The Birthday Party – Harold Pinter Theatre

The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre

High-profile productions of Pinter plays with an all-star cast have been a regular feature of the West End in the past few years. Jamie Lloyd gave interpretations of Pinter a shake-up with his stylised version of The Homecoming starring John Simm and Gemma Chan in 2015, and since then a hugely acclaimed version of No Man’s Land united Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in late 2016. Now, one of Pinter’s early controversial full-length plays, The Birthday Party has arrived at the theatre named after one of the twentieth-century’s most influential playwrights.

Yet, Pinter is not the easiest experience for an audience with his focus on abstract meanings and heightened realism that for the uninitiated can mean his work seems impenetrable. But, his plays last because they manage to do something still fairly unique in modern theatre, and while plot and character exist to an extent, Pinter eschews traditional ideas about narrative and instead wants to create a particular impression or feeling – predominantly a sense of sinister unease – that pervades his best work, with a sparse style that continues to draw actors and audiences alike.

The Birthday Party is set in a seaside boarding house run by Meg and Petey Boles (also a deckchair attendant), whose long-term lodger Stanley is their only guest. Claiming to be a pianist with offers to tour the world, Stanley’s place in the house is unclear, but happily settled. That is until strangers Goldberg and McCann arrive for one night, intruding on the birthday celebration Meg has innocently planned. But it’s not really Stanley’s birthday and suddenly his whole existence comes into question; just who is Stanley and what is he really doing in this quiet little town?

Ian Rickson’s assured and compelling new production positions Pinter’s work in a form of shabby realism, a dark little room from which the characters find it difficult to escape. Designed by the Quay Brothers, the Boles boarding house is an abyss in a world of sunshine, filled with dark wood and muted autumnal colours that belie the beautiful summer’s day referenced outside. And, interestingly, although all of the characters except Stanley commute into this warmer world or, through the occasional opening of doors and windows, try to draw the external freshness in with them, they only really exist in this drab chamber, as if permanently yoked to it, unable to escape to the better existence they crave beyond the walls.

As ever with Pinter the blurring of fantasy and reality is a common theme, and Rickson’s production is quite subtle in relaying the contrast between the two. Everything is played with deliberate realism to match the detailed everyday approach to the set and costumes, so the onus is placed on the audience to recognise the moments when characters contradict themselves and to judge what parts of the conversation are a dream or a lie. For example, at several points, we’re given similar bits of information about Stanley’s professional life and during each new conversation the extent of his achievement is scaled down forcing us to question which version is the truth. Rickson, underscores this with a sense of unease because we cannot be sure if Stanley consciously lies to the other characters or to himself, adding a valuable sense of instability to an already unpredictable play.

Pinter also likes to explore the consequences of forcing strangers into established worlds to consider the fragility of human structures and relationships. He does this in The Homecoming as Teddy brings his new wife Ruth into the family home, upsetting the routines and the very male balance that exists there. This also happens in No Man’s Land as Foster is upset when his master brings the garrulous Spooner into the house for a late-night drink that similarly alters their path. Here in The Birthday Party, Meg, Petey and Stanley have developed a similar form of domestic bliss that seems to suit them and although we’re not quite clear how innocent the arrangement is, it is clearly an established and comfortable one.

The arrival of Goldberg and McCann is well managed, and instantly distorts the calm and cosy atmosphere that existed before. The audience feels the shift as fussing about cornflakes and the local paper quickly gives way to more intense debates about identity and self-delusion, prompted by the arrival of these two sinister strangers. Importantly, throughout the remainder of the play, they feel like an alien presence, characters who don’t quite belong in this time and place, put there purposefully by Pinter to create a rupture between what has gone before and what is to come. So, while the play’s language is typically opaque, the overriding feeling of this production gives strong signals to the audience about what is happening which keeps you gripped.

Toby Jones is a fairly rare sight on the London stage these days but his ability to play quite diverse types serves him well as the shambolic and uncertain Stanley. With a raft of acclaimed roles in TV and film from projects as broad-ranging as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Witness for the Prosecution, The Detectorists and a First World War soldier in the excellent forthcoming adaptation of Journey’s End, Jones brings a complex and slightly shifty tone to the central role.

Initially, he strikes quite a sad and lonely figure, half dressed in pyjamas and oppressed by the poor-quality breakfast supplied by Meg. But very soon, Jones reveals an undercurrent of something darker as the morality of his relationship with Mrs Boles is called into question hinting at something more than perhaps her husband knows, which, later in the production evolves into something suggesting complicity between them – a peculiar ménage à trois in which Petey is equally content with the ‘arrangement’.

