Tag Archives: theatre

Shipwreck – The Almeida

Shipwreck - The Almeida

The first big Trump play has arrived. It has taken a couple of years for writers to get to grips with the political rollercoaster that both the UK and US have endured since those key votes in 2016 separately plunging both nations into the most extraordinary debacles of the modern era. While our own experience of the Brexit chaos is so fantastical you would never believe it in a play, attempts to examine it openly are still so driven by emotion that incendiary debates rage about the role of art in reflecting politics, history and society as it unfolds – as James Graham discovered with the polarised response to his Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

These issues are, some would argue, are too sensitive, too incomplete to begin to make sense of so instead we subtly nod to them through allusion, inference and by drawing loaded parallels with classic texts. Whether or not you agree with that, Trump’s presidency has left a clear imprint on theatre land even when the show in question is not directly related to him – Jon Culshaw’s impression in a Harold Pinter monologue from the 1980s during the first outing of the Pinter at the Pinter season, or a demigod-ish Caesar at The Bridge Theatre channelling the stylings of the Trumpian electoral campaign. Yet a full-length play inspired entirely by the man himself and the America that made him has taken time to emerge.

First out of the starting gate is Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, opening this week at the Almeida, a 3.5-hour monster of a show that attempts to unpick the US mindset which led to Trump’s shock election and a particular kind of middle-class inertia and complacency that failed to recognise the signs and act to prevent it. Shipwreck is a huge undertaken, looking at politics, class, wealth and race as well as the small stories of friendship, parenthood and identity. If it sounds ambitious then it is, but the result has a baggy and often incoherent messiness that never quite manages to live up to its own expectations.

The play’s sprawling structure is initially its biggest asset, a collection of friends – presumably old College buddies, though we’re not exactly sure – gathered at the newly acquired farmhouse of couple Richard and Jools. As each pair arrives, the intellectualising begins as they debate core moments of the last two years at the White House, pushing each other on points of disagreement and in several cases wrangling over a determination to have the last word. As these arguments play out, there is something of Annie Baker in Washburn’s approach, big conversations that seem to be about nothing but collectively reveal so much about the American psyche and the complexities of everyday life for working people. The hope of eventual coherence keeps you watching, although a number of viewers made their escape at the interval.

Yet, the show fails to offer any notable or really new insight on the first two years of the most alarming President of modern times. Washburn’s play is a rambling essay of known facts, a polemic that charts some of the key events but fails to deliver a solid argument or even to demonstrate its credentials as a theatrical rather than a scholastic experience. Shipwreck’s very discursiveness should eventually coalesce into big themes and concepts as well as insightful and representative character portraits of the assembled group. This dilapidated farmhouse should be a microcosm of America but struggles to be anything other than a lightweight narrative about some fairly smug affluent people who like to argue.

The big failing of Washburn’s play is that these many hours of talking result in two rather obvious conclusions, first that Trump lies and second that no one who votes for him really cares – well, you don’t need 3½ hours of theatre to tell you that. Dramatically, what plot there is, as the group survive a cold night, miles from anywhere, is driven by the supposedly shocking revelation that one of the characters voted for him, not as an act of sabotage in a safe seat but as a deliberate act in a purple state because they decide that Trump is the President America deserves. There’s something of the confessional in the way this is suddenly revealed but Washburn fails to properly draw these characters and their group identity, so when it comes to it this “major” revelation barely registers – the audience just don’t know or care enough about these people to feel the level of shock they experience.

There is a laboured verbosity in how these characters interact with one another, long, complex sentences, the product of rehearsed debate that never sound remotely spontaneous and undermines the reality of the characters. And while there’s something Sorkin-esque about this approach, the play lacks the intellectual clout that makes his work so compelling, so with each scene built around a different point of contention it all becomes a bit a Dawson’s Creek meets The West Wing.

In lieu of real characters, there is instead an excellent group of actors that do everything they can to keep the show alive despite the rather thin material they have to work with – like assembling The Avengers only to tackle a parking dispute – they absolutely carry the show. As the play opens, the scene is set by Raquel Cassidy’s Jools welcoming her tired friends to the inexplicably understocked and ramshackle farmhouse that she and husband Richard (Risteárd Cooper) are renovating. There’s something frail and homely in Cassidy’s performance, a woman who is hiding from the world, offering to bake cookies and lighting candles. Later, rather out of the blue, she argues frantically with the person who voted for Trump, but the play never shows us what her former, possibly waspish, life was and why this pivotal meeting of such different friends is really taking place so far from New York.

Adam James is never less than compelling, and in Shipwreck he brings a sardonic texture to lawyer Andrew who retains his faith in cool logic however impassioned his friends become. But more than the others, James shows us something deeper beneath the surface, a hint of self-knowledge about the protection his privileged lifestyle affords with partner Yusuf as part of the New York elite, troubled by the direction of his country but rational in the weighing-up of facts and emotions. Khalid Abdalla’s Yusuf does well with some big confessional speeches that speak to the association between liberal privilege and Trumpian wealth protection polices, if only his character was anchored enough in the show to make these more meaningful.

