Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Theatre Review: Twilight Song

It’s always a risk seeing a second play by a playwright who has written one piece that you’ve seen and absolutely love. Sometimes that risk pays off (Tony Kushner’s iHo, James Graham’s Ink), sometimes it doesn’t.

Twilight Song is the final thing that Kevin Elyot, whose other work includes the sublime My Night With Reg, wrote before his death a few years ago, being staged for the first time at the Park Theatre. It tells the story of one family’s life at three separate points in time, the present day and the early and late sixties, and how the intrusion of one stranger completely upsets their timeline. It’s an entertaining enough piece but, and I think you can guess where this is going, it’s not My Night With Reg. And whilst it may be unfair to compare the two, it’s extremely difficult not to. Twilight Song does not come out of this comparison well.

I love how weird this chalk board drawing of the programme cover is!

What Twilight Song does share with Reg is Elyot’s warm, funny, heartfelt writing. The initial present day scene in particular is very funny, though when the play’s plotting uncurls and you realise who the two characters actually are it becomes something very different (this realisation is by far the best bit of the play’s messing about with chronology because it is left unsaid). It also contains some very wry and depressingly relevant political lines, about the need for competence and solid economics, which the production does well not to overplay.

However, the actual story and characterisation is disappointing. The plot becomes far too predictable far too quickly, something not helped by the fact that this production presents it so unsubtly. Whilst trying to remain spoiler free, there is a blink and you’ll miss it line in the first 1960s scene which unlocks the whole play by revealing the relationship between the characters in the ‘flashbacks’ and the present day. This is enough explanation on its own. That the script then calls for this to be made clearer and clearer and clearer in every subsequent scene is unnecessary. It robs the piece, and this production in particular, of the dramatic impact it could have had if it were more subtle and trusted the audience more to reach the conclusions on its own. They are not that difficult to reach after all, even if you base them solely on the fact that two of the actors play multiple parts across the timeline. That’s a fairly huge clue as to what’s going on by itself. That the big reveal is confirmed, repeatedly, so early in the piece is also problematic. It’s difficult to fully invest in the action or the characters when you find out so early exactly what is going on. I feel like ambiguity in the script and in the staging would have been the key to making this play work. This is something that is notably absent.

The characterisation is also surprisingly slight (and not just in comparison with Reg, in comparison with any effective modern writing). There’s very little that helps us understand why the characters are acting as they are or what their backstories really are. I couldn’t help notice that this was particularly true for the play’s one female character, about whom we learn very little other than that she had a father whose views on women’s education and career choices were unenlightened. I’m not sure that this explains in any way satisfactorily why she ends up acting as she does.

All of this presents the small cast with a bit of an issue before they even step onto the stage. However, most of them do their best with what they are given. Adam Garcia is an interesting piece of casting for his two parts, Skinner and the gardener, and is very strong in the former at least. He has great stage presence and captures the nasty charisma of Skinner perfectly, really effectively foreshadowing what we’re about to learn. He doesn’t have a huge amount to do as the gardener and what he does do is completely overshadowed by his attempt at a cockney accent about which I will say nothing out of kindness. Paul Higgins is the other actor on double duty, as Barry and Basil, and is also notably more effective as one than the other. Barry is too laboured for my tastes but Basil is much stronger and conveys his quiet misery really well. Bryony Hannah’s Isabella is the weakest of the three leads for me, but this is a difficult part which gets little help from the writing so it feels unfair to criticise her too much. There is much stronger stuff from Philip Bretherton and Hugh Ross in the two smaller roles, Harry and Charles, who end up carrying the drama and convey the agony of the situation their characters face perfectly. They were the characters I really connected with and would have liked to have seen much more of, frankly.

My issues with the way it presents the plot notwithstanding, this production is technically very solid. The design is simple and the subtle changes made to the one set to show what time we’re in for each scene are very effective (the passage of time is less effectively portrayed elsewhere). The lighting is really well done; considered and careful without a single unnecessary bulb. The pacing of the production is about right too, though I could have done without some of the longer and more indulgent scene changes.

Ultimately, it was always going to be difficult for Twilight Song to compare to the love I have for My Night With Reg and it doesn’t. There’s too much unsubtlety in the writing, which is emphasised by the production, and not enough depth to the characters. However, that’s not to say it’s bad. Ultimately, it’s an entertaining piece of theatre and a solid production. If you go with those expectations then you’ll likely be significantly less disappointed than I was.

