Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Theatre Review: Rutherford and Son

National Theatre programmes are always great. They have a particularly good line in slightly depressing if very interesting essays, especially where plays written by/about women or people of colour are concerned.

The programme for Rutherford and Son is a great example of this. It’s a play written by a woman, Githa Sowerby, who history has largely forgotten despite her string of early twentieth century commercial and critical hits. Depressing in and of itself, more so because it’s not in any way surprising. By far the best thing about this revival, at the NT in the Lyttelton, is the fact that it exists at all. It’s a pleasing thing to see a revival of a forgotten play written by a woman, especially at the Nash. 

However, the key thing to know about Rutherford and Son isthat it’s very boring. I don’t really know what else to tell you because I sort of lost the will with it at many and varied points. Plot-wise, to the extent there is one (which isn’t the case for a good third of it), it tells the story of the overbearing titular character and his desire to protect his business at all costs - including that of the wellbeing and happiness of his family. The one positive thing I’ll say for it at this point is that a couple of women characters get decent and more interesting (relatively speaking) look ins within this narrative. Thematically, it’s about family, loyalty, the clunking fist of the patriarchy and how to confound it. You’d think those latter points would have endeared it to me - and they are the more creatively explored, no doubt - but the whole mass of play is too dull to let them shine through. 

There are two main things that I think account for how boring I found it: the characters are almost all spectacularly unsympathetic and the pacing is off, which is a fancy way of saying nothing happens for almost an hour by which point you’ve already sat through an endless stream of perfunctory family bickering and portentous introduction of the man Rutherford. The longer second and third act (combined into one, mercifully) is better because some plot finally intrudes and the particularly tedious male characters are to some extent sidelined in favour of the women. But still. Sat in a nice comfy, cosy theatre seat, it’s a hell of a struggle not to doze off.

The production looks great, but has made some decisions that I really question. It’s already lost 25 minutes and an interval in preview, but still director Polly Findlay’s staging feels overlong and structurally odd. The one remaining interval comes very quickly and just as things are promising to start to happen. It kills any momentum dead and makes the second half feel like a real slog. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Kerry Andrew’s music, and the decision to have it sung live seemed frivolous. It doesn’t add much, other than in the second half when it steps in a couple of times to slow things down even further than it feels like they already are.  Lizzie Clachan’s set I really liked though. It makes great use of the Lyttelton stage and is suitably northern and atmospheric (it’s a bit heavy handed, but I loved the use of the rain effect too). Charles Balfour’s lighting accents it beautifully.

If this show is saved at all it’s by some of the acting. Out of politeness, I shan’t slag off the wandering accents - which occasionally wander to being downright incomprehensible - of many of the cast and will focus instead on the two performances that make the production if not in anyway outstanding then at least watchable. Roger Allam is Rutherford and is as reliably fantastic as he always is. He conjures up a character who is genuinely awful and frightening but also funny and charismatic. The big chunk of act one and the smaller chunk of act three that he’s absent for suffer so much - so much - for the lack of him. The ever brilliant Anjana Vasan plays the best and by far the most interesting of the supporting roles and really runs with it. As ever she’s a complete scene stealer and, in the key scene of the play, goes head to head with Allam brilliantly, finally injecting some tension and even excitement into proceedings. It’s a shame that the rest of the play never comes close to matching that scene. 

So, yeah, Rutherford and Son is not my cup of tea. No cup of tea has ever been as boring as this play is for one thing. Not even that crap tea you get on planes. The acting does just about salvage it, or at least stop it from being a complete disaster, but it’s not enough. Save your time and go and see the brilliant Small Island in the Olivier instead.

Rutherford and Son is in the Lyttelton theatre until 3rd August.

I sat in J9 in the circle - the very back row but still a great view - for £34 (not worth it). I saw the play in a late preview. 