With the announcement of strangers arriving, Jones’s Stanley becomes rapidly agitated, as if unexpectedly caught out, eventually receding into watchful silence and a traumatic emotional turmoil as the party itself gets underway. It’s a skilled performance that offers layers of meaning and interpretation that never quite allows Stanley’s rather slippery identity to be pinned down, leaving you wondering whether he’s genuinely maligned or whether some dark deeds from another time have finally caught up with him.

As Meg Boles, Zoe Wannamaker has rarely been better, creating a slightly empty-headed domestically satisfied working-class woman who dreams of being the centre of attention without ever realising that she is actually the pivotal point in the household. Meg would be a frustrating woman to know, always stating the obvious, asking her husband to his face if he is there, and wanting to hear the news as he reads the paper.

Her relationship with Stanley is rather dubious, and Wannamaker ensures it never quite settles on the motherly or the romantic bringing that constant sense of unease or hint of inappropriateness to a seemingly innocent domestic world. The party itself gives her a chance to let loose some of the girlish glamour and enjoyment of male attention that are usually held in check beneath her pinny, but Wannamaker retains a sense of Meg’s innocence throughout, as if she’s in the world but not part of it, and cannot really see what’s happening under her own roof.

Stephan Mangan’s Goldberg and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann are a menacing double act that almost fully realises Pinter’s intentions for them as the catalyst for break-down and change, while at the same time making them distinctive individuals. Vaughan-Lawlor is particularly good at delivering much of the implied violence of the piece, and for much of the time he is the embodiment of physical threat. Simultaneously however, Vaughan-Lawlor brings shades of anxiety to the role of the former priest-turned-hard-man, using a latent nervous energy he reveals only to Goldberg and a peculiar need to tear newspapers into strips that seems to calm him.

Goldberg, by contrast, is the established crime boss who talks endlessly about family and respect for his heritage. He too has identity issues, referred to by several first names during the play, and there’s something of the Krays in the way he talks about protecting community. As a well-known comic actor, Mangan takes a more humorous approach to the interpretation of Goldberg and earns many of the evenings laughs with his well-timed delivery and judicious use of the infamous Pinter pause. There is room for a little more darkness in the portrayal however and at present this character seems to contrast most with the straighter interpretations of the other actors. Arguably, Goldberg is only incidentally funny and in fact means to be threatening, which is something Mangan has time to explore as the run continues.

There is a well-conceived small role for Pearl Mackie as neighbour Lulu whose purpose is to add an overtly sexual dimension  to the male / female interactions with her instant attraction to the much-older Goldberg. Played almost entirely as a fantasy figure, Lulu is there to cast light on the parallel bond with Stanley and Meg, and Mackie does well to match her accent to Wannamaker’s to give a nice consistency. Peter Wright, as the mostly silent Petey, must feel quite at home in this theatre having spent several recent months here in the West End transfer of Robert Icke’s Hamlet, and here he is an interestingly passive presence, a man who mostly abandons his home and allows events to occur unchallenged.

Setting this in the realistically depicted and familiar world of the seaside boarding house only adds to its distorting effect, and leaves the audience decidedly unsettled. Pinter is a difficult playwright to love and it has taken many attempts to start to understand why his work endures, but this exciting version of The Birthday Party makes Pinter’s appeal all the clearer – plot and character are only partly the point, it’s about the feeling it creates as you watch it. With press night still a few days away, Rickson’s production is already a tense and unnerving experience that utilises all the skills of its excellent cast to reinforce the oddity of one of Pinter’s most performed plays.

The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14 April and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.     

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Film Review: Downsizing

In recent months, climate change has been at the top of the international political agenda; with America controversially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement last August, extreme weather bringing plenty of devastation and the BBC’s monster hit Blue Planet warning of its oceanic effects on primetime television, momentum to understand and act to reduce the effects of global warming is growing. Of the many novel solutions addressing the damaging impact of humanity on the natural world,  and perhaps the most unusual, is the one put forward by Alexander Payne’s new film Downsizing which premiered at the London Film Festival last October – if we want to reduce our impact on the world we simply need to reduce the size of humans.

This is not the first time that writers and movie-makers have used this idea for surreal or comic effect resulting in work as divergent as Alice in Wonderland, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Innerspace that unite science fiction, fantasy and sometimes farce as the characters overcome numerous challenges to be restored to their true size. The difference with Downsizing is that the reduction is permanent, and so the film looks elsewhere for its dramatic drivers, with the scientific process for physically shrinking people used as a frame for a wider examination of inequality, deprivation and the empty pursuit of the American dream.

