Tag Archives: 20th Century Theatre

Long Day’s Journey into Night – Wyndhams Theatre

Long Days Journey into Night by Hugo Glendinning

The experience and characteristics of addiction seem like a very modern scourge, the result of a newly pressured, fast-paced, status-driven society that encourages people to ‘have it all’, the perfect job, the perfect family and a fabulous Instagram-able social life. For some, keeping up means having to rely on artificial stimulants, particularly alcohol and caffeine which have become not just essential but entirely normalised; addiction is no longer an exceptional refuge for the broken few but a basic state of being for a whole generation working longer hours and living in the ever-present Social Media glare.

Popular culture started to explore different kinds of addiction long ago; Danny Boyle and Steve McQueen have filmed it, Amy Winehouse sang about it and most recently the National Theatre put it on stage as the acclaimed People, Places and Things, but this interest is far from a recent phenomenon; examining addiction is not really that new at all, and many playwrights have grappled with the causes and effects of addictive behaviour on the user and those around them. While Noel Coward penned a shocking mother-son drama about drug abuse as early as the 1920s (The Vortex), Eugene O’Neill set his 1941 semi-autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night in 1912, where arguably the multiple addictive behaviour he examines were even more taboo.

This rather hefty play is set at a crucial time of change in the early twentieth-century when nineteenth-century formalities were being shrugged off and Western societies began to move towards an urban-based, mechanised future catalysed by international warfare. But O’Neill was also writing at the time of America’s entry into the Second World War, making subtle contemporary statements about the final lull before the storm, knowing something big and familiar is approaching which the characters hoped could be avoided.

Like Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance, there is also an examination of the long-term effect of a transient lifestyle, of on-going drug and alcohol dependence. Substitute James and Mary Tyrone for the Bright Young Things of the 1920s or prohibition era America – contemporaries of O’Neill – both are now dealing with the consequences of their younger lifestyle, the attraction of the big city and the lasting damage to mind and character that their excesses created. The scene title may be 1912 but O’Neil had plenty to say about the times he lived in.

The Bristol Old Vic’s production starring Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville transfers to the West End for a limited run at the Wyndhams, and its clear that these wider themes are as much part of Richard Eyre’s surefooted interpretation as the fairly straightforward story of a disillusioned family coming to terms with the cycle of relapse and rehab. At the Tyrone summer home, Mary is newly returned to her husband and grown-up sons after spending some time restoring her health. James Tyrone, a well-regarded stage actor in New York, is delighted to see his wife so healthy but endures a prickly relationship with sons Jamie and Edmund. During the course of one long day, Mary’s behaviour becomes increasingly frantic and as familiar patterns of behaviour emerge, blame, recrimination and regret are never far from the surface.

Everyone in Richard Eyre’s production has sold their soul to something that they think will save them from the difficulties of their lives, and they find solace in some form of addiction. The cause of Mary’s nervy behaviour and swinging moods is only slowly revealed as the play unfolds and, for first time viewers, many alternative possibilities suggest themselves before the truth is revealed. For the men around her though, their dependence on alcohol, even with a bout of tuberculosis, is as vital to them as breathing (probably not one to attempt a drink along).

Actor James pontificates frequently, enjoying the status that fame has brought him and goading his sons for their lack of independence – a state he presumably has caused through his parenting. And here Jeremy Irons makes use of his stature to offer a gruff but polished creation, entranced by the sound of his own voice and blind to the effect his behaviour has on those around him. He may not quite be the tough figure of Irish descent the text suggests, but, still handsome and imposing, Irons captures a crucial aspect of James’s character making his still fervent love for Mary appear between the cracks, his devotion to her a clear explanation of why he continues to hope the woman he first met can return to him.

In many ways, it’s James who is the most tragic character, and as we later discover the reputation he clings to, the presentation of himself as an erudite leading man is less assured than we supposed, that he sold-out his early promise for a guaranteed income, a choice many actors must make. So, Irons shows us that James’s brusque treatment of his sons and his frequently mocked stinginess, is rather more defensive than offensive, designed to create the illusion of power and influence in the one place he thinks he can have full command. The frequent whiskies are used to prevent those truths becoming too vocal in his mind.

