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Jack Absolute Flies Again – National Theatre

Delayed by covid for over two years, Jack Absolute Flies Again finally lands on the Olivier stage when we have never needed Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s goofy and hilarious romp more. An adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals relocated to a 1940s air base on a Sussex estate, there is a care in the construction of the play and a determination that everyone watching should have a good time that speaks to a wider need for lighter fare. And while the writers of Jack Absolute take their responsibility to represent the airmen of the Second World War seriously and with respect, the shenanigans of Sheridan fit remarkably well into their new context. After years of pandemic, economic woes and political free fall, the National knows that what we all need now is a good night out.

Restoration comedy is something the National has always done well, since Simon Godwin’s marvellous period appropriate production of The Beaux’ Stratagem delighted audiences. The Olivier Theatre is particularly well suited to the farcical revolving door plots with frequent comings and goings, mistaken identity tropes, eavesdroppers and exuberant characterisation that requires a speed and intricacy this space facilitates comfortably. In transferring the characteristics of Restoration comedy to a very particular twentieth-century setting, Bean and Chris have skillfully retained the sentiment, style and tone of Sheridan’s original while updating both the language and, to a notable degree, the morality and political subtext of The Rivals.

Most importantly, Bean and Chris have avoided the trap of the pointless period setting that afflicts most adaptations of Shakespeare primarily but other classic playwrights too, in conscientiously sewing their story into the era in which it is set, recognising and actively responding to the enduring quirks and foibles of human nature as well as the desire to love and be loved that underpins as much of our contemporary theatre as it did at the time of the Restoration.

The Battle of Britain connotations and long held concepts of the chivalric hero-pilot also bring with them their own set of expectations that Jack Absolute both neatly folds into its interpretation and actively challenges in the way that Bean and Chris create characters and define their interaction. The collective memory and consequent memorialisation of airmen tropes were formed in the later years of the First World War and came to dominate perspectives on the role of the pilot in the ensuing years until the Battle of Britain cemented notions of untainted glory, sacrifice and individual courage.

This staging, by coincidence appearing at the same time as another kind of airman fantasy – Top Gun: Maverick which is still in cinemas – plays into these audience preconceptions to an extent by creating a group of largely posh young men larking about in the English countryside with sports and afternoon tea before gallantly slipping into their aircraft and putting their lives on the line to protect it all from enemy violation – and it is notable that they succeed at least in preventing any direct incursions into Malaprop Hall for the duration of the play, saving this patch of green and pleasant land from bombs and preventing the tone from veering too sharply away from the jaunty choreographed confusion and misdirection of its Restoration form.

However, Bean and Chris push their scenario just enough to check the reality and consequences of the hero-pilot myth which expands the vision and sense of jeopardy, facilitating a nicely balanced emotional depth within the constructs of Jack Absolute. The first of these looks at class, making one of the central players a real character in his own right – the false Ensign Beverley in Sheridan’s original becomes ‘fitter’ Dudley, an RAF mechanic with whom both Lydia and maid Lucy fall in love. Though not a flier himself, several references are made to Dudley’s role in winning the war and the skill of the engineers in repairing planes, working class heroes keeping them running while acting in partnership with their pilot. This helps to expand the singular notion of airborne heroism to incorporate the wider teams and systems upon which war functionality is based.

The second uses video and projection technology to create two semi-immersive flight sequences that become integral to the plot and the emotional recognition of the characters, underscoring their entanglements and adding a tender but high-stakes reality that works against the levity of the lovers’ drama. Expanding beyond the confines of the stage to fill the walls and ceiling of the Olivier, Jeff Sugg’s footage of planes in combat sequences performed by the actors, is a device that neatly expands the world before us, surrounding we grounded folk who, like our Second World War counterparts, can only glance skywards as a melee of sound, lighting and video suggests vicious encounters with enemy aircraft. That Bean and Chris so deftly draw meaning and poignancy from their Restoration-inspired play and the fraught context in which it is newly situated is one the many achievements of a production that has both pathos and hilarity.

In updating the text, the writers have also given some consideration to female agency both as the instruments of the drama and in managing their own love lives. And while much of that is directed to comedic outcomes, the marriageability of the female roles and their contentment with expected notions of wife and motherhood are given a necessary shake up. Lydia Languish – always a spirited and independently-minded woman – adopts a more feminist perspective through her espousal of socialist principles that she only half believes. Although funny and an opportunity to create a series of scrapes for Lydia, including having her notions poo-poohed by the older generation, ultimately we are not asked to laugh at those aspects of her character, and Bean and Chris craft an ending for her that doesn’t betray her beliefs however little Lydia is shown to know her own heart throughout.

