Category Archives: Culture

Shipwreck – The Almeida

Shipwreck - The Almeida

The first big Trump play has arrived. It has taken a couple of years for writers to get to grips with the political rollercoaster that both the UK and US have endured since those key votes in 2016 separately plunging both nations into the most extraordinary debacles of the modern era. While our own experience of the Brexit chaos is so fantastical you would never believe it in a play, attempts to examine it openly are still so driven by emotion that incendiary debates rage about the role of art in reflecting politics, history and society as it unfolds – as James Graham discovered with the polarised response to his Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

These issues are, some would argue, are too sensitive, too incomplete to begin to make sense of so instead we subtly nod to them through allusion, inference and by drawing loaded parallels with classic texts. Whether or not you agree with that, Trump’s presidency has left a clear imprint on theatre land even when the show in question is not directly related to him – Jon Culshaw’s impression in a Harold Pinter monologue from the 1980s during the first outing of the Pinter at the Pinter season, or a demigod-ish Caesar at The Bridge Theatre channelling the stylings of the Trumpian electoral campaign. Yet a full-length play inspired entirely by the man himself and the America that made him has taken time to emerge.

First out of the starting gate is Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, opening this week at the Almeida, a 3.5-hour monster of a show that attempts to unpick the US mindset which led to Trump’s shock election and a particular kind of middle-class inertia and complacency that failed to recognise the signs and act to prevent it. Shipwreck is a huge undertaken, looking at politics, class, wealth and race as well as the small stories of friendship, parenthood and identity. If it sounds ambitious then it is, but the result has a baggy and often incoherent messiness that never quite manages to live up to its own expectations.

The play’s sprawling structure is initially its biggest asset, a collection of friends – presumably old College buddies, though we’re not exactly sure – gathered at the newly acquired farmhouse of couple Richard and Jools. As each pair arrives, the intellectualising begins as they debate core moments of the last two years at the White House, pushing each other on points of disagreement and in several cases wrangling over a determination to have the last word. As these arguments play out, there is something of Annie Baker in Washburn’s approach, big conversations that seem to be about nothing but collectively reveal so much about the American psyche and the complexities of everyday life for working people. The hope of eventual coherence keeps you watching, although a number of viewers made their escape at the interval.

Yet, the show fails to offer any notable or really new insight on the first two years of the most alarming President of modern times. Washburn’s play is a rambling essay of known facts, a polemic that charts some of the key events but fails to deliver a solid argument or even to demonstrate its credentials as a theatrical rather than a scholastic experience. Shipwreck’s very discursiveness should eventually coalesce into big themes and concepts as well as insightful and representative character portraits of the assembled group. This dilapidated farmhouse should be a microcosm of America but struggles to be anything other than a lightweight narrative about some fairly smug affluent people who like to argue.

The big failing of Washburn’s play is that these many hours of talking result in two rather obvious conclusions, first that Trump lies and second that no one who votes for him really cares – well, you don’t need 3½ hours of theatre to tell you that. Dramatically, what plot there is, as the group survive a cold night, miles from anywhere, is driven by the supposedly shocking revelation that one of the characters voted for him, not as an act of sabotage in a safe seat but as a deliberate act in a purple state because they decide that Trump is the President America deserves. There’s something of the confessional in the way this is suddenly revealed but Washburn fails to properly draw these characters and their group identity, so when it comes to it this “major” revelation barely registers – the audience just don’t know or care enough about these people to feel the level of shock they experience.

There is a laboured verbosity in how these characters interact with one another, long, complex sentences, the product of rehearsed debate that never sound remotely spontaneous and undermines the reality of the characters. And while there’s something Sorkin-esque about this approach, the play lacks the intellectual clout that makes his work so compelling, so with each scene built around a different point of contention it all becomes a bit a Dawson’s Creek meets The West Wing.

In lieu of real characters, there is instead an excellent group of actors that do everything they can to keep the show alive despite the rather thin material they have to work with – like assembling The Avengers only to tackle a parking dispute – they absolutely carry the show. As the play opens, the scene is set by Raquel Cassidy’s Jools welcoming her tired friends to the inexplicably understocked and ramshackle farmhouse that she and husband Richard (Risteárd Cooper) are renovating. There’s something frail and homely in Cassidy’s performance, a woman who is hiding from the world, offering to bake cookies and lighting candles. Later, rather out of the blue, she argues frantically with the person who voted for Trump, but the play never shows us what her former, possibly waspish, life was and why this pivotal meeting of such different friends is really taking place so far from New York.

Adam James is never less than compelling, and in Shipwreck he brings a sardonic texture to lawyer Andrew who retains his faith in cool logic however impassioned his friends become. But more than the others, James shows us something deeper beneath the surface, a hint of self-knowledge about the protection his privileged lifestyle affords with partner Yusuf as part of the New York elite, troubled by the direction of his country but rational in the weighing-up of facts and emotions. Khalid Abdalla’s Yusuf does well with some big confessional speeches that speak to the association between liberal privilege and Trumpian wealth protection polices, if only his character was anchored enough in the show to make these more meaningful.

The rest of their friendship group is made-up of stereotypes, the poor hippy couple Jim and Laurie implausibly arriving almost immediately from the birth of their first grandchild and activist Allie whose recitation of Trump facts and realisation of her own failure to act initiates most of the debate. How these people have remained friends given their vastly different social spheres is problematic and unlikely, but the performances from Elliot Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Mitchell make them all potentially interesting perspectives on the effects of Trump if only the play could have grounded their lives more convincingly.