Mary is a much harder character to chart and the always quietly brilliant Lesley Manville is spectacular in showing both why Mary’s unpredictability would be frustrating to live with, while extracting incredible pathos for a woman desperate to seek shelter from what has been a lifetime of disappointment and emotional devastation. Seeing the newly Oscar-nominated actor on stage is always a joy as Manville brings so many layers to whatever part she plays, spinning from comedy to pain, happiness and despair so effortlessly that a role as complex as Mary is perfectly suited to her considerable skills.

And that is something Manville must do repeatedly as the vigour and contentment of Mary’s morning mood gives way to a highly-strung nervousness which Manville slowly introduces into the performance. As the day wears on, the extremes of behaviour become more pronounced, vacillating convincingly between minor fusses about her to hair to full-blown self-pity, effusive worrying and bitter diatribes about her husband as her addiction regains its hold over her. Her repeated references to a lost child, to her friendlessness, the loneliness that comes from a life moving between hotels for James’s work, not having a home, a place to properly root herself unveil the circularity of her thought, loosening her grip on reality. Manville’s skill here is in showing that Mary both fears and embraces the addiction that she cannot shake, that in this particular environment, which she loathes, her dependency saves her from it, while retaining a hint of the alluring beauty she once was as her past revisits her.

Sons Jamie and Edmund are not entirely eclipsed by their parents and Rory Keenan offers a meaningful performance as Jamie, the eldest son who proves a constant disappointment with his drinking and womanising. Following his father into acting, Keenan’s Jamie is a lost soul, seeking pleasure where he can as a solace from the pain of his mother’s compulsion. Matthew Beard’s Edmund is a calmer presence, having to face a potentially fatal diagnosis of his own while carrying the burden of being the literary son with most potential. All of the men in the play, father and sons, clearly demonstrate the crushing devastation of having their hopes destroyed which is the catalyst for the hours of family revelation that follow.

The Tyrone’s summer house is beautifully conceived by designer Rob Howell as a prison of reflective surfaces with the interior and exterior in constant battle. Reflecting all of the characters’ inner confliction, the predominantly glass structure repeatedly reflects their own image back at them, while offering them a hint of the freedom outside that they will never enjoy. Howell allows elements of that outside world to burst into the house with swirls of Van Gogh-like paint that curls around the back corner of the room and the stairs, leading to the backlit skyscape outside, created by Peter Mumford, as changing slashes of colour dampen the sunrise as fog envelops the house once again. That idea of light into dark is equally reflected in Howell’s costume design as the pale linens of daytime dress give way to funereal black as events formalise.

At three and a half hours this is a very lengthy play, and while Eyre directs with light and pace in the first half (about an hour and twenty minutes), the final protracted section is a marathon for an audience, especially once it becomes clear that each character will get their final turn in the spotlight before its conclusion. Like Annie Baker’s new play John, also clocking in at well over three hours, there is something magnetic about each conversation in Long Day’s Journey into Night which keeps you engaged, but there are momentary lulls in between where the energy sags that are harder to navigate, and you may fade out a little before being hooked into the next discussion.

The Bristol Old Vic’s production is lovingly created, wringing excellent performances from its leads and bringing clarity to O’Neill’s huge canvas. It’s not an easy watch, and it may be quite some time before you want to see another version of this play, but this high-quality production emphasises the relevance of O’Neill’s most personal story. What his work demonstrates is whatever popular culture may tell us now, addictive behaviours are neither new nor confined to a particular class. Loneliness, fear and powerlessness can affect anyone, and however perfect their life may seem on the outside, for addicts and their families O’Neill wants us to know there will be plenty of long days and nights to suffer.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 7 April. Tickets start at £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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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.     


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Apollo Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Apollo Theatre

You may not have enjoyed the recent heatwave, perhaps it made you more irritable, exhausted or frustrated than usual. Maybe in the soup-like humidity you found it harder to maintain your poise or to be diplomatic, and as the temperatures soared you started offering up some harsh truths or long held family secrets that could no longer be contained. This is, then, apt timing for a revival of one of Tennessee Williams’s most famous and beloved plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which, like much of his work, uses the intense heat of the American South to unveil the greed, fear, loneliness and passionate rivalries in one very broken family.

And for the second time this year, a production tackles a role made famous on film by Elizabeth Taylor; Imelda Staunton made the role of Martha decisively her own in James MacDonald’s very successful version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the spring, and now Sienna Miller gives her take on Maggie Pollitt in Benedict Andrews’s new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, played by Taylor in the glorious 1958 film, which has its press night today.