And, as an aside, the adorable Park Theatre is definitely worth trekking out to Finsbury Park to visit. It’s a cracking little venue.

Twilight Song plays at the Park Theatre until 12th August.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Theatre Review: Ink

Sometimes the heavens align in theatreland and you find yourself watching a production written by your favourite playwright, starring your favourite actor, directed by one of your favourite directors and staged in one of your favourite venues, and it makes everything right with the world.

Ink is a play about the birth of The Sun newspaper under the considerable personalities of its founding editor, Larry Lamb, and its owner and proprietor, Rupert Murdoch (perhaps you’ve heard of him). A juicy enough prospect in itself. When you throw the fact that it’s written by James Graham, stars Bertie Carvel as Murdoch, is directed by Rupert Goold and staged at the Almeida into the mix it becomes positively orgasmic. Pass me a cigarette because I’m done.

There shall be no beating about the bush here. I fucking loved this play and this production of it is about as good as it gets.

Ink is the second of five James Graham plays I will see this year, following on from This House which regular readers will recall I had some Strong Feelings about, and it’s increased my enthusiasm for his work no end. It is whip smart, very funny and pleasingly non-judgemental. There’s a real enthusiasm for the topic and a level of humanity in Graham’s writing and characterisation that is so refreshing - especially given the people and the institution involved here, about which it’s difficult not to have an opinion.

The whole approach to Ink is so fresh and exciting. It presumes no prior knowledge, it offers no moral judgement, it is in no way an issue play. It simply tells the story brilliantly and asks some vital questions about the role of the press in a modern society; it is for the audience to provide their own answers. The parallels here with the mode of storytelling that Lamb and Murdoch set out in the play’s opening scene are presumably not accidental. It is also a relief that contemporary references are not overdone, as must have been the temptation, so that when they are used they are much more impactful.

It is, in short and like This House, an absolutely fantastic play. It would be worth seeing even in a crap production. That the Almeida’s production is anything but crap is an added joy.

‘Anything but crap’ is a bit of an understatement too. This is a production every bit as good as its play. Rupert Goold’s direction is pacey, fluent and honest (though if I do have a criticism of this production overall it’s that it could stand to be ten minutes shorter). Bunny Chrstie’s set, a muddle multi-storey mess of a newspaper office, is evocative and functionally brilliant, bringing a sense of anarchy and excitement to proceedings. The lighting is great, especially the use of my old favourite, the bright white spot, as a highlight at key points. The choreography and music, sparingly used, is incredibly effective and is becoming one of my favourite features of James Graham shows.

The characterisation is one of the areas where Ink is most different from This House. Whilst the latter was a big ensemble thing, Ink is pretty much a two man show. The ensemble in Ink is certainly less crucial than their Westminster equivalents though they are excellent, the women in particular - Sophie Stanton as Joyce Hopkirk brings real heart to the table whilst Pearl Chanda is spunky and strong as Stephanie Rahn. (That Graham writes fantastic parts for women is yet another reason to love him.)

Richard Coyle takes the biggest role in terms of stage time, though I would argue not the lead role, as Larry Lamb and uses every minute extremely well. His Lamb is complicated, conflicted, slimey and ultimately sympathetic. He is particularly good at portraying the pressure that Lamb is under from all quarters, especially as the action ramps up towards the end of act two. And he leaves enough shades of grey in his performance to allow the audience to ask interesting questions of his motivations, chiefly why is he really so obsessed with beating The Mirror’s circulation figures? It’s a brilliant, nuanced piece of acting which does a lot to shake up the perception of a man who, one suspects, an Almeida audience is not predisposed to like.

Speaking of which, playing Rupert Murdoch to an Islington audience - or any audience for that matter - and presenting them with someone they don’t hate is surely deserving of some kind of special award. Certainly it takes a special performance from a special actor. From my previously expressed sentiments, it should come as no surprise that I rank Bertie Carvel squarely within that category. His Murdoch is a genuinely fantastic performance: physically unrecognisable, perfectly accented and utterly surprising in its characterisation of the man as socially awkward and kind of shy but utterly and completely driven. He’s not physically on stage that often (to my chagrin) but he is on stage at all times. That takes some doing. As ever, there’s a joyously old fashioned physicality to what he does which is as fascinating to watch as it is effective. He doesn’t so much walk the stage as stalk it, slightly hunched over, suggesting a barely suppressed rage that is allowed to burst through only once and so feels even more dangerous the rest of the time as a result. He achieves something completely remarkable, ultimately: not only do you forget that you’re watching him as an actor, you also forget that you know who Rupert Murdoch is as a person. It’s fantastic and a thrill to watch. Why he isn’t everyone’s favourite actor is a fact that continues to baffle me.

