Sunday, 22 October 2017

Theatre Review: Young Marx

There’s something deeply comforting about the fact that it is now once again possible to go to a theatre on the south side of the Thames that offers £15 tickets and is run by Nicholas Hytner. The rest of the world may be going to shit, but in at least this one tiny respect things are exactly as they should be.

If there’s a pang of sadness that said theatre isn’t the National, it really doesn’t last long once you get inside Hytner’s new venture, The Bridge Theatre. From the beautiful - and functional - front of house, to the completely lovely staff to the huge, well stocked bar to the fact that you can order fresh baked madeleines to eat, warm, in the interval (this is the best idea in the history of theatre), The Bridge is not only a safe space for those who still pine for the Hytner-at-the-National era it’s also just a bloody lovely venue. A gem for London’s theatre scene. 

Once inside the auditorium, which is very similar to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in design with comfy seats, legroom and great sight lines, things - at the moment at least - only get better. Hytner’s first commission for his new baby is Young Marx, a comedy that reunites the team behind the excellent Great Britain, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, for a romp through the early life of Karl Marx. As a political refugee, Marx lived with his family in digs in Soho for a time pre-Das Kapital and it is this period of boozing, duelling and problematic family life that the play concerns itself with.

It is a great piece of writing, in short. It’s extremely funny in both a knowing chuckle and proper laugh out loud sort of way, drawing its comedy both from politics and, more often, simply from human life. It’s a play that seeks to demystify Marx (and Friedrich Engels) and it does so really well, delivering a very human story of two ordinary men and the competing pressures of their ordinary lives with their extraordinary ideas. It doesn’t set out to be a documentary; though everything that happens in the play is true, some license has been taken with locations and characters to prioritise a coherent and strong narrative. It also delivers some pleasingly darker moments, particularly in the second half, include a genuinely touching funeral scene. The balance between these moments and the comedy is perfectly drawn. It is a rich, fulfilling and entertaining play. Nick Hytner has not lost his eye for a good newbie.

The production is fantastic too. Hytner is in the director’s chair (and I breathe another happy sigh at writing that phrase) and gives us a show that is pacy, energetic and yet feels enjoyably like it’s always slightly verging on chaos. How I’ve missed that man! Mark Thompson’s design is fab; structurally impressive, in that it involves a very large piece of set (a house/shop/British Museum reading room, delete as appropriate) that must turn all the way around on a revolve and open and close to deliver each piece of scenery, and completely visually effective too. The smoking chimneys of the London skyline were almost Disney-esque in their attention to detail. The use - and selection - of music is joyously incongruous to the period and really effective. Composer Grant Olding (of, amongst other things, Jekyll and Hyde ballet fame) has done good here. The production is a gritty, dirty, dangerous treat.

Young Marx reunites Hytner with Rory Kinnear (fun fact: the first show I ever saw at the National was Hytner’s Othello with Kinnear as Iago and I still think about that show sometimes when I’m sad to make me smile) who is, it almost goes without saying, fantastic in the lead role. He does comedy so, so well, particularly the domestic stuff, and his considerable acting chops (sounds dirty, but you know what I mean) shine in the darker moments. He makes Marx a deeply human, deeply sympathetic, figure. He has extremely strong support across the board in an excellent cast, particularly Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife who is luminously empathetic and Oliver Chris as a charismatic Engels, a perfect companion for Marx who pleasingly complicates the family life vs intellectual life balance that the play explores by being both more pro-family and pro-Marxism than Marx. And look out for Duncan Wisbey’s hilarious ‘Bearded Man in Library’ who almost steals the whole show with his fantastic, David Attenborough voiced, Charles Darwin.

Young Marx is a great production: funny, thoughtful, interesting, beautifully staged and superbly acted. Moreover, The Bridge Theatre is an exciting new venue in London’s theatre scene that I cannot wait to go back to. Go for the plays, stay for the madeleines. 

Young Marx is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st December. 

