Tag Archives: Nicholas Hytner

Guys & Dolls – Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre has had most success with its immersive productions, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which made the best of the flexible space and have created new ways to tell familiar stories by putting the audience at the heart of the action. While the role of the crowd was a little fudged in the Athenian woods, the physicality of the very mob that all the key political figures must appeal to created an additional verve for Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy. Now, the audience become the sinners of downtown New York for the Bridge Theatre’s first ever musical, a show that is sure to be a hit when it officially opens later in the month, with great performances and a Technicolor visual design. But it is the technical management and directorial inventiveness of the production that really underpins its future success.

There has been a major trend for revisiting old musicals in recent years to update their overly romantic sensibilities and, in some cases, return to the original source material to mine the darker and more troubling themes that always lingered beneath the surface. From Regent’s Park Theatre’s Evita and Carousel to West End revivals of Cabaret and more recently Oklahoma!, reimagining the classic musicals has brought depth and invention to a sometimes deeply sentimental genre. Nicholas Hytner’s production of Guys & Dolls, however heads in a slightly more traditional direction, at least in the interpretation, retaining the glossy and glamorous exterior and finding fresh purpose in the excellent and very well managed immersive staging.

As with Hytner’s previous immersive shows, this relies on a series of raised blocks that emerge from the theatre floor in a carefully coordinated sequence that produce the various locations of this story. Designer Bunny Christie has created a road map on the floor of the pit where the immersive audience gather, a series of streets that make up this particular part of the city, Broadway, where most of the action takes place. Suspended above their heads at circle level are traffic lights and neon signs that point to cafes and bars, giving a flavour of 50s New York, a place filled with gamblers, showgirls and the odd Salvation Army mission.

The genius of Christie’s design is in how sections of the floor rise seamlessly to form connected trajectories through which the characters and the story can advance. The earlier Shakespeare productions demonstrated how well these platforms can work, creating a chain of mini stages which allows the cast to travel, but its potential has never been better realised than here in Christie’s design for Guys & Dolls which requires a complex network of perfectly timed blocks to appear, often at different levels and in different configurations running across the length of the pit. It creates staging opportunities in all four corners of the performance area as well, ensuring the seated in the round audience at the various circle levels are also able to engage with the production.

The result is an incredibly satisfying one whatever type of ticket you choose. Christie’s clever combination of building blocks creates street scenes the wind their way at angles across the floor from which characters can enter restaurants, clubs, bars and even a barber’s shop while placing a set of these together forms a larger rectangular playing space in the centre of the room to form the heart of the Hot Box club where Miss Adelaide performs her raunchy stage show or the interior of Sarah Brown’s Mission House where some of the most famous numbers will take place. Christie’s design is endlessly inventive as the story travels briefly to Havana as well as below ground to the New York sewer where Nathan Detroit’s vital craps game takes place.

Most locations are sparsely but suggestively propped to create the right atmosphere and tone for the scenes including pieces of recognisably American street furniture such as the fire hydrant and globe-style lamps to some cabaret tables hinting at a larger nightclub venues, as well as chain ropes that suggest the gantries of the subterranean scene. Lit by Paule Constable, the green-tinge of the city’s underworld is nicely balanced by the bright bulbs of Broadway while the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat sequence blends both together to create a sparky movement piece with a dreamlike feel that becomes more daring as the number unfolds. Constable has taken inspiration from 50s Hollywood movies in selecting particular tones and clarity of light for this and the club sequences that reference numerous starlet performances from the Golden Age of moviemaking.

More generally, the strong, almost cartoon colours creates a hyper-reality that allows the characters to be bold and brash, larger-than-life creations living in a colour pop world. There’s no deep moralising or attempt to reconcieve the show for a twenty-first century audience, but instead the design and production choices lean into the overtly comic and overtly romantic themes of the story, facilitating a space in which both can exist side-by-side. This is a sanitised version of both love and crime, where only one of the gamblers carries a gun and the worse thing any of these men do is keep a woman waiting for 14-years to get married. And it works, allowing the excitement of the unexpected staging arrangements to add novelty without overhauling the story.

The show itself is, like many classic musicals, about whether you should change for love. And pleasingly, this one focuses on changing the men. Neither Miss Adelaide or devoted Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah require a Sandy from Grease overhaul and it is their gambler beaux who must prove themselves worthy of the women they eventually realise they love more than their wild late night life. While what’s on offer is largely a traditional future with themes of settling down, staying home every night and steady dependability, which may not seem like everyone’s idea of a happy ending, Hytner makes a couple of additions that add a more contemporary resonance.

