Tag Archives: 1950s Britain

Nigel Slater’s Toast – The Other Palace

Nigel Slater's Toast - The Other Palace

The memories we have of our childhoods are often light and incomplete, we hold-on to emotional responses, particularly good or bad moments like the endless and warm days of summer, holidays by the seaside, snowy Christmases that probably never happened, and perhaps the odd school-based humiliation. But, with our (then) limited knowledge of the adult world, the truth of those years is somewhat more elusive, the struggles of our parents, the political and cultural experience of the times and any sense of danger or national change happening around us. Instead, childhood, for most of us, always seems like a golden age until suddenly it’s not.

There comes a point in every childhood where everything changes, for most people its during their teenage years but often for terrible reasons some experience a lurch into the adult world far sooner than they expected. Chef Nigel Slater knew that better than most when his beloved mother died on Christmas morning when he was just 10-years old. His 2003 bestselling memoir Toast recounts the circumstances before and after that crucial moment as young Nigel inherits a passion for cooking in a seemingly perfect 50s kitchen before that fateful festive period. Exploring the world of the Slater family in Wolverhampton through the food that they shared, the memoir has been dramatised by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Jonnie Riordan. It debuted on The Lowry stage in Salford and later the Edinburgh Festival last year, before receiving a London transfer to The Other Palace where it officially opens tomorrow. Smartly adapted by Filloux-Bennett, this is a show that will warm you through without disguising its darker flavours, a satisfying and hearty concoction that sees the world through the eyes of a child.

Told almost entirely from Nigel’s perspective – and he actively chides his father for trying to muscle in on narrative duties – Toast is a delightful meta-theatrical experience in which the audience is not only asked to understand the world of its characters and their differing perspectives, there is also the chance to eat along without leaving your seat. A multisensory production, in the first Act bags of sweets are distributed around the audience, followed by Walnut Whips during the interval to save for an important scene in Act Two, and later trays of mini-Lemon Meringue Pies.

It’s a delicious surprise that certainly adds an additional dimension to the experience, and don’t worry if you’re seated at the back, the cast and diligent ushers do their best to ensure everyone receives some free goodies in a well-executed piece of audience engagement. Yet, in medium-sized venue like The Other Palace it does have its drawbacks; if you’re annoyed generally by the crinkling of sweet wrappers in the theatre, the ripple effect of the first handout may be frustrating as it last for the next 15-20 minutes of the show.

And while we get to enjoy tastes along with the characters, it equally pulls the audience temporarily out of the story while they await food items to be passed along the row to them. The time taken to settle back down encroaches on the often more emotional scene that follows, and closer to the back of the room, it can be harder to hear over the uniform rustling of wrappers and conversational exchanges between neighbours rooting-out the sweets they want. Even in the second Act, Walnut Whips already in hand, lots of people are waiting for the appropriate scene to eat it, giving rise to an audible relief when it eventually occurs. It is a smart and lovely idea but there are consequences for audience concentration and the flow of the ensuing story.

Nonetheless, what stands out in the sensitive retelling of this tragic memoir is the imaginative technical solutions to how content is presented and the smoothly management of scene changes. Designer Libby Watson has created an idealised 50s world of pale-yellow perfection. Anyone who has seen Laura Wade’s Olivier Award-winning Home, I’m Darling, will recognise the themes Watson draws upon – utility, grace and finesse – in which culinary objects have their place, everything is sparkling clean and beautifully appointed.

A number of moveable cabinets on castors, as well as rapidly removed furniture allow Riordan to move swiftly between a series of locations including Nigel’s school, restaurants, two different homes and eventually a side alley of The Savoy. As choreographer as well as director, Riordan uses movement to underscore poignant moments and to suggest the passing of time, with a counter-top waltz between mother and son meaningfully handled, as well as second wife Joan’s domestic domination told through a montage of vacuum and polishing actions set to music and sound effects.

There are musical theatre qualities to this approach that work extremely well here while also emphasising the difference between childhood fantasy and adult reality that runs through the story. But they never distract from Toast’s darker moments, in fact they deepen them. Music has the same effect and while Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s selection of 50s tunes played throughout the show as well as during the interval are a nostalgic treat, their inclusion is equally designed to pull at Nigel’s consciously created fantasy childhood, one that splits apart as the truth slowly dawns in his teenage years, at which point the music choices take on a harder quality in the final third of the show.

