A relatively quiet theatre month in the grand scheme of things, though I was abroad for half of it ;-) So here's my top 9 of the month, Earthquakes in London's joie de vivre just edging out Clybourne Park's acerbic humour.
“Fitting into a community is what it really all comes down to”
Clybourne Park is the latest play to open downstairs at the Royal Court, written by Bruce Norris whose The Pain and the Itch also played here a few years ago. This play opens in 1959 with Russ and Bev who are selling their house in Clybourne Park, Chicago for a quick move, thereby enabling the first black family to move into the neighbourhood. This is not going down well with their friends and neighbours and tensions of all sorts are brought to the fore as threats are issued and secrets unfolded. We then flip forward to 2009 where young couple Lindsey and Steve want to buy the same house but knock it down and build from scratch. These plans also do not go down well with the neighbourhood and whilst change has occurred, the same tensions begin to emerge.
Norris wrote this play partly as a reaction to A Raisin In The Sun as a way of looking at how white Americans have dealt with issues of race in the past and how in this post-Obama world, whether anything has really changed. And he does it with such style and acerbic wit, it makes it easy to overlook the slight weaknesses in the plotting. One I cannot reveal because it is too spoilerish but waiting four years, really? Another was spotted by someone cleverer than I, with inconsistencies about US behaviour in the Korean War and the last I go into more detail about later in the review. I flag these up now because otherwise this would be a purely rave review as it is fantastic.
“After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. On the stereo you play your favourite harp and oboe music. He tells you his wife's name.”
It’s a long quote to start off a review with I know, but it made me chuckle for ages and it is still raising a smile now as I look at it. This marked my first visit to Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, a tiny 70 seater above a pub but with an impressive reputation for attracting talent. Based on a short story by Lorrie Moore, How To Be An Other Woman is about Charlene, a young New Yorker who falls into an affair with a man who happens to be married and despite her best intentions, she finds herself fulfilling all of the clichés around being a mistress.
The story reads as a set of instructions and so lends itself quite well to being acted out, but in Natalie Abrahami’s adaptation, the character of Charlene seems to be used as an everywoman figure, rather than telling the story of an individual, as we start off seeing four shop assistants who then take us through the play. Morris’ writing is wry and funny and if I say it reminds me of early episodes of Sex and the City, then I mean it as a compliment, this is Carrie before you wanted to slap her. There’s a pleasing briskness to proceedings, very little maudlin soul-searching but rather a self-awareness to the protagonist who despises her behaviour even as she does it.
Given how much theatre I like to get to see, it is very rare that I go to see plays for a second time, much less those with which I wasn’t wholly enamoured first time round, but circumstances conspired to get me back to the Lyttleton with an old friend from far away to see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. The show has returned with a new cast for a brief residency here before a nationwide tour, taking in 9 cities in the UK.
You can read my thoughts on the original production here but I’ll quickly recap here for you. Through an imagined meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten, Bennett’s canvas covers a huge range of issues, the nature of creativity and what to do when the inspiration stops, following these two artists dealing with their homosexuality and growing old in their own ways. It also looks at the ethics of biography, the role of the National Theatre and the generation of all kinds of arts, so weighty stuff! When it works it is brilliant, but it must be said there are also times when it doesn’t quite click.
It’s a funny thing the theatre: when Deathtrap was first announced, I had little interest in going to see it. I’m not particularly enamoured (even though I know it is probably heretical) of Simon Russell Beale, I’ve never seen Glee so the name Jonathan Groff meant nothing to me and even when Estelle Parson was announced, replacing Anna Massey, it was another name that meant nothing to me. So, cultural ignoramus that I apparently am, it took some persuasion to get me to go along to the first preview. But given that there is a very good deal on preview tickets (which is still available now), off I trotted to the Noël Coward Theatre.