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Theatre Review: ANNA

As odd theatrical experiences go, sitting in a deliberately two thirds empty auditorium wearing large headphones, surrounded by other people also wearing large headphones, listening to someone calmly saying ‘left ear, right ear’ in your left and right ear respectively is truly right up there. 

Welcome to the theatrical world of ANNA (their caps, not mine) the latest production in the National Theatre’s small and adaptable Dorfman space. The action in ANNA all takes place on a traditional end on stage, with the addition of a literally soundproof glass wall dividing it from the auditorium. The audience can hear nothing, except through the aforementioned large headphones which link up to a microphone attached to lead actress Phoebe Fox. We can only hear what her character hears - nothing else.

This is such a unique way of staging a show that I confess I was concerned it would just be a gimmick. It is definitively not, not for this show. Because the actual meat of ANNA, if you will, is a spy thriller by playwright Ella Hickson, set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A time, of course, when spying and listening in on everyone around you was a fact of life. This show comes with a plea for no spoilers, so as for Hickson’s play all I will say is this: it’s a cracking thriller, wonderfully well plotted and written. It’s twisty, turny, creepy, threatening and very clever indeed. I didn’t see a single one of it’s major plot points coming until it arrived. It’s also flat out great entertainment. The headphones and associated technical wizardry would be entirely wasted, and would be completely the gimmick I feared they might be, if it weren’t. It would work as a show without them.

But with them it’s truly elevated. Having a spy thriller where the audience are, in effect, eavesdropping is a fantastic idea and director Nathalie Abraham’s production nails it utterly. Teaming up with sound design geniuses (genii?) Ben and Max Ringham to deliver the technical wizardry, the overall effect isn’t just a remarkably clear soundtrack (for about the first ten minutes I was convinced that every ambient noise on stage was somewhere behind me) it’s also to fully drag the audience into the action. To make us complicit, which becomes more uncomfortable as the play unravels. Vicki Mortimer’s clever set also ensures that we can’t always see everything that’s going on, making sure that the audio is even more important. Jon Clark’s lighting looks great too, especially during a sequence where fireworks (literal) are introduced.

The cast is also excellent and clearly invested in the concept they’re working with, the weirdness of which I can only imagine (though it must be nice not to be able to hear the inevitable audience coughing). It’s difficult to say much here without giving too much of the plot away, but there is lovely work on that stage. Phoebe Fox is brilliant as the titular character giving a performance of huge depth and complexity. Diana Quick joins her in another fantastically well realised turn. Max Bennett has some of the more difficult work to do but is brilliantly charismatic. It says much for the latter two in that brief list that I rated their performances even though I could often only see them. 

ANNA is such a great little show. It’s a curiosity, certainly, and it is worth seeing for the technical bravado alone. But it’s also an absolute belter of a thriller too, something which I don’t think it’s getting enough credit for. And the cherry on the cake? It’s 65 minutes long. I mean come on, what have you got to lose?

ANNA is in the Dorfman at the NT until 15th June.

I sat in the stalls for this one (first time doing so for an end on show in this space and to be honest it wasn’t that great - where are my arm rests?) in C10 which cost £45. More than I would usually pay, worth noting that seating is limited to the third of the theatre directly in front of the stage to make the production work technically (I assume) and so properly cheap seats are very limited, but worth it. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Theatre Review: Sad About the Cows

First things first, how good a title for a play is Sad About The Cows? Pretty bloody good I would argue.

It's also a pretty bloody good play, as it happens. Written and performed by Michelle Payne, it tells the story of Rachel (douze points from me for the name, obviously) who seems like a normal, fun young woman until the demons of body image get their pesky claws into her. As an obsession with Ariana Grande and the Victoria's Secret fashion show become an obsession with counting calories and eventually anorexia, the show charts her state of mind and body with - eventually - a happy ending.

It's a fab little piece, really well written: punchy, funny and ultimately quite uplifting. There's a lot in it that so many women will identify with, even if you've not taken things quite to the extreme that Rachel does. There's a great line about the fear of relaxing your discipline with you diet but still keeping hold of a sense of control that I wish I'd written down because it was frighteningly spot on. Ditto the various lines about feeling guilty for more or less everything you do as a woman - eating meat, not always having a reusable bottle, having something approximating a normal looking body.

