Thursday, 30 April 2009

His Dark Materials Part I & Part II

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit straight off that the production of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre ranks as my ultimate top theatrical experience ever. I am a massive fan of the books, and could not believe how well Nicholas Wright translated the three novels into two such wonderful, moving plays. Having travelled to Bath to see the youth production at the Theatre Royal there a couple of years ago, I was easily convinced to see the new Birmingham Repertory touring production at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, especially as it was so close to my parental home. So my mother and father, Aunty Jean and I settled in for the same day double bill, Part I at 2pm and Part II at 7.30pm, a little bum-numbingly daunting I'll admit, but the only way to get the full impact of this theatrical wonder.

So much happens in the books and so whilst a lot is lost in the condensing of the action, this is largely to the benefit of the plays as the pacing is kept quite high, with many rapid scene changes which means that you really do have to listen carefully or else you could lose the thread quite quickly if you're hugely familiar with the plot. That said, I was with two people who had not read the books and they had no problem following the action.

The technical masterpiece that was the revolving Olivier stage drum could clearly not be replicated for a touring company, and this actually has quite a liberating effect on this production, the action takes place on quite a bare set with a minimum of props, used very inventively, which really focuses the attention on the acting and on the words. Amy McAllister as Lyra captured the essence of the character perfectly, brimming with youthful indignation but crucially capturing the charm that sllows her to build such strong relationships with the key characters. Nick Barber as Will was also good, although I felt he looked a little too old for the part, he wasn't quite as convincing as a 12 year old, but was much more convincing as the play went on.


Special mention has to go to the puppeteers, in particular Gerard Casey as Pantalaimon and Ben Thompson as Mrs Coulter's golden monkey, who portray the daemons, the physical manifestations of the characters' souls. Their incredible synthesis of animal movement and human interactions create real characters out of the puppets and really add another level to the action on the stage and if there is another scene which makes me cry as much as when Lyra and Pan are separated in the Land of the Dead, I will be very surprised. The polar bears were also well-realised with some well-drilled menace evident from their first appearance.
The only criticisms I had were around the portrayal of the angels Balthamos and Baruch. Played quite camply as comic relief, they got a lot of cheap (homophobic?) laughs and their role seems to have been pruned quite severely. So much so that by the time we've rushed to Baruch's death scene, people are still giggling and the impact of what is a beautifully portrayed, moving death is considerably lost. Another minor point was that I felt Asriel should have been portrayed as less of a power-hungry villain and more avuncular in order that one feels more sympathy for his crusade against the Authority, but I suppose this is more about my interpretation of his character than anything.


So whilst your wallet and your bum may not thank you for the expense and the length, I would highly recommend tracking down this play if it comes near you. It really is one of the best things you could hope to see!

Cast of His Dark Materials continued

Time And The Conways

This week saw a visit to the Lyttleton at the National Theatre for the first preview of J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways. Starting off in 1919 at a birthday party, we meet the Conways, a rich family infused with hope for the future: the Great War is over, the sons have returned home safely and potential love matches abound for the numerous sisters. This act is sumptuously mounted, the costumes are fantastic and the company do a great job of introducing a sense of real decadence and loucheness, exuding the confidence that their upper-class lives safely back in place after the wartime turmoil. Francesca Annis as the mother of the family excels here, ruling her roost with a witty demeanour, as does Faye Castelow as the youngest daughter, a bubble of positive energy in primrose yellow. Annis also dealt extremely well with her scarf becoming attached to one of her daughter's rings for over a minute!

Act II then skips 20 years into the future to see how the passage of time has affected the Conways. With this leap forward, all the actors are called on to really deliver sufficiently nuanced performances to convey the passage of time, and with the aid of some impressive make-up, they pretty much all succeed in this. Lydia Leonard and Hattie Morahan in particular stood out for me, both of them reaching deep to show the frustrations that inter-war life has imposed on them. That said, the acting all-around was of a high quality, although some nerves were in evidence with a couple of fluffed lines (something I don't think I've ever witnessed at the National before). The final act then returns to where we left off at the end of Act I and we see the culmination of the storylines that started, but with the knowledge of how they will ultimately turn out, 20 years later.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Tusk Tusk

One of the most hyped new playwrights in the country, Polly Stenham had a lot of expectation weighing on her with her follow-up to That Face but with Tusk Tusk she has delivered a play, that whilst superficially looks to tread similar ground, is most definitely its own beast. The play opens with three kids, 7, 14 and 15 nearly 16 in their living room surrounded by unopened packing cases, living in gay abandon, sleeping during the daytime, staying awake all night and surviving on chinese takeaways and crisps. These scenes are cracking, with sparkling dialogue between the three and a real sense of fun and camaraderie is built up very quickly. However, as the days go by, the mystery and unease at the situation increases as one realises that all has not been well with the mother for whom they are waiting.