If all that sounds rather serious then don’t despair because Downsizing begins on a much lighter note. When a Scandinavian scientist stuns the world with his community of tiny humans who produce considerably less waste in miniature form than their fully sized counterparts, the ability to transform rapidly becomes a widescale commercial success. Several years later, humanity is divided into two, those who retain their full size and those who have become only 5 inches tall, with the latter living in specially designed communities.

The real story begins when Paul and Audrey Safranek’s (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) decide to give up the drabness of their current life of making ends meet to undergo the ‘downsizing’ process. But something goes wrong and Paul is left alone in his new community where he is unwillingly dragged into the colourful world of his exuberant international neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). While at his lowest point, Paul discovers that this perfect mini-world is not all it seems, and beyond the boundaries of the rich community poverty and overcrowding exist. As Paul is introduced to the underclass by Dusan’s no-nonsense cleaner Ngoc (Hong Chau) he realises life could have more meaning than he ever imagined.

Downsizing is only a partially successful film and its best moments are in the first 75 minutes where the focus on the shrinking process is convincingly plotted and well-conceived. Watching the Safranek’s evaluated their lives, meet friends who have been shrunk and even attend a cleverly-staged trade fair where companies attempt to sell them miniature houses to live in and to “buy” the lifestyle they want upfront. There is lots of nicely considered detail including the relative transfer of wealth that makes money worth more in the smaller world, so that if the struggling Safraneks transform they could live in relative luxury, in a mansion without having to work again – a key reason for many to take the plunge rather than reducing their environmental impact.

Science-fiction fans will also enjoy the focus on the physical procedure as the audience follows Paul through his preparation for reduction including the removal of all his hair and marks, being wheeled, along with the other men, into the shrinking machine before removal to recovery by tiny nurses at the other end. Payne also injects a childlike glee in visually establishing the different scale of items within the story representing its shrunken humans against now giant everyday objects including biscuit packets, bottles and a single rose head.

Payne, who wrote the film along with Jim Taylor, also manages Paul’s disillusionment well as he adjusts to his newer lonely life. Much humour is wrung from Dunsan’s elaborate parties and from Christoph Waltz’s characterisation which draws a useful contrast between the carefree sun-seeking approach to his new life and Paul’s much lonelier journey of displacement. Even the discovery of the high-rise slums beyond the Stepford-like community seems to have something interesting to say about the cost of elaborate dreams and the almost inevitable division between rich and poor that will exist regardless of socially engineered attempts to iron them out. Living your dream life will always be at someone else’s expense. If only this was presented more subtly, but it is in this section of the film that the fun dissipates rapidly, leaving a serious and rather po-faced story in its place.

In the final part of the film, Downsizing’s plotting and purpose become over-elaborate and confused, departing considerably from what seemed to be the original purpose of the film. With a misfit group of unlikely friends now established, the action sees the group leave America on a spurious premise to track down the original tiny community and link back into the original scientific purpose of shrinking people. Even though this dominates the final hour of the film, it feels rather tacked on, and by geographically opening the story out it loses the focus it had established.

The two communities are not sufficiently connected to warrant this journey, and while the film has primarily been concerned with Paul’s growing understanding and adaptation to his new world, the sudden focus on a new hippy community, climate change and the madness that ensues from cutting yourself off with the world is too jarring and cartoon-like to be convincing. Had Downsizing remained in its original community-setting, tackling the inequality it presents in living conditions while allowing Paul to find some sense of contentment, it would have felt more dramatically satisfying than what is a mish mash of silly ideas that are neither amusing or really very meaningful.

Matt Damon is decent everyman Paul whose comedy partnership with Kristen Wiig’s Audrey works very nicely in the film’s early scenes and they make for a convincing couple. Damon, though never given the opportunity to do very much, navigates the film’s changing tones quite well, conveying all of Paul’s excitement to start a new life, disappointment and depression at being left alone, frustration with his neighbour and growing admiration for the people he meets in the deprived tower blocks. Yet, there’s never a chance to get inside his head, although much of that is down to the film’s inconsistent tone – if it’s a light comedy then characterisation is less important, while something more serious needs proper character motivation.

