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Running Wilde: How to Manage a Theatre Season

Oscar Wilde Season - An Ideal Husband

As Classic Spring’s year-long Oscar Wilde season comes to a close, its timely to reflect on what it has achieved. Every theatre describes its forthcoming programme as a season, loosely tying together the varied collection of plays it will present in a 4-6 month period, releasing tickets for them all simultaneously. Here, though, a season refers to the external take-over of a theatre building by a Company formed specifically around a particular individual or to celebrate the work of one writer – as the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and Classic Spring have done. Aside from its commercial purpose to attract as many patrons as possible, has London’s second major theatre season in three years really added anything to our perception of Oscar Wilde and his work?

This time last year Dominic Dromgoole’s newly-formed Company was preparing for its opening show – A Woman of No Importance – and promising that the programme would reposition Wilde in the theatre landscape, allowing us to view his writing and contribution with fresh eyes. With the rather lacklustre and ill-conceived version of The Importance of Being Earnest showered with largely 2* reviews and acres of disappointment, has Dromgoole failed where Branagh arguably succeeded? And what should a successful theatre season actually look like?

  • Play Selection is Crucial

With only four or five available spots each limited to an 8-10 week run, there are three important criteria for deciding which productions to include in the season. First is artistic value, the second commercial viability and the third variety. Classic Spring’s choices, including the two plays mentioned above along with Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband easily demonstrated the value of Wilde’s work, presenting his best-loved plays which guaranteed a healthy box-office return. Rarely off stage, Wilde has audiences flocking to the West End most years, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser each time.

Yet, with a season dedicated to one writer, predominantly working in one genre, variety is more difficult to achieve through the selection of work – how the forthcoming Pinter season manages this will be an interesting point of comparison. Branagh’s season could more easily offer a broad selection just by having a much wider pool of possible material, but it shrewdly combined the classics with modern drama, comedy and tragedy across the run. Yet, both seasons within their own confines gave dedicated audiences the chance to see work they would know well alongside more unusual or less-frequently performed pieces. Branagh’s curveball was the hilarious farce The Painkiller, in which our noble knight dropped his trousers, while Classic Spring cleverly opened with the lesser-performed A Woman of No Importance which offered the chance to see the more serious and emotional side of Wilde beneath the polished veneer and witty epigrams.

  • Vary the Presentation

Play selection might offer a Company all kinds of opportunities to present different types of production from different eras, but variety in staging and design can add considerably to arguments about the ongoing relevance of particular writers and their ability to draw on the consistent human emotions and behaviours that defy historical era. While each play is a standalone piece true to the purpose of the writer, a season should think more broadly about the visual effect it wants to create to offer variation and possibly even innovation for the repeat customer – it will be interesting to see the approach taken to setting and tone by the forthcoming Pinter season where up to four separate short plays will be presented on the same night.

Branagh’s season managed this well, often using the same design team across several plays, and presented five very different but thematically unified worlds to the audience. Running in repertory, viewers were taken from the magical pseudo-nineteenth-century kingdom of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale to the chaotic 1950s touring theatre of Harlequinade, with its faux medieval references in the costumes. The Painkiller, set in a Boutique Hotel, was a modern split screen with a sharp-suited assassin, while Romeo and Juliet referenced the monochrome glamour of 1960s La Dolce Vita Italy, before faded 1950s working-class Britain became the backdrop to The Entertainer. Each play was unique and individually designed to take the audience back and forth in time, but the human tragedy and delusion at the heart of every piece was always crystal clear, providing a unity across the work.

By contrast, the Wilde season seemed frustratingly unadventurous, despite different directors and designers separately taking charge of the four plays. Together they produced a remarkably unvarying and one-note portrayal of late nineteenth-century grandeur. Audiences have a passion for traditional Wilde, so it would be perfectly understandable that two or even three of the shows would want to retain their period-specific focus, but the hope that at least one would take a more creative path was soon dashed.

Of all the work presented in this season, An Ideal Husband most lends itself to taking a more unusual approach to characters and scenarios that more obviously reference the modern day. Most audience members may not regularly dine with the aristocracy, but politicians with dark secrets about the origins of their power being blackmailed by unscrupulous outsiders with plenty to gain is a recognisable and relatable construct. It becomes even more prescient when we consider that the inflexibility of the black and white morale code that Wilde toys with through the character of Gertrude, and which now reflects our Post-World War cultural love-affair with the anti-hero where a bad deed done for the right reason is forgivable and even desirably human.

Traditionalists will argue that to see Wilde performed well is always welcome, and An Ideal Husband was a particular highlight, but what is a season for if not to offer a creative opportunity to see the work afresh. One key way to do that is through the setting, imagining why the play has survived so well and what it has to say – Wilde’s writing is more than a string of funny lines, there is something about the fundamental human condition that runs through his work, which the repetitive framing failed to satisfactorily draw out.