The first is a dance piece set in one of the Havana clubs that Sky Masterson takes Sarah to during their brief trip, a location where men only dance with each other and no other women are seen, the only place in the show where an alternative to the heteronormative perspective is offered. But Hytner also makes Sky one of the dancers, engaging briefly in some intimate caresses with his partner. It’s used as a comic scene to arouse Sarah’s drunken jealous as she starts a chaotic fight with the dancers, but this hint at Sky’s more fluid sexuality is an interesting one, although not followed through anywhere else in the production or in Andrew Richardson’s characterisation. A second addition is more of an addendum to facilitate the individual cast bows as the Hot Box club becomes Adelaides, suggesting a quiet life in the country wasn’t quite what the eternal fiancee wanted after all.

Arlene Phillips and James Cousins’s choreography will invariably sharpen before the Press performance but, like Constable’s lighting scheme, this takes its cue from the jazz ballet style of the classic musicals. Occasionally, due to the thin rectangular shape of the various mini-stages, it feels a little cramped for the dancers which makes it seems as though they are holding back with curtailed stretches and not quite finished lines (perhaps deliberately) but Phillips and Cousins have created some great showbiz numbers on the large central rostrum for the pivotal Luck Be a Lady as well as those staged at Hot Box Club for Miss Adelaide’s saucy performances including A Bushel and a Peck – and this is a musical with consciously sung numbers as part of someone’s profession but also with introspective character monologues and duets where they reflect on their emotional responses and expectations.

It’s very early days but the cast are already having a great time, particularly Daniel Mays in the comic role of Nathan Detroit. Less smooth than Sinatra but perhaps far more human, this is a rare chance for Mays to enjoy a funny man role that is already winning the hearts of the audience while his interpretation of Detroit as a loveable rogue suits the tone of Hytner’s show. Mays also has great chemistry with Marisha Wallace whose Miss Adelaide embraces the sultry numbers and Christie’s beautiful showgirl costume designs. Wallace’s powerful vocal can fill this large room but she balances the professional performer in Miss Adelaide with the long-suffering sweetness of a woman holding out for an apple pie American family.

Lovers Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown and Richardson as Sky Masterson are developing a great chemistry that makes their connection believable, while the comedy scenes in Cuba as Sarah over-imbibes are a lot of fun for both actors. It is an accelerated relationship given the relatively short 2 hour and 40-minute running time so both characters compromise on their principles almost immediately, but there is something lovely in watching them grow towards one another, overcoming their slightly aloof tendencies and merging Schoenmaker’s operatic style with Richardson’s more classic musical vocals. And Cedric Neal is sure to feature in future reviews with a small role as Nicely-Nicely Johnson but delivery of the show’s big number Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat which in combining choreography, staging and performance is a real highlight.

This production of Guys & Dolls is a show that needs to give both the immersive and seated audience an equally rich and entertaining experience while carefully managing the standing participants around the room. The use of ushers and stage managers dressed as New York cops is a great touch, helping them to blend in but with an authority for crowd control that facilitates the changes of set, moves props and actors safely into position and out again, as well as ensuring the seamless running of a piece that is not easy to stage. Hytner’s directorial control of all of this feels just right in a complex show that may tell a glossy and lively story but requires a technical management of the floorspace and a quality control that you really don’t see in other theatres or indeed other immersive shows. Hytner’s production may not take the revisionist approach of other modern musical interpretations but there is plenty of innovation and invention in the staging choices that will set this apart. The Bridge hasn’t always got it right and to some extent every theatre production is a gamble, but this roll of the dice should prove a winner.

Guys & Dolls is at the Bridge Theatre until 2 September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

A Christmas Carol – Bridge Theatre

A Christmas Carol - Bridge Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

As the curtain rises on Act Three of this year’s theatre story – and as we know anything that has two intervals can only be a long and complex saga – one story will dominate the next few weeks, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol with three new productions opening in the West End alone. Whatever type of Scrooge you’re after, there’ll be a version for you; the Old Vic have their (now) annual tale of joyous redemption performed as part of their In Camera series with Andrew Lincoln making a surprise return to the stage; the Dominion premieres a musical version with Brian Conley and, first, the Bridge Theatre puts Simon Russel Beale in the title role in an atmospheric semi-narrated version that sparkles with ghostly Christmas chill.