Likewise, maid Lucy is the agent of the drama, the character who confides in the audience most often and in whom rests an awareness of herself as a meta-theatrical tool, frequently commenting on the rules of Restoration comedy and the ‘magic’ of theatre. Lucy deliberately directs the action through the mis-delivery of letters which is done out of malice, jealousy and, usually, bloody mindedness, giving her a directional power over the play and its people. Mrs Malaprop who owns the Estate and Julia who wants nothing more than to marry her pilot cousin Roy may seem more traditional but Bean and Chris give them both a colourful, sexually liberated past as well as plenty of comedy in their own right, allowing them to pass as far more than secondary characters, ones who have a significant effect on the play’s male contingent.

The comedy in Jack Absolute largely emanates from a rapier-like wordplay with touches of controlled physical humour that build the farce to its pinnacle across two Acts staged largely on a single, unchanging set. And the jokes roll continually from the moment it begins as Mrs Malaprop welcomes us all to her home. A great deal of comedy comes from the increasingly inventive ways in which she mangles her vocabulary – some of it positively filthy but said in all innocence – and at times the audience is laughing so hard it is easy to miss a few jokes coming as quick-fire verbiage. And opportunities for humour are quite equitably spread around, the group of pilots each given individual comedic tics that mirror their Sheridan counterpart, as well the witty, often very daft interactions between the household member and military interlopers.

This is nicely balanced with an equally silly physical humour using disguise, character concealment behind bits of set and plenty of japes – anyone familiar with Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors will recognise the style, a lightness that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But Jack Absolute manages to remain consistent in the delivery of laughs at regular intervals throughout and consistently entertaining as the communal atmosphere builds within the auditorium. Replete with running jokes, this kind of comedy is by no means easily achieved or maintained, taking some skill to write escalating hilarity and you may find your cheeks hurt the next day for having laughed and smiled for more than 2.5 hours.

In staging Jack Absolute, it is wonderful to see the National do what it does best in harnessing the power and creativity of its in-house workshops and costume team for a gloriously cartoony but imaginative full set that covid restrictions and theatre fashion has denied for so long. Every inch of the Olivier stage is put to use with a large country house, shed and ‘tin’ office for the airmen in the grounds. The building are printed with flat imagery that imply a comic book inspiration but they magnificently unfold like dolls houses to allow interior sets to slide into place representing Lydia and Mrs Malaprop’s eventful bedchambers. It is all inventively and lusciously designed by Mark Thompson who simultaneously incorporates nods to grand Restoration-era furnishings – the perfect image of a lush English estate with croquet lawns and picnic spots mashed with the spare but evocative utility of the RAF in the 1940s.

This is a true ensemble piece directed by Emily Burns that keeps the energy high from start to finish with barely a moment’s lag across the evening. Caroline Quentin takes advantage of what is her best comic role, a delightful Mrs Malaprop whose rapacious appetites are pitched just right and Quentin never once betrays her character’s linguistic mauling by pushing jokes too hard, retaining a perfect and hysterical innocence at her conversational blunders. Peter Forbes matches her with his take on Jack’s frequently apoplectic and cantankerously old-school father, Sir Anthony, reimagined as an army office in appropriately brown uniform who develops an excellent rapport with Quentin.

Laurie Davidson is a charming hero, full of verve but with an emotional depth that creates audience investment in his story, neatly capturing how the pilots’ relaxed pursuits on the ground were frequently interrupted by the need to fly, and Davidson, like his colleagues, captures that instant switch to professionalism and duty. Natalie Simpson’s Lydia is suitably spirited and humorously full of her own importance while Kerry Howard’s Lucy wins over the audience completely as the cheeky maid. Kelvin Fletcher proves a fine unwitting patsy to Jack’s schemes while pilots Bob (James Corrigan), Bikram (Akshay Sharan) and Roy (Jordan Metcalfe) along with their grounded commander Coventry (Tim Steed) are distinct, sweet and full of adorable quirks.

This premiere staging of Jack Absolute may have had to circle the runway before gaining permission to land but land it really does and fate has delivered it at just the time. Utterly joyous, Bean and Chris’s play is the National Theatre at its best, a sparky Restoration comedy that finds hilarity and poignancy among the pilots of the RAF. Exactly what we need and more, Jack Absolute Flies Again is certainly a high flyer, in fact it’s ace!

