Tag Archives: Nicholas Hytner

TV Preview: The Women of Talking Heads

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett - BBC

The return of Alan Bennett’s anthology monologue series comes at an interesting moment, one where social and technological restrictions meet new expectations on all kinds of diversity, on-set behaviour and the value of the individual experience. When first screened in the late 1980s, Talking Heads was hailed as a masterpiece, gathering some of the UK’s finest actors in a series of short and somewhat radically presented stories direct to camera, celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary and everyday, those closely observed tragicomic moments and personalities that Bennett has always chronicled so well.

Talking Heads is the perfect drama for our socially distanced world, created during lockdown at Elstree using some of the Eastenders sets (part of the fun is trying to spot them), and unlike much of the content created in the last few months no video calling platforms are involved either as the subject matter or the technical filming solution. Staged demonstrated that TV dramas can still achieve a level of pre-lockdown quality under the right conditions, and while Talking Heads retains a focus predominantly on the domestic, as a collective experience it shows what is now achievable as a seamless visual and technical experience, focusing entirely on the storyteller and their narrative rather than being distracted or disrupted by the medium used to deliver it.

Bennett is a writer who has always served his female characters particularly well and in this version of the play set which includes two new or previously unperformed stories, ten of the twelve Talking Heads have female protagonists, most designed specifically for middle-aged characters. Times have changed of course in the last 30 years and recent campaigns have highlighted the lack of substantial roles for older actors, the dwindling representation of working class characters and the sexual exploitation of female actors within the wider industry, and it is interesting to see how well Bennett’s work anticipates and actively responds to these issues.

Bennett writes particularly well for women and within the ten monologues presented here, there is a strong sense of how the outer lives of the speaker and their public demeanour conceals a more complex, often conflicted, inner life. Looking  across the selection, these are characters that modern drama would rarely consider – the quiet and apparently unassuming vicar’s wife, the antique shop owner and pensioner –  their voices and their stories overlooked for women living racier and more dramatic lives.

That Bennett finds the value in the experience of such women and the simmering emotional pull of desire, vanity, anger, grief and guilt is the joy of Talking Heads. That there is drama and meaning in the most ordinary of lives is Bennett’s point, and beneath the folds of the drabbest cardigan are layers of personality, some of it sympathetic, some utterly monstrous with masses of contradictory impulses to know and be known. No life is truly ordinary at all. It is useful, then, to reconsider a selection of these monologues in the light of modern sensibilities, to consider how the new performances bring a different or more developed insight to Bennett’s original text.

Her Big Chance

Performed by Jodie Comer, this is one of the few stories written specifically for a younger actor, dealing with a world beyond the domestic. Directed by Josie Rourke, this version takes on an enhanced resonance in the light of Me Too and thus retains its 1980s setting. This tale of an exploited young actress has many levels, one of which would read Lesley merely as a naive young woman tricked into appearing in a low-rent film and increasingly exposed both physically and emotionally. There is a version in which her failure to grasp what is really happening is a deluded lunge at fame in which she takes herself and her craft far too seriously, the outcomes entirely due to the personality of the character.

But with the testimonial experiences of recent years and those who have spoken out against film and television industry abusers, Rourke and Comer take a more knowing approach, ensuring that both the audience and Lesley understand the scarring consequences of her various encounters, building a moving sense of her vulnerability as the monologue unfolds.  Screening tonight on BBC1, Her Big Chance picks up the story at different points in time, with Lesley pausing to reflect on her experience as it happens, changing the tenure of the narrative as it unfolds and continually repositioning our image of this young woman as the recognition and experience of violation slowly crystallises in her mind.

And it was all there already, between the lines of Bennett’s script giving the performer any number of possibilities for interpreting this character and her degree of self-knowledge, something which ebbs, flows and morphs across the 42 minutes – one of the longest pieces in the set. Comer chooses these spaces between the words to situated her interpretation, putting a brave face on the narrative itself, even half-believing the effect she hopes this will have on her career and desire to be a serious actress, but in those breaths is a universe of pain, fear, regret and sorrow, that truth sitting like a shadow on her soul.

And while in the dozen monologues on offer Her Big Chance is not in the top tier, Comer’s performance certainly elevates the material and shares with her fellow actors a particular ear for the rhythm of Bennett’s dialogue, those fruitful commas that so purposefully create the peculiarities of speech, cadence and the conversational drift between remembered events and the protagonist’s present mindset. Comer uses the camera so well, open and expressive during the early excitement of auditioning for and landing a big film role, before shyly almost guiltily glancing away, the hint of tears as shame and fear creep in.

It is a theatrical experience with takes sometimes as long as 8-minutes in which Rourke places her camera in a confessional space, adding a girlish tinge to her set, dressed with soft low lighting in Lesley’s bedroom while the backstage area of her movie has hints of neon lights and a glamour just out of reach. There’s something of Tennessee Williams about it at times, a caged creature trying to break free and only falling deeper into the mire while the bolshie fragility that Comer unveils is troubling, dramatising her exploitation but always with the understanding of how that will resonate in twenty-first century Britain.

The Hand of God

In many ways, The Hand of God (screening on Thursday 2 July) is an interesting companion piece, fronted by a woman whose financial, social and emotional position seems relatively secure in comparison to Lesley. Played by Kristin Scott Thomas this tale of an antiques dealer failing to recognise an important treasure while preying on the homes of the soon to be deceased, is filled with snobbery, avarice and ambition while retaining its small-world community feel.

Directed by Jonathan Kent The Hand Of God is a gripping 32-minutes set in Celia’s shop where, like several other characters in the series, she watches life beyond the window while recounting clients and encounters we never see. Celia frets about an unsold table, the pressures of turning stock over quickly and the transparent games customers play when hoping to find a bargain.

