Tag Archives: National Theatre

John – National Theatre

John, National Theatre

2017 was a great year for new writing and in the next few months, judging panels will have the unenviable task of trying to decide whether Oslo, Ink or The Ferryman deserves the accolade of best new play, knowing that whoever they chose, will rob the other two. But now three weeks into January, the first new play of 2018 is opening at the National Theatre. Following the success of The Flick which had it’s UK premiere in the Dorfman in 2016, Annie Baker’s latest play, intriguingly called John and first performed in New York in 2015, makes its London debut in the same space. Baker’s work is a subtle examination of modern ideas of self-worth, often bringing characters together at times of transition, trapping them in a contained, often claustrophobic space, as they try to determine a way forward.

Troubled young couple, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a local bed and breakfast for a few days as they pause their trip to visit some local Civil War sites. It’s the week after Thanksgiving and along with the decorations, the strange little house, run by host Mertis, is filled with dolls and ephemera that clutter every available surface. During their stay the couple get to know more about the attentive owner, and, as their own relationship begins to strain, confide in her hoping to discover what their future should hold.

No one should go to a Baker play expecting plots stuffed with drama and activity, instead she writes slow-burn stories that centre almost entirely on character and theme. The National Theatre’s production may have so far managed to shave 10 minutes off the run-time but John is a monster show of 3 hours and 20 minutes with two intervals. Yet, there is considerable engagement with the world Baker creates, and you feel yourself pulled into their discussions about love and purpose. Baker has a particular ear for realistic dialogue and while she out Pinters Pinter with elaborately long pauses and deliberate stillness, her writing genuinely reflects the small moments of awkwardness or tension between sentences that accurately reflect the circularity and stilted nature of real conversation.

Despite its title, this is a play about women and for much of the time it is the female characters whose perspectives we hear and sympathise with. But they are complicated and, as we discover in the plot, not always entirely moral people whose bad behaviour is called into question. Purposefully the three women are nothing alike, representing very different kinds of living as small-town collides with the big city, work and home, glamour and comfort crash into one another while still finding a semblance of emotional common ground between them.

And it is the power of three that seems to fill Baker’s work, as many of John’s scenes are an ongoing dialogue between three people, often those with a close relationship and an alien third. Initially it is the central characters, Jenny, Elias and Mertis, but increasingly as the central couple’s stability begins to fracture we see other trios deliberately and, sometimes unexpectedly united – one of Baker’s skills is to suggest that there are always three people even when you only see two.

For instance, early on, the audience discovers why Jenny and Elias’s relationship is so precarious and all of their conversations, including muffled offstage arguments, have the presence of a third party hanging between them. Even in the occasional spots of happiness, the reality of their predicament intrudes upon them, borne out by other aspects of Baker’s writing, not only the mysterious absence of Mertis’s husband who she claims is in the house yet unwell, but also the continual references to the universe, to spirituality, ghosts and God. Never fully elucidated or woven successfully into the text, these themes nonetheless reiterate the idea of the constant third in any scenario, someone who silently watches.

The idea of being observed is raised several times, and in a particularly neat duologue between Mertis and Elias both recall feeling observed as a child, concluding that this presence was guiding and protecting them. Jenny feels differently, and in a separate conversation triggered by seeing the same toy in Mertis’s house, has a more unnerving and judgemental interaction with a doll she claimed used to make bad things happen to her which she would have to make amends for. Baker uses this to reinforce her idea about individual conscience and self-worth, showing that Jenny in particular requires external validation for her actions even if those are projected into a lifeless figurine.

For the second time in as many weeks the private home turned into a hotel becomes an important setting, used to create a tone of uncertainty and underscore the tension to be drawn from the arrival of strangers into someone’s else’s environment. From Pinter’s seaside boarding house in last week’s The Birthday Party designed by the Quay Brothers, to this sinister establishment in Gettysburg America, the displacement of characters is reinforced by inserting them into a world far from their own. For all its domestic warmth and cosy appeal, Chloe Lamford’s detailed set suggests at best a quirky owner, and a worst something considerably more sinister beneath the chintz and endlessly staring figures that make Brooklynites Jenny and Elias seem out of place.

Lamford has created a strange little world of domestic harmony crossed with eccentricity, which fills the centre of the room with sofas and a bizarre self-playing piano, while at one end is an enormous window that looks out onto the beautifully coloured sunsets, lit by Peter Mumford, that offer freedom and a slightly obsessive idea of the natural beauty of the universe which is a frequent refrain in the text. At the opposite end of the room is “Paris”, Mertis’s arrangement of bistro tables for her guests to use.

Director James Macdonald allows all of these elements to coexist in a jumbled harmony that reflects the cluttered set and emotions of the characters. Nothing is rushed which, to the despair of some audience members, means things move very slowly across the evening, giving the protagonists time to think, to sit and to reflect which is so true to life but so rarely permitted on stage for fear of losing the audience’s attention. It’s such a shame, however, that too many long conversations happen at the far sides of the stage meaning a good proportion of the Dorfman audience cannot see anything.

