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Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre

Uncle Vanya - Harold Pinter Theatre (by Johan Persson)

“Life is the same only worse,” a sentiment that seems to reflect so much about our mood in the last few years, spoken by Uncle Vanya in Conor McPherson’s new version of the play. Notably departing from Chekhov’s original here and there, this adaptation, which has a little settling to do ahead of its Press Night later this week, emphasises the comedy scenarios and personalities in Chekhov’s timeless play while still drawing out its major themes – ageing, purposelessness, the challenge of intellectualism in rural societies and, modern audiences may be surprised to note, even climate change.

Uncle Vanya is a play that rarely leaves the West End for long with at least three major productions in a decade. In fact, Chekhov has felt very much in vogue of late with several productions in the last few years taking illuminating approaches to his best-known works. Famously heavy-going and often encased in oppressive sets and stifling costume, a new wave of directors and designers have liberated the emotional undercurrents that thrum through Chekhov’s plays, a fragile humanity clinging to existence and lost in the travails of daily life. The clarity of these new directional approaches is finally cutting through the period fustiness in which his work had been too long preserved.

Ian Rickson’s latest attempt essentially situates Uncle Vanya in a similar social and political existence as last year’s sensational Rosmersholm. A vast, light-filled room on a sizeable estate outside of which the world is struggling; the local community are poverty-stricken and plagued by illness while in the house long-buried emotions rise to the surface prompted by and maypoled around the arrival of Yelena, wife to Vanya’s brother The Professor, staying temporarily to complete his latest paper. Like Rosmersholm, Rickson lays bare the intricacies of the household, its politics, familial resentments, assumptions and buried passions as the characters contemplate lives of unfulfillment in which endurance rather than happiness is their only satisfaction.

But McPherson’s approach is far lighter than the themes of the play might suggest, recognising not just that audiences want to be entertained as well as moved, but also that Chekhov’s work has always had its skewering moments of social satire that examine the ridiculous pomposity of individuals or situations. McPherson emphasises the lightly comic overtones to Acts One and Two by giving Vanya a clown-like levity as he criticises the dry scholastic achievements of his brother and, in Act Two, enjoys a a period of drunken revelry with neighbour Dr Astrov and dependent Telegin, a well-managed high-point in a show that finds humour wherever it can.

This focus also gives this adaptation a more relaxed feel than previous attempts, thereby creating a more credible group dynamic among the various residents, guests and visitors to the family, people long established in each other’s company who descries the stiff conventions of polite society that so often govern interactions in Chekhov productions. McPherson applies this in equal measure to the language in his script and while the characters are not quite speaking in colloquial patterns, the formality and artificiality of traditional language is something McPherson eschews in favour of a more natural selection of words and phrases. It is a subtle but meaningful decision that trades the sometimes archaic construction of most translation for an everyday speech that once again reflects and reinforces the over-familiarity of these people with one another.

Humour, then, runs to a degree throughout the play and while the conversations naturally darken as the dramatic currents are resolved (or as much as Chekhov’s characters earn any form of resolution), McPherson gives the audience the opportunity to laugh at the ridiculousness of extreme behaviours, especially when Vanya and the Professor go head-to-head in Act Three. Yet, ahead of Press Night, there is a downside to this approach which sometimes cuts into the emotional subplots and dramatic intensity. This is not, for example, a production that feels like a grand tragedy with even some of the significant emotional revelations and confrontations provoking smatterings of laughter. McPherson writes these elements well – and perhaps controversially gives three characters brief monologues to the audience to explore how they are reduced and caged by the events of the play – but as the balance tends primarily to the comic, it comes slightly at the expense of its other drivers.

For Uncle Vanya – like many of Chekhov’s plays – is ultimately about the essential nature of people and their inability to escape the confines of themselves. They talk frequently of freedom, the hopeful future ahead, the joys of nature and better lives in the cities they will never go to, but their existence is bound by the room in which they stand. Drama, respite and ultimately self-realisation comes from the introduction of characters temporarily taken out of their rightful context and here, in Rickson’s production, duel ripples are created by the regular visits of Dr Astrov and, more determinedly, by the presence of Yelena.

The core individuals in this play are seeking some kind of release or escape from the frustratingly ordinary routines of their daily life by looking to others who fail to observe their emotional needs, a strand to which McPherson and Rickson bring considerable clarity. Passions are deeply felt but isolated and unrequited for the most part, the object of their affection does nothing to instigate or encourage a feeling they don’t return or even notice. Sonya’s six-year affection for Astrov, Vanya and Astrov’s infatuation with Yelena are all doomed, with much to say about the blindness of characters to see beyond their own state or truly read the feelings of others. The selfish and arguable lack of empathy with which this group view one another is striking here and it is only through rejection that self-realisation is possible for each of them. Ultimately Chekhov argues, no one can save you but yourself.

And while comedy dominates, the emotional heart of this version of Uncle Vanya, surprisingly is not the sweet but insipid affection of Sonya who cannot even speak of her feelings, or the ephemeral presence of the sleepwalking Yelena, but it is the reawakening of Dr Astrov whose dormant connection to the present is full-bloodedly revived. From the first moments of the play we glimpse something broken in Astrov, almost a hint of PTSD emerging from the terrible medical sights he’s seen and his recent failure to save a particular life that haunts him. The middle of a struggle is a tough place for an actor to begin, but Richard Armitage perfectly hits the intense sadness and interior confusion that introduce the tragic doctor to the audience in the earliest moments of this play.

Astrov is a man who cannot bear to live in the present, and looks only to surviving his lot in order to play his part in a better future, a frequent refrain being the improved quality of life the population a century hence will enjoy which brings him an existential comfort. His attempts to stem the tide of local deforestation erupt in lively exclamations from Armitage who blossoms through his enthusiasm for nature, while acutely living without love or purpose within his day-to-day profession.