The rest of their friendship group is made-up of stereotypes, the poor hippy couple Jim and Laurie implausibly arriving almost immediately from the birth of their first grandchild and activist Allie whose recitation of Trump facts and realisation of her own failure to act initiates most of the debate. How these people have remained friends given their vastly different social spheres is problematic and unlikely, but the performances from Elliot Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Mitchell make them all potentially interesting perspectives on the effects of Trump if only the play could have grounded their lives more convincingly.

Out on his own, monologues from rising star Fisayo Akinade tell a not-quite complementary story of Mark’s childhood, adopted as a boy by white parents and raised in the same farmhouse the liberal New Yorkers now occupy. The experience of inter-racial families, how Mark came to view his own skin colour and his later exploration of competing ideas of black heritage are interesting discussion points which Akinade delivers well. These scenes are accompanied by Cooper and Fitzgerald as Mark’s parents Lawrence and Teresa, who talk about the immigration issues that had long led to Trump’s election, but the three stories never fuse effectively enough to be a truly insightful or meaningful assessment of America’s fate.

Rupert Goold unites the domestic and the political by staging the whole thing on a big round Arthurian table, at which both the actors and audience members sit. For much of the play, the table top becomes the performance space bringing the action more into the laps of the viewer than the tiny Almeida stage normally allows. This idea was used very effectively in a version of King Lear at the Union Theatre some years ago where the battlefield and the political arena became the same space, and for Shipwreck it is an equally useful metaphor for the ways in which societal power intrinsically affects the everyday.

It is a shame that some of the other aspects are less subtle including two rather ghastly fantasy sequences, played like cartoons in which Donald Trump (Cowan) confronts first George Bush (Akinade) and then James Comey (Abdalla). These horrible missteps again show us things we already know, that Trump reimagines his own history to paint himself as the knowledgeable hero and that he sees his unlimited power in terms of who is for and against him – also reiterated in several allusions to God and religious painting that dominate the projected backdrop. In an otherwise straight production that is entirely based on small-scale discussion, these overlong parodies are vastly misjudged. Not seeing Trump at all would have made his presence stronger and more dangerous.

It is a huge shame with so many possibilities in the scenario and script that the first specific Trump play should be such a disappointment, and, despite their excellence with the classics, its hard to remember the last time new writing at the Almeida genuinely astounded (possibly as long ago as Ink). It suffers too from coming so soon after Sweat at the Donmar that has recently earned a deserved West End transfer, Lynn Nottage’s play about disillusion and disenfranchisement in working-class America that manages to be everything Washburn’s play cannot. Shipwreck has its moments and the cast are uniformly excellent, but without strong character investment it dwindles to little more than a few well-hashed arguments we’ve all heard before.

Shipwreck is at The Almeida until 30 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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All About Eve – Noel Coward Theatre

All About Eve by Jan Versweyveld

Screen to stage adaptations have become increasingly common in recent years and 2019 will see plenty of new film-based shows heading to our theatres. Predominantly musicals, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 is in preview at the Savoy, as is Waitress starring Katherine McPhee at the Adelphi, not to mention a Theatre Royal Haymarket run for Heathers The Musical at the end of last year, while there is a strong possibility that both the musical Mean Girls and Disney’s Frozen will become the latest Broadway imports to hit the West End. Meanwhile, the adaptation of Trainspotting Live was lauded at festivals up and down the country, proving that dramatic film can also have plenty to offer as a stage experience.

Ivo van Hove has been at the vanguard of this new style, blending film and stage techniques to create a new subgenre of the arts, one which uses onstage technology to retain a story’s movie heritage, while playing with the theatricality of the material to either draw our or downplay the emotional experience of the characters. van Hove creates a hybrid experience within his adaptations that ensure the audience remain conscious of its film origins and by using the same fluidity of pace as cinema, never allowing the show to become self-consciously stagy or artificial.

It is an effect that can be hugely divisive, and while Network at the National Theatre with Bryan Cranston enjoyed a sell-out run and a current Broadway transfer, it split opinion with its use of roaming cameras and giant video screens to comment on the responsibility of television news. Likewise, an earlier production of Obsession at the Barbican with Jude Law, based on The Postman Always Rings Twice earned even more derision for the vast metaphorical hinterland it created on stage in which a highly stylised film noir played out. This director’s work is either your taste or it isn’t, so responses to this new production of All About Eve are likely to be equally contentious.

The 1950 film is one of the finest movies ever made, a sharply told and biting behind-the-scenes examination of star power and female ageing in an industry that is constantly looking for fresh faces. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film is a satirical, but probably truthful, depiction of the pursuit of fame and the unstoppable ruthlessness of an individual hungry for the limelight, told through the interaction of six characters whose lives are changed by the stage door appearance of a seemingly gentle and starstruck young woman who inveigles herself into the life of stage goddess Margot Channing.

van Hove’s production has everything we’ve now come to expect from the superstar director with it’s leading lady boxed-in by the apparent limitations of her life. Long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld creates a bare, ugly dusky pink room, a vast emptiness containing nothing but a dressing table (in a fixed position permanently on stage as the scenes change). Margot is devoted to the theatre, but despite her lover Bill, a director, and best friend couple Karen and Lloyd, a playwright, she remains at a distance from them. Like previous van Hove protagonists including Hedda Gabler and Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge, Margot is in a box of her own making, one that the events of the play will help or force her to break out of.

