Tag Archives: Play

Belleville – Donmar Warehouse

Belleville - Donmar Warehouse

In a year of great new writing, the less perfectly constructed plays somehow seem more obvious. From the Norwegian-managed peace talks between Israel and Palestine, to rural Ireland in the early 1980s, to the birth of a powerful tabloid on Fleet Street in 1969, this year’s best new work may have been geographically and topically diverse, but they have been carefully constructed with strong characterisation and skewering political messages. But, because this is an exceptional year, imperfections seem more glaring, plays that haven’t quite found their rhythm are more obvious, and Amy Herzog’s new play Belleville, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, relies on excellent central performances to cover its dramatic weaknesses.

Set in contemporary Paris, a seemingly perfect young American couple rent a flat from their Senegalese neighbours. But Abby is an actress and yoga teacher who lives in a permanent state of high nervous excitement that makes her stay in Paris far more of a trial than she is prepared to concede. Abby idolises husband Zack who works as a doctor for an international aid organisation and speaks eloquent French, but coming home early one-day Abby finds Zack not working. The perfect exterior begins to crack, and some surprising truths emerge; why are they really in Paris, how well does Zack really know the neighbours, and why can’t they leave for Christmas?

Herzog does well to create a set of characters and a scenario that, initially at least, the audience can invest in. The first two scenes are a portrait of Abby and Zack’s marriage which are both engagingly written and subtly revealing; there is an interesting flow to the interaction between the characters that feels like natural conversation and gives a sense of the companionship and frustration of living with a long-term partner. In minutes, their conversation moves smoothly from general catch-up on their day, to affectionate intimacies, to fairly amiable bickering and back again, in what feels like a detailed anatomy of marriage.

And, at the same time, the audience is given a glimpse of the difficulties of their partnership when Zack speaks openly to landlord Alioune early in the play about the intensity of Abby’s moods and how waring it is to be with someone refusing to take their anti-depressants. Herzog is constantly asking us not to take the characters at face value but to see them through the eyes of their partner, so we see Zack’s strength and Abby’s weakness based on conversations when the other isn’t around, and it is only later in the story that the audience is forced to re-evaluate those judgements.

There are also some intriguing themes and questions which are solidly established in Herzog’s writing, and, alongside the dissection of marriage, there is early implication that Belleville will also take-in father-daughter relationships, the long-term impact of grief, how well we really know the people we’re closest too, the strain of living far from home and, to some extent, the failure of the American dream. It’s a huge amount to pack into a 100-minute show, and the play’s inability to deliver on its early promise, satisfactorily managing the issues and character insights it raises, means too many aspects of the story are left unresolved.

Instead, as the plot unfolds across the next few scenes, Belleville feels rather half-hearted and unable to successfully marry the plot and the themes together, almost as though the ideas have become too big for the story and, having thrown everything into those early scenes, finding a way to bring all the strands back together has been rather elusive. In particular, aspects of the characterisation should have been seeded much earlier to make the sudden and almost melodramatic switch at the end seem more likely. Similarly, Abby’s reliance on calls to her father and the reasons the couple left the USA have considerable dramatic potential, going to the root of her relationship with Zack, and should be better used to tease out the idea that their relationship has been one long deception.

Herzog is trying to show a snapshot moment in their lives, one that turns-out to be crucial, but for the ending to feel meaningful and credible, these earlier questions about who they are and why they are in this situation also need to be more fully answered. It’s not enough for a character to have an eleventh-hour about-turn, this must be carefully woven into the play from the start and make psychological sense. There are some great moments of tension, but too much time is wasted on empty stages and superfluous detail that doesn’t make this short show as slick and tense as it really should be – particularly a wasteful final scene which is just 5 minutes of stage-tidying that has virtually no relevance to the plot, before fading out.

In Belleville, these hints are too small to make the outcome believable and, in their final scene both Zack and Abby suddenly act in ways that are unlikely based on their earlier behaviour. For that to work, these aspects of their character, or at least the conditions that create that possibility have to be built-in, otherwise it just feels like a hasty and appended conclusion.  Like Against at the The Almeida in August, Belleville would benefit from another 6 months of preparation to address the play’s inconsistencies, and perhaps moving it to the end of the Donmar’s Winter / Spring season would have allowed more time to decide the nature of the piece – is it a domestic drama or a something darker – and utilise the detail of those first two scenes to better effect.