Deathtrap is a 1978 comedy thriller by Ira Levin about Sidney Bruhl, a has-been playwright who is now reduced to living off his wealthy wife in Connecticut so when he receives a fresh exciting new play, also entitled Deathtrap, from one of his former students, he decides it is good enough to kill for. I really can’t say more than that without ruining it, but safe to say that the plot is full of sinister twists and turns, reversals, double crosses, and possibly even triple crosses. This is a spoiler-free review but if you have no idea about the story then maybe you should read it after you’ve seen it in case I inadvertently give anything away.
The final show in this year’s season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is yet another entry into Stephen Sondheim’s anniversary calendar with a production of Into The Woods. And what a well-suited choice as the multi-level set sits in the real trees and bushes around the auditorium, swaying in the wind, leaves beginning to fall and providing the perfect backdrop for the show.
Told by a narrator, here a young boy (Ethan Beer last night), the story mixes together characters from many familiar fairytales all living their stories as we know them, in their various searches for happiness, wealth, fulfilment, all their hearts’ desires and reaches the conclusions we have come to know as the characters secure their happy endings. However, this only takes us to the interval and the second half takes a decidedly darker turn as Sondheim and Lepine investigate what happens after ‘happy ever after’ and the dangers in having your wishes granted.
“I hope, upon familiarity will grow more contempt”
Hoping that the above quote doesn’t ring true, this revival of Christopher Luscombe’s 2008 The Merry Wives of Windsor slips back into Shakespeare’s Globe ahead of a US and UK tour taking in Santa Monica, New York, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Richmond and Bath through to December.
The only of Shakespeare’s plays to take place in his contemporary England, it takes some of the characters familiar from the Henry IV plays, most notably Falstaff and creates a pleasing romp as he chases after the wives of two gentlemen from Windsor but doesn’t reckon on just how cunning the women are. There’s also a young couple straining to be together in the face of parental disapproval, some comedic foreigners, some funny business with a laundry basket and a whole load of farcical fun. It plays here, as nicely explained in the programme, as a bit of a forerunner of the modern tv sitcom and it really does work.
In The Bloodby Suzan-Lori Parks was originally scheduled to be the Sunday/Monday play at the Finborough but when Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy was postponed due to the indisposition of one of its actors, In The Blood was promoted to a full run. Parks is a prolific American playwright, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer, but this marks the European premiere of this play, one of two she has written, inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The story centres on Hester La Negrita, an illiterate mother of five children from different fathers, who lives under a bridge in a rough New York neighbourhood. Her oldest son is teaching her to read and write but she’s struggling even with the letter A and she constantly dreams of getting the ‘leg-up’ she needs to escape her situation. However, we meet a parade of adults in her life who hold her back, her best friend, a social worker, a doctor, a minister and her first lover who all could help her in their own way but who end up just using and exploiting Hester, mainly though her sexuality, leading to tragic conclusions.
“This room is significantly different because you’re in it”
And boy is it different! The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Cottesloe for Earthquakes in London is not the light jazz elevator music, but the complete reconfiguration of the auditorium inside. An inverted S-shaped catwalk-stage dominates, with bar stools either side for the audience, two raised letterbox stages at either end and a DJ in the corner.
A new play from the pen of Mike Bartlett (he of Cockand also Bull) and a co-production with Rupert Goold’s Headlong company. With a timeline switching around from 1968 to 2525 (though predominantly in the present day), it deals with the threat of climate change and impending planetary collapse by looking at the impact on a family of three sisters each with their own issues and the same estranged father.
After three weeks on holiday, my theatregoing restarted with a gentle introduction with Unrelated, presented as part of the Summer Shorts Season at the Jermyn Street Theatre, where material is performed and tried out with a view to developing shows for potential full runs. Unrelated is a four-hander by Dan Horrigan, an excoriating attack on middle class attitudes and prejudices and the dangers inherent in personal desires, whether in is stifling them to please others or pursuing them with wild abandon.
The story is told through two pairings, Martin arrives at a classy prostitute’s Jean’s place with a view to becoming one of her regulars but it soon emerges that all is not as it seems and separately, his wife Annie is engaged in a conversation with journalist Rachel as she comes to terms with the actions of her husband: the action flits between the two developing relationships throughout as we come ever closer to the truth about what has happened and who these people really are.