  • Have a Point of View and a Grand Finale

Knowing what you want audiences to take-away from the work is the next key criteria, and strongly relates to the arguments above. As a collective body of work, what is it that the Company wants to say about the writer or the specific collection of plays that they have chosen to present? Or is the whole enterprise a cynical money-making scheme? Classic Spring’s original intent was to celebrate ‘proscenium playwrights’, rediscovering their ‘original brilliant wit and bold social critique,’ and across the four plays it is the former that has been the focus.

Emphasising the ways in which the work ‘still speak to us piercingly and profoundly today’ has been less clear, and after the emotionalism of A Woman of No Importance and the allusions we drew for ourselves in An Ideal Husband the productions themselves haven’t radically repositioned Wilde as a political commentator or collectively highlighted the foibles of social expectation, status and behaviour that could have drawn the four shows together. We enjoyed some of them as individual productions, but with a changing cast, director and designer they all felt independent of one another, and we haven’t learnt anything new from them as a collective experience.

The Wilde season built-up to The Importance of Being Earnest, rightly saving its most famous piece for the big finish. The end of the season is the opportunity to draw all of the strands together in the one production that visualises the season’s original themes, sending audiences away with a clear sense of its purpose and eager to see what the Company does next. Alas, The Importance of Being Earnest was a damp-squib, easily the worst of the set, an overly-forced disappointment receiving a heap of poor reviews. With little that was truly remarkable or insightful, where Classic Spring goes from here is hard to say.

By contrast, the Branagh season generate its own momentum, taking risks in the choice of production and style, while drawing the strands together in a loose but considered way. Thematically it focused on the theatrical life and particularly a desperation and delusion that prevented characters seeing their situations or themselves as they really are. From the faded starlets of Harlequinade to the star-crossed lovers driven to despair by family rivalry, audiences were able to form a picture across the series, culminating in the ultimate portrait of stale desperation in The Entertainer. A theatre season has to be more than the sum of its parts, we can love the individual plays but, through staging or unusual show selection, it should develop connections and insights for an audience that didn’t exist before.

  • Venue and Casting

Finding the right space is often more about availability than design, but in choosing the Vaudeville Classic Spring added an extra dimension to the work, meeting one of their key purposes of the season to stage shows in the place the playwright created them. Along with the added frisson, the Vaudeville also works for audiences with good sight lines from most seats. The Garrick was more frustrating for Branagh fans with a significant curve in the upper levels that obscured half of the stage, while the stalls seating is insufficiently raked for viewing.

Both seasons attracted plenty of famous faces guaranteed to draw audiences with Freddie and Edward Fox, Eve Best, Sophie Thompson and well-loved comedian Jennifer Saunders embodying some of Oscar Wilde’s most well-loved creations. Arguably by retaining some continuity of cast and crew between shows, Branagh’s approach had a deeper purpose, offering a form of repertory training for emerging talent on and off-stage, while providing platforms for actors fresh from drama school to work alongside theatrical titans including Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Greta Scacchi, and Branagh himself, as well as up-and-coming actors including Lily James, Richard Madden, Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman who had previously or would go on to work again with the notably loyal actor-director.

  • Critical Data

While the Critic no longer wields the make-or-break power they once held as audiences draw on a range of information when selecting a show, the reviews are still a valuable indicator of a production’s value in the wider landscape. Looking at the star ratings apportioned to each show in the Wilde and Branagh seasons by the leading publications is very revealing, and, in terms of average critical acclaim, The Branagh Theatre Company outperformed Classic Spring overall.

Looking at averages for The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Time Out, The Stage, WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub reveals:*

Season Averages

Only An Ideal Husband earned 3.5 stars or more, while three of Branagh’s shows achieved that. And despite a 5* outlier from Whatsonstage, The Importance of Being Earnest only received a damming 2.8 stars, Branagh’s lowest scoring show being Romeo and Juliet with 3.3 stars. The critics clearly found less to love in the Wilde season for some of the reasons mentioned above.

The dedicated theatre season is slowly becoming a notable and much-anticipated feature of West End scheduling, but running one is never as straightforward as it may seem. Putting on a series of shows loosely strung together has lessened the impact of the Wilde season, missing an opportunity to offer the promised new perspective. With a 6-month season dedicated to Harold Pinter about to begin over at the theatre named after him, Jamie Lloyd and his theatre company can learn some lessons from Classic Spring. With plenty of star names, rarely seen work and Lloyd’s particular touch, let’s hope London’s next big theatre season is one to remember.

The Classic Spring Oscar Wilde Season concludes with The Importance of Being Earnest until 20 October. The Pinter at the Pinter Season begins in September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

* The full data from the critics:

Critics Data

Key – Tm – The Times, Tl -The Telegraph, Gd – The Guardian, In – The Independent, St – The Stage, TO – Time Out, Wh – WhatsonStage, RH – The Reviews Hub


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.


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


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