After the Nativity, A Christmas Carol is probably the greatest and best known Christmas story, produced most years with everyone from Albert Finney to Michael Caine, Bill Murray to Alastair Sim, Paterson Joseph and Guy Pearce in the title role of Ebenezer Scrooge. There have been films, mini-series and plays, there have been musical and dance versions, there has been social realism, comedy and spookiness, narrative and even Muppets so a fresh perspective on Dickens is far from straightforward. Yet, the Bridge Theatre has found one.

Drawing heavily on the original novella, Dickens is credited as the writer and meaningfully so for the words described to explain plot points and character descriptions are taken directly from his pages and are used to shape this 90-minute play. Adapted and directed by Nicholas Hytner, this version of A Christmas Carol is distinguished by using three performers who share the narrative duties and play all of the roles, creating scenarios with a minimal collection of props designed to feel like a well-prepared scratch performance, as though scenes are emerging spontaneously before us.

By leaning so heavily on the original text rather than paraphrasing or embellishing for modern audiences, the more atmospheric aspects of Dickens’s writing are released, asking the audience to use their imagination and the writer’s evocative language to picture the various aspects of the story whether the grimly real dudgeon of Scrooge’s office, the urban poverty of London’s streets or the more magical and supernatural aspects of the unfolding drama. Prompted by the actors with voice, accessories and lighting effects, there is a sense of confederacy between the storytellers and the viewer, meeting one another halfway between audio drama and a full-blown realist production.

And that makes it all the more effective and affecting, borrowing the novelists’ tricks and abilities to transport a reader both through time and space as well as into a character’s emotional interior experience and using the possibilities of live theatre to create a genuine connection with this perhaps over-familiar story arc. There are so many versions of A Christmas Carol this year alone but that brings with it several kinds of burden, not only the comparison with predecessors and peer productions but the heavier weight of audience expectation and anticipation caused by over-familiarity with the text.

To be fully immersed in a story audiences already know well is a very difficult thing for theatremakers to achieve. With plays and stories adapted frequently, sometimes they can feel like a box ticking exercise against which the viewer measures the progress of the play and how much more there is yet to come. Watching a production of Hamlet for example might use it’s key milestone – the ‘To be or not to be’ speech, the arrival of the Players, the gravedigger and the fencing match – as anticipatory markers in which the act of waiting for them is almost a failure of the production to grip the audience and make the events of the play feel impulsive and alive with possibility.

The same notion applies to A Christmas Carol, most people in the room know what’s coming and whether the show lasts 90-minutes or three hours, the shape, trajectory and outcome of this tale is already fixed in the collective mind of the room before it begins. What the Bridge Theatre manage so successfully in this new production is to work with that to draw the audience into the collective act of creation using Dickens’s evocative prose as the basis for suspending our disbelief and jointly imagining the scenarios sparsely presented on stage, by drawing-out Scrooge’s transformatory arc more distinctly and much earlier than other versions.

The result is a more emotive experience, as Scrooge’s regret begins with the Ghost of Christmas Past and grows through the remaining visitations. In Hytner’s adaptation, Scrooge himself becomes a more sympathetic figure as the effects of his chilly boarding school childhood and growth into a unscrupulous young businessmen are intriguingly countered by the sense of personal loss that Scrooge experiences as he revisits the scenes of his past. Not just the path that took him away from the possibility of love and ordinary family life in adulthood but, crucially, we see the loss of a sense of fun, enjoyment and connection to other people that the elder Scrooge feels more keenly as he remembers the lightness of dancing at Fezziwig’s Christmas party and the relationship with his beloved sister. The point of this story comes then, not merely from making Scrooge a more charitable figure, but reconnecting him to the man he once was and could have been.

Hytner uses a tripartite narrative structure sharing storytelling duties evenly between actors Simon Russell Beale, Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo who weave seamlessly between the figure of omniscient author overseeing and controlling events and the various Dickensian creations they inhabit along the way. The less-is-more approach offers just enough visual intimation to successfully move the show between its various locations and time periods while itself remaining fairly timeless in its setting. One of the productions smartest achievements is to feel both modern and Victorian at the same time using costume, props and video projection to honour the circumstances of the original story while still keeping more than a foot in contemporary style, a feat designer Rose Revitt achieves with a subtle brilliance that so absorbed in the story the audience barely registers.

