Category Archives: Theatre

Brokeback Mountain – Soho Place

Brokeback Mountain - Soho Place

When the film Brokeback Mountain first appeared almost 20 years ago in 2005 it seemed like a revolution, two mainstream Hollywood names appearing in a film about a tender same sex love story between cowboys in the 1960s. Two decades on and that has all changed for the better. But the stage has always been way ahead of cinema in the presentation and acceptance of love in all its forms, and in a market spilling over with screen to stage transfers of largely 1980s and 90s films turned into big budget theatre musicals, it is a joy to see the intimacy and sensitivity of Ashley Robinson’s world premiere production of Brokeback Mountain at Soho Place which also marks the West End debuts of Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges. Alive with the tragedy of a love that can never be, Jonathan Butterell’s production will slowly break your heart.

“If you can’t fix it, you gotta take” is the sentiment that follows lovers Ennis and Jack through the wild passion of their early love affair and onto a more complicated existence as their lives away from each other over twenty years conspire to take them far beyond the simple solitude and contentment they found one summer on Brokeback Mountain. And while this production gives a clear sense that these men cannot be together openly – the restrictions of the era and the life-threatening beatings that gay men in this story are reported to suffer – the power in Robinson’s adaptation lies in minimising the external noise and focusing on the inability of Ennis and Jack to understand their feelings for one another and overcome an innate fear of what it might mean to be together, a chance for happiness they all but sacrifice as a result.

The audience knows from the start that there is a tragedy in this love story, told from the perspective of the older Ennis (Paul Hickey) who wakes alone, disheveled and reaching for a bottle, remembering the days of his youth. Robinson makes this an unspoken recognition, a character who stalks the stage but never narrates, lingering meaningfully on the edges of his own memories but only acknowleding who he is with a look at his younger self as the play begins. Its subtle but neatly done, and one of Robinson’s strongest gifts here is to recognise the moments when words are not enough, the playwright getting out of the way of the actors and giving them the silences to fill instead. In a text that is already quite spare, offering only the bare essentials, building that cumulative emotional impact in Brokeback Mountain requires a fine balance between different kinds of creative input and this company has found it.

The promotional text makes it clear this is based on Annie Proulx’s short story and not the film, but there is an unavoidably cinematic quality to this stage adaption. Running at only 90-minutes (45-minutes shorter than the movie) it is unusual for theatre to be structured around a series of short scenes that are more common on screen where the camera framing and use of close-ups can elicit a great deal from a few seconds of film. On stage that is harder to achieve particular for a story that spans so many years in the character’s lives, so Brokeback Mountain must build momentum and investment, toning down the existence of other characters to focus more exclusively on Ennis and Jack’s trajectory both together and apart, as well as savouring the longer term impact of their relationship in place of the instant gratification that film can offer at every encounter.

As a result, there are no lingering looks when the pair first meet and head up the mountain to tend sheep for a few weeks, instead there is a slightly frosty restraint emanating from Ennis in which the men barely exchange a word as they pass each other at their camp. Their first night together seems to happen from nowhere, as much a surprise to them as the audience, but it unleashes a torrent of repressed emotion that they give free reign to. Cinema would likely play a scenario like this quite differently, a shy start and a slow build up to a tentative romance, the consummation of that connection the end goal. But theatre can shift the emphasis onto the longer impacts and implication of this relationship, altering the perspective from the close-up to the long view to find its meaning.

Robinson and Butterell have managed that extremely well across this new production, making the emergence and sustenance of this feeling between Ennis and Jack the spine of the show, the depth of the emotion between them and the way in which it builds even as years pass and lots of activities and experiences occur around them is unfaltering. The writer and director are never distracted from the perspective of older Ennis looking back on the loneliness and emptiness of his life without Jack. This past conjured up for the audience essentially has a single track that is designed to inform the present, away from the tricks of cinema, the full impact of which in this theatre production can only be truly understood and felt at the end of the story.

The cinematic nature of this production is only enhanced by the addition of Dan Gillespie Sells’s music, played live and helping to set the mood and track the emotional pulse of the production. Performed by Eddi Reader playing the Balladeer along with her country and western band, these emotive original songs provide a ranging soundtrack with a depth and potency that integrates perfectly with the story, explaining and enhancing the emotional turbulence experienced by the characters. The music is a constant presence but it also feels deftly applied, providing support at just the right moments, a shorthand to enhance the tacit meaning beneath Robinson’s sparring dialogue and the retrained performances.

Staged on a simple but evocative set designed by Tom Pye, there is never any doubt that the action takes place in semi-rural America of small towns and bleak, isolated but potentially freeing landscapes. All of this is cleverly implied by Pye who stages in-the-round on a raised central platform into which bits of furniture can sink or emerge depending on whether the location is a domestic space or the empty landscape, providing a neat and smooth solution to a piece that often needs to move quickly between locations. This is surrounded by gravelly landscape where the Brokeback Mountain camp and other outdoor locations can be partially staged, more than enough to evoke the outdoors feel when needed, but suggesting the pressure of the landscape and the limited freedoms for its inhabitants even in town.

