Tag Archives: Garrick Theatre

The Drifters’ Girl – Garrick Theatre

The Drifters Girl - Nimax Theatre

The nostalgia musical is back in full force with crowd-pleasing easy listening stories that looks back to the 1950s and 60s for their inspiration. Structured around the biography of a particular band, these shows prioritise the music, offering opportunities for audiences to relive excerpts from concerts, studio sessions and TV-appearances by the Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls and now the Drifters. Slightly more than a jukebox musical, where a band or individual’s music is used to frame an unrelated narrative, these productions tend to celebrate both the art and gruelling cost of performance as fame, touring and managerial expectations to keep the money rolling in take their toll on the personal lives and stability of the individuals struggling to remember who they once were.

While there are considerable similarities with its counterparts, The Drifters’ Girl also has a slightly different approach in which it attempts to tell the story of this band partly through the changing membership in which the brand rather than its personnel are the key focus of both ownership and identity as the group attempts to move out of the R’n’B chart and into the mainstream Top 100, while it also tries to capture a rarity in these stories, the perspective of a female manager, one who struggles against sexism and racism in the development of the band and its musical direction. Faye Treadwell is the titular Drifter’s Girl and offering her perspective on a male group in a male-led music industry, fighting for recognition in a male-led justice system is an interesting angle but one the show struggles to fully maintain as it tries to balance narrative drive with musical performance – the latter wins out.

Co-created by the cast with a book by Ed Curtis, the idea is a sound one. Framed around a major court case in which the determined Faye fought for exclusive ownership of the Drifters’ name against a producer who formed a subsidiary group by reuniting ex-members, the story of how the Drifters came to be and the challenges they faced over three decades is told in flashback with Faye speaking to her young daughter in preparation for telling the same story to the Judge. It becomes, then, a personal and professional story as the unswerving manager reflects on the creation of the Drifters collective and of Faye’s own family, falling in love with and eventually marrying the Drifters’ manager and working alongside him in equal partnership to cultivate the band.

And there are lots of positives in this approach that give clear, overarching shape and direction to the story, guiding the audience through the episodic content towards a defined conclusion that adds drive to Director Jonathan Church’s production. In what is essentially a progressive, chronological approach wrapped in a flashback, the team create plenty of space for the songs that everyone has come to see, merging two kinds of musical theatre styles using the Drifters tunes.

First, there are the pure performance-based segments in which the actors recreate the band’s appearances in concert style, singing their songs as the Drifters direct to the audience with choreographed movements. This largely provides some context about where and when this particular Drifters performance has taken place, who was the lead singer of the moment, as well as the tour experience or event. The second approach gives characters (usually Faye and husband George) songs in off-stage moments that reflect their emotional state and burst spontaneously from them in place of dialogue. That balance sits a little uneasily within the show and, performances aside, the considerable success of the Drifters segments has a price, confusing the rest of the story about the depth of its female perspective.

And those Drifters performances are flawlessly managed and each number is sensationally staged. From Under the Boardwalk to Little Red Book, Kissin; in the Back Row of the Movies to Saturday Night at the Movies, There Goes My Baby and Rat Race there is flair and energy in the harmonious vocal and performance approach. Like Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls, much of this takes place in front of microphone stands with Karen Bruce’s choreography and Fay Fullerton’s unified costume design recreating that 60s group feel with matching suits, small-scale but carefully-timed doo wop movement and synchronised stylings that bring the music alive on stage.

With a cast of just five, four of whom play all of the Drifters’ members, the show explores the frequent, almost comic turnover of singers passing through the band who are drafted into the army, let go for bad behaviour or fail to meet Faye’s exacting standards in an Act One montage sequence included largely to underscore the legal argument that the brand rather than the singers is important. Names are flashed-up on the rear wall and replacements introduce themselves within Faye’s recollection of the story, but the audience isn’t expected to keep up and when that introductory roll call fades away, for the rest of the show it’s no longer clear who is in the band at any one time, and while that may cause some confusion, it isn’t meant to matter.

In fact, it may be the point as the Drifters become an entity, a quartet bigger than individuals, so as that membership changes, each actor takes the lead on a new song giving Adam J. Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Mau the opportunity to display their incredible range performing different tempos and variations in the musical style as the decades pass and the band evolves. The exactness of their performances, not in mimicry but homage to the original sound is extraordinary, sometimes playing with the song to make it a little more their own but delivering the high-quality, powerful performances we have come to expect from nostalgia musicals. And these plentiful restagings are the continual high point of The Drifters’ Girl giving the audience exactly what they wanted and expected to see.