Having shut-down all emotional responses or belief in personal happiness, Armitage is especially good at showing Astrov’s complete indifference to Sonya, not only avoiding her evident feelings but seeming to have no knowledge of them at all. So passion, when it does come, surprises and confounds him as entirely as it consumes. It burns slowly at first, a few shy glances in Act One at Yelena, as though testing his ability to withstand it, before erupting into something more fervent and soulful as he urges her to acknowledge the feeling between them. Armitage is wonderful and moving in his distress, forced to repack his armour by the end of the play, almost perplexed by his own conduct and the emotions that momentarily and so violently poured forth. His experience is really the emotional centre of the production and a meaningful return after a five year stage hiatus.

Toby Jones’s Vanya has to navigate quite different extremes of character, layering a sheen of foolishness over the inner turmoil his character experiences in the early sections of the play. Obsessed with the advancing years at 47 and what in retrospect appears to be a wasted life, this put-upon Vanya jokes and blunders his way through various conversations, always assuming the role as family jester. Jones enjoys the comedy easing the audience into the play with warmly received asides and sarcastic jibes that emphasise his displeasure but only reinforce the set structure in which the family has organised itself, working to support the Professor as the most intellectually gifted.

It is only later in the play that this Vanya shakes off those expectations and stakes a claim to an estate that he has worked hard to maintain, a moment that surprises others with its ferocity and hysteria. Jones and Ciaran Hinds’s arrogantly self-serving Professor have a bitter conflagration, one of the production’s most dramatic but enjoyably staged sequences. Within the performance, Jones could do a little more to seed these frustrations earlier to make sense of the scale of Vanya’s reaction here and the same with Vanya’s oft-declared love for Yelena which seems less deeply felt than the production implies, leaving the audience appreciating her exasperation with the slightly empty neediness that Vanya exudes. The tonal approach tips the balance slightly too far into the comedy, fractionally drawing intensity away from the crescendo of desperation and unhappiness that mark Vanya’s final transition later in the play.

The female leads contrast well as Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya suggests an unimposing innocence that prevents her from attaining her dream of being Mrs Astrov. Sonya is ever the peace-maker, attentive, capable and kind but Wood aptly demonstrates her lack of courage, her failure to find a strong insistent voice that can take charge of the squabbles around her or even to fight for a different kind of life for herself, instead preferring resignation and acceptance. Rosalind Eleazar’s Yelena is by contrast an accidentally destructive force and clearly marked out from the others by a quite different style of dress that simultaneously embraces but pretends to ignore her sexuality. This Yelena drifts abstractedly from room to room, suffocating in the country air and barely able to exist, yet is equally unmoved, bored even by the ardent attentions of others that she seems to feel have nothing to do with her. There is neither encouragement nor censure in Eleazar’s measured, dreamlike performance that creates a riveting otherness in Yelena with only the smallest hint of untrammeled depths in the play’s final scenes.

With no scene changes, Rae Smith’s painterly design, lit beautifully by Bruno Poet, is full of rundown charm, a great house fallen to disrepair but full of comfort and solace. The streaming sunlight through the large windows adjoined by the forest that forces its way into the house reflect the play’s themes while, as the drama unfolds, the ensuing darkness and change of seasons is visibly reflected when summer gives way to autumn in every sense. This Uncle Vanya is more roundedly entertaining than other recent productions and while that detracts a little from the emotional undercurrents of the original, the fluidity and richness of Rickson’s production, performed by an excellent cast, ensure a satisfying Chekhovian conclusion where life, as Vanya states, is the same but worse.

Uncle Vanya is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the 2nd May with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 


Film Review: 1917 and the Theatre of War

1917 Film

When the hundred year commemorations concluded in November 2018, you may have thought that interest in the First World War would wane. There are fads and fashions in historical study as there are in culture, but Britain has never escaped the emotional shadow of a conflict that combined new weapons with a vast loss of life, a mechanisation of mass death fought simultaneously for the first time on land, sea and in the sky. Yet, despite its scale and with experience of the conflict now beyond living memory, our connection to the Great War continues to be a very personal one. Sam Mendes’s new film 1917 is famously based on the stories told to him by his grandfather to whom the film is dedicated, and while clearly a passion project for the director, it is also a revelatory combination of cinematic and theatrical techniques that offer one of the most accurate depictions of the First World War on screen.

1917 and The Modern War Movie

The war movie has notably changed in recent years with films like Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk challenging the cliches of the genre. While the latter offered a more immersive experience, unfolding in real-time to submerge the audience in the strained tension and ongoing danger of servicemen’s experience, Dibb’s film based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous play, played down the pity and disillusion so prevalent in First World War movies to show men hardened and exhausted by their experience, living from day to day but able to suppress their emotional reactions in order to carry on, giving a different kind of psychological poignancy to this well-known work.

The newly ennobled Mendes combines the two here but also offers something entirely new by breaking out of the trenches to create a more inclusive picture of the scope and scale of the war effort. Regardless of its setting, 1917 is essentially a journey narrative, taking two characters from one place to another, drawing its interest from their various encounters, perils and obstacles to overcome on the way. Structurally then, Mendes film is first and foremost drawing on tropes from work as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Slow West and even Lord of the Rings, all of which use a journey to drive the narrative forward and sew a series of disparate encounters together.

But 1917 also remains recognisably and completely a war film, creating moments of high stakes tension that brilliantly imagine the landscape of the First World War, with all the elements you want to see – trenches, No Man’s Land, shattered trees, shell craters, dugouts and bombardments – but none of this is presented in the way you expect. What Mendes does is to extract the weighty emotionalism from these symbols of the conflict by making them feel everyday, there are no lingering shots of the many dead bodies (people, horses and dogs) littering battlefields, rivers and buildings, the giant rats or shattered townscapes or the misery of the men in the Front Line. All of these things are there but not the focus, instead the camera follows the protagonists on their mission travelling through a terrain which by this point in the war is entirely normal to them. Through the one shot (or “no cuts” as Mendes prefers) technique, the audience experiences the film as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake do, death, decay and destruction are just part of what they see, with little sensationalism or sentimentality for the most part, and these innovative approaches make it unlike any war film you have ever seen.

Theatre Influences

One of the most intriguing aspects of 1917 is just how much of it draws on the techniques of theatre and Mendes vast experience in the West End without feeling “stagey.” As a theatre director, Mendes’s work in recent years has been remarkable, imagining events on an epic scale but balancing that with the intimacy of human relationships across generations. Mendes doesn’t so much as director as conduct plays, most notably in The Ferryman where the flow of information from multiple characters and perspectives felt like segments of music softly rising and falling as different sections of the orchestra were given precedence. The same was true of the more dramatically satisfying The Lehman Trilogy that took a cast of just three and told a family story of American finance over more than a century.

Here in 1917, Mendes achieves the same effect and while the thriller-like narrative arc with ticking clock helps the audience to experience the fears, determination and emotions of the lead characters, Mendes also renders the entire war in microcosm, representing on the one hand the wider picture of a conflict occurring right across the landscape of France that somehow makes reference to all the previous years of battle and credibly places these men in this moment, but also demonstrates the wider system of war including aerial reconaissance, snipers, transport trucks and medical facilities behind the lines. And even more extraordinarily, Mendes’s story unfolds as a  single journey through the process of war itself, from hopeful preparation to minor skirmishes, ultimate battle and the casualty clearing station where one way or another it all ends. It is that balancing of scale and intimacy influenced by Mendes’s theatre work that makes this film such a rich and fulfilling experience.

The no cuts approach also demands theatre-like performances from the cast and, in a Q&A that accompanied a preview of the film last week, George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Mendes discussed the extensive rehearsal period and the challenge of lengthy takes. The longest sequence in the middle of the film lasts eight and half minutes (you’ll never see the joins), a feat the actors had to perform in its entirety tens of times and constantly at the mercy of faulty props, mistakes and camera issues that required an entire reset – hence the slightly exaggerated story in the media mis-attributing errors in a scene to Andrew Scott that required 56 takes. Nonetheless, the process Mendes employed here to elicit performances from his actors is a theatrical one with long sequences of dialogue exchange and movement that required an intuitive relationship with the camera more akin to NT Live than standard film-making as the actors eschew the choreography of rigid shots and reaction moments to move more freely through the landscape of the film with the camera responding to them.

The performances are presented with the same kind of normality as the context, with Mendes insisting on a more realistic everyman feel to the leads rather than action superheroes. Mackay as Schofield is particularly good at the heart of the film, a solid soldier, whose rationality and grounded response to the issues that arise is sympathetically played and the audience wills his success at every moment. Chapman’s Blake is more hot-headed, driven by the chance to save his brother and more likely to charge into danger without thinking, which makes them an interesting and suitably antagonistic pairing who find a deep but unsentimental comradeship, one that isn’t constantly reacting to the horrors around them but bent solely on their mission.

The film is also full of understated but wonderful cameos from a host of theatre stars, introduced unceremoniously and woven tightly into the story to give momentary but superb performances that add a Waiting for Godot quality as the protagonists encounter a variety of different groups. Andrew Scott (Present Laughter; Hamlet) is outstanding as a weary and cynical Lieutenant, an equally impressive Mark Strong (A View From the Bridge) brings a heartfelt gravitas to his scenes as Captain Smith, blink and you’ll almost miss the wonderful Jamie Parker (High Society; Henry V), Adrian Scarborough (Exit the King; Don Juan in Soho) and Richard McCabe (Imperium), while Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet; Frankenstein) and Richard Madden (Romeo and Juliet) are crucial to the film’s final moments. 1917 is then the fascinating application of theatre techniques to a film that evolves into something entirely of its own, offering a new perspective on a familiar era.

The Reality of War

Yet, as a fictionalised story Mendes has clearly stated that dramatic licence, compressing events and experiences, is necessary to make 1917 cinematic, but he is overmodest in playing-down the vision of war he has created, which is one of the most realistic and inclusive dramatisations of 1914-1918 that we’ve seen. A lot of time in the First World War was spent waiting or moving, with the bombardment and slaughters of No Man’s Land far from a daily feature. By opening-out the world of the film and leaving the individual dugout, Mendes, really for the first time, shows the much larger system of war operation – often wider than the individual soldier could see – where different types of landscape existed, and as we follow Schofield and Blake through rivers, woods and fields, passed farmhouses and through artillery-battered towns, our understanding of the wide-ranging effect on Northern France is enlarged.

The balance between the famous mechanisation of the Great War and of the natural world is a crucial one, thematic almost, and Mendes is careful to walk the characters through the different types of terrain where fighting took place while emphasising the power of nature to eventually renew and restore. So as our soldiers leave the devastated and familiarly churned earth of No Man’s Land, explore a German trench and make their way through an artillery graveyard filled with shells and damaged guns, they emerge into places that are greener and, while perilous, accurately reflect the contrasting worlds of conflict and pseudo-reality which men experienced. Mendes uses these to explore the periods of intense drama in which the pair must overcome various obstacles interleaved with relatively long sequences of calm, comradeship and near normality that accurately reflect servicemen’s descriptions of combat.

This broadening-out of our perspective of war extends to the representation of other services as well. Often the one thing missing from almost every First World War film are the aeroplanes, the existence of the Royal Flying Corps who flew reconnaissance missions across the battlefield from the very beginning appear in 1917 exactly as they should. And not only does photographic aerial intelligence rightly become the springboard for the story, but aeroplanes are seen overhead, including a crash that nods to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (no spoiler, it’s in the trailer). The date – 6 April 1917 –  reflects a period in which Germany was launching a large scale attack by its dangerous Albatros fighting squadrons that would wreak havoc for British pilots devastated by the “Bloody April” onslaught that started a few days after the events of the film. Including these snippets gives context to Schofield and Blake’s assignment, while recognising the vital role that all services played in the wider system of war in which these two men are simultaneously a tiny and vital part.

No Cuts Drama

Mendes spoke at the Q&A of the difficulty of creating tension with no cuts and where a director would normally rely on camera angles, shots and positioning to visually manage audience reactions, the complex simplicity of the film’s style meant music, sound and cinematography were vital to creating the changing mood. Thomas Newman’s developing score is crucial to the shape and evolving style of the movie, using plenty of low ominous beats to reflect the characters’ nervousness or fear in confined spaces while building to swelling – and more typically – classic crescendos in the final section of the film. But Newman also chooses near silence for poignant moments as the world pauses to absorb what happened. Look out too for a melancholic song performed in the woods and a very brief instance of birdsong, one of the sounds most meaningfully associated with war.

Occasionally the dialogue, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a little clunky or over-sentimental with some emphasis on the futility of war, but Roger Deakins cinematography is exemplary, particularly the night scenes filled with fire and shadow that has an extraordinary visual beauty and Mendes notes a deliberate mythic quality to this section of the story. Mendes and Deakins previously worked together on Skyfall – easily the most aethetically arresting Bond film – and there are strong parallels here with both the continuing use of shadow as well as the Bond film’s final sequence in the Scottish highlands where a fascination with the effects of coloured smoke, silhouette and light strikingly draw the two films together.

1917 is then one of the most interesting, realistic and complete impressions of the First World War on film. It takes the attributes of the World War One movie, combines them with the tricks of the thriller and borrows a sense of purpose and drive from journey narratives to create something entirely new. By drawing on the directional and writing techniques of theatre Mendes creates an engaging and multi-faceted movie that opens-out the meaning and experience of the First World War. It is never less than a fascinating technical and story-telling exercise that pushes the boundaries of innovative film-making while following the quietly heroic story of brave men doing their jobs in a conflict that remains an ever-present and meaningful part of Britian’s modern history.

1917 is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 

The Tyler Sisters – Hampstead Theatre

The Tyler Sisters - Hampstead Theatre

The New Year as well as being a time of resolution is often one of reflection, a chance to reassess any achievements, progress or setbacks over the previous 12-months or longer. But when you look back across your life, what is it you really remember? Often it will be the big landmark occasions, the birthdays, graduations, weddings, births, funerals and anniversaries that shape your biography – and why, because we are taught to believe that all narratives should have shape and meaning, that a story should have a beginning, middle and end. And so we impose order and self-determination on what is essentially a random accumulation of personal experience over time and it’s through these key “achievements” or steps that we come to define ourselves as individuals, families and as a society.

But while the externally imposed notions of marriage, children and these other milestones are things we feel we should do, life is really the bits in between, the day-to-day experiences and interactions that don’t make the memoirs or highlights reel, as Alexandra Wood’s new play The Tyler Sisters explores with skill. Configured as an annual conversation between three sisters over 40-years, Wood’s focuses is on the present moment at any given time to burrow deep into the changing but nonetheless enduring relationship between quite different siblings whose lives take them in unexpected directions but always draws them back together.

And what is so interesting about The Tyler Sisters as a concept is how rarely Wood chooses to elaborate on the those big defining moments, in fact much of the sisters’ lives happen off-stage, and as the years go by we are given only fleeting glimpses of the arrival of partners, children and tricky parental relationships, none of whom ever appear in the play. Instead, Wood uses her two hour run-time to explore the bond between these women and how time affects their interactions by setting one scene in every year from 1990 to 2030.

In the smaller downstairs space of the Hampstead Theatre, the staging area is a long, thin rectangle but director Abigail Graham maintains a minimal feel to the production with a sparse stage designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen with only a giant beanbag, set of steps and a small screen to notify the audience of another year passing as well as occasionally offering a contextual location. This simplicity easily – and convincingly – takes the audience into the homes of each of the characters, to galleries and campsites, as well as to numerous international locations for holidays and temporary emigrations. But, purposefully devoid of distracting scenery, Wood and Graham want the audience to understand that the location of the scene is all but irrelevant, it is the interaction between the sisters that is important.

Each scene differs in length, covering 25-years before a brief interval and the remaining 15-years in Act Two. As tensions boil and subside over four decades, the screen counter supports the production’s momentum and rather than either distracting the audience or weighing down the drama with how far the story has to go, Wood employs a great deal of variety across the play, giving some periods considerably more time to explore a particular issue or life event – all of which purposefully occur off-stage – and using different techniques to convey information about the emotional or familial backdrop to the segments of conversation the audience is privy to.

And that is the crux of The Tyler Sisters, what we see and hear are 40 partial insights that like a patchwork form a larger and more complex whole. Wood deliberately sidesteps the soapy major dramas, so lovers, marriages, children and other life events come and go but we only hear about them in everyday conversation, almost asides to the real lives these women are living together. And while the reality of other characters is almost as concrete as the three people on stage, what we know about the other characters is what Maddy, Gail and Katrina feel about them at any given moment, their anticipation or excitement about a future with a new partner, the disappointment at their failure and lasting resentments as long-forgotten encounters suddenly re-emerge.

There is also sufficient variation across the play to prevent the style becoming too repetitious and not only do scenes flow continuously from one to the next with the actors taking only a breath before relocating to a different time, location and emotional perspective but Wood leaves events often unresolved. Conversations end without conclusion as characters storm out, go silent or change the subject, the details of that interaction and that year’s particular drama less relevant than the overall effect of families continually falling out and coming together. The play, in a sense, is full of  these unresolved cliffhangers but this is not where the audience should be looking for the dramatic drive. Instead Wood is writing moments that show the unity of the family regardless of the events of that year. This concept extends to alternative scenes including a karaoke night and a tender scene of silent sandwich-making that is heavy with unspoken and unexplained grief that says much about the supportive connection between the sisters.

It’s fascinating writing that reverses expectations of storytelling, subverting our dramatic assumptions about progress between milestones and the journey towards major revelations, making instead the small, everyday lived experience the focus. There is something of My Brilliant Friend in the scale and ambition of The Tyler Sisters with the same actors playing the sisters across the years with only the subtlest alteration to personality and acceptance of responsibility, but Wood and Graham are more successful in creating characterisation that the audience can invest in, while resisting the temptation to play out the pop culture references of the passing years. There is purposefully no talk of external politics, world events or societal strife, no nostalgic soundtrack, or distracting film and TV references, no attempt to differentiate the future with technological changes or dystopian vision, instead Wood creates something that could almost cover any 40-year period, with each scene a domestic building block reflecting on a lifelong connection.

It’s not easy to achieve but no one character is any more or less interesting than the rest. Giving each of the women a distinct personality, personal ambition and an equal share of the narrative is skillfully achieved. The eldest Maddy (Caroline Faber) is 20 when we first meet her in 1990 and turns 60 as the play concludes. In many ways, she is the most traditional of the three, is married young to a fellow teacher and embarks on a quiet life of family, motherhood and obligation. For much of the earlier part of the play, Maddy remains almost in the background, a sensitive, quiet and unassuming woman who resignedly takes everything life throws at her with very little complaint.

Yet Faber slowly introduces two quite intriguing elements to the performance that build into a more complete picture of Maddy as the decades pass; first there are subtle hints of disapproval at the romantic choices that both her sisters make, especially Gail whose discussion of sexuality causes notable concern for Maddy expressed through looks to the floor and slight withdrawal into herself as Faber’s body-language conveys her discomfort. These are more pronounced as Gail’s choices take her further away from Maddy’s idea of how life should be, and, while largely unspoken, become a longstanding source of underlying tension between them.

Second, as Maddy ages the disappointment and frustration she feels with the behaviour of her own family is increasingly vocalised and she finds both an inner strength and confidence to force a break with the past. In the later stages of the play, with the build-up of years of sacrifice and dedication behind her, this gives Faber a chance to plausibly let loose revealing more about her character’s struggles to determine a new way ahead for herself. It’s a subtle but meaningful performance from Faber about the consequences of a life lived in the shadow of other people’s achievements.

Bryony Hannah takes on the role of middle child Gail, 18 at the start of the play and returned from university for the summer to fight with her younger sister about bedrooms. Gail is the sister whose future seems clearest, a university education, good job and future prosperity that should satisfy her early hints at ambition. Hannah gives Gail a flinty side too, one that emerges more strongly as the years go by, unwilling to settle or be taken advantage of, and certainly a quiet confidence that rarely allows her to question her choices, an approach that occasionally brings her into conflict with her sisters.

Of all the sisters Gail moves most easily through her life and while it brings troubles enough, she pragmatically accepts the major changes and opportunities that come her way with relatively little fear. Yet Hannah also reveals Gail’s pivotal role as a classic middle child, a mediator who most notably escapes the traditional family dramas but increasingly takes on the responsibility of bringing the family together for trips and activities, or to arbitrate between the extremes of her relatives. She is the most independent sibling yet the one who feels increasingly drawn to the importance of family stability, support and continuity as they age.

As youngest sister Katrina, Angela Griffin is also the most open-hearted, supporting her sisters’ choices and enthusiastically welcoming news of partners, children and achievements. But Katrina, who is just 16 when the action begins, has a different trajectory that takes her from self-centred teenager and free-spirited young woman who enjoys partying to a responsible career-orientated businesswoman. Griffin gives Katrina a sharp wit, and much of the play’s humour derives from her sparky one-liners, while also showing someone whose emotions are fairly close to the surface – a trait that hardens over time as Katrina develops her own confidence and pride in her achievements.

Later in the play, as Katrina builds her business and her reputation – she also comes later to family stability –  she resents the openly patronising attitude of her sisters who niggle and dismiss her slow climb to the top, while as the women enter their 50s a more supportive role emerges as she finds pleasure in the achievements of her sisters and their extended families. Griffin makes Katrina incredibly likeable, grounded and hard-working as she explores a life that starts and ends in very different places.

There are not a huge amount of sibling plays, Shakespeare enjoyed brothers and sisters in disguise, Branden Jacobs Jenkins recently delved into the stirred hornet’s nest of a conflicted family in the high drama Appropriate, while Chekhov’s Three Sisters were primarily troubled by the restrictions on women’s lives and their inability to return to their childhood home in a period of extraordinary military upheaval – all of which take place in delimited time frames – so Wood is filling a notable gap in charting the experience of just being a sister day-to-day and year-to-year. With plenty of new voices emerging in regional and fringe theatre, starting a new decade with a play about women’s experience created by a largely female team is to be welcomed and while across cultural representations, women continue to seen as wives and mothers first, in Alexandra Wood’s new play they are also individuals and sisters who discover, without the traditional drama tropes, that they are already leading pretty interesting and meaningful lives.

The Tyler Sisters is at the Hampstead Theatre until 18 January; all tickets are £14 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Theatre Review of the Year and What to See in 2020


With a new year fast approaching, it is an interesting time to reflect on small changes across the theatre landscape in 2019 that will continue to shape how UK theatre will look as it moves into a new decade. While there is still a very long way to go in equally reflecting voices from different perspectives and experiences there is a sense – in fringe theatre primarily but slowly making its way into the mainstream as well – of shifting sands and the desire of artistic directors and theatre programmers to present seasons that better reflect the make-up of our multicultural and multinational communities.

Regional Theatre Brings New Perspectives

There are interesting and educative works emerging from companies from around the country; most memorable were Education, Education, Education in which Bristol-based theatre company The Wardrobe Ensemble innovatively unpacked the enduring problems in our scholastic system since the Blair government. Likewise, Helen Monks and Matt Woodhouse’s Trojan Horse which came to Battersea Arts Centre as part of a wider tour examined the nonsense of a Muslim conspiracy in Birmingham schools – a show that went on to play to the communities affected in the hope of finally healing the breach, while Luke Barnes and the Young Vic Taking Part in collaboration with inmates at HMP Wandsworth created the insightful The Jumper Factory currently at HOME Manchester until February.

Meanwhile, the relocation of The Tower Theatre company to Stoke Newington also brought a season of  critically acclaimed comedy and drama including a superb approach to The Beauty Queen of Leenane – with productions of Sweat, A Passage to India and The Norman Conquests already announced for Spring, this is definitely a company on the up. The surface simplicity of a star rating system doesn’t always reflect the potential or the lasting impression that these works in progress are already making, and the role that regional theatre companies will continue to play in 2020 to broaden perspectives.

It may lack the funding and support of theatre in the capital but regional venues continue to punch above their weight; at Chichester Festival Theatre in September John Simm joined forced with Dervla Kirwan for an exciting production of Macbeth – rivaled only by an astonishingly good interpretation at Temple Church by Antic Disposition in August starring Harry Anton as the troubled and murderous monarch – while the wonderful Laura Wade play The Watsons came first to the Menier Chocolate Factory and will take over the Harold Pinter Theatre in May, a must-see deconstruction of female authorship and characterisation.

A late addition to the West End arrived in the days before Christmas as the charming Curtains: The Musical Comedy rescued the Wyndhams with an unexpectedly delightful backstage murder mystery – the West End premiere of Kander and Ebb’s forgotten song and dance show which will shortly resume its tour until April. The Theatre Royal Bath production of Blithe Spirit with Jennifer Saunders and Geoffrey Streatfeild has also charmed its way to a regional tour followed by a West End transfer from March 2020 – the first since Angela Lansbury’s turn as Madame Arcarti in 2014.

Great tours included the fantastic Glengarry Glen Ross which replaced its West End cast with equally impressive performances from Mark Benson and Nigel Harman (the less said about the disgraceful Bitter Wheat the better!), while Inua Ellams’s unstoppable The Barbershop Chronicles continues to run and run two years on. The National Theatre also toured their production of A Taste of Honey which concluded with a West End transfer to the Trafalgar Studios running until February. And not forgetting Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s Six, the one-hour pop sensation about the wives of Henry VIII which toured widely this year earning an Olivier nomination for Best Musical and now a Broadway transfer.

Reimagined Classics

Some of the most exciting work in 2019 have entirely reinvented well-known plays or used innovative techniques to make important social or political statements. Best among them was Femi Elufowoju jr’s The Glass Menagerie at The Arcola Theatre, whose diverse and varied programming entirely reflects the Dalston community it serves. In a co-production with Watford Palace Theatre, Elufowoju jr’s production of Tennessee Williams’s classic play recast the Wingfields as an African-American family to meaningful effect.

Marianne Elliott did the same with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman casting Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke that earned its own West End transfer and found a whole new level to the isolation of the central family and why the American Dream was never for everyone. Add to that Inua Ellams’s exciting and vivid relocation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters to the Biafran War in Nigeria at the National Theatre, and Jamie Armitage’s Southern Belles at the King’s Head which brought two one-act Williams play’s about emotional fragility and class division so sensitively to life, and theatremakers are starting to think more broadly about ways in which the thematic and emotional universality of the classical canon can be reflected on stage.

The West End Finds Breadth and Depth

Those big American dramatists had significant West End success as well with a range of productions celebrating Arthur Miller, including the aforementioned Death of a Salesman as well a disappointing production of The American Clock at the Old Vic, who quickly revived with this year’s most outstanding Miller production, inviting Bill Pullman and Sally Field to star in a very fine and devastating version of All My Sons which also boasted excellent supporting turns from Colin Morgan and Jenna Coleman. A lesser performed Tennessee Williams play also enjoyed a big West End run in the autumn, hailing the return of Clive Owen to the stage as the lead in The Night of the Iguana, a sultry and rewarding version directed by James McDonald.

It was a trend that continued with varied approaches to other classic playwrights, and some of the best theatre came from productions of lesser known works given an all to rare outing. For Ibsen-lovers it was Hayley Atwell who easily gave one of the performances of the year as the complex Rebecca West in Rosmersholm alongside Tom Burke as the eponymous landowner, while Noel Coward has rarely been better served than in Matthew Warchus’s hilarious gender and sexuality-bending version of Present Laughter that put paid to any questions about Coward’s modern relevance. As well as a fine cast including Indira Varma, Sophie Thompson and up-and-comer Luke Thallon on superb form, it also boasted an exquisite central performance from Andrew Scott, every bit as good as his Hamlet in 2017.

New versions of the classics look equally promising in 2020 with Ian Rickson’s take on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya from January with Richard Armitage and Ciaran Hinds while in the same month the Old Vic celebrate Samuel Beckett with Endgame tempting Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe back to the stage. Angels in America writer Tony Kushner adapts Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit with Lesley Manville, while celebrated directed Ivo van Hove brings his international, and brief, versions of both Death in Venice and The Glass Menagerie – the latter with Isabelle Huppert – to the Barbican. And not forgetting a much anticipated To Kill a Mockingbird penned by TV and film writer Aaron Sorkin starring Rhys Ifans.

New writing wasn’t entirely forgotten in 2019 although there seemed to be fewer new plays opening in the West End than we’ve seen in the last few years. Duncan Macmillan’s 2011 play Lungs  isn’t exactly new but it made its London debut with the inspired pairing of Claire Foy and Matt Smith in an emotional story about reproduction and climate change which heads to the US for an off-Broadway run from late March. Simon Woods attracted theatre royalty Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings to star in his first play Hansard at the National in August, a fascinating and honed debut about the political failures of the Left and Right in the last 30 years, while the theatre also hosted the UK premiere of Annie Baker’s The Antipodes another fine installment from a playwright whose reputation grows in stature with each new play. And concluding the year, Mike Lew’s invigorating homage to Richard III and the High School Movie became the wonderfully astute Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse in December.

The Musical Resurgent

But if the West End in 2019 was really defined by anything it was both the reprise of musical theatre and the productions of Jamie Lloyd – with the two themes neatly intersecting in the summer. Not so long ago the musical was widely derided, tourist fodder that serious theatre-goers would actively avoid, but revitalised and mature productions of Follies and Company led to a renaissance for the genre which this year has born considerable fruit. The UK premiere of Dear Evan Hansen won everybody over with the first true musical of the social media age, a new star was born in Jac Yarrow who took the lead in a refreshed revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which added some serious nostalgia factor by adding Jason Donovan to the cast, while the temporary closure of the renamed Sondheim Theatre led to the all-star Les Miserables: The Staged Concert which united old friends Alfie Boe and Michael Ball, the latter adding a new chapter to the show’s performance history by swapping his status as the original Marius for the role of Javert. And proving that musicals can also meaningfully tell more serious real life stories, the Soho Theatre hosted the UK premiere of Max Vernon’s stirring The View Upstairs, with great turns from John Partridge and Declan Bennett.

The musical then is going nowhere in 2020 and some big productions are already lined-up; American film star Jake Gyllenhaal brings his acclaimed turn in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George to the Savoy Theatre from June, while the dream team of director Dominic Cooke and leading lady Imelda Staunton reunite for Hello Dolly at the Adelphi in August. Michael Ball continues his journey through his career highs by returning to the role of Edna Turnblad in a new version of Hairspray at the Coliseum in April with Lizzie Bea making her debut as Tracy – a production that promises to be plenty of fun. And if you missed it in Regent’s Park in the summer, then Jamie Lloyd’s joyously modern take on Evita transfers to the Barbican in August where the challenge of reimagining his ticker-taped, multi-entrance outside production in a classic proscenium arch auditorium will be an interesting one.

Jamie Lloyd Dominates the West End

And what an exceptional year it has been for Jamie Lloyd, the director’s name seems to be on everyone’s lips as he landed astonishing production after production, reimagining and reinvigorating the classics. The divisive Faustus in 2016 seems a long time ago, gone are the bells and whistles and lurid designs and instead Lloyd’s commitment to the purity of the original text has been an abiding feature of his success in the last 18 months. As the new year began, the West End was in the midst of the Pinter at the Pinter season with Lloyd resuming the reigns for Collections Six and Seven which celebrated and marvelled at Pinter’s playful use of language, most notably in an intense radio play staging of A Slight Ache, followed by a celebrated stage return for Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman in The Dumb Waiter.

Going head-to-head with Atwell and Scott for the year’s very best performances are Tom Hiddleston and James McAvoy who set theatreland alight with their devastatingly raw portrayals of love gone horribly wrong. The Pinter series concluded with Betrayal in March, as fine a production as you’ll see anywhere, with Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox playing the unbearably entwined friends and lovers that was filled with pain, self-destruction and deception which Lloyd steered with an unassuming simplicity that lent unrelenting weight to the emotional entanglements. It rightly earned an acclaimed Broadway transfer in the autumn.

Lloyd rapidly announced a new residency at The Playhouse Theatre where, despite the poor sightlines and eye-wateringly expensive ticket prices, Cyrano de Bergerac has earned wide acclaim with a mesmerising performance of unrequited love, jealousy and soldierly bravado by James McAvoy that runs until February. This must-see production has been inclusively realised, turning what is often a very silly three hour caricature into an outstanding and crushing examination of self-image and emotional laceration. 2020 will also deliver two major West End debuts as Lloyd tackles both Chekhov and Ibsen with Emilia Clarke in The Seagull and Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House, both set to be fascinating but respectful interpretations by a superstar director.

But the new theatre year has plenty more gifts to offer, not least Timothee Chalamet making his West End debut alongside Eileen Atkins in 4000 Miles at the Old Vic in April, Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet at the Young Vic in July, the return of City of Angels, a new play by Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstadt, a stage version of Upstart Crow and Colin Morgan in Caryl Churchill at the Bridge – with plenty more to be announced. 2019 may not have entirely shaken-up theatreland but the foundations are slowly being laid for greater representation and the inclusion of more voices in 2020. And whether it’s musicals or plays, fringe, regional theatre or West End every bit of the theatre ecosystem has a vital part to play.

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Curtains: The Musical Comedy – Wyndhams Theatre

Curtains - Touring Production (by Richard Davenport)

Christmas is the perfect time for a murder mystery, the dark nights, the cold weather that makes you want to bustle up and the obligatory frustration of people gathering together for enforced celebration feel like the perfect setting for a bit of seasonal homicide. From Agatha Christie to Georges Simenon, plenty of mysteries have been based in the festive period, usually in isolated mansions, cut off by blizzards from the the outside world as a disparate family or group with an axe decide to grind it. And for an audience, we love the opportunity to embrace the cosy drama of it all, relishing the chance to pit ourselves against the lone detective as we work out the connection between the victim, suspects and plenty of unearthed secrets.

Curtains: The Musical Comedy arrives in London at just the right time and while it’s not set at Christmas or even discernibly wintery, it nonetheless feels like a perfect festive treat in the most theatrical of wrappers. And it is certainly a gift to the Wyndhams Theatre after the disastrous Man in the White Suit crashed out of the West End after horrible reviews and poor ticket sales, leaving a 4 week slot available for this transfer (and the West End premiere) of Kander and Ebb’s musical which has been touring the UK in the last few months, earning critical and audience applause – a feat it repeated at last week’s press night.

Curtains is in some ways a strange splicing of theatre and narrative styles, simultaneously – and ambitiously – telling the story of a murder but also the journey from out of town flop in Boston to viable Broadway show, along with the backstage politics that make every member of this large Company a potential suspect. Naturally, across its 2 hours and 45-minute run-time these different strands compete for primacy with the murder investigation often taking a backseat as other storylines are established and followed with greater energy.

The mixed-style of the piece also merges songs written specifically for the Western musical-within-a-musical that the Company are producing, as well as numbers sung by the characters playing actors and their detective behind the scenes, which adds to what is a rich and complex proposition for any stage musical. Yet somehow it works, the energy of it carrying the show between delightful set-pieces while steadily advancing the plot – this is more than just a whodunnit, Kander and Ebb want to immerse you in the theatrical world of actors, producers, directors and investors to understand quite what’s at stake when putting on a show.

Famed for creating Chicago and Cabaret, John Kander, Fred Ebb and book writer Rupert Holmes created Curtains  in the early 2000s with an eventual Broadway transfer in 2007, and the whole show is an unabashed celebration of musical theatre. And in a strong year for new London productions, Curtains finishes 2019 on a high with a true song and dance show that glories in its love of the stage and the process of putting on a production. It is a very different style of show to the sultry atmosphere of Kander and Ebb’s earlier work, a glossier, glitzier and somewhat sanitised vision of human nature where not even some silly murders will stop the show from going on.

It has tones of 42nd Street and A Chorus Line on stage in the way it blends the action in front of and behind the curtain, but there’s also plenty of old Hollywood in there too with the 1959 setting allowing the design and choreography to draw on the big MGM movies which set the standard for song and dance on film. The central premise of Curtains is a theatre-loving detective who needs to simultaneously find the killer by refusing to let the cast and crew leave the building while helping them to fix the ailing Robin Hood musical that has failed to impress the Boston critics – the fact the story of the Nottinghamshire outlaw is relocated to the Wild West doesn’t raise so much as an eyebrow, so it’s best just to go with it. It is a fun twist on the generic Colombo-type investigator by giving him a sideline in amateur theatrics and a director’s eye for detail and drama.

There is plenty to enjoy in Paul Foster’s production; the staging of the Western sections take on a heightened quality to differentiate them from the rest of the story with some zesty numbers, well choreographed by Alistair David, that reference the golden era of Hollywood. The Act One finale ‘Thataway!’, the eventual restyling of ‘In the Same Boat’ and ‘Wide Open Spaces’ in Act Two are particularly enjoyable calling on influences from the Cyd Charisse sections of ‘Broadway Melody’ in Singin’ in the Rain and there’s a clear nod to Oklahoma and, of course, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in the light and upbeat dance stylisation that emphasies open gestures and Technicolor charm directed right at the audience.

There are some great dance performance here too across the ensemble who tirelessly provide a lot of the texture with syncopated group numbers that draw on line and folk dance, while the foregrounded performance of Alan Burkitt as the Robin Hood character (actor Bobby in the backstage world) is full of balletic skill with his performance of the jazz choreography particularly accomplished. His “pas de deux for two” partner Elaine (Emma Caffrey) who likes to be known as “Bambi” is a great match for him in the penultimate number in an impressive sequence.

Outside of the ailing show, the suspects pile up – as do the bodies – although the show doesn’t have the usual drive and looming sense of doom that characterises most murder mysteries. Depending on what you’re hoping for from Curtains that may be a negative as the story frequently digresses to focus on other types of theatrics, but the possible motives abound and as the story unfolds various characters come more firmly into the spotlight which draws the plot back to the central puzzle. Across Act Two this eventually builds to a high stakes denouement that makes for a satisfying conclusion to the murder, romance and musical rewrite co-plots as well as throwing up a few surprises to tie-up loose ends.

While primarily known for his work as a comedian Jason Manford proves he’s a rounded theatre performer at heart, instilling his interpretation of Detective Frank Cioffi with boyish excitement at being among a company of actors. There is a glee in his interactions with the various suspects that calls on the character’s experience as an amateur and dreams of joining a professional company, so Manford finds lots of humour in Cioffi’s semi-star-struck interactions. There’s also a nice symmetry to the parallel plots which centre around Cioffi’s problem solving ability and Manford makes it entirely credible that the policeman could sift through the evidence while simultaneously offering independent advice on the musical’s failings. Finally, Manford’s Cioffi offers a surface naivety, developing a sweet intimacy with suspect Niki that keeps the audience guessing about the outcome, while his singing voice in their duets ‘Coffee Shop Nights’ and ‘A Tough Act to Follow’ is delightful.

Carley Stenson’s lyricist turned replacement leading lady Georgia is wonderfully sympathetic, wowing the audience with an early rendition of ‘Thinking of Him’ before delivering the sassy ‘Thatawaty!’ in her Western role that shows her character’s developing confidence. There’s a love triangle with Burkitt’s Bobby and Georgia’s songwriter ex-husband Aaron played by Andy Coxon (from 6 January this role is played by Ore Oduba) whose lovelorn version of ‘I Miss the Music’ is a treat. As well as showcasing her dance skills, Caffrey’s “Bambi” also well represents the pushy young actress desperate to improve her part by stealing the limelight but resentfully held in check by a critical mother, which Caffrey vividly creates. And not forgetting a great turn from Samuel Holmes as snooty English director Christopher Belling whose razor sharp put-downs and one liners lift many a scene.

Further texture comes from the characters who represent the business of show, especially the excellent Rebecca Lock as producer Carmen, locked in battles with her husband and balancing the budget as she decides to defy the critics and take the show to Broadway somehow. Lock has some great numbers including the hilarious ‘It’s a Business’ which is a fierce dismissal of art in favour of theatre’s money-making purpose. And the different theatre perspectives are completed by a fleeting glance at an evil critic from the Boston Globe, Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles) whose hatchet job propels the show as well as inspiring the comic song ‘What Kind of Man’ sung by the creative team behind the Robin Hood musical. With all of that happening backstage, there’s plenty to kill for.

Curtains isn’t a perfect show and for something that shines a spotlight on the complex relationships and trade-offs behind the scenes, the characters are largely impressionistic, while at times it becomes overly distracted by the numerous romantic entanglements rather than tightly focusing on murder, mystery and motive. But, there is so much love for musical theatre, the process of co-creating a show as well as the joy of song and dance that the warmth and enthusiasm of this production is sure to win you over. Concluding its West End engagement, Curtains goes back on the road until April visiting venues across the country including Sunderland, Llandudno, Liverpool, Glasgow and Southampton, and while now may feel like the right time of year for a cosy puzzle don’t miss the chance to see this charming show in a venue near you. Perhaps murder mysteries aren’t just for Christmas after all.

Curtains: The Musical Comedy is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 11 January with tickets from £17.50 and then touring until 11 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

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