Having a proscenium arch show always feels like such a waste in this most flexible of theatres, and while necessary for this one, poor blocking often puts all the characters out of sight of anyone seated at the sides. You are warned about restricted views of course, but the scenes could be positioned a little better and given that a lot of people moved seats in the interval, there are clear benefits in rethinking a couple of those extreme side locations before press night (although of course critics will be seated where they can see best).

Mertis the B&B owner is a fascinating creation, at once cosy and welcoming, thoughtful and kind to her clearly cold and fractious guest, but with an underlying sinister tone that would allow the character to be interpreted in several different ways and leaves plenty of unanswered questions about who she is. Marylouise Burke decides to make her a semi-sweet all-American mother-figure, fussing about the home and plying her guests with biscuits.

Yet she is a mass of contradictions, refusing to turn on the heating at night despite a shivering Jenny having to sleep in the living room. Mertis also makes dismissive references to some of her rooms having a mind of their own, and Burke continually makes it seem that Mertis is hiding facts if not outright lying to cover up something unsavoury. Even the strange absence of her second husband is dismissed so suspiciously by Burke that the audience begins to wonder if there is something much stranger happening in this house, but the joy of Burke’s sweetness and light approach is that the audience is never quite sure if something much more terrifying is about to occur.

Anneika Rose plays Jenny as a modern woman keen to make amends but unwilling to continually prostrate herself for past indiscretions. Its clear she has made the trip to Gettysburg to placate Elias but uses the time to try to discover her future. Rose makes Jenny smart and friendly, fascinated by ideas about the enormity of the world that come through conversations with Mertis and her friend Genevieve. We see her become increasingly dissatisfied with Elias, and, despite her conscious attempts to be close to him, she actively seeks time away from him, their room and their joint activities, a separation that Rose charts convincingly.

Elias is a more neurotic character than his girlfriend, and Tom Mothersdale allows much of that to stem from an idea of moral superiority, of being the wronged man. Fascinated by the Civil War, and carrying the burden of an unconventional hippy Jewish childhood, it isn’t until much later in the play that Elias is given the chance to reveal his own inner turmoil, and Mothersdale takes the opportunity to balance the scales with an important and well delivered discussion with his hostess about whether to persist with or end his relationship, tempering his unyielding exterior with moments of doubt and sympathy.

John has its faults and some of the themes aren’t as clearly elucidated as they need to be to draw all of the strands together satisfactorily, but Baker’s plays are so rich with detail and full of insight into the way people really behave that they draw you into their world for the duration. With plenty of new plays yet to come in 2018, Baker has set the tone with an intriguing examination of the fear of being watched and judged that prevents people from living the life they should.

John is at the National Theatre until 3 March and tickets start at £15. The National Theatre also offers £20 tickets for the week ahead in its Friday Rush scheme.

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Network – National Theatre

Network, National Theatre (by Jan Versweyveld)

Film techniques are increasingly becoming part of the language used by modern theatre-makers to tell their stories, and your view of that will largely depend on how traditional you like your theatre. A year ago, Robert Icke staged a slick and movie-like interpretation of George Simenon’s novel The Red Barn at the National Theatre, swiftly followed by a vibrant Hamlet with newsreels and close-ups at The Almeida. Where once the two arts would exchange little more than personnel, now cinematic styles, approaches, and particularly the technology of film is one of the ways directors are choosing to engage audiences and reimagine well known plays.

Ivo van Hove has been attempting to shake-up British theatre for some years, presenting stark and emotionally-charged versions of the classics including A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler. Earlier this year, his production of Obsession with Jude Law at the Barbican introduced more radical techniques including large screens with projected imagery that proved to be love-it or loath-it marmite for the established critical press. His latest venture at the National will surely be the same, bringing theatre and film closer together by staging Network, based on the 1976 Paddy Chayesfsky film of the same name.

With van Hove’s work in general, I’m firmly in the love-it camp, and while the stories themselves don’t always stand up to scrutiny as Obsession proved, his innovative interpretations feel like a breath of fresh air – just watching his creations unfold in unexpected and inventive ways makes for a fascinating and engaging night at the theatre. And Network is equally enthralling, interpreting a rather strange story in a slick, fast-moving production that manages to reveal the media’s rather shallow relationship with truth and makes profound statements about the concept of collective action, all the while being true to its original movie roots.

Newscaster Howard Beale is being pushed into retirement by the network who want a younger face on screen, so a week before his final broadcast the disparaged Beale reveals he will shoot himself live on air. Initially outraged by this PR disaster, his bosses try to pull him off the air immediately, but that’s until ambitious new TV executive Diana Christensen senses an opportunity to produce a different kind of news show. With Beale back on the air with a no holds barred show, the network discovers giving the people what they want may help the ratings, but with truth and integrity at stake, the cost may be more than they bargained for.