Yet, maintaining a consistent point of view becomes problematic and while Faye is meant to be the focus, her own story feels thinly realised and hugely overshadowed by the Drifters’ numbers that steal focus from her. It doesn’t really feel as though the show is about the Drifters’ Girl at all and while those show-stopping songs are impressive, they need to be reorientated so that we see them through Faye’s eyes if the show wants her narrative voice to be the central perspective. This would mean pushing them into the background a little and looking at what Faye is doing during these moments or how she has shaped and directed the performance the band then give.

One way to do this could be to leave Faye onstage throughout these segments, assessing and reflecting on what they do, perhaps shown in conversation with technical staff in studios or TV stations about how she wants her band to be presented. She could be cutting deals for future appearances that demonstrate her ruthless, business-minded side that got and kept her in the business while evolving an internationally famous music group. With Faye so often absent, the show currently runs on what can feel like two parallel tracks – the story of the Drifters in performance and the slightly separate role Faye played in that.

The book is looking in the wrong direction and this is where further development could bolster the show and give it a stronger backbone. While Faye is given scenes where she berates the band off-stage, much of what is presented for her is a love story with George as the initially determined but green young woman gets off the bus in New York, joins the team and finds the man of her dreams. It happened but it’s not really the most interesting thing about Faye Treadwell who needs greater character depth to explore the wider questions the story raises but never really answers about her.

We aren’t told why Faye wanted to be in the music business, why did the Drifters matter so much to her and how did she really climb the ladder? Because the narrative is built around the songs and covers such a long period of time, by necessity it skips quickly over many of the events around them at the cost of Faye’s psychological portrait. We never really understand what drove her and why she sacrificed so much, including a relationship with her daughter – here portrait as cookie-cutter sweet – to keep the band going when so much was stacked against her.

The show tries to tackle the racism she faced as a black woman in the industry as well as the suspicion the band experienced as they toured the American South, involving run-ins with the police, and in a frantic UK tour where they were turned away from hotels or forced to pay upfront for their accommodation. These are fleeting scenes treated too comically that only nod to the socio-political context but could be the dark heart of a show exploring the underbelly of an industry and predominantly white audience that, as Sam Cooke notes in One Night In Miami, expected black musicians to only exist on the stage or in the segregated R’n’B chart. That Faye took all of this on as a woman is doubly admirable and while it’s clear she wasn’t a saint, The Drifters’ Girl could say so much more about this context and it feels hollow without it.

By keeping it light and continually returning to the nostalgic loveliness of the Drifters’ music, the production misses a trick, undercutting its emotional and more complex moments to quickly take the audience back to the safety and feel-good nature of the songs, blunting the very edges the show should sharpen. And this happens not just in the reactions to the band but in the staging of their personal tragedies as well, added to the story to create depth but too quickly forgotten as we drift on.

While it’s true that the band did just that, some sense of the burden of it all, the effect of constantly finding new members and how that changed the dynamic within the band would bolster a story that feels surprisingly lacklustre. How did the band members feel about each other at any given point in time, it certainly can’t be as easy going as presented in The Drifters’ Girl with the changing line-up just accepted without question. There must have been resentments, fights and more bad behaviour than we see, so how did Faye control all of that to keep the show on the road for as long as she did?

And for a musical about her it seems almost inexplicable that Faye has less than half a dozen songs in two hours and twenty minutes. Beverley Knight is spectacular in all of them, she is completely in Faye’s head and her vocals are spine-tingling, filling the auditorium with an outstanding emotional power that has made her one of the West End’s favourite leading ladies. So only imagine how great she would be if her character was better fleshed-out and given the central focus in almost every scene that she is supposed to have. Knight makes absolutely everything she can of Faye and underusing her feels like a criminal waste of her luminous talent.

The Drifters’ Girl is still in preview for another week or more but while the show will tighten up, the underlying structure won’t change. What Church has been able to do with a cast of just five adult performers is remarkable in a fast-paced production (although theatre’s a tendency to overly favour stage right will create greater restricted view issues in some parts of the house), while Antony Ward’s set design of moveable vertical and horizontal neon tubes, black panels and variegated walls has a feel for the era and the tone. This is a great idea for a nostalgic musical that will please fans of the Drifters but you can’t help feeling that the Drifters’ Girl herself could have had more bite.

