Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Theatre Review: Young Chekhov

Saturday was a glorious, sunny day in London; possibly the last real day of summer. Because nothing says summer like angsty Russians, I decided to spend it sat inside watching over seven and a half hours of Chekhov.

Unless you’ve been living under a theatrical rock, you’ll have realised by now that I’m talking about the NT transfer of Chichester Festival Theatre’s Young Chekhov, and a three show day thereof to boot.

I’m not a natural Chekhov fan tbh. I find I have to work quite hard to be engaged in ‘period’ Russian drama, as my achingly slow progress through my current quest to read War and Peace will attest. However Young Chekhov is utterly brilliant, living up to its considerable hype completely. The three plays presented - Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull - show that there’s much more to Chekhov than suicides and people with undecipherable names, though there are plenty of both, and I was really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed (possibly the wrong word) the whole day.

The first play in the trilogy is, perhaps slightly unfortunately, also the best: Platonov. For me, this was a revelation. Bluntly, I didn’t know that Chekhov did comedy or at least comedy that isn’t just satire. There is satire in Platonov - notably around the corruption and greed of the older generation - but mostly the comedy is much broader, occasionally even slapstick. More importantly though, it’s very, very funny. I had no idea I could love a Chekhov play but, man, I loved Platonov.

Platonov also gives us our first introduction to what is arguably the star of Young Chekhov: the absolutely sky high production values. I don’t like throwing around the P word in reviews, but I think these productions might actually be, technically, perfect. The staging in particular is extraordinary. I’ve seen some amazing things done on/with/to the Olivier’s stage but filling it with water to create a series of lakes and streams under an elevated set is by some measure the most amazing. The staging is particularly dramatically used in Platonov, with the rapid arrival of a railway line in logic defying speed. Director Jonathan Kent and his team of designers must win some/all of the awards.

Another common theme of Young Chekhov’s success that also emerges in Platonov is the strength of the cast; across the three plays surely the best ensemble in London right now by some distance. In Platonov though it’s James McArdle in the title role who runs away with the show; a perfect (there’s that word again) mix of self loathing, sass and lazy charisma who handles the comedy like a pro. If his performance doesn’t make it into my top ten come the end of the year I’ll be very surprised. Nina Sosanya provides another highlight as a fiery, feisty and fierce Anna Petrovna, one of Platonov’s many love interests and a perfect foil for McArdle’s chaotic charm. The whole cast is a riot of energy and fun though and Platonov is a genuinely outstanding production.

Ivanov comes next in the trilogy and, for my money, is by far the weakest of the three plays. It’s very much a play of two halves: a raucous satire on the morals of ‘modern’ Russian society which is written with so little subtlety that I came very close to hating it and the more angsty, pensive drama which the titular character embodies and which I found much more effective, if a little ‘Chekhov by numbers’. A slightly simpler staging, though still with the fantastic water effects, and a much stiller energy pervade here framing a fantastically strong central performance from Geoffrey Streatfeild, one of my absolute faves. Working with a character who is surely one of the least well rounded and least sympathetic in all of theatre, Streatfeild captures Ivanov’s sense of impotent rage and self disgust so well. The scene where he finally explodes at his long suffering wife (Sosanya’s second iteration of Anna Petrovna) is electric. There is strong support from Jonathan Coy as Ivanov’s friend/new love interest’s father and by far the most interesting character in the play, caught between a wife he can’t stand and a society that won’t let him escape her, desperately trying to do the right thing for his daughter and his friend. I will never love Ivanov, the play or the character, but I’m glad that I got to see this production of it. A production this good can really elevate any source material.

And finally, The Seagull. For me, this was the nearest to what I was expecting Young Chekhov to be: angsty but intelligent and with the sort of interesting ideas behind it that I felt were missing in Ivanov. Primarily, this is a play about the old crushing the hopes and prospects of the young - depressingly relevant in Brexit Britain. It’s also a play about people refusing to realise their own mediocrity, insert your own Andrea Leadsom/Michael Gove joke here I suppose. Again, fantastic production values and acting abound with the sublime Anna Chancellor stealing scenes left, right and centre as the manipulative, arch and ultimately quite tragic Arkadina. Geoffrey Streatfeild is also great again, completing his double header of unsympathetic men as the really quite unpleasant but nonetheless compelling Tregorin. And shoutout to Olivia Vinall who clocks up her third romantic lead of the day - someone get that woman some wine! - with her best performance as an achingly sad Nina.

Overall, then, three fantastic productions - one genuinely outstanding - that are all 100% worth your time. Even if you think, like me, that you don’t really like Chekhov these productions are technically good enough to merit seeing them anyway. But hurry up, tickets are almost gold dust at this point. And justifiably so.

Young Chekhov is at the Olivier Theatre at the NT until October 8th.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Theatre Review: Kenny Morgan

Play-ja vu: the feeling you get watching a play that’s very similar to something you’ve seen before.

I wonder if there’s a separate faux French term for the feeling when you’re watching a play the story of which is actually the basis for something you’ve seen before?

Kenny Morgan, currently playing at the Arcola Theatre, tells the true story of the titular character and his ill fated relationship with the playwright Terence Rattigan. More interestingly, maybe, it is the real life inspiration for Rattigan’s masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea. Actually inspiration is probably not quite the right word, because DBS (as I shall henceforth be calling it because laziness) tells Morgan’s story to the letter. With one major plot change and the obvious difference in the gender of the central character, there are precious few difference between the two plays. So it’s not that surprising that, despite playwright Mike Poulton’s protestations to the contrary, a good chunk of Kenny Morgan is a scene-for-scene remake of DBS. Whether you think this is a bad thing or not will depend on your view of DBS; as previously noted I love that play and so seeing it in its ‘true life’ form was fascinating.