On a small stage Director Butterell eschews any elaborate staging but keeps the focus on the intimacy that grows between the two men using the scale of the auditorium to infer perspective as the landscape dwarfs them. At the same time, Butterell manages to fill this space with their story and the emotional connection between them that simultaneously shows the insignificance of two people but also their importance. Using all four entrance ways at the stalls level brings the story into the audience while the raised platform stage creates at least one more inventive way for characters to appear as if from nowhere that, as a directorial choice, maintains the theatrical spell.

While it is inevitable that some comparisons will be made with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s originating film performances when critics review the show later this week, Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist have made their show and these roles entirely their own. With previous stage experience in the US, this is an early opportunity to see two young stars on the rise and both are compelling, giving a sense of the quite different forces that bring them together as well as the sweep of decades as their characters mature from not very idealistic 20-somethings to men with responsibilities and financial pressures in their late 30s.

Hedges’s Ennis is the more brooding of the pair, a quiet, reserved man who says very little and barely acknowledges his emotions at all, and Ennis is actively trying to perform a particular archetype of cowboy masculinity that makes his feelings for Jack so difficult to manage. There is a gruff edge to Hedges’s approach that is forbidding at first, refusing to engage, which means he is taken by surprise on Brokeback Mountain. Over time Hedges’s charts Ennis’s struggle with maintaining a surface respectability and the deep, unavoidable feeling he harbours for Jack even years later and the constant conflict within the character, an inability to see himself clearly and to risk having the life he wants that ultimately becomes both tragic and moving.

Faist’s Jack by contrast is a live wire, bouncing around the stage with an early energy that suggests a comfort with himself and all the things he is that make him a complete contrast with Ennis’s repression. Jack is more responsive to his physical needs and although fearful of the dangers of living openly as a gay man, feels no shame or confusion within himself. Faist’s performance suggesting this is society’s problem and not Jack’s. Over time, Faist reveals the depth of the love that Jack feels for Ennis, an addiction of sorts but also a certainty that his lover denies him, with Jack more willing to make the leap to something substantial, making the life they could have had a bittersweet regret. And “If you can’t fix it, you gotta take it” becomes his pragmatic mantra.

While the boundaries between film and theatre are increasingly blurred, they are different experiences and require different techniques to convey their story. Film can use close-up and cutting techniques to create emotional investment in an instant while theatre must play the long-game and here this premiere production of Brokeback Mountain does that with considerable care, constructing an emotional connection with the audience that yields results as the show unfolds. Love on stage and screen certainly looks quite different now than it did twenty years ago but there is still a quiet power in the story of two men who couldn’t fix it and just had to endure.

Brokeback Mountain is at Soho Place until 12 August with tickets from £29.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

4000 Miles – Chichester Festival Theatre

4000 Miles - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

One of the major theatre casualties of the pandemic, Matthew Warchus’s revival of Amy Herzog’s 2011 play 4000 Miles was scheduled for April 2020 at the Old Vic. Tickets had sold in droves for the promised pairing of Dame Eileen Atkins and the hugely anticipated UK stage debut of Timothée Chalamet. But alas it was not to be, the Old Vic held on for more than two years hoping the production would form part of its reopening season but the huge success of Dune has taken Chalamet off to film part two and the theatre finally admitted defeat, refunding ticketholders and cancelling the performance entirely. But that isn’t quite the end of the story and Chichester Festival Theatre has given the show a new home as part of its Festival 2023 season with Richard Eyre now directing and Atkins attached. What this revival of 4000 Miles has lost in Hollywood glamour, it more than makes up for in the intimate immediacy of this new version staged in the Minerva space which is considerably smaller than the Old Vic. So what exactly is London missing out on?

Herzog’s play, first performed off-Broadway, is a lean piece and like a lot of modern US drama is rather spare in its construction, running at a tidy 95-minutes without interval. There is a muscularity in Herzog’s writing that takes some adjustment, based on an ordinary conversation style and the things that people say to each other in passing, rather than the more stagey revelations and reckonings that ordinarily shape family drama. This can make it hard for an audience to feel gripped by a story that slowly evolves rather than being more obviously directive. Instead, 4000 Miles has particularity, each word chosen with purpose even when it appears to be inconsequential, and truths emerge through lots of different conversations, each revealing a little more about why Leo has suddenly appeared at his grandmother’s door in the middle of the night having cycled thousands of miles from home.

This is a snapshot in time, several weeks in which the pair live together, and Herzog makes it clear that there are detailed and complex aspect to both of their lives before the action begins which continue beyond the end of the play. Although both have been heard, nothing is neatly resolved, the characters must go on living with what they have done and in circumstances that have not been materially altered by the events of this period. Once the audience accepts the parameters of Herzog’s drama, there is much to mine within it.

The realisation may take a while to come but 4000 Miles is about two people who need one another but barely acknowledge it in their determined but also semi-enforced independence. Vera lives alone in an apartment block in Manhatten, a spacious place with two bedrooms and, it is hinted, a view downtown where the Twin Towers used to be. Her husband died a few years before and her main contact with the outside world are phone calls with an absent daughter and the neighbour opposite of equivalent age, as well as attending the funerals of her octogenarian friendship group. Leo meanwhile is actively separating himself from his closest relatives following an incident at the family home a few months before and an accident involving his cycling companion, leaving him emotionally stranded and seeking a non-judgmental port in which to ride out whatever storm afflicts him. Eyre’s production for Chichester Festival Theatre is effective at revealing this mutual need that both Vera and Leo treat incredibly casually, refusing to accept or recognise its full importance to them.