Out on his own, monologues from rising star Fisayo Akinade tell a not-quite complementary story of Mark’s childhood, adopted as a boy by white parents and raised in the same farmhouse the liberal New Yorkers now occupy. The experience of inter-racial families, how Mark came to view his own skin colour and his later exploration of competing ideas of black heritage are interesting discussion points which Akinade delivers well. These scenes are accompanied by Cooper and Fitzgerald as Mark’s parents Lawrence and Teresa, who talk about the immigration issues that had long led to Trump’s election, but the three stories never fuse effectively enough to be a truly insightful or meaningful assessment of America’s fate.

Rupert Goold unites the domestic and the political by staging the whole thing on a big round Arthurian table, at which both the actors and audience members sit. For much of the play, the table top becomes the performance space bringing the action more into the laps of the viewer than the tiny Almeida stage normally allows. This idea was used very effectively in a version of King Lear at the Union Theatre some years ago where the battlefield and the political arena became the same space, and for Shipwreck it is an equally useful metaphor for the ways in which societal power intrinsically affects the everyday.

It is a shame that some of the other aspects are less subtle including two rather ghastly fantasy sequences, played like cartoons in which Donald Trump (Cowan) confronts first George Bush (Akinade) and then James Comey (Abdalla). These horrible missteps again show us things we already know, that Trump reimagines his own history to paint himself as the knowledgeable hero and that he sees his unlimited power in terms of who is for and against him – also reiterated in several allusions to God and religious painting that dominate the projected backdrop. In an otherwise straight production that is entirely based on small-scale discussion, these overlong parodies are vastly misjudged. Not seeing Trump at all would have made his presence stronger and more dangerous.

It is a huge shame with so many possibilities in the scenario and script that the first specific Trump play should be such a disappointment, and, despite their excellence with the classics, its hard to remember the last time new writing at the Almeida genuinely astounded (possibly as long ago as Ink). It suffers too from coming so soon after Sweat at the Donmar that has recently earned a deserved West End transfer, Lynn Nottage’s play about disillusion and disenfranchisement in working-class America that manages to be everything Washburn’s play cannot. Shipwreck has its moments and the cast are uniformly excellent, but without strong character investment it dwindles to little more than a few well-hashed arguments we’ve all heard before.

Shipwreck is at The Almeida until 30 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter 7 - The Dumb Waiter

What a difference a few months can make; when the Jamie Lloyd Company first announced its Pinter at the Pinter season finale show back in May (before Betrayal was added to the programme), the news that Danny Dyer would star alongside Martin Freeman raised a few eyebrows. Famous for a series of over-earnest gangster films, daft documentaries and his role in Eastenders, his fans were delighted but there was also plenty of sneering about his lack of stage experience, and undoubtedly some ticketholders were hoping to witness a car-crash theatrical event. But since May, Dyer’s wider public profile has rapidly changed largely due to his “mad riddle” Brexit rant that reflected the frustrations of so many, as well as his recent history series for the BBC that defied its critics with knowingly comic scenarios that were full of humanity and respect for the expertise around him. In the last eight months the nation has rather taken Danny Dyer to our hearts

For fans, the transformation of Danny Dyer began when his Eastenders character Mick Carter proved to be a sensitive and loving family man, subverting old-fashioned expectations of soap-opera masculinity by supporting his fictional son’s decision to come-out, while sensitively responding to his wife Linda’s rape storyline. More recently, Dyer cemented his status as a national treasure in waiting by delivered Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message stressing the importance of mentorship, a sentiment echoed in his quite touching speech at the National Television Awards last month in which he dedicated his win to Harold Pinter for believing in him when no one else did.

Dyer, of course had known Pinter when as younger actor he appeared in No Man’s Land, Celebration and The Homecoming. A guiding friendship developed that has clearly had a lasting effect on the actor, one that makes his presence in the Pinter at the Pinter line-up both appropriate and meaningful – who better to celebrate the writer’s life and work than someone who feels he owes it all to Pinter. Throughout this superb season the Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company has made strong and strategic casting decisions that have purposefully mixed experienced actors, those who knew Pinter or have performed frequently in his plays, along with the industry’s rising stars.

It has given actors and comedians the chance to surprise us – who imagined that Lee Evans would deliver one of the most moving monologues of the season in Pinter Three, or that newcomer Luke Thallon would almost steal the show from established performers Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves in Pinter Five. There are no passengers in a Jamie Lloyd show, however large the company or small the role, every part of the production must contribute to the overall effect the director is trying to create. Lloyd likes to be disruptive and in cannily casting Dyer, he foresaw a possibility that goes beyond the commercial – though a full house and growing anticipation for a notable finale are also in there – another chance to use his stylised vision to show us that Dyer is as worthy of this company as any of the great names who have come before.

But all of that is to come because Pinter Seven opens with Gemma Wheelan and John Heffernan in A Slight Ache, Pinter’s 1958 play that began its life on the radio. While some of the other pieces in the collection have a similar provenance, they have been staged as primarily theatrical experiences, creating movement while playing with tone and pace to give them a physical dramatic life. Here the growing confidence of the Lloyd season is evident, now six revered shows later, we see the radio play performed by two actors in a 1950s radio studio using, for the most part, just their voices and a microphone to create that intimate wireless feel, and adding their own sound effects as they reveal the curious story of a middle England couple and the mysterious Matchseller.