With press night this week, however, what makes this a worthwhile are the two central performances from James Norton and Imogen Poots who bring credibility to their characters and help to disguise some of the weakness of the material. Actors, of course, do far more than read the words their given, with this show being a case in point, and in large part, the audience investment created at the start of the show, comes from their ability to breathe life into Abby and Zack, encouraging your interest in what happens to them.

Poots in particular is excellent as the neurotic and talkative Abby, and from the first moment she appears chatting veraciously to Alioune, thoughts skipping from one to the next, you get a clear picture of a warm and friendly young woman, eager to please but unable to control her impulses. There are undercurrents of obsession and paranoia that Poots picks out quite carefully, subtle at first but amplified as the story unfolds. And while Abby’s actions are less credulous in the second half of the play, Poots has created a real and conflicted person.

Early on, we learn Abby is almost constantly connected to her father, receiving calls from him several times a day, and Poots shows a woman willingly, but not happily, distanced from her family, concerned for them and homesick, but wanting to support her brilliant husband. Slowly she introduces the idea that life is not as perfect as she wants to believe, struggling with the language and intimidated to go out alone – the flat is largely her entire experience of living in France, and it’s a shame the writing squanders the opportunity to explore these ideas in more depth. Building on her acclaimed work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earlier in the year, Poots manages to make Abby sympathetic, with an inner reserve, while making it clear that being around her would be exhausting.

Zack by contrast has an easy confidence and sense of being the “grown-up” in the relationship. Norton exactly grasps Zack’s slightly controlling nature and, while the surface may be calm and charming, their lifestyle is driven by his needs. The unsavoury aspects of Zack’s character are frequently pitted against his perfect image as the child-saving doctor, but Norton is able to veer between the two while revealing a man equally unhappy and insecure in the life they have built.

From the start as Abby catches him watching porn, Norton’s Zack struggles to maintain the fiction he presents to his wife, and the various ways in which he deflects her attention from the truth are rapidly discovered by the audience. The frequent drug-taking mirrors Abby’s dependence on her father’s calls, and in these moments Norton reveals Zack’s anxiety, becoming increasingly boxed-in by his own desperation. More of this needs to be supported by the script however, and too often the reasons for Zack’s responses are glossed over or not fully explained, and while Norton does the best he can with the general placidity of the character, he has considerably less depth to work with than Poots. He needs to be either more hapless or more deliberately sinister, and without the proper backstory it’s difficult to understand why he ends as he does.

The role of the neighbours, played by Malachi Kirby as Alioune and Faith Alaby as wife Amina, is potentially interesting but underpowered. While there is clearly a more ominous connection between Alioune and Zack, it never becomes clear what that is. And although well performed by both – Alaby entirely in French – they could be better used as a counterpoint to the ‘perfection’ of the central couple, and arguably, with a young family, two properties, a business, and also living away from their cultural origins, are the more successful pairing, a point that could be better emphasised.

Belleville does have a lot of potential, but it hasn’t yet been fully developed. Tom Scutt’s set evokes European-style apartment living, but the Parisian location could more completely draw out the discomfort of strangers in a strange land – frankly they could be anywhere. Michael Longhurst’s direction is swift if not always as deft as it could be, and despite some strong moments between the two leads, tension tends to dissipate rather than build in the interim. With a bit of revision, Belleville could be either a tight one-hour thriller or a more expansive anatomy of a destructive relationship, but until it can answer the questions it asks at the beginning, it cannot compete with the quality of this year’s best new plays.

Belleville is at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 February. Tickets are largely sold-out but at 12pm each Monday the Donmar releases £10 Klaxon tickets for the week ahead. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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Cellmates – Hampstead Theatre

We are endlessly fascinated by spies and the nature of betrayal. For those who knew the men spying for Russia in the mid-Twentieth Century, more than country or ideology, it is the personal treacheries that still rankle. Even now, many decades after they were unveiled and defected, it is impossible to separate the professional and personal, as secrets shared meant friendships smashed and trust destroyed in the very concept of the English gentlemen.

