Sunday, March 29, 2009

PCB's Quarterly Theatre round up

I have seen several shows this year already and not blogged about them so I thought I'd split it into quarters, since we're almost into April.

Twelfth Night

The first Shakespeare of the Donmar's West End season and it was greeted with reviews slightly more muted than those that greeted the season opener, Ivanov. Only slightly though, and given the flat out raves that greeted said production, I think Night can hold its head up high.

I have to say, I flat out loved it. I have seen it before of course, at the Donmar's off-West End home as part of Sam Mendes' farewell shows. It must be somewhat galling for him to see the same theatre produce a better cast, infinitely warmer and richer, not to mention much much funnier version. Derek Jacobi is of course incredible as Malvolio, but there's not a weak link in the cast. I was surprised by Indira Varma, who was just glorious, showing a comic timing I was not expecting of her. However, in my opinion, the show was stolen by Zubin Varla's singing, percussive, cartwheeling performance. He was outstanding and yet he was barely mentioned in any of the reviews. WhatEVER!

Be Near Me

The actual Donmar Warehouse is easily my favourite theatre in the world. Not only is it the most gorgeous space but they have produced some of the most compelling shows around in the last decade. To usher in 2009 with this is something of an oddity. An adaptation of Andrew O'Hagan's book (which I found too dull to bother finishing) about a gay priest and the friendship he strikes up with two wayward teens which inevitably goes awry, it doesn't immediately scream "stage me!"

However, in the hands of Ian McDiarmid, who adapts as well as stars in the lead role of Father David, and John Tiffany, who directs, they turn what could have been a dull, predictable and preachy couple of hours into a fluidly directed, beautifully acted and heart rendingly tender play. Special mention to Richard Madden as Mark, the teenaged catalyst for Anderton's downfall, who was, I thought, fabulous. And I'm not just saying it because he's pretty. He will, I'm sure, go on to have quite a career.

Private Lives

The Hampstead Theatre staged this revival to mark their 50th anniversary, as its premiere there was their first big success. Normally I wouldn't have bothered with this but heading the cast as Amanda was Claire Price, for whom I would walk over broken glass to see on stage. I had never laid eyes on her before November of last year when I saw her in a revival of The White Devil and I was absolutely transfixed.

The ticket was a birthday present from a good friend who came along for the show too and it was wonderful. Funny, stylish, very well directed and acted (tellingly, a dialogue free moment between the two sparring lovers managed to evoke laughs from the audience), it was a frothy delight and the new Hampstead Theatre is absolutely gorgeous to boot.

Duet For One

A two hander about a celebrated concert violinist struck down in her prime by multiple sclerosis starts regular visits to a psychiatrist to help her overcome the shock and to readjust to her life without being able to play. Doesn't sound fun does it? And indeed, it's not, though I found it riveting from start to finish.

The violinist is played by Juliet Stevenson, initially stoic and good humoured about the rotten hand life has suddenly dealt her. Henry Goodman takes on the psychiatrist role with a cod Jewish accent (necessary since it's referenced in the text) who slowly chips away at her bravado exterior. There is a great deal of humour in the early scenes that gives way to anger and then of course there's the breakthrough. Or in this case, breakdown. Has everyone here seen Truly Madly Deeply? Specifically the opening weepathon from Ms Stevenson to her psychiatrist? Well, she had a similar scene at the end of Act One here, as she bewails having to listen to godwawful students and her lesser talented husband all day and she can't play herself. It's an absolutely devastating moment that left the audience somewhat shellshocked for the interval. That Act Two's big breakthrough came without any emotion, but a calm and collected delivery of her revelatory monologue was something of a relief. This is about to transfer for a limited run and for Stevenson alone, it's worth seeing.

Little Shop Of Horrors

Having missed the Menier run and its West End transfer, I caught the tour of Little Shop when it came to my neck of the woods. Damian Humbley (who made a magnificent Jamie in the Menier's production of Last Five Years) was again top notch as Seymour. Clive Rowe was a full throated Audrey II and Alex Ferns was surprisingly brilliant as Orin Scrivello, returning to play all the agents vying for Seymour's attention in "The Meek Shall Inherit". The urchins were also fantastic singers, though their acting was a little, uh, amateurish.

But that is where the plaudits have to end. Claire Buckfield was not a good Audrey, lacking the vocal power to effectively transition in "Suddenly, Seymour" (her mic was just turned up really loud instead). Sylvester McCoy was hopelessly adrift as Mr Mushnik. Shame. I still enjoyed the camp ridiculousness of it all and I will never tire of a majority of the show's songs, but I was left with the nagging feeling that this could have been better.