The Slater household is never flashy, but always homely, a welcoming upper-working class / lower middle-class vision bolstered by the idea of the perfect housewife running the home immaculately while her husband works. As with Wade’s play, that image is not quite right and as the story unfolds Filloux-Bennett cleverly explores the differences between Nigel’s narration and the adult reality from which he was largely shielded. As his mum’s illness becomes more serious, it’s clear to the audience that 10-year old Nigel has no idea what was about to happen. Later, when his dad takes a second wife, Nigel is at first bemused to be at a dinner he doesn’t realise was a date, leading-in to Joan becoming what he thinks is the cleaner. Nigel’s induction into the complexities of adult relationships is carefully managed in Act Two, slowly building as Nigel finds himself in unexpected competition not just with Joan (a very funny Marie Lawrence playing a woman so clearly insecure she needs to best a teenage boy) over baking prowess, but also with his father whose brusqueness with his son stems from his own grief, finding himself in the unexpected role as widower and single father, causing eruptions of violence or threats that shatters Nigel’s formal but respected view of him.

Giles Cooper’s Nigel is an excellent narrator and although Cooper plays his protagonist between the ages of 10 and 17, he wisely chooses not to stretch the childlike characterisation too far. In a way, this acts as a reminder that it is the adult Nigel who is the conduit for this story, remembering events from many decades distance, but it also feels appropriate in the context of the story. Riordan doesn’t want us to be distracted by how well Cooper can ‘act’ these ages, but to focus on the rite of passage that Slater’s tragedy set in motion, something which Cooper manages extremely well.

There is, in his performance, an unyielding adoration for his mother that dominates the first half of the play as they enjoy happy family moments baking, shopping and even holidaying together. Their closeness and Nigel’s contentment are well conveyed, making the circumstantial switch in Act Two all the more affecting. And here Cooper is even better as Nigel recognises the extent to which his mother shielded him from the darker side of his father, the competitiveness of other people and the nuances of adult life, a knowledge forced on him by the collapse of his homelife and his father’s focus on his new wife at the expense of his scared and uncertain son. Most of all, Cooper shows how Nigel clings to the ideals his mother instilled in him, developing a strength that eventually leads him to the doorstep of a famous London hotel and the life to come.

Having Lizzie Muncy play Nigel’s mum and a number of other important female characters including his Home Economics teacher and the woman who gives him his first job in a Wolverhampton hotel kitchen is a shrewd move. It not only means a cast of just five can perform the entire play, but it suggests a certain maternal consistency to the women who set Nigel, accidentally or purposefully, on his path to future culinary fame. Muncy draws out the protective sweetness of Mum which makes Nigel’s devotion so credible, while Stephen Ventura’s Dad manages to convey the difficulty of his own position as a 50s man trying to meet social expectations of masculinity. Through his funny rules and lists (including the gender-appropriateness of particular sweets), we see that he is  unable to properly express his deeper emotions and needs. The distance with Nigel because increasingly antagonistic as Ventura subtly suggests Dad’s inability to manage his own grief and loneliness.

This cleverly staged memoir well captures the moment at which childhood ends and the more difficult transition to adult life begins while using its food-theme to build a sense of the professional Nigel Slater was to become. Free food or not, Toast is a charming two hours in the theatre that carefully presents an idealised picture of 50s life and then cuts through to its harder reality. Honest and inventive, the range of narrative and staging techniques used in Toast impressively create a highly entertaining exploration of memory and meaning.

Toast is at The Other Palace until 3 August, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Advertisements

The Entertainer – Garrick Theatre

The Entertainer - Kenneth Branagh

2016’s spring and summer theatre seasons have been dominated by some outstanding leading female performances; from Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl to Billy Piper’s Yerma and Helen McCrory’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea (which gets an NT Live cinema showing this week) this is some of the best work we’ve seen in London for some time. But autumn is almost here and it’s time for our leading men to step into the spotlight. Over the next few weeks a number of highly anticipated shows will open – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart bring their No Man’s Land tour to the Wyndhams, while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith take on The Dresser at the Duke of York’s.