Ink is a fantastic production of a fantastic play. It’s relevant, timely, achingly well written, without an iota of judgement or preachiness. It is superbly staged and home to some of the best, most fascinating acting you will see. And, perhaps most importantly, it is further proof that my Bertie Carvel obsession is justified (and also growing).

Ink is at the Almeida until 5th August (day tickets and returns only at this point, deservedly). Rumours of a West End transfer for the autumn abound.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Theatre Review: Committee

As premises for a musical go, recreating a Parliamentary select committee hearing into charity governance using the verbatim transcripts as a book must be up there with singing trains on roller skates in the weirdness stakes.

It’s also a premise for which I am the perfect audience member: I love musical theatre and I am contractually obliged to be passionately interested in both charity governance and select committees by virtue of my job. I’ve written so many submissions for select committees and prepared so many briefings for staff who are going to appear as witnesses in oral evidence sessions that I feel like, for once, I actually know what I’m talking about in this review.

I suppose I should also put on the record at this stage that I actually think select committees are great. They’re where the best work, or at least most of the best work, that Parliament does is done and where the Government is most effectively held to account. They’re really, genuinely important in British Parliamentary democracy and, whilst of course there are exceptions, are populated by MPs who really care about the topics they discuss. Their Chairs can be egomaniacs and behave like overgrown schoolchildren but they are also some of the most forensic and persistent questioners of the Government that Parliament has. Yes, they enjoy being on the Today programme but most of them are far more interested in actually changing Government policy.

I’m very aware that this view colours my opinion of Committee, the third play in the Donmar Warehouse’s Power season and the verbatim select committee musical in question. Committee takes as its subject one of the more dramatic committee sessions of late, the oral evidence session where Kids Company bosses Alan Yentob and Camilla Batmanghelidjh gave evidence on the staggering amount of money their recently collapsed charity had been given by successive governments despite the equally staggering incompetence with which it was being run.

It’s difficult to be neutral on the Kids Company saga, and I’m not going to tell you my own view explicitly though I think you might be able to figure it out, but the one thing that it’s difficult to disagree with is the fact that so many kids were dependent on a charity not the state for some pretty fundamental help is extraordinary. From the point of view of those kids, the collapse of the charity was clearly a tragedy. This is the big issue that any theatrical work on Kids Company should engage with, where something new could be added to the debate. Committee, in choosing to focus specifically on this one evidence session, doesn’t engage with this. Or any of the other big issues that a broader look at the Kids Company story would have allowed it to play with. It’s difficult to know, really, what the point of it is. By constraining itself so rigidly to its form it robs itself of the opportunity to say anything profound or new and also to be particularly entertaining or dramatic. I mean, I love select committees but not even I would claim they’re top entertainment!

The idea of drawing out the theatricality of Parliament is also not new and has been done far, far better elsewhere already; it’s very difficult to imagine a piece of theatre about due process that is better, more entertaining or more insightful than This House for a start. The introduction of music, in a recitative style, is an interesting addition but it doesn’t really add that much. There’s nothing wrong with the music, the lush score is great (especially as it’s played only by a chamber group) and the lyrics, all drawn either from the session’s transcripts or associated website material, are cleverly done, but neither is it memorable or integral. I also had a technical niggle with the sound mixing, in that the instrumental sometimes completely drowned out the vocal, but that’s by the by.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with the writing of the spoken scenes either, at least in the sense that the bits of transcript they choose to use are the best bits. However, I do take considerable issue with the characterisation in the writing which seems to suggest, straight out of a contemporary Guardian opinion piece, that the collapse of Kids Company is everyone’s fault but the saintly Batmanghelidjh’s. Which is, to be blunt, wrong. In particular, I found the portrayal of the MPs and the committee itself incredibly, infuriatingly cynical. The way they are portrayed merely as self serving, shallow, ideologically driven and only really interested in conducting a show trial is grossly unfair. To suggest that Bernard Jenkin (the committee’s chair and not someone with whom I have a natural affinity, to put it mildly) only embarked on this particular inquiry to bag himself the coveted 8:10 slot on Today is just nonsense. It’s testament to the amount that this irritated me that I actually walked out of Committee with more respect - and even sympathy - for Jenkin. I’m not sure that this is what the creative team was intending. It certainly made me feel weird.