Jack Absolute Flies Again is playing at the National Theatre until 3 September with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Fellowship -Hampstead Theatre

The Fellowship - Hampstead Theatre (by Robery Day)

Roy Williams has primarily focused on the challenges of working class masculinity in recent years through his extraordinary play cycle the Death of England, a trilogy co-written with Clint Dyer, that became an instant modern classic as friends Michael and Delroy individually set out their experiences before coming face-to-face in the third installment released as a cinematic film. This year though, Williams is looking at the female experience with a rumored fourth monologue for the Death of England, this time for the pivotal Carly who links the friends, and Williams’s contemporary interpretation of Hedda Gabler opening at the Lyric Theatre in the autumn as Heather. But first, female friendship is the focus of his latest play The Fellowship, premiering at the Hampstead Theatre as class, race and past activism haunts this family saga.

Williams is particularly interested in intense friendships between two people, in this case sistsers Dawn and Marcia, and the events or people that come between them. As with Delroy and Michael, the strength of that bond is the focus of the play and how a sense of ‘otherness’ disrupts and sometimes destroys what they all have assumed would be a lifelong association. First, that otherness tends to manifest physically as a rocky relationship with a partner that disrupts the balance between the friends – in the Death of England, Delroy’s tempestuous involvement with Michael’s sister Carly contributes to the breakdown of their friendship, while here in The Fellowship both sisters have questionable love interests, ending up with men that the other despises.

But otherness is also about interactions between race and society, creating fault-lines within these established relationships that are more deeply exposed through the action of the play. Often inherited from a previous generation, Death of England is dominated by Alan’s deeply embedded racism that comes to play an important role in the deterioration of his son’s friendship, culminating in the pivotal concluding scene in Michael’s monologue which then becomes the starting point for Delroy’s. Here, it is Dawn’s vocal condemnation of white power that comes between the sisters and has intriguing personal and professional consequences for them both as former activist Dawn reels from the discovery of her son Jermaine’s relationship with Simone, a white woman she loathes, while Marcia insists she has taken her place as one of the few black barristers to have made silk as Williams uses his 2019 setting to explore whether being in the room is enough and what happened to the fight.

The Fellowship also has its own focus on inheritance and the troubling cost of legacy, looking across three generations of a single family from the absent grandmother of the Windrush generation through Dawn and Marcia’s experience of riots in the 1980s to son Jermaine in 2019. What has each of these generations left for the next is Williams’s focus, what did they achieve for those still to come and what are the mechanisms of inherited trauma? Does each new age pick up the baton from those who came before or – as Williams suggests here – is each generation cast adrift from its predecessor and successor, left to fight its own battles perhaps for its lifetime but with little tangible achievement, wisdom or support to pass on, everyone always starting again.

This notion of estrangement between the generations is a powerful one, played out in two ways, initially between Dawn and the son that she is fiercely protective of but with whom she finds it difficult to communicate. A hidden relationship with someone Dawn disapproves of leads to an important confrontation at a family event in the second half of the play in which Jermaine gives voice to some of the questions that Williams too is grappling with, whether Dawn’s lifelong activism has achieved anything and the legacy that parents are handing to their children – a concern Williams is raising about his own generation who have been shaped by their experience of marches, protests and rioting but wonders about the effect and meaning 40 years on.

But there is an equally important estrangement taking place between Dawn and Marcia and their mother who remains an unseen presence for much of the play, remaining bedridden upstairs and to whom Dawn acts as primary carer. It becomes an important mark of Marcia’s character that she has entirely disassociated from her mother, leaving the responsibility to Dawn who is the one to have an important elemental encounter. It is a strange scene in contemporary theatre but no more unusual than the ghosts of Old Hamlet and Banquo stalking Shakespearean heroes while also an important feature of Caribbean theatre – something Joubert also utilised.

Williams uses the scene to explore the make up of the Windrush generation – always talked about as a block of people – with Sylvia’s stern and detached approach to parenting which affects her daughters’ characters. As well as creating individuality, turning Sylvia into a credible person with aspirations and faults that directly inform the bigger reactionary elements of Dawn’s character and the sober dignity of Marcia’s, Williams also takes the opportunity to note the ending of their story, that this is a moment where the Windrush generation is starting to die out, moving the experience beyond living memory and subtly asking what that means for this particular family as well as dual heritage black British identity.

As with Death of England, class too plays its part in the complex family dynamic and Williams is interested in how two sisters find their relationship dividing along class lines when Marcia’s profession and status move her into a quite different social circle to her sister. And the contention this generates between them underpins many of the troubled conversations they have about the men they are with, family responsibilities they bear as well as the attitudes and responses to expected social behaviours. That Marcia considers herself a cut above is an important part of the dynamic Williams creates and the fall he sets up for them all.