Versweyveld soon starts to play with the space and on three sides, the walls lift to reveal a backstage area, a semi-junk yard of props and set, dominated by large-scale photographic portraits of Margot carefully positioned to catch your eye. The point is to suggest a world beyond the theatre where artifice is stripped away, a real life far from the self-creating dramas of this little set where another kind of life is being lived if only Margot can move beyond ego and her inherent prickliness towards it. Pointedly in van Hove’s direction, for a long time we only see her in this room and the attached bathroom, never able to break out of the confines she has set around herself.

As the story unfolds, van Hove introduces the camera techniques used to such effect in Network, slowly at first, a live feed from the dressing table mirror splayed across those bare pink walls, now a giant video screen, revealing the unrelenting close-up of Margot’s face as she removes her theatrical make-up. Later what we see on the screens becomes more complicated, no longer a direct reflection of reality but a distorted image of herself, the slowly ageing face a fantasy project from her mind, fearing the irrelevance she knows is coming with Eve hot on her trail.

Repeatedly, the cameras are used to show us off-stage activity, Margot’s quite graphic bathroom reactions to the famously “bumpy” party scene for Bill’s birthday in which she creates havoc for her guests – if you’ve ever wanted to see Gillian Anderson drunkenly vomiting then now’s your chance – a location repurposed later when Eve has finally conquered this space, using the bathroom to hide her reaction to critic Addison’s meddling. More of Bill’s party happens in the crowded kitchen, also stretched soundlessly across the vast screens, as the main stage is given over to Margot’s self-pity at the piano. It’s an interesting technique, one that creates texture but also distracts the audience from what is happening on the main stage, an approach that feels purposeful to retain a distance from the emotional lives of the characters, as if to say these are trivial self-perpetuating dramas that are less important than the overall effect – as one character rather amusingly points out “they’re actors, they’ll get over it”.

All About Eve is rich with detail which Versweyveld subtly changes as Eve’s power grows. Look out for the slow replacement of pictures in the backstage area, with Margot dwarfed or obscured by Eve portraits instead. An D’Huys’s costumes also subtly suggest the changing of the guard, taking Margot from the striking red that is a feature of all her costumes for much of the play including some stunning red dresses, morphing into black and white as she loosens her grip on fame and allows her inner life and love for Bill to change her. Note too that Eve adopts the signature red as her power grows, a baton handed between the generations as their priorities shift.

It’s no easy thing to step into the shoes of Bette Davis, but Gillian Anderson has Margot Channing exactly. Somehow it manages to be a bigger and smaller performance at the same time, showcasing first and foremost the deeply riven insecurities that drive her more outlandish behaviour. Anderson’s Margot is waspish rather than vicious so as the play opens, she is entirely caught up in her own life – the performance she’s just given and the man about to fly to Hollywood – that makes her treat the nervous Eve with a carelessness born of distraction rather than malice, a singular encounter that will be scarcely remembered by anyone tomorrow except the star struck girl.

Yet as Eve roots her way into her life, Anderson charts how brittle Margot’s ease and surety really was. While Davis could only be spiteful and ranty, our modern times, allow Anderson to be an ugly drunk, slurring and staggering around the party scene, upsetting each of her guests in turn. What follows is a chance for rehabilitation, a break through moment that in the rest of the play allows Margot to pursue the things she really wants, a transformation that Anderson makes both credible and warming.

Lily James as Eve matches her at every moment with a carefully constructed performance that draws the audience into her game as much as anyone around her. First, we see this sweet and awkward girl bat her eyes shyly in Margot’s dressing room but soon actively supervises the scene change. James’s Eve lurks at every opportunity, sidling around the set to overhear important conversations and manoeuvring herself into position, ready to grasp her chance when it comes. And note in the relayed kitchen scenes on the video screen her eyes seek out Margot’s director boyfriend Bill at every opportunity.

The play notably shifts a gear in the second hour as Eve takes her first big step into Margot’s shadow, and from that point on James shows us the duality of her character, the pleasant face no longer quite masking the frustrated schemer. Her palpable fury after a showdown with Bill leads to a well-played tantrum, while the steely switch in a similar confrontation with Karen in a restaurant bathroom is James’s highpoint in a role that showcases her versatility and ability to command the stage as well as her co-star.

The supporting performances are equally full of texture, creating the world around the warring women that is just as dominated by ego, bitterness and struggles for power. Julian Ovenden rises above all of that with a performance that draws out Bill’s essential decency, the good-guy director whose relationship with his leading lady is full of chemistry. There is a genuine romantic feeling between them that Ovenden fills with hurt as their partnership sours, while still making Bill a match for the tempestuous Margot.

It’s wonderful to see Monica Dolan in a more glamorous role, playing friend and confidant Karen who develops an excellent partnership with Rashan Stone’s Lloyd as their own marriage is affected by Margot’s behaviour and Eve’s machinations. Stanley Townsend is superb as the silky critic Addison DeWitt who makes for a more physically imposing figure than the film’s George Sanders, and while he feels underused his own big confrontation with Eve is both shocking and tense.

The movie to stage adaptation is becoming increasingly prevalent and an NT Live screening of this one that translates it back to cinema will add a further dimension. Eschewing an interval as always and running at two-hours straight through, van Hove’s distinctive and often stylised work doesn’t set out to provide a deep connection to the characters, often drowning them out with music or distracting with video and as a result, you may not feel emotionally satisfied by an approach that reinforces the central message of All About Eve – nothing is ever what you think it is. So while the dialogue and scenarios are drawn directly from Mankiewicz, if you want a faithful depiction of every line, shot and intonation then just watching the film again is probably advisable. This All About Eve is something quite different, same story deliberately new frame with staging that pushes at the boundaries of theatre and film.

