Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Theatre Review: The Deep Blue Sea

As nice as it is to be surprised, it’s also nice when you think you’re going to love something, you see the something and you actually do love the something.

It’s also probably quite a spoilery way to start a review, but ho hum.

Case in point: the National Theatre’s current orgasm of a production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.

Image source.

Telling the story of Hester Collyer and her tangled, messy love life, The Deep Blue Sea is really a classic study in love, loss and longing. It’s a beautiful play full of fucked up people and feels as relevant, fresh and relatable today as the day it was written. I thought I was probably a fan of Rattigan’s work after seeing the fluffy, funny, wry Harlequinade last year and, whilst it’s certainly not fluffy and only occasionally funny and/or wry, The Deep Blue Sea has confirmed it. Just call me a Ratti-fangirl. Or preferably don’t, actually.

Moving on... I was certainly a (Ratti-)fan of this stunner of a production. Director Carrie Cracknell (fully redeeming herself after her pretentious nonsense of a Macbeth earlier this year) delivers a sexy, beautiful, desperate but ultimately hopeful production, dripping with style. It’s paced perfectly with each scene being given the space it needs to breathe without slowing down the action too much. You very much get the feeling that Cracknell knows she’s assembled one of the best casts in London on her stage and is quite content to just sit back and let them do their thing; exactly how it should be.

She is of course correct in her assessment of her cast too. First of all, holy fuck I love Helen McCrory. She’s excellent in literally everything she’s in and here she’s on blazing form as Hester, a perfect mix of clipped Englishness, desperate longing and, ultimately, steely bravery. I rather suspect that Hester Collyer is one of those parts that every theatrical generation has ‘their’ incarnation of and I’m more than happy if McCrory is mine.

As her conflicting love interests, Tom Burke is an excellent lovable, sexy, disaster zone as Freddie whilst Peter Sullivan is understated brilliance as a repressed and quietly desperate Sir William. Sullivan is genuinely outstanding in this part actually and almost - almost - upstages McCrory in what is, in the context of this play, a rather thankless part. I desperately wanted Hester and Sir William to kiss and make up because of his performance. Nick Fletcher also deserves a mention for a humane, inspirational-but-not-sugary Mr Miller. The rest of the small cast, who I’m not going to go through and name (jeez, just Google it), round out an incredibly strong ensemble. Even the people whose role is literally just to walk up and down the stairs in the background of the set are fab.

Speaking of the set, it’s amazing. Designer Tom Scutt has developed a section of an authentic, period three story apartment block and plonked (technical term) it on the Lyttelton stage. If that sounds rather techy and boring then it’s really not; it’s beautiful. It almost looks like a film set more than a theatre one, certainly the sweep of the design is very cinematic. The blue toned lighting and authentically crackly-record soundscape help create a suitably sexy atmosphere. It’s a great looking - and sounding - piece. Some of the best design I’ve seen for a very long time.

This production is a must see, simply. Miss it and regret it. Go and see it and go and see it now.

The Deep Blue Sea plays at the Lyttelton at the NT until September 10th, with very limited ticket availability. It gets the NT Live treatment on September 1st.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Theatre Review: Strife

An annual pilgrimage to the Chichester Festival Theatre is one of the highlights of my summer these days.

Last year it was big glossy musical Mack and Mabel, this year a rather different kettle of theatrical fish: Strife, a gritty Edwardian political morality play.

Image source.

Written by The Forsyte Saga’s John Galsworthy, Strife tells the story of a strike at a South Wales tinplate works. The mine’s board, shareholders, Trade Union and many of the workers want the strike to end but this would mean compromise and to both the company’s owner John Anthony and strike leader David Roberts that is worse than failure. Compromise, as it inevitably does, eventually wins out. No one tell Jeremy Corbyn.

There is so much that is contemporary in this play, something which this production is slightly too at pains to stress, but neither the ideas it plays with nor the analysis it offers are particularly exceptional. Neither really are the characters, none of whom are fleshed out beyond their role in the strike. And the attempts at ‘Welsh dialect’ - ie adding the phrase ‘look you’ onto the end of every third sentence - are so ridiculous to my (Welsh native and therefore biased) ear that they made me laugh.

That said, look you, there is some lovely writing on display, mostly given to Roberts and the other workers, and actually this is a much more subtle play than many of its contemporaries - god awful Waste, for example - in that there is relatively little judgement meted out on either side. The added dynamic of men vs Union is also an interesting touch, one which any production of this play could benefit from examining more closely. It’s a much more interesting theme than labour vs capital for my money. I also enjoyed the frequent statements about how the middle class is terrible, something which would feel quietly radical being said in any British theatre but in Chichester is positively revolutionary.