The redeeming feature of Committee is its cast, who are excellent to a person. The MP characters are perfectly observed (you wonder how many hours were spent watching videos of their ‘characters’ speaking and how boring this must have been) down to the minutest physical tic and vocal inflection, yet still avoid becoming flat imitations. Alexander Hanson’s Bernard Jenkin is, for someone who’s sat in a committee he’s chairing watching someone you’ve briefed as the witness, almost unnervingly accurate. Sandra Marvin and Omar Ebrahim are in great voice and equally well observed as Batmanghelidjh and Yentob respectively; the former gets all the meatiest solos and nails them as well as having the most extraordinarily expressive eyes, the latter is probably my pick of the voices and joyously skewers the mixture of earnestness, obliviousness and name dropping that characterised Yentob’s conduct throughout this sorry episode to a tee. Yentob is perhaps the most effective bit of writing in the entire piece actually and the only one through whom a serious issue - what is the link between Government, charity and ‘celebrity’ and what should it be? - is an anyway interestingly addressed.

Committee is such an odd piece, strangely irrelevant and without insight or dramatic depth, that you’d think I’d want to disparage the Donmar for staging it. I don’t. I actually think it was a brave commission and a laudable attempt to do something different. It’s exactly the sort of thing, in short, that a theatre like the Donmar should be doing. It’s just a shame that on this occasion the bravery hasn’t paid off. A disappointing end to an otherwise first rate season.

Committee is at the Donmar Warehouse until 12th August.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Theatre Review: The Ferryman

The Gielgud is one of those Theatres of a Certain Age.

You know the type I mean. Pretty, but functionally questionable. Minimal ladies loos. Extortionate ice cream. Seats with economy class flight-level comfort, unless you're in Band A. Certainly not optimal for watching something three hours plus.

It's not the sort of theatre I would necessarily have chosen to see The Ferryman in, in other words. A play that seems to have entered modern theatrical legend on account of two things, its length and - thankfully - its quality. Or to paraphrase The Guardian Guide, bum numbing but worth it.

There is no question that, at three hours ten (including an interval and a weird and superfluous five minute 'pause'), this is a long piece. But, hey, some of us have seen all seven and a half hours of Angels in America in one day. Three hours ten is fuck all.

The Ferryman shares something else with Angels too: it's complete brilliance. There is no question that every single star in The Ferryman's epic haul of five star reviews is justified. More than justified. Inadequate to do this stunner of a show anything like justice.

The Ferryman has excellent pedigree. Written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, it's a transfer from The Royal Court that tells the story, ostensibly, of the Carney family in Troubles-era Northern Ireland. Part pitch black kitchen sink comedy, complete with racist elderly aunt, part Othello-esque heartbreaking tragedy, the writing is - and I hesitate to use the word but I think it's merited here - genius.

Because what Butterworth has conjured up here is incredible. Not only is the writing incredibly rich, creating a world of characters, places, histories and situations that make you feel you know the Carneys and, indeed, that you've known them for a long time (clever use of historical touchpoints certainly helps here), it is bitterly funny. The rounded cast of characters and humour mask something much darker though. There is a danger fizzing through this play that is elusive at first - you know shit is going to go down but you don't really know how. And you don't find out how until the final scene which, though I won't spoil it, is utterly extraordinary for pulling off the bizarre duality of being both completely inevitable and completely, devastatingly unexpected at the same time.

This is the real genius of The Ferryman. You never know really what you're watching and every time you think you've cracked it - BAM - the plot changes tack. Even basic plot points, such as who's who in the family, aren't as they first seem. To pull this off whilst maintaining a coherent, plausible and well paced story is just exquisite plotting.

Thematically too this is a great piece. Butterworth deals with a lot of big themes, each of which alone could create something interesting, and somehow melds them all together into something truly wonderful. Loyalty and family is an obvious starting point. Who or what should you be loyal to? Who or what is your family? Assuming you know that how do you protect them? And what do you protect; their past, present or future? Loss also gets attention. What does loss mean? Can someone who's still there be lost? Can someone who's not there not be lost? Can you lose something that was never yours in the first place? And running through all of this is the past. Can you move on from it? Escape it? How? Is your past somehow genetic, bound to repeat down the generations? The Ferryman plays with all of these ideas but refreshingly never offers judgement on any of them. It would be a gift of a play to study; think of the essays you could write!

