Friday, 10 December 2010

Hamlet Review

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
National Theatre, SE1

The Hamlet Identity

One day you wake up in Denmark and find yourself a Royal operative, a prince, no less. Your mission? To make sure the wicked ruler (who murdered his brother the King, your Dad) and his wife (who turns out to be your Mum!) are brought down, allowing a chap who is looked on favourably by the English government to take over. In the meantime, unfortunately, some collateral damage occurs with the death of a pair of innocent siblings, a tomboy teen and her elder brother. And of course noone is going to admit you are one of their operatives or prevent your death. John Grisham,  Robert Ludlum ...? Er no, Will Shakespeare actually. It’s a ripping yarn in director Nicholas Hytner’s version but less a revenge tale than a modern-dress thriller of Eastern European dictatorship imploding. A thriller about the kind of totalitarian regime where detention warrants are still probably hand-written on carbon copied forms to keep them away from leaky data storage and for easy, untraceable destruction after death. TLT and her sidekick sedan felt more poignancy attached to Dynasty-style-tippler Queen Gertrude (Clare Higgins) and Polonius (David Calder) caught out by their own ambition than Hamlet (Rory Kinnear). Critics have remarked on this Hamlet’s lucidity – yes, a deliberate Jason-Bourne-kind-of lucidity with seemingly no ties and a ruthless forward trajectory. It imposes a logic turning the King’s ghost into a spymaster with vague instructions from beyond the grave. And, strangely for a play renowned for its philosophical soliloquys, Hamlet becomes an action story where they all become part of the spy-like simulation.   So who needs the agonizing of a philosopher prince when you have a stonking thriller with a sleeper agent goaded into action? Well, TLT actually. It’s enjoyable yet it’s a amber light for The Guy Who Came In From The Cold.  

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Country Girl Review

The Country Girl by Clifford Odets
Apollo Theatre W1

Exit Stage Left

A tormented play by a politically-active writer given an uneven production, thought TLT and her partner-on-wheels, about this 1950 inside out piece on theatre, lies and cowardice directed by Rufus Norris.  Washed-up actor Frank Elgin (Martin Shaw) is offered the chance by young director Bernie Dodd (Mark Letheren) to star in a play albeit on a contract with two-weeks notice.  Frank’s career , so it is alleged, has been hampered by a young wife Georgie (Jenny Seagrove), the eponymous country girl, believed to be a neurotic.  While watching this, TLT began to think this difficult but worthwhile piece may be a unmade brilliant movie. Only to find out later through the good offices of Google that it was an Oscar-winning film when Grace Kelly who played Georgie won out over Judy Garland's performance in A Star Is Born (a movie about a washed-up alcoholic actor and his wife ...) for Best Actress plaudit.  Anyway,  what to say about it? The first act is supremely irritating because the accents of the two main characters Frank Elgin and his wife Georgie are so inpenetrable (I did wonder whether we were listening to Swedish-Americans!). Yet we know something rich, strange and very human is going on which kept me hanging in there. And surely there is, and if there isn’t, there should be, a theatregoing adage: “Always wait for the last act”. The audience was suitably rewarded with a fast-moving dream of a second act and every sassy line as clear as a bell. So round one goes to the clever set design by Scott Pask and Jonathan Lipman and supporting actors alongside Letheren, Nicolas Day, Peter Harding, Thomasin Rind and Luke Shaw. With a knock out punch by everyone in the second-act and just about an amber light from TLT who also recommends reading something about the life of Clifford Odets before seeing the play. 

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Absent Friends Review

Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn

Not Waving But Drowning

Never one to begrudge an acknowledgement, TLT has to admit a four star review in the Evening Standard sent her and ever-loyal automotive companion along to the railway arches to see this 1974  play set in a suburban living room.  Directed by Ben De Wynter with suitably evocative design by Holly Best and lighting by Steve Miller,  the piece revolves around four male pals (one never seen)  who have known each other since their youth. Two of the men, along with three wives (one of the wives is married to he who is not seen) and one baby in tow are about to welcome to tea the only single man left in their coterie, Colin (Giles Fagan) after a long absence. A tragic drowning has robbed him of his fiancée and, by rights, he should be thoroughly miserable with the others, house-proud Di (Gillian McCafferty),  mother-hen Marge (Fiona Gordon), philandering Paul (Chas. Early), hyperactive John (Shaun Stone) and monosyllabic sophisticate Evelyn (Olivia Busby) counting their blessings at their married bliss.  But being Ayckbourn, things are much darker and slyer on this merry-go-round of coupling,  uncoupling,  shattered flying ducks and childhood dreams.  All the actors turn in thoroughly creditable performances and, though the pacing is sometimes awry and  occasional self-consciousness creeps in, it’s a very satisfying retro bitter-sweet entertainment.  An amber light to warm up a cold November evening.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Review Onassis