Structurally it's clever too. The audience is cast as others members of some kind of online forum for people taking weight loss to an extreme which allows for a chatty, conspiratorial atmosphere. It's also kind of discomfiting given what the consequences of our 'support' for Rachel's lifestyle ultimately means. It also personifies her eating disorder as a separate character who we never see. The gradual realisation of who and what 'Anna' is was undoubtedly one of the play's strongest suits for me. 

I also think this play is a great use of the short, one person format. You can't really argue that its subject matter, even the most extreme bits of it, are news or that they aren't discussed in a myriad of forms, dramatic and not, elsewhere. But the joy of the one person format is that this sort of doesn't matter, because you buy into this individual story and only access the wider debate through it. This show never for a moment feels like an article in Women's Health or Grazia, even though its content definitely could be.

In the tiny Tristan Bates Theatre (a new one for me, and it's cute), Payne gives a great performance as actor too. She's super watchable and charismatic and carries a heavy story really beautifully. I genuinely felt like I knew Rachel by the end of the show and that's a testament both to Payne's writing and acting. Natasha Kathi-Chandra's light touch direction, Valentina Turtur's simple set and Ruoxi Jia's lighting (loved all the blue) give her excellent support.

Sad About The Cows is a really engaging piece that women everywhere will definitely recognise and empathise with. Michelle Payne utterly sells it, both as playwright and actor. Also? It starts at 6:15 and is only 45 minutes long which is like absolute heaven for this always tired theatre fan. Highly worth a tiny amount of your time.

Sad About The Cows is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 25th June.

My ticket for this was kindly provided by the producers. It's unreserved seating and a ticket would normally cost £12.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman

A thought experiment I often do in moments of quiet boredom (ie at work) is planning what lines from plays I would genuinely get tattooed somewhere on my body. A new winner has emerged: "I don't want change, I want Swiss cheese."

The fact that I've seen Death of a Salesman before but had never clocked that gem of a line, which is so close to my personal brand it's not even funny, is sort of a microcosm of what makes London's current version, at The Young Vic, so *so* brilliant. Directed by Marianne (actual genius) Elliott and Miranda Cromwell and featuring an African American Loman family, this Salesman is the clearest, most moving and profound vision of this play I've ever seen. It's the best Arthur Miller production I've ever seen. Hell, it's one of the best Anyone productions I've ever seen. I absolutely adored it.

As her stunning gender swapped version of Company showed, Marianne Elliott has a gift for updating the classics. Her and Cromwell's decision to have their Loman family as African American is excellent both for the calibre of actors it has brought to the table (see below) and also in the way it brings a different edge to the story. It does two contrary things simultaneously: makes the story more specific to that community at that time and place in history, elevating different moments and making you look at the story in a fresh light, but also makes it more universal. I'm not sure how that works, but it undoubtedly does. The storytelling and vision of what the story actually says is as crystal clear as any production of anything - and certainly any Miller - I've ever seen. It benefits hugely from being absolutely explicit about which bits of the action are real and which are Willy's memories/delusions/whatever you please to call them which previous productions I've seen have not been - an artistic decision I sort of get but which this production more than proves isn't the only interpretation. It's more explicit about what is actually happening to him too, in that it plays up his mental health struggle and the steps that lead to his ultimate fate really effectively. I'm not sure if any changes or additions have been made to the text - I only spotted one tiny one - but if there have been they are enormously effective and completely seamless. This is brilliantly modern version of this play, but equally one that feels utterly timeless.