Theatre Review: Labour of Love

There’s something excellent about St Martin’s Lane at the moment: its two theatres, within yards of each other, are both occupied by James Graham political history plays. I love that fact so much.

At the Trafalgar Square end is my beloved Ink; further up (near the big Pret and the Five Guys because London) is his newbie; Labour of Love. As the name rather suggests this new kid on the block uses the story of one MP, his agent and local party to tell the story of the travails of the Labour Party down the years; its apparently unceasing civil war between people who want to win elections and actually change things and people for whom ideological purity is the sole aim of politics from. Perhaps you can guess from that summation which side of the debate I have greater sympathy with. 

Now, this is a James Graham political play so it almost goes without saying that I enjoyed it and would urge you to see it. Especially as it’s produced by Michael Grandage and there are therefore stacks of £10 tickets available. However, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed by Labour of Love. Judged by Graham’s own standards - which of course include what is for my money the best play about British politics ever written in This House - it’s just a bit thin.

Don’t get me wrong, the writing is still excellent. It is, as Graham always is, pacy and believeable and witty and very, very funny. There are amazing one liners: “we’re up and down like Ken Clarke’s fucking cholesterol”, “it’s Tory party politics, posh squirrels fighting in a bag”, “who knew Jeremy Corbyn was actually Clement Attlee?” And Graham still has the best understanding of British politics of anyone writing on it at the moment, including most of the apparently expert journalists. I found his portrayal of the day to day life on the campaign trail away from Westminster particularly effective in this case. As someone who’s been an election agent for a losing candidate in the past the opening scenes were frankly a bit too real. Structurally it’s clever too, telling half of the story going backwards (from Corbyn to Kinnock) in the first half and the filling in the gaps going forwards (from Kinnock to Corbyn) in the second. Compared to almost any other play around in London at the moment, it’s a fantastic piece of work.

Compared to the Graham back catalogue, though? Not so much. For a start, and I realise approximately 0.01% of you will care about this, there are some uncharacteristic factual errors. For example, theaforementioned opening scenes, where soon to be ex-MP David Lyons and his agent are discussing what went wrong, we’re told that his result is going to a recount. But how, if his agent isn’t there? It would be her who would ask for the recount. This is the sort of thing that Graham always gets 100% right so it’s irritating that it’s wrong here. More fundamentally than my pedantry, unlike Ink or This House, Labour of Love doesn’t feel like it has anything new to add to the debate it takes as its subject. It feels like a summation of everything else that’s written about the Labour Party by every political journalist in Britain, it doesn’t really have a new perspective of its own. The fact that the war between the factions is taking it away from the ordinary members who want to help people, which seems to be its main conclusion, is hardly ground breaking. That’s not to say Graham doesn’t get it when it comes to his topic, he totally does, he just doesn’t have anything to move the debate on from where it already is. 

There is some seriously thin characterisation going on here too. Graham’s plays always tend to have a couple of lead characters who get a bit more of a backstory than everyone else but here that is particularly stark. The supporting characters hardly get a look in and are little more than archetypes - the Old Labour bruiser, the genuine community politician who everyone looks down on. The one I seriously took issue with is David’s wife Elizabeth, a sort of repugnant piss take of Cherie Blair but with the snobbery dial turned up to 1000%, who is an almost pantomime figure. She is the weakest character I’ve seen in a Graham play by some distance. The structure too, for all that I like it, doesn’t quite pay off as it makes the second act almost entirely predictable. 

The production, though, is very strong. As you would hope given it reunites Graham with Headlong, ie the same combination that delivered This House. Jeremy Herrin’s direction is pacy and vibrant as ever. Lee Newby’s set - a series of the same Labour Party office down the decades placed on a double sided revolve for ease of scene changes - is authentic and intelligent; a believable Labour MP’s office. I loved the use of video to help portray the passage of time and the projection of video onto a screen across the stage to mask the scene changes. I don’t usually get too excited about wigs and costumes, but Richard Mawbey’s are excellent here and really effective at displaying the passage of time in a believable way. The use of incidental music is similarly effective, though I missed the traditional James Graham play proper musical number. 