Revitt has created a stacked tower of lock boxes, desks, chests and safes that form a pile in the centre of the stage – a nod perhaps to Bunny Christie’s design for Ink who also receives a credit here as Season Framework Designer – which emphasises the money and work themes that open the play. It also gives height and variation to the staging, allowing the three performers to move around the structure to create different scenes, store props and physically drag chests around the forestage to create seating areas, beds and family gatherings that have a visual harmony and connection within the unfolding tale.

This is one of the most haunting versions of A Christmas Carol you are likely to see with plenty of smoke effects to create the smoggy London streets as well as the mystical smoke of ghostly arrivals. The vivid creation of atmosphere is enhanced by Jon Clark’s meaningful lighting design that does much to alter the mood of the piece as Scrooge’s experience takes in the cold and grim reality of the everyday, the genuine fear and intimidating presence of Jacob Marley and his spectral companions that frighten Scrooge into compliance along with the more wistful flights of memory and imagination that help the story to travel between past and future. Clark employs lots of contrasting filters from warm purples, reds and greens in the very Christmassy and celebratory sections to the stark white and grey intensity of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and Scrooge’s doom-laden and intimidating future.

Hytner’s production and the work of the design team exactly capture those almost extreme variations in Dickens’s writing from the spooky ghost story opening that has a genuine chill here to the simplicity and welcome of the Cratchit household and the warmth of Fezziwig’s celebartion and Fred’s Christmas Day party games. Visually the unfolding narrative holds together strongly and Hytner manages those opposite moods of darkness, misery and foreboding with the brightness and lightheartedness of Christmas spirit extremely well and entirely in the service of Scrooge as a character developing from miser to benefactor, and personally rediscovering his subdued humanity.

Sharing the storytelling duties between the three actors creates considerable flexibility in the management of the show, freeing the cast to also adopt the numerous smaller roles as well as creating a dynamism within the production as sound and intonation freely moves around the stage. But what we do have is character consistency, so the actor assuming one of the roles retains it throughout – regardless of gender or age – bringing greater clarity to the multi-narrator device.

Simon Russell Beale tackles his second Scrooge of the season, having voiced the lead in Russell Maliphant’s dance film version which opened on the same weekend. Delivered from the formality and intensity of his Shakespearean persona, Russell Beale has a fantastic time in this production playing excitable maiden aunts, venal shopkeepers and enthused party-goers, all with a quick change of voice and body language or rearrangement of clothing. But it is this more sorrowful Scrooge that stands out, making far earlier and more explicit connections between his current lifestyle and the more human traits of his youth than other versions. Russell Beale offers genuine fear of each of the spirits and no sense of complacency about their similarly unfolding purpose, but primarily a feeling that the visions they reveal and their underlying lessons hit home immediately, that this Scrooge had a heart and the capacity to feel regret, compassion and most especially shame all along.

With Russell Beale shouldering the central role, Ferran and Figueiredo share most of the remaining duties as the four ghosts and Scrooge’s primary acquaintances. They often work in partnership as Mr and Mrs Cratchit, Fred and Clara or the future couple delighted by fiscal relief of the miser’s death, and in each they carefully match their accents to create fast and effective character portraits. Ferran’s talents are perhaps a little under-utilised given her performances in 15 Heroines, Three Sisters and, of course, Summer and Smoke, and there is far less for her to get to grips with here though she is excellent throughout.

To be on stage with actors as reputed as Russell Beale and Ferran and to outshine them both is no mean feat, but it is Figueiredo whose performance you will remember from this production and the absolute joy of watching a selection of wonderful comic characters each with a unique accent. Figueiredo was excellent as Christian in Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac a year ago and he brings the same energy and a versatility to A Christmas Carol leaping between characters and vocal styles with little more than a breath at times, bringing out the hilarity and joviality of Fezziwig, the benevolent wisdom of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the hangdog gravity of Jacob Marley and the life loving openness and acceptance of Fred, each as distinct and memorable as the one before. And with a variety of UK and international accents this production gives a real feeling for the capital city, then as now, as a multicultural melting pot. Figueiredo may be the least widely known member of this cast but his presence is the bridge between the other two that brings Hytner’s production to vivid life.

Filled with a real love of Dickens’s words as well as his characters the Bridge Theatre has found a fresh and exciting way to tell this familiar tale and give Scrooge’s redemption arc a renewed emphasis. Full of scares and laden with Christmas spirit, there may be competitive versions of the tale available this month but this celebration of storytelling is full of festive magic.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Bridge Theatre until 16 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Shrine and Bed Among the Lentils – Bridge Theatre

The Shrine and Bed Among the Lentils - Bridge Theatre

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues primarily written in 1988 and 1998 are the blueprint for every single-character piece that has followed and while many have emulated the form, few have bettered it. The genre is also perfect for our pandemic-affected theatre industry looking to restart performances while mindful of the safety of performers and audiences. The same thought that led to the BBC films of the series in early lockdown has now brought a selection to the Bridge Theatre stage in a collection of monologues designed to safely revive live performance.