Set at the Pollitt plantation villa, Big Daddy is celebrating his 65th birthday with a family party attended by his two sons, their wives and children, having just been told untruly that he’s cancer free. But his athletic son Brick, a former-sports announcer and football star, is an alcoholic living reluctantly with cheating wife Maggie who’s desperate to win back his affection, while taunted about her childlessness by her brother-in-law’s 5 cheeky offspring and grasping wife Mae. Brick has broken his leg drunkenly jumping hurdles and on the night of the party, the deep rift in the family cracks open and hard truths come pouring out.

Williams’s play is a masterpiece, revealing the layers of deception and outright lies we tell ourselves and our families about our lives, as his characters are forced to really see themselves for the first time. Apart from Brick who has entirely given up, choosing alcohol over suicide, every other character should feel like they’re fighting for their lives all the time. Gooper, the overlooked and unloved son, and his wife Mae want to secure their inheritance having delivered plentiful heirs and suffered years of being second best; Big Daddy is straining to regain control of his empire having ceded authority during his illness while his wife Big Mama struggles to keep his attention. And then there’s Maggie, scrappy and determined, almost shameless in her desire to win control of her husband, stopping at nothing to restore the future she desires for them, which of course includes their fair share of the money.

Benedict Andrews has chosen a modern-setting and you can see the cast and crew have worked hard to put considerable distance between their interpretation and the famous film. There has been a noticeable move to free classic plays from their traditional period setting in the last few years, and when done well as with Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler, or Andrews’s own A Streetcar Named Desire, it brings the audience closer to the emotional heart of the play, and there’s nothing better than seeing something you know well in an entirely new light.

This version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to do a number of things but its overall effect is only partially successful. The modern setting is fine but while Magda Willi’s design is striking, it does slightly impede the action. Maggie and Brick’s sparse bedroom on a raised central dais certainly reflects the current emptiness of their marriage, and is surrounded by 3 corridor spaces with gold floor panels and a mirrored tin back wall (see what they did there?). The idea is to present the monied but slightly tasteless lives of the Pollitt family, rich but ultimately hollow, with the tin wall distortedly reflecting the gold floor and the characters to emphasise the warped emptiness of their lives. Combined with Alice Babidge’s expensive but tacky costumes, the visual aesthetic is a sort of trashy Dallas.

But much of Williams’s play depends upon characters inopportunely interrupting meaningful conversations or heading onto the veranda to escape the stifling interior in search of a cooling breeze. Willi’s set reflects some of the play’s themes but it doesn’t create that feel of overwhelming heat, or convincingly suggest that there are other rooms beyond the one we see. Using just a neon frame as the rear wall of Maggie and Brick’s room, characters come and go from various ‘doors’ we cannot see but in the surrounding openness you don’t get the sense of covert eavesdropping and deception that is part of the fabric of the play. The vastness of the set has an echo that makes it seem more like an enclosed vault than part of a wider house wilting in the muggy climate of the South.

And there is a sense throughout that the show hasn’t quite utilised the huge potential in Williams’s story, as though you’re seeing a bit of a wider picture. The central relationship between Maggie and Brick is the most important aspect and there is a central ambiguity about their feeling for one another that runs through the play, creating a will-they won’t-they tension that keeps the audience invested. But here that ambiguity is largely swept aside and instead focuses on Brick’s instance that their marriage is over. While it does give a harder edge to the performances and in some ways a fresh insight, it also divests their relationship of much of its heat, and like the set, makes it harder to believe that they exist beyond this room with a past and a future.

It’s important to stress that these are production decisions and not necessarily down to the performances. It’s clear that they want to offer a new interpretation and there are lots of great moments and interesting approaches that make you think twice, but the joy of Williams’s plays is the complexity of human experience that they offer and the way that unfolds in moments of extreme pressure under certain climatic conditions. Take some of those layers away and it just doesn’t quite ring true.

One of the most surprising and successful choices is to make Maggie a more grasping figure than often seen. Married into money Sienna Miller’s once poor Maggie talks rapidly and shamelessly to fill the huge void between her and Brick. Words run on and stories overlap with current family observations which Miller handles well in a first Act in which she has almost all the lines. This Maggie is not a sophisticated figure, but instead has a redneck-made-good quality, constantly betraying her origins in her stance and love of gossipy one-upmanship. Miller is an actor whose performances come with considerable expectation largely based on her private life, and while her accent is initially a little thick it becomes more settled as the show progresses, turning in a thoughtful and intriguing performance.