Set in the semi-rural home of Edward and Flora on Midsummer’s Eve, it opens with the trapping of a wasp in the marmalade as the couple eat breakfast in their garden, revealing their quite different approaches to dealing with the buzzing intruder. As the longest day stretches on their happy idyll is disturbed by the looming appearance of a Matchseller lurking on the perimeter of their property, a man who appears to have watched the house for some time. Wanting him to leave, and with his eyes beginning to ache Edward and Flora invite him in, keen to know more about this troubling stranger.

Like so much of Pinter’s work, A Slight Ache uses language to create a quite specific effect enhanced here by the use of close microphones to create the very intimate feeling of radio drama. Very little is acted out, so almost everything the couple say or do must be conjured in the audiences’ mind from the descriptions and implicit inferences created by the actors. There is a strong sense of place, of class and a particular kind of easy living sustained by wealth, entitlement and expectation that comes entirely from the words Pinter places in the mouths of the characters. Frequent reference to the Latin names of the plants in the garden as Edward and Flora enjoy their home, and words like “marmalade”, “preposterous” and “treacherous” evoke a particular kind of England.

This is reinforced later by discovering Flora was once a Justice of the Peace as an encounter with a poacher sticks in her mind, while Edward has a career as an essay writer, all of which suggest a peaceful and untroubled existence that the Matchseller is about to disrupt. As so often with Pinter, what is said on the surface can be at odds with what is happening underneath, and while both Flora and the Matchseller are the recipients of some fairly ugly words that deliberately mar the beauty of the summer’s day, it is the practicality and openness of the female character that emerges with strength of purpose over her weaker intellectualising husband.

Lloyd’s staging draws out the psychological strangeness of the play, a building sense of doom but also of an almost supernatural presence that will change them all. The paganistic connection to Midsummer’s Eve runs through this one act piece, referenced repeatedly as “the longest day” as though ripe for other worldly forces to take charge. At the same time, we never see or hear the Matchseller speak, any responses attributed to him and voiced by Edward and Flora who also describe his shambling and dirty appearance. Crucially, in Lloyd’s production we never hear him, so, unlike Flora and Edward’s actions, he is not accompanied by any sound effects, questioning whether his existence is quite as firm as Edward’s failing eyes suggest.

There is a notable Inside No 9 quality to this 50-minute duologue, and, with similarities in content and tone, A Slight Ache may well have influenced Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Tom and Gerry episode from Series 1. It is also beautifully played by Wheelan and Heffernan, creating a richness with their voices so redolent of the undisturbed clarity of radio, while modulating the sound to alter the mood of the piece as the characters are drawn from their well-spoken, almost clipped 1950s accents, into misty reminiscences and increasingly fearful behaviours by the repulsively alluring stranger they have invited in. You may be here for the big stars to come, but this fantastic one-act play is the one you’ll be thinking about on the way home.

The Dumb Waiter is, in part, a more farcical affair but, written in 1957, is equally concerned with the use of language to create a sense of class and purpose. Two hit men wait in the basement of a building in Birmingham for instructions on their latest job, Ben the senior partner just wants to peaceably read his newspaper while the more highly-strung Gus poses an endless torrent of questions. Already a little fractious with each other, the unexpected arrival of food orders in the dumb waiter throws the men into chaos as they try to figure out what is going on before their target arrives.

There is a Godot-like quality to this semi-absurdist play, and while the farcical elements are perhaps less well-formed than some of Pinter’s later work, Lloyd’s production nicely frames the anticipation of the characters, forced to endure a long wait before they can perform their task, as well as the shifting power dynamic between the two men essentially trapped in a confined space. In some ways they seem both capable and entirely incapable of performing the assassins’ role they have chosen, and what emerges is a tug of war between Gus’s intellectual and Ben’s physical approaches.

Pinter often likes to introduce a disruptive element into an established group, but in The Dumb Waiter it is Ben and Gus who are the interlopers. We know from their accents, turn of phrase and the existence of particular items in their possession that they are both working-class men from London. They use words like “liberty” to mean an affront and Ben reads sensationalist stories from the newspaper, while Gus reveals a small picnic in his bag that includes tea, milk, biscuits, crisps and an Eccles cake which, with little biographical detail, still speaks volumes about who they are.

Martin Freeman’s Gus is initially the nervier of the two, he fusses about the broken toilet flush and the state of the beds they’ve been given to sleep in, at times barely pausing for breath. He hounds Ben for details of the job and, despite his supposed experience, seems disconcerted by a previous victim being female. During the course of the play, Freeman slowly suggests a different angle to Gus, with a physical bravery that surpasses Ben’s. He is first to open the serving hatch to the Dumb Waiter and to check the exterior world for contact, becoming increasingly comfortable within himself as the absurdity plays out.

By contrast Dyer’s Ben begins to come unstuck, the control and self-confidence with which he starts the play, silently and calmly reading the paper, is slowly chipped away until his own discombobulation takes on physical characteristics as Dyer sways slightly, shifting his weight or anxiously rubs his knees as Ben tries to figure out how to respond to whatever elaborate game is being played with them. With Dyer’s previous experience playing hard men, he’s on pretty firm ground here but he captures well the loosening of Ben’s certainty without entirely relinquishing the physicality of the potential threat he poses.

