Category Archives: Play

The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre

The Ferryman by Johan Persson

Looking back across the Twentieth-Century one of the things you see most clearly is violence, as each generation passed the experience and legacy of conflict onto the next. From the Boer War at the beginning to the invasion of Iraq at the end, the effect of war on the countless young men who fought it and their families had far reaching consequences. Yet, on mainland Britain after the Second World War, the knowledge of being under fire at home receded, and wars once again became something that happened somewhere else in the world. For those living in Northern Ireland however, violent confrontation with the consequences of British rule continued to be felt, laying a trail of protest and suffering that ran like a backbone through the century.

Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, opened to considerable acclaim at the Royal Court before transferring swiftly to the West End, where last week’s press night heaped more plaudits on a show that instantly extended its run until January. Subsequent audiences now see this production with a great weight of expectation attached which The Ferryman does live up to, but as a fellow audience member pointed out it is perhaps interesting more than obviously enjoyable, a fascinating experience rather than something that is profoundly emotional or straight-forwardly entertaining. Yet, it is nonetheless an affecting theatrical experience.

Set in the early 1980s at the time of the hunger strikes at the Maze prison, The Ferryman takes place over 24 hours in the rural home of the Carney family, but it is a play about the whole century using three generations who link the Easter Rising to IRA activity beyond the date of the story. Butterworth has carefully structured the play so the audience can practically see the baton pass from the elders of the family, whose stories and experiences dominate the early part, through to the teenagers and younger children who will replace them in a continuous battle between those seeking Irish independence through violence and those who crave a peaceful future.

10 years before the start of the play, Caitlin’s husband “disappears” and she spends a decade living with her brother-in-law Quinn’s family on their farm. But the body unexpectedly comes to light and the local priest acting on instruction from IRA front-man Muldoon breaks the news to Quinn as the family gather to take in the harvest. Reeling from finally knowing the truth, the Carneys try to carry on with the celebration, but Muldoon has a deal to offer them which will disrupt the fragile peace they’ve built in the last 10 years.

Butterworth is writing here on a large scale, using the experience of one family as a microcosm to understand the history and future of Ireland at this point. As a result, the way he presents intimate stories and memories are also sprawling in nature, and rather than focusing on one strand or generation, the three Acts are a series of interlinked but also separate conversations between a family that knows virtually nothing about itself as different groups of people share their experiences. There is an ebb and flow to his writing that you feel across the production as particular memories or characters come into focus and then recede into the background while others take their turn.

And so many themes wash through this production, all of which give you a sense of the context for this particular moment in time and how it sits within the history, culture and mythology of Ireland. First and foremost, it asks big questions about when the individual should stand-up and be counted, and when it’s best to do nothing, as head of the family Quinn (Paddy Considine) finds the choices he made in his own impassioned youth are echoed in the present day when he has considerably more to lose.

There is also a strong emphasis on storytelling that creates an ongoing dialogue with the world beyond the family, and the play is essentially a series of stories in which different people hold forth, conferring a kind of status on their experiences. And while that does occasionally add to the play’s protracted length, Butterworth’s writing uses each segment as an opportunity to shine a light on different corners of the farmhouse, whether it’s the politicised great Aunt Patricia who never recovered from seeing her brother die during the Easter Rising, or the young tearaway cousin Shane who’s proud to be secretly working for Muldoon’s men while on his paper-round.

One of the most interesting but subtly woven elements is the influence of military life on the Carney family. As they set-out to begin the harvest day, the younger boys act like soldiers under the direction of Quinn who marches them out to work, which later links not just to the real-life warfare going on in the nearby towns full of real servicemen, but also to the family’s history of soldiering and active protest across the century. Both the missing brother and Quinn were connected to the IRA, while their sons debate it, and several of the women in the family share the fate of their counterparts across the century by becoming eternal widows, losing someone they care about and living a life of permanent absence, here given almost physical form by their longing.

Sam Mendes doesn’t so much direct all of this as conduct it, as waves of story and meaning roll and crash across the stage. It is technically impressive to keep control of such an elaborate saga, while allowing each piece to land at the right emotional pitch. Mendes, no stranger to managing scale and intimacy on stage and film, makes this feel like a concert where he orchestrates the pitch and swell of the music, keeping some sections low while others erupt, but each feeding in to the slow-burn feel that drives the play.

However, as admirable and skilled a construction as it is, The Ferryman is a play you watch more with your head than your heart, recognising its intellectual contribution but not ‘living’ it with them.  A sizeable cast and the continual movement between stories means you get a range of viewpoints and breadth of family experience but, with a few exceptions, no one story gets the time or depth of connection to really touch you.

Paddy Considine as Quinn is a man who has left his past behind and reinvented himself as a happy farmer with seven children and a largely untroubled life. We first see him dancing wildly to the Rolling Stones in the kitchen – one of several nicely pitched moments where past and future collide through music –  and it’s clear he is the fun dad heading a harmonious household – apart for the growing attraction to sister-in-law Caitlin which neither chooses to confront. There is an interesting tension between Considine and Laura Donnelly throughout the play suggesting the deeper connection they’d developed, while Considine gets to explore a darker element as the intrusion of Muldoon slowly reignites Quinn’s engagement with the political and dangerous world he once escaped from.

