Thursday, 26 February 2009

Duet For One

I feel I must confess that the last time I saw Juliet Stevenson on the stage, in The Seagull at the National Theatre, I left at the interval. This plays on my mind a lot, as I love her acting, but my feelings for Chekhov were stronger that evening and so after a swift gin and tonic, we made a swift exit. I am pleased to report however, that I managed to stay until the end of this play. A two-hander with Henry Goodman, Duet For One takes place as a series of therapy sessions between a concert violinist who is struggling to come to terms with a degenerative illness and her psychiatrist who is guiding her through her highly charged emotions.

Stevenson's work here is extraordinary running the whole emotional gamut from sarcastic and sullen to bitter and furious and finally to the anguish of self-realisation. From her wheelchair, she captivates entirely, showing the futile frustrations of not being able to live her life as she needs to. A lesser actor might have let her steal the show and at times to start off with it feels like it might happen here, but the wonder of Goodman's performance of the therapist is that you really feel the growth of their relationship through him: at first a little indulgent, and then ever-increasingly involved as the depth of her despair becomes apparent. For the most part it is barely possible to take your eyes from the pair of them, lest you miss some subtle nuance.

With some beautiful violin music inserted between the scenes, and the highly detailed set providing the ideal setting, the Almeida has once again triumphed in accomplishing another must-see production. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Plague Over England

Nicholas De Jongh’s theatrical writing debut comes to the West End after a run on the fringe last year, and it is a fine, thought-provoking piece of work. A look at attitudes to homosexuality during the 1950s, the play uses John Gielgud’s arrest for cottaging as a prism to see how the authorities dealt with the “moral plague” and how this affected the lives of a series of gay men. The set design is extraordinarily versatile with numerous changes throughout the play, evoking a vast range of different locations quite effectively and this is superbly bolstered by some fine ensemble acting, with many actors also doubling up.


I neglected to purchase a programme, so cannot name the actor who played the policeman, and this is meant to be a serious blog, but he is possessed of quite a fine set of abs. There was a collective gasp of appreciation when they were unveiled, almost enough to make me want to join a gym, but not quite! I mention the abs only because they featured in the best scene of the play with the pontificating of the railing homophobic Home Secretary counterpointed with the first coupling of the mis-matched copper and judge’s son. It is a wittily played vignette, my only caveat would be that it is only the young hunky members of the cast who seem to get it on, which slightly undermines the universality of the play in general.

There were a couple of hiccups with one of the main revolves which always seemed to happen when Celia Imrie was on stage. She very gamely shoved it round into place several times, but every time it happened I got a fierce attack of the giggles as it very much channelled the spirit of Acorn Antiques. Hopefully this will have been sorted out in time for the opening night, as this was a very enjoyable and entertaining piece of theatre, which I would highly recommend.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening comes to London from a successful run on Broadway, where it won 8 Tony awards and had great word-of-mouth buzz, several State-side friends had recommended it to me, saying if I loved Avenue Q, I would love this. Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case, after hacking through the snow to Hammersmith.

Crucially for a musical, the tunes just aren’t memorable, and there didn’t seem to be the magical connection between the music and the lyrics necessary for this score to engage once the curtain had come down. If anything, it almost tries too hard, as exemplified by the song Totally F*****: the play seems so pleased with itself at this “shocking” material and yet it seems almost quaint that the over-use of an expletive is considered to be cutting-edge. This was not the prevailing attitude in the auditorium as many people gave this song a standing ovation, much to my surprise. Elsewhere, I had real issues discerning much of the lyrics in some songs, nor did I particularly want to know, due to the rock musical stylings which felt quite dated.


None of this is to take away from the achievements of the cast, almost all of whom are making their stage debuts, and the imminent transfer to the West End should see their stars rise accordingly. I just hope they pick a better show(with much less soft rock in it) next time!