There is some mileage in the connection between alternate generations and while Leo and Vera report a troubled relationships with Leo’s mother who stands between them quite decisively without ever appearing in the play, grandmother and grandson share a political interest in Cuba and communist priniciples – not ideas that the writer elaborates in the more lifelike as-it-happens nature of 4000 Miles, but Eyre’s approach emphasises the unforced commonalities between the generations here, better able to understand and accept one another, perhaps even facing the same demons or wanting the same things from the world. Herzog is not the only writer to consider the grandparent-grandchild connection in a contentious parent-child scenario, but there is an unspoken and unexplained ease between Leo and Vera that makes this an interesting pairing and allows the truthful conversations to happen.

These emerge fairly naturally from their dialogue, although it is Leo who is more likely to be spontaneously affectionate and to recognise the value of sporadic physical contact in creating and maintaining the intimacy between them, one that is considerably expanded by shared experience of grief for different people that gives them common ground as well as a shared language during their time together in which they are euphemistic about their true feelings or avoid confronting the depths of them in front of the other. So 4000 Miles includes much that is unsaid, which can be a frustrating experience but it is all there under the surface of Herzog’s play which essentially dramatises a transitory state for its protagonists in which something will emerge for them both by the end of their time together, not substantially altering their lives and the essential hurts and guilt will remain, but a recalibration occurs that leaves them in a slightly altered state.

Eyre’s production is a little fussy in places, meticulously changing tiny details in the set to indicate time passing between scenes, shifting magazines and coffee cups or plumping cushions that slightly break the tension and the mood as a group of visible stage managers appear in the gloom. Otherwise this has a fairly decent pace, sagging only slightly when Atkins’s Vera is absent, the other duologues – with Leo’s girlfriend Bec and date Amanda – not quite reaching the same level of meaning. This is largely in Herzog’s writing rather than the production choices because the younger female characters are just there to reflect on Leo and feed the audience greater context about his life and choices rather than complete creations in their own right, making it harder for the audience to believe they continue to exist beyond the moment in this drama. They are not devoid of purpose though, and Elizabeth Chu’s Amanda is a particularly enjoyable cameo in a scene that bursts with liveliness and personality with Chu bringing real humour to her scene in a production that is often snarky rather than hilarious. But Amanda’s character isn’t much more than this and Bec (Nell Barlow) is little more purposeful, a reason for Leo to feel worse about himself and more isolated as their relationships strains.

The real treat here is Atkins’s wide-ranging masterclass performance as Vera, and this is what London has missed out on by letting this production go. Her Vera is so skillfully drawn and layered with the challenges of age and irascibility that make both communication and connection a real and genuine challenge for her, making physical contact with the person in front of her so difficult. Atkins is particularly good at portraying Vera’s memory loss and continual scrambling for the words she cannot find, having to replace them with indefinite substitutes. Atkins makes this feel so natural and exposing at the same time, the audience can feel her character’s brain actively searching and grasping as well as her growing exasperation with herself. Alongside the physical performance which is so precise, Atkins slowly thaws Vera’s detached exterior, revealing the soft spot for her grandson and the increasing reliance on his presence, something she gets used to very quickly. And while she may complain about his cleanliness and need for money, she checks on him while he is sleeping several times, revealing a maternal care and concern that she would never openly admit.

Atkins’s Vera is also a woman who has lived, dropping hints throughout about a bigger, harder, more colourful life before with two husbands, at least one of whom was a notorious philanderer, and a passionate love affair with a man she refuses to name. The added complexity here that Atkins finds is that Vera knows that all of this life is a memory, that the best is behind her – perhaps why she is so keen to have Leo around to live youth again through him – and it adds a melancholy to the performance that is very touching. Vera is tough on the surface, calmly batting away the intrusion of others with plenty of caustic one-liners, but Leo finds her alone and lonely, and his presence makes her realise that, quietly encouraging him to stay longer. It is a performance that lifts the play and makes its messages feel more universal.

Sebastian Croft as Leo is not an easy character to empathise with for quite different reasons, and while there are similar degrees of suffering, Leo has little remorse for some of the things that he has done or any recognition that he might have acted inappropriately. Leo has a tendency to blame others for his failings, often his mother, sometimes the short-sightedness of society itself for not condoning his behaviour, so it can be difficult for the character to gain enough traction to carry scenes without Vera, particularly when he is trying to convince the women he is involved with to accept his perspective and believe in his questionable motives.

Croft does find those moments of empathy and sadness in which Leo recognises that he is trapped and unable to go home or move forward until he confronts the things he has done more fully, but it never makes him entirely redeemable. There is a sense of confusion in Leo’s behaviour that does come through in Croft’s performance of a young man living without consequence and never entirely acknowledging the effect he has on others so there is a process of growing up to do within the play. And although that is by no means complete at the end of the 4000 Miles, Croft does develop the character towards taking charge of himself and who he needs to be.

There are advantages to relocating this production to Chichester, to a space where a greater intimacy is possible between audience and characters separated by only a few meters and a much smaller playing area than is possible in the Old Vic where it would have required a bit more work to project to a three-tiered auditorium. But Eyre has found that connection here in a realistic staging designed by Peter McKintosh that fills the platform with bookcases, creating an intellectual environment for Vera and Leo to share their views while also giving them a stable, welcoming room in which the older, established and more experienced figure can help to coax a younger relative through the first major crisis of their life. Will Leo end up like Vera? Maybe, but Herzog suggest that is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen, and with Atkins on excellent form, it is a sentiment that the audience can share. 4000 Miles perhaps isn’t a modern classic and the play has its problems but there is enough in this production and the performances to keep the audience watching.