But Kent uses these really interesting slow-tracking shots, a barely perceptible movement of the camera which during the lengthy segments subtly circles across and then in towards the character as her true nature is increasingly exposed. Using this technique, a layer of surface decency is expunged revealing, more subtly than in A Lady of Letters, the snobbery and occasional venality deep within her character.

But there is something incredibly rounded in Scott Thomas’s portrayal which quietly pinpoints grief and loneliness as the origin of her behaviour, while in her most vulnerable moments when exposed and publicly embarrassed, there is an empathy too that suggests how thin her veneer of respectability has been. Scott Thomas has a way of glancing from the corner of her eyes, fearing what our reactions to her will be. The repeated references to Celia’s love for painted furniture and loathing for the denuded appearance of stripped pine favoured by other dealers is crucial to her interpretation, the mask of middle-class decency, culture and poise she presents  hides a multitude of traits that in Scott Thomas’s contained performance seem to surprise her as much as they do the viewer.

The Shrine

In one of the new monologues, Monica Dolan’s character also finds herself surprised by her reaction to the death of her husband, one which in a sense upends the confessional nature of the previous stories. Although other tales have used the camera to unburden their conscience or their hearts, in The Shrine there is sometimes a marked contrast between the things Lorna tells us she feels and her subsequent actions. And while loneliness is an outcome of her newly widowed state, the driving forces of this story are grief and revelation, as Lorna discovers she didn’t know her husband as well as she thought.

Give Monica Dolan any kind of role to play and she will be devastating in it, and she has specialised particularly in the types of women Bennett likes to write about, seemingly ordinary, often put upon and fighting against an emotional repression that eventually bursts forth. In this story, Lorna has supported her husband throughout their marriage, guiltily telling the audience early on that she isn’t upset by his death, creating the impression of a once comfortable but now loveless marriage retained through habit and ease because at their time of life they don’t quite knowing what else they would do with themselves.

But Dolan’s performance is full of labyrinths so the audience is never quite sure how honest Lorna is being with herself and what information she has simply chosen to ignore or deny. Soon we discover regular visits to the place where her husband’s motorbike crashed, a spot which initially she insists has no meaning but is one she continues to return to, holding vigil day after day. The complexities of grief in Dolan’s characterisation manifest as subtle twitches and shakes as though holding in a tidal wave of feeling, telling us she doesn’t care but showing us how destructive Clifford’s death has been.

Screening on 9 July with Nicholas Hytner at the helm – the architect behind the reshoots taking direct control of several of the monologues – he directs The Shrine as though the audience is catching Lora unawares in the midst of other tasks. One scene is almost intrusive as the camera takes her by surprise in the hallway, forcing her to confront a knowledge of her husband  that she wants to hide from. Hytner’s approach isn’t aggressive, more nagging, reflecting Dolan’s own performance in which Lorna knows the truth but wants to pretend a little longer that she doesn’t.

Across the 10 monologues, Bennett’s women prove to be not-so-ordinary after all, and watching them in fairly quick succession it is interesting to consider how easily society dismisses or just doesn’t even see so many of these people. Bennett’s particular gift is for peeling back the cardigan to reveal female characters who may present one face to the neighbourhood but underneath are a blaze of contradictory emotions, hopes, fears and possibilities – their interior life, Bennett argues, is just as vital and valuable as anyone else’s. So, 30 years on the decision to reshoot these is entirely understandable, our context may be different and standards of behaviour changing rapidly, but human nature, is constant and whether it is petty jealousies at the antiques shop or inappropriate love stories, Bennett’s women have seen and felt it all.

The full series of Talking Heads is available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Art of Theatre Photography

Present Laugher by Manuel Harlan - Uncle Vanya by Johan Persson - Betrayal by Marc Brenner

Theatre photography is one of the most important ways to promote a new production and simultaneously one of the elements audiences – and probably most creatives – actively think least about. While the contributions of actors, directors, designers and more recently the technical crew to creating and embodying the visual concept of a show are increasingly understood and recognised within the industry, the role of the photographer is vastly underestimated. Search for ‘theatre photography’ and the results focus entirely on technical learning and tips but far less on the crucial role of the photographer in capturing the essence of a production. Yet, to the outside world, their images are the entry point into a show, brokering that relationship with potential audiences.

Production and rehearsal room photos are far more than window dressing and along with posters that increasingly use digital photography rather than graphics, they signal to potential theatregoers what this production has to say. They demonstrate how revivals have distinguished their approach from earlier productions and help new shows to compete in a crowded marketplace, where numerous alternatives vye for your attention and your money. A set of well chosen photographs can do far more than the critics and sometimes even the synopsis to entice an audience into the theatre – as a promotional tool, they are invaluable.The very best production shots can distil the work of the wider cast and crew into a series of storytelling images, bringing the show’s aesthetic as well as its tone, style and psychological approach meaningfully into view.

Yet, only a few photographers are able to truly capture the essence of a production, to encapsulate its quality and depth in a single shot and three photographers have dominated the professionalisation and art of stage imagery for some time – Johan Persson, Marc Brenner and Manuel Harlan. Their pictures make the transition into independent objects of art, acting only partly as a visual record of performance and instead largely exist as beautiful images in their own right. These photographers are particularly adept at recording that one defining image, the analysis of which reveals all you need to know about that particular show.

Johan Persson

Persson’s sought after work recently includes Ian Rickson’s productions of Rosmersholm in 2019 and Uncle Vanya (pictured above) at the beginning of 2020, both of which had a painterly set designed by Rae Smith. Persson’s ability to capture the particularly shades of those spaces, the combination of light and shadow in the visuals was particularly striking as forgotten corners of lived-in rooms were briefly illuminated by rays of sunlight from the natural world intruding into a once silent household. He is a photographer that often finds contradiction in an image as the emotional and the physical contend.