The Drifters’ Girl is at the Garrick Theatre until 26 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Bitter Wheat – Garrick Theatre

Bitter Wheat - Garrick Theatre

With starry revivals of David Mamet’s plays within the last few years, for lovers of his work the prospect of an entirely new play should be an exciting one. Yet Bitter Wheat comes preloaded with controversy for its focus on a Harvey Weinstein-like character set in a sexist and misogynistic Hollywood world. Long before a single line of the play had been seen, Twitter was alight with indignation at the prospect of the first major #MeToo play focusing on the perpetrator of numerous sexual misconduct allegations and written by a male playwright. But protesters were right to be wary because Bitter Wheat is not only frustratingly irresponsible in its treatment of these events, it is also a poorly constructed drama.

David Mamet is deservedly a writer of great renown, producing work that has carefully dissected aspects of the post-war USA while shining a light on the substantial distance between the glittering American dream and the fractured reality it engenders. Mamet’s skill and fascination as a dramatist has been in the skewering of American masculinity, adrift in an era without purpose and the combative structures men have consequently create for themselves in their working and social lives to distract from the essential emptiness and futility of modern living. Deep in their psyche, his urban-based characters yearn for the pastoral simplicity of rural America, an almost romantic longing to connect with the land as a representation of a happier past – not dissimilar to the romantic poets’ rejection of industrialisation and love for the soul-enhancing force of the British countryside. Mamet’s men are in the void between their aspirations and the far uglier reality that truly awaits them.

In a similar vein, his work has always spoken to American social values, of its belief in personal achievement, family and success as the markers of a life well lived. So much post-1945 US literature and art has sought to debunk the essential falsity of these aspirations and expose the dark underbelly of a society pursing them at all cost. Mamet has so brilliantly shown how the commodification of the American Dream has resulted in the soulless destruction of the very society it sought to create and the obsession that many of his characters have with status objects, demonstrations of corporate power, money and fame are redolent of the fundamental weakness underlying modern masculinity in Mamet’s view. We see this clearly in American Buffalo – revived in 2015 with Damian Lewis and John Goodman – is concerned with shifting power dynamics among three friends confined within a junk shop, an all too metaphorical representation of the modern American state.

But nowhere are these ideas more purposefully and successfully explored than in Mamet’s masterpiece Glengarry Glen Ross, one of the truly great plays of the twentieth-century. Forcefully revived by Sam Yates at the Playhouse Theatre with Christian Slater and recast in 2019 for a superb UK tour, Mamet’s world of aggressive salesman, adversarial business practice and – in a direct link to Arthur Miller’s Willy Lowman – the desperation of the ageing star player losing his touch. 35-years on the play retains every bit of its punch. What makes Bitter Wheat so frustrating and disappointing is that it does none of these things, taking a narrative approach that detaches the action from its wider context, leaving it almost nothing to say.

The central role of Barney Fein is undoubtedly a terrible one, he’s dismissive, entitled, rude, forgetful and entirely without conscience or remorse. Whether he is belittling his mother’s funeral or demanding a newly-married (and unseen) woman visit his hotel room for sex, Fein is a monstrous creation. But, outside of panto, that is insufficient to sustain a 90-minute drama when the psychology of the man and the wider surroundings that both create and facilitate his behaviour remain entirely unexplored. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Ricky Roma et al’s venality is equally obvious but that better constructed drama shows clearly how the target-driven nature of the firm and the toxic culture of 80s America with is status-driven commercial obsessions infiltrate the walls of the office and underscore these characters. In Bitter Wheat, the empty rooms of Fein’s office and hotel suite suggest nothing beyond, Mamet gives us no proper context and instead allows his character to exist almost wholly unchallenged throughout the play.

Mamet’s mistake is to place Fein at the centre of the drama without ever properly exploring how this man was created or how the fear and inattention of others silently justified and permitted his behaviour. John Malkovich’s Fein is a moral void but all Mamet does here is tell a story without truly understanding or exposing the mechanics of his abuse. Turning Bitter Wheat into a comedy means it lacks proper analysis and any serious attempt to untangle why such men have operated unchecked for so long. Crucially, we never understand how the longer-term impact of these experiences have affected the people most involved – the victims.

