Thursday, 27 August 2015

Theatre Review: Our Country's Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker must be the best name in the world.

I think I like it mostly because it sounds like it could be the name of a particularly difficult technical challenge on Great British Bake Off. Like, a 28 tier meringue construction topped with caramel and spun sugar or something. Which I would totally eat by the way. But I digress.

Wertenbaker’s (it’s even fun to type!) most famous play is Our Country’s Good. Telling the story of a group of transported convicts and the soldiers who are forced to accompany them, Our Country’s Good is a celebration of the importance and redemptive potential of the arts, and of rehabilitative justice more generally. In the current economic and political climate it feels like an extremely timely and relevant piece to be occupying one of the stages of the National Theatre. Plus as a fully paid up member of the bleeding heart liberal club on both crime and arts funding it’s a piece which very much speaks to my confirmation bias.

Central to the plot is a planned performance of George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer (intertextuality and a play within a play - you can tell this is an A Level set text!) put on by a cast of convicts under the direction of ambitious Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark at the suggestion of the new and (relatively speaking) progressive Governor of New South Wales. The Governor sees his role as helping the convicts’ rehabilitation so that one day they will be able to form a functioning community in his territory and believes that encouraging their education is a key part of that. On the other side of the coin is the cruel and authoritarian Major Ross who cares not a jot for any kind of education or rehabilitation of the convicts in his charge; they are there to be punished and control, and the only way to achieve that is through fear, violence and hangings galore.

Whilst Ross and the Governor could arguably be better described as personifications of particular points of view rather than fully developed characters - although both Peter Forbes and Cyril Nri respectively are great with the material they’re given, Forbes especially as a frighteningly brutal Ross - Ralph Clark is more interesting. Clark takes the job of directing the play purely to advance his own career, having been overlooked by the Governor for a long time having failed to carve out a niche for himself amongst the soldiers. He is emotionally closed, deeply (entertainingly) sexually repressed and a fairly unremarkable, shy, priggish soldier. Seeing the changes that working on the play together as a community bring to his company of largely illiterate criminals, though, he starts to change too. He becomes more humane and outspoken, challenging Ross’ brutality and standing up for his play and his cast to anyone who tries to do it down. He also becomes more open, caring about his cast as human beings and, ultimately (predictably), falling in love with one of them.

Jason Hughes, AKA Sergeant Jones off of Midsomer Murders, the best of Tom Barnaby’s sidekicks and anyone who disagrees has bad opinions, is a decent Ralph too. Although his ‘love story’ scenes feel a bit stilted (not entirely his fault, this part of the main plot was for me by far its weakest), he is an excellent increasingly-less-reluctant director, especially in the rehearsal scenes in act one which are undoubtedly the highlight of the play, and his growing empathy and spine in the latter scenes is deeply compelling. He also gets some fantastic lines which he has a lot of fun with, the passionate proclamation that “anyone who can’t pay attention shouldn’t go to the theatre” being a particular highlight for fairly obvious reasons.

Although this story is fairly simple and predictable it still makes for a compelling and coherent piece of drama. The same cannot be said of the subplot about one of the working class officers, Harry Brewer (Paul Kaye adding to his CV of long haired madmen with this very well realised but ultimately pretty pointless entry), and another convict, Duckling, the point of which I fail to really understand (something about freedom, I guess?) I could've quite happily lived with this largely unrelated and not especially fulfilling, until its bitter end, diversion being cut altogether. Maybe the subplot wouldn't have felt so out of place had this production not dispensed with the play’s usual casting principle of having the majority of the actors play both a convict and a soldier to emphasise how trapped both groups were. Giving the production a greater emphasis on the idea of freedom in this way would probably have helped tie the various strands together more neatly, I think.

Niggles aside the production is technically very clever - making excellent yet subtle use of the Olivier’s drum stage - great to look at (I loved the painted backdrop; so beautiful) and benefits from a great atmospheric rootsy/folksy/bluesy soundtrack by Cerys Matthews of Catatonia fame who I fucking LOVE. It’s hard to believe it’s her first foray into writing for the stage and I really hope it’s not her last. The ensemble cast is really strong and the inclusion of bona fide folk musicians to get the most from Matthews’ songs is an act of minor genius.

Despite my reservations, then, I really enjoyed Our Country’s Good and still think it’s an important piece to be staged and seen right now. And I feel like I have another loyalty stamp on my bleeding heart liberal membership card for having seen it. Definitely worth a look.