One of Persson’s finest images – an arguably one of the truly great theatre pictures – has re-emerged during lockdown thanks to the proliferation of online theatre performances. This image of Tom Hiddleston in the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus was printed on the back of tickets before the venue went paperless last year and was framed on their staircase. Memorable even six years on, this is electrifying photography, full of drama and evoking a particular moment within the show where the bloodied hero, victoriously returned from battle, enjoys a moment alone. Crucially as a single representation of this production it captures everything Director Josie Rourke wanted to say across its 2.5 hour running time.

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

We see the intensity of this second and its fervent masculinity as the figure plastered in the blood of other men enjoys a moment of post-victory elation. But he is rendered human by the contrasting notes of vulnerability in the image, the painful wince caused by water on freshly drawn wounds, the physical cost of societal expectations of manly behaviour playing out across his body as he privately grapples with the mental and material cost of war, a cost he must tend to in this very private scene that sits between the lines of Shakepeare’s play. Watched through, Hiddleston’s characterisation visits every aspect of this character’s public and private face which is so forcibly and stunningly captured here in this single Persson image.

Contrast that with this photograph from the musical Follies, first staged at the National Theatre in 2017 when Persson took this show-defining photograph, one that eschews the big stars to reflect an obsession with the nostalgic and ethereal that were so bewitching in Dominic Cooke’s landmark interpretation. There is a dreamlike quality to the visuals created by Vicki Mortimer on stage that is rendered entirely in this single image, and while Coriolanus is about two realities – the military and the personal – colliding, Follies is entirely focused on unreality, on fantasy, the impressionability of memory and the despair of lives never lived.

Follies by Johan Persson (National Theatre)

Persson’s image has the same photographic quality as his shot  from Coriolanus but the ghostly image of historic chorus girls backlit against the crumbling facade of the music hall’s brickwork and the illuminated Weismann’s Follies sign, itself in disrepair, pinpoints the emotional confusion of Sally, Buddy, Ben and Phyllis as they travel back in time. The lingering regret of Follies, the glamour of youth and the memory of so much possibility lost is at the heart of Sondheim’s musical. Avoiding sentimentality, Persson’s single shot entirely sums-up a production in which these shadow-selves haunted and comforted the women they became, the Follies itself a now crumbling edifice to something now permanently adrift, a time, a life and a dream about to be crushed forever.

Marc Brenner

Brenner’s work has been just as emotive, a favourite at the Almeida, his photographs have captured moments of great intimacy and flair on stage where external political, socio-economic and military structures buffet the characters as forcibly as their inner lives. Brenner has developed a particularly fruitful relationship with Jamie Lloyd, recording all of his productions from the seedy excesses of 2016’s Faustus to the visual simplicity of the remarkable Pinter at the Pinter season, the emotional cavern of Betrayal (pictured above) and, most recently, the brooding linguistic energy of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Last summer, Brenner took this image at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre during Lloyd’s superb revival of Evita whose transfer to the Barbican this summer has been sadly postponed. Brenner’s long experience of Lloyd’s work instantly reveals all you need to know about this production. Gone are the elaborate 1980s costumes, the coiffured hairdos and elaborate sets and in their place is Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour’s fresh and unencumbered vision told in the Argentinian colours of white and blue, using the original purity of the lyrics and the music to tell the story of Eva Peron while bringing a new visual language to the experience of musical theatre.

Evita by Marc Brenner (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

In his blog, Brenner writes about the challenge of staging the images of this production, working with the parallel shapes created by Gilmour’s steps and responding to the changes to sunset times that daily affected lighting design across the entire run. As art, this image incorporates that technical knowledge, snapping the moment the light falls on the central female figure, framing her against the even rake of the staging and the almost symmetrically-posed dancers. But the depth in Brenner’s photograph encapsulates and reflects the layers of meaning in the story. Here is the simply dressed but nonetheless charismatic Eva Peron who uses her humble origins to climb the ladder of fame, building relationship with the working classes to sustain her position. The smoke effects speak to the frequency of protest and violence in the musical, as well as the almost goddess-like status that Evita achieved which bookends the show.

Evita’s relationship to Colonel Peron may be a political powerplay, but one of Brenner’s most beautiful creations is this image for Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida (where it was also printed on the back of tickets) which transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre. The performance reawakened interest in lesser-performed Tennessee Williams plays and became a captivating example of two people just missing one another. Famed for its rare stripped back approach, using musical tones to set the emotional beat and pace of the story, Brenner’s gorgeous picture, like Persson’s shot from Coriolanus, is one of the great examples of theatre photography as art in its own right, expressing the hopeless romanticism of the relationship between John and Alma through this one image.

Summer and Smoke by Marc Brenner (Almeida Theatre)

The soft pink/orange glow of the lighting sets a mood for this picture evoking the warm evening heat of the South that is so essential to tone and atmosphere in Williams’s most lyrical work. This highly romanticised scene as depicted by Brenner is a momentary fantasy between them but one tinged with regretful longing. John’s (Matthew Needham) direct gaze reflects his open personality while Alma’s (Patsy Ferran) slighty bowed head and closed eyes speak volumes about her process of internalisation in which this moment of physical intimacy warms and scares her – both hope for so much in this second but already understand it cannot end happily. It is an eloquent and dramatically layered shot, instantly transporting the viewer back to one of the most arresting productions of recent years.