Fein is surrounded by a handful of characters who have next to nothing to do including two thinly sketched female roles and an extended staff who pad-out his world, procuring and enabling his whims. Yet the focus on Fein means the entire play lacks any real danger or consequence, so it may be creepy when he corners a young female actor in a hotel room promising her a number of film projects, but with much of the encounter played for laughs the whole tenor of the production is destabilised.

Having taken a Viagra tablet and let down by his married mistress (or other unspecified kind of companion – and Mamet takes no time to explain this absent woman’s status, she is just for sex) Fein manipulates and attempts to manoeuvre his pray into sleeping with him. A stuck zipper and a time-sensitive predicament anticipating his imminent engorgement are made farcical  – here is a man who needs to have sex struggling with his trousers and trying to encourage the women in the room to service his needs – hilarious no?

What is even more disturbing about this scenario is the audience reaction which on different nights has included widespread guffawing at this and several other examples of Fein’s dismissive and damaging behaviour. Some are the nervous giggles of an audience confronted by emotional responses they cannot process, but the intention is to provoke genuine amusement at a scene in which a powerful man is about to coerce or potentially even rape a young woman. That Mamet constructs this as a comedy scene is truly disturbing, disgusting even, and such attempts to normalise this behaviour have allowed it to go undetected and unchallenged for decades if not centuries. There is a lightness to Mamet’s approach that not only fails to fully expose the indecency of Fein’s behaviour but also sells short the #MeToo experience under the guise of “black comedy”. Rather than exposing them, Bitter Wheat does much to reinforce these behaviours by badging them as harmless fun.

Compare this to how carefully and intelligently James Graham deconstructed the personality and influence of Rupert Murdoch in Ink which used its comedy sparingly and smartly to make its point. Graham not only managed to reframe our picture of the media mogul but also the birth of populism that has been a driving force of so much recent political activity. Setting his play in the late 1960s allowed Graham to show, without ever sympathising with or excusing him, how Murdoch’s early desire for innovation on Fleet Street was situated within his own rejection by the Establishment and how quickly The Sun creators lost control of the wave of egalitarianism they tried to unleash.

Pointedly, Murdoch is a supporting player in a comedy drama that focuses on inaugural editor Larry Lamb, and while his overall influence runs through the play it is felt rather than seen. Mamet, by contrast, has given his drama nowhere to go by creating an artificial flatness which his own toothless direction does little to enliven. Across four sequential scenes the audience is shown a bad man saying (not actually doing) a variety of bad things which in the farcical construct that Mamet employs equate Fein’s racism, inhumanity and sexual misconduct as a bundle of personality traits that are almost excused or tempered by their existence as comic impulses. To misquote Posner in The History Boys, if you can laugh at something, you laugh it away, and Bitter Wheat’s fundamental issue is to construe Fein’s behaviour as inherently funny and too extreme to be truly credible without a rigorous analytical framework to question his activities such as Graham employs.

Adding to this misjudgement is the production’s general failure as a piece of theatre. Political considerations aside, building-up the protagonist comes at the expense of the other characters and very few meaningful exchanges take place outside of Fein’s self-absorbed and self-justifying monologuing – there’s not even the trademark Mamet rat-a-tat dialogue to entertain you. Primary support is provided by Doon Mackichan as Fein’s assistant Sondra with very few lines and Ioanna Kimbrook as a mistreated actor Yung Kim Li but neither role is properly fleshed-out or given a point of view. Mackichan’s role is particularly perplexing and whether Mamet intends her to be silently complicit in helping to facilitate his assaults or is herself a victim of his dismissive treatment remains unclear.

Kimbrook has more to do in first realising and then fending-off Fein’s unsubtle advances but a surface suggestion of personal agency is entirely devalued by the cipher role the character has in the play in which every line and every laugh is constructed for Fein. Kimbrook builds the role as much as she can but, ultimately, Yung Kim, Alexander Arnold’s second assistant Roberto and Teddy Kempner’s Doctor Wald all dance around the central figure with no obvious existence in their own right.

For Malkovich fans, the chance to see their hero on stage for the first time in more than 30-years will be irresistible and he delivers exactly the chilling, amoral performance the part requires. But the two-dimensional quality of the role makes it a very cerebral, studied performance from Malkovich, full of rehearsed gestures and intonation that feel too consciously formed. There is intimidation in his scenes with Kimbrook but the brutality and earthy hunger of the man able to take whatever he wants with no consequences never comes across. He’s never sympathetic but he’s never entirely real either.