If the writing is the star of this show, then the cast runs it a close second. The Ferryman is a real ensemble piece and perhaps the biggest joy of the acting here is seeing a genuinely great, unselfish, perfectly balanced ensemble working as one. That said, it would be remiss not to make a few observations about the individuals involved, principally how in the sweet fuck is this Paddy Considine's stage debut?! I mean this in two, equally complimentary, ways: 1) how on earth has an actor of his calibre never been tempted onto the stage before, and 2) how on earth can an actor on debut deliver a performance as nuanced, controlled and quietly dangerous as the one he delivers, as family patriarch Quinn Carney, here? He is amazing, electrifying to watch and commands the stage totally. I hope theatrical casting agents elsewhere are taking notes!

Other performances that merit a quick mention are Laura Donnelly, a study in sadness and heart as Caitlin Carney; John Hodgkinson who works I suspect much harder than appearances would suggest to make Tom Kettle, the least effective character for my money, into someone believable and touching (the proposal scene guys!); and Rob Malone and Tom Glyn-Carney, as Oisin and Shane respectively, who bring the real spark and danger to proceedings. Everyone is well served by Sam Mendes' light touch, natural direction and a stunningly detailed and atmospheric set (though were the real animals really necessary guys? No, that's right, they weren't).

It is, at this point in time, deeply boring to say that The Ferryman is extraordinary theatre but it really truly is. Sublime acting, pitch perfect direction, great set and some of the best writing you will ever see. Believe the hype and shell out for a ticket immediately. Even the queue for the ladies' is worth it.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 7th October.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Theatre Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Question: what do you get if you cross Bertolt Brecht and Dr Seuss’ The Lorax? Answer: the Donmar’s current production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

If you know your Dr Seuss - and if you don’t then you need to sort that out, stat - you’ll know that the moral and most famous quote from The Lorax goes thusly: “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”. And although the quote isn’t included in the Donmar’s Resistible Rise - a missed opportunity - that same moral, that ordinary people have to get up and do shit to make things get better, regardless of time and place, is very much writ large in this production.

The second play in the Donmar’s Power season follows in the footsteps of the first, the excellent Limehouse, in that it has a message that it is not ashamed to shout about. Loudly. What is a bit different in this production is that it does the shouting through the staging as well as the text. It’s an interesting approach and one that is largely very successful and always a huge amount of fun.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a largely self explanatory title. It tells the story of Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui, and his use of his criminal gang and activity to worm his way into politics, in this case the politics of the Chicago and Cicero grocery trade. Ui is incredibly charismatic, though not very bright, and relies on a coterie of small time crooks, his adoption by local political types and increasingly serious criminal activity to propel him into power.

Remind you of anyone?

Whilst Brecht’s play was originally written as a thinly veiled satire on Hitler’s rise to power, the Donmar’s new adaptation, by Bruce Norris, is a not at all veiled satire on Donald Trump. There is 0% subtlety in the attack on this new contemporary reference, which might have become tiresome very quickly were it not so funny. Much of this is down to the presence of the actor who has to sell it, Lenny Henry on fantastic form, but also some very clever and unapologetic writing and staging. All of Trump’s current obsessions get an airing - the size of the crowd at a rally, the need to build a wall, vicious attacks on immigrants and even a ‘Make This Country Great Again’ banner. The best scene in this regard is when Ui needs to wrest control of the Cicero grocery racket from a female rival. The staging of the ensuing argument scene evokes the infamous final debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton so well, including a quick slip in of the phrase ‘nasty woman’ to much wry laughter. All of this is done with a certain swagger that is essential to its success. There would be no point in doing this sort of blatant satire half heartedly and this production goes all in to make it work.

As mentioned above, this production is totally aimed at bringing its audience in and forcing them to be active participants in Ui’s rise and/or fall. This starts with the most basic aspect of staging - the stage. There isn’t one, in short. This production takes place in a speakeasy, even the programmes are wrapped in plain brown paper, with the actors milling around the audience, arranged around them in a circle, at all levels. Audience members are frequently used in lieu of actors, which is gimmicky (my hatred for audience participation being well documented elsewhere on this blog) but very entertaining from the safety of the circle. The one exception to this is the very last scene where the audience is challenged to come and sit on the floor of the performance area to show their opposition to Ui. This is a powerful moment and illustrates the wider theme of the production really well with barely a word spoken. There’s also an interesting use of live performance of sections of contemporary music, on the one level a simple way to mask scene changes but also yet another way to remind the audience that time and place are immaterial because there are always men like Ui who need to be stopped.