For all that the plot is near identical, Kenny Morgan does well to draw out some different thematic points. In contrast to the NT’s huge, glamorous DBS the Arcola uses it’s bijou performance space to create something much grimier. This emphasises Kenny’s ‘fall’ from Rattigan’s glamorous toyboy to slumming it in a bedsit in Camden and brings class as an issue into this piece in a way it isn’t in DBS, opening up another philosophical angle since the exploration of gender is removed. The destructive nature of secrecy and shame (and a lack thereof) is also played up as a major theme in this piece. The way that Rattigan’s secrecy (and shame?) around his gay relationships and Alec Lennox’s - Kenny’s new boyfriend - lack of any discretion and certainly any shame around his variously-orientated affairs conspire to destroy Kenny is a really interesting idea that is beautifully explored.

This is a fantastically classy, evocative production too. The set may be, as previously noted, smaller and less ambitious than the NT’s equivalent but it’s no less effective for that. Sound and lighting are cleverly and sparingly used to emphasise the sparseness and coldness of the flat - and the relationship - that Kenny has found himself in. Director Lucy Bailey paces the production consistently well without rushing it, particularly in the big confrontation scenes. And Poulton’s writing is great, creating not only a faithful homage to Rattigan but also a clipped, formal, bleak and tragic world all of its own.

The production also benefits from a first rate cast, from which Paul Keating and Simon Dutton particularly standout as Kenny and Rattigan respectively. Keating creates a painfully relatable, conflicted Kenny desperate for love and acceptance and finding it, as far as he can see, nowhere. Dutton’s Rattigan is a great contrast, achingly charismatic but just hinting at a secret sadness somewhere behind the public image. George Irving also deserves a mention for a pleasingly unreadable Mr Ritter, the mysteriously struck off doctor character who is given a rather more rounded role in this than his DBS equivalent to great effect. (Also he was Mr Meyer in Holby City and for this I will always love him.)

I really enjoyed Kenny Morgan and would go as far as to say it is worth trekking to fucking Dalston for (to the extent anything ever is). A really interesting piece in its own right, moreso if you’ve seen The Deep Blue Sea as well, and a great production. Also try the orange and polenta cake in their cafe. It’s lush.

Kenny Morgan plays at the Arcola Theatre until 15th October.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Theatre Review: Iron

In a game of word association based on the phrase ‘the Lake District’, ‘taut prison drama’ may not be the obvious response.

How many theatres have this on their doorstep?

It is currently a valid one though, thanks to the excellent Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. A fucking adorable theatre - or theatres actually, since it has a small main auditorium and a teeny tiny studio - which is 100% worth a visit if you’re in the area (for the lemon meringue cake alone, frankly), TBTL is currently staging Iron. Written by Rona Munro, of The James Plays fame, Iron tells the story of Faye, a woman serving a life sentence for murdering her husband, and Josie, her long lost daughter who comes to visit her in prison for the first time in 15 years in an attempt to learn the truth about her mother and her past. What follows is a fantastic few hours of genuinely gripping, surprisingly non-bleak, psychodrama and one of the most exciting pieces of acting I’ve seen all year.

Performed on the traverse in the aforementioned teeny tiny studio, to say Iron is minimally staged would be something of an understatement. Appropriately so, though, given the entire piece is set in a prison. The performance space (approximately the size of a couple of large dining tables) is cleverly used as, variously, Faye’s cell, the prison yard and for most of the action the visiting room. The bare concrete, harsh white lighting and prison bars at both ends of the space are simply done but very effective and the sparse use of props is distressingly realist. The very occasional use of music, such as for Faye’s euphoric dance of joy at the end of act one where it looks like mother and daughter will live (relatively) happily ever after, is an interesting punctuation that works really well. There is nowhere to hide in this space, for audience or actor.

The play itself is great too. Munro has a great ear for dialogue, especially ‘Scottish’ dialogue, and this piece is no exception. It is sparky, quick, earthy and real; dealing with the moments of humour as well as the (much more numerous) moments of drama and anger. The plotting is razor sharp; twisty without losing its grit or its grounding. She has created some fantastic characters too, not just Faye and Josie but the two prison guards who have much less to do but are rounded and interesting characters nonetheless.

This is Faye’s play though, or more accurately Elizabeth Marsh’s who plays her. ‘Plays’ is something of an undersell in this case actually because holy hell this is a performance and a half. I can’t think of a performance I’ve seen all year that was as exciting as this. It’s one of those rare occasions where you watch someone in a part and it feels like they are that part. And it’s magical. Marsh doesn’t shy away from Faye, a huge part who never leaves the stage and has well over half of the lines, and doesn’t shy away from presenting her as a complicated, morally ambiguous, figure. She doesn’t play up for sympathy or try to present her as in any way evil. She’s just human, for all her issues and problems, and this is something that’s not as easy as it sounds to achieve with this part in this play. Marsh owns this production thoroughly. It was a privilege to trespass into her world for a few hours.

She is supported ably by Helen Macfarlane as a naive but nuanced and fiercely protective Josie. Roger Delves-Broughton and Rebecca Carrie round out the cast as the two prison guards that constitute Faye’s social world, the latter of whom has an irritatingly wandering accent that rather takes the sheen off an otherwise good performance.

I loved this show. A lot. It’s as good as almost anything you’ll see in London but because it’s not in London it’s infinitely cheaper and has better cake portion sizes (huge). Should you be in the area, or if you fancy a break to the stunning Lakes, then you must see this.

Iron plays in the Studio at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, in rep until 4th November.