4000 Miles is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 10 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Motive and the Cue – National Theatre

Hamlet is the most endlessly beguiling play and we cannot get enough of it – the profound reflections on life and death, the relativity of the human condition and the ways in which individual action have consequences for collective experience. This play reveals new secrets all the time as different actors and productions find something new to say. Is Hamlet a tragic son cheated out of his birth right and consumed by grief for his beloved dead father, is he a madman picturing phantoms that drive him to paranoia and destruction or a misogynist spoiled brat who subverts the emotions of others to give his own needs priority? Any way that you see this play, there is a Hamlet out there for you, an estimated two hundred thousand known Hamlets in fact as Jack Thorne’s rather brilliant new play reveals. And if there is anything as fascinating as Hamlet himself, it is the process an actor undergoes in order to play him.

The Motive and the Cue, directed by Sam Mendes at the National Theatre, is set across a month in the 1960s when Richard Burton rehearsed his Hamlet with the eminent Sir John Gilegud directing him. A terse and difficult production that provides just enough of the behind-the-scenes theatrical scandal to entertain the audience with catty exchanges between the two great egos. But Thorne also finds intense vulnerability in these men manifesting in different ways at different points in the process that say much about the instability and insecurity of their profession as well as the ways in which Hamlet as a text forces the performer to engage with its big existential questions, getting under the skin of both men in ways that Thorne shows never leaves them. Who these men and actors are before they play Hamlet and after is one of the big themes of this piece.

But there are also plenty of important ideas in here about performance more broadly, integrated into the month-long rehearsal period taking place ahead of the show’s Broadway opening – a production that theatre history states went on to considerable and record-breaking success. But Thorne is most interested in the craft of acting and directing in this play, how do you take a piece of writing and turn it into something fresh and full-blooded and at what cost to those involved. There are lots of different things happening, mostly subtly, across The Motive and the Cue – what does it mean for a revered screen actor like Burton to not only take on one of the most challenging roles of all time, one that actors measure themselves against, but to relinquish the control of himself and of the prestige his fame has brought to be directed within the intensive theatre process? The debate rages beneath the surface of this play about the difference between screen and stage actors and what their training and methods bring to the process of character excavation and discovery. And while Thorne is reasonably even-handed about this with both Gielgud and Burton coming in for equal shares of criticism and celebration, the ask of Hamlet for different kinds of actor is a compelling debate within the play – and one, incidentally, that Sam Mendes is uniquely placed to address through the combination of theatre and cinema within his work.

The Motive and the Cue is also a play about theatre history, about the unique place this role holds in it and the many times and ways it has been played before. The character of Burton is deeply challenged by the idea of ‘his’ Hamlet and what that should consistently be across the rehearsal period and within the performance. But Thorne situates this in the context of all the other Hamlets that have gone before, and most particularly with Gielgud’s, and to a lesser extent Olivier’s, arguing that the latter’s on screen incarnation sets a kind of impossible template for others to follow. Thorne stages numerous clashes between the actor-director Gilegud and Burton who argue about interpretation, energy and Hamlet’s state of mind at any given moment, Gilegud floundering in the face of Burton’s muscularity within the role that removes doubt or reflection while Burton endlessly resents the feeling that he is being led towards a version of Gielgud’s own Hamlet, erupting at notes and suggested line readings that ultimately get neither very close to the production they wanted to create.

Thorne too is fascinated by the shifting tides for actors explored in this play, the joy of a new generation finding fresh meaning and purpose in Shakespeare’s text, but also the quiet tragedy of a baton being passed, of a former ‘great’ feeling (realistically or not) that his time and relevance is ending, that he is out of touch and out of favour with less declamatory, more earthy styles of acting so vitally alive in front of him. But it works the other way around too, and Thorne shows Burton struggling with the classicism he so desperately wants to master, to be revered and respected for the enduring creation of great art as Gielgud and Olivier are before him, but failing to reconcile his inexperience in this instance with the hope of producing that memorable, eternal performance that this play in particular demands that an actor aspire to.

Within this, Thorne is able to neatly explore the vulnerability in both men, Gielgud an elder statesman but ultimately alone, an isolated figure in another country miles from the comfort of an absent and much missed partner, feeling irrelevant and attacked by forces of modernity. Burton meanwhile grapples with memories of his parent in a play that sees father-son configurations throughout – in Hamlet and Hamlet Senior, Burton and his wayward miner father, and even in Gielgud and Burton. Trying to understand Shakespeare’s character leads both men to similar confrontation in their own lives, and one of Thorne’s most deft accomplishments is aligning extracts from Hamlet with the emerging drama of the rehearsal room and its environs.