It’s a successful treatment from Lloyd in a play that grapples with largely realist performances in an absurdist construct. Part of that is down to the relationship that Freeman and Dyer create throughout the play, both giving the other the space for their individual performances, while allowing the sands to shift as events redefine power structures. With press night looming, these rapid changes between comedy, menace and fear that run through Pinter’s one-act show will become even more fluid and loaded with meaning which should please the house-full of fans for both performers.

Pinter Seven was meant to be the end of the Pinter at the Pinter season, and after six months of performances, these anthology collections have ended as confidently and memorably as they began, particularly with the very fine A Slight Ache to start the evening. The wealth and variety of Pinter’s work has seemed genuinely astounding, while Lloyd’s company of creatives and performers have brought distinction and meaning to every single one, eliciting very high hopes for a creative take on Betrayal in March. As Danny Dyer continues his transformation, whatever the reason for snapping-up tickets eight months ago you can be assured of a good night out. After all, a proudly working-class actor at the centre of a major West End season, well, Harold Pinter would approve.

Pinter 7: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 February. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

 


Adapting Les Misérables: Psychological Depth and the Period Drama

Dominic West - Les Miserables

The BBC’s adaptation of Les Misérables has been a huge success, gripping Sunday night viewing for the last five weeks offering the first truly comprehensive dramatisation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel. Andrew Davies has changed our relationship with the period drama and as a result of an equally epic War and Peace two years ago, and a trilogy of enduring hits two decades before – Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair and Tom Jones – he has created works in which the characters feel as rounded, human and as flawed as their original authors intended while making their timeless emotional and intellectual dramas feel contemporary. The success of Les Misérables lies in the psychological truth of the characters with Davies treating Hugo as his most important co-writer.

Reading the novel for the first time aged 17, and countless times since, the scale of this 1200-page behemoth is initially overwhelming and intimidating. A cast of hundreds with the action taking place across the vast geography of France in a 20-year period as the nation agonised over its recent revolutionary past and a political battle between monarchy and republic which led to frequent, violent confrontation akin to civil war.

Hugo’s multi-stranded narrative follows a group of characters who become unexpectedly enmeshed in each other’s lives as the various subplots draws them all to Paris for one explosive and poignant conclusion that neatly unites history, politics and fiction in what is an exceptional achievement in storytelling. Les Misérables is also an incredibly unusual novel taking a sequential approach to its character-histories, linked only by the protagonist Jean Valjean whose own life story is constructed through his appearance in other narratives – there is a book of Fantine, one of Cosette and a book of Marius, but only in the final section does Valjean warrant his own.

Frequently too, the story is disrupted by Hugo’s many digressions lasting for 10, 20, sometimes 100-pages, taking the reader out into a contextual discussion that showcases Hugo’s views on topics as diverse as a particular order of nuns, the construction of the Paris sewers or the penal system. These can be bulky and distracting but are designed to give a complete picture of the world of the novel, one that helps us to visualise particular locations or to understand why individuals choose to act as they do.

For example, more than hundred pages is dedicated to the Battle of Waterloo, a defining moment in modern French history for Hugo’s generation, yet it is not until the final couple of pages that two characters we know – Thenadier and Colonel Pontmercy – are brought together in a way that reverberates through the story. It is no coincidence that this was the starting point for Davies’s adaptation, a startlingly clever move that immediately set the tone while relegating the central character to several scenes hence, just as Hugo himself chose to do – Valjean is a fully-rounded and quietly heroic creation but he is also a cipher for other narratives, Les Misérables, quite deliberately, does not begin with him.

Few other television writers would be as brave and what Davies has done so effectively is to distil all of that text, those sub-narratives, events and detours into a tidy episodic structure that really for the first time does full justice to Hugo’s spectacular and intricate work. With six hours to play with, Davies has included scenes and vast swathes of the text never fully dramatised before, which for lovers of the richly layered novel is such a thrill. The root of all of this is that Davies simply trusts Hugo to tell his own story rather than inventing his own simplified version, and it is a joy to see the reverence this production has for the source material.

Each week, there has been a recognition that the density of Hugo’s writing is deliberate, that the small moments including the cruel abandonment of Fantine as a practical joke in Episode One, to the criminal events of the Gorbeau Tenement as Valjean is lured into a trap in Episode Four, and the even the tender relationship of Marius’s tragic father watching his boyhood from afar, are fundamental to the psychological shape of the story and what each character chooses or is compelled to do as a result.

Les Misérables is richly captivating, lyrically beautiful at points while also fierce, angry and incredibly moving, but what makes it so compelling is the endless compassion for the poor, the destitute and the wretched. Almost all of the principle characters have their story told in full and Hugo offers endless scope for redemption, no one is ever written-off for having once engaged in criminal acts that prevent them from changing their behaviour, on the contrary we see how often their transgressions are driven by desperation and circumstance rather than genuine depravity. Even the monstrous Thenadiers are softened by Madame T’s devotion to her young daughters (a “she-wolf” in Hugo’s description) and, in Olivier Coleman’s excellent performance, a fear of her husband with hints of domestic abuse, while the adult Eponine and teenage Gavroche redeem the family name with their bravery and self-sacrifice.

Valjean is the most obvious recipient of Hugo’s benevolence, and in spite of the bitterness of his incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread (which the novel makes clear was to feed his sister’s starving children) extended to nearly 20-years by repeated escape attempts, Valjean overcomes past hurts to become a respectable and generous man. Dominic West has been superb in a role that evolves considerably in the course of the novel; at the beginning, finally released from prison Valjean is all the things policeman Javert goads him with – coarse, embittered and quick to reoffend, his short temper frazzled by the suspicion and hostility that greet him.