Given my comments about some of the characterisation it’s no surprise that I wasn’t particularly satisfied by some of the acting. That’s not so much to do with the actors themselves though, just the (lack of) material they had to work with. However the two leads, Martin Freeman as David and Tamsin Greig as Jean, could hardly be better. Admittedly David is a very Martin Freeman part (I do wonder if it was written for him), but he is great in it and perfectly embodies the frustrations of a Labour moderate. And he is of course very, very funny. It’s Greig - a late replacement for Sarah Lancashire, who had to withdraw - who steals the show for me though. She’s uproariously funny without ever becoming unbelievable. In the play’s quieter, more emotional moments, she’s beautifully tender. That anyone else was ever considered for this role, let alone cast, is genuinely baffling to me. She’s the best thing about the whole production for me.

To say something is a disappointing James Graham play is rather like saying something is a disappointing Bruce Springsteen album or a disappointing Stephen Sondheim musical: not great by their own standards but still better than almost all of their competition. Labour of Love is, ultimately, a fun, entertaining and well written night out. It may not be the best James Graham play on its street, but it’s still pretty damn good.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward until 2nd December. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Theatre Review: St George and the Dragon

Something that is becoming increasingly clear from Rufus Norris’ tenure at the National Theatre is that he really likes folksy historical plays and he really thinks that they work well on the venue’s cavernous Olivier stage. A second thing that is becoming increasingly clear is that London’s theatregoers do not share his view.

Salome (which admittedly stretches my definition of folksy but still fits the general theme), the disastrous Common and now St George and the Dragon have all occupied the Olivier in the past few months, all to a shrug of the shoulders from audiences and varying degrees of empty auditoriums. St George and the Dragon (I saw it on a Saturday night, the Olivier was at least a third empty) is certainly not the worst of these three, but it’s frustrating to sit through in light of the response that its predecessors have had nonetheless. The NT is the flagship for publicly subsidised theatre. You can’t help but feel it should be doing better things to make the case for its subsidy.

I’ve got slightly ahead of myself here; let’s get back to St George and the Dragon. Telling the story of England through an allegory on the legend of St George, this new play by Rory Mullarkey is a meditation on Englishness. It’s semi-successful at this, but there’s still a lack of clarity as to what the play is really supposed to be doing. Pitching St George into three time zones, his own, the industrial revolution and today, is it supposed to be a fish out of water comedy? If so I wish it had really gone for it, because when it does take this as its aim (particularly in act two) it’s very effective and very funny. But it doesn’t really go for it. I wonder if it’s intended to be a morality play, the criticism of elites down the years is certainly apparent and the attack on modern apathy is well intentioned. But if so it doesn’t really work as that either since, ultimately, there is no moral, something it’s intensely rose-tinted view of the past doesn’t help. Much of the play feels more like it was intended to be a history lesson for year nines or perhaps a tribute to the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, neither of which are something I’m particularly excited by. It’s also disappointing that it chooses not to tackle some of the more controversial aspects of the St George myth and English identity at all. There’s an interesting play to be made from the multicultural ‘real’ life of St George vs the way St George, and his banner in particular, has been appropriated by English nationalists, but this is not that play.

The ending of the play is also a bit of a mess and a particularly frustrating moment. If I was being unkind, I would suggest that the playwright didn’t know how to end his play and so decided to just randomly kill a bunch of characters. That’s what it feels like. Structurally, it’s clever though. The pitching through time is an effective device, as is the idea that the three time zones are consecutive years to maintain a single narrative line and cast of characters. The allegory of the dragon becomes rather tired and predictable, and frankly a bit panto, but it’s a good device in production terms.