The Motive and the Cue is structured around the days of the rehearsal with the audience dropping in at irregular intervals as preparations progress. Each chapter title has an associated quote from Hamlet relevant to the scene that is about to be played and Thorne doesn’t always select the most obvious ones. Sometimes scenes begin with large sections from Hamlet performed as though on stage in Burton’s eventual production but these merge back into the rehearsal room. At other times, Thorne follows three of his cast members into their real lives – Burton himself at home with his new wife Elizabeth Taylor and separately Gielgud who exists in a small break room and once in his own lodgings. There is something temporary about the state in which they all live, part of the actors’ life perhaps but it is also rootless, even possibly soulless, empty beyond the playing spaces where they are most fully alive. But these emotional depths and vulnerabilities shape and are brought into their conceptions of Hamlet.

Sam Mendes is the ideal director for a production like this with his rare ability to suggest the epic and the intimate concurrently. In The Motive and the Cue, Mendes applies this simply and subtly but to considerable effect, melding this illustrious history of Hamlet in performance that so troubled Burton with the very pressing and fractious concerns of this specific production and indeed of this one actor finding his way roughly to the part. Mendes’s staging choices capture this entirely, the insignificance of this Hamlet among the two hundred thousand but also its urgency and the personal deconstruction that it brings to these people in this moment. Mendes has long blended his experience of film and theatre, and here uses intersecting horizontal and vertical curtains to frame scenes in different ways to create intimacy and scale in the most cinematic sense – much as Robert Icke did with The Red Barn on the same stage – small and tight shots for external scenes, zooming out to wide lens for the capacious and intimidating emptiness of the rehearsal room that so oppresses Burton and Gielgud to a degree.

The style that Mendes employs here is like a behind-the-scenes, making-of theatre documentary, putting the audience in the position of the camera observing the creative process. The layers of a director and a director-character are really interesting, leading to plenty of theatre insights about control and purpose in the rehearsal room, the kind of support different actors need and how all the pieces have to fit together. This play reveals the hugely exposing process of creating a performance and the stakes for all involved if the piece fails, and Mendes gives space for all of this elliptical discussion while still providing momentum and meaning in both the Hamlet and Hamlet production sections.

The only possible false note here is the presence of Elizabeth Taylor as little more than a device for Burton to interact with outside his work, and while Thorne is accurately reflecting their life together at this time, giving her some very funny lines, she never quite feels like a whole person and never really like Elizabeth Taylor either. It creates a major female role in the drama, explores her parallel experience particularly with Gielgud as both found fame at a young age, but there is little development for her, nor is her presence entirely integrated within or modeled on the Hamlet sections in the way that other characters are. It also takes time away from the wider cast who despite a starry list including the painfully underused Janie Dee and Luke Norris – referencing perhaps the famous faces playing smaller roles in Burton’s Hamlet just for the honour of working with Gielgud – but we get too little of their struggle in the context of their lead actor and director’s destructive bickering.

Johnny Flynn gives a quite astounding performance as Burton, capturing the clamorous insistance of his vocal intonation and the very particular pace and timbre of his voice. But this is considerably more than an impression, ranging from certainty that the character exhibits in early rehearsals and a relaxed ease with his fame hoping that others will respect but accept his groundedness, through to the drunken rage and sulkiness that stems from Burton’s fear of the very vulnerability he requires to truly inhabit this role. Flynn makes his Burton awful and charismatic at the same time, erudite and instinctual as an actor but fighting demons – his past, his fame, his Hamlet – that consume him.

Mark Gatiss’s Gielgud is both more easily sympathetic but also more guarded, carrying around the weight of his eminence like a millstone. This Gielgud is adrift, struggling to find meaning and purpose, looking for it in the wrong places and only feeling more disconnected from the life he has lived and what it all meant as the acerbic relationship with Burton takes its tolls. Gatiss has always been particularly good at quiet despair, and it serves him well here with acres of feeling emanating from his pained loneliness as he grapples with new actors and new Hamlets in a rapidly changing profession.

The Motive and the Cue is a layered and engaging piece about the process of theatre, the things that evolve and the things that don’t, how performances are created and thrust into the world and why it feels so transient and eternal at the same time. Mendes and Thorne celebrate a play that test us all, audience, director and actor, a four hundred year old enigma that has been played two hundred thousand ways and will surely be played two hundred thousand more. Burton may or may not have found his Hamlet, but Thorne’s play shows why it remains an actor’s greatest and most rewarding challenge.

The Motive and the Cue is at the National Theatre until 15 July with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Pal Joey – Tower Theatre

Rodgers and Hart have fallen out of fashion, certainly in the UK where there work hasn’t been seen on a major stage for a long time, their 1920s and 30s sound finding a lesser resonance among the revivals of the more emotionally wide-ranging Sondheim, the political and social urgency we have been rediscovering in Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the continued influence of pre-twenty-first-century Lloyd Webber. Nonetheless, the Tower Theatre is making a case for the relevance of the earlier composers with its first musical at its new base, a revival of Pal Joey running for ten days at the venue and a rare opportunity to see the show from which their most famous song Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered originates – a number modern audiences may now associated with Alan Bennett’s The History Boys as well. An ambitious choice for this small fringe theatre, still the Tower company under the direction of David Taylor and Angus Jacobs create the smooth style of this tale of aspiring club owner and kept man, the titular Joey, while the song and dance numbers have much to recommend them.