Given that the three leads are each making their stage debuts, their performances are nothing short of extraordinary. Toby Regbo as Eliot and Bel Powley as Maggie both exude a wonderful wittiness and cockiness, often belying their young ages, but also in their different ways, show the damage that their situation has done to them. Eliot as the oldest has to deal with the stresses of becoming the de facto head of the household, whilst Maggie has the weight of a terrible secret to bear, and the pair of them show these nuances with a deftness of touch which would indicate that they should have no problem secuing future work on the stage. The youngest, Finn played by Finn Bennett is also heartbreakingly good, to the point where I was genuinely worried for his welfare at the interval!

The second half is a much tenser affair as we begin to unravel the reasons for the apparent abandonment of the children, and just how badly this has affected them, even if they don't realise it themselves. The visit of two adults, acquaintances of the mother, late on demonstrate just how precariously stacked the house of cards that the kids have constructed for themselves is and the frenetic final scene pulls everything together with some cruelly shocking revelations. Played in the upstairs theatre at the Royal Court and with the action confined to the increasingly rubbish-filled kitchen/living room area, this is one intense theatrical experience, and whilst I had a little disappointment in the very final scene, this was a fine production and further proof that Stenham is no one-hit wonder.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Over There

I actually saw this a few weeks ago, but it has taken me a while to put pen to paper, or more accurately finger to keyboard, since I still don't really know what to say about it.

A new play by Mark Ravenhill, superficially it looks at the relationship between two twin brothers who have grown up on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall as they visit each other in a period over five years, which crucially includes the fall of the Wall. However, the brothers actually represent West Germany and East Germany and the way in which the two countries had to relate to each other during the fall of Communism and the subsequent reunification.

This much I understood, but the problem that I had with the play was that I simply didn't care. The brothers are played by real-life twins, Harry and Luke Treadaway, and whilst they are enthusiastic performers, I did not feel any real sense of emotion (I guess it would be hard to display the emotion of the entirety of a country) but for me it meant that I found little to engage me in the show. There was a lot of attention-grabbing scenes in underpants, and later food-smearing, masturbation, Crying Game style shenanigans, but I couldn't help but feel they were only there for the shock value rather than adding to the substance of the piece.

Ultimately, it may just come down to the fact that I am not sure if I am a fan of modern theatre and can't really remember the GCSE English LIterature class when we covered allegory, but all I can say is that I was glad it was over and done with within 90 minutes!

Monday, 6 April 2009

Parlour Song

The latest instalment of the Spring programme at Islington's Almeida theatre is the European première of Parlour Song, written by Jez Buttersworth. It tells the story of Ned (Toby Jones) and Joy (Amanda Drew), a couple living in apparently suburban mediocrity, and their neighbour Dale (Andrew Lincoln). After 11 years of faithful marriage to Ned, Joy's eye is caught by the younger, fitter Dale, though it seems more through boredom than actual real desire for him, and they start an affair as Ned continues his work as a demolition worker across the country, yet everytime he arrives back home, he finds more and more of his possessions have disappeared.

Speeding through without an interval, the writing is really sharp and completely captures the way in which people often relate to each other, loading their seemingly innocuous conversation with layers of meaning. Ned and Joy's marital harmony is revealed to be paper-thin, and Ned and Dale's forced jokiness and blokiness highlights the lack of real kinship or intimacy between the two, and also disguises Dale's betrayal of his neighbour.

Toby Jones delivers an excellent performance which is by turns side-splittingly funny and heartbreakingly tragic, with the undercurrents of darkness which drive the play to its dénouement. His comic timing is something quite spectacular and garnered two (separate) spontaneous rounds of applause and he is worth the price of entry alone. This is not to belittle the other two performers who match Jones' energy with their own sterling efforts. Amanda Drew exudes an icy sexuality and when she is "on" it is hard to drag the eyes from her, such is her delivery of even innocuous requests like lemon for her gin and tonic. And Andrew Lincoln's Dale, who also acts as a kind of narrator for the show, is perfectly judged with a genial laddishness, sweeping the audience along with him as he recounts the events.

With a stripped back modern-looking set, set off by ever-changing projections and music that evokes the growing sense of uneasiness, Parlour Song is a real treat, one of the funniest things on stage at the moment, but also one of the most thought-provoking.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Top five plays of March

So as we come to the end of March, here is my top 5 plays of the month.

1. Burnt By The Sun
2. Dancing at Lughnasa
3. Kafka's Monkey
4. Oliver
5. England People Very Nice


And in terms of the year overall, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, but here is my top 10 plays of the year so far.

1. La Cage aux Folles
2. Duet for One
3. Burnt By The Sun

4. Dancing at Lughnasa
5. Kafka's Monkey
6. Plague Over England
7. Oliver
8. Joseph (with Lee Mead)
9. England People Very Nice
10. Be Near Me