But The Fellowship is primarily a domestic tale taking place in one room over three hours of performance in which the family unit is the primary driver. A drawing room comedy-drama of sorts, Williams spends some time establishing the close bond between the sisters, their shared love of 70s, 80s and 90s pop music and the small rituals that can only emerge from familiarity and love. The play’s dynamic comes from the holes that Williams starts to create as circumstances pit the sisters against one another, causing them to re-evaluate how well they still know one another and the extent to which they have hidden their real selves behind the habits of their friendship in which both play a comfortable but not quite true version of themselves.

In that, Williams is largely successful, generating considerable heat in the succession of conversations around which this play is structured and through which the various plot points (credible or not) advance the story. Arguably, it may not need all of them and the impact of Marcia’s relationship is lessened by the absence of her partner who could never co-exist in her sister’s world which is predominantly the one Williams is interested in. But by extension, the difficulties that Marcia brings in and the way their consequences play out are undermined by the lack of tangibility, harder for the audience to imagine her in what seems like a mythical place beyond Dawn’s living room with individuals we cannot quire grasp.

The character of Dawn is, however, an exciting creation filled with layers of complexity and questions about her identity that explode across The Fellowship. An ordinary woman who thinks she knows herself and her place in the world, Dawn’s outward bravado and ferocity is underpinned by deep vulnerability as she attempts to reconcile what her life and relationships amount to. How have her role as a mother, partner and sister eroded her sense of self and does her provocative response to most issues stem from a concern that she is no longer in the fight to the extent that she once was, or perhaps the fear that it amounted to very little and her life is as conventional as anyone else’s.

Part of the issue for Dawn stems from being unable to admit who she really is, her hotheaded reactions to perceived instances of white oppression at odds with her secret music tastes filled with white musicians from the Bee Gees to Kylie and Take That – a device Williams uses throughout the show to examine the public / private division in Dawn, the elements she shares with her sister and how much of herself she truly understands, leading to a process of discovery across the events depicted.

Cherrelle Skeete, who stepped into the role at very short notice, finds all of these contradictions within the character, offering a remarkable performance given how little time the actor has had to prepare for the stage. Skeete is caustic but warm, making Dawn someone you would want to keep on side, a great friend if she likes you but a terrible adversary if she doesn’t. This is Dawn’s story and Skeet grasps every moment to sketch out the breadth of this multifaceted woman.

Llewellyn’s Marcia is a contrast, a placid, cool surface with fire beneath, able to command a courtroom and entirely comfortable in the choices she had made for herself. A little comfortable perhaps as a sense of entitlement creeps into her behaviour. Llewellyn creates a woman who both wants her family to think she is the same person that she always was while expecting them to be continually impressed and in awe of her. Ethan Hazzard and Rosie Day are more contextual as Jermaine and Simone rather than fully fleshed out characters. So too is Trevor Laird’s musician boyfriend Tony who is suitably laid back and disengaged to rile Dawn while Yasmin Mwanza as a local police officer and the younger Sylvie makes a great deal of two small roles.

Directed by Paulette Randall on a set dominated by an almost symbolic sweeping staircase designed by Libby Watson, The Fellowship is at its best in the conversations between Dawn and Marcia which Randall paces nicely – particularly given how little rehearsal the actors have had in their present roles. Occasional lags in energy are understandable over a long night and will tighten as the run continued.

If The Fellowship doesn’t quite have the explosive brio and masculine confrontation of the Death of England, that is the difference between the singular voice and a longer, multi-character piece within a family setting with no one decisive event to drive the plot. But Williams’s broader exploration of identity, class and the impossibility of creating and living up to community and family legacy has a quiet power of its own.

The Fellowship is at the Hampstead Theatre until 23 July with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] – Park Theatre

Tony Blair became an MP and Prime Minister with the sole intention of meeting Mick Jaggers [sic], at least in Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s new satire Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera]. With a political story that includes celebrity, double dealing, royalty, charisma, war and the allure of a mega-watt smile, this world premiere production at the Park Theatre is already striking a chord well ahead of its Press Night later this week. Perfect fodder for a grand operatic story set to a lively rock, vaudeville and musical theatre score, the experience and consequences of political populism are mercilessly mocked while, like all great lampoonery from the cartoons of the eighteenth-century to the hey day of 1980s Spitting Image, it contains a bedrock of truth for our times.