Manuel Harlan

Understanding the same degrees of light and shade in an image, Manuel Harlan’s work, favoured by The Old Vic and the RSC, is incredibly evocative, often recording key moments of change or the thematic subtext of a play that helps the audience to understand the genesis of the production. This image from David Leveaux’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was not used in press releases or reviews, and was perhaps considered too oblique as a marketing tool showing neither of the production’s leads, Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. Yet, it is an extraordinarily atmospheric summary of a play that recasts two originally shadowy figures from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives them their comic due. What happens in this photography is particularly fascinating, recording in one sense the purposeful artificiality of Anna Fleischel’s staging choices – the roll of marbled paper that covers ceiling, walls and floor, the errant stepladder and the strategically positioned lighting – to create a studio feel, while at the same time offering a hint of these two characters overwhelmed by the vast emptiness of the world they inhabit and, the small part they play in Shakespeare’s construction of it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Manuel Harlan (Old Vic)

As a piece of art, the illumination of the two protagonists captured in silhouette behind a gauzy curtain speaks to the notions of concealment and spying that are vital to both plays as well as their tangential role in the events at Elsinore. At the same time the hints of colour, a dash of orange on the rear wall and at the top of the curtain add a liveliness to what would almost be a solely black and white depiction of this world. It is a striking piece of photography, one that implies a purgatorial state in which Stoppard and Shakespeare have trapped their characters, not quite real but not entirely fictionalised either.

All too real was the dynamic verve of The Bridge’s immersive production of Julius Caesar staged in 2018 at the still relatively young playhouse by Nicholas Hytner, allowing members of the audience to act as the whipped-up mob crucial to the action in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. The immediacy of the production is reflected in this turning-point moment, photographed by Harlan, immediately following the death of Caesar in which the Conspirators begin to recognise the unforeseen dangers they have unleashed

Julius Caesar by Manuel Harlan (Bridge Theatre)

Harlan, like Persson with his shot of Coriolanus and Brenner in his image from Evita, has entirely caught a defining political and human moment in this picture which implicitly reveals the rest of the play. The artistic framing and use of perspective in this shot are vital, the Conspirators are foregrounded with their hands bathed in blood and purpose achieved, while the ruined corps of Caesar is raised above them, his gaping wounds soon to be referenced in Mark Antony’s famous speech both centralised and slightly out of focus. Yet, the confusion of Brutus, Cassius et al foretells the misdirection to come as they fail to sell their deed to the onlooking crowd, a fatal flaw in their plot which will cost them their lives. Harlan has entirely caught the energy of this room and the exact moment at which the game changes.

Selling prints may not be something theatres want to consider – although in the newly straightened times created by months of enforced lockdown it may generate some much needed revenue – but theatre photography is far more than a series of marketing images. The very best exponents of this art form, Persson, Brenner and Harlan, are able to locate and develop a shot that summarises the narrative and thematic substance of a show, incorporating the director, designer and actors’ vision. But they also move to a realm beyond the physical representation of theatre, these extraordinary images are objects of art, testament to the skill of photographers able to read, interpret and capture these defining moments.

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One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre at Home

One Man, Two Guvnors - National Theatre At Home

In the past 11 years the way we engage with and consume theatre has changed, thanks in large part to the efforts of National Theatre Live, launched in 2009 to beam productions to cinemas around the world allowing far wider access to (largely) London’s best shows. In what has been nothing short of a revolution in how organisations engage with audiences and,with several live screenings each year capturing the very best theatre has to offer, millions of people have been able to enjoy performances they would otherwise never have seen due to geographical or financial restrictions. As opera, dance and all kinds of theatre took steps to increase their filmed offerings, every screening has become an ‘event’, creating a substantial community of people dedicated to creating and watching arts content for the price of a cinema ticket.

It has been a significant development, and for £20-£25, which would buy you a restricted and likely distant view in a West End theatre, cinema-goers have a perspective better even than the front row because in its decade-long history, the skills of the NT Live camera crew and directors has made watching each production an intimate and cinematic experience while never losing the excitement of live theatre. It’s never quite the same as being in the room with the actors but there has been a huge development in the filming process, expertly using wide screen shots to show the whole stage, mixed with the intimacy of tighter frames and quick cuts to reflect the emotional and psychological tension within a play. Anyone who saw the recent live screening of Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac will appreciate how skillfully the NT Live team plotted the technical set-up of the shoot to capture the vibrancy and intimacy of the production which fizzed beautifully from the screen – and if anyone ever doubted that a cinema relay could even minutely reflect the intensity of the room, the long, slow intimacy of that close-up as James McAvoy delivered Cyrano’s great monologue had hearts beating wildly up and down the country.

The point is that the National Theatre has been at the vanguard of community outreach for a long time, and while some of its scheduling choices have come under fire in recent years and its London-centric approach criticised – and any national institution should rightly and publicly be held to account – the temporary creation of National Theatre at Home is a savvy, meaningful and entirely welcome contribution to the development of a remote community at a time of crisis. There is a lot of theatre available to stream, many Companies are generously making vintage shows available for short periods but with all its PR resources the National Theatre is creating a lockdown event, encouraging viewers to sit down at 7pm every Thursday to watch one of its archive productions as it first airs. Alone together last week around 200,000 people did just that, rising to almost a million by lunchtime on Friday – and potentially far more if multiple people are gathered round the screen.

The first show in the National Theatre at Home programme was the 2011 smash-hit One Man, Two Guvnors, one of the great success stories of the Nicholas Hytner era, a cheeky farce written by Richard Bean and starring National Theatre favourites James Corden and Oliver Chris. On its initial release, the show enjoyed a run in the Lyttleton before a West End transfer which ran for three years, a Broadway run and three UK tours, plus an international production that went to Hong Kong and Australia. As one of the National Theatre’s most successful and much-loved shows, One Man, Two Guvnors is a superb choice to lift a nation’s spirits, and even watching alone knowing that hundreds of thousands of others were doing the same felt significant. And it’s the first time we’ve all really laughed in weeks. If you’ve never seen it before, then you are in for a treat.

Set in 1960s Brighton, Bean’s play with music is as superb an example of brilliantly plotted and executed farce as you will ever see. Something that looks this light and effortlessly silly on the surface is incredibly sophisticated and technical to create. The mixture of word play and physical humour is complicated and there are moments when jokes come at a quick fire pace or when one piece of slapstick leads to another and then another in a rolling effect that requires everyone to be exactly in the right place without making any of it feel contrived or overly rehearsed which this production achieved with astonishing precision while retaining the freshness of each comic scenario.