Eight of Bennett’s plays that encompass the three different decades in which they were constructed are represented from the twelve filmed recently for television (and still available on the iPlayer), each performed by the same actor who, presumably thanks to disrupted filming and other committments, are all free to reprise their performances live on stage. Sold in batches of two and interspersed with David Hare’s new work  Beat the Devil enacted by Ralph Fiennes, and soon to be joined by Inua Ellams An Evening with an Immigrant and from mid-October Yolanda Mercy’s Quarter Life Crisis and Zodwa Nyoni’s Nine Lives, the Bridge Theatre has created a theatrical pick n’ mix.

But why offer shows based on a series so recently presented on television and still freely available? The monologue is a quick win for most theatres and while other venues successfully experiment with Covid bubbles (Sleepless in Seattle), live streaming new work (Three Kings) and innovative choreography to create socially distanced musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar), the enduring quality of Bennett’s writing and this collection of performers is hard to argue against. There is an added fascination in seeing director Nicholas Hytner undertake a rare stage to screen to stage translation, taking a production that was designed initially for the different kind of intimacy that television offers and finding ways to both rearrange the elements of each piece to suit the demands of a very large auditorium and the expectations of a live audience.

Where film offers shot selection, cuts and opportunities for cameras to pan, track or close-in on the nuances of an actor’s interpretation, the physical experience of live theatre is quite different and an actor must both expand and contain different aspects of their performance. Gestures and changes of pace must be big enough that the whole room can see or feel them, while the credibility of characterisation, scenario building and connection with an audience on three sides and on three levels is quite a different skill than playing to a couple of cameras that capture the barest flicker of feeling.

To that end, in what is arguably the pick of the Talking Heads pairings, the Bridge Theatre’s most savvy decision is in teaming The Shrine with Bed Among the Lentils, placing together two of our finest actors who effortless and regularly transition between stage and screen – Monica Dolan and Lesley Manville. The monologues also represent Bennett’s oldest and newest works, one first presented among the original set of 1980s stories and the other written in 2019, but they also contain thematic links looking at ideas of marital loneliness, the expectations of middle age and the effect of religious iconography and ritual in the domestic sphere.

Hytner has envisaged both stories with considerable care, gesturing to the confining worlds in which the characters spend their lives with simplified sets that hint at the understated neatness of the homely middle classes with video backdrops designed by Luke Halls to aid with the transition between places or references. Unlike their televised counterparts which made an impact in a slightly different way, the injection of physicality into these stories makes them both funnier and more tragic. Never underestimate the power of a character standing in front of you confessing the emptiness of their lives.

On screen, the strength of these two monologues came from their static nature, Lorna and Susan trapped by habit, fear and happenstance in lives that accelerate beyond their control, leaving them almost more unhappy at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. The stillness that Dolan and Manville conveyed on screen offered a sense of their characters squeezed and unwilling or unable to break free.  They go through the motions of tea rituals, flower arranging sessions and carrying on, painfully aware that while everything has changed around them, they will remain always in that room and that state of being.

As discussed in the earlier essay The Women of Talking Heads, Bennett has a particular feel for the experience of anonymity and writes especially well for those who seem to pass unnoticed through the world. Marriage is show to stifle and contain, all too rarely bringing that communion with another soul that newlyweds – in popular culture at least – seem to aspire to. What we see in the Talking Heads monologues are couples who fail to truly know or understand one another, and while these are primarily female perspectives, neither party appears guiltless, except the narrators’ position is limited by social circumstance and the label of “wife” while the husband or primary male character is daily in the world.

The Shrine

The Shrine has exactly that scenario, a grieving wife learning that her husband Clifford and the man known to his biker friends as Cliff were not quite the same person. Staged for the first time at the Bridge, Lorna is placed in a representative kitchen in which the domestic rituals – performed with a habitual precision – are the stuff of her life, even replacing a meaningful relationship with her partner long before his death. Lorna’s routines, making tea in a proper pot even though it is just her, the use of a milk jug returned promptly to the fridge lest it spoil, washing her single plate, china mug and cutlery before drying them with a pristine tea-towel, these are the rites that comprise her day.