The cumulative effect of this commitment to message does feel a bit overcooked sometimes, almost inevitably given how many levels it’s operating on. Perhaps a fraction of a percentage more subtlety would be welcome. The production also has a slight pacing issue, in that act one is less engaging and more ‘Basil Exposition’ than an excellent act two. I’m not really sure what director Simon Evans could have done any differently here though; there is a lot of story that needs to be told before the full horror of Ui becomes apparent and it makes sense to get that out of the way and really let the piece explode in the second act, which it undoubtedly does. Maybe a couple of judicious cuts could have been deployed just to make the first act shorter but, again, I’m not sure where my knife would fall. I just feel that the production is so close to getting the balance right that it’s a shame it didn’t quite get there. It detracted only a fraction from my enjoyment though, I am nitpicking a bit here.

Any faults that this production may have do certainly not extend to the cast however. In a relatively small and multi-talented ensemble it’s very difficult to find fault and the energy and sense of fun they all bring is infectious. As mentioned above, Lenny Henry takes the title role and is hugely convincing and charismatic. That he does the comedy fantastically is an utter non-surprise, that he conveys the menace and violence of Ui so well was a surprise (for me at least, this is the first time I’ve seen Henry on stage). He brings a huge presence and physicality to the role that other actors would struggle to match and his occasional Donald Trump impressions are subtle but well executed. He has very strong support across the board but in particular from Giles Terera, a real superstar in the making, as Ui’s righthand man Ernesto Roma who matches Henry’s charisma blow for blow and gets to show off his considerable chops with some quite dark material. Great singing voice too. (Lin Manuel Miranda has done well to sign him up for the West End version of Hamilton.) Justine Mitchell is a great, affecting presence in the relatively small role of Betty Dullfeet, Ui’s Hillary, and her ultimate defeat by him is the saddest of all of those that we see in the play.

This Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is, in short, great fun. Is it occasionally overcooked? Yes. Is it funny and affecting and superbly staged? Also yes. I suppose if you’re bored of political theatre then this may not be for you, but otherwise? Well worth your time. And if you are bored of political theatre then you probably need the kick up the bum that this production delivers. Remember the words of The Lorax.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is at the Donmar Warehouse until 17th June.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Theatre Review: Angels in America

If the point of a review is to offer a critique of the subject at hand, to criticise it, then I’m not sure that this post qualifies.

I’m don’t know what I’d class it as instead, mind. A rave? Some kind of weird written down orgasm? A love letter to Nathan Lane? It could be any and all of these. It certainly contains the latter.

Whatever it is, the subject matter of this post is Angels in America currently being revived, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, in a huge, all star, sold out production at the National Theatre. And I’m struggling to call this post a real review because there’s nothing I want to criticise; this production is perfect theatre, all seven and a half hours of it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage. I feel just so inordinately lucky to have seen it.

Angels in America is, of course, an absolute classic and the writing remains some of the best you will ever hear. Told across two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, Tony Kushner’s epic, in every sense of the word, tale of gay life in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis is both an excoriating critique of conservative, and particularly Reagan-era US, politics as well as a more hopeful message on the inevitability of human progress and improvement.

It’s fantastic to see both plays shown as far as I can tell more or less uncut - certainly there are lengthy passages included here that were cut from probably the best known version of these plays, HBO’s Al Pacino/Meryl Streep starring TV version. Kushner’s writing is incredible throughout and even seemingly tangential passages, such as the Oldest Living Bolshevik scene that opens Perestroika, are a joy to hear. There are passages, too, that are so much more resonant now than they have been at any time since the plays were written. The plays’ concern with the arguments over immigration and its benefits are depressingly relevant again, for example. Most striking, and frightening, though is how much more important the character of Roy Cohn has become again. The real Cohn was a key adviser to one Donald J Trump and listening to the plays’ version speak, even though his words are fictionalised, is a chilling reminder of the attitudes and worldview of the most powerful man in the world.

