overused word in theatre but applicable in the “excoriation of soul” that his broken and crumbling Prince of Denmark experienced, his grief and pain a vivid, almost physical presence in a genuinely heartbreaking performance. Here, as Garry Essendine, Scott gets to have a lot more fun playing with the role’s liveliness and timing to deliver a highly theatrical but surprisingly self-aware character whose better judgement is easily diverted by devoted admirers. Garry is elaborate, highly-strung, selfish, hysterical and sometimes childishly petulant but as with his Hamlet, we see a greater complexity within that speaks to Garry’s fear of ageing, possible loss of prowess and, most affectingly, a genuine loneliness that a string of meaningless encounters can never dispel. Like many Coward creations there is a level of self-deception that Scott finds but can only sustain while there is an audience for Garry to perform to.

Refreshingly, Scott speaks Coward’s lines as though Garry has just thought of them, there’s no sense of waiting for the big joke, instead he captures the rhythm of Coward’s dialogue leaving him free to be both inventive with the delivery style and genuinely hilarious. Throughout, Scott incorporates a raft of expressions and physical gestures that enhance the meaning of the line, used sparingly but to great effect. He knows precisely when to overplay Garry’s eternal performance using his dramatic side to get what he wants, and when to underplay the more insightful aspects in a role that reaches a very high comic pitch on several occasions. Yet his actions and increasingly frantic frustrations still feel both real and very human.

Scott gives this fascinating sense of fame’s illusory nature and within his creation demonstrates the extent to which other characters project their own impressions onto Garry, never quite seeing who he really is, and, as a consequence, there is an emptiness lingering beneath the surface. The comedy is wonderfully done but it’s the smaller moments of genuine connection with his lovers, of paranoia about the intrigues around him and Garry’s quiet sadness when he’s finally left alone that you will remember.

But Present Laughter is far more than a one-man show and Coward supplies a cast of comic secondary characters who all exist for a reason as part of the overall chaos that unfolds. There is a generosity within this Company that allows each performer to build their own relationship with the audience and maximise the humour in every role. Indira Varma as Garry’s wife Liz is entirely unimpressed and unflustered by her estranged husband’s behaviour, yet she is both less maternal and warmer than other interpretations. Varma’s Liz is genuinely concerned without seeming controlling, there is a sense of a real life beyond these walls which Garry’s behaviour constantly interrupts, and while Liz calmly appraises every situation exactly, there is an undercurrent of deterministic self-sacrifice in which only she can resolve the play’s sexual muddles.

Varma develops a lovely confederacy with Sophie Thompson’s Monica, Garry’s jaded and long-standing secretary. The time given to this supportive friendship is brief but important in establishing the long-awaited crisis point the play reaches. Affecting a light Scottish accent, Thompson keeps tight control of the characterisation, playing it fairly straight with a no-nonsense approach that continually refuses to indulge Garry’s moods or pander to his behaviour which results in a number of scene stealing lines that earn peals of laughter from the audience.

Notable work too from Luke Thallon – who so impressed in Pinter Five – as eager fan Roland Maule. With the sexual dynamics opened-up by this production, Thallon is given free rein to turn Roland’s obsessive enthusiasm into a puppyish devotion to Garry, bounding into the room with an incredible energy. Likewise, Joshua Hill as servant Fred, who shares some of his master’s lascivious tastes has his own range of brilliantly timed nods and winks as two men of the world converse to hilarious effect.  Every time these characters appear on stage they are enthusiastically received – it’s heartening to see early-career performers holding their own among the big stars everyone came to see and earning equal adulation from the audience.

Rob Howell’s gorgeous set has just enough 1930s detailing to imply era without being too rigorous about it, adding lots of art deco stylings and lounging spaces suitable for the home of an actor at the height of his fame, but Howell has also created an expansiveness that offers physical and emotional room for the sexual openness that Warchus draws so well from Coward’s text. The Old Vic’s production finally feels as though we’re shaking off some of the restraints that have shackled Coward to the past. So, let’s retire the caricatures of witty men with cigarette holders because Noel Coward’s importance as a stage practitioner is far more interesting than that, and this joyful production of Present Laughter is simply a wonderful night at the theatre.

Present Laughter is at The Old Vic until 10 August with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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