The 1990s are very much back in vogue with big cultural reappraisals of its music – including reflections on the influence of The Spice Girls and Oasis – its clothing and the political shifts from 18 years of Conservatism to the glamorous hope of New Labour. Slightly ahead of that particular curve, James Graham’s Labour of Love in 2017 re-evaluated the effect of New Labour with a time travel drama set in a fictionalised northern working class constituency as the party tore itself apart over its fresh face. Last year, the BBC followed up on its excellent assessment of Thatcher with a five-part series on Labour focused on the division between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair that shaped the political agenda for over a decade. Both have lain the groundwork for Hill and Brown’s musical that covers much of the same period but with a much jauntier, though no less savage, take on Blair’s fraught premiership. Over two hours of performance, Tony! carefully and cunningly charts the rise and fall of the most successful and most controversial Labour Prime Minister of recent decades.

Hill and Brown structure their story in two Acts, Blair’s ascent told as biography and then as a tightly focused second half on the personalities and key decision-making moments leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of this pivots from a standard but useful dramatic device, the deathbed reckoning, where the much older Blair is asked to weigh up his achievements and failings. Tony! essentially asks the same of the audience, to decide whether the here presented egomania and failure of judgement in the later years does and should eclipse the better, brighter moments of Blair’s first term in office. And, while the answer to that at a 25-year distance may seem easy, entrenched even in our knowledge of what came next, Hill and Brown challenge us by wondering whether it was all Blair’s fault and the responsibility the electorate must bear for voting for him even after the war. The World is Run By Assholes the finale song decries and we put them there.

Our guide through the story is somewhat appropriately Peter Mandelson who arrives in a puff of smoke and with a crack of thunder, playing up his oily, Blair-devoted loyalty. This fourth-wall-breaking creation interacts directly with the audience, introducing scenes and characters, commenting on events and marshalling history as Tony! compresses more than ten years of political activity into two hours of stage time. But Mandelson’s role sets the tone for plenty of irreverent activity with asides, direct appeals to the audience and attempts to engage people in a sequence of events that most will have already lived through once. And largely it works very well, the silliness of Tony! earning big laughs from the start as the show races through his privileged early years, time at Oxford, revoking a pop music career for politics, marriage and Parliamentary rise, all to meet his hero Mick Jaggers [sic].

The story has more or less written itself, so Hill and Brown look to characterisation for most of the comedy, avoiding direct impressions with the need to look or sound like their counterpart by creating broad interpretations of individuals based on a single characteristic or activity that gives the audience a hook to recognise figures in the story each time they appear. And as few of them require more than a surface introduction in the back of what is Blair’s story, the approach works consistently well, offering opportunities for the surreal slapstick that has become Hill’s trademark while creating opportunities for repeat laughs with versions of the same gag when individuals reappear in later scenarios.

So, John Prescott is all beer-guzzling machismo with a thick northern accent offering everyone a pint, Robin Cook a quietly spoken liberal more interested in his extra-marital affairs than his ministerial duties, Mandelson known as ‘Mandy’ is obsequious and almost cacklingly dark, while Neil Kinnock and John Smith are fleeting figures passed almost in montage as Blair rises to the top. With Blair himself pretty much the straight-man in all of this – defined more by a few well-known mannerisms than any particularly eccentric behaviours – Hill and Brown concentrate on recasting some of the leading players in more interesting and innovative ways to enhance their comedic potential.

A fine decision gives Cherie a Liverpudlian accent akin to Cilla Black that underscores the slight social differences between Blair and the woman he married, as well as giving her a distinct voice in his ear as she tangos into his affections. Gordon Brown as core antagonist repeatedly asking Blair to make good on their deal, is seen as a dour, unsmiling Scot with a passion for macroeconomics and a dry style that leads to several very funny confrontations. Likewise, the presentation in Act Two of Osama Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein and George Bush does just enough to define their personalities, giving each a personalised song that draw on Music Hall styles by contrasting their murderous intentions with an upbeat tune. The creators even look to Groucho Marx for their interpretation of Hussein which, brief as it is, lands well.

Controversial though it may be, the best moments in Tony! take place between Blair and Princess Diana who quietly join forces in their quest for popular appeal, performing a hilarious duet in Act One that is filled with sultry charm while noting a mutual awareness of the media benefit of their relationship – leading of course to Blair’s defining ‘People’s Princess’ speech. Knowing they’re onto a good thing, Hill and Brown reprise the partnership in another form later on as this part of the show takes a quiet savvy perspective on kindred spirits both finding their allure is enhanced by the spotlight and commenting on broader socio-cultural waves in the 90s that celebrated hopeful, seemingly angelic or messiah-like figures of which Blair and the Princess of Wales were the figureheads.