Friday, 20 February 2009

Mrs Affleck

I have to be up-front, I hate Ibsen. In fact, I dislike most Nordic playwrights, yet I always want to give them a chance so time and time again I find myself praying that on the off-chance it will grab me this time. The Donmar’s West End Ivanov gave me my first enjoyable Chekhov experience, and so I had hopes for this loose re-telling of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. The play has been relocated to 1950s Britain, on the coast of Kent and tells the story of Rita Affleck, a housewife and mother who has been waiting for her husband’s return. When he does return, but with his half-sister in tow, the extent of Rita’s unhappiness with her lot in life is made manifest. When tragedy strikes, the fractures in these relationships are further magnified

Claire Skinner and Angus Wright do their best with the material as the unhappy couple, and both offer beautifully restrained performances, hinting at the simmering resentment just under the skin of these characters and this is most evident in the first scene of the second half, which crackles as their grief threatens to break their icy exteriors. However, this was the only scene which I enjoyed. I saw a preview so I guess changes could be made, but they would have to be severe. The pacing feels off as there are far too many long, dull speeches, which doesn’t play to the aforementioned strengths of the key players. Instead we get bludgeoned with unfettered verbosity and it was all too much for my liking. And whilst I applaud using live musicians, they had so little to do and even that wasn’t particularly stimulating, I ended up feeling sorry for them in their cramped little box.

So all in all, I would recommend giving this a wide berth.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Review: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, National Theatre

I was pleased with myself when this play was announced because I paid attention in my piano lessons when I was 10 and I knew that the title was the mnemonic used for the notes of the treble clef (although I remembered it as football). Not being familiar with the play, I found it quite a refreshing thing to watch, being something completely different to anything I had seen before. That said I am not sure if it was a complete success.

Joseph Millson plays a political dissenter locked up in a Soviet mental institution and shares a cell with another patient, played by Toby Jones, who believes he has a full orchestra in his head. The set-up with the orchestra being right there on stage is quite effective, and the sections where the characters interact with the orchestra were very funny, and the players played on very gamely in the face of some severe distractions. Where I felt this didn’t work however, was when the acting was just front-stage, the orchestra ended up being a distraction or vice versa.
This was no more apparent than in a very moving speech given by Millson about the treatment of his fellow dissidents. During this, members of the orchestra stood and proffered their instruments from their seats which was an extremely striking visual, and very moving too. For me though, the combination of the two was too much, maybe I need to learn to multi-task but I found I could not concentrate on both things at the same time. But this didn’t happen too often fortunately.

The staging and lighting was deceptively simple and highly effective, and the acting, as always at the National, was extremely good; Dan Stevens gave strong support as the violin-playing doctor, and coming in at under two hours, it did not overstay its welcome. However, I struggle to recommend it too heartily. Perhaps my ambivalence comes from the final scene: again a powerful visual of the orchestra leaving one by one, but swells of orchestral music continue to play and you soon realise we’re listening to a recording. Whilst I don’t doubt the orchestra really were playing for the majority of the play, it just left a funny taste in the mouth.

Monday, 16 February 2009

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Southwark Playhouse’s Japanese-inspired production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream provided a welcome respite from a chilly Monday night. Performed by a pared-down cast of 7, with everyone doubling up (and in one case tripling up), this made for an intimate retelling of the story. Most interestingly the lovers also played the Rude Mechanicals, a choice I had not seen before, but one which for the most part worked.

With a minimalist set, and dressed in traditional Japanese attire, the transplanting of the action to Japan looks very effective, and it feels like an interesting twist on what is such familiar material: for example, the fairy Mustard-seed becomes Wasabi. Jay Oliver Yip’s Puck had a wonderful physicality and his delivery of the impish lines did not disappoint, and I felt all four of the lovers/Mechanicals delivered strong performances. However, the Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania roles suffered a little bit from heavy Japanese accents to the occasional point of unintelligibility. It was only with the opening scene of Act 2 with Oberon and Puck where it seemed that the accent was being exaggerated and played for comic effect that one felt comfortable enough to laugh at the delivery without seeming patronising.

So despite the faint smell of cabbage in the auditorium, I would recommend this show as extremely good value and a fun night out, and I love the fact that drinks can be taken into the show without having to be decanted into flimsy plastic containers. 


A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs until February 28th.