Pal Joey is Rodgers and Hart’s most famous show with book by John O’Hara, a piece that reverses some of the tropes associated with the young ingenue and the old benefactor cliche by making the more powerful partner a married woman. The younger man is an ambitious chancer who is keen on the ladies but trying to make it in the tough world of low level showbusiness, the Chicago club scene. The setting is deliberate, eschewing the showier New York or Hollywood in favour of a grittier and harder city where it is more difficult to disappear, and Joey’s reputation on the club scene is better able to follow him around. It creates a much stronger contrast between the wealthy patrons of the nightclub – of which there are few including the woman who will go on to become Joey’s lover and financier – and the working characters, dancers, managers and Joey himself enduring low paid work, frequently moving between venues and not necessarily finding greater success elsewhere.

This is a moral world to a point, the people who have criminal intent are ultimately punished and the truly good, such as Joey’s first girlfriend in the show, Linda, leave with their dignity and unimpeachable virtue in tact. But this is also a place, like now, where the rich stay rich by walking away unscathed, calling in social favours from influential friends to protect them from ignominy, while the less protected like Joey just end up right back where they started. There is a cycle of behaviour for all of the characters in Pal Joey that prevents them from escaping from their social role or try to fight against it. Even the central relationship between Joey and Vera feels less about crossing a social divide than boredom and convenient proximity to one another for a time.

It is a commentary that largely takes a back seat in Taylor and Jacob’s revival, and that’s fine, there is plenty to enjoy within the main story and the elusive charm of the central character who is not quite hero or villain, nor is he the stuff of noirish antiheroes from the same era. Joey is just Joey, an easy-come-easy-go fella who certainly in this adaptation dreams big and gambles all the time, often lying about who he is and what he is worth to do it yet happy to ride whatever wave comes and as reconciled to the good times as the bad. In fact he has far more in common with the Technicolor musical leads to come, a hapless Nathan Detroit perhaps when he was just starting out. Joey feels like an entrepreneur in the making, except his life is a series of failed businesses and after each disappointment, he dusts himself off ready to try again – maybe one day he’ll hit the big time, maybe he won’t, it’s all the same to him.

It is a trope applied to female characters all to often, the eternal mistress or the gangster’s moll with no power, so it’s interesting to see such an early example of a young man in the same position, a model that Blake Edwards would apply more than two decades later to the character of Paul Varjak in his film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, expanding on Capote’s character who is having an affair with an older woman who helps him to dress well, gives him entry to society and receives his private favour in return, the parallels with Rodgers and Hart’s leading man here are all too clear.

Pal Joey is an overwritten musical however, extending to over two hours and 40-minutes at the Tower Theatre. O’Hara’s dialogue tends to the verbose, with long scenes in which characters talk around their intentions for some minutes before they finally get to the point, often in ways that slow the pace or create bottlenecks in the plot with individuals frequently signalling their intentions to one another as part of a scheme, then having virtually the same conversation with the target of the action some minutes later. It is a style of writing and dramatic presentation that will either make you feel warm and nostalgic for an 80-year old golden age or will be frustrating in a tale that sometimes ambles instead of zipping along.

But Taylor and Jacob’s production makes the best of it on the whole, wading through the boggier sections and making the most of the sprightly dance numbers and vocal performances that are a notable success in this site’s first musical production, combining choreography, lighting and costume to interesting and very entertaining effect. Rodgers and Hart’s approach is a mix of character and scenario based songs that reveal the interior life of the individuals or the plans or dreams that directly affected the narrative direction of Pal Joey, but they also include several performance pieces as part of the club experience that turn the Tower audience into the Chicago-based guests of Chez Joey as the showgirls play to the crowd.

Jacobs, in a duel role as choreographer, does a great job at making these Act One numbers feel a little ropey as part of the scene setting for the poorly attended and seedy club where Joey gets his first job. The dance ensemble Gladys (Maeve Curry), Valerie (Kaya Minton), Diane (Caroline Scott) and Tilda (Emma Rossi) are deliberately just out of sync with one another or not equally energised, and while Minton in particular struggles to conceal her excellent dance skills, numbers including Chicago and Happy Hunting Horn feel nicely worn. There is some razzle dazzle though with glitzy costumes by Lynda Twidale that add nicely to the effect – including a beautiful cloak infused with lights – that develop in grandeur as the fortunes of the club change, while in Terrific Rainbow, lighting designer Stephen Ley has lots of fun playing with colour changes timed to perfection with Gladys’s lyrics.

But as Act One concludes and Joey’s dream of opening a slightly more upmarket club are realised through Vera’s investment, Jude Chalk and David Taylor’s set design transforms and with it the quality of the dance performances. The rapid renovations as stylised panels, classy red tablecloths and even a chandelier arrive at the newly rebranded Chez Joey, Jacobs’s choreography changes with it to represent the more Follies-like direction that Joey quietly pursues. The Act Two opener, The Flower Garden of My Heart, is a real change in tone with a storytelling number about grace and beauty that is given a comic twist here by an unhappy chorus girl unwilling to jolly along with the rest – and Twidale again delivers some inspired costume choices. All of these numbers are imaginatively and thoughtfully staged to create an impact and although not all of the dancing is equally confident, more performances will settle any nerves.