There is a lot packed into Tony! and arguably the second half doesn’t yet quite fulfil the promise of the first, getting a little lost in the details of the war. So where a high-level approach brought a faster pace to the comedy conveyor belt initially, Act Two is a little bogged down in dossiers, resolutions and establishing a homoerotic special relationship which slows the story. This is a more serious subject of course and the centrepiece of Hill and Brown’s show which questions the extent to which these defining moments of Blair’s premiership should erase anything else, but the order of events is well-hashed knowledge. The superfluous addition of extra domestic material including a BSE reference feel like unnecessary padding in a second Act that could be streamlined. It means the laughs are noticeably slower to come as the pacing of Peter Rowe’s production slips.

The combination of comedy and tragedy is a delicate skill but the two here are not entirely woven together. Instead, the comedy almost stops for a melancholy interlude in which a seemingly unassuming audience member confronts Blair about the war dead and failures of his leadership, accusations that are reasonable if a little blunt in comparison to the tighter satire of the rest of the story. And while the character of Blair acknowledges the ‘tragic bit’ as part of the disarming structure in which these creations recognise the staginess of their own lives, and there is a need to confront the man with his ‘crimes’ as part of the weighing of conscience that his deathbed moment has established, it does cut rather inelegantly into the show without perhaps offering any new information. Tony! quickly recovers itself, returning to its caricatured best in the closing scenes with a rapid handover to Brown and Blair’s final assessment of his time as Prime Minister but there may be a cleaner way to integrate the two styles.

Steve Brown’s songs are very enjoyable, merging different musical influences to create an eclectic but consistent score and some very memorable songs that are a production highlight and provide each character with a distinctive sound while merging solos and duets with larger ensemble numbers that are crying out for a bigger theatre. Libby Watson has mastered the look and feel of New Labour in Whitehall with a formal black suit, red tie base for all characters over which she adds more extreme and elaborate wigs, jackets, masks and even a full cow head to create different personality quirks that adds a nice visual humour to Tony! that sits well with both the tone and the limited physical comedy aspects. Watson also ensures the set is minimal but multifunctional with a backdrop of wood panelling and a hardworking chest that becomes Blair’s birthplace, desk and platform all overlooked and impressively dominated by a large sign ensuring Tony’s name is up in lights throughout.

As Blair, Charlie Baker doesn’t need to look like the character but captures the trademark tics and habits that replicate his speech pattern, gestures and cheery charm, clinging to the notion that he is a good guy. Over the performance, Baker shows Blair’s lust for power growing, enjoying the mania resulting from a hyped-up encounter with George Bush and providing a solid central vocal around which the song and dance numbers are built. Holly Sumpton’s excellent Cherie is a great foil, a powerful presence with an impressive voice that keeps her husband in line and on track while Gary Trainor’s Gordon Brown becomes a blank and monotone contrast to Blair.

No one enjoys their performance more than Howard Samuels as nefarious narrator and Master of Ceremonies Peter Mandelson, with Samuels virtually bounding around the stage in glee while delivering a great character study of one of Blair’s most notorious supporters and, as it turns out, a balloon animal expert. Kudos too for Madison Swan’s on the nose Princess Diana, capturing those familiar shy eyes and coquettish glances which Swan has comically exaggerated just the right amount while adding a powerful vocal to an ensemble who perform multiple roles as established political and social figures from the Cabinet to international leaders and noted cultural personalities from the 1990s version of Number 10 parties attended by Liam Gallagher and Bernie Ecclestone.

Tony! needs to smooth its wartime narrative, but it gets the balance right most of the time by taking familiar events and squeezing them for comedy value. And there’s plenty of it in a show that begins by questioning Blair and slowly turns its gaze on the audience asking us who is really culpable for the people we elect or allow to continue in power. Already well on the way to being a very fine political satire, once its run at the Park Theatre concludes Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] might soon find itself on an even bigger stage.

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] is at the Park Theatre until 9 July with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Unfriend – Minerva Theatre Chichester

The Unfriend - Minerva Theatre Chichester

Delayed two years by the pandemic, one of the most hotly anticipated shows of 2020 finally makes it to the stage in 2022. The combination of TV writer and former Dr Who showrunner Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith proves irresistible as The Unfriend finally premieres in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and it has been worth the wait. A snappy two hour comedy about a family who inadvertently invite a murderer to stay with them, Moffat creates a Pinteresque scenario that embraces its sitcom humour by combining a classic 2.4 children domesticity with a high pitch farce that wonders if knowing an avowed killer can actually improve your life, especially if they don’t behave as you might expect.

