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Were We Entertained? Reviewing a Year of Branagh Theatre

branagh-theatre

In a little over two weeks the curtain will come down on The Branagh Theatre Company’s (KBTC) year-long season at The Garrick. It opened last October with The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade / All on Her Own in repertory – starring acting heavyweights Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Zoe Wannamaker – it scooped-up the West End transfer of Red Velvet, before French farce The Painkiller in March with Rob Brydon. Romeo and Juliet followed in May with rising stars Lily James and Richard Madden, before ending with the elegiac The Entertainer which opened at the end of August. Twelve months, six plays and several star names later, but what has the company achieved and what does this mean for London theatre?

The concept of the actor-manager goes back almost 500 years but became more common in the Victorian era, with Henry Irving being the most successful, before the professionalization of backstage roles altered the ways in which the commercial and artistic development of shows were managed. Kenneth Branagh’s has himself attempted the role before in the Renaissance Theatre Company from 1987-1992 which combined a variety of fringe, West End and touring shows over several years before branching out into the films that eventually took Branagh away from the theatre. Coming back to it nearly 25 years later is, then, an interesting choice – possible a sense of unfinished business for the youthful Branagh that has culminated in this series of new productions.

In many ways the season felt like a coming together of the last two decades of Branagh’s career, working with people he likes and knows well, while integrating his knowledge of film and TV techniques with his arguable preference for fairly classic-forms of theatre production. The most damning criticism levelled at his productions by the critics has been that they are ‘old-fashioned’, but even if you consider them to be – and I’m not sure I do – there is a place for the traditional alongside the innovative in the London theatre landscape, as the popularity of fairly straightforward touring productions would suggest.

But Branagh and his co-director Rob Ashford have taken risks both in the interpretation of some elements of the text and in the production values that speak to some of the modern trends in current theatre. It was Romeo and Juliet that copped-it most from the critics with what was, in my view, an overly harsh blasting of the interpretation and male lead performance. Instead I saw an attempt to play-up the more comic elements of the text, particularly in the balcony scene which became less mushy and more in tune with out slightly derisory take on modern love, that would appeal to the younger crowd attracted by the TV-star leads.

Likewise critical comment on his interpretation of The Entertainer mostly centred around the fact it wasn’t the same as the Olivier production, whereas Branagh’s interpretation of the lead role was necessarily different and extremely poignant, creating a fluidity between the scenes that is a mark of modern approaches to direction. In difficult circumstances, it added fresh insight into a play that is still tainted by the ghosts of its earlier performers.

The ‘old-fashioned’ tag that dogged the series can also be seen as a deliberate choice and actually part of a wider engagement with the biggest theatrical innovation of the twenty-first century – the live cinema screening. Branagh and Ashford’s presentation of Romeo and Juliet was like a 40s Fellini film in black and white. Now, that shouldn’t be the sole preoccupation of directors, but the way we consume theatre, particularly outside of London, is changing and a cinema broadcast could potentially reach more people in one night than attend an entire run, so it was interesting to see that they quite carefully incorporated ideas on how this would look into their finished stage version. The Winter’s Tale and, this week, The Entertainer were also broadcast so, increasingly production teams have an eye for the cinematic – even when it’s not being broadcast as the spectacular Red Barn currently at the National Theatre demonstrates – and while this may affect the staging and interpretation of live performance to a degree, it’s also something that’s not going away.

We should also remember that this was an inaugural season and without knowing what reaction the suite of productions would elicit or whether there was even a market for them, it seems natural that Branagh and co would play it safe both on the choice of shows and in choosing a bankable cast to attract audiences. It may not seem it now we’ve seen them, but the inclusion of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, a 50s slapstick vehicle that was considerably out of fashion, and the French farce The Painkiller were both notable risks among the more sellable Shakespeare and modern classics. Yet critics and audiences generally loved them, adding much needed levity to a dramatic season and giving Branagh in particular a rare chance to show his comedic skill. Harlequinade especially has been given a new lease of life and we may see it crop-up more regularly in regional and touring productions, while the obsession with life behind-the-scenes that the play captures has arguably marked out an audience who may also be interested in the current revival of The Dresser.