It is also an enormously effective and gorgeous production. Anna Fleischle's design is stunning. Eschewing the New York house front set that usually accompanies this play, Fleischle's concrete boxes and platforms with their assortment of floating windows, doors and furniture that are lowered into position as required is groundbreaking, totally effective and bleakly beautiful. Her design works with Aideen Malone's brutally stark lighting to amazing effect and is key to the storytelling of the whole show in that it illustrates so perfectly which bits of action are real and which are not. Femi Temowo's music - yes, this Salesman has music - was a surprise but a lovely one and is sparingly, brilliantly used (helps that you've got such a musically adept cast of course). I can't remember a production that looks and feels so different from its source material and traditional staging since, well, Company. Funny that.

AND THEN THERE'S THE CAST. Sorry, but I'm so excited about this group of exceptional people. I'm about to go into raptures over the central four Lomans, but it's worth saying at the outset that the entire ensemble is wicked. Everyone on that stage brings their A Game and it's a joy to behold. But the Lomans, man. The Lomans.

Wendell Pierce is Willy, giving an absolutely heroic performance that is so touching, slightly frightening and absolutely tragic. He makes Willy's demise seem inevitable but you will it not to be with every fibre of your being. Give him the Olivier now. Sharon D Clarke is Linda and fucking hell she's brilliant. The depth of emotion in her performance is astonishing - happy and sad. The final 'I can't cry' speech is incredible (I certainly did not share Linda's predicament and ugly cried for the entirety of it) and her voice, when she sings, as beautiful and soulful as ever. Give her the Olivier now. Arinze Kene is Biff and is majestic; the perfect angry ball of wounded pride, sadness, guilt and blind rage. He also made me ugly cry. Last but not least, Martins Imhangbe is Hap. I saw Imhangbe in a few things last year and always found his work strong and charismatic. Here, though, he's genuinely great, like not so much in a different league as last year but playing an entirely different sport. He embodies the struggle between what Hap is and what he wants to be so perfectly. Nominate him and Kene as a joint ticket for supporting actor and give them the Olivier now.

Oh how I loved this show. It's the most astonishing, heartbreaking, revelatory thing and if it's not towards the top of my end of year top 10 then I'll be amazed. It's sold out, but rush tickets and returns are available and it's entirely worth your time and patience to try and get one. This is a once in a lifetime production that you miss at your peril.

Death of a Salesman is at The Young Vic  until 13th July.

I sat upstairs in B19, a seat I booked for £20 in the TodayTix presale for this show.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Theatre Review: All My Sons

I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion or not, but does anyone else think that All My Sons is just a slightly less good version of Death of A Salesman? Maybe I’d think it was the other way around if I’d seen Sonsfirst, but I didn’t and so I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, both are great pieces of writing and emotionally devastating. But I also feel like they are essentially also the same play, and that Salesman is the more effective version of it.

Both, of course, are also available for your viewing pleasure within yards of each other on the South Bank in London at the moment. All My Sons is at The Old Vic (Salesman at the Young Vic - review incoming), directed by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin and with a properly blockbuster cast (of whom more below). It tells the story of the Keller family and their complicated devastation at the loss of one son in the Second World War. 

This being a Miller play, that loss is of course emblematic of the death/unreality of The American Dream and the consequences of money trumps all capitalism. There’s a tortured heroine, an angry son and a tragic older man. Someone commits suicide at the end, obviously. It’s beautifully, angrily written - of course it is, Arthur Miller has his reputation as one of the absolute greats for a reason - but it does feel a little bit like Miller by numbers occasionally. As noted above, the fact that I already know Death of a Salesman far better than All My Sons undoubtedly impacts on my opinion on the latter. And Sons is still an emotionally devastating watch, mind. Even when you have a reasonable idea of what’s coming as soon as the word ‘gun’ is mentioned in the first ten minutes or so of act one. I still cried when that gun was eventually used, and a few other times besides (curse you Sally Field).

A lot of the emotional impact comes from a genuinely great production. A caveat to that first though: it’s impossible to find fault with this production and yet I do feel that it suffers a little by comparison with some of the other Miller around this year, the Young Vic’s groundbreaking Salesman and the sister piece at the Old Vic, The American Clock, both of which are more innovative and memorable (Clock also having the advantage of not being essentially exactly the same play too). 