Chalk and Taylor have also thought creatively about their set design, placing the band on a rostrum at the back to double as the club music space and using fold-out and revolving panels to create the different locations that Joey must visit. It’s a really smart solution allowing for very quick scene changes with only a few seconds of black out that allow the directors to maintain the pace quite nicely. Particularly clever approaches include a hinged panel that opens out to reveal a painted pet shop where a meeting between Joey and Linda bookend the musical, as well as a revolving section that one moment is the main wall of the club but turns into a full room either as the tailor’s shop where Vera takes Joey to buy new clothes and later his rundown flat which they affectionately term their “den of iniquity.” These are convincing solutions that easily transform the small space and add a little theatre magic to show.

The performances develop across the evening and will continue to evolve as the run plays out. Alex Dehn has captured Joey’s easy charm but gives the character an aloofness that makes him seem detached from everyone and never emotionally involved with his girlfriends or even the business. This matches the tone of Rodgers and Hart’s songs that don’t allow Joey any truly introspective moments and the writers have no interest in changing their character which Dehn captures. The vocal performance is strong, although his first Act finale dance is a little hesitant and, while both actors are separately very good, there is a lack of chemistry with Victoria Flint’s Vera Prentice.

Flint is much stronger in the second half of the show and has responsibility for delivering that favourite song, certainly suggesting Vera’s infatuation with the younger man and how rapidly that fades. Vera too has a pattern that she clings to and Flint brings a real dignity to the role, suggesting the impeccable manners and poise that comfortable wealth brings, escaping her situation as gracefully as she encountered it. There’s great support from the ensemble particularly Minton and Curry as the characterful dancers while Jack Hanrahan channels a number of noirish mobster baddies as sinister agent Ludlow Lowell. Adam Pennington, who steps away from Musical Director duties momentarily to deliver an impressive Act Two opener, leads an eight-strong on-stage band who deliver the melodies with a mix of instruments that create the swell in Rodgers’s composition as well as the cheeky cabaret performances.

The Tower Theatre company flexes its performance muscles in its first musical at this site, delivering an entertaining production with attention to the visual impact of choreography and design. O’Hara’s book is a little lumpy in places, a product of its time, which perhaps doesn’t quite the make the case for restoring Rodgers and Hart to the front line along with the composers that succeeded them. The Tower, like Joey, has taken a gamble by programming this much older piece alongside the more contemporary plays that have become part of its offering, but it’s one that pays off, getting their Spring and Summer season underway in style.

Pal Joey is at the Tower Theatre until 29 April. Tickets are £13 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Secret Life of Bees – Almeida Theatre

The Secret Life of Bees - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

In 2015, Lynn Nottage wrote one of the most important plays of the twenty-first- century, Sweat, a searing examination of class division, economic depression and the forgotten communities of former industrial towns, a play that, when it came to the Donmar Warehouse in 2017, said as much about contemporary Britain as it did about the US rust belt states where it was set. Four years later and the writer lent her sharp understanding of social forces and their political purpose to a musical adaptation of Su Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees, which now arrives at the Almeida Theatre, that puts women’s experience of civil rights at the heart of a politically complex but nonetheless uplifting show about runaway companions escaping their small-minded, male-dominated, racist town to find solace in a private community of honey-making worshipers of a black madonna.

Nottage adds a sharp edge to a sometimes sentimental novel working with Duncan Sheik the composer of Spring Awakening which the Almeida revived to considerable acclaim at the end of 2021, emphasising the positioning of this tale on the cusp of a new era, where the possibility of a better, more equitable future chafes against a traditional and hate-filled past that still seeks to order society by race and gender, retaining power in the hands of white men prepared to employ violent means to protect their supremacy. Like Hairspray before it, Nottage draws out this important socio-political commentary while Sheik’s extraordinary songs with lyricist Susan Birkenhead combine funk, gospel, folksy rock and a hint of blues that carries the unusual plot along and makes you root for this powerful group of women determined to live their lives as equals.

Like Sweat, Nottage emphasises the dangers of trying to hide from the outside world, of the inevitability of reality intruding even in the calmest and most secluded forms of paradise. The contrast between the state of semi-urban 1960s America that this creative team showcase and the rural idyll among the beekeeping women living on a kind of commune led by August (along with sisters May and June) is stark, but there is no stopping the backdrop of racial segregation and Southern violence coming between them, placing the women in the midst of personal as well as socio-political challenges. And it is a balance that this new Almeida production, directed by Whitney White, manages pretty well, and while Monk Kidd’s plot often seems underdeveloped, the impact of those songs successfully knocks your socks off.

During the course of the show, that external world is brought into the quiet community as runaways Rosaleen, a black maid, and Lily, the white teenager she protects, seek refuge, challenging the women’s ability to live apart and bringing additional strife to their door. And while Act One presents a rosy picture, Act Two reveals a darker side, as the new arrivals and the audience learn more about the reasons this community of women exists along with the attacks, humiliations and losses they have already endured. Nottage’s book and Birkenhead’s lyrics draw out a longer history of suffering that shapes individual, collective, generational and community identity in this story, helping to temper the sweet simplicity of The Secret Life of Bees messaging and instead turn it into a rousing and even moving declaration of intent.

The frame for this 1964-set story is the opportunity for black women to vote for the first time, something that the downtrodden Rosaleen is setting out to do at the start of the show, a display of enfranchisement in which she is determined to Sign My Name. It is a full-blooded opener and a chance to reference some of the key personalities that made it theoretically possible including President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, while later a character is reading essays by James Baldwin. And the growing political awareness of these women is a thread that runs through the play as a violent altercation prevents Rosaleen from expressing her newly won democratic right and gives her a reason to leave, while later reluctant to face a similar threat the community briefly demur. But, like the Pankhursts in Sylvia and Motormouth Mable in Hairspray, the sisters and their friends determine to make a stand together and finally fulfill their electoral role.