The intruder in an established scenario, particularly a domestic space, is a well used dramatic and comic construct, one that Pinter applied to many of his plays to create an unnerving tension, upending the established behavioural rules of that location and upsetting the power dynamic by slowly moving authority and focus from the householder or dominant partner to the interloper who gradually assumes control. The Unfriend uses this idea as its starting point and although not deliberately sinister in tone or narrative, the arrival of Elsa changes a pre-existing dynamic.

What Moffat does so well is to graft this notion onto a traditional sitcom trope – the dysfunctional family with stroppy and uncommunicative teenage children. And the two ideas blend rather well, Elsa retaining the unspoken concept of authority that Pinter would have given her but neither hiding or celebrating her notoriety but becoming a comic catalyst for family transformation that keeps The Unfriend light and largely frothy.

But nor is the play driven fully by finding out whether Elsa is a murderer after all or the concern that she might kill again. In fact, Moffat reveals her background in scene two, establishing immediately that an apparent homicidal maniac is coming to stay and watching the fall out from that knowledge across the play as protagonists Peter and Debbie try to decide what to do, concealing it from their children but equally too afraid to ask her to leave. It is their very Britishness about it that motors the comedy in fact, getting themselves into a series of scrapes and foolhardy situations. Again, these are very traditional sitcom structures which from Frank Spence to Rene Artois only lets the hapless lead make their situation worse as every attempt to improve their lot backfires or adds a new level of misery. And Moffat has a lot of fun tangling his characters in knots that leave them with almost nowhere to go.

The unfailing politeness begins in the very first scene set at the end of a cruise as Peter and Debbie try to escape the acquaintance they have made onboard. As they say their goodbyes to Elsa on sun loungers on deck shortly before the boat docks, they are unable to escape her attentions, the polite chatter escalating as the couple – desperate to make their farewell and leave it at that – cannot find it in themselves to be rude. It is a recognisable scenario, one that adds to its hilarity, as the consequences of an intensely short but functional friendship play out with the inevitable promises to keep in touch, the faux delight at the memories of their trip and eventually the passive aggressive expectation that contact details are exchanged.

Moffat’s point is that this failure to admit these things are any more than what they are is the cause of all the mishaps in The Unfriend, acknowledging what was a contained but time limited relationship and being honest about how they really feel at its conclusion is combined with a desire to please in order to spare the feelings of others and to be considered ‘good’ people even at great expense to themselves. And while the context of this prologue scene could have easily been woven into the text as some form of expositional conversation, Moffat wants us to observe Peter and Debbie’s behaviour to understand why the rest of the story plays out as it does.

Essentially a two Act drama which is then broken into a number of scenes taking place across the several days that Elsa spends with the family, the action of The Unfriend coalesces around “before” and “after” moments. We see the minutes prior to Elsa’s unexpected arrival as Debbie and Peter discover her secret via a very funny American-style crime series on YouTube and panic about how to defer her visit, beginning a number of running jokes including one about Peter’s mother that becomes a core looping point. The introduction of Elsa into the family space is very pointed, her bold, blunt and dismissive gregariousness providing a fierce contrast with the silent fury and emotional withholding among this British household who struggle to communicate or listen to one another.

A key reference point here is Joan Cusack’s groomed and charmingly evil nanny in Addams Family Values who conceals an equally murderous backstory. Elsa’s immediate assumption of their space and refusal to be cowed by their reserve creates some quite broad comedy but in this first Act, we see the threat she poses as a disruption to their routines and established stability (if not their lives) as the parents fail to tackle her or manage the dialogue as they hoped.

Act Two fast forwards a few days to the end of the week to show the effect she has had on them all. While Debbie and Peter are no nearer to getting her to leave, there has been a positive transformation in family relationships with the individuals in the household taking better care of themselves and each other under her influence. Elsa’s Pinteresque power is at its height having manoeuvred herself into a leading role by bringing change and improvement while continuing to pose a threat (still unknown to the children). The drive again comes from muddled attempts to speak with her and the failure of Debbie and Peter to be open or take charge.

The devil is in the detail of course and never more so than with comedy, and the humour is often very specific, more situational or linguistic than shaped by character traits or failures. The Unfriend is a light farce so the laughs are broad but the show doesn’t rely on slapstick, physical mishaps or people running in and out in a frenzy, instead any physical humour in the show comes from character appearance and sudden changes in behaviour – for example the controlled use of the slightly underwritten but stereotypical teenagers – or from comic facial expressions and reactions from the actors as events occur that become harder to rationalise.