All About Eve is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 11 May, with tickets from £15.Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter 7 - The Dumb Waiter

What a difference a few months can make; when the Jamie Lloyd Company first announced its Pinter at the Pinter season finale show back in May (before Betrayal was added to the programme), the news that Danny Dyer would star alongside Martin Freeman raised a few eyebrows. Famous for a series of over-earnest gangster films, daft documentaries and his role in Eastenders, his fans were delighted but there was also plenty of sneering about his lack of stage experience, and undoubtedly some ticketholders were hoping to witness a car-crash theatrical event. But since May, Dyer’s wider public profile has rapidly changed largely due to his “mad riddle” Brexit rant that reflected the frustrations of so many, as well as his recent history series for the BBC that defied its critics with knowingly comic scenarios that were full of humanity and respect for the expertise around him. In the last eight months the nation has rather taken Danny Dyer to our hearts

For fans, the transformation of Danny Dyer began when his Eastenders character Mick Carter proved to be a sensitive and loving family man, subverting old-fashioned expectations of soap-opera masculinity by supporting his fictional son’s decision to come-out, while sensitively responding to his wife Linda’s rape storyline. More recently, Dyer cemented his status as a national treasure in waiting by delivered Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message stressing the importance of mentorship, a sentiment echoed in his quite touching speech at the National Television Awards last month in which he dedicated his win to Harold Pinter for believing in him when no one else did.

Dyer, of course had known Pinter when as younger actor he appeared in No Man’s Land, Celebration and The Homecoming. A guiding friendship developed that has clearly had a lasting effect on the actor, one that makes his presence in the Pinter at the Pinter line-up both appropriate and meaningful – who better to celebrate the writer’s life and work than someone who feels he owes it all to Pinter. Throughout this superb season the Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company has made strong and strategic casting decisions that have purposefully mixed experienced actors, those who knew Pinter or have performed frequently in his plays, along with the industry’s rising stars.

It has given actors and comedians the chance to surprise us – who imagined that Lee Evans would deliver one of the most moving monologues of the season in Pinter Three, or that newcomer Luke Thallon would almost steal the show from established performers Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves in Pinter Five. There are no passengers in a Jamie Lloyd show, however large the company or small the role, every part of the production must contribute to the overall effect the director is trying to create. Lloyd likes to be disruptive and in cannily casting Dyer, he foresaw a possibility that goes beyond the commercial – though a full house and growing anticipation for a notable finale are also in there – another chance to use his stylised vision to show us that Dyer is as worthy of this company as any of the great names who have come before.

But all of that is to come because Pinter Seven opens with Gemma Wheelan and John Heffernan in A Slight Ache, Pinter’s 1958 play that began its life on the radio. While some of the other pieces in the collection have a similar provenance, they have been staged as primarily theatrical experiences, creating movement while playing with tone and pace to give them a physical dramatic life. Here the growing confidence of the Lloyd season is evident, now six revered shows later, we see the radio play performed by two actors in a 1950s radio studio using, for the most part, just their voices and a microphone to create that intimate wireless feel, and adding their own sound effects as they reveal the curious story of a middle England couple and the mysterious Matchseller.

Set in the semi-rural home of Edward and Flora on Midsummer’s Eve, it opens with the trapping of a wasp in the marmalade as the couple eat breakfast in their garden, revealing their quite different approaches to dealing with the buzzing intruder. As the longest day stretches on their happy idyll is disturbed by the looming appearance of a Matchseller lurking on the perimeter of their property, a man who appears to have watched the house for some time. Wanting him to leave, and with his eyes beginning to ache Edward and Flora invite him in, keen to know more about this troubling stranger.

Like so much of Pinter’s work, A Slight Ache uses language to create a quite specific effect enhanced here by the use of close microphones to create the very intimate feeling of radio drama. Very little is acted out, so almost everything the couple say or do must be conjured in the audiences’ mind from the descriptions and implicit inferences created by the actors. There is a strong sense of place, of class and a particular kind of easy living sustained by wealth, entitlement and expectation that comes entirely from the words Pinter places in the mouths of the characters. Frequent reference to the Latin names of the plants in the garden as Edward and Flora enjoy their home, and words like “marmalade”, “preposterous” and “treacherous” evoke a particular kind of England.

This is reinforced later by discovering Flora was once a Justice of the Peace as an encounter with a poacher sticks in her mind, while Edward has a career as an essay writer, all of which suggest a peaceful and untroubled existence that the Matchseller is about to disrupt. As so often with Pinter, what is said on the surface can be at odds with what is happening underneath, and while both Flora and the Matchseller are the recipients of some fairly ugly words that deliberately mar the beauty of the summer’s day, it is the practicality and openness of the female character that emerges with strength of purpose over her weaker intellectualising husband.