As a new company, Branagh Theatre has also relied on star-power to attract audiences, not just the chance to see Branagh himself – having not appeared in London for 8 years – but in enticing well-loved names like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to bolster ticket sales. But this is something that every theatre is doing whether it has a company season or not and looking around the West End this year much of what you see is established star vehicles – from No Man’s Land with Stewart and McKellen next door, to Faustus with Kit Harrington, the stage return of Michael Crawford in The Go-Between and a bevy of others. Yet, this season has also given room to acting’s rising stars like Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley, as well as some fresh-out of drama school graduates who have the chance to learn in exulted company – a training that was also offered to young directors associated with the KBTC. The creation of community and support for development is one of the vital roles a Company structure can play in developing the careers of young performers and the production team – what effect this will have on the individuals involved will be seen in the coming years but, while it may be less obvious to audiences, it is a meaningful way to induct new creatives into the profession.

So what does all of this mean for theatre and where should the KBTC go from here? London is never short of good plays but a Company season always feels a bit special, a collection of plays with something particular to say. And this first grouping took an affectionate look at the nature of theatre and theatre people, as well as examining a particular kind of human desperation – either born of love, loneliness or failure that have made Branagh’s own performances a significant highlight. But there have been companies before and will be again, whether this one survives remains to be seen.

We should hope for a second season in a year or two, but one that having now established itself, can be afford to be more experimental in its allocation of leading roles, in style of production and even in the incorporation of new writing among the classics. The choice of the Garrick was to some degree an unfortunate one, a lovely restored theatre, but the raking is too slight and the curvature of the auditorium so pronounced that many seats have a restricted view – although these were priced accordingly – but maybe somewhere like the Wyndhams would be better.

The commercial success and revenues generated by the inaugural Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season may not be known for some time, but performances always felt full, while, artistically, on balance, it should be considered a success, presenting a variety of interesting and accessible work that created a genuine sense of anticipation and a clear affection among its audiences. Not least, the opportunity to see Branagh himself after so long an interval from the London stage has been a pleasure, and one we should hope will be soon repeated. Roll on season two!

The inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company ran from 17 October 2015 – 12 November 2016 (when The Entertainer ends). The Entertainer will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 27 October.

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The Painkiller – Garrick Theatre

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon

Kenneth Branagh’s theatre company has been a good for thing for London, and its latest production The Painkiller which opens this week at the Garrick is a promising addition to the shows that preceded it. Audiences have loved this season because it feels like something special is happening even though this concept of a company taking residence at a single theatre has a very long tradition – although these days is less common in the West End. For audiences this has been a chance to see a developing body of work which, with the pulling-power of Branagh, has attracted some of acting’s finest names – and anyone who brought tickets before casting was announced can feel pretty pleased as first Judi Dench and Michael Pennington took to the stage in The Winter’s Tale while the recent announcement that John Hurt will join The Entertainer in the summer caused a ripple of excitement. And not to forget the chance to see Branagh himself in the West End has been well worth the eight year wait.

But, this season is also offering a training ground for younger actors, giving them the chance to work with and learn from more experienced performers, while experiencing a company environment in a major West End theatre. In The Painkiller Marcus Fraser makes his professional debut fresh out of drama school in a small role, while Branagh’s next project Romeo and Juliet gives leads Richard Madden and Lily James a chance to extend their theatre experience. In a sense then, everyone wins, and with reviews and award nominations of previous shows The Winter’s Tale and the double bill of Harlequinade / All on Her Own receiving very positive reception on the whole (Red Velvet came under the umbrella of the KBTC but was co-opted in from somewhere else’s production), there is a lot of expectation on The Painkiller to maintain this high standard.

On the whole I think it does but of all the shows it’s probably the most risky. This is a new-but-not-new piece adapted from a 1960s French farce by Francis Veber, but this is the first stage version in English written by Sean Foley. The original is not a famous play in the UK despite a few unremarkable films, and Foley discusses seeing it in Canada as the inspiration for this production. Branagh and Rob Brydon performed an earlier run in in Belfast in 2011, and both reprise their roles in this developed version. Set in a London hotel, Brydon plays Brian a failing Welsh photo-journalist planning to commit suicide because his wife has left him for her psychiatrist. In the neighbouring room is Ralph, an assassin who is using the hotel window to perform a contract killing on a visiting dignitary. Initially brought together by an over-zealous bellhop, the two men soon become embroiled in each other’s lives, but as the scenarios become increasingly ridiculous they find themselves battling tranquillisers, enraged exes, interfering policemen and too many cushions.