Even more interesting are the stories of disappointment and disillusion that followed defection, that, for some born and bred Englishmen, the youthful communist verve that sustained them through years of treachery, passing information through shadowy contacts, was unprepared for the truth of Russian living. The dream and the reality couldn’t have been further apart; public gratitude from the Soviet government was accompanied by endless private suspicions about double agents, restrictions on their freedom and the fear that one day they too may ‘disappear’ as many had before. Knowing there was no way back to the life they known in the UK drove them to alcohol and despair.

Operating at much the same time as the Cambridge Five, and later known to Philby and Maclean in Moscow, George Blake’s story remains equally audacious and shocking. Born in the Netherlands to Dutch and Egyptian parents, Blake was a British citizen serving in the Dutch army and later the Dutch resistance in the Second World War, before joining the Royal Navy and the Secret Intelligence Service in the final years of the conflict. But it wasn’t until Blake became a prisoner of war in Korea in the early 1950s that he converted to Communism and volunteered to work as a double agent for the KGB, a role he would perform until his discovery in 1961.

Simon Gray’s play Cellmates picks up Blake’s story in 1966 as a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs where he is serving a 42-year sentence and meets petty thief Sean Bourke for the first time when offering to write for the literary magazine that Bourke edits. Within minutes a plan is hatched for escape, a journey that will take the two new friends from their cells, to a crumbling safehouse and sends Blake to Moscow. But life isn’t as easy as the two men supposed, and when Bourke arrives in Russia for a visit the two men find themselves trapped in each other’s company for longer than they ever imagined, while personal betrayals test their friendship.

Cellmates is by no means a perfect play, and its first outing in 1995 was overshadowed by Stephen Fry’s sudden departure after poor reviews. This new production at the Hampstead Theatre is its first revival since then, and its dramatic weaknesses are just about papered over by some fine performances from leads Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne. But there are several aspects of the play that leave the audience unsatisfied and underwhelmed, not least that much of the excitement happens off-stage, so we are only shown the bits before and after the escape. Even in the Moscow sections, characters frequently talk of interesting events that have happened to them beyond the walls of the set, without fully bringing the excitement and danger of Blake and Bourke’s experiences to life.

Instead, the play focuses – largely successfully and certainly in this production –  on the unlikely and deep-rooted friendship that grows between the two men, taking its dramatic queues from the shifting patterns of engagement between them and exploring the nature of guilt, gratitude, fear and companionship that mark their years in close confinement. Gray never quite finds the right tone however, so the action seems to uneasily rattle between light farce, tense drama and social commentary without deciding which to be, and without really telling the audience much about the motivation of the two men at its centre. Why Blake betrayed his adoptive country, what he really thought of Russia and why Bourke risked his freedom for a stranger is never fully explained, leaving the actors to fill in the gaps for the viewer.

Geoffrey Streatfeild specialises in emotional exuberance, and while a lesser performer could seem stagey or unconvincing, one of Streatfeild’s key skills as an actor is the ability to lend credibility to histrionics that reveal the deeper feelings of the character, often fighting against a staid or repressed exterior. He effortlessly alters the tone of a scene in an instant, moving seamlessly from comedy to anguish with a gravity that makes the transition convincing and often quite touching.

His previous work as the rakish lead in The Beaux’ Stratagem who finds himself hopelessly ensnared in his own plots, and as the tragic Ivanov, both at the National Theatre, have demonstrated this ability to balance comedy and pathos, and here in Cellmates, Streatfeild brings much more to the role of George than the text allows, or arguably deserves. It’s a role that, in the first Act at least, varies considerably scene by scene, and George’s initial appearance is in prison where Streatfeild plays him as timid and cautious, the very image of the buttoned-up and rather diffident Englishman – imagine a cross between George Smiley and John Major, an unlikely fit for a master deceiver but a quietly internal person.