The plot is classic farce, utlising mistaken identity, twins and disguises to ingenious effect while three sets of apparently unrelated characters create havoc for lead Francis Henshall who is pulled in various directions when he ends-up working for two bosses at the same time. But while Bean employs a lot of the techniques of the genre, he uses them in unexpected ways and often what seem like obvious set-ups such as money given to the wrong employer or the physical consumption of a crucial letter which should result in eventual confrontation and exposure for Francis, are used almost like red herrings, resolved (or forgotten) quickly with little consequence. The result is to keep the audience on their toes, diverting us away from the lazy cliche which may cause our attention to wander and instead using the comedy set-up to unexpected effect.

The great set-piece of One Man, Two Guvnors comes at the end of Act One as inside The Cricketers pub where both Guvnors Stanley Stubbers and Roscoe Crabbe are staying, the hungry Francis is required to serve them both a multi-course lunch with the help of a decrepit and unsteady waiter on his first day in the job (think Victoria Wood “Two Soups” sketch). With room mix-ups, food arrivals being dashed between the diners while being siphoned off by Francis for himself, some terrified audience participation and plenty of examples of the waiter being hit by doors and falling down the stairs, this scene is a comic delight and absolute nothing to do with the plot. It’s a clever choice by Bean, deciding to include a lengthy segment that doesn’t advance the story but gives insight into the burden on Francis, and the play’s chance to include a scene that is just funny purely for its own sake, beautifully pitched by the cast – and if you worry for the poor lady dragged out of the front row, take a look at everyone in the curtain call and rest easy.

And there is added joy for theatre-lovers in Bean’s writing that sets this show above the average, with plenty of references to other writers and styles that add an extra dimension to the humour. The structure borrows much from Shakespeare comedies of course using twins and gender disguises to fool other characters, while the inclusion of asides to the audience which both Francis and Dolly use to great effect creates a sense of confederacy with the viewer, as well as plenty of meta ad libbing as a houmous sandwich offered by a man in the third row threatens to ruin everything.

Surprisingly there is a touch of Pinter too, a low-level hint of menace as Roscoe brings London’s 1960s East End gangsters to Brighton to frighten Charlie Clench as various degrees of powerful men try to intimidate each other to receive money owed with threats of violence that drives the plot. The contrasting seediness of this behaviour in the seaside setting is also very Pinteresque, redolent of the coastal boarding house of The Birthday Party, while one of the finest jokes references Chekhov’s The Seagull. There is a confidence in how seamlessly these influences fit into what is entirely a comic play, demonstrating Bean’s skill as a writer in creating larger-than-life-scenarios while acknowledge a debt to key theatre practitioners.

Designed by Mark Thompson this is a cartoon version of the 60s that suits the quirky style of the humour, lots of purposefully unreal looking flats painted to look like houses, pubs and a backdrop seaside vista complete with illustrated pier, while the interior of Charlie Clench’s house where several scenes are set is a homage to big prints and homely furnishings, all of which look just as wonderfully quirky and hyper-real onscreen. Director Nicholas Hytner keeps things flowing brilliantly and the 2 hours and 40 minutes of this production fly by, it’s 90-minutes before the interval (edited out of this National Theatre At Home version) and you won’t even notice you’re having so much fun. Scene changes are masked by a dropped curtain and a faux skiffle band called ‘The Craze’ with original and period-appropriate songs written, composed and performed by Grant Olding, along with band mates Philip James, Richard Coughlan and Ben Brooker which add to the 60s atmosphere. In the second half, these are enhanced and varied when the cast join in with steel drums, a girl group and even a horn-playing Oliver Chris.

As Francis, James Corden gives one of his best performances, managing the elements of the farce with ease while making it seem as though the story is unfolding naturally, especially enhanced by the odd ad lib as Corden reacts to audience interaction and tries not to laugh at fellow cast members. His Francis is a little weaselly initially as an opportunity to make double money drops in his lap, but there’s an everyman quality that brings the audience onside as the comic effects become increasingly ridiculous. Full of charm, Corden bewitches audiences in the room and at home as we hope for a happy ending all round.

The supporting roles are delivered with equal verve; Oliver Chris is every second a joy as the boarding school posh boy on the run, a big exuberant performance that mines a rich seam of comedy that has a sitcom silliness to the delivery (and how sad that his new play Jack Absolute Flies Again has to be postponed); Jemima Rooper as the disguised Roscoe / Rachel has tons of fun switching between gender characteristics while producing some genuine threat; Suzie Toase as love interest Dolly is a whip smart bookkeeper who knows how to manage her life and her man, while Daniel Rigby as aspiring actor Alan, Claire Lams as his permanently vacant fiancee Pauline and Fred Ridgeway as her father Charlie add plenty of extra dimension to the wonderful nonsense of the play.

The energy of this 2011 production carries to the screen so well and with four more days to see it on the National Theatre at Home Youtube Channel this is the injection of pure joy we all need right now. The NT has some absolutely stellar productions in its archive and it will be interesting to see if some of those filmed elsewhere will also feature depending how long the lockdown continues – Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar was exemplary, as was Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire both produced by the Young Vic. With three further productions announced, Jane Eyre from Thursday at 7pm, followed by Treasure Island and Twelfth Night on successive weeks, this inaugural home screening has been a communal gift to the nation, event theatre lives on!

One Man, Two Guvnors is available to watch for free via National Theatre at Home until 7pm on Thursday 9 April, when it will be replaced with Jane Eyre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Bridge Theatre

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Bridge Theatre (Manuel Harlan)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be a perennial favourite, a light romantic comedy of tampered relationships and fairy magic, but on closer inspection it’s not quite the harmless fun that we think it is. Last year, The Faction gave us a darker interpretation, full of sinister woodland creatures and lurking danger amplified by the shadowy gloom of Wilton’s Music Hall, insisting that meddling sprites were spiteful interlopers keen to disrupt the human world. Now, Nicholas Hytner’s immersive production at the Bridge Theatre has a new dimension to add, one that highlights and rectifies the shameful treatment of women in the play.