She’s determined to lure Brick back into her bed but it’s not clear whether this is for love or a possessiveness that will lead to her share of Big Daddy’s money. Miller’s Maggie certainly puts up a good fight, but in steering clear of Taylor, the show sacrifices Maggie’s sensuality and romance which dilutes the relationship with Brick and prevents any proper sympathy for her. It’s a rather cold seduction. Jack O’Connell initially gives little back as the detached Brick, worthy of his name. He is an oblique presence, purposefully excised from those around him with no desire for anything but drink.

O’Connell has some excellent moments in conversation with Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy in Act Two where Brick’s resolve is finally broken releasing a torrent of anger and self-abasement that hints at the impact this performance could have had elsewhere in the production,  but the decision to make him impassive in the face of Maggie’s various attempts to provoke and allure him make it so much harder to really understand his purpose, and while O’Connell delivers a kind of nothingness, shutting down every avenue of reconciliation also leaves him nowhere to go in the rest of the production.

If Brick has no interest in Maggie then the psychology of their continued co-existence makes no sense, why wouldn’t he just leave her – a problem this production cannot resolve – and it prevents the growth of any sexual charge between them. A mistake this production makes repeatedly is in presenting both actors fully nude in several scenes (mostly O’Connell but occasionally Miller) in order to imply an eroticism that just doesn’t exist and O’Connell, hobbling on one crutch, is hampered by a towel he constantly has to re-tie during Act One, which could be easily resolved with some discrete Velcro. While fans may be delighted at the chance to see their idols in the raw, theatrically it serves no purpose without the character intent to support it – nudity is no substitute for chemistry.

There are great performances from the supporting cast which more successfully escape their screen incarnations. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy is a cruel and wearied figure, worn down by the constant disappointments of his family and frustration with the pointlessness of his wife. There’s genuine heartache for Lisa Palfrey’s tarty Big Mama whose natural bubbliness is deflated by the abusive bitterness of her husband. Hayley Squires gives Mae a protective family instinct with a tendency to catty competition with Maggie which is often quite funny, while Brian Gleeson’s Gooper makes the most of his one attempt to take control.

This is by no means a terrible production, there are plenty of good ideas, an attempt to present a new version of the play, and some genuinely insightful moments, but it’s not as good as it could be. This focus on the brash hardness that the lack of love creates in people rides roughshod over the moments of tenderness and intimacy in Williams’s writing that make his work so powerful. A large West End stage feels wrong for it and perhaps in the Young Vic’s more intimate space this could work a little better – especially where £35 will buy you one of the best views rather than a Grand Circle seat where you have to crane round people’s heads to see properly.

It needs that sense of a family living too close to each other, of a heatwave that drives its characters to extremes and a central couple whose passion for one another teeters constantly on the edge of love and hate. Benedict Andrews’s almost clinical production needs fire, and although it wants to distance you from the famous film, Newman and Taylor hang heavy over this production. That Tin Roof needs to be much hotter.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @cultralcap1


Love in Idleness – The Apollo Theatre

Love in Idleness - Eve Best & Anthony Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theatre

The Dresser - Duke of York's Theatre

Everyone loves a bit of backstage drama and the West End has frequently welcomed successful runs of a number of ‘behind-the-scenes’ comedies – in the last few years alone there have been versions of Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong franchise and Harlequinade. But while these shows mock the silliness of actors and play-up the slapstick humour of putting on a play, there is also a darker more tragic side to an endless life on the road, to actors forcing themselves to play the same role night after night, and the difficulties of company hierarchy, which Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser illuminates. In order to give an exemplary and memorable onstage performance do the very best actors need to suffer off-stage? And if they do, are there enough people to make sure they go on in time?

Currently playing at The Duke of York’s Theatre after a brief national tour, Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott take on the leading roles in Harwood’s much-loved tale. It’s an hour before a performance of King Lear and veteran actor “Sir” is missing while his dresser Norman paces anxiously around the tiny dressing room, covering for his famous master. After a beleaguered tour, the icy stage manager decides to cancel the show, but just in time Sir arrives, drunk and emotional. With 30 minutes till curtain up Norman not only has to get his star dressed but deal with his histrionics while reminding him what play he’s doing. Will Sir make it to the stage and even if he does can he get through the performance without giving himself away.