If you loved Harlequinade then this more modern farce will be for you and, as so often with comedy, will become sharper as the run progresses. There are still three previews before the official press night later this week so there are some elements that will work better when it’s been performed a few more times including some of the fight scenes which even from the upper circle are a little off-cue presumably as the actors are still holding back a little while they get used to the set, and saving something for the critics. But once the stagey beginning is over, and you get into the story, it very quickly finds its feet as the various incidents inflicted on the two protagonists become increasingly outrageous. Foley (and Veber of course) mixes together a variety of forms of humour from clever wordplay and sarcasm to plenty of slapstick, funny walks, accents and pure farce that keep you engaged for 90 minutes without it ever feeling too samey. There are occasional reprises of the same joke or act but overall Foley has been very restrained in ensuring the plot still progresses rather than just focusing on making the audience laugh, which they frequently do. It’s a good balance of still, and occasionally quite introspective dramatic moments, and side-splitting hilarity that can only come from a cast really enjoying themselves.

Brydon is the emotional heart of the piece, despite also being the cause of all the crazy things that happen, and it is essentially Brian’s story that we’re following.  Much like his role in the recent Future Conditional at the Old Vic, of which he was by far the best thing about it, Brydon is very good here at combining the broad physical comedy with the sadness of a man who feel he’s lost everything, which will deepen as the run progresses, and for a lot of the time there’s a childishness to Brian ‘acting out’ until he gets what he wants. Interesting too to see how the relationship with Ralph forces him to reflect on how needy he has been, and at crucial moments takes the lead by looking after someone else, which Brydon makes believable without losing the comedy heart of the piece.

Branagh’s role initially is the more straightforwardly dramatic and for a long time it seems Ralph, (posing as John), will be the straight-man. In these opening moments as a cold hearted assassin, and at this very early point in the run, Branagh has more to give and will evolve his business-like contract killer into something slightly more menacing as he gets more performances under his belt. But a little way into the play Ralph’s character shifts too and here Branagh is already hitting his stride brilliantly as he gets his share of the comedy.  As we saw with Harlequinade Branagh really has a flair for this kind of silly humour and he fully dives in here, enjoying the opportunity to push it to the extremes, and the post tranquilliser scenes are some of the funniest things you’ll see in London right now as Ralph loses control of his speech and limbs to hilarious effect.

The budding rapport between the two could easily be forgotten amidst the hysteria, but director Sean Foley ensures we see two lonely men finding unexpected support and solace in each other’s company, so you leave feeling they could have a life beyond the story – particularly as they end up in each other’s clothes, a hint that they’ve adopted traits as well. Great support from Mark Hadfield as the Porter / Bellhop whose cheery demeanour is severely tested by the goings-on in these adjoining rooms and having him popping in and out not only provokes some great comedic reactions but also a constant reminder of the ridiculousness of the situation. Alex McQueen and Claudie Blakley have small but important roles as Brian’s ex-wife and new lover which add nice variety to the plot and both are great at conveying the long-bubbling frustrations of their back-story with Brian.

Alice Power’s set is a perfect reproduction of a generic higher-end hotel with its fancy linens and surround-sound multimedia systems used to good effect. Showing the two rooms side-by-side really does emphasise how soulless these places are despite hotels going to considerable lengths to make visitors feel at home, and you get that sense from Power’s set that these kinds of rooms are the backdrop to endless human dramas which today just happens to be a suicidal man and an assassin.  Incidentally, this is not the first time that these two characters-types have been brought together, there’s a 30 minute Murder Most Horrid episode from the 1990s with Dawn French and Amanda Donohoe that in a slightly different way was interested in the interaction of these two extremes.

So, The Painkiller is a worthy and enjoyable edition to the Branagh Theatre Company’s season that should mature very well as the run continues. I suspect the critics will be divided as they so often are about this kind of daft humour and Harlequinade received a variety of low 3 star and high 4 star reviews. But the audience loved it so much the cast got three curtain calls, and it will continue to delight. Following this are two serious productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Entertainer that complete the season, so at the end of a long dreary winter, The Painkiller is well placed to cheer us up as spring begins.

The Painkiller is at the Garrick Theatre until 30 April. Tickets start at £17 from a variety of ticket sellers but tickets are likely to sell fast after Press Night on 17 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Future Conditional – Old Vic

Education, education, education; many believe it’s the foundation of your life, the greatest time you’ll ever have and a key determinate of the subsequent opportunities offered to you. Selective, free, academy, public, grammar, comprehensive, religious, state – there are many different types of school to choose from but for parents, teachers, pupils and policy-makers navigating the various pros and pitfalls is a minefield. What is the best education system for our nation and who should parents make choices for – the benefit of wider society or just focus on their individual child?