In the slightly odd second scene, Streatfeild’s Blake is in the safe house suffering from a head wound received while trying to escape a few hours earlier. He veers between lucidity and confusion, often appearing needy, unable to separate reality from TV programmes and having to be looked after. While Streatfeild manages of all this well, the peculiarities of Gray’s text in which supportive friends, a disgruntled doctor and unexpected estate agents pop by, barely accord with the idea of Blake as a professional spy. And, it’s not really until the action moves to Russia just before the interval that the play really begins to come together.

As the plot settles, Streatfeild is able to bring all his experience into play, constantly treading the line between optimism, public compliance with his new life in the Motherland, and a deeper sense of regret, homesickness and even the slightest hints of shame at having lost the life he had while involving his cellmate and rescuer Sean in the process. Some of the production’s very best moments are in the way Streatfeild contrasts what Blake says and how he feels, allowing momentary outbursts of feeling to break through the façade of acceptance, and the genuine sorrow that seems to sit just below the surface of every action. If you need a reason to stay beyond the interval, then watching Blake start to acknowledge his fear of loneliness, and the almost desperate need for friendship that lead to a surprising betrayal are worth retaking your seat for.

Emmet Byrne as Sean Bourke has a less complex path through the story, an almost naïve character who takes most things at face value. Bourke is a more obviously comic character than Blake, and Byrne brings a sense of how quickly he becomes out of his depth in the scale of wider events, and, having been the driving force in early scenes, the power shifts remarkably quickly which Byrne traces well.

The text is rather light on explanation, and, as it’s still early in the run, Byrne has time to help “colour-in” some of the missing character motivation to help the audience understand why, with no prior connection between them, he wants to help Blake and agrees to stay in Moscow; the reliance on the friendship seems a little too one sided at present, and Byrne could further explore how much Sean Bourke needed George Blake to add more depth to his portrayal.

The Second Act is largely more successful than the first, and while Michael Pavelka’s sets are impressively detailed taking the action from Wormwood Scrubs to Soviet Russia, they are cumbersome to change, leaving director Edward Hall with an uneven approach, bringing the curtain down on overlong scene breaks in Act One that interrupt the flow, while leaving the curtain up in Act Two while the audience watches stagehands rapidly rearranging the furniture – neither makes for an elegant solution.

This new production of Cellmates fares better than its first outing, but doesn’t entirely resolve some of the play’s core problems, and doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a comedy or a serious drama – the inclusion of Philip Bird and Danny Lee Wynter as menacing comedy Russians, although well performed, are the embodiment of the play’s inability to be quite one thing or another. It starts as a heist with a touch of farce in the safe house, before becoming a more serious attempt to examine the consequences of betrayal. The tone varies considerably across the night – largely the fault of the text – but with Press Night looming there are issues to resolve in production as well. Cellmates is just about saved by Streatfeild’s meaningful portrayal of Blake as a man to whom treachery was a habit, and whose real punishment was to live in the country he spied for.

Cellmates is at the Hampstead Theatre until 20 January. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Quiz – Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Quiz, Minerva Theatre

Sometimes even Londoners need to leave the capital in search of excellent theatre and there are few more compelling reasons to get on a train than a new play by James Graham. In what has been an extraordinary 6 months for the writer, with two brand new plays running side-by-side on St Martin’s Lane, his latest new show Quiz premieres at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, and London theatre managers should start clearing space and putting in their bids for what should be a guaranteed transfer in the coming months. What makes Graham’s work worthy of trip beyond the M25 is not just the rate of production, but the deeply researched stories that make for an extraordinarily consistent level of quality.

Regional theatre frequently feeds shows into the West End, and while these are largely revivals, Chichester Festival Theatre in particular has a provided some highly acclaimed productions in the last few years, including the Young Chekhov season, Half a Sixpence, Gypsy and the best version of Private Lives in a decade with Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. With two sizeable theatres, the larger Festival Theatre and the smaller Minerva studio space, Chichester has much to offer a young production, trying out work before national tours and London transfers.