Harwood’s play is largely a two-hander and so much then rests on the chemistry between the leads. A recent acclaimed televised version united Ian McKellen (as Norman) with Anthony Hopkins (as Sir), and while reading any critical reviews of this latest version and you’ll see mention of the 1983 film with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney which many believed definitive. But nothing in theatre is ever really definitive, and this new version, directed by Sean Foley brings its own interpretation and flavour to the play, while evoking the freedom and defiance of the wartime generation.

In particular the dual relationship with celebrity is one that continues to fascinate us, embodied in The Dresser by the character of Norman who both loves the proximity to greatness that his job affords him, a role of which he is fiercely protective, while simultaneously loathing aspects of the man he has devoted his life to. What is interesting about Shearsmith’s performance is how effectively we see beneath Norman’s obsequious surface to the deeply ingrained bitterness below, yet he continues to value and covet the private access he has to Sir. There is considerable complexity here as Shearsmith presents a man who in a sense has sacrificed his own life and individualism to devoted service, but remains fully cognizant of his master’s flaws and resentful not just of others trying to come between them, but of the lack of gratitude from his employer.

One the most fascinating aspects of this play is seeing these undercurrents slowly emerge, and while the role of Norman is less outwardly showy than Sir, it is, in some ways, trickier to elucidate this bundle of repression, bile and, at times, personal despair. But Norman is far more than a pseudo-butler and Shearsmith plays-up his intelligence and shrewdness in keeping the angry theatre company at bay while he gets Sir stage-ready, as well as having an equally detailed knowledge of Shakespeare plays which comes in handy when frequently correcting his star’s mistakes. Although we clearly see that Norman is superior to his master, we also have to believe that he has invested enough in the relationship to have stayed for decades, and Shearsmith navigates that line very successfully.

By contrast, the role of Sir requires considerably more ebullience, and a kind of entitled indulgence for his behaviour. In Ken Stott’s performance, the audience sees a man who is entirely self-involved and, while incapacitated by drink and its consequences for much of the early part of the play, has little regard for those relying on him to pull it together and put on a show. His emotions seem to teeter on the brink of anger and complete collapse which Stott makes both fascinating and almost sympathetic. In Stott’s take on the character we see Sir continually battling his physical incapacity – brought about by age, drink and exhaustion –becoming a metaphorical tug-of-war between his mind and his body.

Here too we see that the effect of one day of over-imbibing reflects a lifetime of issues that culminate in this mini-breakdown, showing us the tougher side of an artistic life – endless nights on the road, random rooms and a series of failed relationships, alongside the pressure and expectation for a more successful actor that they will deliver a mind-blowing performance every night for the expectant paying audience. Stott’s Sir is certainly petulant and frustrating to manage, arrogant and domineering, but he’s also a man crippled by self-doubt about the rather transactional relationship others have with his artistic credibility.

And this challenge between artistic authenticity and making-do for commercial survival is at the heart of director Sean Foley’s revival, and as we see aspects of their King Lear from backstage, we see how frantically this company try to keep the show on the road with makeshift approaches that mirror their wartime era. These sections have much in common with Noises Off and Harlequinade as they descend into semi-farce, temporarily lifting the more serious tone of the dressing-room scenes, as anxiety over whether the shambling Sir will make it onto the stage after missing several cues and who will operate the thunder machine, becomes acute.

The wider cast is less well drawn by Harwood, giving us a surface engagement with a number of stereotypes including a fading actress, stoney-faced stage manager, novice actress and younger serious thesp, all of whom pop in and out of the action. Her Ladyship (a private joke with Sir) is given added meaning by Harriet Thorpe, emphasising the difficulty of being a lead actress beyond a certain age, who hasn’t achieved anything like the acclaim of her leading man. It’s clear she genuinely cares for him and the character is key to revealing the political factions backstage. There is a tender moment with Selina Cadell’s stage manager whose icy disapproval begins to make sense, but otherwise the creation of the secondary plots is as slapdash as their production of Lear.

The revolving set is used to marvellous effect in both the more intimate shabby dressing room and the expansive backstage scenes, moving seamlessly between them, and reiterating the collision of private and public life that this play considers. Meanwhile the sound design links the experience of a World War Two bombardment with the emotional collapse of this jaded company enduring one more attack from its volatile star player. With our ongoing fascinating with celebrity and their lives off-camera, The Dresser still feels pertinent to our times, especially with Shearsmith and Stott bringing new meaning to its fractious central relationship.

The Dresser is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January. Tickets start at £10 (although most are from £25) and are also available on Last Minute from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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