That said, there is so much to admire in this unapologetically classic and gorgeously realised production. Director Jeremy Herrin is reliably excellent and gives us something beautifully serious, solid and a vision of theatrical polish. Max Jones’ huge set is stunning and a feat of stagecraft in its own right. It’s great to see the full expanse of The Old Vic’s massive stage being used so well and the sense of decay but also expectation he manages to create is spot on for the play (the crunching visual metaphor of the wind ruined tree is also nicely understated). Richard Howell’s lighting is pleasingly bleak and evocatively dazzling and/or dingy as required. Duncan McLean’s video design is very effective and all the more impactful for being sparsely used. 

The main draw of this production though, and its absolute trump card, is its cast which is the stuff of theatrical dreams. The central foursome? Bill Pullman, Sally Field, Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan. Sule Rimi and Oliver Johnstone, two of my favourite British stage actors around at the moment, pop up in supporting roles. It’s remarkable to have them all on the same stage.

Performance of the night for me goes to Colin Morgan whose status as one of our finest stage actors has somewhat crept up on me but jeez I’m so happy about it. He is straight up inspired as angry and complicated son Chris, the source of so much of the play’s fire. He is just endlessly watchable, completely at ease with all of his material (which ranges from happy to ragey to crushed and everything in between) and steals every scene he’s in. Sally Field runs him close in a textbook example of how to do a Miller tragic heroine. She is undoubtedly best in the heaviest moments, her heaving sobs a thing of tender, heartbreaking beauty. Bill Pullman is a great Miller tragic antihero too, particularly in the more explicitly ‘death of the American dream’ moments, even if his vocal projection is occasionally an issue if you’re sitting in the cheap seats (though this weirdly works in his favour as the action gets more tragic and his character starts to disintegrate). Jenna Coleman, somehow only now making her stage debut, not that you’d know it, is lively and feisty and as beautifully watchable and at home on stage as she always is on screen. Rimi and Johnstone are somewhat underused for my money (because I love them both muchly) but both deal with the key scenes that their characters have perfectly. Rimi drips with easy charisma and brings some much needed levity to the table and Johnstone almost the complete opposite, bringing tension and conflict with a believably tragic earnestness.

All My Sons may not be my favourite Arthur Miller play but The Old Vic’s production of it is undeniably brilliant, especially the heavyweight and stunningly good cast. I mean, if you have the opportunity to see Bill Pullman AND Sally Field AND Jenna Coleman AND Colin Morgan on the same stage, why would you ever not take it?

All My Sons is at The Old Vic until 8th June.

I sat in A3 in the Lilian Baylis circle for this one, for £20. This is my ‘usual’ seat in The Old Vic and offers a great - marginally restricted by the safety rail - view for the price.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Theatre Review: Small Island

Here’s a phrase I’ve not had cause to write, say or think for a very long time indeed: I’ve seen a show at the National Theatre directed by its AD, Rufus Norris, which I absolutely loved. Not only that, it was in the Olivier! Something fantastic was in the Olivier! It seems too warm for hell to have frozen over, but I might check just in case.

Small Island is that show. Norris directs Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s modern classic novel, telling the story of Jamaican immigrants coming to Britain during and after the Second World War. And my goodness the play itself is a wonderful thing. I was only vaguely aware of Levy’s original novel, which has now shot straight to the top of my to read list, but her story and her storytelling is absolutely stunning. I feel like I’m using this word a lot at the moment - perhaps a reflection of how little of this quality is currently available in real life - but the humanity of it is so beautiful. There’s such heart and life in her characters and their stories that it’s genuinely impossible to not be emotionally invested in them. Even if you feel you have zero experience of immigration (and if you think this is the case, you’re almost certainly wrong by the way) you will identify with the stories that Small Island tells. Because, to badly paraphrase one of the show’s most powerful set piece speeches, essentially the immigrant story is universal: we all want a better life in the end, it’s just that some people travel further for it.