Future Conditional, Tamsin Oglesby’s new play at the Old Vic attempts to discuss some of these issues by looking at education from the perspectives of three different groups of people; the first is a group of largely middle-class mums at the school gate trying to get their child into the best school for next term – it’s a discussion that takes them from a social campaign to support the local school and help increase its academic performance, to catchment area moves to get into the best school,  to applying for local fee-paying alternatives. A second story is that of a hardworking teacher managing the banter of his teenage pupils offering them some form of education with a social conscience, while the final group is a think tank tasked with developing a new manifesto for schools.

It’s a nice idea but somehow this play just doesn’t quite work. Each of these perspectives is potentially interesting and well performed but as a whole it’s just not quite coming together enough – it has lots of points to make but no clear overall argument or solution. Part of the problem is the dialogue doesn’t always feel natural, there’s too much of a polemic in the debates that occasionally irritates rather than informs, with characters all to obviously acting as the mouthpiece of the author rather than properly developed and rounded people. Another problem is the absence of children from any of the scenes, even though cast members and ensemble sit in school uniform around the edge of the stage, the writer hasn’t included any dialogue for them, so often actors playing parents and teachers are talking to thin air and having extras dressed as children onstage is a completely redundant design decision. Annoyingly instead they use that 70s sitcom one-sided phone call technique of repeating back what the other person said before they answer – it’s lazy writing and surely comedy has moved on a bit since then.

Two of the stories are drawn together by the experience of a young Asian student Alia (Nikki Patel) who we first see applying to an Oxbridge College where the two interviewees debate her suitability in terms of fulfilling their quota rather than her intellect. She also appears in individual scenes alongside Rob Brydon’s put-upon teacher, when she gets into trouble for hitting another pupil, and is the ‘student-view’ in the think-tank. For some reason Oglesby couldn’t come up with a way to include her among the mums which actually makes no sense if Alia is the meant to be the common factor, or child’s-view here. Having her exist and no other children is also quite a strange choice, unless Ogelsby is trying to make a point about the anonymity of individuals in our education system, in which case this is far from clear.

As I say the performances are all extremely good; Rob Brydon makes good use of his comedy and pathos skills, and despite almost never having anyone to act with delivers a touching performance as the teacher doing his best and worried that he’s letting his pupils down. Lucy Briggs-Owen has become one of London’s most reliable stage performers  and follows up on her excellent role here in Fortune’s Fool and the more recent Ayckbourne revival, Communicating Doors at the Menier, with a nicely pitched performance as a middle-class mother willing to pay for the best school even at the expense of her friend’s principles. She’s given good support from the other mums including Natalie Klamar as campaigning mum Suzy who refuses to play the game, jeopardising her child’s future.

Across at the think-tank more clichéd debates are had about the way opportunities are created for students which leads to plenty of Oxbridge bashing and a proposal that the esteemed universities take 3 pupils from every school regardless of attainment which, if there is one, is probably the key message of this piece. Again nice performances particularly from Joshua McGuire as Oliver and Brian Vernel as Bill who have a particularly juicy stand-off on this issue that results in a food fight – whenever you lose your way as a writer always include a food fight to distract the audience. The trouble with this think tank is that like the play it is a talking shop, at the end of which everyone acknowledges that tearing our education system down and starting again isn’t an option. Perhaps our entire education debate hinges on one catch-22 problem – do you change everything, even the stuff that’s good, to make it fairer, or do you find some way to raise the standard of everything else so it reaches the good stuff?

Although Future Conditional is a noble attempt to debate the perceived failings in our education system, its too simplistic approach fails to either satisfyingly bring together its multi-narrative approach or take a particularly clear view on what to do about it. All the stories are enjoyable but don’t fully engage with the complexities of the system we have and the bias of everyone’s perspective. Schooling is something we’ve all gone through and whether our experience of it was positive or negative will influence how we feel about certain types of schools. As no one is able to experience all types of education first-hand it becomes impossible to fully comprehend how effective this comprehensive is or how rigorous that grammar school may be. What is true is that there is no one winning combination for churning out perfect members of society –many decent people leave a comprehensive as they do a public school, and many terrible ones do too, so while our whole education systems focuses on the many rather than the individual these debates will rumble on. As for Future Conditional it’s a pleasant enough evening and funny at times, but in terms of what to do about our schools, it doesn’t solve anything.

Future Conditional is at the Old Vic until 3 October. Tickets start at £10.


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