Donnelly meanwhile has to navigate being a surrogate parent to Quinn’s children while their mother claims illness upstairs, running the household and fighting her attraction to Quinn. But the arrival of firm news about her husband’s death starts to unpick the balance she had established, and Donnelly brings considerable emotion to Caitlin’s attempts to stifle her grief for the sake of appearances. As the other woman in Quinn’s life, Genevieve O’Reilly’s sickly Mary is a pale figure, giving a different dimension to the running theme of absence, but grows in stature in the final Act as she attempts to reclaim some lost ground.

Among the wider cast, there are excellent turns from Brid Brennan as Aunty Maggie whose partial lucidity brings forth several important memories from the past, while Dearbhla Molloy’s caustic Aunty Patricia has more fire and political anger than anyone else in the play, finding the triviality of the harvest hard to stomach while prisoners are starving in protest. Des McAleer proves a great foil as Uncle Patrick whose sparring with Patricia leads to a hilarious exchange of barbs, while Tom Glynn-Carney has verve and swagger as the teenager Shane who thinks he’s a big man but reeks of naivety. Meanwhile, Stuart Graham casts a dark shadow as Muldoon, his presence a blot on the Carney family festivities whose performance adds a necessary touch of menace.

As well as being a serious piece, The Ferryman is often a very funny play with many lighter moments to ease the tension – although arguably that tension is not pointed or protracted enough, and it would have added considerably to the drama to feel the political and military situation intruding more sharply as the play unfolds. Aspects of the conclusion also feel a little unlikely as several things happen in quick succession, taking the scene to the point of melodrama that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the play. For it to make sense, some of these outcomes need to be built into the play at an earlier stage, because as spur of the moment actions they don’t quite convince, and this would also remove the unnecessary exposition of things the audience had already gleaned from the preceding scenes. How much more powerful and satisfying it could have been to forego all of this hysteria and end the play a few minutes earlier with a female sacrifice to protect the family she has grown to love.

In many ways The Ferryman is a companion piece to Steve McQueen’s 2008 film debut Hunger a more brutal depiction of the events at the Maze prison which, taken together with Butterworth’s play, show both the political and social impacts of the protests and the desire for justice. Your response to The Ferryman may well vary depending on your knowledge and experience of the era it depicts, but whether it captures your head or your heart, it is part of a wider story about the militarisation of young men and its consequences across the Twentieth-Century.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Ink – The Almeida

Ink, The Almeida

Every now and then a theatre will have a run of particularly good form, as show after show manages to earn critical and popular acclaim. It’s fair to say that The Almeida is currently enjoying a very purple patch, with a series of big successes over the last six months to which they can now add their latest production, James Graham’s new play Ink. The Almeida’s luck began with Mary Stuart in January, and although I didn’t much care for it, it wowed the critics and has just announced a West End transfer, following in the footsteps of its impressive Hamlet starring Andrew Scott that has just opened in the Harold Pinter. Equally excellent was the wonderfully bizarre world created by The Treatment, and with Ben Wishaw starring in Against in August, The Almeida’s mix of classics and new writing, established stars and fresh talent is delivering an astonishing season of work.

With press night for Ink on Tuesday it will be interesting to see if this continues the run of critical approval for the theatre, especially given that its subject – the birth of the current incarnation of The Sun newspaper and its deliberate attempt to shake-up the cronyism of Fleet Street – might ruffle a few critical feathers at the very newspapers it mocks. That aside, it was perfectly clear even at the preview that this is one of the not-to-be-missed shows of the summer, a hilarious, pointed and nuanced examination of the tabloid press and the two men who brought it into being, Larry Lamb and Rupert Murdoch.

It’s 1969 and the young Rupert Murdoch is negotiating a deal to buy the ailing Sun newspaper from The Mirror group, and tries to convince Yorkshire-born editor Larry Lamb to leave his regional paper and return to Fleet Street to oversee The Sun. Given a target of one year to increase the newspapers paltry market share from hundreds of thousands to millions, Lamb sets about reinventing the modern tabloid with give-aways, bold headlines and reader-focused content. As Lamb’s team try to top The Mirror’s circulation numbers, they start to make choices that will compromise their original ideals, upset “the street” and invent a more sullied style of journalism.

James Graham has become quite adept at revealing how various parts of the Establishment fit together and 2017 is proving a good year for him too. A revival of his 2012 play This House was warmly received in the West End and another new play, Labour of Love starring Martin Freeman and Sarah Lancashire, opens at the Noel Coward in September. Best described as a comedy drama, Ink is a joy from start to finish and considerably more balanced than you’d imagine a play about the origins of a tabloid newspaper to be.