Bitter Wheat is full of curious staging decisions which equally divest the drama of its purpose; between each of the three scenes in the first half a stark curtain abruptly comes down with no music or means to fill the interlude. Christopher Oram’s detailed set is very nice, a series of stylish rooms that fit Fein’s mode of living but the time taken to reset them drains energy from the production while Mamet’s direction never connects the dots so Bitter Wheat becomes a collection of scenarios with little forward-motion or sense of cause and effect. The overall result is disjointed and disappointingly flat and although a couple more previews may inject some chemistry, it’s hard to shake feeling that the play is entirely without purpose.

To argue that the play is told from Fein’s point of view and that the other characters are therefore his reflections is just not good enough in a self-badged #MeToo play. There are eventual consequences for Fein but they feel weak and unconvincing, so ultimately Bitter Wheat has nothing to say and entirely misses the point. It’s not that it’s too soon or even that a male playwright or a male experience shouldn’t be explored, but if they are, they need to be much smarter and more self-aware than this. Alas Bitter Wheat leaves a bitter taste.

Bitter Wheat is at the Garrick Theatre until 21 September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Entertainer – Garrick Theatre

The Entertainer - Kenneth Branagh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Romeo and Juliet – Garrick Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - Branagh Theatre

Perfectly timed to open at the tail-end of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, the penultimate production in Kenneth Branagh’s year of theatre is Romeo and Juliet – probably the greatest tragic romance of all time and arguable the most well-known of his plays. Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in your life, chances are you’ll know the plot of Romeo and Juliet, potentially a couple of quotes and the fact it has a balcony scene (which was never actually specified in the text). As much as scholars and theatre-lovers may argue that Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III or any other has had a greater impact on the nature of theatre and on the acting profession, Romeo and Juliet has become an intrinsic and recognisable part of the pop culture landscape

Appropriate then, that Branagh’s two leads are most famous for their TV roles – Richard Madden as Game of Thrones Robb Stark and Lily James as Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose – bringing with them a sizeable young fan base that will have some familiarity with at least the story of this play. Yet it is a very difficult play to do well, largely because our tolerance for highly romantic language and the arduous innocence of the young lovers is, these days, tinged with considerable cynicism. As world-weary adults we condemn their teenage crush and feel sure that had they lived they probably would’ve been sick of each other within 6 months. So, the modern audience poses a considerable problem for a director who has to navigate the original language with shifting attitudes to this lovelorn tale.

Many of the critics assumed that Branagh’s stumbling block would be the comedies, most especially The Painkiller which instead proved a triumphant hit, not least with audiences who loved it. Of all the plays in the season, however, it was Romeo and Juliet that I had most doubts about for the reasons above and the relatively untested power of the leads. Yet, Branagh has again proven his mettle as a director by creating an imaginative and compelling piece of theatre that somehow perfectly navigates the pitfalls of this play.

Set in sleek 1950s Italy, it opens in the middle of a stone piazza, with café tables and idle young men in shirt sleeves enjoying the heat. Immediately you think of West Side Story (itself a version of this play) and we get a sense of a world in which the young feel oppressed by the authority of the old, desperate to fight each other but not daring to. It bristles with masculine energy as the warring Montagues and Capulets circle each other trading insults. The palette is entirely black, white and grey, implying a realm of respectability and power invested in ageing men, but one that offers glamorous women and fancy parties. And Branagh, with co-director and choreographer Rob Ashford, have introduced a number of innovations including a nice dance piece at the Capulet’s ball and having three sung speeches, including Juliet taking to the microphone at the party and spotting Romeo for the first time. It’s subtly done but adds a nice touch of variety and modernity to the delivery.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how funny it is in the first half, and clearly drawing on his recent productions, Branagh has repurposed some of the more sentimental speechifying and given it a comedy edge, not least in the (in)famous balcony scene. Usually this is played as an earnest confession of love, but here the 14 year old Juliet is drunk from the party and Romeo is still playing the charming lothario, and only towards the end of the scene do they both begin to express sincere emotion for one another. It’s done with restraint so the comedy is never overt and brings fresh interpretation to one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes which will appeal to more current attitudes. Instead of laughing at the high-language we’re being shown the humour in the gaucheness and embarrassment of the characters as they try to express their feelings for each other. It works.

The second half is quite a different beast and here the full danger of inter-family rivalry and the tangled plot in which the lovers find themselves is realised. The atmosphere is permanently charged with emotion – be it grief, anger or love – and the more leisurely pace quickly increases as things converge. It is a marked change of tone which finally allows the actors to intensify their performances and love no longer has a comedic role, instead it is now driving events and becomes completely compelling.

Richard Madden and Lily James have real chemistry as the ‘star-crossed’ pair, and their desire for one another is entirely believable throughout. They nicely navigate their way from love at first sight, through their first nervous exchanges to a physical passion for one another that ultimately consumes them. Madden’s Romeo is initially harder to get to grips with as he rushes some lines and seems to be charming Juliet without entirely devoting himself, but it’s soon clear that this almost rehearsed smoothness is intentional, and it is only mid-way through the balcony scene that you see him realise she is more than another conquest to him and that he begins to feel deeply. Madden grows in the role as events play out and later he equates the violence of Romeo’s love with the more brutal side of his manliness which results in a number of deaths – so as his feelings for Juliet become more firmly established so to do his violent tendencies. Much later in the play as he discovers Juliet’s fate, Madden is excellent at conveying his devastation, making his final scenes quite moving and he will find greater depths of emotion as he gets more performances under his belt.

Lily James is also a great Juliet, capturing the girlish innocence of the 14 year old – an interesting decision to retain that element of the play – experiencing her first feelings of love, lust and rebellion. Of the two it’s the harder role to convince in because Juliet is all emotion so in the wrong hands can seem unvarying and mawkish. Unlike Romeo she has no other developed subplots and speaks almost entirely of love and marriage throughout the play (whether about Romeo or Paris), so in James’s performance it’s fascinating to see greater variety particularly adding texture to the changing relationship with her parents and a steeliness in her final act. And although the balcony scene emphasises the comedy it’s clear throughout that James has a feel for the verse which make Juliet’s declarations of love entirely convincing and heartfelt.

There has been much conjecture about Derek Jacobi’s casting as much older Mercutio than usual but in the context of this production it seems to work well, evidence of another Branagh / Ashford innovation in the way the text has been interpreted. Jacobi gives us a rather camp and effeminate Mercutio, who loves parties and makes a grand first entrance with a silky sway to the music at the Capulet’s ball. We see him then as a peacemaker, far removed from the family turf war and a bit of an old roué. And while it does make his final scene with Tybalt a little ridiculous – how on earth he thought he was going to beat a 20-something in a sword fight – it makes him the first innocent destroyed by the feud. Jacobi is part of the comic charm of the first act that makes his demise all the more shocking and a clear catalyst for the more serious business to come.

There’s a good supporting cast including Myra Syal extracting as much comedy as she can from the role of the Nurse, while Michael Rouse has a standout scene as Lord Capulet tearing into his undutiful daughter and emphasising the dangerous power of these senior men that can easily erupt into violence when crossed. A shame then that the war between the two families feels a little anaemic – and having Mercutio in a comedy role does take away from Romeo’s gang of young thugs –  so you don’t get that feeling of danger all the time or that peace is teetering on a knife’s edge. We see that potential in Rouse’s explosive scene but a little more of that early on would help to heighten the tension and make it clear what’s at stake.

Credit also to James, Syal and Marisa Berenson (playing Lady Capulet) for not allowing an audience member’s inexplicable screaming fit to derail their final scene. She was escorted out in less than 15 seconds and the actors resumed unphased. Overall then, Romeo and Juliet is a fine addition to the Branagh series and should garner positive reviews in a couple of days (the disadvantage of buying tickets a year ahead is never knowing when press night will be). It feels contemporary, has taken innovative approaches to some of the tricky aspects of performing this romantic tragedy and delivers a range of interesting performances, not least from its two star leads who will find more meaning as the run extends. And if the tragic ending (beautifully played incidentally) is not sad enough, this is the last Shakespeare of the inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and it means we only have one production left. With four wonderful shows under its belt, hopes are high for The Entertainer in August.

Romeo and Juliet is at the Garrick Theatre until 13 August. Tickets start at £15 for the daily front-row lottery and the show will be broadcast to cinemas on 7 July. 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


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