But let’s be honest here, the play itself was approximately 0% of the reason I came to see this production. Approximately 100% of that reason was sat in the director’s chair: Bertie Carvel, making his directorial debut. And though I may disagree with his choice of play, there aren’t many more of his decisions in this production that I would question. Biased as I undoubtedly am, this is a terrifically assured, technically impressive and subtly distinctive piece for any director to have under their belt, debut or otherwise.

There is definitely the beginnings of a Carvel style on show during this production and it’s a very interesting one. This comes across most strongly in the aesthetics. Chief amongst the things that make this production work is the bleak but beautiful design (courtesy of Robert Jones). Vaguely reminiscent of The Hairy Ape in its sparsity and harshness, and also in its use of all of the senses to conjure an atmosphere, there are a number of very memorable, visually arresting scenes. The majority of these rely on one very clever and very multitasking prop: a giant slab of molten metal which is transformed first into the boardroom table for the mine’s owners’ meeting and later into a platform for the men to stand on whilst speaking at their meeting (this latter scene enhanced by liberal use of fake snow). As both an image and a metaphor, set against an all grey and empty performing space, all of these uses work so well. Director, designer and large slab of metal can justly consider themselves the stars of the show. (Though hopefully the latter is not sentient enough to do so.)

This is doubly true since the quality of the acting is frankly a bit patchy. Whilst the actors in lead roles are generally excellent, particularly Ian Hughes and his amazing moustache as a principled-without-caricature Roberts and Tomos Eames as his firey-est critic from amongst the men, a proper scenestealer of a performance actually, the quality in the smaller parts and ensemble isn’t always so high.

Ultimately Strife is a play that was unlikely to ever get me that excited but this production is very definitely worth your time and money, even if you only go for the near faultless visuals and impressive direction. And here’s hoping this is the first of many for actor/director Bertie Carvel too. It certainly deserves to be.

Strife is at the Minerva at Chichester Festival Theatre until 10th September.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Theatre Review: Hamlet

Guilty confessions of a Shakespeare fan: until this year I had never seen Hamlet live.

Even worse, I’d never seen it in any format all the way through in one go. I’ve seen various film versions (including to the surprise of literally no one the epic Branagh version) but never made it all the way through without having to take a ‘holy shit this really is long’ tea break.

My Hamlet live v plates were recently removed courtesy of the RSC’s brilliant current production, starring Paapa Essiedu in the title role.

Image source.

The exciting and noteworthy thing about that casting is that Essiedu is actually the right age to be playing Hamlet who is after all supposed to be a student. Understandably given how huge the part is it’s normally played by someone considerably older and with more experience under their belt, but giving it to a (relative) youngster newbie breathes new life into the whole production. It feels edgier, more current and more dangerous.

It of course helps that Essiedu is spectacularly good in the part. His Hamlet is a sassy, electric, maniac; all quick wit, sharp tongue and twitchiness. There’s not so much as a hint of the stately grandeur that Hamlet is usually afforded (and the same goes for the whole production, not just this central performance), he is played exactly as he should be: an angry, intelligent, vengeful young man. The big soliloquies benefit from this particularly as there’s a real effort from Essiedu to concentrate on their meaning and not their world famous language (quoth my mother, who did Hamlet in school: “I’ve never really understood ‘Alas poor Yorick’ until tonight”). It’s more revelatory than it probably should be.

Essiedu is backed up by a strong ensemble of whom my personal favourites were the ever excellent Cyril Nri as a funny but not pantomime Polonius and Clarence Smith as a pleasingly nasty and dramatic Claudius. As seems to be the pattern with my theatre trips at the moment, I also saw a brace of understudies stepping effortlessly up to the plate in leading roles but as I lost the sheet telling me who they were somewhere on the Chiltern mainline train route I can’t credit them. They were all very good - understudies rock.

Directed by one of my favourites, Simon Godwin, on reliably excellent form, the pace of this production is perfect. The three hours positively fly by - which when you consider the first act is an arse numbing one hour forty five is no mean feat - and putting the interval in the middle of a line is a ballsy move that pays off with an increase in tension and shove of momentum into the second act. Paul Wills design is lively, anarchic and beautiful. I defy you to find a more colourful production of Hamlet, in any medium, anywhere. The use of music is great and the whole production combines with the performances and treatment of the text to give a refreshingly irreverent take on this most classic of plays. It feels genuinely modern, not in a gimmicky way, but in a natural way that gives the real impression that the play could have been written yesterday.

I was a big fan of this production and, if you can get to Stratford Upon Avon between now and Saturday when the production ends its run, would very highly recommend it. It has been filmed for cinemas so watch out for encore screenings too. Genuinely top drawer stuff.

Hamlet plays at the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until Saturday 13th August.