It has been another difficult year for the Bridge, with new play commissions continuing the theatre’s disappointing run. Nightfall, Alys, Always and Allelujah! opened to lukewarm reviews while the much-anticipated A Very Very Dark Matter from the celebrated pen of Martin McDonagh was an anger-inducing waste of major theatre space. No wonder then that Hytner and co. have gone back to the Bridge’s only true smash hit for inspiration.

It may have been established to house new work but it fell to an ever-reliable writer called William Shakespeare to save the day, and last February the Bridge Theatre unveiled its immersive production of Julius Caesar – an innovative and tub-thumping triumph that was everything theatre should be. Energised by its judicious two-hour run-time, excellent performances and smart design, Hytner’s approach was both slick and full of staging surprises that played well to its in-the-round audience whether seated or part of the crowd in the pit.

Hytner adopts a lot of the same methods for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and achieves much the same, although perhaps an ever so slightly less rousing, effect with spectacle aplenty and some wonderful comic performances that shake-up a tired play. But it is the slight rearrangement of the text and its implication for the female characters that is Hytner’s most notable achievement here, adding additional perspectives on the social structures of Shakespeare’s piece while making greater sense of the overall story.

It opens in a grey dystopian world, Hippolyta dressed in nun-like garb is trapped in a glass box listening to a choral choir as the audience take their places. Soon the severe Theseus speaks in solemn tones about his forthcoming wedding to the bride he won in battle – a throwaway line that’s easy to miss – a dynastic union of conquest and humiliation for the ensnared Queen. Christina Cunningham’s costumes nod to The Handmaid’s Tale as the women cover their hair with a scarf and dress in loose-fitting uniforms that demand their subservience and silence.

Normally it is the men who run this play, Theseus and Egeus decide who The Lovers should marry, while in the play’s fantastical middle section it is the jealous Oberon who enchants Titania so she humiliatingly cavorts with the ass-headed Bottom, while impish Puck mistakenly bewitches the wrong man resulting in frustration and further indignities for Helena and Hermia. Hytner however subverts the way in which these magical ministrations play upon the feelings of the women by partially transposing the characters of Oberon and Titania to political and comic effect.

After fighting over the changeling boy, it is Titania who decides to teach Oberon a lesson by dowsing his sleeping eyes with a magical flower so that he falls in love with Bottom instead. The result is hilarious in a production that hints at sexual fluidity in several characters and makes for an unusual but very smart re-imagining of the play’s core comic scenes in which Oliver Chris as Oberon and Hammed Animashaun are delightfully funny. But this well-judged silliness holds a deeper meaning, and Hytner uses these woodland antics to underscore the revolution taking place back in Athens in which women are liberated from their secondary role. With Theseus and Oberon essentially the same character, the events of this midsummer night in which Hippolyta/Titania decides to teach him a lesson before she can marry him, start to make perfect sense in this slightly amended narrative arc. The result is a captured Queen regarded now as an equal rather than a prize.

It is a notable change to the original play but one that brings a fresh, more contemporary feel to the play’s major relationships without altering the overall plot or even much of Shakespeare’s original text. A Midsummer Night’s Dream can bear such playful rearrangement and in a year where two other professional productions lay ahead at The Globe and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, one or both will surely provide a more traditional approach for purists. And it’s reassuring to know that such a well-known play can still yield plenty of insight with a little fairy ingenuity.

Equally impressive is Bunny Christie’s wonderful set, and as with Julius Caesar last year a variety of small block stages rise from different points in the floor to create variety and a dynamic energy within the show. But the magical elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are also explored using several iron bedsteads (focusing on the title’s final word – dream) that appear around the room on which the various relationship pairings will sleep and be drugged. As the action unfolds, these become increasingly entwined with the forest as vines and flowers wrap around the frame and, after a quick change at the interval, a maze-like structure of bunkbeds, grassy patches, mattresses and single bed frames link together through the centre of the pit to create the confusing woodland layout.

But Christie has even more tricks to entertain us and so the fairies become circus performers suspended from the ceiling on loops of cloth in which they can perform a gymnastic display above the heads of the pit crowd. At several points Titania and Puck watch and guide the action from the air, while the fairies perform a full acrobatic routine during the interval to reinforce the immersive magic of the overall production. Beds too rise into the air as sleeping lovers are placed on pause while other activities take place. These carefully choreographed and well executed sequences are delightful, while the complex transitions are really well managed by the creative and technical team who create an effortlessly busy and fairy-tale effect.

Already a very fine comic actor, Oliver Chris has a particular ear for Shakespeare’s rhythms and his Oberon is one of this production’s most successful choices. His overly enamoured fairy King is perfectly pitched mining different aspects of Shakespeare’s comedy to maximise all the hilarity of the love affair with Bottom. The earnest and exuberant enthusiasm with which Chris delivers lines that elsewhere belong to Titania contrast brilliantly with the equal solemnity of his Theseus, a grave and joyless man leading a dangerous state. Yet it is the visual comedy that so well underscores this middle section of the play without distracting from Shakespeare’s characterisation, and whether cavorting with Bottom in a variety of comic guises or revealing the shy and bold characteristics of his enchanted love, Chris delivers a well-balanced physical and intellectual performance that is a highlight of the evening.