That Bennett introduces a temporary hiatus in the period of this play does not prevent Lorna from returning to these patterns and Dolan makes this subtle aspect of her personality the anchor of her performance. The visits to and protection of the titular shrine are an extension of her pre-existing desire for order and regularity, and Dolan grounds Lorna within these boundaries, knowing exactly when to say a line or reveal a new part of the story by tying the delivery to the activity her character is then engaged in while never losing the freshness of the moment, as though we are the first people she has ever confided in. Our only complaint that the performance at under half an hour is over too soon.

The new physicality in this performance also gives Dolan the freedom to move around the stage, not excessively but enough to draw some bolder lines under the moments of discomposure, upset or stress that ensure the performance breaches the significant demands of the sizeable auditorium. It is a fine balance, one which Dolan achieves with ease as the unassuming but determined Lorna fights for the memory of her husband. That she confesses an inability to feel a wailing sorrow at his absence is belied by her obsessive attention to the crash site and this is purposefully the place that Clifford died, not the cemetery where he is buried. And Bennett it seems is commenting on the religious ritualisation of death that may not be overtly Christian but remains ensconced in the deification of the departed, Clifford assuming an almost sacrificial role in Lorna’s mourning process.

Dolan quietly earns our attention and our empathy and it is her very ordinariness that has the biggest emotional impact. This is not an event that creates a disproportionate or melodramatic response, but one that almost takes her by surprise as she learns more about her husband’s real life and her own reactions to it. There are untapped reserves of strength in Lorna that emerge carefully across the performance, a fluttery woman who becomes far surer of self, almost released by Clifford’s death without understanding that a change has occurred when she seems happy to remain the widow in the kitchen.

Bed Among the Lentils

Bed Among the Lentils in a way is almost the opposite as its character Susan seeks any kind of escape from the stultifying experience of being a vicar’s wife, whether through alcohol or an unlikely affair with a much younger shopkeeper. Instead of the everyday routines giving her comfort and stability, they erode Susan whose world-weary voice with a vicious lash is one of Bennett’s finest creations. The scenario is beautifully drawn and the gaggle of eager volunteers keen to supplant her position in the church are created with wonderful clarity, acting as a barometer for Susan’s relationship with her husband, but more importantly with herself. And while she scorns their opinion and way of living, her underlying sadness and eternal dissatisfaction with herself is buried within the humorous observation of her rivals.

In translating this monologue to the stage, Hytner makes the slightly awkward decision to have several visible stagehands move the set between chapters which rather breaks the flow, and while the original play changes location (although the recently televised adaptation did not leave the house), the Director would do better to rely entirely on Manville to transport the audience through the performance. An actor more that able to captivate an audience for 45-minutes, it is to her credit that these activities to reposition a few chairs that imply home, church and hall, barely break the spell Manville so brilliantly weaves.

Like Lorna, the addition of physical movement brings out a nervy quality in Susan that progresses the character from the powerful and defeated stillness of her screen version, to a more rounded creation whose exasperation is given a bodily expression that makes this live performance no less devastating. And while the screen Susan embraced a small physical transformation during her affair with Mr Ramesh leading to a subtle change of clothes and a carefree manner, on stage Manville expands on the idea of the affair as light in the darkness of Susan’s experience, smiling girlishless to herself at the memory of their encounters, as though taking every opportunity to mention his name to us, hardly aware of the effect he has on her countenance.

This is a masterclass in quiet tragedy from Manville who pitches Susan’s hopeless desperation quite perfectly, wringing every ounce of comedy from the silly scenarios and outcomes of her increasing alcoholism while never detracting from the endless emptiness of her experience. And Susan is not a character who is especially self-pitying or particularly seeks the audience’s approval so Manville plays her as a woman perhaps trapped, but spiritedly refusing to play the game as other demand it.

Dolan and Manville are so wonderful in these roles, using the broader canvas that theatre offers to find wider and deeper meaning in their character’s experience and to burrow deeper into various aspects of their original performances. The monologue may be a live theatre staple for a while yet and while staging the Talking Heads monologues so soon after their television airing may seem unnecessary, the chance to see two great actors delivering Bennett’s finely calibrated short plays is impossible to refuse.