A major strand of humour comes through the minutiae and pettiness of suburban living, using the lurking neighbour as a means to explore the additional pressures on the family about walled boundaries, hedgerow placement and car parking spaces while enduring nosey social judgement about their recycling habits and ‘fit’ with the area. It grounds the louder comedy of Elsa’s character in a more tangible reality of routine and ordinariness, making for an interesting and often very funny contrast with the elaborate serial killer set-up, referencing exemplars of suburban snobbery such as Keeping Up Appearances and The Good Life as the modern family try to balance internal and external expectations, finding little true privacy in their own home.

Directed by Mark Gatiss, The Unfriend draws all of these strands together fairly consistently, maintaining a good pace throughout, building mini peaks of comedy on the route to a bigger finale at the end of each Act. And on what is essentially a static set beyond the ship-based preamble, that is not easy to do with all the action occurring in the same unchanging living room space throughout – although fans may note the Number 9 briefly glimpsed on the front door. Robert Jones’s two-room set is a typical residential new build house made to look open plan for the audience’s purposes by removing walls around the small kitchen. There are demarcated zones in which Gatiss directs the action and with limited movement between these spaces (certainly not at speed as a physical farce might employ), the placement of characters on the sofa, the space behind it, the kitchen or on the stairs which lead to an unseen upper level are important. It is testament to Gatiss’s direction that the simplicity and its limitations are barely noticeable. Jones also gives enough of an impression of the grandeur of the cruise ship with only a few loungers and a painted backdrop in the opening scene to create a contrast with the crowded domesticity to come where physical and emotional baggage is more noticeable.

Frances Barber’s performance as Elsa is the centrepiece and Barber looks to be having a great deal of fun in this early preview performance. Her character is both oblivious and shameless at the same time, never hiding who she is and certainly not apologising for her demeanour or the things she has done. Yet Barber’s Elsa is a warm, unexpectedly life affirming creation as well, bringing light into this household and a simplicity of vision that has eluded the family previously. There is much joy to be had in the second half particularly as more of Elsa’s past and her own attitudes are revealed, but Barber creates a woman that the audience can like, her warmth making her appealing and with a view of morality that proves an interesting take away.

As Peter, Shearsmith probably has the very best of the comedy, creating an archetypal harassed dad trying to juggle work, family and neighbourhood responsibilities with the arrival of a tricky houseguest. Often on the backfoot and forced into embarrassing or socially uncomfortable situations, Shearsmith mines every opportunity the lines offer with impeccable comic timing while also looking for opportunities in between, measuring out often quite subtle reaction moments with care to generate maximum impact. Elsa may be the focus but it is Peter that the audience looks to for response and comment on the unusual events that occur. Shearsmith successfully grasps that responsibility, proving the everyman anchor and the put-upon protagonist that the show needs him to be while landing every opportunity for comedy.

Amanda Abbington’s Debbie feels increasingly like a secondary character however, taking an equal share of the conversation early on but is either absent or allowing / expecting Peter to lead most events in the second Act. Abbington gives Debbie some distinctive characteristics, including a flash of anger as her frustrations flare, particularly as the couple find themselves increasingly hemmed in, and Debbie is the one to connect the strangeness of a supposed poisoner improving her domestic life. There is good support from Michael Simkins as the persistent neighbour whose innocent gall fuels an important subplot while Maddie Holliday and Gabriel Howell as teenagers Rosie and Alex are suitably whiney and then improbably charming in their periodic appearances that nicely up the ante for their desperate parents.

The Unfriend is not a perfect comedy; a few more performances ahead of Press Night will tighten the flow and there is an irrelevant anti-vax joke that even the writer didn’t seem to recognise, but it is great to see this play finally staged nearly two years on with the talents of its original team at an important out of town venue. Its conclusion about the fluidity of facts weighed against the imposing effects of personality adds a political spin that feels very contemporary, leaving us with one important recommendation – to be less British and unfriend while you still can.

The Unfriend is running at the Minerva Theatre Chichester until 9 July with tickets from £21. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

My Fair Lady – London Coliseum

My Fair Lady - London Coliseum (by Marc Brenner)

Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.

Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.

It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.

The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.

Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.

What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.

So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.

So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.

And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.

Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.

Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.

To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.

Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.

Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.

Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.

If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum until 27 August with tickets from £20, followed by a UK and Ireland tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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