A Little Night Music

I was initially resistant to the idea of seeing this show, due to the casting. I can't tolerate Maureen Lipman and Hannah Waddingham can be very hit and miss. But then the reviews were through the roof amazing, and I figured "what the hell?"

Well how happy am I that I threw caution to the wind and got a ticket as it was the most glorious three hours I've spent in a theatre. The cast were all exceptional (with the exception of Jessie Buckley who was woefully out of her depth as Anne) and this production mined more comedy out of the script than anybody would have thought possible. I loved it, I laughed, I was moved to tears and since seeing it, I have been unable to stop listening to the cast recording featuring Judi Dench as Desiree. It's a little telling that on that recording, Joanna Riding plays Anne and her excited squeal of "it's at a chateau!" at the start of "A Weekend In The Country" packs more character info than Jessie Buckley manages over an entire performance. It has now started its West End transfer and I will be seeing it again, at least once, hopefully more.

A View From The Bridge

I love me some Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. I think she's massively underrated and never really had the high profile career she deserves. She shows up on the London stage every now and again (she was splendid in the Donmar's revival of Grand Hotel in 2004-2005) and she's back, with Ken Stott and Hayley Atwell in Arthur Miller's tragedy.

One asks, did Miller really ever write anything but? It's not as though you could play The Crucible or Death of a Salesman for laughs, is it? And Bridge is hardly brimming with feelgood charm and in a little over two hours, manages to bring the audience, dooby doo down down. It's supremely well acted, if a little clunkily staged and directed, and though set in the 50's, the themes of the play are still relevant to today, in some ways. While it's not something you could ever say was entertaining, it was definitely worthwhile viewing.

Three Days Of Rain

An actor's play if ever there was one. A three hander where Act One is set in the present day and Act Two has the actors playing their character's parents from Act One, it requires two completely different performances from each of them. In the hands of James McAvoy, Nigel Harman and Lyndsey Marshall, that element is a qualified success.

As is, in my opinion, the play itself. I never really got the sense that the pay off was worthy of the build up. It was all very beautiful and very subtle but I don't know, I just wanted more. Walker Janeway and his sister meet in an abandoned New York loft after the death of their renowned architect father. They're joined by childhood friend Theo and the settling of the estate and a discovery of a journal, which Walker finds maddening in its brevity causes things to unravel, particularly when he focuses on the entry that is merely the play's title and nothing more.

Act Two reveals what happened during the titular three days and the most striking volte face, performance wise, is McAvoy. Walker is hyperactive, slightly crazy, possibly gay and very angry. Walker's father Ned is shy, quiet and has a stutter. The fallout of the three days is something only the audience can appreciate as we know what their kids think happened, so witnessing the actuality is very bittersweet. Richard Greenberg is a very good playwright and this structure is a fascinating idea but it clips the bullseye rather than going dead centre.

Plague Over England

What a weird play. Written by a critic, for the love of God. Ostensibly about John Gielgud and his arrest for cottaging when he was at the height of his fame, it also tries to cram in about 5 other storylines with the majority of the cast playing multiple roles to add to the confusion.

It's very rushed, as people come bustling on, say about nine words and then it's the next scene. At one point, two scenes play out simultaneously for no good reason. The extremely odd and hallucinatory ending fails to tie everything up satisfactorily. How this was a good idea that deserved a West End run, I cannot fathom.

Waiting For Godot

And speaking of things I cannot fathom, Samuel Beckett. I've somehow gone 34 years without ever watching a Beckett play and in all honesty, if this one hadn't starred Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, I would easily have made it many more years without seeing a Beckett play.

I don't get it. I don't get him and I certainly don't get how precious he and now his estate are over the staging of his plays (you have to sign a contract stipulating you won't deviate one iota from the text and the stage directions). Godot was two and a half hours of blank nonsense that in less talented hands would have been a disaster. That McKellen and Stewart, along with Simon Callow in full on Brian Blessed mode and Ronald Pickup, made this even slightly entertaining is testament to their inordinate talent. Currently on a pre-West End tour, it's playing to capacity houses of rapturous audiences but I very much doubt ANYONE was cheering the choice of material.

Already booked in for the next three months:

New Boy
with Nicholas Hoult
The Fever with Claire Higgins
Madame De Sade with Judi Dench, Rosamund Pike, Frances Barber and Deborah Findlay
Dimetos with Jonathan Pryce and Anne Reid
A Doll's House with Gillian Anderson, Christopher Ecclestone, Toby Stephens and Tara Fitzgerald.

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