Onassis by Martin Sherman
Novello Theatre WC2

As a young chit before driving tests and other real life thingybobbies intervened, TLT used to enjoy those kitsch 1960s' movies based on Greek mythology.  Where whimsical, bickering ringletted and be-toga-ed  Gods and Goddesses on Mount Olympus leaned over a bath tub with their favourite mortals’ miniature ships floating like so many rubber ducks.  Memories returned when the TLT and her own Greek chariot settled down to watch the soap opera that was the later life of Greek shipping magnate and serial womaniser Aristotle Onassis (Our Family’s Robert Lindsay).  This early preview performance was framed by a Homeric narrator cum confidante Costa (Gawn Grainger), with Jackie Kennedy (Lydia Leonard) and Maria Callas (Anna Francolini) also ticking the boxes for a celebrity history play with a few conspiracy theories thrown in for good measure. So it is, in TLT’s opinion, shlock but, TLT also has to admit, enjoyable well-acted shlock .  It may be apt to wonder whether the stunning design, lighting and multimedia from Katrina Lindsay, Ben Ormerod and Lorna Heavey respectively compensates for a bijou play expanded for a larger space,  drowning some narrative irony and humour.  Yet, give Robert Lindsay a pair of wrap around glasses and a penchant for the Zorba shuffle, he becomes a irascible and compelling Aristotle. And the time speeds by. Even if scenes sometimes feel shuffled like a pack of cards. And even if apart from  Ari and his opera diva lover Maria Callas, the characters are cartoonishly as flat as pancakes. So it’s as much an audience emotional rollercoaster ride as a Greek frieze but, directed by Nancy Meckler, none the less entertaining for that and certainly shed new light on a (in)famous name for TLT and her side-car.  A heroic amber light.

Apparently representatives of the Onassis Foundation have now weighed in slightly misleadingly because it's never claimed Onassis arranged any assassination, only that he claimed he did.  What a great movie this would make - present day shenanigans with the Foundation, the book writer, the play and playwright framing flashbacks to possible conspiracy scenarios in the past ... ;) 

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Design For Living Review

Design For Living by Noel Coward
The Old Vic SE1
Survival of the Wittiest

What an unexpectedly dark (but very funny) writer Noel Coward turns out to be. And quite a deconstructionist as well.  TLT was amazed to hear her own thoughts about Design For Living’s first act echoed in some second act lines as one character describes how to construct a play! Written in 1932, this has the “can’t live with her, can’t live without her” theme TLT noted in Private Lives written two years earlier. Except this time instead of a couple, there is a risqué trio and the play ends in complete freefall. Otto (Andrew Scott), Leo (Tom Burke), and Gilda (Lisa Dillon, last seen in Private Lives), an artist, a playwright and an interior designer respectively are the eventual ménage a trois. TLT doesn’t think it is imagination (especially when another deconstructionist line backs up this interpretation) that Noel Coward is actually an intensely political writer with razor-sharp hilarious shifting alliances and incremental slapstick becoming prescient murmurs of foreboding about the world’s rocky situation. Design For Living is not as  tidy as Private Lives. The audience's gasps during the visceral third act confirmed for TLT it is more like a ship zig-zagging on increasingly unstable nasty seas before an impending iceberg beyond the final curtain. All kudos to director Anthony Page, the lead actors, gangly Angus Wright, as Gilda’s cut-adrift-without-a-lifebelt spouse Ernest Friedman, and the rest of the cast for getting under the skin of this capricious play in a preview performance around three hours long.  Alongside great sets from Lez Brotherston, a very modern surprising shift of sympathies and sheer spite elevate a comedy of manners and farce into something much, much more. TLT gives another green light to The Master.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Clybourne Park and All My Sons Review