But before any of them Kenneth Branagh gives his take on John Osborne’s The Entertainer, the final play in his year-long Garrick season, which has its press night tomorrow. Set in 1956, it’s the tale of middle-aged Music Hall entertainer Archie Rice, who continues to tread the boards in a comedy end-of-the-pier show in a northern seaside town. He lives with his second wife Phoebe, their two sons and his father the renowned, and now retired, Music Hall star Billy Rice. One weekend Archie’s daughter Jean, from his first marriage, comes to visit from London and the precarious balance of illusion and deliberate ignorance that has sustained the family is shattered.

Osborne’s plays are often hard to really love and even 60 years on the brutal nature of his characters can be uncomfortable to watch. But while there’s plenty of West End theatre that will harmlessly entertain you, very little sends you out into the night troubled by what you have seen, this production of The Entertainer does just that and it’s a very good thing.

At the time Osborne wrote this play Britain was undergoing a period of considerable change as old and new values began to clash across the political and social spectrum. Rationing had only recently ended and the old Britain of Empire and showmen like Archie was essentially bankrupt. Much has been made in the pre-press about its echoes in current issues, and watching the show now its relevance to our own times, with Brexit and Scottish independence once again pitting old against new, is stark. The Union flag is a frequent motif as it was in the Music Hall, either waved in Archie’s act, representing the armed forces or projected across the back of the stage… and how complicated our own relationship with that symbol of Britain now is – it doesn’t mean quite the same thing it did two months ago. Who we are as a nation and how much we value tradition over progress are questions as important to us now as they were to Osborne in the 1950s. And what this version of The Entertainer is doing is seeing that play-out in microcosm in one family deeply affected by a future they can’t control – seem familiar?

Once again I heard another audience member call this ‘obviously dated’ which, as with the recent discussion about Present Laughter, is a misunderstanding. The Entertainer is set in the time it was written and where it feels stale is a deliberate move by Branagh and director Rob Ashford to show that Archie is a man out of his time. In fact his refined working class family worry about the future but live almost entirely in the past, recounting old stories and existing within the confines of Archie’s long out-of-date act. And, alongside the political references, like Present Laughter, it has much to say about the expiration of celebrity, how quickly it disappears and, for those like Archie, even now, clinging to a desperate C-List status is better than none at all.

Christopher Oram’s has done some excellent design work during this season but The Entertainer is one of his best, setting it in a shabby and faded Music Hall with a giant curtain dominating the back of the stage where Archie often appears with dancers to perform his routine. Brilliantly, the Rice household exists in a combined ‘backstage’ and ‘onstage’ set-up which allows Ashford to fluidly move between the home and stage scenes, with dancers neatly moving furniture into place. It makes perfect sense for them to ‘live’ in the Music Hall which has economically sustained them and shaped their lives, nicely exploited with occasional freeze-frame moments as Archie delivers his gags around them, tying the two sides of his life together.

You’ll undoubtedly hear a lot in the coming days about Olivier’s take on the central role and how Branagh compares, but undoubtedly he has made this part his own, incorporating everything he’s learned from his roles during the season to create a sad wreck of a man. His Archie is someone able to fool himself he once had everything and finding it increasingly difficult to hide the truth, an element of his Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. In many ways Archie is a version of Arthur Gosport in Harlequinade, a second-rate actor committed to the theatre, but Branagh’s Archie is only too aware of his failings, while the wonderful comic timing and joy he used to great effect in The Painkiller he warps slightly here as Archie’s show-time pieces are deliberately just out of sync or mistimed by a second to expose him.

Archie is performing almost always, especially in front of his father where jokes and stories are relayed in the same patter he uses on stage but there are wonderful moments when Branagh subtly allows something to catch in his throat, to suppress an emotion he refuses to feel, and in Act Two when Archie unleashed a tirade about being ‘dead behind the eyes’ and talks of not feeling anything, knowing the people watching him don’t feel anything either, it’s an incredibly exposing and affecting moment which certainly makes this audience feel for him. While Branagh has hinted at this before, from that point you see Archie’s struggle, how the affairs, drinking and dodgy deals are all part of the way he fools himself rather than admit he’s never been the man he wants to be and indicate the extent of his self-loathing. It’s an aching and profoundly moving performance.