Talking Heads is running in repertory at the Bridge Theatre until 31 October with The Shrine and Bed Among the Lentils finishing on 22nd September. Tickets are available from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Beat the Devil – Bridge Theatre


Beat the Devil - Bridge Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

The Bridge Theatre is the first West End venue to offer socially-distanced indoor performances, welcoming audiences back to their still beautiful space with a series of what are essentially one-man shows between now and late October before deciding whether to resume their pre-advertised autumn season with Marianne Elliott’s take on They Shoot Horses Don’t They currently scheduled for November. The first short play opens this week with David Hare staking first claim to what will surely be a new genre or at least a familiar theme in the coming months – the Covid monologue. As an established white, middle class, male playwright Hare is in a better position that most to get his plays staged and for some this new work will epitomise tension between the politics of the theatre and the separate quality of the play.

Considering Beat the Devil is the story of a writer who contracts Covid-19, the safety measures in place at the Bridge Theatre are stringent and reassuring. Audience members are not only issued with digital tickets (which can be printed), but to control the flow of people through the foyer and auditorium each ticket will specify a recommended arrival time to allow audiences to reach their seats while passing as few people as possible. There is a socially distanced queue into the venue as well as a thermal camera checking everyone’s temperature, a one way system, hand sanitiser and ushers reminding attendees to keep their face covering in place throughout.

The auditorium itself has always benefited from plenty of individually fixed rather than long banks of seating so the Bridge Theatre team have extracted any chairs not in use to ensure that seats are socially distanced in blocks of two or three with a few singles if you are fast enough to find them. So unlike the older West End theatres such as the Palladium where Andrew Lloyd Webber had to block-off seats using antimacassars printed with an X, the physical flexibility of the Bridge removes any possibility that audiences members can change places during the performance. Just as with Regent’s Park, you really couldn’t feel safer.

David Hare is a renowned political playwright although his most recent work has not attracted the unerring critical praise of his most celebrated plays. The hugely disappointing I’m Not Running at the National Theatre in 2018 suffered from hollow characterisation in a not entirely credible Labour leadership contest scenario while his detective series Collaterol had some interesting narratives but wasn’t quite able to pull its various strands together. Yet prior to these Hare scored notable successes with high quality adaptations of George Simenon’s The Red Barn (2016) and the 2015 Young Chekhov trilogy at Chichester and the National. But Beat the Devil is for many reasons his most personal play in years, exploring his own experience of the disease while charting the political course of the pandemic.

Creating fictionalised versions of themselves is something writers often do, from Proust’s protagonist in In Search of Lost Time recalling scenes from the author’s younger days to the active entry of Laura Wade into the middle of The Watsons as the frustrated writer trying to get the characters inherited from Jane Austen to behave, there are many biographical elements to be sought in the output of novelists and playwrights. And while this is often left to the academics of English Literature and Theatre Studies to debate, Hare removes ambiguity and guesswork by making Beat the Devil a systematic account of his experience of catching, suffering with and recovering from a disease that has affected millions of people around the world.

Structurally, this 50-minute show is a sequence of diary entries read aloud with touches of the retrospective dramatist’s omnipotence. So as the character of David discusses his symptoms or the government response to the pandemic, Hare allows some forethought to come in, his protagonist is both reliving and recounting the months of lockdown from a point of current safety, with the knowledge of his own survival and of later social or political events rather than an unfolding account. Hare indulges this side of his writing, creating a story in which the audience, the lead and the writer know the outcome and uses that sense of confederacy between us to insert facts about the disease and its effects that he could not have know at the time of his illness, as well the consequences of governmental decision-making in the ensuing months.

The result is a piece that relies on the audience’s knowledge of our very recent history, peppered with references to particular moments in which the nature of the pandemic and its management shifted, often for the worse, and the personalities who have been its public face. In one sense, Beat the Devil feels like an act of historical record where the physical effects of a worldwide epidemic were met, in Hare’s view, with gross political incompetence and, worse, inhumanity by our leaders. None of this is especially insightful or surprising to anyone living in the UK in recent months but Hare has captured it in a way that prevents that vagaries of time from eroding the day-by-day experience. Whether Beat the Devil has any future as a play is another matter – it is so topically rooted in the exact sequence of events, the people and the dramas of Spring/Summer 2020 it is hard to know whether anyone would care to revive or revisit the play in the years or decades to come when this government and Covid-19 itself is a distant memory.

Whatever your expectations, Hare does a convincing job of representing himself onstage and the play has an intimate warmth that quickly creates a strong bond with the audience. Its very best moments recount the progressive experience of illness, the little anecdotes and unexpected developments that have made this such a difficult disease to control, and as Hare speaks with candour about the false lightness of the first week, the fuzzy lungs, nights sweats and delirium followed by uncontrollable vomiting, worries about mortality, physical frailty and sudden return to consciousness you can have nothing but empathy for anyone who seems to have experienced its full impact or close to it.