His fairy Queen Titania, played by Gwendoline Christie, is a commanding presence enacting her mischievous plan not just for her own amusement – as a straightforwardly gendered production suggests – but to reveal the limitations of Theseus/Oberon’s view of the world. Christie is simultaneously an ethereal presence in her sweeping green gown (a stunning creation by Cunningham) and a warrior Queen. The continuity of character from the captured Hippolyta who may be the spoils of war but whose power to change the course of the action is undiminished as she becomes the revenge-taking Titania has a nice clarity in Christie’s performance, making greater sense of the play’s happier ending once her future husband has been tamed by her power rather this his army.

The Lovers are difficult, often quite tepid roles but Isis Hainsworth’s Hermia, Kit Young’s Lysander, Paul Adeyefa’s Demetrius and Tessa Bonham Jones as Helena form a more interesting quartet than often seen, driven by different lusts and moments of sexual fluidity that reveal the extent of the fairies’ meddling, while David Moorst channels a bit of Lee Evans in his servile but cheeky Puck who feels equally at home as an otherworldly presence on the circus ropes as he does down in the pit bantering with audience members failing to make way for him.

The Rude Mechanicals can be one of the hardest sections of the play to get right and the final enactment of the Pyramus and Thisbe tale a late-stage distraction that prolongs our home time. Not so in this production where the enthusiastic amateur players become a unified comic force in their matching sweatshirts (very Pitch Perfect) while retaining just enough individuality to distinguish between them. Led by Felicity Montagu’s Quince the jealousies and frustrations of this little group are revealed, but it is Animashaun’s interpretation of Bottom that invariably steals all the best lines, building a rapport with the audience that lasts right through the play-within-a-play. Bottom’s lack of self-awareness about his acting ability within the Mechanicals and his physical attractiveness as a lover is very funny, and Animashaun’s chemistry with Chris adds so much to their scenes together. Perhaps the most surprising achievement is how well the actors work together to make that final scene genuinely funny with a few extra nods to the in-the-round and immersive nature of this production that send the audience home on a high.

Hytner’s production is not quite as good as last year’s Julius Caesar, partly because it’s a better play than A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also, to a degree, the novelty of the immersive staging has a touch less impact the second time around. It’s also not as slick with the advertised run-time already adding 10-minutes to make it 2 hours and 50 minutes currently. Nonetheless, Hytner always directs Shakespeare so well, and his approach to the text offers considered and genuinely interesting insight as well as more than enough spectacle to reinforce the play’s magical quality. The Bridge Theatre has made these immersive productions its own, and unlike the usual proscenium arrangement that flattens all their new work, the energy and excitement of these immersive shows is fully engaging whether you are seated or standing in the pit. There are a few more version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to come before the summer is out, but it’s unlikely there’ll be a better one than this.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Bridge Theatre until 31st August with seated of standing tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


From Stage to Screen: Allelujah! – Bridge Theatre

Allelujah - Bridge Theatre

70 years ago, the NHS came into being, and not too long after that the first medical dramas followed. The history of our free health service and the history of television almost go hand-in-hand. Medical soaps and dramas dominated the schedules for decades, until arguable crime replaced them as our favourite genre. A particular affinity with the screen, early examples like Doctor Kildare, General Hospital and Dr Finlay’s Case Book evolved into much-loved American dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the invincible long-running shows Casualty, Doctors and Doc Martin – the world of doctors, nurses and patients is ever ripe for dramatic interpretation.

But that’s only the tip of the medical iceberg; during the lifespan of the NHS, a plethora of documentary series from 24 hours in A&E to Embarrassing Bodies have given us plenty of fly-on-the-wall access and real-life insight. Meanwhile film has also used the hospital as its location many times, and long before more recent American examples including Extreme Measures and Parkland, British movie depictions started with the gentle humour of Doctor in the House and its ensuing sequels, and the cheeky naughtiness of numerous Carry Ons (Nurse, Doctor, Again Doctor and Matron). Popular culture has, then, long reflected the intensity, silliness and political deprivation that has blighted the development of our free health service in the last 70 years.

Theatre though has paid relatively little regard to the medical services, and despite Nina Raine’s Tiger Country, last revived at the Hampstead Theatre in 2014, and The Globe’s Doctor Scroggy’s War set during the 1914-1918 conflict, few plays have used the hospital or doctor’s surgery as their primary focus. The doctor as a character turns-up all over the place, from Agatha Christie suspects to Patrick Marber lovers (in Closer), but their own environment has been strangely neglected by playmakers. So the duel promise of a new NHS-based play written by Alan Bennett – his first in six years – is interesting for many reasons, not least that it will receive its very own cinema transfer on 1 November, a medium that given the screen history of the NHS, may change our perception of the production.

Bennett is easily the biggest name to premiere a play during the Bridge Theatre’s first year of operation. Set in a tradition “cradle to grave” hospital, Allelujah! has quite a broad remit, tackling issues of individual patient care, hospital management, the closure and integration of smaller facilities and the politically sensitive cuts advocated by central Government. Bennett’s writing touches on so many issues that, understandably, his narrative frame becomes rather over-stretched so the forces that compel the core story become a little contorted.

But to what extent is this the consequence of its theatrical form, a place where conventions of drama create certain structural preconceptions about story and character? Seeing Bennett’s medical story on a screen may lend it an entirely new face, where the broad episodic structure of the writing and its impassioned personal versus the political plot may seem more at home among the serialised medical dramas seen every week on screen. Our leading playwrights are just as likely to be seen penning screen-dramas and forthcoming attractions include Mike Bartlett’s 6-part series Press in September set in a news agency and James Graham’s Brexit drama next spring. With so much crossover between stage and screen, seeing Bennett’s latest play in a specifically-commissioned cinema presentation after the run has officially ended feels like a logic step.

Facing closure, The Beth hospital remains a haven for geriatric patients who form a choir to liven-up their stay. When the father of a political aide is admitted, he cycles to the hospital to visit him one last time despite their estrangement. Unbeknown to the staff, Colin is responsible for the policy that will lead to the merger, and when a documentary crew arrive to film a fly-on-the-wall series everyone tries to be on their best behaviour. But with the lives of vulnerable patients in their hands, not all of the hospital staff are quite what they seem.