With a broadly comic performance, Christoph Waltz as Dunsan is an unexpected highlight as the sociable but socially unaware European neighbour who rescues Paul from his malaise. Used to seeing Waltz as psychopaths and megalomaniacs, he creates a surprisingly camp and eccentric character that steals most of the film’s more amusing moments, and while in any other movie this would feel hugely exaggerated, Waltz brings some much-needed light relief in the later parts of the film.

Hong Chau is an actor to watch and her performance as former Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc is full of promise with sharp comic timing and the ability to bring out the emotional undertones of any scene. Yet, there is something slightly amiss in the way the character is written and despite Chau’s performance, it’s difficult not to feel slightly uncomfortable with way Ngoc is positioned as the butt of stereotypical jokes about her stilted English and blunt demeanour, it’s really not the 1980s any more. And as for other female characters, apart from Wiig’s all to brief appearance in the early part of the film, this ultimately boils down to yet another story about a man saving the world when, what amounts to his own greed for a more luxurious life, made him to see things differently.

What starts as a social satire that revels in the visual humour of differently scaled objects unfortunately descends into a heavy-handed message-film that takes itself a bit too seriously and ultimately has very little to do with the consequences of shrinking people. With an ending that is entirely out of kilter with the original set-up and a meandering plot that becomes too elaborate for the writers to successfully conclude, Downsizing leaves the audience both disappointed and slightly uneasy. There is about an hour’s worth of good comedy in here and if it had continued to satirise the preoccupation with individual wealth over community then it would have been a much more successful film, but with its muddied and half-hearted environmental credentials, Downsizing falls a little short.

Downsizing was previewed at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 24th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Witness for the Prosecution – County Hall

A dark new Agatha Christie adaptation has become something of a Christmas tradition, and even though the BBC only started this tradition two years ago with an excellent multi-part interpretation of And Then There Were None, it has fast become an established and much anticipated highlight of the festive schedule. So, disappointment ensued this year when the latest Christie production, Ordeal by Innocence was indefinitely shelved. Fortunately, Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed production of Witness for the Prosecution is still riding high at London’s County Hall and is a charming substitute for the void in the TV listings.

Adapted from her own short story, Agatha Christie wrote a theatrical version of Witness for the Prosecution first performed in 1953, and while these days we’re more used to seeing the stories involving her most famous detectives as TV movies – or with the advent of Kenneth Branagh’s latest venture as actual movies – this new stage version, inventively located in an underused and unexpected London venue makes for an enjoyably twisty tale of murder and intrigue.

Wealthy widow Emily French has been murdered and Leonard Vole stands accused of the crime. Vole claims they were good friends and he was at home at the time of the murder, but with plenty of witnesses ready to testify against him, can Vole’s defence team, Sir Wilfrid Robarts and Mr Mayhew, prove his innocence? But then Vole’s mysterious wife Romaine is called to given evidence and the case is turned on its head.

At press night back in October, Lucy Bailey’s production divided the critics, with some disliking what they saw as an old-fashioned structure and heavy-handed approach, while others loved it’s classic and meticulous control of the courtroom action that focused on the aftermath of a murder rather than the deed itself. And, depending on your preference to see the action or hear it reported, this version will compare favourably or unfavourably with last year’s BBC dramatization that took the short story rather than the play as its starting point, and recreated the build-up to the murder as well as the court-based action in a more character-focused piece.

By contrast, Christie’s play is driven by procedure, demonstrating the fragility of evidence presented in courtrooms in cases of capital crime and has much in common with Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men in the way it examines the anatomy of justice and how prejudice has to be overcome. The case itself could be about anything, but what Christie wants you to see is how the ultimate punishment can hinge on the brilliance of lawyers to twist the scantest evidence to make a case for the guilt or innocence of the accused. And, deliberately, like a real jury, the audience is not permitted to see the crime, instead Christie only wants us to hear its details as court testimony, delivered by witnesses and framed by lawyers, forcing you to question how much you can ever really know without being there.

In this light, some of the harsher reviewers for this show can be put into perspective, if you actively try to compare this to the 2016 TV version and expect to see a Christie story that unpicks the characters and tries to understand their motives, then it will certainly disappoint. But, this play is doing something else entirely and Bailey’s approach stands apart as a stylish and savvy revival that has plenty to say about the failures of the criminal justice system.

The use of County Hall, the former home of London’s local government, which is normally closed to the public is an inspired one, and Witness for the Prosecution takes place in the former Council Chamber, which looks like a courtroom with raised platforms for the judge and clerks as well as an actual witness box, making this a combination of theatrical experience and Open House Weekend. With the addition of a central raised stage amidst the three-quarter round seats, the grandly imposing debating chamber of marble columns and ornate design is a lovely substitute for the Old Bailey, adding plenty of atmosphere to the story.