In his new play, Graham examines the British idea of fair play and our national obsession with all kinds of quizzes, taking the audience on a trip from local pub competitions to the high-stakes gameshow in a compelling examination of trial by television. Central to all of this, is the story of Charles and Diana Ingram who were accused of fraud when Charles became the third jackpot winner on the ITV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Whether or not the Ingrams cheated propels the story as Graham presents the case for and against, touching on wider popular cultural references and examining the power structures in UK society that have become a key theme of his work.

And this is not the first time that ideas of cheating on TV gameshows has captured the popular imagination, and been immortalised in art. In 1994, Robert Redford directed Quiz Show a film about a famous scandal in America in which numerous contestants testified that they had been given the answers in advance in order to prolong their tenure on the show. Uncovering an incredible scandal touching on class and religious divides that eventually implicating the academic Van Doren family whose rising star Charlie confessed to cheating at the behest of the producers, this fascinating film is a clear ancestor of Graham’s new play, examining similar notions of fraud and mass-public deception that are at the heart of fairness and televisual transparency.

As previously noted, Graham’s success as a playwriter is the result of how carefully his work is constructed, and the confidence it gives the audience knowing that he is entirely in charge of his material, that wherever the story is going, you’re in safe hands. The way Graham choses to put a show together is often unexpected, mixing timelines, perspectives and theatre forms to create non-linear storytelling, but he always succeeds in being both entertaining and encouraging the audience to rethink established positions, leaving the auditorium with a more nuanced understanding of what they have seen.

Labour of Love took a reverse and then a forward chronological approach to opening-up the history of the Labour Party in the last 30 years, while Ink had a more straight-forwardly dramatic approach but mixed in choreographed movement and montage sequences to reinforce the populist entertainment aspect of his examination of the The Sun’s first year under Rupert Murdoch. Quiz is pitched somewhere between the two, merging various time periods including the build-up to Charles Ingram’s appearance, the days filming Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and the subsequent court case, played in interlocking scenes which present the case for the prosecution in Act One, and, after the interval, the case for the defence.

Staged in the ¾ round, or more appropriately in the ¾ hexagon of the Minerva, set designer Robert Jones has created a multi-purpose circular central platform holding a neon cube in which much of the action takes place. Around the edge of the flooring there is a ring of changeable lighting which is used to suggest everything from the television studio to some cunningly implied grass during an unexpected lawn mowing scene.

It’s a layered story that opens with a pub quiz, setting the scene for the world of obsessive competition fanatics, laying a direct trail from that bar to the gameshow hot-seat. Graham wants us to understand that this is a world where the ability to memorise and recall knowledge is a source of pride for its participants. Consequently, a mini-industry of test books, gadgets and chat groups has grown-up around the individual’s desire to win, helping them to improve their chances of making it onto their desired programme.

The audience is hooked into this by participating in four pub quiz rounds during the first half of the show to understand why the characters have this particular desire to succeed. And it is here that Graham overtly links Tecwen Whittock, the man believed to have used his cough to help Charles Ingram, to Adrian Pollock and his sister Diana Ingram, dramatizing both their earlier appearance on the show, and ultimately to Charles’s own infamous million-pound success.

Each scene in Act One is another nail in the Ingram’s coffin, even the wonderful history of quiz shows montage that gives Keir Charles a chance to perform as Des O’ Conner, Jim Bowen on Bullseye, Leslie Crowther on the Price is Right and briefly on video as Bruce Forsyth on Play Your Card Right, as well as a reasonable impression of Chris Tarrant, is part of the argument about the growing status of quizzes on British television in the years leading up to the broadcast of Millionaire, and why it mattered so much to those who went on again and again.

As the audience uses their keypad to decide whether the Ingrams were guilty or not before the interval, it seems there’s nothing left to say. But as with Labour of Love, having shown you one version of events, in Act Two Graham realigns your thinking with a whole new angle on the evidence -and this is why construction is the key to Graham’s success, leading the audience confidently down one path only to force us to retrace our steps, where it all suddenly looks very different – the work of a master storyteller.

At the heart of the story is Gavin Spokes’s performance as Charles Ingram, a suitably baffled and bumbling military man, completely out of his depth in either scenario. While occasionally a little stagey in the wrong places – in scenes at home with Diana, played by Stephanie Street, rather than on the gameshow where Ingram claimed to be playing-up the drama – Spokes does keep the audience guessing, never quite confirming or denying Ingram’s guilt, letting the various debates twist our interpretation of his performance instead.