Van Hove directs with a deliberate sense of controlled chaos with scenes running seamlessly into one another, conveying the frantic sense of a busy newsroom and the fast-paced lives of those within it. But van Hove also knows when to insert moments of stillness, reflection and consideration, slowing-down scenes to give Howard the opportunity to connect directly with the audience in his political monologues or in moments of enlightenment when he discusses the nature of the world with the Chairman of his network.

Drawing directly from the film and mirroring the work of companies such as Complicité, van Hove merges traditional UK and European styles of theatre, an increasingly presence in his work over the past few years. The stage is dominated by a multi-purpose giant screen centre-stage that becomes integral to the action as both a representation of the TV screen that Howard appears on, frequently showing adverts in the background of the action, and as a place to project individual close-up scenes filmed by roving cameras to capture intense interactions taking place at the back of the vast Lyttleton stage cutting between the two actors in the style of the film.

And it works very effectively, giving a sense of the intimacy that cinema creates while establishing a story set in a changing age of newscasting, where entertainment began to trump merely purveying the truth. For the second time this season, new shows are asking audiences to think about a turning point in media history and how it has subsequently shaped the way information is now conveyed to us. And, just as Ink demonstrated how pandering to popular expectation created an insatiable demand for increasingly outrageous content, Network also shows how a chance decision unleashes a Frankenstein’s monster which the company rapidly loses control of.

Network may be big, brash and spectacular to look at, but there are also strong messages about the role of journalists in presenting the news, encouraging the audience to consider where the line between entertainment and information should exist. ‘Television is not real’, is a constant refrain with calls from the increasingly troubled Howard for his viewers to turn off their sets and take collective positive action to make the world better. And this couldn’t feel more timely, asking whether we should just be passive receptors of news or participate in mass protest to take on the big power of governments and multinational corporations – “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” becoming the rallying call for change.

Bryan Cranston gives a layered and controlled central performance as Howard, managing the complex changes in pitch and purpose that affect the character as the story unfolds. Cranston is convincing throughout, first bringing a gravitas and confidence to Howard’s position as a well-respected anchor man before introducing a touch of betrayal, being pushed out after years of working for the network. The ensuing drama resulting from his threat to commit suicide on air is well managed by Cranston who builds a believable sense of mania and collapse that eventually reaches a plateau of calm certainty. Frequently accused of making a fool of himself by colleagues in the industry, Cranston’s Howard is always sure of what he’s saying, and, importantly, shows how the mythical audience would be captivated by his prophet-like charisma.

In a strong supporting role, Michelle Dockery returns to the stage as ambitious TV executive Diana who sees an opportunity to exploit Howard’s mental state to manipulate the ratings and turn his ailing news show into a different kind of hit. As calmly composed as she is emotionally ruthless, Dockery gives Diana a sense of certainty about herself, convinced her view is the right one with an enthusiasm for it that brings others round to her way of thinking. We note that Diana’s personal life is conducted with the efficiency she brings to television producing, and, while she is entirely driven by work, the coldness of her business-like approach starts to become quite merciless as the show concludes.

There are strong supporting performances for Tunji Kasim as network man Frank Hackett, snapping at the heels of the older generation with his plan to reorganise the entire company, bringing the news division under the control of regular programming. Like Diana, Hackett works to consolidate his power throughout the show, but Kasim gives him an edge of uncertainty, fearful of using Howard’s instability in case it rebounds on his precious network.

Douglas Henshall brings depth to the pivotal role of Max Schumacher, head of news and Howard’s best friend, who also faces potential redundancy along with his anchor man and feels overwhelmed by the ambition of his younger colleagues. As his personal life implodes, Henshall’s Max tries to stand by his old friend but is swallowed-up by the monster they unleash, a reminder of normalcy amidst it all. Ian Drysdale as the Director of the network is calm and unruffled as the figurehead sitting above the trivialities below him. Given an almost God-like appearance, Drysdale serenely delivers one of the most chilling speeches about the fiction of nationality, and how multinational corporations really control the mind.

Running for two hours without an interval, van Hove’s direction ensures scenes follow swiftly, utilising the full stage while using engaging technological interventions to add to the audience’s view of events, and reinforce Network’s origins. With events moving so quickly and no prior knowledge of the structure of American television, it’s not always possible to grasp the relationship between the various layers of management or the technical discussions of ratings and market share, but you do get the gist. There are also a couple of places where Howard’s character seems to inexplicably transform between scenes – at one point a virtual wreck wandering into the studio in his dressing gown and ranting, but when we next see him he’s back in an expensive suit speaking almost rationally – and those slight leaps aren’t fully clarified, but don’t really detract from an engaging evening.

van Hove’s productions are always fascinating with a vision that feels refreshing and challenging, again bringing intimacy to the vast Lyttleton stage, which in Jan Versweyveld’s striking set design houses a control booth, the dressing room, a large news studio and a restaurant filled with audience members (an addition that adds little to the production however). Utilising Tal Yarden’s video, and with portable cameras that even allow Dockery and Henshall to film a scene live out on the Southbank and walk back into the National and straight onto the stage, Network merges the production’s film roots with the live reaction shots of broadcast news to create a show that asks the audience to think about the boundary between reality and television, and how collective action might finally make the political changes we want to see.

Network is at the National Theatre until 24 March and is sold-out but tickets are available as part of the £20 Friday Rush scheme at 1pm each week. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1    


Oslo – National Theatre

Toby Stephens in Oslo, National Theatre by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

When we look back at the last 100 years of world history, all you really see is battlefields and bombs. From the first total mechanised war to the modern day, our history seems to be the invention of new forms of death, of fear and an increasing inability to know who the villains really are. But behind all of the things that you think have shaped the world we know, there is one startling fact, that change didn’t really happen in any of these places of death. It germinates there, it is the trigger, but change and the tide of history that accompanies it, really happened in a succession of secret rooms, among a select group of privileged men (mostly men) sitting round a board table with the fate of their countries in their hands.

There is the Versailles Treaty of course at the end of the First World War, an ineffectual conclusion that only paused European hostilities; There was the Wannsee conference, dramatised so well by the BBC in 2001, which brought together the various German war leaders and administrators to chillingly agree the Final Solution; There was the Potsdam meeting with Stalin, Attlee and Truman at the end of World War Two, and in 1993 there was Oslo, the secret negotiations facilitated by the Norwegian government that offered the first real possibility in 50 years of peace between the Palestinian and Israeli governments.

For lovers of political theatre, the autumn season has plenty to offer with the West End transfer of Ink opening next week, James Graham’s other new play Labour of Love opening for previews before the end of September, despite a rapid recasting, and this hotly anticipated production of J.T. Rogers’s Tony-award winning Oslo arriving from Broadway with a fresh cast for a brief showing at the National Theatre before it takes up residency at the Harold Pinter Theatre for the rest of the year.

The new season has definitely begun, and the National Theatre is bringing out its big hitters, with the incredible Follies opening to a slew of 5-star reviews and Ivo van Hove directing The Network with Bryan Cranston in November, Oslo is the latest of its big sell-out shows this autumn. Even with Press Night some days away, it’s already clear why America loved Rogers’s play, a fascinating insight into a secret negotiation process that started as a forum for economic cooperation but became the main channel for peace, unexpectedly put together by a Norwegian academic and his wife in the Foreign Ministry.

It’s 1993 and Mona Juul and her husband Terje Rod-Larsen develop a plan to aid the Middle East peace process that is floundering in Washington. With the wrong people at the table, too much distance between the principle players and officious American control, Mona and Terje secretly bring together representatives from the PLO with a couple of economics professors from Israel for unmonitored face-to-face discussions. Terje’s charm and Mona’s Foreign Ministry connections ensure progress is rapid, forcing both sides to see each other as people, putting their enmity aside for the chance to achieve something historic. But as more senior Israeli ministers engage in the process, the demands increase with both peace and secrecy coming under threat.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, Oslo has made a very easy transition to the expansive Lyttleton stage, giving a sense of the smallness of the people around a tiny table in a grand room making huge decisions. There may be greater intimacy when it transfers to the Harold Pinter, but there is something about the scale of what Juul and Rod-Larsen were attempting that fits this space so well. Sher ensures that the roundness of the characters, their foibles and frustrations, as well as their political views are not lost in the space, and the audience sees a surprisingly human story of a big political moment.

Political theatre is never easy to pitch, but Rogers has this just about right with narration throughout from Mona who talks to the audience, explains some of the events happening in the region as well as introducing the key players. Her guidance offers just enough context to those who know nothing about the conflict, supported by projected maps, photographs from the war zone, video footage and some ornamental designs to give a sense of venues changing from the negotiating room, to the Larsen’s flat, to a restaurant. The rapidity of this helps Sher create a sense of pace that bleeds scenes together and makes the 3-hour run time pass unnoticed.

Although this is a play about a major political event, it feels like a character piece and its strength lies in defining the unlikely collection of people it brings together. It was, we are told, Terje’s idea to create a sense of bonhomie where outside the negotiating room the men would talk only of families, drinks and food. And it is in these moments that the audience gets to know them as well, and as the need for narration fades, the humour, warmth and genuine desire to achieve a lasting settlement in each man becomes clearer. People who were once sworn enemies, finding a way forward becomes the play’s dramatic drive.

The question that hangs over it all, and remains delightfully unanswered, is why Mona and, particularly Terje, did this at all. We know that the idea for Oslo came when Rogers met Terje and became fascinated by his, now forgotten, role in this peace process, but Rogers leaves his motivation open to interpretation. Toby Stephens plays this ambiguity perfectly, channelling the mix of ego and desperation that seem to explain Terje’s investment in the business of other countries. Still boyishly handsome, Stephens utilises all the gentlemanly charm that Terje needs to keep everyone onside, smoothing every ripple as the ultimate genial host. But there is a darker undertone to Stephens’s performance, suggesting Terje ultimately wants to be known as the architect of peace in the Middle East which results in occasional outbursts of temper, as well as fear that his military guests might turn on him.

Less overtly ambitious is Lydia Leonard as Terje’s diplomat wife Mona who, unlike her husband, has an official role in the foreign policy of her country. Having previously played Anne Boleyn onstage in the RSC’s version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Leonard has plenty of experience of holding her own on a stage full of men and Oslo is no exception. A softer presence than her husband, Mona is a level-headed force throughout, tactfully navigating the explosive characters in the boardroom and thinking fast to solve unexpected problems. But she’s also carefully balancing a need to protect her career, and Leonard ensures we see that Mona is more than a competent administrator, but someone who’s also risking everything in the affairs of others.

With a large cast surrounding them, it would be easy for the key figures to blend into one another, but Rogers play deliberately gives real insight into the men around the table, and what begins as a series of shouting matches about various contractual sticking points, slowly evolves into growing friendship and believable camaraderie. Leading the Palestinian contingent is the excellent Peter Polycarpou as Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie desperate to establish the legitimacy of the PLO and make the territorial gains he needs. But, he is also full of a humour, enjoying Norwegian hospitality and finding unexpected commonalities with his enemies to which Polycarpou gives warmth and feeling, both charting shifts in Qurie’s opinions while demonstrating the appeal of his own character for others.

Philip Arditti as Israel’s Director-General of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, arrives half-way through the negotiations as the first senior figure to get involved. Initially he’s a pretty cool customer, unwilling to make concessions, but like Qurie, develops a genuine investment in the people and the outcome of the talks. Paul Herzberg and Thomas Arnold do well as the vital Israeli Professors unceremoniously cast aside by their military superiors and resenting their usurpation, while Nabil Elouahabi as Palestinian communist Hassan Asfour and Israeli lawyer Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan) add considerable texture when ideals meet cold hard process, turning their dreams of peace into practical reality.

At the end of Oslo as the characters explain to the audience what happened next, both politically and personally, and you’re left in no doubt that however long peace lasts, it is the decisions made in rooms by small groups of people that explain how history happens. So often, these hinge on the mixture of personalities brought together unexpectedly with a common will to enforce change. But, Rogers wants us to know that these processes are also fragile, that they depend on individuals to keep them on track, and once those people move aside, everything they’ve gained is once again up for grabs. Ultimately though even if the players change, the game remains the same and whether its terms of surrender or the cessation of war, decisions aren’t made on the battlefield but in the boardroom.

Oslo is at the National Theatre until 23 September and transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 October – 30 December, tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Follies – National Theatre

Follies, National Theatre

It’s been some time since The National Theatre last staged a major musical and their sensational new production of Follies has been worth the wait. The end of the Nicholas Hytner era and the first two years of Rufus Norris’s tenure have been focused on significant adaptations of well-known plays and new writing, many of which have received considerable critical acclaim. Despite an indifferent summer season in the Olivier Theatre, with Norris now firmly ensconced in his role of Artistic Director, this is a National Theatre at the zenith of its power capable of creating work of extraordinary quality and artistic influence.

Follies is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most loved musicals but revivals have been few and far between. While there may be more Hamlets than anyone really needs this season, the last Follies was more than a decade ago, and, like the recent era-defining production of Angels in America this superlative vision of Sondeheim’s show will surely become one of its best remembered revivals, mixing the wistful showmanship of the Music Hall with the shattered illusions of its four central characters, clinging to false visions and unrealised dreams of alternative lives,

In 1971, a class reunion at the Weismann Follies brings together many of the former singers and showgirls who entertained at the club during the wars at a party to celebrate the last night before the building is torn down to make way for office blocks. 30 years on it’s a bittersweet evening for everyone, as the ghosts of the past emerge all around them, reminding the women of who they once were and where fortune has taken them, with life quelling the hopes and plans they once had.

For Sally and Buddy, now in their 50s, life and marriage has been unremarkable and conventional, with Buddy struggling to fulfil some need in Sally that can never be satisfied. Meeting best friends Phyllis and Ben, a stylish couple whose animosity towards one another can barely be contained, takes the quartet back to their youth where the story of their courtship emerges along with deeply concealed emotions that abruptly resurface. By the time morning comes, the party is over in more ways than one.

Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies is entirely at home on the grand Olivier stage in what feels like a perfectly created world of decaying glamour. The well-utilised stage revolve houses a two-piece walled-arch structure that contains the faded Follies neon sign, and a multi-tiered fire escape which the girls used to parade down onto the stage, allowing Cooke to show scenes taking place in multiple rooms with a quick turn of the Olivier drum.

Vicki Mortimer’s theme-laden design is purposely used to reinforce the text, whether it be the stacked heaps of detritus on the side of the stage and the shabby theatre seats – clearly referencing the characters emotional baggage – or the almost unnoticeably slow clearing away of the structures of the Weismann nightclub during the production to represent not just the destruction of the physical building, but also the breakdown of characters and their long-held fantasies of a better life, leaving only a vast emptiness to see and feel as the story concludes.

Sondheim’s work is not conventional musical theatre and his first focus (and training) was as a playwright, so it is this emphasis on plot and characterisation that separates Follies from the song and dance shows which have been recently revived in London. Lovely as they are, with glitzy production values and incredibly skilled dancers, An American in Paris and 42nd Street just don’t have the same heart-rending ache of Sondheim’s show. Again and again throughout this production, for a variety of characters, you feel powerfully focused emotion filling the cavernous Olivier space, creating an extraordinary intimacy and impact. It’s a rather amazing experience.

At the heart of the show is Imelda Stuanton’s interpretation of Sally, her second major theatre role this year. Sally has some characteristics in common with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who Staunton played at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the Spring, both are in a long and fruitless marriage where love, it seems, has long since departed, but where Martha is openly vicious, sweet and hopeful Sally clings to a decades-long love for Ben, a dream elaborate and embedded with age which she believes will rescue her from the emptiness of the life she now leads.

Staunton’s power as actor lies in slowly unveiling the layers of deep feeling beneath the surface of her characters, and, as with Martha, she quickly shows the that bubby, excitable, chatty Sally is bundle of false hope and self-delusion. Sondheim uses his songs to advance the story and Staunton understands these rhythms so perfectly that the excitable romance of ‘Too Many Mornings’ leaves Sally exuberant at finally having the long-hoped for relationship, while the slow disillusionment that follows is beautifully and arrestingly charted. As Staunton sings ‘Losing My Mind’ it’s so full of a sorrow that it builds to a state of almost deluded madness as her world collapses in on her. It’s terribly terribly moving and physically painful to watch, but astonishing theatre that will stick in your mind.

In the other corner is Janie Dee’s Phyllis, a once poised and gentle young girl who through lack of love believed she needed to continually improve herself and her mind to be worthy of Ben. While she became a good society wife, full of grace and dignity, Phyllis has also hardened, become cold to any form of emotion, even for her once loved friend, and this manifests in a tirade aimed Ben in the song ‘Could I Leave You’. And as the evening draws on, Dee shows us that Phyllis has become an independent woman who knows she can now survive without the husband she’s relied on and looked up to, that the slow erosion of her love for him solidified in this one decisive night.

Like Imelda Stuanton, Dee’s finest moment comes in the fantasy element of the production which takes place in ‘Love Land’ where each of the four protagonists gets to reveal their inner selves to the audience. In the section dedicated to ‘Phyllis’s Folly’ Dee gets a sultry number – ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ – which is a chance to unbutton the woman beneath the surface as she cavorts with her young dancers, for once the centre of attention. This whole section borrows considerably from Gilda and the famous ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ sequence that allows Dee to channel plenty of Rita Hayworth moves as well as physical nods to her wavy red hair and fitted black dress.

Although Follies is predominantly about the memories and dreams of its female characters, with Weismann himself merely the conduit for the reunion of his dancers, the two male leads are given just enough stage time to give the audience plenty of insight into two rather hopeless marriages and the sacrifices all four characters have made to sustain them. Peter Forbes as Buddy initially seems a comedy aside, a genial and supportive husband, sharing his wife Sally’s wide-eyed welcome back to the big city. But as the story unfolds, Forbes shows us a man who’s spent a lifetime knowing he was second best, trying endlessly and fruitlessly to make Sally happy, worn down by the knowledge he can never be the one thing she wants… someone else. His many failures as a partner stem from loving someone who cannot return his feeling and Forbes’s performance ask whether dependability and fondness ultimately outlast passion as the best foundations for marriage.

In fine voice is Philip Quast as Ben, Phyllis’s lothario husband, now a politician and long-time object of Sally’s affection. Ben is a man who has always relied on his allure, and his attractiveness to women makes him feel powerful. In the growing estrangement with Phyllis, Quast reveals a bitterness in Ben that is initially hard to reconcile with his easy charm, but as the muddles of the evening unfold, Quast’s Ben fears both a lack of love and of not deserving it, that despite his façade he is in fact a sham.  His voice is beautiful in duet with Imelda Staunton and those mellifluous tones are from a golden age of musical theatre long since passed.

A final note on Tracie Bennet as Carlotta, the only ex-Folly who really made it, now a well-known actress, and a fitting contrast to all the meek and mumsy society wives that her fellow Follies became. Glamorous and jaded, Bennett gets the zesty number ‘I’m Still Here’ showing us Carlotta’s scrappy nature that has allowed her to claw her way to the top and stay there. She may have had multiple husbands and now much younger lovers, but there’s a rousing lack of regret that makes this performance one of the moments of the night.

Supported by a fine cast who each get their song, this National Theatre production has perfectly judged the tone of dark nostalgia, of expectant youth and wasted futures, and the danger of trying to recapture the past – a theme that couldn’t be more fitting in post-Brexit modern Britain. Even the tricky ghost or shadow selves are seamlessly woven into the production and avoid feeling cheesy. Instead, each character appears with her younger self in original costume, allowing Cooke to blur the boundary between past and present, hope and reality as if memories have been given physical form one last time.

Sometimes, a piece of theatre will catch you entirely unawares; you see plenty of good or even excellent work, but every now and then something comes along that generates an emotional connection you didn’t foresee. This heartbreaking production, that has earned uproarious standing ovations at every preview, is a National Theatre at the peak of its power, producing work of extraordinary quality and impact. Even at well over two hours without an interval, the time flies by and it’s always reassuring to see the integrity of the work taking precedence over bar sales. There may not have been a major production of Follies for a while, but with an astounding cast, glorious production values and an ache that lingers for days, this is a production you’ll never forget.

Follies is at the National Theatre until 3rd January. Tickets start at £15 and are also available at £20 via Friday Rush every week at 1pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Angels in America: Perestroika – National Theatre

So, at the end of Part One we left the characters of Angels in America on the cusp of new opportunities and in Perestroika playwright Tony Kushner explores the consequences of their choices in what becomes a sprawling journey through the identity politics of 80s America. First performed a year after Millennium Approaches, Perestroika is both more elaborate and in some ways a more substantial theatrical experience than its predecessor which is increasingly apparent in the National Theatre’s new production.

Running at well over 4 hours in previews with both parts combined being a near 8-hour commitment, this is a significant ask for an audience. Yet, intimidating as that may be, fluid direction means that scenes flow smoothly into one another and even with the first two acts being a substantial 90 minutes each Perestroika flies by, almost more easily than part one. A long show is always a risk, with the fear that actorly indulgence takes precedence over audience comfort, but for once with Angels in America it is a risk that pays off handsomely giving the viewer the chance to see something with an epic sweep that takes in issues of national and personal identity, religion and politics, while examining a set of distinct characters in satisfying detail.

If you haven’t seen part one then there will be some minor spoilers ahead but Perestroika begins exactly where Millennium Approaches left off, as an Angel crashes through the ceiling of Prior Walter’s bedroom and warns him that God has abandoned heaven, and much of what follows for Prior is a mixture of hallucinations and intrusions into real life as he copes with the fallout from his AIDs diagnosis and the end of his relationship with Louis. But things get more complicated when The Angel makes him a reluctant prophet who must stop mankind from moving, the only thing that can save heaven.

Meanwhile Louis is now in a relationship with Joe but struggles to overcome the guilt he feels for abandoning Prior and seeks an opportunity to meet face to face. Now in his first homosexual relationship, Joe becomes quickly and deeply attached to Louis but as faith and work come between them, Joe begins to crave the simplicity and stability he had with wife Harper who finds herself stuck working with her mother-in-law in a Mormon Visitors’ centre. And over in the hospital, vicious lawyer Roy uses his influence to secure a wonder-drug but he declines rapidly, and as his health fails he’s given a chance to see life and death as it really is.

Focusing heavily on Prior, Part Two is about restitution and the acceptance of self which allows each of the characters to find some kind of peace with themselves. Although not without incident and a complex journey for all, it feels more intimate than Part One and asks more direct questions about the quality of the life each person wants to live, while still touching on those big picture concepts of nationhood and faith. This strikes more of a chord partly because the audience already knows the characters quite well and becomes more invested in their trajectory, but also there is a sense of joy which runs through this second production that make Kushner’s message both engaging and genuinely life affirming.

One of the main reasons for that is because the plot of Perestroika also contains more large-scale hallucinatory episodes which give the National a chance to display its showmanship as bizarre flights of fancy create an engaging spectacle for the audience. Director Marianne Elliott’s War Horse experience brings a skilled integration of puppetry into representing Prior’s Angel, as the huge tatty wings are operated independently by a small team, while the Angel herself, played by Amanda Lawrence, is depicted as a shabby and possibly dangerous presence. The combined design of Finn Caldwell’s puppets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costume reinforce the idea of heaven gone to ruin in the absence of God, while there is something of the harpy about The Angel which make sense of Prior’s concerns.

This idea of magical realism is given a grubby façade, so later when Prior is given a choice between the fate of the Angels and that of man, it happens in a bleak sci-fi heaven rather than the fluffy white clouds we’re used to, while a spectacular diorama about a Mormon journey at the Visitors’ Centre inserts Joe into another of Prior and Harper’s joint hallucinations. It’s a brilliant creation, perfectly capturing dummies in a scene so familiar to old-fashioned museums, and were just a bit staid, while reiterating ideas about the different faces people wear in public and the excising of ordinary women from religious history. The scale and imagination displayed, and the way puppetry has been seamlessly woven into the production are a real high point of Perestroika and as scenes become increasingly crazy, there’s real fun to be had in just watching the show take shape in unexpected ways.

While Ian McNeil’s set felt too pedestrian in Millennium Approaches, the removal of the three revolves in Perestroika means the action flows much more smoothly and helps its long run time pass quickly. Scenes merge effortlessly, as hospitals, houses, parks and other realms easily give way to one another, allowing the audience to be swept between opposite places without confusion. McNeil outlines some scenes in bright boxes of neon light which create some memorable stage pictures, while a series of stage hands move sets into position dressed as dark crawling creatures adding to the idea that not only is disease raging unseen through the community but that lives are being controlled by bigger, possibly more nefarious, forces.

Like Part One, the characterisation is distinct and brought vividly to life by a talented cast. Again, Andrew Garfield is exemplary as Prior in what is certainly one of his best performances and probably one to watch for next year’s award ceremonies. In this production, Prior moves on from his initial anguish to discover greater inner reserves, coping independently with his condition while Garfield gives him an unexpected strength when he finally comes face-to-face with Louis again. In a wide-ranging performance, Garfield is hilarious as Prior faces the absurdity of The Angel and plays the prophet as a Norma Desmond-like-figure, but still he finds great sensitivity in a burgeoning relationship with Joe’s mother Hannah (Susan Brown) and in the hope that grows out of his sufferings.

Nathan Lane’s Roy is the big surprise in Perestroika drawing the audience into his performance and eliciting considerable sympathy for his destruction. Confined mostly to a hospital bed throughout, his fear and loneliness are palpable, and while he was a terrible person the reduction of all that scheming, manoeuvring and grasping for power to nothing is something Lane makes genuinely pitiable. Particularly enjoyable in this production is Roy’s belligerent relationship with his nurse Belize who being both black and openly gay are a challenge to Roy’s views. Yet Nathan Stewart-Jarrett weaves carefully between Belize’s duty of care as a nurse, wanting to help his patient, and sardonic attacks on Roy’s nonsense beliefs. With perfect comic timing, these scenes are among the best and most hilarious in this show.

Similarly, excellent is Susan Brown whose small role as Joe’s mother becomes much more fundamental here as she crosses paths with Prior and, having rejected her own son’s sexuality, is drawn into the life of the young man she takes to the hospital, developing a tender affection for him that demonstrates her re-education in the big city. Denise Gough’s Harper has less stage time in Part Two but, like Prior, she develops a an inner steel and independence that makes her ultimate quest for freedom from her unsuccessful marriage and from her fantasy world convincing, with the audience willing her to find a happier life.

With Perestroika performed a little less often than Millennium Approaches in the run-up to press night, it’s not quite as polished as it will be. With that in mind, Russell Tovey and James McArdle as Joe and Louis will find greater depth in their characters which should come as the run progresses and as they perform the full show a few more times. Tovey is extremely good in the early sections as Joe becomes clingy and certain he’s in love after only 3 weeks, but has more to give as the relationship sours and he is left alone, while McArdle captures the speed of Louis’s wordy delivery, his barrier against the world, but, as with Part One, has to connect more with the way in which his guilt and grief lead him to a greater understanding of himself.

Taken together, this two-part production of Angels in America is a considerable triumph for the National Theatre in what is a memorable production. It successfully combines a huge scope that confronts big philosophical concepts with the small-scale story of a group of inter-connected New Yorkers dealing with a major health crisis in uncertain times. It will mature as the run continues allowing the performances to grow and expand, and whether you connect more to the political angst of Millennium Approaches, or, like me, the bonkers fantasy of Perestroika, this is 7.5 hours of epic theatre that will leave a lasting impression. And even 25 years on its message is one we still need to hear, tolerance, openness and understanding are the most important thing society can offer, whoever you are and wherever you come from. As Prior discovers, ultimately life is all we have and we must cling to it.

Angels in America is at The National Theatre until 19th August with both parts running in repertory with some two-play days. Tickets are mostly sold out but returns frequently appear on the National website, but tickets are also available via Friday Rush and a weekly ballot for £20 run by Delta. NT Live screenings will also take place from 20 July


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