On the other hand, and perhaps partly in response to this, this production plays up the humour in Kushner’s writing to an unexpected degree. I had no idea how much I was going to laugh over the course of the seven and a half hours nor how much the production was going to be halted by bursts of spontaneous applause for the comedy moments. As much as it was unexpected, though, this was welcome and totally worked in the context of the production; both to increase the impact of and provide some relief from the darkness of other scenes. It was fun to see a knowing wink being paid to some of the casting decisions as well, in particular watching Nathan Lane’s Roy Cohn offering his verdict on La Cages Aux Folles.

Angels in America in general, and Perestroika in particular, can be difficult plays to stage because of their overt theatricality and the presence of a very literal Angel in many key scenes. This production doesn’t hide from this for even a moment, in fact quite the opposite. It seizes the theatricality with both hands and has an enormous amount of fun with it. Much of this must surely be down to the influence of director Marianne Elliott of, amongst other things, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time fame. Many of the techniques used in these other NT blockbusters are in evidence in Angels, most notably puppetry and the use of black clad acrobats to maneuver the Angel (human puppetry, I suppose). These are used incredibly effectively again here and are consistent with Kushner’s stage direction that the audience should be able to see how these moments are created without the mechanics getting in the way of our willing suspension of disbelief.

The best examples of this are, unsurprisingly, in the Angel sequences which are jaw dropping in their creativity and visually stunning. The Angel herself is given a worn, almost steampunk, aesthetic which extends to her threadbare wings - two giant puppets - and tattered US flag costume, and reflects both her story of God abandoning Heaven and her shabby message of regression perfectly. As actress Amanda Lawrence is lifted, carried and occasionally almost thrown across the stage by her ‘Shadows’, you never completely forget that there are people underneath and around her but you also never for a moment doubt that this is the Angel, a single character with a personality all of her own. I sat and watched many of these scenes with my mouth gaping open like a fish (attractive). Even after seeing the Angel multiple times the impact never lessened.

Despite the bounty of joy available throughout this production, it’s still the acting that really sells it. This is a long and huge production but there are only eight principal actors all playing multiple roles. Each and every one of them is superb and it says much about the outstanding quality of this cast that the peerless Denise Gough is one of the least memorable - in any other production her defiantly sad Harper would run away with the show, but this is not any other production. A number of the cast truly excel: Russell Tovey’s conflicted and earnest Joe is such a touching and subtle performance, Susan Brown’s dual big roles of Hannah and Ethel Rosenberg are both perfectly pitched, especially in Perestroika where she is barely off stage but utterly masterful nonetheless, and the surprise package of James McArdle who blew me away as Louis, completely unrecognisable from his James Plays/Young Chekhov characters and with an American accent so perfect it’s almost impossible to remember that he is in fact very Scottish.

Then there’s Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn. In a production filled with the best acting you can currently see in London he is utterly peerless. It’s not so much that he’s in a different league to everyone else, he’s playing a whole different sport. There were moments in Lane’s performance that were so good that I found myself crying just because I felt so honoured to be watching them, which I realise is such a dickhead stagey thing to say but it’s true. His scenes with Russell Tovey in particular are an utter joy to watch, the confrontation at the end of Millennium Approaches is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen and, literally, made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t really do justice to how good this performance is in words, save to say that it’s three days later and I still can’t comprehend how lucky I am to have seen it.

Which is the perfect place to leave this review, I think, as it could equally apply to the production as a whole. I’ve never had a theatrical experience like Angels in America before. I laughed a lot, I cried a lot, I gaped in wonder for embarrassing amounts of time. This production is unforgettable and perfect and profound. I am privileged to have seen it.

Angels in America is sold out at the NT, but there are limited tickets available on the day and through the Angels Ballot. It’s also getting the NT Live treatment in July. Do what you need to to see it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Theatre Review: Woyzeck

Anyone who’s seen the poster art for the Old Vic’s new production of Woyzeck will have noticed that it includes a guide on how to pronounce the play’s name. “That’s probably not a good sign,” said my friend as we arrived at the theatre.

Programme art, sans pronunciation guide.

Woyzeck (Voy-check, if you were wondering) tells the story of the titular soldier, his fight to get on in a society determined to deny him and his descent into madness and inevitable - somewhat predictable - tragedy. It’s a famously tricksy play, left unfinished as a series of non-ordered scenes by original playwright Georg Buchner when he died and variously assembled by contemporary writers to fit their ideas ever since. It’s often presented in an avant garde style, to some degree at least. The Old Vic has tried to do a more ‘normal’, accessible production - as the fact they feel the need to tell us how to say the word on the poster alludes to - but, honestly, I rather wish they hadn’t bothered.