What is clear from his style of writing, is that Graham wants you to understand the human motivations behind our modern impression of The Sun and its founders, how it became the behemoth it is today by taking us back to its origins. In the creation of character, Graham deliberately avoids cartoonish ridicule, but offers a chance to reflect on the original ideals of Murdoch and Lamb, using their outsider status to create innovative disruption in the industry, and believing that they were delivering an individual-focused people-led newspaper that spoke to the working nation in a way that broadsheets couldn’t. What is so fascinating about Ink is the idea of the Frankenstein’s monster they all created by playing to these notions which then began to take on a life and momentum which they could no longer control, warnings about which are echoed repeatedly – and it is this, along with the race for circulation, this is the backbone of the play.

Richard Coyle leads an excellent cast as the change-maker Larry Lamb, who seems to trade attitudes with his new boss Murdoch, played with relish by Bertie Carvel, as the play unfolds. What begins as an us-against-the-world partnership as the northerner and the Australian try to break the clubbable stranglehold of the elite on mainstream British journalism, becomes a more fractious relationship as Lamb takes outrageous risks that Murdoch squirms away from. And in the central section of the play, Murdoch is seen less and less as he steps back from direct engagement with the paper to develop his much wider media empire, leaving Lamb to call the shots and take the fall if it all goes wrong.

Coyle is such an accomplished actor and not often enough seen on stage or screen, but here is the driving force of the play. What we know about Lamb in retrospect and the cost of his interventions will send you to this play with considerable pre-conceptions, which Coyle skilfully subverts. Instead we are introduced initially to a good man, solid, reliable and with a talent for bringing his staff together harmoniously, but even in his first scene we see the seeds are sown as he outlines the 5 whys of good storytelling – who, what, when, where and what next, having abandoned why because it doesn’t matter. He also has a slight chip on his shoulder about lack of promotion when he worked for The Mirror but he ploughs his frustrations into making The Sun a reader-focused newspaper full of the things Brits love with very little hope of turning the papers fortunes around.

But as the story develops, initial success goes to his head and Coyle demonstrates how Lamb became increasingly reckless, discarding decency and taste to reach his one-year target to outsell all their rivals, even using the personal tragedies of his own staff. Murdoch has to push Lamb to become a businessman, taking tough decisions at the expense of friendly relations with his team, but when he does there’s no one to hold him back. And in the final moments of the play when Lamb sees the consequences, Coyle brilliantly conveys a sense of hopeless regret and anxiety about the future he has been instrumental in creating.

Bertie Carvel has to bear the weight of even more expectation as the young Murdoch, espousing Thatcherite ideals of individualism and big business a decade before she became Prime Minister. Carvel captures the soft accent and slightly hunched physical demeanour extremely well and works hard to keep Murdoch on the right side of caricature. It’s clear he resents his outsider status, looked down upon for his background and connections by the owners of Fleet Street’s finest, but he clings to a new business-focus that chimes with the changing attitudes of the late 1960s, despite his instance in dining at the exclusive Establishment restaurant Rules. Perhaps most intriguing is how clearly Murdoch distances himself from some of Lamb’s innovations, and Carvel plays this as part hesitancy, part washing his hands of it, so by the end of the play you see clearly the man he would become.

Surrounding the leads are a fantastic team of reporters and production staff including excellent turns from Sophie Stanton as the chippy Joyce Hopkirk a no-nonsense seen-it-all Women’s Editor in a world of men, Tim Steed as Bernard Shrimsley the paper’s only well-spoken posh Brit with a love of fonts (who in real life became Lamb’s successor), and Justin Salinger as crime reporter turned unofficial floor manager Brian McConnell who becomes Lamb’s right-hand man. There are great smaller roles for Pearl Chanda as young model who becomes the first Page 3 star, David Schofield as Lamb’s former mentor Hugh Cudlipp and, channelling the sartorial style of Robin Askwith in Bless This House, Jack Holden as long-haired young photographer Beverley.

Bunny Christie’s towering design feels like a rat trap with desks piled on top of one another, clutter and paper everywhere and various exits and pathways. It has the look of a busy newsrooms but also the poorly conditioned basement implied in the text. The set does have several levels and if you’re at the back of the stalls you won’t be able to see more than the legs of the actors at the top due to the overhang of the circle, but the majority of the action takes place on the main stage level.

Director Rupert Goold keeps the action moving swiftly and scenes merge effortlessly using the various levels and sets raised into place from the floor. Goold also keeps the balance between comedy and a much darker second act, alongside moments of pure whimsy as short song and dance routines act as a montage for Lamb collecting his team, and later the unbelievable success of The Sun’s early months, all beautifully lit by Neil Austin. Ink is one of those rare plays that you watch with a smile on your face throughout, not just because it’s funny, but because the writing is so engaging and the performances so accomplished that you’re gripped by what it has to say. The Almeida really is enjoying the purpliest of purple patches and Ink really deserves to be headline news.

Ink is at The Almeida until 5 August and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Anatomy of a Suicide – Royal Court

Anatomy of a Suicide - Royal Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


42nd Street – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Love in Idleness – The Apollo Theatre

Love in Idleness - Eve Best & Anthony Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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