Clybourne Park
by Bruce Norris
The Royal Court SW1
All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
Apollo Theatre W1
Love Thy Neighbour
Two plays here - one a  masterpiece from a time when young men were reaping the benefits of the GI Bill  in the US and there was some aspiration to a Brave New World. The other (a preview performance), set in the 1950s and 2009, has, well, interesting moments  and might make a good movie, given some thinning down.  Guess which is which ;)
Firstly Clybourne Park in preview.
The first act takes place in a house in a 1950s’ white Chicago neighbourhood soon to be sold to its first black couple. The second act is in the derelict house nearer the present day.
Two of the male roles in Clybourne Park almost have a powerful resonance but the rest lacks the coherence and intriguing detective story feel of The Pain and The Itch, Bruce Norris’s last play for The Royal Court which did have two men firmly at the centre of the action.
Maybe Clybourne Park, directed by Dominic Cooke, was meant to be a first act of 1950s sitcom writ dark with the second buying into the harsher world of stand-up with supposedly beyond-the-pale material on race but, if so, this didn’t work for TLT.  There just wasn’t enough of a story.
There were glimpses of a more mature play with Russ (Steffan Rhodri), a father enduring after his soldier son’s apparent suicide, and Albert (Lucien Msmati), the husband of the family’s black maid servant (Lorna Brown). But the women’s dialogue is weak and the second-act self-conscious bickering of all the characters felt interchangeable, despite the racial references.
The American (or Canadian?)  lady next to me told me she was bored and TLT found it difficult to care about any of the characters or their opinions. The attempt to telescope the past  back into the present with mother /Bev (Sophie Thompson) and son Kenneth (Michael Goldsmith) in a final scene seemed a clumsy, last-ditch attempt to manipulate the play into the pathos and irony it lacked.
Ghosts of the past also haunt All My Sons, written in 1947, a  family drama but fault lines of money, family, community,  politics, state responsibility and war are also implicit.
An airplane manufacturer is blamed and jailed for shipping out, during the Second World War, “defectives” (that is defective mechanical parts not people but ambiguity of dialogue gives the play a deeper resonance). Consequence: the death of pilots in an industry as self-regulating as any pre-war Wall Street Crash financial sector.
Meanwhile the man’s business partner and neighbour Joe Keller  (David Suchet) escapes scot free. His family, albeit minus a dead war hero son, lives on in the same house ostensibly respected even after the very dubious court case. A pillar of the community, he joshes, with bankrupt morality, with a local kid (Ted Allpress) about setting up the latter up as an informal  policeman to oversee the local community (1947 was also the year Joe McCarthy was elected to the Senate).
And behind everything lies two properties, the surviving business partner’s family home and the unseen house next door where the local doctor (Steven Elder), whilst bemoaning not getting work in lucrative medical research,  and his nurse wife (Claire Hackett) have moved in smoothly filling the void left by the shamed family of the jailed manufacturer.
Unlike the talky and losing-the-thread Clybourne Park (which apparently was a hit when it opened in the US), All My Sons, directed here by Howard Davies,  retains its clarity as a family drama but, by the unravelling of the second half, there are hints of the disintegration and suicidal infighting within  the "family" of America’s post-war left as much as a critique of  the American Dream.
This is a compelling, many-layered play with wonderful central performances including Zoë Wannamker as wife Kate Keller where the arguments are part of the action, growing out of character, gripping throughout with, importantly, the power to surprise with the logic of its twists and turns.
Call me old-fashioned but TLT can only give a scraping-through to amber light to Clybourne Park for an intriguing idea while it's a bright green light to All My Sons.
Apparently Clybourne Park is a response to Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry, the first play by a black woman and with a black director to be produced on Broadway. Incidentally, Ms Hansberry met her husband Robert Nemiroff on a picket line and they spent the night before their wedding protesting against the execution of the Rosenbergs.
TLT has never seen and didn't know the plot of Raisin in the Sun before attending Clybourne Park but it was based on the true story of Ms Hansberry's parents fighting a colour bar in a court case involving a house and housing association in Chicago in 1937.
The house in question is now apparently (according to Wikipedia) being considered for status as a listed building. Clybourne Park should stand alone as a play, but it strikes TLT knowing the plot of the earlier play may be an essential when seeing this new piece.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Welcome to Thebes Review

Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini
National Theatre, SE1

Grecian 2010

Imagine a state split by factions and conflicts supposedly now at peace and a democracy. Unable to pay the salaries and pensions of its military. A woman hoisted up into the presidency with other women in positions of authority. The male head of a neighbouring, seemingly more powerful state, coming to scatter his largesse and increase a sphere of influence. All very promising on paper. It’s a shame what emerges is a mess of a play despite valiant attempts by great actors to give their roles some substance. TLT was disappointed since she thoroughly enjoyed Moira Buffini’s Dying For It at the Almeida. A shorter play and fewer characters could have held a small space compellingly. The young boy soldier, the loan fraud conniving widow of a murdered politician and the flashy “prince”. The young woman sent in to prepare the way for the “first citizen” (leader) of the neighbouring country. But this makes the play sound much more interesting than it was. Stretching it across this large space , with superficial references to a jumble of Greek myths, meant a lot of embryo ideas were scattergunned and shouted across the stage. Plus on-the-nose dialogue - either self-consciously “poetic” or vernacular “gagged up" and a self-conscious exhange of gender roles. Ah well, a stage-managed political rally scene had the characters as audience dutifully clapping the politicians but TLT should be honest and say many of the real punters liked it. Lots of clapping and cheering at the end so TLT gives it just about an amber light for the efforts of the actors, director and designer.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Tempest Review