The action largely takes place between Sir Wilfrid’s chambers and the courtroom, and unlike most Christie TV adaptations you never see the murder or the victim, everything is discussed in retrospect. Some of the criticisms of this production concerned the length of the scene changes, and while occasionally they take a couple of minutes as stagehands roll out carpet and deliver chairs, they don’t detract much from the drama of the case. All venues require compromises of some kind, and lengthy scene changes are only a problem if they interrupt the flow, which in this case they largely don’t. On balance, the use of County Hall adds considerably more to the performance than its limitations detract, and Bailey shrewdly uses the space to enhance the themes of the play.

As Leonard Vole, Jack McMullen has one of the toughest roles and must maintain the audience’s interest in his case without giving away the solution. It’s not an easy balance but McMullen does very well to maintain the idea of a young man fighting for his life and genuinely scared by the weight of the circumstantial evidence, but at the same time he allows the audience to see that he may be capable of the things the witnesses claim which adds to the escalating tension, as well as reinforcing Christie’s notion that evidence and fact don’t always align.

Leading the defence team, David Yelland is wonderfully wry as Sir Wilfrid, wanting to believe in his client’s innocence but knowing how the game must be played in court. We’re given some insight into his thinking during the scenes outside the courtroom, and he has many of the most humorous lines, but unlike the BBC adaptation, Sir Wilfrid here is a servant of the crown, he has a job to do and aspects of his personality – his confidence, his disregard for the approach of the prosecution lawyer and his slightly world-weary acceptance of human behaviour – are only revealed by Yelland where they intersect with the performance of his job, and are indeed only the things his client or the jury would see or know of him in court.

His counterpart, Mr Myers is given a bulldog ferocity by Philip Franks who is a deliberately showier, if less skilled lawyer than Sir Wilfrid. Myers thunders at witnesses and breaks protocol repeatedly by making leading statements and putting words in their mouths (for which objections are frequently raised), which Franks suggests is due to Myer’s arrogance, using a more aggressive but ultimately less nuanced approach. But it does make for entertaining exchanges and many of the productions best moments come from watching Franks and Yelland squeezing and flipping evidence, as witness statements are shaped and redirected by the competing lawyers.

Catherine Steadman’s Romaine is a more difficult role to place, and has to be deliberately seen as an outsider or a strange presence. The character is German in a very English setting and her ‘otherness’ is key to the way in which the audience perceives her evidence. Steadman mostly creates this quite well, and her straight-talking Romaine always seems in control, brusque but unwilling to conform to English niceties. It is a fine line, though, between distinctiveness and exaggeration, with Steadman’s performance occasionally becoming a little cartoony, and by rushing the rather dramatic ending, Romaine feels like the least real character in an otherwise convincing production.

With ticket prices from a reasonable £10 and the show extended for nearly a year until September there’s plenty of time to catch this enjoyable new interpretation. If booking for some of the gallery seats, do take note of the restricted view information which is very clear about which areas of the stage the marble pillars will obscure, while other seats give you a perfect view for £25. So, if you felt Christmas was missing the traditional Agatha Christie adaptation, this production of Witness for the Prosecution is a rare chance to see a carefully-considered and executed Christie play in an unusual but well-chosen setting. As London will see with Quiz later in the year, Bailey’s production reminds us that justice and truth are not always the same thing.

Witness for the Prosecution is at County Hall until 16 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Theatre Review of the Year and What to See in 2018

2018

After the political surprises of 2016 it was easy to assume that 2017 would be defined by the fallout. For those in the liberal London bubble, the direct collision of old and new Britain, demonstrated at the ballot box last year, caused a shift in the way we see ourselves, a rethink that put concepts of nationalism, power and societal influence back under the microscope, Naturally, facing what felt like a significant and unbreachable rift, instability and economic downturn was the likely outcome, which for the arts, could only mean one thing –  cultural depletion  – as audience seek safety in comfort and nostalgia.

What actually happened in 2017 theatre couldn’t be further from that prediction, and while the revival of great American dance-led shows continued apace, looking back at this year’s very best productions, they were strikingly new. It has been an outstanding year for fresh, and predominantly political, writing with a West End transfer for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, an ambitious technical accomplishment if not entirely emotionally satisfying play about the encroaching effect of the 1980s hunger strikes on a rural Irish family that opened at the Royal Court in May, before making it to the Gielgud shortly afterwards, where its changing cast has led to two run extensions so far.