My main issue with this production is the adaptation, which I must say rather surprised me given it’s the work of current playwright du jour, Jack Thorne. It’s not so much that the writing is bad - it’s generally not; it’s punchy and treads the comedy/tragedy line very well - but the fact that narratively I just found the whole thing a bit of a mess. For all the hyping in the programme notes about how accessible this version is supposed to be, I struggled to follow the thread throughout. The first act is somewhat clearer but it seems to be setting up for a payoff that the much less linear second act fails to deliver.

Thematic strands somehow also get lost along the way too despite them, paradoxically, being rammed down the audience’s collective throat. Clearly this is a play about class and age exploitation but this is illustrated by the occasional ‘theme’ sequence, usually involving Woyzeck acting as servant to his Captain, rather than being properly laced into the plot. Ultimately, there was just too much of this production where I couldn’t connect with what was happening on stage because I was too busy trying to work out what the fuck was going on. And often failing. This version feels trapped between the play’s avant garde tradition and an attempt at a more natural modernity. What it delivers as a result is the worst of both worlds - not natural enough to be easily understood, not artistically daring enough to be avant garde.

I feel for John Boyega in this production, marketed as it is so heavily on his appeal. He is clearly a fantastic, charismatic young actor but for my money he’s not yet got the chops to carry off a part as big as Woyzeck. And let’s be real it is a huge part; as demanding as any of the big Shakespeare leads and inevitably placed on the shoulders of a much younger man. There are moments of greatness in his performance - he carries off Woyzeck’s early cheeky chappy-ness to a T and in the final scene he gives us something big, bold and deeply affecting - but there are also moments of not-greatness. It’s this lack of consistency and polish, particularly towards the end of the first half, that undercut the performance as a whole. He clearly will be an actor more than capable of this sort and scale of part, but I didn’t leave the theatre convinced that he is that actor yet. Which, given how much of the play revolves around him, is a not inconsiderable issue. It certainly doesn’t make the narrative easier to follow either.

If Boyega’s performance fails to take off, there are plenty around him that do; the supporting cast here is excellent. Sarah Greene as Woyzeck’s doomed girlfriend is a highlight; spirited but sad, almost as angry at the world as her other half but hiding it behind a quiet strength that he lacks. Ben Batt is also incredibly watchable, and brings some much needed, well sold light relief (and nudity), as Woyzeck’s fellow soldier who is much better at playing the system and has no compunction, happily for us, about doing so. But for me the collective scene is rather stolen by the vastly more experienced Steffan Rhodri, who is never not excellent, and Nancy Carroll as the Captain and his wife. Both manage to make what feel like very slight characters (the evil posh people, essentially) into something considerably more rounded whilst still conveying the thematic point that they are the oppressors. Carroll in particular gives a performance of greater nuance than the script seems to provide. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the ability of Rhodri to be reliably top drawer in any accent (here, it’s clipped RP) and in even the most ridiculous of costumes.

Also working in the show’s favour is the fact that it looks and sounds amazing. Using the Cold War Berlin setting extremely effectively and without ever falling into lazy parody, Tom Scutt’s design is atmospheric and menacing, comprising as it does a series of bare walls (stripped to their insulation) that fly on and off the stage on industrial winches. Lighting is projected in stark spots and strips of pure white, leaving much of the stage dark and adding to the feeling of wrongness. It’s used cleverly as a highlight as well, subtly lighting the large British Royal crest over the proscenium at key points (and I like the way that having this crest and a very traditional set of red velvet curtains across the stage, rare at the Old Vic, emphasise the points about class that are being made in much less subtle ways elsewhere). The almost inevitable use of an electro soundtrack is well done too; again effective without being overdone and piling on the levels of menace.

That this Woyzeck is a frustrating thing is no better illustrated than by the final, tragic scene. This is where the production finally takes off, with Boyega and Greene both bringing their A game and delivering big, brave and uninhibited performances on a bare stage lit only by white strips of light. It is incredibly powerful and deeply moving. If the rest of the show was at this level, or even approaching it, then I would just have written a very different review.

Woyzeck is at the Old Vic until 24th June.