But there are other kinds of political comment working through this musical that explores the difficulties that Lily’s arrival repeatedly creates for her companions. June warns of the danger that Lily’s presence poses, eager to be rid of her and to make her stay as short as possible. It is notable too that the attack on Rosaleen takes place because she is walking through the town with Lily which draws attention to them and makes her a target. This is mirrored in Act Two when Zachary and Lily leave the commune to deliver honey and are stopped by the police, the presence of a white girl in his car posing an added danger to his freedom and his life. This deeply embedded and systemic racism in American society comes out in other ways as well, as the sisters sing of their endurance while the circumstances surrounding the death of the fourth Boatwright sibling April becomes a symbol of the chains they are trying to throw off.

This all takes place at this moment of change in which the old ways are being overridden and a new hope emerges, one that The Secret Life of Bees clings to throughout and leaves as its lasting message, so however challenging the musical becomes, and there is physical violence, child abuse and offensive language, the outcome is always to see a brighter future. These two thoughts the dark and the light work quite nicely together in White’s production, never becoming too sickly sweet but also refusing to wallow in the hopelessness and misery of these endless cycles of suffering. And it is here that Nottage’s influence comes to the fore, drawing on her work in Sweat to tighten up the broader purpose of this story and expand on the feeling of disenfranchised powerlessness that affects ordinary working people as opportunity shuts down. And while they may be fighting for different things at different times, the industrial community and this women’s beekeeping commune are not so far apart, each seeking recognition, to be seen by others and counted as equals. It’s an approach that brings great humanity to these characters and while the 2 hour and 30 minute running time may only provide a surface engagement with many of these issues, the cumulative effect is nonetheless emotive.

Sheikh and Birkenhead’s songs are tremendous, a series of ferocious anthems that work well together, supporting the narrative arc while also providing powerful insight into character need and the challenges and pain that shape their collective and individual identity. It is through song, rather than dialogue that character depth emerges, showcasing Rosaleen’s determination to assume her right to vote as well as staging the argument song between June and August who debate Lily’s presence among them. The worship of the black madonna also has a couple of lively and high tempo numbers that explain their faith while some sweet romance songs offer a different kind of optimism for the future. All of this is supported by Shelley Maxwell’s excellent choreography that eschews big song and dance approaches that take the audience outside of the story and draws movement from character instead, creating patterns of dance as individuals lose themselves in the excitement of their prayer or the possibility of first love.

Staged on a broad set with a revolving segment used sparingly to indicate tension or movement, Soutra Gilmour’s stage is surrounded by long grasses that evoke the South, a largely representative space that becomes the kitchen of Lily’s original home, the dusty roads of the town as well as the serene Eden of August’s exclusive retreat with its prayer-house-like gazebo holding the central figure of the black Madonna. Gilmour creates a sense that the characters are always outside, part of the natural world to which they tend while giving an impression of roasting summer sun that slowly turns to autumn as the story unfolds. Neil Austin’s lighting has quite a range here from golden afternoons that Rosaleen basks in to the oppressive red and orange blaze of heat that forces them all into the shade and even lowering that brightness every time the shadowy presence of the angry men threaten their harmony, supporting the emotional changes of pace as local tensions also simmer over.

The bees themselves are implied, a set of hives and honey frames eked out by Simon Baker’s swarm sounds that vary the intensity of the activity as Lily becomes more used to the behaviour of the creatures and tries to calm them, alongside a broader soundscape of subtle birdsong and rural sounds that support context creation and staging choices. Whitney’s direction is smooth, allowing scenes to flow quickly that carry the story along and build an interesting tension between the women and the interjection of the outside world that is inevitably in store for them. And Whitney makes space for the musical performances as the heart of this piece in which individual characters come more clearly into view.

There is considerable talent on display in The Secret Life of Bees and across the performances there is astonishing vocal depth and range from everyone involved. But it is a collective performance, one that gives equal space to all of the voices, creating a kind of harmony in performance that allows the audience to enjoy and understand each character perspective. From determined Rosaleen refusing to be pushed around by her employer or the men determined to limit her future to the calm and angel-like August commanding respect and loyalty from those around her, kindly May and ferocious June hiding a softer heart beneath her harsh exterior, while the broken and nervy Lily whose powerful voice starts to emerge as her confidence grows, along with the sweet neighbour who, like Tommy Trafford in An Ideal Husband, comes to propose to June every couple of weeks. The vocal performances including Abiona Omonua, Rachel John, Danielle Fiamanya, Ava Brennan and Eleanor Worthington-Cox are outstanding, along with excellent support from Noah Thomas and Tarinn Callender.

The source material for The Secret Life of Bees may have a perhaps overly simplistic plot and limited character development but Nottage, Sheikh and Birkenhead have done much to bring this story to life through the much more grounded civil rights frame and ongoing challenges faced by working communities, while the music brings a real soulful and impassioned perspective that builds audience engagement. Whitney’s production for the Almeida has its moments of sentiment but it is never a passive experience, ultimately delivering a hopeful and meaningful night.

The Secret Life of Bees runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 May with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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