Lloyd’s staging draws out the psychological strangeness of the play, a building sense of doom but also of an almost supernatural presence that will change them all. The paganistic connection to Midsummer’s Eve runs through this one act piece, referenced repeatedly as “the longest day” as though ripe for other worldly forces to take charge. At the same time, we never see or hear the Matchseller speak, any responses attributed to him and voiced by Edward and Flora who also describe his shambling and dirty appearance. Crucially, in Lloyd’s production we never hear him, so, unlike Flora and Edward’s actions, he is not accompanied by any sound effects, questioning whether his existence is quite as firm as Edward’s failing eyes suggest.

There is a notable Inside No 9 quality to this 50-minute duologue, and, with similarities in content and tone, A Slight Ache may well have influenced Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Tom and Gerry episode from Series 1. It is also beautifully played by Wheelan and Heffernan, creating a richness with their voices so redolent of the undisturbed clarity of radio, while modulating the sound to alter the mood of the piece as the characters are drawn from their well-spoken, almost clipped 1950s accents, into misty reminiscences and increasingly fearful behaviours by the repulsively alluring stranger they have invited in. You may be here for the big stars to come, but this fantastic one-act play is the one you’ll be thinking about on the way home.

The Dumb Waiter is, in part, a more farcical affair but, written in 1957, is equally concerned with the use of language to create a sense of class and purpose. Two hit men wait in the basement of a building in Birmingham for instructions on their latest job, Ben the senior partner just wants to peaceably read his newspaper while the more highly-strung Gus poses an endless torrent of questions. Already a little fractious with each other, the unexpected arrival of food orders in the dumb waiter throws the men into chaos as they try to figure out what is going on before their target arrives.

There is a Godot-like quality to this semi-absurdist play, and while the farcical elements are perhaps less well-formed than some of Pinter’s later work, Lloyd’s production nicely frames the anticipation of the characters, forced to endure a long wait before they can perform their task, as well as the shifting power dynamic between the two men essentially trapped in a confined space. In some ways they seem both capable and entirely incapable of performing the assassins’ role they have chosen, and what emerges is a tug of war between Gus’s intellectual and Ben’s physical approaches.

Pinter often likes to introduce a disruptive element into an established group, but in The Dumb Waiter it is Ben and Gus who are the interlopers. We know from their accents, turn of phrase and the existence of particular items in their possession that they are both working-class men from London. They use words like “liberty” to mean an affront and Ben reads sensationalist stories from the newspaper, while Gus reveals a small picnic in his bag that includes tea, milk, biscuits, crisps and an Eccles cake which, with little biographical detail, still speaks volumes about who they are.

Martin Freeman’s Gus is initially the nervier of the two, he fusses about the broken toilet flush and the state of the beds they’ve been given to sleep in, at times barely pausing for breath. He hounds Ben for details of the job and, despite his supposed experience, seems disconcerted by a previous victim being female. During the course of the play, Freeman slowly suggests a different angle to Gus, with a physical bravery that surpasses Ben’s. He is first to open the serving hatch to the Dumb Waiter and to check the exterior world for contact, becoming increasingly comfortable within himself as the absurdity plays out.

By contrast Dyer’s Ben begins to come unstuck, the control and self-confidence with which he starts the play, silently and calmly reading the paper, is slowly chipped away until his own discombobulation takes on physical characteristics as Dyer sways slightly, shifting his weight or anxiously rubs his knees as Ben tries to figure out how to respond to whatever elaborate game is being played with them. With Dyer’s previous experience playing hard men, he’s on pretty firm ground here but he captures well the loosening of Ben’s certainty without entirely relinquishing the physicality of the potential threat he poses.

It’s a successful treatment from Lloyd in a play that grapples with largely realist performances in an absurdist construct. Part of that is down to the relationship that Freeman and Dyer create throughout the play, both giving the other the space for their individual performances, while allowing the sands to shift as events redefine power structures. With press night looming, these rapid changes between comedy, menace and fear that run through Pinter’s one-act show will become even more fluid and loaded with meaning which should please the house-full of fans for both performers.

Pinter Seven was meant to be the end of the Pinter at the Pinter season, and after six months of performances, these anthology collections have ended as confidently and memorably as they began, particularly with the very fine A Slight Ache to start the evening. The wealth and variety of Pinter’s work has seemed genuinely astounding, while Lloyd’s company of creatives and performers have brought distinction and meaning to every single one, eliciting very high hopes for a creative take on Betrayal in March. As Danny Dyer continues his transformation, whatever the reason for snapping-up tickets eight months ago you can be assured of a good night out. After all, a proudly working-class actor at the centre of a major West End season, well, Harold Pinter would approve.

Pinter 7: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 February. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

 


Aspects of Love – Southwark Playhouse

Aspects of Love - Southwark Playhouse

The 1980s gave us some of the most enduring modern musicals, with shows that more than three decades later still dominate the West End. Phantom of the Opera opened in 1986 and still resides at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Les Misérables is celebrating almost 35 continuous years with a nationwide tour and a controversial revamp while a new tour of Blood Brothers (1983) begins in 2019 which also had a notable 24-year run in West End. But there are some musicals that have fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by their more steadfast counterparts. But in the last year, first Chess and now Aspects of Love have earned revivals that offer a new generation a chance to see these productions for the first time.