Quiz fanatic Diana is given a no nonsense determination by Street and, like her stage husband, it’s difficult to decide whether she is the Lady Macbeth of an elaborate fraud or just a super-fan who, along with her equally obsessive brother Adrian Pollock (played by Henry Pettigrew who lends distinction to multiple roles), were cast as the villains for being too successful.  In what is a busy supporting cast playing at least four parts each, Keir Charles has the most fun mimicking the memorable game show hosts of the era, while successfully capturing the mannerisms and intonation of Chris Tarrant over the course of several scenes, while Sarah Woodward as defence lawyer Sonia Woodley is crucial in helping the audience reconsider the facts in the second half, not to mention having a marvellous cameo as Hilda Ogden.

2017 has been an exceptional year for new writing, especially in political theatre, and with three new plays since June, Graham has been at the forefront of this new wave. This goes a step beyond merely dramatizing key events but a genuine attempt to understand where power lies in society, and to rethink our concepts of truth, justice and appearance. The distorting role of the media directly links Quiz to the National Theatre’s version of Network with both asking important questions about the boundary between truth and entertainment in the television age and whether we can really trust what we see. There is one thing you can rely on however and that’s the value of heading to Chichester to catch this wonderful new play, while London theatre managers start a bidding war; they just need to ask the audience for the answer to the jackpot question – will Quiz earn itself a transfer – yes (cough, cough) or no?

Quiz is at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester until 9 December. Tickets start at £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1


Network – National Theatre

Network, National Theatre (by Jan Versweyveld)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Glengarry Glen Ross – Playhouse Theatre

Glengarry Glenn Ross, Playhouse Theatre

The Playhouse Theatre seems to attract a big American star at least once a year; last year it was Matthew Perry in The End of Longing, and before that Lindsay Lohan offered herself up to considerable approbation in Speed-the Plough. This year it’s the turn of Christian Slater who takes on the lead role in the latest revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s brutal two-act story of property salesman in 80s America. There’s something about Mamet’s spare, macho style that never seems to go out of fashion, and following an excellent all-star revival of American Buffalo at the Wyndhams in 2015 with John Goodman and Damien Lewis, a return to Glengarry Glen Ross feels particularly timely.

As with American Buffalo, Mamet is examining multi-forms of masculinity in the ultra-competitive and extremely pressured office of property salesman, pitting a small group of men against each other each month in the attempt to earn big bonuses and gifts. There are clear comparisons with the equally cut-throat financial sector and watching Glengarry Glen Ross will trigger references to The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, as well as numerous other banking-sector exposés.

But in his relatively short play, what Mamet does so well is to show a world in flux, a period between a comfortable past and a more uncertain future which acts as either a threat or stimulus to the behaviour of the characters. To some degree, it pits old against new methods in the pursuit of signed contracts, while playing with concepts of lucky streaks, desperation to be given the best possible chance of success and fear of irrelevance in an industry based entirely on sales figures. At the heart of all this is not just finding the alpha-male, but how well colleagues form alliances and who they can really trust.

Act One is a swift introduction to the salesmen at a Chinese restaurant. First, old-hand Shelley begs the officious Office Manager John Williamson for more of the good ‘leads’ to reverse his fortunes and have a hope of making the sales board this month. Next, another two older colleagues discuss the opportunity to sell their knowledge to a rival firm, before finally we meet uber-salesman Ricky ‘Roper’ who demonstrates his easy skill in turning an unsuspecting neighbouring diner into a potential sale. As the curtain rises on Act Two, the office has been burgled and all the men are under suspicion. With their deals and their future hanging in the balance, greed and desperation overcome them.

Seeing this show in preview (so some of these issues may have since been addressed), Sam Yates’s production has made some rather unfortunate early choices which undermine what is a genuinely exciting and powerfully performed second Act. Starting at 7.45pm, Act One is comprised of three very short scenes which together last about 35 minutes, at which point there is an inexplicably long 30-minute interval, before resuming for the final 50 minutes. Having barely had a chance to invest in the characters or their story, it’s pretty ludicrous to give the audience a chance to detach again so soon and for so long, where a straight 90-minute run would suit the work much better and maintain the pace. This may not be helpful to the set-designer or the bar sales, but it would serve the play considerably better.