The three strands of Bennett’s play attempt to shine a broad comic light on our current health provision while making a rallying cry for its future protection. First, it examines the mixed approach to healthcare for the elderly and the value we place on long life versus quality of life, which is one of the most successful themes Bennett explores in Allelujah! Although some critics found the musical sequences a little jarring and designated too much room in an otherwise packed 2.5 hours of theatre, there is merit in them, reflecting the community spirit that smaller hospitals can generate and serving as a timely reminder that mentally, if not physically, these characters have rich emotional lives connecting them directly, through song, to the memories and emotions of their youth.

It is hardly a coincidence that La La Land has reinvigorated the fantasy song and dance sequence on screen, so Bennett draws on this to take his characters away from the mundane and beleaguered into an alternate reality and happier times. And, by limiting the major set-pieces, like La La Land, Bennett actively juxtaposes the everyday with the grand romance of the musical. In between the showcase numbers, many of the film’s scenes show Mia and Sebastian’s relationship played out in ordinary locations by two ordinary people looking for a break. If it’s good enough for Damien Chazelle, it’s good enough for Alan Bennett, and Allelujah! puts its choir in a bubble that separates them briefly from the reality of ill health and old age. These sequences, choreographed by Arlene Phillips, should make even more of an impact in a cinema where audiences are more used to the stylistic movie techniques and allusions that Bennett employs.

The second strand is a political one in which the controversial march of progress is measured against its personal impact. The depersonalisation of NHS services, the drive for efficiency savings, targets and reduction of overheads affects debate about the success of our current healthcare structure, with Whitehall notably divorced from the reality of caring for the sick. Bennett uses political aide Colin (Samuel Barnett) as a cipher for London, modernity and centrist control that ranks statistical success above the people being cared for.

Joe – a former miner – easily becomes one of Allelujah!’s most sympathetic characters, a kind and engaging creation whose complex relationship with his son, and fond memories of dancing in his youth which he recreates with Sister Gilchrist are played with considerable pathos. There is a really interesting dynamic between Joe (Jeff Rawle) and his son (Samuel Barnett) as their bedside meetings result in loaded silences and strained conversation, belying the genuine affection that they have for one another, and speaking volumes about the conventions of masculinity and pride that prevent a reconciliation. Bennett offers small hints at their background, at the local versus metropolitan world view that has driven them apart, but it’s an area that is frustratingly under-explored as the core drama evolves away from their meaningful interaction.

Bennett’s writing has always been at its best when showing the intimate contradictions of human relationships and personalities that can come across so well in screen close-ups. Comic on the surface and desperately sad or lonely underneath, this complicated connection between father and son should have been the main thrust of the story, driving the dramatic narrative with Joe becoming slowly more unwell as Colin’s merger policy takes effect, uniting the personal and the political in the way Bennett intends. Both actors suggest much of this, but the space to develop is reduced by Allelujah!’s third, and theatrically least successful, strand.

To prevent spoilers its impossible to describe this section as its occurrence is sudden and deliberately surprising, but it drags the show away from its original purpose, muddies the narrative and sets-up a central inconsistency just before the interval that is never satisfactorily resolved. Yet, this section will almost certainly play better on screen where the melodrama and overly-contrived nature of the storyline will have more in common with the commonplace life and death-jeopardy scenarios of most televised medical drama. In the kind of theatre that Bennett creates this feels more out of place than any amount of nostalgic musical sequences can ever do, leaving you unsure whether Bennett is campaigning to save smaller hospitals or revealing the abuse of power they facilitate.

Allelujah! may not be Bennett’s finest play but it has a lot going for it, not least the creation of a suite of characters that you want to know more about – it’s just a shame you never really do. From Gwen Taylor’s bolshie Lucille to Simon Williams’s Ambrose as a former English teacher reduce by age to Patricia England as Mavis the eccentric showgirl still determined to be beautiful. So many potentially fascinating lives are offered-up but never given a proper chance to link their wonderful backstories to the modern day in the way that, say, Follies managed so extraordinarily this year.

The 1 November cinema screening, steeped in the history of medical dramas, will be kinder to Bennett’s set-up than perhaps the theatre space has been. Large cast, multi-strand narratives with pacey incident-based drama and short scenes are the bread and butter of screen depictions of healthcare, so Allelujah! fits more completely into this genre than perhaps the different demands of the stage. As theatre, although it has plenty of potential and all the elements we’ve come to expect from a Bennett play, this needed to be more streamlined. Despite a productive partnership with Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director hasn’t taken a firm enough line with the work – arguably true of all of Bennett’s plays since The History Boys. Sometimes, even a national treasure needs an edit.

The overly dramatic final act, driven by plot twists, just distract from the people at the heart of the play, the patients, visitors and staff of The Beth hospital, and serves to dampen Bennett’s scathing political comment on the failure of the NHS to serve its community. With such an incredible cast of famous faces including the wonderful Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist – a key role – Sasha Dhawan as a newly arrived immigrant doctor on a student visa and Peter Forbes (the Follies connection) as a slick hospital manager, it seems a shame to have underused them all so cruelly – there are lots of half-ideas that never quite make a whole.

Screening Allelujah! may well alter the viewer’s perspective, placing it within the tradition of television and film drama that lends itself to the cliffhanger-based six-part series that Bennett’s broad and episodic approach calls upon. Audiences love Bennett’s warm wit, comic parody and relatable characterisation, full of stoic people in difficult scenarios that can be incredibly moving. It may be diluted in the enormous Bridge auditorium but will the proximity of cameras offer cinema-goers a unique perspective? 1 November 2018 – make an appointment.

Allelujah! is at the Bridge Theatre until 29 September and will be screened as-live in cinemas on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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