Anyone born after 1980 may never have seen Aspects of Love and know it only for the song Love Changes Everything which made Michael Ball a star, so the Manchester Hope Mill’s garlanded revival which transfers to the Southwark Playhouse for four weeks will be a first for many of us. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart is based on the 1955 novella by David Garnett which charts the incestuous romantic relationships of a group of bohemian friends over almost two decades. Himself a member of Bloomsbury group, it’s not difficult to see the refraction of Garnett’s own experience in the story that is darker than its quixotic title suggests.

The famous strains of Love Changes Everything open the show as former lovers meet once more at a funeral before the years roll back to the beginning of this sorry tale. The song initially seems to signal to the audience that love is a hopefully, positive force, one that will define your life for the better. Heard repeatedly out of context on LP as a child, the lyrics and emotional swell of the music have always implied a happy passion, one in which the singer welcomes the bittersweet thrill of it all. How different the unfolding tale proves to be, and heard now in context it seems Michael Ball was singing about something else altogether.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s revival’s gives you the first clue as you take your seat, what look like foxglove stems hang upside down from the ceiling, lilac and beautiful, they are romantically struck into semi-shadow by the theatre lights. But designer Jason Denvir is playing with us; beautiful on the outside but deadly within, foxgloves are the source of digitalis a dangerous and near traceless poison beloved of Agatha Christie novels and even used against James Bond in the 2005 film of Casino Royale. Love, the company want us to know is a poisonous contraction of the heart.

While providing enough open space to fit 46 songs and indicate the rapid passing of the years, the rest of the set stresses the dreamlike quality of the characters’ lives, sunset colours stream through the shuttered doors at the rear of the stage as Denvir recreates the theatres of post-war Montpellier, the cafes of Paris and George’s restful countryside villa. It has a 50’s technicolor glamour that references the golden age of Hollywood and the artistic leanings of this little group – the actress, the sculptor, the benefactor and the star-struck boy.

Despite all of this, it’s easy to see why Aspects of Love rather fell by the wayside, sandwiched between Lloyd’s Webber’s gold-plated hit The Phantom of the Opera (another novel adaptation) and Sunset Boulevard based on the 1950 film which earned its own revival two years ago with Glenn Close at The Coliseum. The fragmented nature of Aspects of Love is both its saviour and its downfall; relatively short scenes flow very quickly offering only snatches of time before years pass and characters have entirely changed location, status and relationship making it much harder to understand or sympathise with the emotions of this bed-hopping set. Repeatedly characters profess love for one another but that never keeps them from other lovers and the story rarley pauses long enough to properly engage with the psychology of these people, to really explore the multiple versions and depths of love that the show toys with.

This flitting from scene to scene also makes the show feel longer than it really is, with no clear structure to guide the viewer through to the unexpectedly open conclusion. Unlike Phantom or Sunset Boulevard there is a bagginess to the show which, with no obvious driver or drama beyond the various emotional entanglements, lacks shape. Yet, as Denvir so clearly shows in the staging, there is colour in every moment of the show, and particularly so in this Hope Mill production. Over time you start to feel there is a thesis about the changing nature of passion, the fallibility of the heart and frailty of the individual to resist another opportunity to feel loved, a craving for the kind of validation it brings whatever the cost.

And then there is the music. While Black and Hart’s lyrics never quite match the highs of Lloyd Webber’s emotive, swelling score, and the same refrains from the opening number and others are recycled too many times to be entirely satisfactory, nonetheless there is something engaging, charming and, at times, even moving in the way the show builds as a whole. If you’ve watched enough Royal Variety Performances or theatre concerts you may even recognise more songs than you thought ,with numbers including wistful duet Seeing is Believing, the swaying tones of The First Man You Remember and the powerful ache of Anything But Lonely, all of which are as good as anything Lloyd Webber ever wrote, but a shame to hear them with only a piano here.

O’Boyle’s production staged in the ¾ round at the Southwark Playhouse makes a reasonable case for the return of Aspects of Love to the Lloyd Webber canon. There is a playful quality to the first act in which love affairs begin and hearts are carelessly broken with little thought for the consequences. There is no sense of foreboding, no future waiting to claim them, just endless summers, optimism and a couple of love triangles that reek of bohemian freedom, enhanced by some well-staged ensemble numbers.

Aspects of Love is full of slightly troubling age-gap relationships, starting with the connection between the ardent 17-year old Alex and the older Rose who appropriately appears in The Master Builder when they first meet. Sweet and idealistic, it takes place in secluded picnic spots away from reality, but O’Boyle’s production is clear that the characters are on parallel tracks (a trait to be repeated in the love stories to follow), being nothing more than a harmless fling for Rose, while a defining passion for Alex that he is expected to grow out of – everyone needs to get their heart broken at least once. The entrance of the more mature Uncle George offers Rose stability and an open relationship, welcoming his other younger lover Giulietta into the home.

Act II marks a notable shift in tone and, 12-years on, Rose now entertains her own adoring fans in Paris, while married to George who cares for their daughter Jenny at the Pau villa. Giulietta’s unexplained absence after years of happiness is portentous, writing to say she cannot be with them, just as Alex re-enters the picture, forming a connection to the 14-year old Jenny that becomes incredibly problematic both for the strange ménage and for the audience. With the passing of the years, it’s hard to know how this particularly unsavoury aspect was originally perceived by audiences, but the characters take it surprisingly in their stride, whether they just fail to notice or fail to act is never entirely clear but the result is too underplayed for the severity of the subject matter and the implied collusion of her parents leaves a slightly bitter taste.