West’s thoughtful performance conveyed the brutality of Valjean in Episode One, broken-down and almost feral, his whole body thrums with fury, dejection and injustice until the Bishop’s act of salvation creates a fascinating dilemma in the reawakened conscience of Valjean that West conveyed exactly. We have watched his humanity germinate and blossom in the ensuing episodes, and West has well conveyed the commanding factory manager troubled by his thoughtlessly harsh treatment of Fantine, and how his instinct after the Champmathieu affair in Episode Two is always to sacrifice himself to protect others, even at the risk of his own incarceration.

It is his fatherly devotion to the protection of Cosette that has been so warming in a man who has never known the simultaneous contentment and pain of unconditional love. A crucial moment in a dress shop in Episode Four was a wonderful example of screen acting from West as Valjean recognises for the first time that he is about to lose his adoptive daughter to the adult world and, still indulging her enthusiasm, a frozen smile with eyes full of sorrow conveys a moment of real heartbreak for the character, one which significant events in Episode Six will demonstrate means he will always sublimate his personal happiness to the greater good.

The idea that a person cannot be defined by a single act pervades the novel, most notably in the upright and steadfast certainty of Javert whose dogged pursuit of Valjean across the years is shown to be both noble and misguided.  The psychology of Javert is calibrated slightly differently to his nemesis, seeing the world through the prism of law and order, where an individual’s approach to rules and expectations determine character and behaviour.

David Oyelowo’s Javert is a tad less sympathetic than in the novel, and his pursuit of Valjean, the affront his freedom represents to Javert’s quite black and white concept of criminality and justice, has been less well explored, but Oyelowo has shown the dogged determination and fervent disgust for transgressors of any kind that fundamentally shapes Javert’s personality. You see him visibly blanch when encountering Fantine as a prostitute and at the residents of the Gorbeau Tenement, seeing only their actions and not the cause, leaving them with few options. This clarity of thought and of how monochromatically Javert sees the world will be challenged in Episode Six in an excellent opportunity for Oyelowo to demonstrate his skills and how well he understands this character.

Hugo’s endless compassion has been very evident on screen, most obviously in the sympathetic, though never mawkish, treatment of Fantine (Lily Collins), capturing her romantic naivety and the inevitable decline from poverty to shame – and how ghoulishly wonderful to see the teeth-pulling in all its horrid glory enacted by a chilling Ron Cook. Davies has maintained Hugo’s complex presentation of characters so even the students who we finally meet in Episode Four led by the dedicated Enjolras, and the romantic awakening of the dreamy Marius (Josh O’Connor), retain their individuality as well as their collective political fervour which during the superb barricade sections ensures you feel for the grandness of the gesture they are making as well as the smallness of its effect in the overall history of France.

There have been many adaptations of Les Misérables but none of them has felt as complete and satisfying as Davies’s approach, given the space to breath and evolve by the BBC across many episodes. From the interior depth of the characters and the grittier choice of locations, to the way in which the series as a whole has captured the politics, the history, the romance, and themes of social justice that unite Hugo’s vast novel, Davies and his team have told the story with a care and attention that has been impressive and very welcome. While much of Marius’s political and personal transformation as well as the context of the student’s experience building-up to the barricades has been sadly cast aside, Davies only fault has been to be so disparaging of the musical which, though decades old and by necessity a much shorter stage piece, had captured the spirit and feeling of Hugo’s words better than any other adaptation by drawing directly from them for the charming solos and rousing company numbers. It’s easy to scorn musical theatre, but Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s love and reverence for the novel shines through every moment of their composition.

It is the psychological complexity of the characters and a respect for the original author that has made Davies work so successful for so long. So many period dramas just tell the story, using the basic plot but without really creating a true sense of the world in which it exists or any credible sense that the characters are as human as we are. The desperation to prove contemporary relevance leads to rewrites, invented backstories and in the case of Agatha Christie adaptions entirely different murderers. You never feel with Davies’s work that he believes he knows better than Victor Hugo, and the original novel is always the heart and soul of each scene – contemporary relevance is stamped all the way through his productions because these novels deal with the enduring struggles of human nature as pertinent to 1832 when the latter part of the novel is set to 1862 when it was written and to 2019. With one final Episode yet to air, it’s clear that Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Les Misérables will be the definitive one for years to come.

Les Misérables is showing on BBC1 and Episodes One to Five are currently available on the BBC iPlayer and will be available for a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Dark Night of the Soul – The Globe

Dark Night of the Soul - The Globe

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus remains one of the most frequently performed plays in London along with Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, plays that appear again and again in locations as diverse as pub theatres, former railway arches and, of course, the big playhouse. While Jamie Lloyd’s 2016 modern version staring Kit Harrington proved divisive, the Globe is offering a more traditional staging as part of its winter season in the Jacobean-esque Sam Wanamaker space. But someone at the Globe may have sold their soul to the devil after all because it is the companion piece Dark Night of the Soul that is exactly the kind of successful initiative they need.

Michelle Terry’s first year in charge has been a mixed one, and while she has earned praise for her own central performances across a number of productions, the overall summer season was relatively unadventurous, with even the hailed return of Mark Rylance to the Globe stage as Iago producing an unsatisfactory Othello. Yet, the 2019 repertory list champions female-led interpretations of the major history plays, following in the footsteps of the Donmar Warehouse who received rave reviews for its Shakespeare trilogy in 2016. With all-female casts scheduled to perform both Henry IV plays and Henry V, 2019 is set to be a year of empowerment at the theatre.