None of this is to say that the show is twee or rose tinted though. It makes clear the reasons for the Jamaican characters wanting to leave home, both positive and negative, and the rumbling social unrest as the independence movement begins to grow there. It makes clear the awfulness of the British Empire’s attitudes to those in its colonies, both in the Caribbean and India. It makes clear the horrid racism that people of colour faced in the UK when they arrived here, war service notwithstanding, and it is unflinching but not sensationalist in its honest portrayal of this. The ease with which the racist language is used is genuinely shocking, or at least it was to me. It makes clear the particularly bad lots of women, of colour and not, at the time and the bonds of a sort of sisterhood that this made space for. It has so much to say about home and family and love, not all of it good or easy or pleasant. At various points it made me silently fuming, deeply embarrassed and painfully hopeful. It is brilliant writing - and brilliant adaptation for the stage too.

It is, of course, also horribly *horribly* timely. I don’t think I need to explain why, save to say that the Empire Windrush does make an appearance. And that the use of the racist language that I found so shocking and embarrassing is something that probably would have been even more so before the Brexit genie was freed from its bottle. I haven’t always agreed with Rufus Norris’ programming since he took the NT helm, especially for the Olivier, but putting this play on at this moment could not be a better decision. 

His production is an absolute triumph too; a timely and necessary reminder of the levels of beauty he is able to reach as a director that have been sorely lacking in the work of his that I’ve seen of late (I’m still pissed about that fugly Macbeth). An epic story like this deserves an epic staging and that is exactly what Norris gives it. The sweep and the scope of it is cinematic, like one of the Old Hollywood blockbusters that one of the play’s heroines (a big yes to having more than one leading, complex, kick ass female characters), Queenie, so enjoys. I have never seen the Olivier’s acres of stage used better I don’t think. This production is that rarest of rare things: one that feels like it actually belongs in the Olivier. 

I can’t say enough good things about Katrina Lindsay’s set design. It’s huge and epic and beautiful and brilliant and every other good word you can think of. Jon Driscoll’s projection design is perfect and so cleverly used. When it combines with Paul Anderson’s stunning (and stunningly effective) lighting to create the effect of members of the cast walking in and out of the projections in shadow it’s one of the production’s most visually arresting features. Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music, which is basically a score in the cinematic sense of the word, is the cherry on a rich (probably rum soaked) cake that beautifully integrates Caribbean and English influenced sounds whilst always providing the perfect amount of atmosphere. All in all, this production is an absolute masterpiece. And it’s surely no coincidence that I can’t remember the last time I was in such an engaged audience in the Olivier.

Finally, the Olivier-appropriate huge cast is a gift. Everyone in the mostly multiple part playing ensemble is brilliant but the central trio of Leah Harvey (Hortense), Aisling Loftus (Queenie) and Gershwyn Eustache Jr (Gilbert) are a class above. Harvey and Loftus are both feisty, determined and thoroughly inspirational as the two leading ladies, perfectly portraying their desires for their futures and their entirely different but also entirely the same experiences as women in a phallocentric (love that word) society. Loftus in particular has some very difficult scenes - no spoilers - with some serious emotional heavy lifting. She’s magnetic in them. Eustache (can we please take a minute to celebrate the best name in British theatre) is charisma in human form, all swagger and bravado which makes his treatment at the hands of his adopted countrymen and the suffering it causes him all the more painful to watch. I could have happily watched him for the entire three hours plus run time of the play and will definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever he chooses to do next.

Small Island is an absolute joy and an overdue, no reservations at all, win for Rufus Norris at the NT. There’s nothing else to say. Well except this: you must see it, immediately. 

Small Island is in the Olivier at the NT until 10th August.

I sat in E41 in the circle for this one and paid £15 for the privilege. I would recommend sitting up high for this production to fully appreciate the stunning design.