Our Country’s Good plays in the Olivier theatre at the NT until 17th October.


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Theatre Review: Mack and Mabel

As previously noted elsewhere on this blog, my love for Michael Ball is difficult to overstate.

He was the first name on My List of Celebrity Obsessions and has held his place there since I discovered the original London cast recording of Les Miserables about sixteen (SIXTEEN!) years ago. I go and see him in any and every show he does. I even saw the achingly blah The Woman in White twice because of him. I am that dedicated.

This summer sees my main man playing the lead in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Mack and Mabel. The show tells the true (to an extent) story of the rise and fall of silent film director Mack Sennett and his muse/lover Mabel Normand. It’s quite a sad story without the happy ending or the big finish and, honestly, is not an obvious topic for a musical. Not that that matters of course - unlikelier shows have been written. As, sadly, have better shows. Many, many, better shows.

Image source.

Mack and Mabel is not a good musical. The music isn't especially memorable for one thing - by the morning after our trip to see this production I had almost entirely forgotten all but one of the songs. The bigger problem is the book though, which runs out of steam somewhere in the middle of Act 1 so that what we’re left with for the rest of the show is long bouts of exposition, usually in the form of a Mack monologue (Mackalogue?), that try to move the plot along sandwiched in between production numbers that stop it dead. The second act suffers in particular from this and the attempts to build up to a tragic finale are as a result completely neutered. As Paul Hollywood would say, it’s got some issues.

I found the characterisation problematic too - Mack and Mabel are both obvious caricatures and both very hard to like (he’s a shit, she’s annoying). The portrayal of Mabel is pretty depressing too; a trailblazing early pioneer of female film-making in real life, in the show she becomes a lovestruck, talentless airhead with no agency of her own (one man makes her a star, another makes her a drug addict), only a couple of solos and probably a third of the lines that Mack has. There’s an essay about how kick ass the real Mabel was in the programme that is far more interesting than anything she does on stage. It’s a thankless role for an actress, one that wasn't helped in this production on the night I saw it by the fact that its Mabel (Rebecca LaChance), whilst pleasingly spunky, had some pretty obvious tuning issues. Hashtag pitchy.

Luckily, there are a lot of redeeming features that ensure that this production is still a lot of fun. A lot of the credit here has to go to choreographer Stephen Mear (of the current Chichester/West End Gypsy fame) whose routines are as spectacular as they are innovative, particularly in the really big production numbers. Big Time and Bathing Beauties in the first act and Tap Your Troubles Away in the second are particular highlights and the slapstick sequences, the Keystone Cops one especially, whilst not really my cup of tea are really well executed. The excitement that these routines produce makes the two hour run time fly by and dazzle enough to make sure that by the time you realise that the plot is dying on its arse you no longer care because ‘look, more dancing’.

There are some great performances too. Let’s not deny that this show could accurately title itself as ‘Mack and Mabel: The Michael Ball Show’ and, even without any particular depth of character to work with, he is an ace Mack. Slimy, vulnerable, wryly funny and, ultimately, sadly knowing he does his best with the material he has and certainly imbues Mack with more personality than he should have on paper. Vocally it goes without saying he owns the room and there’s always something illicitly thrilling about seeing someone who in my mind is amongst the nicest men in the world playing someone fundamentally dislikable (see also: 2012’s Sweeney Todd with which I am fucking obsessed). Pretty decent American accent too - who knew?

He’s backed up by an impressively versatile ensemble and some great supporting performances, particularly Anna-Jane Casey who’s fantastic fun as Lottie, and utterly owns her Tap Your Troubles Away routine to the extent that I sort of wanted to rush the stage and give her a high five, and Gunnar Cauthery who provides a much needed dose of heart and sincerity as sensitive writer Frank. I also enjoyed Mark Inscoe’s William Desmond Taylor who I think we’re supposed to regard as the villain but is actually one of the more charismatically likeable characters for my money, even if he is a major sleaze.

Overall, then, a really strong production of a really weak show. Worth a look, especially if you’re a Michael Ball fan - and if you’re not a Michael Ball fan then you have bad opinions. The Chichester Festival Theatre is lovely too - modern, roomy, efficient - and is a great bet for catching West End quality shows at non-West End prices (we paid £26 each for an off-centre third row of the stalls, difficult to argue with that).

Mack and Mabel is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until September 5th, after which it tours (and transfers to the West End?).