The Tempest
Old Vic, SE1

Virtual Storm

Yes, we're back, as Arnie might have said if he were Trafficlighttheatregoer or a super souped-up scarlet supermini ... On a sultry summer evening TLT and her trusty jalopy made their way once more to the Old Vic to watch the transatlantic Bridge version of The Tempest. And a production at one remove it turned out to be. The raison d'etre fell into place when one character emphasised the name of a virtual reality world which really does crop up in one of the final speeches. Of course Shakespeare was writing blank verse rather than internet product placement but if you want to google Act V, Scene I, TLT will give you a clue - it ain't Facebook. TLT just wishes director Sam Mendes and actor Stephen Dillane had gone the whole hog with Prospero and given him a laptop rather than a book of spells tallying with a characterisation reminding TLT of a worn out chief executive failing to live up to business page hype. And also made it all much pacier. It felt as if the ebb and flow of a magical play had been substituted by a self-conscious imitation lacking the lustre of the original and therefore it's an amber light.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Private Lives Review

Private Lives by Noel Coward
Vaudeville Theatre WC2

Flippin' Fun

TLT’s little buggy almost  felt bereft of an  ivory cigarette holder taped to the exhaust after watching an early preview of Noel Coward’s elegantly brittle 1930 comedy.  Elyot and Amanda, flip cut-glass socialites, are on their honeymoon in France – only with their spouses, simpering Sybil and uptight Victor,  rather than each other.  After meeting accidentally, they realize, although divorced, they must rekindle their relationship, however stormy and scandalous.  This is TLT’s first foray into Coward territory, a stylised yet tremendously funny treat in this finely-judged production, beautifully lit with atmospheric set design by Rob Howell.  Kim Cattrell’s porcelain Amanda builds charmingly in pathos and comedy as the play progresses sparking with Matthew Macfadyen who gives an inspired endearing vulnerability to his barbed teddy bear of an Elyot. Meanwhile Lisa Dillon and Simon Paisley Day create a sympathetic romance and more than hold their own as Sybil and Victor, allowing the audience to root for them as a couple alongside the warring and almost fatally attracted protagonists.  And with overall spot-on timing (including a suitably French French maid played by Caroline Lena Olsson) and a modern “how will it all end?” feel to tear away any gauzy rose-coloured expections, TLT gives this production a green light as sparkly as an emerald.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Cheeky Chekhov

Just a quick note about the Chekhov week at the Hampstead Theatre. TLT went along to see Chekhov’s Vaudevilles, the first of a week’s performances/readings celebrating the Russian playwright. Superb performances of some of Chekhov’s very funny (yes, you read right, Chekhov was a very funny writer!) farces by all involved: David Horovitch, Miriam Margolyes, Steve McNeil and Michael Pennington (and playwright Michael Frayn as “the narrator” ;) ). This performance was a one-off but, by the look of the starry line-up for the rest of the week, there will be equally wonderful performances in store and, by the look of the auditorium, tickets eagerly sought. Fascinating also to hear Rosamund Bartlett, one of Chekhov’s major translators, talk about the playwright's life and the quest to renovate the writer’s home in Yalta (now the Ukraine) which has been overlooked in the “to do” list by the new Eastern European wealthy 

Twist in tale as oligarch Alexander Lebedev boosts Hampstead Theatre's Chekhov home fund

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Six Degrees of Separation Review

Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare
The Old Vic, London SE1

Black and White and Red All Over

Before the net revolutionized relationships, the idea of six degrees of separation was popularized by this fascinating 1990 play inspired by a real-life story of a trickster who posed as film star Sidney Poitier’s (non-existent) son.  A New York art dealer and his wife take in a wounded stranger offering him a spare room, only to discover they are among several dupes in their social circle of a conman who has filleted information out of a male lover, a former classmate of their children.  The charge of racism, cited at one point by the couple’s self-righteous Harvard-educated daughter, is a red herring compared to more intricate veins connecting conned and conman.  On one side, the trickster (Obi Abili)  living on the edge whose credentials could have been easily checked in a published biography.  On the other, the art dealer (Anthony Head) with wife (the excellent Lesley Manville) in tow gambling on using borrowed cash from an ambiguous source to broker a deal.  In fact, the six degrees theory is a glib rationalization of a far more confused kaleidoscope where modern life’s contradictions,  evasions and literary self-consciousness allow the strained sophisticates to want to believe in the purported idealism of a  fake.  Acting in a preview performance of this classy revival held attention but TLT  found the production curiously unaffecting, more red faces all round than viciousness and sordidness, not helped by some bland but showy male nudity.  So, while the production’s emotional investment should have remained high for a Facebook and Twitter generation, just about an amber light.