Similarly, each of the three mini-stories in Act One is separated by the closing of a curtain in which the audience just sits in silence for a minute or so waiting for it to restart – no music, no thought on how to link the scenes more effectively – which makes them very stilted and, again, constantly pulls the audience in and out of the action every few minutes, while the designer’s Chinese restaurant set is charmingly detailed, but lacks any kind of atmosphere; there are no other diners, not a single waiter or chef and not so much as muzak to add a bit of tonality. With such a fine cast, surely the production could afford to hire a few extras to people the background and make it look more like a real Chinese restaurant rather than the set of a Chinese restaurant.

Yet, once the production finally gets to Act Two, the show really begins to take flight, becoming an engaging and dramatic piece of theatre, in which Yates smoothly manages the various comings and goings that facilitate numerous duologues and revelations. It’s a nicely paced and claustrophobic second Act which slowly builds a sense of desperation among the office staff, pursued by an emotionless detective, while each salesman clings desperately to the deals he’s put together. And Yates’s direction ensures that the audience understands what is at stake for each character, giving them distinction as well as forming part of a more widely choreographed series of revelations for the office.

Still best-known as a 90s teenage heart-throb, Christian Slater channels just the right amount of star-quality into leading salesman Ricky Roma, a man so at ease with his own abilities that he can secure sales even when wearily eating in the local Chinese. Slater’s Roma also conveys a duplicitous credibility when selling “dreams” to his customers, appearing sincere to lure them into a contract, and while Act Two proves he can be equally slippery and deceptive to get what he wants, people are drawn to his success.

He has a certainty and sense of unfaltering untouchability that lends confidence to all his interactions with clients and colleagues, but you still see how carefully Roma must walk the line between success and failure, where one false move can ruin everything. Slater brings a real charisma to his scenes and, even in this incredibly talented cast, he more than holds his own, raising the energy-levels with each appearance and utilising his Hollywood appeal to just the right effect.

Stanley Townsend’s Shelley Levine is Roma’s exact opposite, a salesman so down on his luck he can’t close a door, and forced into increasingly desperate behaviour to keep afloat. The play opens with Levine trying to cut a deal with Kris Marshall’s charmless office manager to get better “leads” in return for a big percentage of any contracts he secures. Townsend skilfully grapples with ideas of someone clinging to an idea of the man he used to be, certain he can turn things around if he only had better options – an interesting and engaging mix of pride and failure. In Act Two the alliance he begins to form with Roma offers new possibilities, and for a moment Townsend shows us the salesman Levine could be again in a complex and emotive performance.

There are smaller but nicely shaded roles for Philip Glenister, Don Warrington, Kris Marshall and Daniel Ryan as the remaining office staff and customers. Glenister is a strong presence as Dave Morris, a frustrated employee desperate to leave whose actions set the story in motion, while Warrington’s George Aaronow is the unlikely and guilt-ridden colleague that Dave tries to form an alliance with. Managing them all is Marshall’s emotionless John Williamson, the non-salesman relishing his power to control the distribution of the much-demanded “leads” and forcing the respect of others rather than earning it. Daniel Ryan has a small but pivotal role as Roma’s nervous client unsuspectingly talked into a dream he cannot afford.

In its first West End outing for more than ten years, Mamet’s play feels as topical as ever, smart, sharp and full of dangerous predators fighting for air. With a superb cast led by an on-form Christian Slater, when the performance accelerates in Act Two it’s a pleasure to watch the intricacies of office politics collide with the varying levels of desperation in each of the personalities on display.  With Press Night just a few days away, let’s hope the awkward production choices in Act One that affect the early part of the evening have been overcome, because this revival of Glengarry Glen Ross can still bite.

Glengarry Glenn Ross is at The Playhouse Theatre until 3 February and tickets start at £15, but do note the excessive fees if booking through ATG. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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