As Alex, Felix Mosse’s puppy love for a rising actress gives way to jealousy, rage and resentment as he imagines her drifting away before she eventually does. Having spent 30-years hearing Michael Ball’s verdant take on the opening number Mosse’s rendition is rather clipped and quiet by comparison, offering a quieter, guarded performance that gives little away throughout the show. In fairness, there’s not much in the character of Alex for Mosse to get his teeth into so while the experience and then memory of his grand passion for Rose propel the story, Mosse navigates the fluctuations between outrage and mild acceptance as well as he can. Yet, it is not until the far more inappropriate attraction to Jenny, who is more than half his age, that he is able to amplify his inner turmoil most effectively.

It is Kelly Price’s Rose who comes most sharply into view through this production, a woman who craves love in all its forms while searching for a permanency she can return to when her temporary amours are over. Price’s semi-operatic voice fits the range of Lloyd Webber’s music extremely well giving life to songs as well as reflecting the passing years in Rose’s growing comfort and complacency. Price is particularly affecting in the final moments of the show, tearing at the heart with the sorrowful and haunting Anything But Lonely in which her free-spirited exuberance reveals an essential vulnerability that makes sense of her choices, creating genuine empathy for a woman who has had to make her own way in the world by whatever means she can.

The leads are supported by notable performances from Madalena Alberto as artist Giulietta who makes you wish the character had a much bigger role, Jerome Pradon who brings texture and feeling as lascivious Uncle George, as well as Eleanor Walsh as the precocious Jenny who certainly brings an uncomfortable and earnest sexuality to the part even if she doesn’t always suggest quite how young Jenny really is.

This production of Aspects of Love certainly gives rise to a number of conflicting feelings and, troubling as the story now is, the music and energy of it have lasted remarkably well, and there are quite deliberate references to La Boehme, The Master Builder and Chekhov that draw on themes about the liberation of nature, city life and a romantic connection to the past that underlie much of the action. You will remember this as a moment of happiness Alex is frequently told, the convolutions and pain of his love affairs reduced by time and memory. The show itself may perhaps benefit from a modern reworking to iron out the more distasteful elements, but Aspects of Love should be fondly remembered.

Aspects of Love is at Southwark Playhouse until 9 February. Tickets are £27 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Pinter Six: Party Time/Celebration – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter at the Pinter Six

As the annual party season draws to a close we are all exhausted from a least a month of Christmas drinks, official office parties and socialising with everyone we’ve ever met before the symbolic chasm beyond the 25 December. One last hurrah on New Year’s Eve to see out a year no one particular wants to remember will be replaced with diets, detoxes and a month at home to recover from the financial strain of the festive period. What better time then to consider all the things we really hate about forced social gatherings – the one-upmanship, the sniping couples and the self-congratulation all concealed under a thin veneer of social expectation and small-talk.

The penultimate Pinter at the Pinter collection is another superbly insightful double bill uniting Party Time from 1991 with Celebration from 2000. This is Pinter as a social commentator subtly examining the slightly falsified nature of the party set-up, suggesting much about the complex nature of human interaction and revealing character traits through conversations full of class, gender and political meanings. Presented to a now socially-jaded late December / early January audience these are two parties you’ll be glad to observe from the safety of your theatre seat.

Back at the helm after temporarily handing-over the directorial reins, you know instinctively that this is a Jamie Lloyd production as soon as the curtain rises. Gone are the gentler themes about love and loss, and instead we return to contrasting shades of darkness and light. Where Soutra Gilmour’s revolving cube has been used to give previous collections movement and verve, here both plays have a deliberate static quality, similarly presented front-on with the actors placed in a row facing the audience. How Lloyd uses this to create two dynamic gatherings that emphasise Pinter’s focus on the dangerous nonsense of social climbing is fascinating.

Opening with Party Time Lloyd and Gilmour create a vision more akin to a funeral than a twinkly upper middle-class get-together, but for good reason. Pinter’s story is all about the ways in which the accumulation of wealth depends on the exploitation of those in the lower social order and how vulgar the conversations about holidays and tennis clubs, a heartless display of status really are, suggesting an emptiness at the heart of these interactions. Here, while peacocking, the characters reveal a ruthless approach to protecting their own privilege and a refusal to see beyond the limits of their comfortable existence, a purposeful blindness about how their lifestyle is sustained.

The attention to detail here is very meaningful, and Gilmour’s party venue is a black room, with black chairs, with a set of double black doors at the rear centre through which the external world occasionally tries to break through. She dresses each character in a carefully chosen black outfit and shoes while even providing quite specific brunette wigs to a number of the actors to create a soulless and bleak community governed by a particular set of rules about conformity, which links nicely to the political themes and faceless governing elite of Pinter One.

Lloyd carefully places his actors in particular spots on the stage, the women seated on the outer edge to reinforce the male-dominated secret society idea that comes through strongly from the script, an ominous bunch ‘taking care’ of events beyond this room – a hint of revolution in which police cordons and traffic checks delay arrivals at the party –  and rapidly shutting down any reference to the events beyond. For the men of this elite set knowledge is power and the emphasis is squarely on ‘need to know’, so information is presented to the other characters and the viewer only where it serves the progress of the story, frequently without further context, for example when Dusty is abruptly told she cannot mention her missing brother.