And the production is strong. Rae Smith’s design is really effective. It looks like a storybook, all drawn plywood buildings and clever illustrated map projections, and works well with the allegorical construct of the play. Practically, it also makes scene - and period - changes easy and quick too, at least from an audience point of view. The use of the revolve is great. The stage on top of the revolve is laid at an angle so that, when it turns, it opens up a new space at the front of the stage that’s ready made to become a house (or bin store) as the story demands. The extension of the set vertically up the back of the stage is great too and adds extra depth to the design as well as some cool places for characters to hide. Some of the special effects, in particular the first (literal) dragon, are a bit Blue Peter but overall it’s an effective staging.

In a play with questionable development for the majority of its characters, the cast still does well. Indeed it’s the charismatic cast and the design that save this production and make it entertaining, if not hugely exciting, to watch. John Heffernan is on good, energetic and suitably mischievous form in the titular part - and with an excellent wig - and he’s backed up strongly by Gawn Grainger as the show’s most human and engaging character, and Richard Goulding who brings depths to proceedings as the flawed, rounded, real-feeling person that George - and others - just can’t accept.

Overall, St George and the Dragon is an entertaining enough watch, it’s just nothing to get in any way excited about. God knows it’s not Common, but neither is it anywhere near being Follies. It’s worth a look as a fun primer on English history, but it’s difficult to praise it more highly than that. Mr Norris really must try harder.

St George and the Dragon is in the Olivier at the National Theatre until 2nd December.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Theatre Review: 42nd Street

Musicals, it’s fair to say, are often not overburdened with plot.

It’s not unreasonable; after all the clue is in the name and the main point of a musical is its music. That’s why they work so well at dealing with utterly implausible topics - a roller skating musical about trains anyone? - but it can also be what kills them. The balance between using your book just to get you from song to song and actually having some kind of narrative to drive forward is a fine one to strike.

42nd Street - the most quintessential of Broadway, chorine done good, musicals - does not strike that balance. At all. It is, I think, the thinnest writing and the most non-existent characterisation available to a London audience at the moment. The plot, such as it is, exists purely to maneuver awkwardly between musical numbers (which is kind of fine though, a point I'll come back to). It is more or less impossible to explain why any of the characters do anything since there is zero character development. Some of the characters are entirely superfluous.

More of an issue for me is the way this piece treats its female characters. Charitably, you could describe this as sexist. Uncharitably, misogynistic. (Seriously, check out the lyrics to the hateful Young and Beautiful.) That this blatant sexism is played entirely straight, without even the hint of a knowing wink, is kind of gross, frankly. There's also a nasty stream of ageism - both against the old and the young female characters - in the mix too. For all the sequins, it's not a nice show.

However, there are a lot of sequins. Like, LOADS of sequins. And the glorious production of this decidedly inglorious show actually makes it worth seeing. Visually, it's stunning: the costumes, the scenery, the lighting is all beautiful, evocative and spectacular. And, for all that I’ve slagged off the writing, it does contain some absolutely belting songs. You will have the title number in your head for days, be warned. The star of the show, though, is the choreography and the dancing which is quite frankly peerless. Much of it should be physically impossible. You need to be dead inside (figuratively and possibly literally) not to be astounded by the spectacle of this show. Indeed, if spectacle rather than drama is the prism through which you judge it, it's an utter triumph.

In a show that relies so much on its dancing, it's no surprise that the human star here, in terms of performance, is the superhuman chorus. The energy they bring is astonishing in that fantastic, toothy, Broadway way. Leading lady (and, let's be clear, that is what she is despite the fact she doesn't get the last bow in the ovation, something which made me leave the theatre absolutely seething) Clare Halse is sublime. She is a proper, old fashioned triple threat who dances like a dream, sings like a dream and acts most of the cast off the stage (especially Sheena Easton who, fab voice aside, does not do herself any favours in this show). She is a superstar in the making, if there's any justice.

Overall then, this production is triumphant spectacle encasing a mediocre, at best, piece of drama. It is worth seeing on that basis and to see the divine Clare Halse do her stuff.

42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.