Just a tad more fulfilling was the first UK production of Oslo, arriving with its Tony Award winning headline from Broadway and a new British cast. Opening at the National Theatre in September before a prompt move to the Harold Pinter the following month, Oslo is a superb and very human examination of the personalities that created an unlikely peace process, dramatizing the complexity without undermining the entertainment value, an exceptional piece of writing by J.T. Rogers.

Undoubtedly, and for productivity and consistent quality alone, this year has belonged to James Graham with two new plays in neighbouring theatres, and a third announcing a transfer in the Spring of 2018. Labour of Love is one of the few new plays to open cold in the West End this year, premiering to much acclaim at the Noel Coward Theatre in September and innovatively charting the history of the Labour Party since the mid-1980s to the present day through the eyes of grass-roots membership, using a reverse then forward chronological structure.

Unpicking established historical scenarios and carefully controlled construction are Graham trademarks, both perfectly demonstrated in his biggest hit, and, personally my favourite show of the year, Ink, establishing the tabloid newspaper’s current powerbase rooted in its quest for populism in the sales war of 1969. A wonderful and unexpected surprise in its first outing at The Almeida in June, Ink promptly arrived at the Duke of York’s in September cementing Graham’s influence on modern political writing and paving the way for his next big show, and my first 2018 recommendation, Quiz, which is heading to the Noel Coward from April after a successful Chichester try-out, focusing on the power of the television media and the nature of modern justice, framed by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire coughing-Major scandal.

Another stand-out piece of new writing this year was a personal examination of the impact of suicide on three generations of the same family that placed women’s experience front and centre. Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide opened at the Royal Court in June and ambitiously reimagined traditional narrative approaches by telling the three separate but inter-related stories side-by-side, upping the emotional investment, while The Barbershop Chronicles at the National was an invigorating examination of black male experience around the world distilled through a visit to the local hairdresser. And finally, The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios arrived in the West End from the Bristol Old Vic just in time to be crowned this year’s best new musical, reimagining Victor Hugo’s dark tale of mutilation and injustice. Genuinely magical, it swept the audience up with its heightened fairy tale quality, charting the story of a tragic outsider to quietly devastating effect.

Emotional and quietly devastating also describes 2017’s best revival, the Sondheim classic Follies that united Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee at the National Theatre. From the very first night of previews, the show ached with regret, disillusion and nostalgia for lost youth that filled the sizeable Olivier auditorium and never has a production suited the awkward space so well. Twice this year, the National has arguably produced definitive productions that will certainly preclude other major revivals for at least a decade, and joining the genuinely heart-rending Follies was the epic Angles in America (Part 1 and Part 2).

Tony Kushner’s two-part 1990s ‘gay fantasia’ was much trailered this time last year, and when it finally opened in a mammoth seven and half hour production it more than lived-up to expectation. Director Marianne Elliot balanced the multiple narratives and hallucinatory elements convincingly, while leads Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in particular gave the performance of their lives as men ravaged by HIV.

Andrew Scott also gave a career-best performance in this year’s superstar Hamlet, opening in February at the Almeida before transferring to the Harold Pinter. Robert Icke’s production was a modern, strongly conceived production that despite a few loose ends and some underpowered interpretations of Claudius and Gertrude, gave its leading man the space to deliver one of the most heart-breaking Hamlets of the 21st century.

Another former Hamlet returned to the stage this year and having established a devoted fan-base as a much-loved TV character and a respected Shakespeare performer, blew it all up to play a dastardly lothario with only his own pleasure in mind. David Tennant’s performance in the revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho divided critics and audiences alike with its crude and gleeful take on an unrepentant wastrel. But Tennant’s joyous interpretation, perfectly matched by Adrian Scarborough’s put-upon servant proved irresistible, making it one of my favourite and most uproarious nights in a theatre this year.

With another cracking Imelda Staunton performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter, Daniel Radcliffe impressing in the Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and charming returns for An American in Paris and 42nd Street, 2017 has been a cracking year for top-quality theatre. But as we say a bittersweet farewell to one of the strongest years for mainstream theatre in a long time, we can take comfort in knowing that 2018 is already filled with possible treats.

The new Bridge Theatre opens the year with an all-star promenade production of Julius Caesar – one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – starring Ben Whishaw as Brutus and David Morrissey as Mark Anthony which should be an interesting take on well-known tale of power and corruption. The National follows suit in February with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in a new Macbeth that could be the best stage version in years, while more must-see Shakespeare is planned for September with a much anticipated version of Anthony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo also at the National.