To reiterate this idea of party and society as a form of constructed artifice, full of tacit rules and expectations, Lloyd shies away from a more traditional staging with conversations happening around the stage and instead seats all the actors in a single line, with the relevant combinations stepping forward to deliver their scenes before resuming their place in the frozen line-up. The effect of this is quite extraordinary, showing the multiple strands of conversation occurring in this room between semi-strangers, while cutting sharply between pockets of information to draw out their strange lack of reality. We’ve seen this in several of the earlier Pinter collections, the idea that this world exists slightly out of time with everything beyond the black doors, and, for some time, each interaction here also appears to be separated from the others, sets of lives happening in parallel in the same room but in their own vacuum.

The deconstructed staginess that Lloyd brings is cleverly utilised to underscore Pinter’s views on this type of party and its people supported by another fantastic ensemble cast. John Simm has such an natural feel for Pinter’s rhythm and after enjoyably dark performances in The Hothouse and The Homecoming, both for Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios, here his angry banker Terry is full of rage in which Simm draws out the brutality of the man who verbally berates his wife and hints at a joy in physical violence beyond this room while talking about his favourite health club.

Simm is supported by Eleanor Matsuura as Dusty, Terry’s wife who married-up and struggles to cast-off the thoughts of her own family and class while chafing under Terry’s rule, Phil Davis as party host Gavin inducted into this particular social circle through his appreciation of the health club, Celia Imrie as Dame Melissa whose scathing comments on the nearby town are so revelatory for the audience, Ron Cook and Katherine Kingsley as couple Douglas and Liz whose only connection seems to be their children, and the wonderful Tracy-Ann Oberman as widow Charlotte reunited with Gary Kemp’s Fred – all of them reasonably oblivious to anything but their own immediate circumstances.

Pinter uses the 35-minute Party Time to comment on the unsatisfactory nature of marriage and the rapid descent into indifference or outright disdain. These themes are even more prevalent in Celebration, essentially a sex-comedy set in a restaurant during a wedding anniversary dinner as two sets of tables (a foursome and a double) explore past lovers, jealousy and the failure of their current relationships. As with Party Time the tone suggests something amiss, but Pinter, in his final play, draws out the crass nature of his characters more overtly as the self-congratulation gives way to more dubious moral undercurrents.

Lloyd stages this 40-minute play almost as the inverse of the earlier production with a visual palette that confines black to the back of the stage and instead uses gold, white and silver to create a gaudy nouveau riche world of shiny fabrics and visible wealth – and note Gilmour replaces the brunette wigs with blonde for most of the women and their natural silver of the men. Seated at a banquet-style table facing the audience, couples Lambert and Julie are celebrating their anniversary separated by fellow twosome Matt and Prue who have joined them for the evening. At either end of the table at right angles to the audience, Russell and Suki form an entirely separate conversation, and Lloyd controls the traffic between the initially separate scenarios with lighting changes, freeze frame techniques and a subtle musical flurry.

This set-up allows Lloyd to place a physical distance between the sparring couples (with the exception of the relatively happy Matt and Prue who sit side-by-side) that emphasises the considerable emotional separation they are experiencing. At several points Ron Cook’s dislikeable Lambert either pretends not to know his wife or acts with notable disrespect towards her including mention of earlier sexual conquests. There is an evident vulgarity in the way Cook’s Lambert carries himself, flaunts his wealth and holds court at what should be a celebratory dinner, clearly indicating a self-made man who constantly betrays his more-lowly origins.

These notions filter through the group and while both Oberman’s Julie and Imrie’s Prue are expensively dressed, Gilmour’s choice of shiny ruched fabrics and piles of elaborately coiffured hair equally suggest money without taste, they drip with expense but their obvious flashiness implying, deep-down, a discomfort or surprise at their sudden fortune that they have been unable to cultivate. While the characters in Party Time oozed a classical elegance and comfortable entitlement that stifles any real feeling, here this brash group open-up their thoughts and feelings as easily as their wallets.

The theme of sexual jealousy comes from the other table as Kingsley’s Suki dines with partner Russell played by Simm. Here we discover a path for young women from secretary to boss’s wife behind the filing cabinets of the offices in which Suki once worked. As the two stories collide, Pinter comments on marriage, attraction and our inability to fully escape our own past – especially, for women, the stain of former lovers – as the characters endure an uncomfortably forced period of social interaction into which Lloyd allows only minimal movement, reflecting the confinement of the life they have built for themselves. All of this is interspersed with more wordly musings from the waiting staff (Abraham Popoola and Matsuura) and Kemp’s restaurant manager who subvert social expectations to some degree; the people with money have neither education nor class, while the people without have both.

Together, the one Act plays that comprise Pinter Six are a condemnation of the falsity of politeness and the extent to which excessive amounts of money allow groups to mask terrible and immoral behaviours. These brilliantly staged pieces are the shortest of the set to date and contain the least motion from the actors, yet the purpose of Lloyd’s still and contained approach is extremely well and atmospherically realised by a top-notch cast who bring such clarity to Pinter’s social commentary. The Pinter at the Pinter season is now alas on the home straight and as we embrace the clean-living principles that come with each New Year, keep a little in reserve because you’ll be want to accept an invitation to this wonderful Pinter party.

Pinter Six is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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