What is surprising is just how comic Hare’s voice is in retelling these experiences and wry humour is not one of the most pronounced traits in his earlier work. But in Beat the Devil Hare allows much more of his own personality to emerge and, it turns out, he is pretty sarcastic, taking pots shots not just at the every-growing list of government failings and its inexplicably weak personnel, but also at himself as he recalls the quirks of personality and amusing examples of contradictory behaviour. Refusing to go to hospital at the height of his sickness is because, he quips, wards are full of people with Covid, while eventually emerging from the disease his over-emphatic delight in the taste of water and frustration with the behaviour of men in action movies leave him shouting at the television. Running through the show from beginning to end is a lightly sardonic humour as the character of David finds incredulity at every turn, perhaps this is another long-term effect of the disease, Covid makes you funny.

Hare hasn’t entirely dispensed with his old habits though and one of Beat the Devil’s more frustrating elements is the clunky insertion of facts which crop up repeatedly. It is a frequent problem for the one-man show (and some multi-person political pieces), and whether the performer is re-enacting the life of Judy Garland, highlighting the effects of homelessness or discussing Covid, it is very difficult to make the recitation of facts feel like natural speech. Partly this is because conversation just doesn’t happen like this either in your own head or with an interlocutor, and, given the structural premise here, statistical facts are not something personal diary keepers tend to record.

These are, of course, Hare’s soapbox moments, an irresistible opportunity to reiterate government incompetence, death rates, the disproportionate effects of the illness on ethnic minorities and the failure to sufficiently support the NHS, all of which occasional feel like he’s trying too hard. And facts in an ongoing situation can be slippery, quickly making a play feel dated (and therefore not worthy of revival) if science discovers that the make-up of the disease is not what we think it is, or that its impacts on particular groups were not as disproportionate as first thought. But here, they make the play feel heavy-handed and while Hare is clearly impassioned and not necessarily wrong-headed, these moments feel more like acerbic stand-up than theatre, places where Hare the writer and David the character are detrimentally indistinct.

Since up-ending his serious romantic lead image with In Bruges in 2008, Ralph Fiennes has been able to reveal his comic side with roles in God of Carnage (2008) as well as Man and Superman (2015) alongside more serious projects. Here, his timing is wonderful, guiding the flow of Hare’s words to their humorous crescendo, making the jokes feel freshly minted and unrehearsed while subtly adding gestures or facial expressions that boost the comic power of the moment. These are used sparing so they don’t detract from or unbalance Hare’s more serious points, but Fiennes strikes an excellent balance between light and shade within the production.

His performance is one of the big draws of Beat the Devil, imbuing his character with plenty of charisma and a winning charm. Fiennes is an actor with the rare ability to hold a big room in the palm of his hands and make it seem effortless. Anyone who saw his Antony in 2018 alongside Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra will wonder at the Olivier Theatre’s formidable reputation as Fiennes stood alone on its vast stage to deliver Antony’s suicide speech in captivating style. The Bridge Theatre is equally sizeable and speaking to the threadbare audience permitted by the regulations, his debut appearance on this stage is a hugely successful one.

Much of the warmth and humanity in this piece comes from Fiennes’s performance and this ability to create connection with the room, reaching out across the vast space and socially distanced community to create a collective experience. It is a big ask for an actor to be alone on stage for almost an hour, a hugely exposing experience and one that many long-established actors will not be used to, but he finds the subtleties within the piece, the periods of flow and directional movement, using the chapter-markers to regroup as Hare shifts the time frame.  Most importantly, Fiennes keeps the audience there in the story with him as it segues between political rants, building the comic chain of events and fusing the elements of the show together as a single consistent character experience.

You won’t necessarily leave Beat the Devil thinking it was the finest play you have ever seen or even that Hare deserves this vast platform to tell his own story – the cultural tides are shifting so fast at the moment that any number of voices could arguably have used these resources to make the theatre landscape more equitable. But neither is Hare’s play an unmitigated travesty and there is much to take away from the show. Political theatre is there to hold the Establishment to account and Hare uses his personal journey to consider the management of the pandemic. The diagnosis for Hare and for the UK may have been spookily aligned, but while the writer has recovered, the country may not.

Beat the Devil is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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

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