Another early highlight is the much acclaimed transfer of Long Day’s Journey into Night starring Jeremy Irons and the wonderful Lesley Manville pitching-up at the Wyndhams in January, while in the same month Kathy Burke directs Lady Windermere’s Fan, the second in Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville, and soon after Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins take the lead in Bryony Lavery’s thriller Frozen, opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.

The late spring and summer months also promise much, with a revival of Red starring Alfred Molina also heading to the Wyndhams, while, following the London run of James Graham’s Quiz from April, all eyes will be on the Noel Coward Theatre in July where Martin McDonagh’s the Lieutenant of Inishmore will mark the West End debut of Poldark star Aidan Turner, timed to coincide with the next series of the hit show.

And that’s not even the half of it; later in the year Jim Broadbent will star in Martin McDonagh’s new play about Hans Christian Andersen at the The Bridge Theatre entitled A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the National has announced a version of Brian Friel’s Translations with Colin Morgan, the first London run of the trilogy of plays about Lehman Brothers directed by Sam Mendes who follows his wonderful control of The Ferryman with more new writing, while there is a new play from The Flick writer Annie Baker, who returns to the National with John, and the Royal Court welcomes Carey Mulligan in a new show Girls and Boys, while the Gielgud hosts a gender-swapped version of Sondheim’s Company from September.

So, it may be sad to leave a year of really great theatre, but 2018 has plenty to offer, and looks set to continue the investment in new writing that has been such a feature of the last 12 months. With a constantly shifting governmental landscape and ongoing uncertainty, it’s comforting to see mainstream theatre responding with sophisticated political writing and greater attempts at diversity – that some of the approaches that have long been a feature of the Fringe are finally filtering up. It’s far from perfect and there’s still a long way to go, but with the work of 2017 setting a high bar, the theatre year ahead looks full of promise.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


The Grinning Man – Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

However much theatre you see, it is rare to find something that is truly magical, and in the week before Christmas few things will gladdened the heart as completely as Bristol Old Vic’s production of The Grinning Man now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. If you’re not a panto person, can’t face another version of A Christmas Carol and are by now shouting “humbug” at a festive period that started in earnest in October, then this glorious adaptation of Victor Hugo’s dark tale hits all the right notes to tally with your mood, melting your icy exterior with its focus on pain, rejection and injustice.

There is something very distinctive about a Victor Hugo story and even when translated for the stage, the essential characteristics are the same. Whether you’ve read all 1000+ pages of Les Misérables (and you should it’s stunning), or seen the musical, or even watched versions of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, Hugo’s writing manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, covering grand sweeps of history and decades in a character’s life, giving anatomies of entire cities, while focusing on the slog of every day living, the physical and emotional fragility of individual characters, rich or poor united by a common humanity.

The Grinning Man does exactly that, weaving together high and low in a complex story of brutalisation and loss of innocence. As a child Grinpayne is savagely mutilated with his face sliced from ear to ear in a permanent grin. Hidden beneath bandages and orphaned, the boy finds a baby crying in the snow where the two are taken in by a local man who raises them as his own. Years later, at the palace, the three bored children of the King find themselves captivated by the ugly-beautiful face they see at the local fair and set out to know him better. But the man’s history starts to emerge, and very soon the Grinning Man will find out who he really is.

The success of this production lies in the sincerity of Carl Grose’s text, supported by an emotive score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, and an absorbing vision from director Tom Morris that marries a shabby travelling circus aesthetic with warped fairy tale quality. Working with Jon Bausor’s design, and while seemingly set in the eighteenth-century, this is a far cry from the cliched vision of downtrodden urchins in designer dirt. Instead we’re offered a semi-fantastical world driven by the characters rather than the period setting, in which the macabre moments are perfectly balanced with humour and romance. It’s never allowed to be either too maudlin or too light, but is constantly full of complexity as characters, divested of their innocence, aspire to be more than they are.

The notion of dreams runs through the show, uniting the key players in their desire to be someone different, a desire that is shared equally among rich and poor, whether it’s the wealthy royal children craving real emotion and escape from the imprisonment of their privilege, or Grinpayne’s adoptive father Ursus (Sean Kingsley) exploiting his son to take them all to a better life in the new world.