While the classical canon is filled with stories about men, female actors assuming traditionally male roles is only half the story, what is needed are new stories written by and about women, just as we need the perspectives of all kinds of under-represented voices. Here Terry is definitely ahead of the curve, dedicating space in the winter programme to five writers conjuring five very different responses to Faustian myths. Collectively these plays, known together as Dark Night of the Soul, have been scheduled on four anthology evenings in January and February in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, as well as being offered as individual productions (with reduced pricing) in the tiny Tiring House behind the Globe mainstage.

Dark Night of the Soul is clearly a collective work in progress but, alongside programme notes and talks, it is a really smart way to look at the far-reaching effects of a particular play and the universality of the concepts it raises. This is exactly the kind of intellectual exercise modern theatres should engage in, questioning and re-evaluating the themes, impact and value of well-known work to a modern audience, while offering creative opportunities for new writers to stage plays in established companies. Using the prism of female experience opens-up the play to five alternative responses which through comedy, family dramas and supernatural experiences proves we are all still grappling with Marlowe’s concept of selling the soul for a moment of happiness.

The evening opens with Athena Stevens’s play Recompense which draws on the moment that Faustus’s past finally catches up with him and he must pay the price for 25-years of good living.  Transposed to a modern doctor’s office, a disabled woman arrives for a consultation only to reveal her life was determined at birth by the very doctor (Mandi Symonds) she has come to see. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, Stevens’s character takes the doctor back to her original mistake and its daily consequences.

Stevens, most recently seen at the Barbican in Redefining Juliet, writes frequently about our perception of character based largely on performance tradition rather than anything specified in the text, creating a narrow basis for casting. Stevens argues that audiences as well as directors and producers have preconceived expectations that she uses her own work to challenge, and here Stevens uses Recompense to draw attention to the ways in which an individual life can be defined by external forces, by how you look, speak, move and, in this case, someone’s failure or inability to act at the crucial moment which set the character’s life on an entirely different course as a result of that negligence.

Of all the one-act pieces in this collection, it has the most directly confrontational message and the characters become ciphers to serve that particular end – the doctor must realise her faults and the patient is there to champion a form of justice. Consequently, Recompense has the least potential to expand into a fuller piece, but it does engage with the supernatural aspects of Marlowe’s play as well as the idea of the past catching-up with you, of there always being a price to pay.

The French Welcome by Lily Bevan, by contrast, has a much larger life than the snippet presented here. The most accomplished short of the night, it is set in 1604, as the first performances of Doctor Faustus were being staged, watched by Marie Mountjoy the French wife of a jeweller who makes tiaras and happens to be Shakespeare’s landlady. Captivated by the themes of the play and visited by Mephistopheles (an excellent Louis Maskell), Marie debates the lot of women with her maid who reveals a sickness she can no longer conceal, and fears of being sold to the local brothel-keeper by Marie’s husband Christopher. On consulting their local physician, Marie realises that a sacrifice is needed.

Bevan’s play is a joy, combining an interesting approach to Marlowe’s play and its effect on contemporary viewers (nicely tying it back to Shakespeare – so a double tick for The Globe), with a cheeky engaging humour that draws in the room. Playing Marie, Bevan charms the audience immediately as her smart and sassy character is filled with enthusiasm for the life-changing production she has seen, leading her to question the extent to which women have the same freedom as Faustus to make choices about a fulfilling life of comfort, travel and contentment.

The key to its success is to wrap these debates in a warmly engaging shell that makes the audience part of the story. The characters frequently speak directly to the crowd, and while a restrained use of Allo Allo pronunciation earns some laughs for the leading lady, the good-natured audience-participation adds to the inclusive effect of the show – without leaving their seats, one man becomes her not so secret lover, while others have a hilarious Pauline McLynn as Dr Simon Forman read their palm and examine the majestic qualities of their middle finger. This is a play that demands more time, easily suggesting several ways in which Bevan can expand it to a fuller length.

Just before the interval Amanda Wilkin’s The Little Sob looks at confessions, shame and redemption in a reality TV-style set-up that is influenced as much by Black Mirror as Doctor Faustus. Wendy Kweh is a presenter offering strangers the chance to reveal their guilty secrets, relieving the burden on their conscience while providing entertainment to everyone watching. As Wilkin’s character talks about body image and telling white lies to her friends to stay home, a more troubling story of inaction and collusion is revealed.

Wilkin’s play takes a slightly different perspective on the selling of souls and, rather than a single bargain, considers the slow erosion caused by bad behaviour, indifference and the self-preservation we all prioritise over helping others. Being silent, she argues, is just as dangerous and damaging, while refusing to get involved can be more shaming than doing the wrong thing. The reality game-show construct is an interesting one, using Kweh’s insensitive presenter as one devil revelling in the contestant’s misfortune, while Lucie Sword plays the more nervous, angelic, voice of reason. Again, this scenario has considerable possibility for expansion, building on some of the issues it raises about sexual misconduct and supportiveness, as well as the visibility of individuals in the age of social media.