Gawn Grainger replaced John Hurt at fairly short notice in the role of Bill Rice and its one that grows on him as the play progresses. He is a key force in the play and while a lot of time is spent waiting for and relying on Archie, it is Billy that the household actually moves around. He represents a very old guard – racist, faded and accepting his time is done but still an aspiration for his son. Grainger has the cantankerous side of Billy but needs to draw out the pathos as the run progresses.

Greta Scacchi has that balance just right as Archie’s feeble and highly-strung wife. She’s a permanently anxious presence, well aware that her dallying husband no longer really loves her but like him chooses to hide from the truth, but in gin – and if you attempt a dangerous drink along with the characters then you could be in a pretty sorry state. Always on the verge of tears and regretting a wasted life, Scacchi is a perfect piece of casting. Less so is Sophie McShera who brings very little to the crucial role of Jean. Her initial scenes are quite flat and then everything else becomes a little shrill and surprisingly lifeless.  She lacks the youthful fire that this character heralds and the important contrast of big city life, change and the future that she represents. Again she’s meant to be a character out of time, but looking forward unlike her family and there has to be real angst as Jean debates a life of old or new.

So, ‘our revels now are ended’ and Branagh’s fascinating theatre season draws to a close with this bittersweet and thoughtful version of The Entertainer. It’s hard to know what effect this play will have, Osborne is still divisive, but this season has championed lesser-known and more troubling works, so to end with this elegiac comment on the nature of celebrity seems fitting, and it’s clear how much love has gone into it. In an autumn packed with big male performances, Branagh’s take on Archie Rice cuts deep and as a man who shies away from his own inadequacy it is acutely sad. It’s not for everyone and may be a challenge to attract younger viewers, but the disquieting effect this play has, long after the curtain call, is a rare and valuable thing

The Entertainer is at The Garrick Theatre until 12 November, and there will be a live cinema broadcast on 27 October. Tickets start at £17. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Deep Blue Sea – National Theatre

The Deep Blue Sea - National Theatre

Sometimes an actor and a part make perfect sense, and you know in advance that the production you’re about to see is going to be pretty special. It’s different to the thrill of seeing a favourite or particularly famous actor treading the boards; instead it’s the knowledge that the role will particularly suit the specific skills, experience and style of the performer. The announcement then that Helen McCrory was to play Hester Collyer in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea made perfect sense and may well be her finest stage performance.

McCrory is probably best known (outside the theatre) for her more outlandish roles playing dangerously eccentric characters such as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, while her Medea for the National a couple of years ago was a ball of anger and vengeance. Yet it was a tiny role as a grieving widow in the film version of Ian McEwen’s Enduring Love, opposite a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, which really highlighted her ability to convey conflicted despair – a performance that made her perfect casting as Rattigan’s deeply troubled heroine.

The Deep Blue Sea is Rattigan’s most personal and emotionally charged play, based on the death of his former lover Kenny Morgan who gassed himself in a tiny boarding house in Camden Town after being thrown over by his current partner. A version of this true story was recently performed at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston which used Rattigan’s play as a template without quite matching the emotional pitch of the fictional version.

The Deep Blue Sea opens with Hester Collyer found alive in her flat by her landlady and a neighbour having failed to kill herself when the meter ran out of gas. It’s the 1950s when suicide was a crime and the discovery puts everyone in a difficult moral position. Hester is troubled by the dying embers of a passionate relationship with her younger lover Freddie Page, a former fighter pilot who she met when golfing with her husband Sir William Collyer, a High Court Judge. A well-meaning lodger calls her husband and in the course of twenty-four hours Hester must confront both the men in her life, the overwhelming feelings of love she cannot control, as well as her own belief that life is not worth continuing.

Hester is a sympathetic but not entirely likeable woman who seems to make quite rational and calm decisions about significant matters while simultaneously unable to overcome the feeling she has for Freddie, a feeling they both know he does not return to the same degree. It can be difficult then for an audience to understand a woman who seems so rational and yet so entirely unable to master her own feelings. Yet McCrory makes Hester’s predicament deeply affecting and entirely believable. She begins in an emotionally turbulent state having just tried to commit suicide and as soon as McCrory appears on stage the tension ramps up instantly. It’s not an easy place for an actress to begin, but McCrory is superb allowing Hester to dismiss her actions with curtly polite thanks to all involved – a constant struggle between the expected propriety of her actions and the unquellable depth of her feelings.