Morris’s production implies a permanent night in which characters and sets appear abruptly from the surrounding darkness. It has benefited from some revision and a slightly shorter run time since its first outing in Bristol, but still focuses on all the classic Hugo themes – a sense of personal injustice, a lifelong quest for truth, father-daughter relationships, the transition between the generations and spiritual uplift in moments of political upheaval – and shrouds them in a carefully conceived gothic wrapping that draws together a variety of innovative techniques to keep the audience enraptured.

Initially, the story of the Grinning Man is told to bored Prince Dirry-Moir who escapes to see the fair, but he soon becomes involved in Grinpayne’s life along with his lustful sister Josiana. Using Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie’s child-sized puppets, primarily in the first half, the history of Grinpayne’s tragic childhood is brought engagingly to life, partially operated by his grown-up self, played by Louis Maskell. The addition of a giant wolf that the Ursus family keep as a pet, superbly rendered by combining a mask head and front paws with performer Loren O’Dair as the hind-legs, will impress fans of the War Horse puppeteers. This is highly sophisticated work that seamlessly blends marionettes with the real actors to keep the show on the border of unreality, underscoring Morris’s heightened vision.

The audience is told repeatedly that all who look on the Grinning Man are entirely compelled by him, and Louis Maskell’s performance as Grinpayne is the heart of the show. His lower face is covered by a prosthetic sling and, for the most part, a bandage, so Maskell is only able to use his eyes and voice to deliver all the complexity and suffering of a social outcast, pushed beyond the bounds of normalcy by his disfigurement. It is also an intensely physical performance, and Maskell uses his full body to convey the deep-rooted anguish that has shaped Grinpayne’s character, and you frequently see the strain ripple through his neck and upper body, as he conveys an endless contortion of soul.

Yet, he retains an essential innocence, a purity that raises him above the other characters despite his physical shape, reinforcing Hugo’s notion that external appearance and goodness are not always aligned. Maskell’s voice is extraordinary, with a range and depth that display the complexity of his experience, and in a powerful performance he manifests the combination of loss, fear, determination, love and self-discovery that mark his development as the plot unfolds, demonstrating Grinpayne’s charisma and appeal to the audience. It is extremely skilled work to convey all of this with only half a face.

Of the surrounding cast, there are notable performances from Amanda Wilkin as the sex-crazed Duchess Josiana and Mark Anderson as comically arrogant Prince Dirry-Moir, both living a lifestyle of high hedonism but unable to feel real emotion. And while there is plenty of saucy humour in the female role which Wilkin elicits, she avoids making Josiana entirely cartoonish and instead hints at a woman equally pained by her circumstances, as both she and her brother seek a kind of liberation from their encounter with Grinpayne.

Sean Turner’s Ursus must navigate an equally interesting path through the show, taking him from the lonely and noble widower who houses two abandoned children, raising them as his own, to a man who exploits his mutilated son to win the chance for them all to escape abroad. Turner unfolds the intricacy of Hugo’s character, a man shaped by the circumstances of his life, making bad decisions, often for good reasons, with a similar need to find redemption and atonement.

Hugo’s writing rarely has outright villains, and one of the things he shows so well is how characters are driven by different beliefs and purposes that cause them to clash. Grose stays faithful to this idea with Barkilphedro, the sullied clown and servant to the Royal Family, who in Julian Bleach’s performance is a sinister and resentful figure whose unrewarded loyalty drives the machinations of the plot. By contrast, Hugo includes a highly angelic, if deeply insipid, young love interest – think Cosette in Les Misérables –  and here Sanne den Besten assumes that role as Dea, the blind child Grinpayne rescues from the snow, who grows up with him and becomes his intended. den Besten sings beautifully in what is a bland role and the relationship between Dea and Grinpayne is the only duff note in the show. For the more cynical it may be too much to believe that a virtual brother and sister with so unevenly weighted characters are a perfect pairing.

The Grinning Man may not a be suitable for children (it has an age limit of 12 years), and it’s certainly not a Christmas show in any way, but within the grotesque world that Grose, Morris, Teitler and Phillips create there is a rare and genuine theatre magic. Amidst the endlessly enforced Christmas spirit, it is in this half-way world between fantasy and reality that something entirely unexpected happens, a genuine festive warmth emerges from this tale of broken humanity, sending even the most hardened audience members home with thoughts of goodwill to all men. So, kudos to the Bristol Old Vic, the creators and cast of The Grinning Man, you have achieved what no one else ever has, you have broken London and made it a better place… well, at least until the New Year. Happy Christmas!

The Grinning Man is at Trafalgar Studios until 14 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1.


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