The second half begins with Katie Hims’s Three Minutes After Midnight, an intriguing short story about the ownership and commercialisation of memory. Set in a hospice run by unseen nuns, two women gather at the bedside of a dying relative whose life has been far more interesting than her daughter, Corporate Lawyer Daisy (Lily Bevan), ever realised. When a big family secret is exposed, Daisy’s relationship with her playwright aunt deteriorates further when she discovers scenes from real life in her latest draft and insists her aunt (another excellent performance from Pauline McLynn) asks permission from her mother before it’s too late.

The detailed characterisation of the two women onstage, as well as the unseen dying mother at the centre of revelations suggests this should be the start of a much larger work for Hims who could take the story in a number of different directions. Three Minutes After Minute looks back to two sisters growing-up in a strict Catholic Ireland and having to support each other through their own childhood tragedy, but it also leaves open a future track in which the writer-aunt must endure the consequences of whichever choice she makes about plundering her own life for art and the burden of creativity that require the sale of part of her soul for success.

This idea of theatre and the dramatic process as the acquisition of other people’s thoughts, voices and experiences is exactly what drives Souled Out, the concluding section written by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence. With a few scenes distributed between the earlier plays to allow for tiny set changes, this partly stand-up, partly-acted show is a crowd-pleasing examination of the Faustian bargain. The writers have interviewed women from the Southwark area, asking them about their biggest wishes, the biggest lie they ever told and what they would be prepared to sacrifice to achieve their desires.

Performed by the writers, they adopt the voices, accents and intonation of the original speaker whose responses are fed to them through ipods that the audience cannot hear. Often hilarious, real answers about magically tidy houses provide an impression of surprisingly domestic aspirations, an unexpected confession of perjury and the public’s muddled knowledge of Marlowe’s original story. As Hammond and Spence swap their angel wings for black masks, you realise the switch they’re pulling on us, implying their own (jokingly) mercenary approach to plundering and exaggerating reality to create successful art, and the cannibalistic process of theatre that feeds-off the emotions and experiences of others.

Dark Night of the Soul is exactly the kind of work the Globe and similar spaces with multiple auditoria should be doing, creating opportunities for mentored new writing programmes that simultaneously reinforce appreciation for the season’s big classical show. With Shakespeare’s Henry-plays this summer, there is a chance to engage with ideas of leadership, duty, revolt against expectation, and the cost of responsibility for others, as well as opening-up the perspective of the women in the plays, conquered as part of the land-grabbing actions of the male characters. The five plays in Dark Night of the Soul together have much to say about Doctor Faustus so let’s make this a regular exercise. More please!

Dark Night of the Soul is at The Globe until 1 February. See the plays individually in the Tiring House for £3 or in the full anthology nights in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Aspects of Love – Southwark Playhouse

Aspects of Love - Southwark Playhouse

The 1980s gave us some of the most enduring modern musicals, with shows that more than three decades later still dominate the West End. Phantom of the Opera opened in 1986 and still resides at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Les Misérables is celebrating almost 35 continuous years with a nationwide tour and a controversial revamp while a new tour of Blood Brothers (1983) begins in 2019 which also had a notable 24-year run in West End. But there are some musicals that have fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by their more steadfast counterparts. But in the last year, first Chess and now Aspects of Love have earned revivals that offer a new generation a chance to see these productions for the first time.

Anyone born after 1980 may never have seen Aspects of Love and know it only for the song Love Changes Everything which made Michael Ball a star, so the Manchester Hope Mill’s garlanded revival which transfers to the Southwark Playhouse for four weeks will be a first for many of us. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart is based on the 1955 novella by David Garnett which charts the incestuous romantic relationships of a group of bohemian friends over almost two decades. Himself a member of Bloomsbury group, it’s not difficult to see the refraction of Garnett’s own experience in the story that is darker than its quixotic title suggests.

The famous strains of Love Changes Everything open the show as former lovers meet once more at a funeral before the years roll back to the beginning of this sorry tale. The song initially seems to signal to the audience that love is a hopefully, positive force, one that will define your life for the better. Heard repeatedly out of context on LP as a child, the lyrics and emotional swell of the music have always implied a happy passion, one in which the singer welcomes the bittersweet thrill of it all. How different the unfolding tale proves to be, and heard now in context it seems Michael Ball was singing about something else altogether.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s revival’s gives you the first clue as you take your seat, what look like foxglove stems hang upside down from the ceiling, lilac and beautiful, they are romantically struck into semi-shadow by the theatre lights. But designer Jason Denvir is playing with us; beautiful on the outside but deadly within, foxgloves are the source of digitalis a dangerous and near traceless poison beloved of Agatha Christie novels and even used against James Bond in the 2005 film of Casino Royale. Love, the company want us to know is a poisonous contraction of the heart.

While providing enough open space to fit 46 songs and indicate the rapid passing of the years, the rest of the set stresses the dreamlike quality of the characters’ lives, sunset colours stream through the shuttered doors at the rear of the stage as Denvir recreates the theatres of post-war Montpellier, the cafes of Paris and George’s restful countryside villa. It has a 50’s technicolor glamour that references the golden age of Hollywood and the artistic leanings of this little group – the actress, the sculptor, the benefactor and the star-struck boy.

Despite all of this, it’s easy to see why Aspects of Love rather fell by the wayside, sandwiched between Lloyd’s Webber’s gold-plated hit The Phantom of the Opera (another novel adaptation) and Sunset Boulevard based on the 1950 film which earned its own revival two years ago with Glenn Close at The Coliseum. The fragmented nature of Aspects of Love is both its saviour and its downfall; relatively short scenes flow very quickly offering only snatches of time before years pass and characters have entirely changed location, status and relationship making it much harder to understand or sympathise with the emotions of this bed-hopping set. Repeatedly characters profess love for one another but that never keeps them from other lovers and the story rarley pauses long enough to properly engage with the psychology of these people, to really explore the multiple versions and depths of love that the show toys with.

This flitting from scene to scene also makes the show feel longer than it really is, with no clear structure to guide the viewer through to the unexpectedly open conclusion. Unlike Phantom or Sunset Boulevard there is a bagginess to the show which, with no obvious driver or drama beyond the various emotional entanglements, lacks shape. Yet, as Denvir so clearly shows in the staging, there is colour in every moment of the show, and particularly so in this Hope Mill production. Over time you start to feel there is a thesis about the changing nature of passion, the fallibility of the heart and frailty of the individual to resist another opportunity to feel loved, a craving for the kind of validation it brings whatever the cost.

And then there is the music. While Black and Hart’s lyrics never quite match the highs of Lloyd Webber’s emotive, swelling score, and the same refrains from the opening number and others are recycled too many times to be entirely satisfactory, nonetheless there is something engaging, charming and, at times, even moving in the way the show builds as a whole. If you’ve watched enough Royal Variety Performances or theatre concerts you may even recognise more songs than you thought ,with numbers including wistful duet Seeing is Believing, the swaying tones of The First Man You Remember and the powerful ache of Anything But Lonely, all of which are as good as anything Lloyd Webber ever wrote, but a shame to hear them with only a piano here.

O’Boyle’s production staged in the ¾ round at the Southwark Playhouse makes a reasonable case for the return of Aspects of Love to the Lloyd Webber canon. There is a playful quality to the first act in which love affairs begin and hearts are carelessly broken with little thought for the consequences. There is no sense of foreboding, no future waiting to claim them, just endless summers, optimism and a couple of love triangles that reek of bohemian freedom, enhanced by some well-staged ensemble numbers.

Aspects of Love is full of slightly troubling age-gap relationships, starting with the connection between the ardent 17-year old Alex and the older Rose who appropriately appears in The Master Builder when they first meet. Sweet and idealistic, it takes place in secluded picnic spots away from reality, but O’Boyle’s production is clear that the characters are on parallel tracks (a trait to be repeated in the love stories to follow), being nothing more than a harmless fling for Rose, while a defining passion for Alex that he is expected to grow out of – everyone needs to get their heart broken at least once. The entrance of the more mature Uncle George offers Rose stability and an open relationship, welcoming his other younger lover Giulietta into the home.

Act II marks a notable shift in tone and, 12-years on, Rose now entertains her own adoring fans in Paris, while married to George who cares for their daughter Jenny at the Pau villa. Giulietta’s unexplained absence after years of happiness is portentous, writing to say she cannot be with them, just as Alex re-enters the picture, forming a connection to the 14-year old Jenny that becomes incredibly problematic both for the strange ménage and for the audience. With the passing of the years, it’s hard to know how this particularly unsavoury aspect was originally perceived by audiences, but the characters take it surprisingly in their stride, whether they just fail to notice or fail to act is never entirely clear but the result is too underplayed for the severity of the subject matter and the implied collusion of her parents leaves a slightly bitter taste.

As Alex, Felix Mosse’s puppy love for a rising actress gives way to jealousy, rage and resentment as he imagines her drifting away before she eventually does. Having spent 30-years hearing Michael Ball’s verdant take on the opening number Mosse’s rendition is rather clipped and quiet by comparison, offering a quieter, guarded performance that gives little away throughout the show. In fairness, there’s not much in the character of Alex for Mosse to get his teeth into so while the experience and then memory of his grand passion for Rose propel the story, Mosse navigates the fluctuations between outrage and mild acceptance as well as he can. Yet, it is not until the far more inappropriate attraction to Jenny, who is more than half his age, that he is able to amplify his inner turmoil most effectively.

It is Kelly Price’s Rose who comes most sharply into view through this production, a woman who craves love in all its forms while searching for a permanency she can return to when her temporary amours are over. Price’s semi-operatic voice fits the range of Lloyd Webber’s music extremely well giving life to songs as well as reflecting the passing years in Rose’s growing comfort and complacency. Price is particularly affecting in the final moments of the show, tearing at the heart with the sorrowful and haunting Anything But Lonely in which her free-spirited exuberance reveals an essential vulnerability that makes sense of her choices, creating genuine empathy for a woman who has had to make her own way in the world by whatever means she can.

The leads are supported by notable performances from Madalena Alberto as artist Giulietta who makes you wish the character had a much bigger role, Jerome Pradon who brings texture and feeling as lascivious Uncle George, as well as Eleanor Walsh as the precocious Jenny who certainly brings an uncomfortable and earnest sexuality to the part even if she doesn’t always suggest quite how young Jenny really is.

This production of Aspects of Love certainly gives rise to a number of conflicting feelings and, troubling as the story now is, the music and energy of it have lasted remarkably well, and there are quite deliberate references to La Boehme, The Master Builder and Chekhov that draw on themes about the liberation of nature, city life and a romantic connection to the past that underlie much of the action. You will remember this as a moment of happiness Alex is frequently told, the convolutions and pain of his love affairs reduced by time and memory. The show itself may perhaps benefit from a modern reworking to iron out the more distasteful elements, but Aspects of Love should be fondly remembered.

Aspects of Love is at Southwark Playhouse until 9 February. Tickets are £27 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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