And McCrory’s Hester feels deeply, yet retains an inner steel. We see her as both a fragile creature unable to imagine a life without the strong feeling she has experienced with Freddie – the audience may believe as the other characters do that it is only an infatuation but Hester believes it is more than that – yet when offered an escape by her former husband, she is able to rationalise her decision to give up her life to it. “Love is what happened to me” she says and because of it she is no longer the same woman she was in her marriage to Sir William and quite decently feels she could not pretend to love her husband again for all the material comfort it may bring her. McCrory’s fiery passion for Freddie that so often becomes histrionic as she begs him to stay with her is painful to watch and throughout you have the sense she is a dead woman walking, that without him she will allow herself to crumble. It’s a real tour de force performance that is one of the finest things you’ll see on the London stage this year.

Tom Burke’s Freddie may initially seem to be the villain of the piece who has destroyed this woman’s life for a brief physical passion. Yet Rattigan gives us a far more complex character, loading Freddie’s backstory with notions of a post-war world he cannot exist in – “His life stopped in 1940” Hester says and the dull peace after the intensity of combat is something so many men found difficult to adjust to. The failure of the relationship is no more the fault of Freddie than it is of Hester as both are driven by deep character traits that always doomed their 10-month romance. He openly admits he is not someone who can feel as deeply as Hester can and considers himself broken. Although he cares for her more than any other woman he’s ever known, it doesn’t begin to equal her passion for him which ultimately drives them apart. Tom Burke is a superb Freddie, offering moments of callous disgust for Hester’s selfish suicide attempt that would have left him with a lifetime of guilt, with a level of self-realisation that engenders considerable sympathy. Their mutual passion is clear and the chemistry between the two leads if palpable, yet Freddie refuses to let himself be governed by it as Hester does and is always the one to instantly shut down her caresses which Burke suggests are futile now they both know it’s over. It’s again a powerful performance that retains sympathy for Freddie’s motives despite the pain he causes and we see it costs him a great deal to break it off but knows that logic must rule emotion.

There’s no less tension in the duologues between Hester and her husband which have the easy interaction of two people long involved with one another. Peter Sullivan as Sir William initially remains a little aloof seeming neither surprised nor overly concerned by Hester’s actions but it’s abundantly clear in Sullivan’s heartfelt performance that considerable love still exists for his wife and his distance is a protection against further hurt as well as a badge of his class and age. Their talk of old acquaintances he thinks is a way to lure her back, while for her they’re just amusing memories of a life Hester no longer requires. William represents for her a form of salvation she refuses to take where a return to married life would be a betrayal of herself, of the sexuality she has discovered with Freddie and a life of stifled pretending that she won’t renew.

The National has a great reputation when it comes to Rattigan and a production of After the Dance in 2010 was one its biggest success of the last decade – the lead played by a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch in what remains, in my view, his finest stage role. Here director Carrie Cracknell has created a tense and emotionally wrought atmosphere that ebbs and flows like the tide, and perfectly pitched throughout, while Tom Scutt’s beautiful semi-sheer design in shades of sea bluey-green allows you to see the lives happening beyond the walls of Hester’s flat giving context to her own somewhat self-indulgent struggle and the many other people just getting on with it. This is not quite the shabby lodging house of other versions, but a small and tasteful place which reinforces Hester’s slight snobbery – it’s not pure poverty to us but to her is a few degrees below the comfort she enjoyed with Sir William.

This production of The Deep Blue Sea is the best thing the National has done in years and a wonderful piece of theatre – it’s intense, consuming and deeply moving. Helen McCrory’s astonishing central performance is an impeccable piece of casting and a role that suits her skills perfectly. Her Hester is simultaneously sympathetic, pitiable, frustrating, fragile and strong, and if you’re not blinking back the tears by the end of this devastating performance then you have a harder heart than me. Rattigan has been given a new lease of life since the centenary celebrations in 2011 and in this beautiful production we are reminded just why he remains such a wonderful playwright and how sublime theatre can be when a talented actor meets the perfect part.

The Deep Blue Sea is at The National Theatre until 21 September and tickets start at £15. The production also features in the National’s 1pm Friday Rush scheme selling tickets for £20. There will be an NT Live Screening of this production on 1 September in local cinemas.


%d bloggers like this: