Tag Archives: comedy

The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre

Lieutenant of Inishmore - Noel Coward Theatre

2018 is becoming quite the year for Martin McDonagh; in January his last major play Hangmen opened in New York taking most of its original London cast, then in late February the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri won two Oscars, and in October his latest play A Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent about Hans Christian Andersen heralds the Bridge Theatre’s autumn season. In the meantime, a beautifully pitched revival of McDonagh’s 2001 play The Lieutenant of Inishmore about a cat-loving terrorist in1990s Ireland is now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre and guaranteed to draw audiences with star Aidan Turner in the leading role.

With a exceptional version of Translations running at the National Theatre, and more Friel to come at the Donmar later this month with their revival of Aristocrats, London is enjoying a mini-Irish season. Across these plays, there is an examination of the changing relations between our two countries, as well as open-ended questions about nationality and language that have shaped both nations over hundreds of years. With Brexit drawing focus once again to the Northern Ireland boarder, this timely combination of plays have concurrent themes about identity formation, conflict and the future development of two countries whose history is inextricable entangled.

McDonagh has always been very astute in capturing the contrasting and multifaceted nature of the individual, delighting in the unexpected foibles and ridiculousness that bring humanity to some of his darkest creations. Often focused on the perpetrators of extreme violence, many of these characters are given an unexpected softer side, so whether its Brendan Gleeson’s hired assassin with a passion for the medieval architecture of Bruges, a former state executioner running a local pub or a cat-loving anarchist, extreme and almost surreal though it can be, within McDonagh’s work there is always a kernel of truth about human behaviour that lurks beneath the surface. However violent their career choices, there is always pride, attachments and fallibility that make them more rounded.

This also serves to emphasise the fate of the many innocents who get caught in the cross-fire, those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, completely outside of the central plot and suffer as a result – be it children, neighbouring cats or racist dwarves. McDonagh’s scenarios have a warped moral dimension to them, ensuring that the bad people tend to pay for their crimes in outrageously violent ways, retaining a reasonably straightforward perspective on good and evil, punishment and justice.

As a very black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore on the surface is essentially a tale of in-fighting between various subsets of a terrorist organisation, a disagreement about the etiquette and degrees of violence to be employed in pursuit of their cause. But the unspoken context here is the fraught aftermath of a colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland that has driven this group of men to seek destructive and murderous means to achieve liberty for the North. McDonagh takes a tongue-in-cheek approach but as each hilarious scene builds to a beautifully pitched comic conclusion, the contextual reality of this era, of the fragility of political peace processes, of generations of people driven to extremist behaviour remains striking.

Set on the Island of Inishmore off the coast of Ireland, teenager Davey delivers the corpse of Donny’s black cat which he found in the road with his head staved in. Unfortunately for Davey, the cat – Wee Thomas – really belongs to Donny’s son Padraic, a crazy and violent terrorist working for the INLA, who instantly breaks off the torture of a drug dealer to rush home to see the cat he adores. Teaming-up with Davey’s sister Mairead who enjoys shooting the eyes out of cattle and pursued by an assassination-squad of INLA colleagues, Padraic’s fury is enflamed by meagre attempts to substitute his beloved moggy for another. But, who really killed Wee Thomas and will anyone live to tell the tale?

There is a huge amount of technical skill involved in creating a show like this, one which mixes an implied menace with an almost cartoon-violence that is deliberately unrealistic enough to prevent the violence overwhelming the humour. There is a kind of joy in the build-up to some of the more extreme aspects of the show, which become darker as the plot unfolds, and Christopher Oram has done an impressive job with some slightly heightened but still ghastly-looking props, particularly in the glorious finale.

The penultimate scene too runs beautifully but is full of carefully timed stage-craft that is considerably more complicated than they make it look. It’s a high-stakes scene, probably the most fraught of the play as all the plot elements come together in a Tarantino-style face-off between the various characters. It’s rare to see something like this on stage because it’s so difficult to accomplish in real-time, but Oram’s team has delivered a series of splatters and explosions that can be triggered at exactly the right moment, and even more importantly, create just the right effect, at the right angle on the set and characters – a not insubstantial achievement.

Tone is equally hard to manage in a show like this, and it can be extremely difficult to make it just black enough without becoming too grim, while keeping the lighter stuff in check so that it doesn’t become too farcical – McDonagh wants you to see a touch of reality in his characters, to believe them capable of their extreme actions, but at the same time to chortle at their ludicrous sensitivities and grasp of morality. Director Michael Grandage has got this exactly right, allowing the story to build in the early scenes, enjoying the sillier moments, while still creating sufficient investment in the characters as we build to the more shocking plot devices.

At less than two hours with an unnecessary and distracting interval, the play has only nine scenes across which a full and engaging plot is presented and concluded. Grandage manages the transitions using the main stage for Donny’s farmhouse, and locating other scenes in front of a curtain, a papier mache and paint affair fashioned to look like the Island of Inishmore from the air. This all works very nicely, maintaining the flow while separating between the moments where characters are in transit from their more rooted and identifiable existence in Donny’s home. It is also hilarious, sometimes overt and silly, while at other times more subtle, with throw-away references or character-traits that add extra layers for those who want to see them.

With the stars of long-running and much-loved TV dramas, it’s (shamefully) all too easy to forget their range of skills and the diversity of their work elsewhere. As Ross Poldark, Aidan Turner became an overnight sensation which four series on shows no signs of abating, but the character offers only a limited outlet for his acting portfolio. With hints that the next season may be the last, this seems like an appropriate time for Turner’s return to the stage, to start thinking about life beyond the tricorn hats and slow-motion horse-riding, and to remind the acting world that he has plenty more to offer. His role in the superb BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None offered a charged and dangerous presence, while here in The Lieutenant of Inishmore he comprehensively proves he also has a talent for comedy.

As Padraic, Turner switches in an instant from violent fiend to cat-loving softie, frequently breaking down into tears even at the thought of any harm befalling his precious puss. His first appearance sets-up the rest of the show, as Padraic tortures a drug dealer suspended upside down from the ceiling, Turner elicits just the right balance of silliness in McDonagh’s text, landing a great line about selling drugs to Protestants and, when he hears of Wee Thomas’s illness, the slightly squeaky and tremulous way he asks to speak to his cat on the phone has the audience in stitches.

Turner’s Padraic is definitely a man with no regard for human life, happy to sacrifice his dad and neighbours for the cause, a man with a proclivity for blowing-up chip shops and an anarchic temper. Turner continually balances a growing menace with the heightened nature of the characterisations and scenario to emphasise the ridiculousness of Padraic’s extremes of hate and love (for cats). A final memory of Padraic winsomely stroking a dead cat while referencing 90s TV show The House of Eliot is an image that will stay with you. Turner is genuinely very funny with a shrewd comic timing and clearly enjoys the whole thing tremendously

Padraic’s dad, played by Denis Conway is wonderfully dry, offering an understated but sharp portrayal of man fearing the wrath of his crazy son but with no more interest in anyone’s life but his own. He plays the straight man in a hilarious double act with Chris Walley’s Davey, as the pair embroil themselves in a number of enjoyably daft schemes to hide Wee Thomas’s death from Padraic. Making his stage debut, Walley is given a terrible curly mullet, of which Davey is inordinately proud, and the actor holds his own very nicely in an impressive ensemble.

The only woman in the story, Charlie Murphy’s Mairead is a cold ruthless attacker of cow’s eyes which she shoots out for practice. A dedicated revolutionary, far braver than anyone else in the show, and proud of her skills as a crack shot from a decent distance, 16-year old Mairead is desperate to join the INLA and has an eye for her hero Padraic. Murphy brings a soldier’s composure to the role of the psychotic youngster with a casual approach to life and death, a cool logic that is both comical and terrifying. You’d never want to cross her but in a world of gun-toting men you also slightly root for her.

With McDonagh and Turner’s names attached to the project, there’ll be no concerns about selling tickets so critical support becomes less necessary, but with press night on Wednesday they’re sure to get it anyway. This version of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is an impressive technical accomplishment supported by very fine performances from the ensemble, that has plenty of layers to unpick. More than anything, it’s just a great shoot-em-up farce, a darkly comic treat with a black black heart. It may be a good year for Martin McDonagh, but with so much of his work available, it’s great for us too.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 8 September, and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1           

Advertisements

Young Marx – Bridge Theatre

Young Marx, Bridge Theatre by Manuel Harlan

Once you’ve been the head of one of the most respected and well-known theatres in London, what can you possibly do next? Well, apparently you take everything you’ve learned, head beyond the Southbank and Bankside to create your very own purpose-built theatre amidst the new bars and restaurant around City Hall. After announcing the project more than a year ago and frequent pictorial updates on its construction, Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre is now officially open for business next to Tower Bridge, with its first play Young Marx already looking extremely solid ahead of its press night later this week.

As much charm as there is in our Victorian theatres, their size and facilities were built for a different age, so a brand new theatre means more comfortable seats made for normal-sized people, the chance to create decent sight-lines from every vantage point, and most importantly more than two ladies toilets per floor. Happily, the Bridge has all these things, in fact the auditorium is almost a carbon copy of the Dorfman at the National, only bigger, and despite the crush in the foyer, this has the potential to become a great social and cultural space.

Its inaugural performance is a new play by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman about the less well-known younger years of Karl Marx. We think of Marx these days as an old man with a big beard writing dry economic theory and giving 70s historians concepts to try and fit the past into. Bean and Coleman’s vision couldn’t be further from this image, and instead this Marx is a bit of a scoundrel, careering around Soho, pawning anything he can get his hands on, hiding from the bailiffs and exasperating his long-suffering family.

Marx, his wife and two children are hiding in 1850s London from their Prussian persecutors unable to ever return to Germany. Living in penury in a shabby two room apartment in Soho, Marx has more pressing concerns; he’s expected to start an anti-capitalist revolution but can’t write while he spends all his time trying to quell the violent tendencies of The Communist League, visiting all 18 pubs on Tottenham Court Road and hiding in a cupboard. But when secret information is revealed, Marx must uncover the spy in his midst, and, with the help of his old friend, Engels, finally write his masterwork currently titled ‘Economic Shit’.

Young Marx is an enjoyable cartoon caper, a delightful farce that also manages to be occasionally quite touching. Based on real events in his life, his Marx is a not-quite-so-lovable rogue who will make the audience despair as they’re laughing at each self-inflicted mess he gets himself into. But the play’s success is surrounding Marx with a colourful cast of radicals in The Communist League, friends and family that give a flavour of his life and the impact of his self-centred behaviour on those around him. Happily, this also includes two well-constructed roles for the women in his life, his wife Jenny and their maid Nym.

Bean and Coleman’s play also avoids many of the tiresome Dickensian clichés which have become such a lazy shorthand for any aspect of poverty in the Victorian era, giving the whole thing a thrumming life of its own, allowing it to maintain an infectious energy throughout, which Mark Thompson’s hyper-real revolving set supports extremely well. He may live in a little more than a squat, consorting with pawnbrokers and vagabonds, but Marx feels like a thoroughly modern man, deeply flawed and entirely human, but with a force of nature, a chemistry that, despite their better judgement, has other people dancing to his tune.

And this feels really relevant to the way we glorify and accept the failings of our own celebrities, with poor behaviour and diva demands written-off as “artistic temperament”. The idea that someone’s genius – be it intellectual or creative – is worth the price of their arrogance, entitlement and inability to accept that codes of decency apply to them, is one that feels especially pertinent at the moment in the wake of revelations about the misuse of power by TV personalities and Hollywood moguls that have come to light in recent years. In these examples, and beneath the comic gloss of the play, is an important central question about what we are and should be willing to forgive just because someone happens to sing or pontificate especially well.

As Marx, Rory Kinnear balances all of these competing characteristics, offering a portrait of a reprobate economic theorists whose every thought is about anti-capitalist revolution or having a good time himself. Even preparing breakfast for the family he lets down again and again, becomes a lecture on the provenance of a sausage. But Kinnear’s skill is in wrapping all of this in a perfectly-timed comic shell, keeping the tone light and breezy most of the time, and landing the more emotional moments at just the right pitch.

Marx is not a man you’re asked to love or even respect, and Kinnear shows the audience that every hilarious encounter is also an example of him betraying, using or avoiding someone to get what he wants – if he was any richer he’d be an out-and-out cad. While Kinnear has focused on serious European theatre in the last couple of years with The Trial and The Threepenny Opera, it’s clear this role is the most fun he’s had, and arguably his best, since he played Iago at The National. He relishes every ounce of his carefree rascal, delivering put-downs with a whip-like severity and trampling over his loved ones… but then he has the rights of the worker to defend.

His partner “Freddie” Engels, played with charm by Oliver Chris, is a more responsible and self-aware contrast in the jokey Vaudevillian partnership of “Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx”, a frequently repeated refrain that binds them together. Engels role is largely to protect Marx from himself and clear up his messes, and the believable brotherhood Chris and Kinnear create is vital in accepting some of the plot’s later twists. But, Chris makes Engels more than a footnote in the story of his more famous friend, giving him both a lothario’s existence and a conscience that become the voice of reason in the play.

Again and again, Engels tries to encourage Marx to write, recognising his superior talent for expressing their political beliefs and inspiring others. His own background, sent to work in his family’s Manchester factory but with independent means, is used to show his own devotion to his friend and the sacrifices he is prepared to make to ensure Marx becomes the great man he is supposed to be, and Chris’s Engels is a sympathetic figure while also making the most of the comedy double-act.

Nancy Carroll’s Jenny is a suitably conflicted wife, furious with her husband’s lack of respect and failure to provide for his family, while also still being drawn to his revolutionary charisma. She’s part of the faction that meet to debate ideas and offers input into his writing, all the while remaining desirable to potential lovers. Laura Elphinstone as maid Nym is equally part of the family, supporting husband and wife while becoming increasingly drawn into the household dramas with a convincing sense of her own agency. Crucially, you believe both women exist when the men are not around.

It’s a large cast that add texture to a catalogue of comic incident among London’s immigrant population, easing us between Bean and Coleman’s delightfully surreal scenarios including a gloriously modern line for a policeman who is thanked for not hitting Marx and Engels when he catches them urinating in Soho Square, saying he’s been on a course. Interestingly, the family use German accents when speaking to someone English but the rest of the time talk in their own variations of British voices, adding to the idea of Marx as a bit of a geezer and neatly navigating the line between the perception of them as a West End foreign colony, but also that they’re just like us.

The Bridge Theatre’s opening performance is, then, a very entertaining night at the theatre and Hytner’s smooth direction ensures that the 2.5 hour run time doesn’t seem enough. It’s a bold and significant decision to christen this new space with a fresh play rather than a well-known classic, but one that pays-off handsomely. And with tickets from as little as £15, the trip to Tower Bridge is all the more worthwhile. Bean and Coleman will irrevocably alter your idea of Karl Marx with this charmingly cartoony comic caper; Communist economic theory has never been this much fun!

Young Marx is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 December and will be broadcast by NT Live on 7 December. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Twelfth Night – National Theatre

twelfth-night-national-theatre

The National Theatre had a pretty impressive year in 2016 resuming its position as one of London’s most consistent and forward-thinking theatres, mixing reimagined classics with new writing. Under Rufus Norris’s artistic directorship its output has felt fresh, diverse and above all innovative, with Annie Baker’s The Flick, Robert Icke’s cinematic The Red Barn and Ivo van Hove’s eviscerating take on Hedda Gabler standing out in a year of hits. And the future is already full of promise with tickets to the revival of Angels in America selling like a rock concert, and new works like Consent to come in 2017, not to mention a 2018 announcement of Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, as well as apparently Ralph Fiennes in Anthony and Cleopatra (announced a year ago but no further details), it’s fair to say you now go to the National expecting to be wowed.

But first up for 2017 is a new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a perennial Christmas favourite that has nothing to do with the festive season, hence a February opening.  It is clear from the promotional photography that this tale of disguise and unrequited love will largely focus on its comedy characters with Tamsin Greig taking the starring role as the re-gendered Malvolia. And the recasting allows the company to add freshness to an often performed play by playing with notions of sexuality – ideas hinted at in Shakespeare’s text through the frisson between Orsino and Viola when she is disguised as Cesario.

So the plot is an intricate one, starting with a shipwreck that parts twins Viola and Sebastian who both arrive in Illyria thinking the other had perished. Disguised as a boy called Cesario, Viola enters the employ of Duke Orsino and falls in love with him, but Orsino is in love with local noblewoman Olivia, who has foresworn all men. Orsino sends Cesario as messenger but Olivia falls in love with him, not realising its Viola in disguise. Running in parallel, Olivia’s drunken relative Sir Toby Belch and her servants decide to teach the arrogant steward Malvolia a lesson by letting her think Olivia loves her and orchestrate Malvolia’s public humiliation. People are disguised, hearts ache, wires are crossed and hilarity ensues, but Sebastian is still on the island and soon becomes involved in the mix-ups.

The National’s production, which has its press night on Wednesday, is primarily focused on the comedy aspects of the tale which downplays the central romantic stories and partially side-lines the play’s main character Viola. Director Simon Godwin who previously oversaw the brilliantly riotously The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National in 2015 which was a perfectly pitched farce, brings that knowledge to bear on this production of Twelfth Night helping his fine cast to find the levity in Shakespeare’s text while adding plenty of humorous physical and visual comedy touches. The result hasn’t yet meshed into a finely tuned show but, only a few performances in, there are a series of nicely realised comic scenarios which should link more seamlessly as the cast settle into the rhythm.

Aside from the cast, the real star of this version is the ever inventive Soutra Gilmour’s rotating fold-out pyramid set which simply transports the players to various settings relatively smoothly, while offering a slightly dreamlike feel. It starts as the bow of Viola and Sebastian’s ship steered into the rocks that set the story on its way, before triangular segments fold out into Olivia’s glass panelled villa, bricked street scenes, Olivia’s garden and even a gay bar with singing drag Queen – crooning Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. There’s also a large staircase leading to the top which gives the actors something to run around on but also a place to overhear or spy on the action. There were a couple of sticky moments when bits of the set malfunctioned forcing the actor’s to improvise, and the various flaps need to be walked into place by visible technicians, but Gilmour’s 30s meets 70s meets modern interpretation is fascinating, and she has amassed an eclectic body of work.

Gender-swapping within the cast is seamlessly done and makes perfect sense in the context of Godwin’s production. Leading them is Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia who initially puts you in mind of Shakespeare’s other great verbose and fussy attendant, Polonius from Hamlet. Grieg’s first appearance is as a severe and dark presence, clean black bob, and starkly dressed in plain shirt and culottes. The overall appearance is of an ogerish governess, humourless and unimpressed with those around her but certain that her own thoughts and actions are perfect behaviour. That all changes brilliantly on receipt of the faked letter from Olivia and the big reveal of Malvolia in the yellow stockings in part two, which has to be seen rather than spoiled, is a brilliantly timed piece of comedy which Greig relishes superbly. It’s a fun and wide-ranging performance that pins the show together really well.

Equally entertaining is Phoebe Fox’s almost entirely comic Olivia whose over-eager declarations of love and single-minded pursuit of Cesario are a real highlight. Fox brings initial restraint to Olivia, who is in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother, and is clearly a determined, strong young woman who bats away Orsino’s attentions and is admirably unwavering. Yet with the arrival of Cesario Fox utilises these character traits to great effect in trying to capture the object of her affection, as well as making the most of any opportunity to show a giggly or more suggestive aspect of the character.

Completing the comic set is the excellent Tim McMullen as Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Augecheek, Doon Mackichan as a gender-swapped fool Feste and Niki Wardley as Maria Olivia’s chambermaid who masterminds the plan against Malvolia. It’s a nicely delineated group but together love revelry and drive much of the comedy forward, with McMullen –sartorially channelling Laurence Llewelyn Bowen – and Wardley in particularly making an excellent team as the partying nobleman and the cheeky maid who takes control of him.

The lovers do get pretty short shrift in this version of the play and Orsino’s appearances which bookend the play make it difficult to understand how quickly he transfers his affection from Olivia to Viola. Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a bit of a playboy at the start, driving his sports car on stage to overtly attract Olivia with generic flowers but he genuinely seems devoted as he later mopes through a party-scene. With the emphasis on the comic, we get less chance to see the relationship with Cesario / Viola tip over into something more romantic.

Tamara Lawrance’s Viola is satisfyingly tomboyish making her male disguise convincing and, a difficult thing in modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays, almost believable. And while she hasn’t quite captured the depth of the romance, it’s still early days and that will come. Finally Daniel Ezra is an excellent Sebastian, suitably perplexed by the mistaken identity dramas and with plenty of swagger to give the fight scenes credibility. But there is a hint at Sebastian’s homosexuality in scenes with ship’s captain Antonio and at the gay bar which aren’t followed though when he becomes embroiled in the story with Olivia.

It’s still early in the run and with a couple of previews left before press night there is time to smooth the flow and link more consistently between the high comic moments and the rest of the play which will make its long three hour run time skip more quickly. There are lots of lovely comic performances which carry it along very nicely and, Gilmour’s spectacular set aside, while the show may not have the wow of recent National Theatre productions or build to the farcical pitch it aspires to, this version of Twelfth Night is an entertaining and well-staged evening with plenty of fun moments that keep the audience laughing.

Twelfth Night is at The National Theatre until 13 May and tickets start at £15.  It will be broadcast live to cinemas on 6 April, and is also part of the Friday Rush scheme, offering tickets for the following week at £20 – available from 1pm on Fridays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


How the Other Half Loves – Theatre Royal Haymarket

How the Other Half Loves

Every year without fail at least one Alan Ayckbourn revival arrives in the West End, and it’s always something to look forward to. Having written around 80 full length plays, I’ve only managed to see a relatively tiny fraction of them and with Ayckbourn developing new work every year at his Scarborough base we may never entirely catch-up. His greatest skill is using a comedy shell to present the small domestic sadnesses that plague everyday lives, of people trapped and unable to escape their circumstances giving considerable pathos to his work that lingers long after you’ve stopped laughing.

This balance of comedy and gentle suffering is more pronounced in Ayckbourn’s later works, as his story-telling and character development grew, and a number of notable modern comedians have been drawn to his plays in recent years including Catherine Tate in Season’s Greetings at the National Theatre and Reece Shearsmith in Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The latest Ayckbourn revival is How the Other Half Loves at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, one of his earliest works that while providing plenty of farcical fun, doesn’t quite have the same depth of character as more recent productions.

How the Other Half Loves is a classic crossed-wires comedy involving three couples. Frank and Fiona Foster are a middle class couple in a classic home, married for years and sunk into a gentle frustration with each other. Fiona is having an affair with the younger Bob Phillips who works for Frank but to cover her tracks she lies about counselling her friend Mary Featherstone whose husband William (who also works for Frank) is cheating on her. Meanwhile Bob’s wife Teresa suspects his infidelity but is told that Bob has been helping William who’s discovered Mary is cheating. In the midst of all this, the innocent Featherstone’s appear at both homes for dinner unaware they are the subjects of an elaborate dupe.

It’s a classic and skilfully performed farce that makes good use of its all-star cast. With both the Foster and Phillips home merged together brilliantly by the set-designer, the action flows so smoothly that you never have to question whose home you’re in. Everything from the walls to furnishings represent both residences in a considerable attention to detail that reflects the different classes, often in one item – for example in Act One the 3-seater sofa is 2 seats Foster and 1 shabbier seat Phillips, which becomes entirely Foster in Act Two and completely reversed in Act Three. And of course the relevant characters only ever sit or move to the furniture that belongs to their home, swerving round each other seamlessly as scenes intersect.

Leading the cast is a fabulous performance from Nicholas Le Prevost as Frank, a dithery and easily distracted man who infuriates his wife with his forgetfulness and interference. Even leaving the house is a palaver for Frank, yet of all the characters he is the one with the kindest heart and for whom the audience has the greatest sympathy. Although it is his instance on confronting the Featherstones that leads to much of the ensuing farce, Frank is someone that is caught up in a situation not really of his making and in Le Prevost’s skilled blend of comedy and tragedy you feel every ounce of hurt as the truth emerges.

Jenny Seagrove is Frank’s wife, a hardnosed Celia Johnson-type looking for a bit of excitement with a younger man. Although you never see them together it’s hard to imagine what on earth she would have in common with Bob and that relationship seems unconvincing. Yet you can see what drove her to an affair in what is a very domestic and limited existence. This is something common to the other women in the play as well as both Teresa and Mary are essentially housewives with considerably fewer opportunities than their husbands – the play was written in 1969 and set in the 70s here when this was a more common lot for women.

Gillian Wright and Matthew Cottle (who happily seems contracted to be in all Ayckbourn) are the reserved Mary and William Featherstone who enjoy a lot of the comedy as the farcical plot ramps up. Their set-piece moment is when the dinner-parties are run concurrently so that the couple are seated at 2 cross-shaped tables and swivel in the seats to participate in each event. It’s hilarious and skilfully done as we conjoin the events of two evenings, and considerable credit should go to Wright and Cottle for making this very difficult scene a seamlessly performed joy. They never lose their cool and you know exactly which evening it is at every moment – a difficult task for the actors, so for them to have made it seem effortless is a real achievement. But it’s also clear that they are more than just the patsies in this set-up with their own marriage issues hinted at through William’s bullying nature and Mary’s bid for authority that this builds up to.

The Phillips couple are the least successful in the play. Their exuberant passion is the only thing keeping them together, so while they fight incessantly, they have an overwhelming need for each other that overrides infidelity and irritation. They just lack any real depth or sympathy, which is partly the fault of the writing but also they try a little too hard to make it funny. Teresa is a harassed mother to a permanently unseen but chaotic baby and gets no support from her boozy husband Bob. Tamsin Outhwaite is a fiery Mrs Phillips pursuing social causes and yelling endlessly at her husband, but it’s a bit of a one note performance that never quite reveals her purpose. Likewise Jason Merrells as Bob is self-involved, brash and a bit of a pig – seemingly an unlikely romantic choice for Fiona, and we never really learn anything about him.

How the Other Half Loves received almost universally good reviews and it certainly deserves them in many ways, yet seeing this recently I couldn’t help but wonder if it had lost some of its fizz since press night. Some actors say it’s best to see a show near the end of the run when the characters have developed considerably since the early days (I like a preview personally so I can make up my own mind before the critics) but I wonder whether the same can be said for this type of comedy where in the early shows the spontaneity feels less rehearsed but by the time they’re several weeks or months in, some of the spark has gone. Perhaps too it is the cavernous space of the Theatre Royal Haymarket which makes Ayckbourn’s intimate domestic dramas feel a little lost. Ayckbourn’s Scarborough theatre is a small in the round space which brings the audience closer to what’s going on which London’s proscenium arches can never do. The Old Vic’s The Norman Conquests worked so well because of the transformed in the round space they created, but Ayckbourn often feels lost in the bigger venues – maybe not for those in the stalls but in the upper circle you’re considerably distanced from events.

Nonetheless an annual outing to at least one Ayckbourn is a real treat and as they’re performed so rarely on the fringe, seeing them in a big West End space is better than not seeing them at all. There is plenty to enjoy in Alan Strachan’s version not least the glorious design and first rate performances from Le Prevost, Wright and Cottle in particular. With Ayckbourn’s characters, relationships are never quite what they seem and while his second play lacks the pathos and development of his later works, it has plenty of comic entertainment and technical genius to make up for it.

How the Other Half Loves is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 25 June. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1. 


The Painkiller – Garrick Theatre

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon

Kenneth Branagh’s theatre company has been a good for thing for London, and its latest production The Painkiller which opens this week at the Garrick is a promising addition to the shows that preceded it. Audiences have loved this season because it feels like something special is happening even though this concept of a company taking residence at a single theatre has a very long tradition – although these days is less common in the West End. For audiences this has been a chance to see a developing body of work which, with the pulling-power of Branagh, has attracted some of acting’s finest names – and anyone who brought tickets before casting was announced can feel pretty pleased as first Judi Dench and Michael Pennington took to the stage in The Winter’s Tale while the recent announcement that John Hurt will join The Entertainer in the summer caused a ripple of excitement. And not to forget the chance to see Branagh himself in the West End has been well worth the eight year wait.

But, this season is also offering a training ground for younger actors, giving them the chance to work with and learn from more experienced performers, while experiencing a company environment in a major West End theatre. In The Painkiller Marcus Fraser makes his professional debut fresh out of drama school in a small role, while Branagh’s next project Romeo and Juliet gives leads Richard Madden and Lily James a chance to extend their theatre experience. In a sense then, everyone wins, and with reviews and award nominations of previous shows The Winter’s Tale and the double bill of Harlequinade / All on Her Own receiving very positive reception on the whole (Red Velvet came under the umbrella of the KBTC but was co-opted in from somewhere else’s production), there is a lot of expectation on The Painkiller to maintain this high standard.

On the whole I think it does but of all the shows it’s probably the most risky. This is a new-but-not-new piece adapted from a 1960s French farce by Francis Veber, but this is the first stage version in English written by Sean Foley. The original is not a famous play in the UK despite a few unremarkable films, and Foley discusses seeing it in Canada as the inspiration for this production. Branagh and Rob Brydon performed an earlier run in in Belfast in 2011, and both reprise their roles in this developed version. Set in a London hotel, Brydon plays Brian a failing Welsh photo-journalist planning to commit suicide because his wife has left him for her psychiatrist. In the neighbouring room is Ralph, an assassin who is using the hotel window to perform a contract killing on a visiting dignitary. Initially brought together by an over-zealous bellhop, the two men soon become embroiled in each other’s lives, but as the scenarios become increasingly ridiculous they find themselves battling tranquillisers, enraged exes, interfering policemen and too many cushions.

If you loved Harlequinade then this more modern farce will be for you and, as so often with comedy, will become sharper as the run progresses. There are still three previews before the official press night later this week so there are some elements that will work better when it’s been performed a few more times including some of the fight scenes which even from the upper circle are a little off-cue presumably as the actors are still holding back a little while they get used to the set, and saving something for the critics. But once the stagey beginning is over, and you get into the story, it very quickly finds its feet as the various incidents inflicted on the two protagonists become increasingly outrageous. Foley (and Veber of course) mixes together a variety of forms of humour from clever wordplay and sarcasm to plenty of slapstick, funny walks, accents and pure farce that keep you engaged for 90 minutes without it ever feeling too samey. There are occasional reprises of the same joke or act but overall Foley has been very restrained in ensuring the plot still progresses rather than just focusing on making the audience laugh, which they frequently do. It’s a good balance of still, and occasionally quite introspective dramatic moments, and side-splitting hilarity that can only come from a cast really enjoying themselves.

Brydon is the emotional heart of the piece, despite also being the cause of all the crazy things that happen, and it is essentially Brian’s story that we’re following.  Much like his role in the recent Future Conditional at the Old Vic, of which he was by far the best thing about it, Brydon is very good here at combining the broad physical comedy with the sadness of a man who feel he’s lost everything, which will deepen as the run progresses, and for a lot of the time there’s a childishness to Brian ‘acting out’ until he gets what he wants. Interesting too to see how the relationship with Ralph forces him to reflect on how needy he has been, and at crucial moments takes the lead by looking after someone else, which Brydon makes believable without losing the comedy heart of the piece.

Branagh’s role initially is the more straightforwardly dramatic and for a long time it seems Ralph, (posing as John), will be the straight-man. In these opening moments as a cold hearted assassin, and at this very early point in the run, Branagh has more to give and will evolve his business-like contract killer into something slightly more menacing as he gets more performances under his belt. But a little way into the play Ralph’s character shifts too and here Branagh is already hitting his stride brilliantly as he gets his share of the comedy.  As we saw with Harlequinade Branagh really has a flair for this kind of silly humour and he fully dives in here, enjoying the opportunity to push it to the extremes, and the post tranquilliser scenes are some of the funniest things you’ll see in London right now as Ralph loses control of his speech and limbs to hilarious effect.

The budding rapport between the two could easily be forgotten amidst the hysteria, but director Sean Foley ensures we see two lonely men finding unexpected support and solace in each other’s company, so you leave feeling they could have a life beyond the story – particularly as they end up in each other’s clothes, a hint that they’ve adopted traits as well. Great support from Mark Hadfield as the Porter / Bellhop whose cheery demeanour is severely tested by the goings-on in these adjoining rooms and having him popping in and out not only provokes some great comedic reactions but also a constant reminder of the ridiculousness of the situation. Alex McQueen and Claudie Blakley have small but important roles as Brian’s ex-wife and new lover which add nice variety to the plot and both are great at conveying the long-bubbling frustrations of their back-story with Brian.

Alice Power’s set is a perfect reproduction of a generic higher-end hotel with its fancy linens and surround-sound multimedia systems used to good effect. Showing the two rooms side-by-side really does emphasise how soulless these places are despite hotels going to considerable lengths to make visitors feel at home, and you get that sense from Power’s set that these kinds of rooms are the backdrop to endless human dramas which today just happens to be a suicidal man and an assassin.  Incidentally, this is not the first time that these two characters-types have been brought together, there’s a 30 minute Murder Most Horrid episode from the 1990s with Dawn French and Amanda Donohoe that in a slightly different way was interested in the interaction of these two extremes.

So, The Painkiller is a worthy and enjoyable edition to the Branagh Theatre Company’s season that should mature very well as the run continues. I suspect the critics will be divided as they so often are about this kind of daft humour and Harlequinade received a variety of low 3 star and high 4 star reviews. But the audience loved it so much the cast got three curtain calls, and it will continue to delight. Following this are two serious productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Entertainer that complete the season, so at the end of a long dreary winter, The Painkiller is well placed to cheer us up as spring begins.

The Painkiller is at the Garrick Theatre until 30 April. Tickets start at £17 from a variety of ticket sellers but tickets are likely to sell fast after Press Night on 17 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


%d bloggers like this: